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Fri October 7, 2011
Sloan: How To Make A Band Last 20 Years
Four guys. Ten albums. 20 years.
The unlikely story of the band Sloan starts in Halifax, Nova Scotia, a college city in eastern Canada's Maritime provinces. It was there where four young musicians — Jay Ferguson, Chris Murphy, Patrick Pentland and Andrew Scott — met and started playing together.
"We played our very first show at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design in Halifax, Nova Scotia, February 1991," Ferguson, one of the guitarists, remembers. "We played in the cafeteria."
It didn't take long for Sloan to bust out of the lunchroom. About a year after they played that first show, they attracted the attention of an A&R rep from the David Geffen Co., the label that just months earlier had put out Nirvana's game-changing Nevermind. Todd Sullivan says he first heard of the band while visiting a colleague in Toronto.
"He played me some things, and he said, 'There's kind of this little mini-buzz on this band from Halifax called Sloan,' " he says. "He played me one song, and it was the song 'Underwhelmed.' And immediately, I just said, 'I gotta have more. Send me more. Can you get me more?' "
A couple of months later, Sullivan met the band and signed it to Geffen. "It was very exciting and very shocking that a band from Halifax, Nova Scotia, which bands never came there and bands never ever got out of that city, to get signed to such a large label," says Ferguson.
Sloan already had its first album in the can, and the band was ready to go, with a unique calling card: The four musicians are all songwriters who each sing their own songs. Sullivan says all four have their own styles.
"There's Chris, who writes these amazing pop hooks but he's a very wordy kind of writer; you've got Andrew, who's very conceptual in his presentation of his songs; Jay, he's like the super music fan and a lot of where he's coming from is about his relationship with music; and then you've got Patrick, who grew up on punk and heavy metal but writes these great universal pop hooks."
That calling card was also, in the view of its members, Sloan's biggest liability.
"Basically, if you've got four singers, you're screwed," says Pentland, who also plays guitar. "What they want is Robert Plant or the dude from Matchbox 20 or whatever. They want a guy to promote and then they want people backing him up. And maybe they want a Keith figure or maybe they don't, but it doesn't work with four people singing. It's really hard for a label to promote that."
Sloan didn't make it easier on Geffen by taking a hard turn away from guitar feedback toward cleanly recorded acoustic pop on its second record, Twice Removed.
The record flopped when it was released in 1994 but would later become a serious fan favorite. Nevertheless, the process soured Sloan's relationship with its label and broke the band up for a time.
"This is a creative, collaborative affair which is pretty thin ice at time. Four monsters that all have equal time" says Scott, the drummer.
"That means that there could be songs on the records that any one of us or three of us don't like," says bassist Murphy. "There are songs on the records that I don't even like sometimes. But that's a testament to our democracy."
And, as in any democracy, there are lots of different ways of getting things done. Sloan has released albums of straight-ahead power pop and 1970s influenced hard rock. They've put out a White Album-style 30-song double record. Their 10th and latest studio release, The Double Cross, came out this year, with 12 songs, three per singer.
A decade and a half after the band was dumped by its label (and after it split up) Sloan hums along just under the radar — with all four of its original members — collecting a small number of devoted fans who know all of the songs by heart. Not despite the band's rocky start, but because of it.
"I've often said that if we made it huge for our first or second record we'd be over by now," Pentland says. All four members agree: not making it big saved Sloan.
"It's what we signed up to do 20 years ago and we've been fortunate enough to hold it together for this long and to continue to make a living off it," Scott says. "It's not a grand living by any stretch of the imagination, but it's ... it's good."
"We made a lot of money off Sloan if you spread it out all over time," jokes Murphy. "If we made all the money we made in 20 years over one year, I guess we could have done it like that and then lived forever on our riches and not played together. But I'm glad we spread our millions over 20 years because it's been fun the whole time."