Few indie rock acts can claim the kind of longevity that Sloan can claim.
“We’re a band that’s been together since 1991,” says singer-guitarist Chris Murphy in a recent phone interview. The band performs at 8 p.m. on Tuesday, Nov. 19, at the Grog Shop
. “We have a long, uninterrupted history. As recently as 2018, we put out our 12th record. We’re like a small business. Most people know us from our run from 1994 to 1999, but we try to be a current band.”
Even though the act has recently embarked on tours in support of reissues from its back catalog — and the Grog Shop supports the reissue of 1998’s Navy Blues
— Murphy says the group tries “not to just rest on the laurels of those old records.”
“We come out and play the entire record, and then we play a second set that’s a hodgepodge,” says Murphy in a phone call from an Oregon tour stop. He describes the band as a “cult phenomenon.” “We’re trying to get people who might’ve dropped off back into the fold by guaranteeing them that for at least part of the show we won’t play new material. I’m in a band, but I’m also a fan of bands too. I went to see Guided by Voices when they did their classic-era lineup and played music from the era I knew the most. As a band that has a long history and tries to be current, you’re always fighting for real estate in the set list. I wouldn’t normally compare myself to the Rolling Stones, but I do to make analogies. If they came out and played 10 new songs, you would notice, and you’d be mad.”
Though the band was based in Nova Scotia, where it first formed, it cut Navy Blues in Toronto.
“It’s probably our best-sounding record,” says Murphy. “We were finally good musically and we recorded on 2-inch tape. We’ve done this deluxe version that comes in a giant fucking box. It’s like a $100 item. If I got into my hourly wage, I probably wouldn’t be happy.”
The group only made 1,200 copies and will sell the box sets on tour.
“It’s a fun project for us and it commemorates the time when we were young and beautiful,” says Murphy.
When the group formed in Halifax in 1991, there was a thriving indie rock scene. It’s hard to believe that such a remote part of Canada would have such a vibrant scene, but that environment helped bring the members of Sloan together.
The group somehow signed to Geffen Records shortly after forming. The label released the band’s acclaimed studio debut, Smeared
, in 1993 and the followup album, Twice Removed
. But it quickly became apparent things weren’t going to work out so well with Geffen. There was even some talk of ditching the four singer-songwriter concept and having Murphy handle all the vocals, something that went against the band’s nature.
“That pretty much broke up the band in 1995,” says Murphy. “Looking back, we didn’t take that much time off. We came back to make a posthumous record that did really well, so we gradually became a band again. On our first record, [drummer] Andrew [Scott] sang a little on one song and [singer-guitarist] Jay [Ferguson] sang two songs. [The label] thought it would be simpler to market the band if we had just one lead singer. We understand that, but we thought, ‘Didn’t the Beatles go through in 1962?’ We split everything — songwriting and tour revenue — equally amongst the original four guys and encourage everyone to write.”
The group-effort approach works particularly well on 2014’s Commonwealth
, a double album with each member staking out a single side. That album commences with the punchy, Beatles-like, “We’ve Come This Far,” and then concludes with “Forty-Eight Portraits,” an 18-minute pop suite. It embraces a wide range of musical styles as each of Sloan’s four members draws from a different set of influences.
“That was our attempt to brag that no other band could do what we did,” says Murphy. “We essentially made four solo EPs but sold them as one package. When Kiss made four solo albums, they did them separately and, of course, one guy did better than the others, and that was the beginning of the end.”
As much as the concept for Commonwealth
is brilliant, Murphy says the album isn’t his favorite.
“What I like about something like [the Beatles’] Revolver
is that it’s a compilation where things careen into each other,” he says. “We can do that a little bit. Andrew [Scott’s] side of Commonwealth
is one giant smashed-together song with about six ideas, but I like the variety of going back and forth. Never Hear the End of It, which came out in 2006, represents us all similarly but the sequencing is better. I don’t think there’s a scenario where the same person has two songs in a row, though I think there might be one because I have too many songs on it.”
The band’s latest album, 12
, again features all four members writing songs and singing. “Spin Our Wheels” comes off as a terrific power pop anthem that features harmony vocals and driving guitars, and the band evokes Cheap Trick on the lurching “Don’t Stop (If It Feels Good Do It).”
Murphy says the group plans to keep ploughing ahead whether album sales merit it or not.
“We were always shooting to be a big band and play in hockey rinks and shit like that,” says Murphy. “But that never happened. We never really got beyond student union halls. All you can do is keep going. I would love for our name to be said in the same sentence as Guided by Voices or Redd Kross. We tip our hat for sure to both of those acts. We’re in that world. How many people give a shit about Redd Kross? It doesn’t matter. They’re going to do it anyway. That’s like us.”
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