an interview with Sloan (who are on tour now)
by Bill Pearis
DOWNLOAD: Sloan - Follow the Leader (MP3)
Sloan are on tour and in town this week, playing Bowery Ballroom on Wednesday (6/29) and Knitting Factory on Thursday (6/30). It's a big year for the veteran Canadian group, their 20th Anniversary and their new album The Double Cross is their 10th studio album. Despite the nostalgia that goes along with an anniversary like this, Sloan have delivered another solid bunch of powerpop with The Double Cross, garnering a Polaris Music Prize nomination (their first) and an 8.1 from Pitchfork.
It's business as usual for Sloan, though, who have a remarkably consistent catalog despite having all four members write and sing their own material. (Though it is perhaps a key to their success.) One of them, guitarist Jay Ferguson, took time out before the first of two hometown Toronto shows for Sloan to talk about the new record, the Polaris nomination, the difference between American and Canadian audiences and record shopping while on tour.
BrooklynVegan: So it's a hometown shows tonight and tomorrow.
Jay Ferguson: It's a little nerve-wrecking because you have family, friends, stuff like that have to be corralled and attended to. Then you're also like, "Do I really know how to play that song that I played a week ago?" There's a lot of that.
BV: But it must be nice to be able just to go back to your home instead of some hotel room.
JF: That's true. I live literally around the corner from the venue so it's easygoing for me. I mean it's always nice to play in Toronto for family and friends. Sometimes it's just stressful for some of the folks in the band who have large families coming down. You want to make sure everybody's comfortable and having a good time. But sometimes on tour it's a little easier, you can just space out and concentrate on the show. We've played The Mod Club many times before so it should be easy and fun -- fingers crossed.
BV: How long have you been touring the new record?
JF: Really not very long. The album came out in May and then we started touring almost a month ago. We started in Cleveland, went across the Great Lakes and Western Canada and then down to L.A. We did that in two and a half weeks. This run starts the East Coast of the States, some festivals and then more touring in the fall. This is the beginning of it and we'll be busy through the summer.
BV: So how's The Double Cross sounding live?
JF: I think it's pretty good! We're playing almost all of it, save one or two. It's fun, especially the first three songs on the record which are kind of a little mini suite that flow into each other. We play those right at the beginning, flowing together so it's a fun exercise to pull off. It's always fun to play the new songs. Maybe more fun for us than the audience. We've been around for 20 years and hopefully the audience is interested the new material but you hope you're not boring them. When Mick Jagger says, "Here's another new one from Bridges to Babylon," everyone goes to get a drink. Hopefully people will patiently listen until we play one of our huge hits from 1998.
BV: At least in America, I think that Sloan's audience are interested in hearing the new songs.
JF: I think you're right about that. Our audience in America is skewed a little bit older. Because we never had a big hit, people who come to our shows in the States are all typically Sloan Fans and maybe they own, if not all of our records, then maybe half our records. It's not like they just know the singles because we didn't really have any singles in the States. American fans yell for album tracks. Where in Canada, we have that audience too but there's another side to our audience who only know six of our songs from radio or Much Music playing them over the last 20 years. We have a little more of a transient audience in Canada... and some of them might be going to the bar when we're playing "Green Gardens Cold Montreal." It's a smaller audience in America, but they know more of our music.
BV: So is the set list decidedly different in America than it is in Canada?
JF: Not so much. We have a rotating group of older songs that get swapped out. The only time a set list really changes is if we're playing a festival. That kind of an audience, we're not going to hit them over the head with ten new songs. We're going to play the singles.
BV: What about when you play two shows in one city, like you're doing in NYC? You know some fans are going to both.
JF: We're going to try and be conscious of it. Usually we keep the same new ones and "hit singles" -- in quotes -- then make the older songs fairly different. On this tour we've been playing songs from Twice Removed and Between the Bridges but we may swap those out for other albums' songs.
BV: With it being your 20th anniversary this year, was there more of an effort to choose songs from all ten albums?
JF: I think our set is like that, actually. We have at least one song from every record. Not on every night, but most. I don't know if that was conscious or Chris just realized it afterward. We often try and be conscious of that.
BV: I should say congrats on the Polaris long list nomination, by the way.
JF: Oh yeah, thanks! (Laughs) I don't know if I should even comment on it. We've never been nominated for it before. I've been pretty proud of our last few records we made. I almost thought when we made Never Hear the End of It, which was 30 songs long and interesting musically...and didn't get a Polaris nomination, I was like "Really?" That sounds completely obnoxious of me, I know. But, no, it's nice. We've been a band for 20 years and to still be considered for that prize amongst a lot of new artists -- some of whom go further out there than we do -- it's a nice little nod. I think awesome.
BV: How do you size up the competition?
JF: I didn't even look. I just skimmed down to see if our name was there, it was and I closed the link! (Laughs.) I'm totally kidding. Who is nominated.... hmm. Black Mountain, they're cool. Buck 65 we've known him for years. He used to go under the name Stinkin' Rich and we put out a cassette and 7" on our label Murderecords back in 1995. The Dears are good friends of our... Destroyer, I figured that would get nominated...oh and Luke Doucet, his record was produced by Andrew (Scott, Sloan's drummer).
[editor's note: Buck 65 play Bowery Ballroom on July 22nd]
BV: So when the band convened to make this album. Was there any more pressure, because it was your 20th anniversary, to do something special?
JF: Honestly, it was "Let's just try and get a record out in 2011." I don't think we've ever slacked off on albums, we've always tried to have the best songs going and make a great record. But because we're four singers, four songwriters it's hard to come up with a plan beforehand. Rarely do we have an overarching theme. "Hey, let's make a country record!" That doesn't happen. Everybody just writes on their own, you have five or six songs on the go and you hope everyone else will chime in and champion other's material. I had a couple of songs that matched up with what Chris had, and thought "oh we could link these together." For example, I had a bridge for one of my songs that I thought was okay and Chris took a bridge from one of his songs and that became "The Answer Was You" and that made it better. But yeah, it's also "When can we finish this by?" It's a bit luck of the draw, but everybody had really good songs this time.
BV: You guys have had songs link up like that since probably Navy Blues but The Double Cross feels like there's more cross-pollination between members than we've heard in a while. Chris sings a verse on Andrew's "She's Slowing Down Again" and I can't remember the last time that has happened.
JF: I'm not sure how that came about. Not sure if Andrew didn't have words for that part or if Chris heard it and sang a melody and Andrew said "you should do that when we record it." I think Chris had worked on that song, trying to piece it together. Andrew's had that song kicking around for the better part of ten years, the melody and piano part. I'm glad he finally finished it, it turned out really well. I like songs like that -- "We Can Work it Out" by the Beatles -- and I think our band is capable of doing it so why not exploit it. On my song "Beverly Terrace," Chris had the idea of bringing back his song "Shadow of Love" which worked out really cool. We've done it before, like on "I Hate My Generation" from Twice Removed and "Who You Talking To?" from Pretty Together. I'd say Patrick is the one who records on his own the most, so there's not as much of us singing on his per se, but I'm glad you noticed because it's one of my favorite things about our band.
BV: I think "Beverly Terrace" might be my favorite song on the record. There's almost a disco beat to it -- have you thought about doing remixes for it? Do you ever get approached for remixes?
JF: I don't know. I think someone as a joke made an "Underwhelmed" remix a long time ago. I don't know what happened to that, we never released it. I realize it is a fun thing to do but I don't know if it's something our band... Patrick might be interested in that, he's done remixes for other people. Um...maybe? If someone approached us and was like "I really want to do this and here's how awesome it would be" then I'd be like maybe give it a shot. I know some pop bands -- like Badly Drawn Boy or something -- do remixes over the years. What we have done are these "anti-remixes" where we took bands who are on the dance side of things and just using the vocals and creating a rock song out of it. Actually not so rock, we called them "powdered wig" mixes. Harpsichord and strings.
BV: Oh, very baroque type stuff.
JF: Yeah, completely changing it. We've been working on a couple of those, one is for our friends Fine Mist. The only real remix that has ever been done for Sloan was for one of my songs on Pretty Together, "Are You Giving Me Back My Love," that a friend of mine Matt, who goes by the name The Russian Futurists, remixed the song but turned it into a more ethereal soundtrack music. Sorry that was a longwinded answer. No, nobody has approached us to do dance remixes of our songs. (Laughs)
BV: What about album shows? Has anyone asked if you'd do One Chord to Another start-to-finish? Those kind of things are popular now.
JF: We actually did that last year for Twice Removed. We did one at the Halifax Pop Explosion and we did it unannounced at a festival in New Brunswick called The Sappyfest which is run by Julie Doiron of Eric's Trip if you remember them. That was really fun. Low key. Honestly, we approached promoters and people at festivals saying "Hey, we're interested in doing Twice Removed or One Chord to Another in total, let us know if this is something you might be interested in" and we don't get much interest. (Laughs.)
BV: What!?! I would love that.
JF: Canadian festivals are like, "No, but please play 'Money City Maniacs' and the rest of your hits." But we're considering doing it in the future. We think it'd be fun. One thing we're trying to do this year -- and I'm not sure it'll happen -- is playing a Last Waltz type of show, even though it won't be our "last waltz." But we want to get a theatre here in Toronto and invite friends who play in different bands to come up and do songs with us, whether it's Kevin Drew or Ron Sexmith, or maybe Eric and Julie of Eric's Trip or Sebastian from DFA1979. We could film it, a nice 20th Anniversary kind of thing. We're trying to get it together before the fall. We'll see.
BV: On a similar note, any chance we might see some of the old albums get reissued on vinyl?
JF: We get lots of merch table requests for that. All our albums have been on vinyl, but a lot of them only in runs of 1000 pressings and they're all out of print. But we own the bulk of our catalog. We have tons of demos and tons of photos, so one thing we'd like to do is make deluxe versions of our records. Do a vinyl version with a bonus disc of outtakes with a nice booklet, and maybe a 7" of a couple extra songs. We're just trying to figure it out. We would like to do it on vinyl. Maybe not CD, just vinyl and a download.
BV: CDs are just MP3 delivery devices for most people these days I think. Though it's nice to have the hard copy. Maybe include CDs in the vinyl packaging. Some bands do that now.
JF: That's not a bad idea. I'll put your vote in that category.
BV: I've been told you have an amazing vinyl collection.
JF: Well...I did, but had to get rid of a lot of it when I moved from Halifax to Toronto. But I got a new, nice turntable and receiver so it's sparked the vinyl interest again.
BV: Do you do a lot of record shopping on tour?
JF: On this recent jaunt, I did come back with a bag of records. Yeah that's one of the great parts of touring, hitting all the crazy used record stores.
BV: Any good finds?
JF: Yeah! I got an American copy of the first Neu! album. It's blue with orange writing, but it's like a white label version or something. I don't mean to sound like a total nerd, but it opens from the top, which is unusual. Never seen that before. I got that in Chicago and was pretty excited to find that. I found some nice British pressings of early '70s Rolling Stones albums I didn't have which I found in Cleveland. I really like the original British pressings of artists I really really like, with the shiny clarifoil sleeve. I'm a bit of nerd.
BV: You mentioned your label a bit ago? You revived Murderecords a few years ago with a few non-Sloan signings? Anything new?
JF: Yeah we released a record by Pony da Look who are friends of our and their drummer Rebecca is Chris' girlfriend, or "wife character" as he calls her...
BV: (Laughing) Wife Character.
JF: Uh yeah, they have a kid but they're not married.
BV: I think they call that a Common Law marriage here.
JF: Right, right,Common Law. That's totally what it is. Anyway, Rebecca's not in the band anymore now that they had a kid. They never really toured anyway. The other signing was Will Currie & the Country French who were a piano pop kind of group. They made a second album that Murderecords was going to put out, but at the time the label was distributed by Sony BMG in Canada. We decided to leave -- it was downsizing and a lot of the people we knew had left -- and they were the major funders of that era of Murderecords. It was becoming too much work. So we put out those two records and didn't follow-up with anything. So not a lot going on, apart from those Sloan reissues.
BV: Okay, so what's the Sloan Secret to Longevity?
JF: Splitting the money four ways is the joke I always say. But we were also never so successful that we became egotistical maniacs. We're kind of this working band that goes on tour. But it is also an artistic outlet for everyone. It's not like we have a disgruntled bass player who has all these songs but isn't allowed to put them on his album and go make a solo album. Everybody is given a certain amount of real estate on each record. As individuals, hopefully, none of us feel artistically frustrated.
All Sloan tour dates, plus some entertaining 20th Anniversary videos featuring a few famous Sloan fans, are below.
XX - Sloan's Influence
When I First Heard Sloan
What's Your Favorite Sloan Song?
What's Your Favorite Sloan Album?
Sloan - 2011 Tour Dates
Tue, Jun 28th Cambridge, MA TT The Bear's
Wed, Jun 29th New York, NY Bowery Ballroom
Thu, Jun 30th Brooklyn, NY Knitting Factory
Fri, Jul 1st Kanata, ON Kanata Canada Day Celebration
Thu, Jul 7th Buffalo, NY Thursday At The Square
Thu, Jul 21st Meaford, ON Meaford Hall
Fri, Jul 22nd Belleville, ON Empire Square Live
Sat, Jul 23rd London, ON Rock The Park Festival
Sun, Jul 24th Guelph, ON Hillside Festival
Fri, Jul 29th Barrie, ON Kempenfest
Sun, Jul 31st Kenora, ON Harbourfest
Sat, Aug 6th Chatham, ON Rockstock