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an interview with Jay Ferguson by Matt Dornan / pictures
Sloan's last album, 'Between The Bridges' (1999), ranks high in a formidable catalogue, even with those for whom 'Twice Removed', their '94 sophomore classic, remains the benchmark. Late last year album number seven surfaced from the Canadian quartet, an eclectic assortment that recalls the rockier, playful early years whilst exhibiting the maturity of 'Between The Bridges' on some atypically epic arrangements and soulful ballads. Without the cohesion of its predecessor, 'Pretty Together' is, perhaps, the band's most erratic collection since 1997's 'Navy Blues' and suitably tough to pin down. Dividing fans and critics clean down the middle, the rockier tracks, like Patrick Pentland's (hopefully) tongue-in-cheek If It Feels Good Do It, Andrew Scott's immense Never Seeing The Ground For The Sky or Chris Murphy's crowd-pleasing Pick It Up and Dial It have come in for particular criticism/praise whilst the more considered, acoustic songs like Jay Ferguson's Are You Giving Me Back My Love? and Murphy's Life Of A Working Girl seem to have met with universal acclaim.
Was there a 'plan' to date the record in terms of production and 'vibe'? Did you have a starting point, referencing the '70s for example, and let the songs take off from there?
No, not really. Generally, the song comes first and then we approach each individual song - on our own or in collaboration - to try to find the most appropriate arrangement/production for that particular track. Some songs went through various approaches to see how it would suit the album. Life Of A Working Girl originally started off as a faster number and then ended up as a solo acoustic number. The other version was good but, lyrically, it probably lent itself to a more melancholy backing. Sometimes we'll discuss that the whole record could have a certain musical theme or feel... originally when we were gathering our songs, there were quite a few melancholy acoustic and piano songs, so it looked like that was the direction that the LP was heading at the time. After a while I kinda wanted to revisit our first album and take a modern My Bloody Valentine approach. In the end, it seems to always come out as a mixed bag. Maybe we would consider an acoustic 'armchair' LP sometime, but it's hard to get four songwriters on a similar wavelength all at the same time... but I think that's also what makes our band and albums interesting. Although some listeners may find it frustrating.
You told me the full band version of Pretty Together (the 'title' track of the album, as featured in solo demo form on CwaS#3, and which subsequently failed to appear on the album) you were working on had a sound part Abba, part ELO... the cover of 'Pretty Together', the album, reminds me of 'Abba The Album' (or was it 'Abba The Movie'?)... coincidence?
I never thought of that... the cover does kind of look like that Abba The Album. Musically, I'm probably the only one who would listen to an Abba album - although I think Chris kinda likes some of their hits - and I don't think the Abba influence really crept in... in any knowing manner. The original full band version of Pretty Together perhaps has a bit of an Abba groove - if they were a bit heavier - but it was pointed out to me after we started rehearsing it that it sounded a bit like Turn To Stone by ELO. There is actually a part of So Beyond Me from our last LP that is a nod to Abba's Mamma Mia. The cover is actually a nod to a Simon and Garfunkel poster that I have... a picture of them combined with photo of the 59th St. bridge in NYC. There ya go, the cat's out of the bag.
There are some 'crowd pleasers' on the record; If It Feels Good Do It and Pick It Up and Dial It probably work wonders in a live setting but do you, personally, think they stand up on the record? My own view is that they're a little 'young' and detract from the more 'mature' aspects of the album.
I understand what you mean. They probably don't fit as well into the flow of the more reflective/subdued tracks... but it's a side of our band as well. Even Andrew's In The Movies and Never Seeing the Ground For The Sky are rockers but they are not the 'call to arms' like the other two. Pick It Up And Dial It was a song that Chris had that I thought was fun, but I wasn't particularly crazy about compared to the other songs that he had. Then we played an unannounced club show last spring just to try out a bunch of new songs and that was one of the songs that we played live that people seemed to really enjoy... people were asking afterwards if that was going to be on the album. After that I sort of changed my tune and agreed that it should probably be included on the LP. Brenndan [McGuire, producer] and Chris came up with a cool drum pattern which I thought made it more interesting as well... so that's the story. Apparently, it's one of those songs that divides the fans into two camps. If It Feels Good Do It is a Patrick song that seemed to be earmarked for Canadian radio. I think, originally, he wanted to make it outrageously heavy, not unlike Accelerator from the last Primal Scream album, but maybe he felt that with this song probably being a single, it had to be slightly more conservative for radio. I think it turned out well, but I would have liked to hear an even crazier version too. I like both of those songs but I would probably agree that those two are sort of different than the rest of the record.
Does diplomacy come easy to the band nowadays? What if anything is a continued source of disagreement within the band?
I don't know what is really a source of disagreement particularly... everybody gets to do their own thing. Sure there's going to be musical differences here and there, but I think everybody gives one another some slack to do what they want on their own songs. Sometimes it's more about frustration that everybody - some more than others - will have lots of quality songs still left over. I think we just have to find more outlets for our music to use up all the good left over songs... someone should let us make a soundtrack or something.
The thirteenth track reappears. Does emphasis on making the albums democratic in terms of number of songs by number of writers become too important sometimes?
Everybody writes and we've kind of built up this image of the four-headed band where everybody is important in the picture... so we'd kind of like to keep that aspect because I think that's often what makes our band stand apart from most other groups. I think if I, or someone else, felt that they only had two good songs ready to go that they would concede and let another better song be on the LP if someone had an abundance. I often feel that I should have left Dreaming Of You out of the line up... it's fine, but it feels a bit unfinished to me... little details bother me about it. Originally I thought that maybe it could have been a contender for a single because I thought the chorus was catchy and the beat was solid and so I kept working on it. In the end, I think I needed to spend more time on the track. Ah well... I feel like I still had a few others on stand by that would have been appropriate and good enough for the LP.
What kept Pretty Together off the album? Given that you were unhappy with Dreaming of You why did that get the nod over the title track?
The album version of Pretty Together had a few problems. I recorded a finished lead vocal that accidentally got 'bounced' to a track with all the music on it as well, so I had to record it again... then the new vocal was accidentally erased. The situation was getting a bit frustrating so I put the song aside. Then we were discussing that perhaps the tempo was a bit too fast and I wasn't keen at that point to start over from scratch, so I just let it be and figured that I would save it for another album or single.
Do you imagine a Sloan album being dominated by one or two members again like the first couple of records?
As it stands now, I can't imagine going back to having an LP that would be mostly one or two people dominating... even though it might make for a more cohesive album. Although I was listening to 'One Chord To Another' the other day which has good songs by everybody and still stands up.
Similarly, are some writers more prolific than others and just how likely is a solo album from any of the band? The Kiss idea has come up on occasion but would any member be 'free' to release a solo record or would it be considered detrimental to the band?
I think we're all pretty focused on Sloan. In interviews, some of us have nixed [the idea of] solo albums because that outlet could potentially make the band LPs weaker. Which project would get your best songs?
I'm curious about the autobiographical content of your songs and whether your profile at home means you have to keep private issues out of songs.
I can only really speak for myself, but there is usually autobiographical content in my songs. I would say that everybody ends up writing about their own experiences etc. Often mine will start from something personal and then I'll have to spruce it up because my private side is so boring! On the new album, not every line of mine is straight out of my personal life, but a lot of the general content is quite relevant. I would say that Chris' songs are quite direct this time around and I assume Andrew's are autobiographical, but his lyrics are a little more cryptic than the rest of ours. I think most songwriters write about their own life regardless of their profile - The Ballad of John and Yoko, Hey Jude. The trick for me is to make my life rhyme and seem interesting.
Does your being an avid record collector influence the b-sides, rarities and compilation appearances that Sloan have released? Do you like to think that fans are hunting this stuff down?
Yeah I've always been into the idea of being a band that is commercial, but still pays attention to releasing good quality tracks on b-sides, etc, not unlike The Smiths, Elvis Costello, Prince, etc. I guess it's more common over in England as there is a bigger singles market than over here. That's why I want more Sloan releases in the UK... more opportunities for rare stuff! I saw a copy of the UK Underwhelmed 12-inch in a record store in for $30 so I suppose there are collectors or fans hunting this stuff down. Chris is pretty into getting copies of all the rare stuff - posters, ads, promo junk - like me, but he's not really into collecting records... just our own... and graphic design books.
What is the current plan of action re: Europe and the UK? There's an indication that it could be through BMG again... do you have reservations about dealing with a major again?
Europe and England are not settled yet. We've switched to BMG in Canada and some of the BMG affiliates in other countries want to release the record as well. It's out in Japan, Australia, and due shortly in the USA and potentially Germany via a subsidiary label. I don't know about the UK yet, unfortunately. I feel that hopefully we've built up enough of a reputation or history that it doesn't matter if our records are on major labels or independents. I guess being on an independent can lock you into a particular underground fan base, but the label can often have trouble taking it to a bigger level. On the flip side, being on major, a band without an audience can get lost in the massive sea of releases. Hopefully we have gathered enough of a small but enthusiastic audience in the UK that would seek out our records regardless of the label.
Would such a deal mean a more concerted effort to 'break' the US and Europe? Have you settled into a groove as far as your audience is concerned, or would you enjoy a second shot at 'the big time'?
I would love the opportunity to have more people know about our band and hear our records. We're quite lucky to have good following in a number of countries, but there's always room for more.
Finally, does the album title reflect the state of the band as much as the compatibility of its members/songs?
I want to say 'absolutely', but I'll say a gentle 'yes'.
CWAS #10 - Spring 2002