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Back to their roots

Influential Halifax rockers Sloan get back to basics with a bold new album

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A commonwealth is a joining of forces, a combination that is greater than the sum of its parts. And that makes Commonwealth an apt name for Sloan’s new album, which was released in September. It’s a double album featuring four sides—each side dedicated to songs written by one of the four members of the band.

When Halifax Magazine spoke with guitarist Jay Ferguson earlier this autumn, he explained the reasoning behind the dedicated sides. “This is our 11th album, and while you can continue making good music, sometimes it’s good to have a bit of an angle for a record, just to keep people interested,” he says. “And we thought this would be a fun angle. Also, I think our band is one of the few bands that can do it, because everyone in our band sings and writes.”

J.C. Douglas currently hosts 89.9 The Wave’s Afternoon Drive, but 20 years ago, he was working at Q104, and the job gave him a great view of Sloan’s development from its earliest beginnings. He has vague recollections of seeing Sloan members Chris Murphy and Jay Ferguson in their old band, Kearney Lake Road, and more vivid memories of Murphy playing bass in a band called Blackpool.

“I’ve watched each of these four band members go on with their careers,” says Douglas. “Chris was the interloper, but then he joined this new band and I didn’t think much about him again—until I noticed that ‘Smeared’ was being played on Much Music, and that blew my mind apart.”

According to Douglas, everyone was “abuzz” at Q104 about this new local band and their amazing new song. Sloan’s first album sounded a little grungier than they do now, with their Beatles-inspired power-pop sound, so at first, Q104 was only playing their singles at night. Unfortunately, by the time ‘Coax Me’ came out, Q104 had seriously cut back on the amount of airtime it gave the band.

“One Chord to Another showed more growth,” says Douglas. “We played ‘The Good in Everyone,’ and ‘Everything You’ve Done Wrong’ but we didn’t play ‘The Lines You Amend,’ which I thought was an awesome song. I don’t think our program director liked Jay Ferguson’s voice. I was like, ‘Yeah, it’s a different texture, but it’s Sloan!’”Sloan-photo

It was a different music scene in the early 1990s. “At the time, growing up in a small community, if you wanted to see a band, you had to start a band,” says Ferguson. “We set up shows at The Pit at King’s, or the Wardroom, or we’d play at the church on North Street—all non-traditional venues. And there weren’t really any record labels around, so when we wanted to put something out, we had to record it at home, put it on cassette, and sell it at a local record store. When you grow up in a musical community where you have to do it all yourself, it really teaches you to try and be as self-sufficient as you can, and I think that’s carried over into the way we do things today.”

But by the time Navy Blues came out, Q104 was back on the Sloan bandwagon. And when Douglas became program director in 1999, he made a big effort to shift at least some of the station’s focus to the local music scene. “I was very cognizant that when we spotted local talent at that level, we were there at the forefront to help give them the airplay and support locally,” he says. “Often they need that support to thrive nationally.”

Despite the patchy local support the band received in those early years, Sloan not only managed to survive their first few albums, they also gained the experience and the perseverance they needed to thrive for more than 20 years. And it’s that same ability to innovate that’s inspired the format of this new album.

“On past albums, you’d have a Chris song, then a Patrick song, then one of my songs, and then an Andrew song,” Ferguson says. “The songs were all split up more democratically. If you’re not into the style of one song, then you might like the next one.”

Commonwealth takes a bolder approach. “You’ll get an onslaught of five songs and if you don’t like one, you’ll have to hit the skip button five times before you find something you might like,” Ferguson says. “Andrew’s got a giant, 17-minute long song that takes up his whole side. So if you’re an Andrew fan, that might be a real treat. It’s a different listening experience.”

Douglas thinks it works. “This band never disappoints me,” he says. “They think of their music in terms of albums, and I love that because I don’t want to just hear a few singles, I want to hear depth. It’s impossible to know how the album will do as far as radio play goes, because what is Sloan now, in radio? Are they a classic rock band? Probably not, because they’ve remained too relevant.”

These days, Sloan’s doing more than just staying musically relevant, they’re also influencing the music of much newer bands like Halifax band Billie Dre & the Poor Boys who, like Sloan, have moved to Toronto. Bassist Corey Henderson just completed a musicology master’s at Dalhousie University, with his thesis focusing on—you guessed it—Sloan.

Titled “I Hate My Generation”: Canadian male identity in Sloan’s Twice Removed, the 78-page thesis looks at Sloan as Canadians, Haligonians, and “beta males.” Henderson wanted to examine the idea that the members of Sloan represented a change in male identity in the early ’90s, with a specific focus on young people growing up in urban areas on the East Coast.

“My thesis stemmed out of two things: my own musical involvement and my academic research,” says Henderson. “As a rock musician in Halifax, I knew about Sloan at an early age. I listened to their music in my early teens, a little after they released Navy Blues, so they’re a big important part of my musical experience. I’m also really interested in alternative male identity and the band really seems to represent that as well.”

Henderson also says that following Sloan’s career has motivated him. “They showed me that it’s possible for a group of guys from Halifax to go out into the world and make a difference,” he says. “And it’s comforting to know that just because they left, they never really left. No matter how big an icon you become, you can always come home.”

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