Thursday, August 3, 2017

I Love This Freaking Band: Sloan


(Note: This article will occasionally be interrupted by a large group of people standing behind the writer, and sometimes the reader, chanting Sloan. Pronounced SLOW-NNN. They sing the chant like football fans, but are dressed in much cooler clothes.)

Much like life, music is a voyage. If you’re lucky, you discover something you love, and carry it with you forever. You’re even luckier when you discover something you love, forget the discovery, and it takes years to remember what you had already already discovered. And you find yourself even more in love with what you discover, because your perspective have been changed by the journey. Such is the story of myself and the Canadian rock band Sloan. 

Sloan formed in Halifax, Nova Scotia in 1991. Within a year, the band had signed to Geffen Records, and released their debut album, Smeared. Their song “Underwhlemed”, which played within the borders of the grunge/alternative rock sounds in vogue during that time, became a huge hit in Canada and North America. But by the time that their second album, Twice Removed, appeared in 1994, the band had realized that they had no need for alterna-rock trappings. Geffen was not prepared for an album that embraced the Beatles and Small Faces in equal doses. Geffen dropped the band, but the album has since something of a modern-day Pet Sounds in Canada. In two different polls, Twice Removed has been voted the best album to come from a Canadian artist, ahead of lionized albums by Joni Mitchell and Neil Young. And it is that Canadian fanbase that is still with them today. 

(Sloan chorus: SLOW-NNN!! SLOW-NNN!!!)

Canada is a quirky, crazy place. They still pledge allegiance to the Queen Of England, yet they are independent of the Olde Country. Half of the country speaks English, the other half speaks French. It’s big, and sometimes cold. But they love their music. Last year, I happened to be close enough to the Canadian border to pick up CBC television. Right there at noon, airing after the Queen’s Christmas message, was a Wainwright Family holiday special. Yes, the whole Wainwright famdamnily celebrated in a holiday special. Hosted by Rufus and Martha Wainwright. They even came onstage to perform the Roches’ Long Island (pronounced Lawn Guyland) version of “Walking In A Winter Wonderland”. Andy Williams, my ass, this was a whole lot more fun than the holiday special I sat through in the Colonies. 

I first heard Sloan in 1996, when my friend Shawn Lynch introduced me to their then-new album, One Chord To Another. If Twice Removed is the band’s Rubber Soul, One Chord To Another is Sloan’s Revolver. All of the 1960s-influenced pop and rock somgwriting craft merged with a compelling wash of diverse instrumentation of youthful spirit. In Canada, the record yielded three top 40 hits. In America, they are another band trying to gain attention amongst the messy and wildly inconsistent scene that the independent music scene was during the late 1990s. I first saw Sloan in Charlotte, NC in 1998, playing an afternoon set at a street festival. The stage they were on wasn’t even a stage, but really a six-inch high milk crate that somebody placed in the middle of the street. Even in that setting, the band rocked, and I took some really good photos that day. 

I continued to follow the band over the next few years. Through more albums, and even better live shows. Sadly, like many of my age, I was led astray be the ever-present indie rock ideals, and their desperate need to believe the current wave was somehow better than the bands that had come before them. Nevermind that Velvet Underground boxset, here’s the new Pavement album. And I wanted to believe that indie rock could still save us all, and that 1992 was already a million miles from reality, even in 1996. 

For years, I followed these bands. Drove too many miles to see them play, and even worked with a number of them as a still photographer. What seemed like a breath of fresh air, after the years of hair metal and synthsized pop of the 1980s, but now seems as contrived as the poodle poppers and Metal mall rats that preceeded them. Like many things, indie rock seemed a like idea at first, but then everyone got bored. And lost in drama that had everything to do with selling themselves, and nothing to do with the music. Oh look! The singer is wearing a leather jacket, and drunk off his butt again. That band is so cool, they don’t care about their audience, or tuning their instruments. Tonight’s should be fun! The singer is depressed again about his most recent break-up. And which break-up is this? There’s been so many, I’ve lost count.  

In time, I realized the error of my ways, and left the wannabe music of my generation behind. I don’t want a self-help program, I want to have fun. I wanted to enjoy music again, and walk away from the mopey aural wreckage of my wandering years. I want to live again, Clarence, I want live again. (Author shouts to the heavens in his best Charlie Brown voice.) "Isn’t there a band out there that doesn’t get lost in the meshuggah of indie rock? That just lets loose, has fun, and just rocks?"

(Sloan chorus: SLOW-NNN!! SLOW-NNN!!!)

In 2007, I wandered into a bar in Austin, Texas to see Sloan play at the South By Southwest Festival. The festival is itself much like indie rock, a great idea before too many people jumped on the bandwagon, sending it careening off the scenester cliff. During the show, drummer Andrew Scott came out front to play a few of his songs on his guitar. Suddnely, Andrew got distracted, and accidnetally cut his right hand wide open on the guitar’s whammy bar. I’ve seen bands end sold-out shows due to one of the bandmembers accidentally spilling a Diet Coke on their laptop, much less the bloodletting that transpired that might. Nonetheless, Andrew bandaged his hand up, figured out how to play drums with his injured hand, and Sloan still did one of the best sets I saw at the festival that year. Looking back, this should have been my moment of clarity, but a few more years would have to await.

After my first sight of them, Sloan stayed on the ABC (Anywhere But Charlotte) tour for 18 years. When they finally played Charlotte again in November of 2016, they were celebrating the 20th annversary of One Chord To Another by playing it in its entirety. This time, I was ready. After a month and a year of mind-numbing losses and jumblefudges, the show was a catharis in sound, and the long-awaited reason to throw all of my cares in the air, and wave them like I just didn’t care. The band just plain rocked. Song after song, album after album. Holy Crap. I had a freaking blast that night, and the night sent me screaming to my record collection for their albums. To Youtube searches for all of their videos that portrayed the band as the Rock God Messiahs that they are. Forget the evening news! I have seen the future. And the past, and the present, and it is Sloan!

(Sloan chorus: SLOW-NNN!! SLOW-NNN!!!)

Okay, they were never as big in America as they should have been. Substance doesn’t always win, in America. But for the last 25 years, Sloan has rocked out over consistent great 13 albums, and played consistently great shows, whether you noticed, or not. A double album, a la Kiss’ solo albums, with each bandmember getting an album side? They did that! And it rocked! And they did it all with the same four guys in the band. No lineup changes. No reunion albums. No reunion tours, followed by acrimonious solo tours that were even worse than the reunion tour. Just fun Rock & Roll, and great songs. And if that ain’t what indie rock thought it wanted to be, I don’t know what else is. 

I don’t know when I’ll be close to Canada again, but when I do, I look forward to the Queen’s Christmas message, followed by a Sloan holiday spectactular. Featuring multiple costume changes, numerous references to 1960s art house movies, and the Queen herself, dancing with Rufus Wainwright to “Money City Maniacs”.  And in the middle of it all, four guys that reminded me how much fun music can still be, and how much there still is left to discover. Even when I thought that the journey had passed me by. 

Here’s to life. Here’s to discovery. Here’s to Sloan.

Sing it, kids. 

(Sloan chorus: SLOW-NNN!! SLOW-NNN!!! SLOW-NNN!!)
-Daniel Coston
Winter 2017

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