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an interview with Jay Ferguson by Matt Dornan / pictures by Hitomi Arai
unedited transcriptStanding within earshot of Sloan's merchandise table I hear a guy ask 'Which one's most like Smeared?' Turning around in time to catch a weary sigh from the stall-holder echo my own, we are reminded that it's been seven years since a Sloan album received a European release and equally as long since the Canadian foursome set foot on a London stage. Plans are afoot to rectify that major oversight and a second 2000 visit is planned to coincide with the release of a new UK single at the end of October. Between visits I tracked down Jay Ferguson who, along with Chris Murphy, Partrick Pentland and Andrew Scott, has written some of the most finely crafted pop/rock, rock/pop music of the past decade. Their sixth and latest album, Between The Bridges, may be their finest moment; the perfect fusion of four gifted writers/musicians with an unerring knack for penning perfectly judged, melodic classics simultaneously at the top of their game. Too bad then that Between The Bridges was reviewed with lazy indifference by the majority of British scribes, too keen to jump upon the retro-bandwagon that has followed the band closely since their My Bloody Valentine meets Nirvana, Geffen debut. Does such a misguided response leave a bad taste in the band's collective mouth?
I don't know if its a bad taste," says Jay
. More that I feel our band has more to offer. The song - aside from the cheeky title - The Marquee And The Moon doesn't remind me of anything. In this day and age any record wth guitars, pianos and vocal harmonies sounds 'retro.' I wish the focus of reviews was on the songwriting, of which - I hope - we take great care. Someone like Elliott Smith, an artist who is no more or less 'retro' than we are, will get reviews that focus more on his songs as opposed to which individual tracks on his album sound like Beatles records. We could record a song that had absolutely no specific/direct influence and someone will pick out of thin air a song that it sounds like it could have been borrowed from.
As songwriters I think Sloan get better with every release. Between The Bridges has held a regular spot in the CD player all year. The reason is simple - every song is a gem, and the sequencing is perfect. Everybody shines...
There are elements of a couple of tracks that, with hindsight, I would have approached differently - mixes, etc., but I'm not the boss because we have 4 songwriters. We did approach the sequencing with an eye towards variety but also with regard to musical key. Often the last chord of one song will be the first chord of the next ...or at least the first chord of the next song would be a logical chord to follow the last chord of the previous track. I like records with variety that have a flow to them - second side Abbey Road style...or Tommy....recurring musical themes. Although, as a result of the variety with 4 songwriters, we often get criticized for making 'compilation' albums.
Would that be a clue as to the next album's goal?
It's often hard to get everyone to agree on a specific goal for an album. Everybody is just writing the best songs that they can write. There are a couple of mine that I may try a couple of different ways and Chris has expressed interest in trying some of his songs in different directions. Patrick has started a few with a more acoustic foundation that sound really excellent and that may be a good path to follow.
The impression gleaned from interviews and live sets is that Twice Removed (Geffen 1994) remains the fans' favourite. As much as that is testament to the greatness of that record, is it also a source of frustration, that they might expect you to remake that album?
For me, not at all. It's up there as one of my favourites. I think, along with BTB, it's probably our best mixed record. I think as well as being a good collection of songs, Twice Removed remains a favourite in that it was a bit of an underdog when it was released. Geffen didn't really care for it as they didn't see any commercial appeal. I think fans discovered it as an album that stood out during the whole grunge/distorted guitar era that was becoming so watered down. Some people who discovered this album at that point have, hopefully, treasured it as a record that meant something to them ...whether its our best record or not.
On the Sloan web-site Chris does this great 'cover all bases' pre-Sloan band history and sums up the tastes of the band members on the Q&A pages. It's obvious to someone as musically enlightened as me (cough) that four hugely talented musicians/songwriters with diverse tastes are unlikely to find a formula and stick to it. (A shame I didn't work for Geffen in 1994). Jon Auer said of The Posies "you don't find that many bands [with] that much talent and it's really hard to...promote that amount of talent." With hindsight do you think the reason Sloan are not a household name is your 'all styles welcome' approach and lack of traditional frontman? A music fan's dream sounds like a record label's nightmare...do you actually care about marketing beyond the need to survive financially?
I am happy where our band is right now. Honestly, I would love our band to be even more popular, but I don't think that we would be willing to sacrifice anything about the way we do things or the way we make records to change that situation. If even greater success came our way as a result of the way we do things or the manner in which we market ourselves, I personally, would not shy away from it. When we first signed to Geffen, it was hinted that Chris should be more of the focus of the group...more songs on the albums, etc. Although I don't remember it being a really big issue. I can understand that focusing on one image can make things easier from a marketing point of view. I'm glad that we have stuck to our plan of being a'4-headed monster,' because that which was once unmarketable is now part of our image... Four songwriters, four 'stars' of the band. That's what makes us stand out from other bands...for better or worse.
Chris made a (presumably) serious comment in 'Rockpile' magazine earlier this year, saying the next Sloan album would be a 'make or break' record, and suggesting the band might have to take 'other jobs' and release less music if it didn't sell well. Is this sentiment echoed by the rest of the band? What would constitute a 'hit' in your eyes?
Personally, I would take Chris' comments with a pinch of a salt. Perhaps he's referring to Canada in that it's the territory where we make most of our money and helps us fund our other worldly excursions - hello UK - and if that dried up then we wouldn't be able to continue to broaden our scope. BTB has not sold as well in Canada as either One Chord To Another  or Navy Blues , but we are still alive and doing things that are exciting enough to keep us interested. We are playing a few University shows in September to fund our UK return in October. We don't have to get day jobs, we just have to go play a few more gigs.
The even songwriting split on Between The Bridges made it a listener's dream but, I would assume, it's unlikely that you are all writing the same amount of material per album. How satisfied would you say the band are, individually, with the democratic split? Are certain members stock-piling a solo album's worth of songs? (You could, of course, follow the Kiss-inspired live album with a matching set of solo albums, preceeded by coloured vinyl 7"s - complete with paper masks).
I'm into it! Chris loves Kiss but doesn't like solo artists so I don't know how he would reconcile that! I think over the last album and the new one that it's been the most even that it's ever been. Earlier Chris used to have the most songs followed closely by Patrick, I usually had the least and Andrew would probably have a couple more than me. Chris still often has the most, but I feel a little better about the amount of my contributions. I feel I have more songs to choose from as opposed to - in the past - finishing 2 songs and having both on the album while Patrick has 7 and ends up with 3 or 4 on the album. It's more even and fair now without sacrificing any quality. I think we usually do have a stockpile of songs after each album, but usually they just get pulled out and worked on for the next album.
The current climate may suggest otherwise but there is a growing, passionate fan-base for quality, timeless 'pop' music and I'd put Sloan at the top of that list. If Cherry Twister and Cotton Mather can get a UK release, surely Sloan can?
Since we run our own record label we have to 'conquer' countries one by one, not in one big global sweep. That would be easier if we were on a major label. The past few years we've turned our attentions to the USA, Japan and Australia and have only recently decided to have another go at the UK. That's why it's been so hard to trackk down our albums. I'd like to think we could do alright in the UK.
"You're right not sitting around waiting for it to happen to you / There's plenty who will listen..."
(Take Good Care of the Poor Boy)
CWAS #6 - Autumn 2000