|photo: Vanessa Heins|
Sloan has been cranking out undeniably catchy power pop and rock tunes for nearly three decades.
Just don’t call them “earworms.” Chris Murphy believes that term has a negative connotation and cited Crazy Frog’s worldwide 2005 chart topper “Axel F” as an example. People would think, “I can’t get this fucking song out of my head,” said the singer/bassist, during a phone interview from Toronto.
“We’re not going to be the next big thing. I’m not trying to chase people away with my music; I’m trying to make it interesting at every turn.”
Murphy met drummer Andrew Scott when they attended Nova Scotia College of Art and Design. After hooking up with lead guitarist Patrick Pentland and rhythm guitarist Jay Ferguson, the musicians formed Sloan in 1991.
They signed to Geffen Records in America, put out debut disc Smeared here in early ’93 and saw first single “Underwhelmed” reach #25 at Modern Rock radio – remarkably the indie rockers’ only American chart entry to date.
“When we started to make our second and third records, I was really embarrassed by our first one,” admitted Murphy. “To me, it sounded like such a knockoff of My Bloody Valentine, things that were happening and already four years behind the times.
“Now, I look back at it and think that it’s quaint. I’m less ashamed of it and think it was more of the time. That was the last time we were all musically on the same page.”
Since then, Sloan has notched half a dozen top 40 hits on various Canadian rock radio charts. Each member sings lead on the songs they write and switches instruments while playing them live onstage. Gregory Macdonald has contributed keyboards/vocals on tour and in the studio since ’06.
Latest album 12 is the band’s strongest in years. The title represents its order in the catalog and numbers of tracks. Rife with memorable singalong choruses and harmonies, Murphy’s contributions to 12 - “Spin Our Wheels,” “Don’t Stop (If it Feels Good, Do It)” and “Wish Upon a Satellite” - are all effervescent gems.
Scott’s compositions tend to veer towards prog/folk rock territory. The rustic, dreamy “Gone for Good,” which would sit well alongside Fleet Foxes material, is his shining moment. Ferguson’s standouts are the breezy “Right to Roam” and rollicking, piano-driven “Essential Services” (an early album title contender). Pentland’s serrated, Oasis-like rocker “The Day Will Be Mine” features some tasty guitar work; the Nirvana-esque “All of the Voices” touches upon his struggles with anxiety and depression and dates back to the early 2000s.
“We have people in the band that consider themselves artists and [others] that consider themselves entertainers,” explained Murphy. “I’m probably closer to an entertainer because I’m more of a goofball. I take the songwriting really seriously and try my hardest. I don’t think I’m making novelty, goofball songs – nothing against Weird Al.”
Yet Murphy has also written “suites that are three, four songs in one and maybe harder to get into” and likened them to “reading a magazine, turning the pages and seeing different layouts.”
Surprisingly, he initially wasn’t all that keen to get back together and record 12.
“I thought it was too much time, money and energy to make new music based on how easy or difficult it was to get everybody in a room. And how many songs we already have that we’re competing with ourselves for space in the live show.”
The quartet treated 2014 double album Commonwealth like a traditional vinyl LP and curated their own sides. Murphy said he is proud of it, as well as 2006’s sprawling, 30-track Never Hear the End of It, but admits they were hard sells.
“To me, the funniest comedy is when people completely indulge themselves and go down a rabbit hole. We’re not trying to get everyone to follow us. Young people don’t have a favorite band in a way that matters as much anymore.
“I always get a kick out of teenagers who know what we’re doing,” Murphy continued. “They have usually been dragged there by their parents.”
While Sloan’s high school and college-aged followers might have discovered the band through Spotify and the musician’ accompanying playlists, Murphy admits he doesn’t even have the latter streaming service.
“I’m basically revealing myself to be the old man that I am. I just have an iPod full of all the records I give a shit about. That’s all I need. I don’t mean to be down on new music. I think there is probably good new music, though I suspect a lot of it is not my bag. I’m just in a different point in my life for taking in that kind of information. Music did change my life, but I don’t really think that my mind will explode from new music here on in. Unless something crazy happens.”
Since 2012, Sloan concerts have often included two sets with an intermission.
“We really have too many songs,” said Murphy. Since there are four writers, “We try to represent everybody fairly equally in any given setlist or album real estate. We all want to sing some new songs. If it costs $30 to get in, we better play something that people know. Then, with a 200+ song catalog, we also like to do something for someone who’s already seen us 20 times.”
On recent live dates, the guys have been playing a good chunk of the 12 selections without apology.
“I don’t mind having my feet held to the fire, like ‘Who do you think you are, playing 10 new songs?’ We realize that it’s a lot to ask. But we insist on taking our new record seriously. If you’re the Rolling Stones and play 10 new songs, people would [say], ‘What are you doing? Are you insane?’ You might say that it’s just as insane for us to do it, but we’re a cult band. When R.E.M. had records out, they played” a lot of new material live. “They’re definitely one of our blueprints” to aspire towards."
Over the past few years, Sloan has put out limited edition deluxe 20th Anniversary box set reissues of mid-1990s efforts Twice Removed and the Juno Award-winning One Chord to Another and toured behind them.
Next on the agenda is 1998’s Navy Blues, the highest charting (#5) and last of four albums to be certified for gold sales status back home.
What does Murphy think made that particular album click with so many Canadian fans?
"We had some momentum because our third record did quite well. It got us some notice in the States as well.” The song “Money City Maniacs” reached the top 5 in Canada.
“The song was really big, and the video was inventive and cool. People were waiting for it to come out. Our second record was such a commercial flop that it took a lot of heavy lifting getting our third record One Chord to Another listened to. It became our most commercially successful.
“After that, Navy Blues was a good 1-2 punch for us. ‘Money City Maniacs’ is the song people associate with us or if you don’t know much about us, that’s the one you would know. We’ve played it at every concert except for this year. Because of the upcoming Navy Blues tour [in 2019], all those songs are kind of in jail. We’re not playing any of them. We’ll play them next year.”
The day we talked, Murphy had been sorting through “an outrageous amount” of archival material, including “binders of negatives and slides,” with Ferguson at the former’s house.
Murphy said he enjoys rediscovering forgotten audio and visual ephemera.
“Luckily, we kept it all and we have good friends that have great photos…Jay collects records and is a real musicologist. My collection essentially begins and ends with myself. It’s fairly narcissistic. I’m a family archivist. So, I’m into keeping everything and also just getting the best possible version.”
Lately, alternative acts like the Breeders, Belly, Smashing Pumpkins and others have reformed to tour and/or put out new studio albums. Meanwhile, Sloan is one of the longest running bands from that era whose original lineup has remained intact throughout the decades.
“A lot of people from the early ‘90s are long gone. Their music was so of the time. After our first record, we really tried to get out of that ‘90s-sounding alt-rock jail” that many people were caught up in.
North American Tour Dates:
June 23 Bottom Lounge, Chicago, IL
June 24 Turf Club, St. Paul, MN
June 28 The 27 Club, Ottawa, CAN
June 30 Music Hall Concert Theatre, Oshawa, CAN
Aug. 24 Rock the Hub at Truro Civic Square, Truro, CAN
Sept. 9 Cat’s Cradle, Carrboro, NC
Sept. 11 The High Watt, Nashville, TN
Sept. 14 Austin City Limits Live, Austin, TX
Sept. 15 Three Links – Deep Ellum, Dallas, TX
Sept. 17 Riot Room, Kansas City, MO
Sept. 18 Hi-Fi Indy, Indianapolis, IN
My interview originally appeared at rockcellarmagazine.com