When the power pop group Sloan formed in Halifax in 1991, there was a thriving indie rock scene. Hard to believe that such a remote part of Canada would have such a vibrant scene, but Sloan singer-drummer Andrew Scott says the environment helped bring the members of Sloan together.
“There was a very fertile music scene there long before we came around,” says Scott. “It was a very art-rock and punk-rock scene. It was huge and hugely influential on all of us. We all had bands prior to this band too. Halifax was a small enough town that everyone knew everybody because the scene was so insular.”
By what Scott calls a “weird stroke of luck,” the band signed to Geffen Records shortly after forming. The label released the band’s acclaimed studio debut, Smeared, in 1993. But it quickly became apparent things weren’t going to work out so well with Geffen.
“We played a show in L.A. and had Weezer open for us,” says Scott. “Our record was thrown against the wall and Weezer’s was thrown against the wall. Which one stuck? It’s a total random lottery. The major labels were going through this huge upheaval and everyone was going through this uncertainty. No one knew if they were going to have a job in the morning. Our band was this weird band from Canada. It’s like the people at the label thought, ‘They have four songwriters. How do you market that?’ The mentality was lazy and risk averse.”
Scott says there was even some talk of ditching the four singer-songwriter concept and having bassist Chris Murphy handle all the vocals, something that went against the band’s nature.
“That defeats the aim of what we set out to do,” says Scott. “At that point, they buried us. The learning curve was pretty vertical for us. We were pretty young and right out of the gate we were on this massive American label. We put out two records with them. Looking back, we don’t have any regrets. It was all as it should have been. Had we been super successful as a result of that, we probably wouldn’t be around today.”
The band hasn’t just survived. It’s thrived. Its latest release, Commonwealth, is a double album with each member staking out a single side. It commences with punchy, Beatles-like “We’ve Come This Far” and then concludes with “Forty-Eight Portraits,” an 18-minute pop suite. The album embraces a wide range of musical styles as each of Sloan’s four members draws from a different set of influences.
“We’ve always been a band that’s boasted four singers and songwriters,” says Scott. “We’ve always tried to dissuade anyone from putting out a solo record. No one has ever felt that desire because they get to do whatever the fuck you want in the context of the band. We had talked about the notion [of making an album divided into four sides] over the years. This was the time where it made sense for us. We just said, ‘Fuck it. Let’s do it. Everybody gets a side of wax. Everyone can curate their own real estate and do whatever the hell we want.’ It’s not different from how we’ve made records in the past. People can make decisions but it comes down to he who is working on his stuff. That’s always the case with our records but this is one is laid out a little more clearly.”
And yet the album still sound cohesive — not that that’s something Scott says is intentional.
“I can’t see it or hear it objectively,” he says. “I’m too inside the glass box. I know what you mean and that term ‘cohesive’ has been bandied about for so many years. Or not cohesive. I don’t give a shit. It just comes out the way it comes out and you can take it or leave it.”
So, what has been the key to keeping the band going for so long with no line-up changes?
“I think it’s many fold,” says Scott. “We appreciate the line of work. We don’t make a lot of money, but we all own homes in downtown Toronto. We’re making a living but it’s not high on the hog. That’s not what it was about anyway. It was never intended as a get rich quick scheme. We wanted to make art and share it with whoever was into it. We’re fortunate to still be doing it 25 years down the road. I think we make relevant, quality work, which is the most important thing because the records we leave behind will remain in the history books so to speak. In my opinion, if our most recent record isn’t as good as or better than the last one, then that’s when my red flag goes up. It’s the personal quality control that you have to constantly monitor.”
Sloan, 9 p.m., Friday, Nov. 7, Grog Shop, 2785 Euclid Heights Blvd., 216-321-5588. Tickets: $13, grogshop.gs.