(L-R: Chris Murphy, Patrick Pentland, Andrew Scott, Jay Ferguson. Photo by Chris Butcher.)
Nova Scotia-born rockers Sloan rose to fame on the east coast in the early ‘90s with hits like “Underwhelmed,” “Coax Me,” “The Lines You Amend” and others.
Nearly 20 years later, one of the key bands that put the region on the rock and roll map is still going strong. With each passing album, the band still manages a hit single or two, and they sell out shows across the country. Earlier this year, Sloan released its ninth full-length album, Parallel Play.
The album’s name comes from a term used to describe children who play with others around them, but are engaged in their own activity rather than playing with the others. Like those children, for most of the Sloan’s career, each member has largely written and recorded their music on their own.
Sloan guitarist Patrick Pentland spoke to East Coast Noise recently, and he explained how and why the band acts as a foursome of individual musicians rather than as a traditional “band.”
“Part of it is just the speed of doing it that way,” Pentland says. “But we also like the idea that our records represent us individually as much as a band. I think we come across more as a band in a live situation. And on a record, it’s just for people who are good writers and producers or whatever. I think it’s just a nice change to a record that way as opposed to one sound the whole way through.”
Pentland says each member of the group (himself, bassist Chris Murphy, guitarist Jay Ferguson and drummer Andrew Scott) approaches songwriting, recording and producing a little differently, and for the most part, each member of the group isn’t really aware of what the rest are up to when an album is being worked on.
“People are here and there, or they come in to add stuff, and I think Chris and Jay tend to play or tend to hang out more together in the studio and are involved in each other’s songs a little bit more. Andrew and I tend to do everything by ourselves. I get Andrew or Chris to play drums, and on this record I got Chris to play bass on one song, but the rest I did myself.”
Even when it comes time to choosing songs for a new album, Pentland says the members of Sloan are careful not to step on each other’s toes. The songs each member brings in end up on the record. They aren’t vetoed by the others.
“Like Andrew, for instance, no one knew what he was doing towards the end of mixing. And for me too, like, Chris or Jay would pop in occasionally when I was recording, but there were songs where they had no idea how they were going to end up. If they come in and hear music, but there’s no singing … I think those two, Chris and Jay, tend to work a little more together like that, they probably played demos for each other and stuff like that.
“Individually, we know what songs are working and what songs aren’t. And also, if somebody in the band is really into a song, it’s going to go on the record regardless of what the other guys think about it. Everybody gets their own little piece of real estate on a record, and they bring what they feel most passionate about.”
Early on in the band’s career, Pentland says the band tried a little harder to write and record as a band. And on 2003’s Action Pact, the band made a conscious decision to work cohesively, but it didn’t work out as they’d hoped.
“And we like the record, but it wasn’t as enjoyable an experience as … I think we have more fun recording the way we do now.”
Like The Beatles, KISS and a few other bands before them, each member of Sloan has its own fans. Needless to say, talk of solo records amongst fans and media has come up several times over the last few years. Pentland reveals that prior to recording Parallel Play, fans very nearly got their wish.
“We were really kind of into (doing solo albums), and then we realized that, we just put out a 30-song record (2006’s Never Hear The End Of It), and then if we put out four solo records, with say, a minimum of 10 songs each, that was like 75 songs in two-and-a-half years or something. And we weren’t really wanting to do that.”
The band decided to instead split the new album up in four sections, with each member getting one block of three tunes. But again, reality set in as the boys realized certain songs made more sense following others instead of having to follow a specific order, like if Murphy’s songs were all grouped together, Scott’s songs were grouped together and so on.
So once again, Sloan released a 12-track album with each member getting moments to shine throughout.
Still, with any band that’s been together so successfully for so long, the idea of a solo venture outside Sloan must be appealing. Pentland isn’t so sure.
“I don’t know if I’d want to do a solo record,” he says. “I mean, maybe in the past I was into that idea. I might be interested in working with some other people. You know, potentially doing a record where there is a singer and I don’t sing that much. I’m not sure. We don’t have a lot of time to do that type of stuff anyway, between touring commitments and family commitments and then making records.”
Pentland says Sloan has been discussing several different projects recently, including more music releases, but not in CD form. He says there have been discussions about releasing batches of songs online without bothering to print them on hard copy.
“To me, it’s exciting to go into a practice space, record a song, mix it, master it and then, within a week it’s up on iTunes for sale for a dollar if you want it. It’s so instant – not having to record it and wait, and do the artwork and the photos and then manufacture it and find a release date … you just sort of record music, and put it out, and if people want to buy it, then they can buy it.
“So much energy and so much money goes into promoting albums in a time where a lot of people are not buying albums anymore.”
The music business, he says, is too slow to adjust to changing trends, the move from albums to MP3s and so on. Pentland says a band on its own can move much quicker if it has the freedom to do so.
“I listen to more music now than I’ve ever listened to in my life because of the Internet. I own more music now, whether I’m getting it for free, or I’m buying it.’”
Pentland hopes people are doing the same with Sloan, if not buying their records, at least listening to them online and maybe buying songs online.
“I know that, where we aren’t selling records the way we used to, we’re still playing to as many people as we used to. And people know the songs, because you go out and play them, and the people sing along to them.”
Pentland reveals that there has also been talk of re-releasing Sloan’s back catalogue, possibly with rare tracks on each album and perhaps a separate collection of rarities or b-sides for those who don’t wish to re-purchase Sloan’s entire discography.
A b-sides collection would be a difficult one for the band to assemble, he says. Over the last 15 years or so, the group has recorded all kinds of songs, some of which they don’t even remember. The trouble is, they’re all on different formats, some digital and some analog, on a variety of different kinds of tape.
Pentland ran into this snag recently when CBC’s The Hour, hosted by George Strombolopolous, asked Sloan to use the band’s hit 1996 hit “The Good In Everyone” as its new theme song.
Pentland says the song was recorded on a one-inch tape machine, and the band didn’t do any instrumental mixes of it.
“So I kind of had to cut up ‘The Good in Everyone’ from the record to try to make it into an instrumental for them to use, and so I did that as a temporary thing as I was on tour,” he says.
“The idea was, when I came back to Toronto, I was supposed to go into a studio and take the original tape, and make an instrumental mix of ‘The Good in Everyone,’ which would have been the first time we heard the original tapes since 1994 or whatever it was. But it turns out that nobody has those tape machines anymore, and the only one we could find is the one in Halifax that we used (in 1994). So I had to take the tape back to Halifax to dump it into digital so I can bring it back to Toronto.
“I have to go to the east coast to go back in time to use a tape machine to dump it into digital and bring it back to the big city of Toronto with a digital form of it to mix a song for a TV show …” he says with a laugh.
Speaking of the east coast, Sloan was here recently on tour with rocker Lenny Kravitz. Unfortunately, the Newfoundland shows were first rescheduled and ultimately canceled.
Sloan hasn’t done its own proper east coast tour for Parallel Play yet. With the band members all living in the Toronto area, Pentland couldn’t make promises, but he said he would “make it my mission” to try to get the band down east sometime soon.
He said if they would swing it, the dates would like be this month or early December.
“You can quote me on that, but I don’t know if it’s going to happen,” he said with a laugh.
Last week on the band’s website, they noted that they were working on booking dates in “central and eastern Canada,” and that a tour announcement would be made soon.