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August 18-31
VOL.14 ISSUE. 26

Happy To Not Share

Craig Silliphant
Published Thursday March 31, 07:14 pm
Why I’m selfishly glad Sloan never blew up in the States

Broadway Theatre
Sunday 10

I have to say I’m kind of glad Sloan never broke in America, the Holy Grail for most musical acts. I don’t wish the band any ill will. I’m just being selfish — it means we get to keep Sloan as one hell of a Canadian institution. They are longstanding ambassadors of the Canadian music scene (and as a side note, their original line up is still intact after 25 years!). How many other bands can you name that are just as likely to get played on commercial radio as on indie stations?  Sloan is the little CanCon band that can.

Fame nearly did find Sloan in the States in the early ’90s when the group signed to juggernaut label Geffen Records, but rather than exploding into American consciousness, the band almost crashed and burned for good. 

Sloan had self-released an EP and then released their first full-length, Smeared, on Geffen. Smeared was an inspired but messy album that saw them forming their sound. It was their second album, Twice Removed, that coulda’ been a contender, a masterpiece of garage rock power pop. Unfortunately for them, it was also during the explosion of the grunge scene, which meant that Geffen wanted much noisier jams than Sloan’s literate, melodic pop. The band balked at this, so they were given the famous Geffen cold shoulder — Geffen refused to promote Twice Removed. And that was that.

All of this is kind of stupid, considering most Canadian grunge fans from that era would’ve had a couple of Sloan albums in their collection. Sloan might have been more Beatle-esque than Nirvana-ish, but it was in the same zone. It’s not like they were Celine Dion or something from another planet.

At any rate, Sloan’s big shot at rolling over the American market was doomed and they spent years fighting the label, almost ending the band in the process.

Sloan formed in Halifax in 1991, with four musicians who had played in other local bands. Drummer Andrew Scott and guitarist Patrick Pentland had played together, but things finally clicked when bassist and singer Chris Murphy and Scott met at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design. Murphy had played previously with Jay Ferguson who came onboard, and from there it was a surprisingly short trip between playing their first gigs and signing with Geffen in 1992.

Sloan’s success, while not translating to a huge influx of American fans, did earn them gold records in Canada — and even better, paved the way for Halifax bands like Eric’s Trip, The Hardship Post and Thrush Hermit (remember all those great bands?). But by the end of 1994, after the debacle with Geffen, just a handful of years after coming together, the band had cancelled the rest of their tour and were seriously contemplating packing it all in.

Thankfully, cooler heads prevailed and they got back together in ’95 after spending some time playing in side projects. 1996 saw the release of one of their seminal albums, One Chord to Another. It was a massive Canadian hit, and was actually released to critical success in the U.S. (if not game-changing sales). One Chord to Another was perhaps a bit more accessible than their past work, featuring top-notch songwriting, grab-you-by-the-shirt-hooks and some transcendent harmonies.One Chord was also probably the zenith for me, though that’s not to say that Sloan faded into obscurity, by any means. And they didn’t turn into a parody of themselves like The Tragically Hip, another huge-in-Canada, almost-made-it-in-the-States story. 

I can only speak for myself, but I think it was just easy to become “accustomed to the face” of their sound. Each album after One Chord — like say, Navy Blues — had some great songs. But when a band is just going through the motions of doing the same thing again and again, even when it’s great, it’s still easier to just go back to the album where they were really in the pocket rather than bother with the new shit.

Those fans who continued to follow Sloan with fervour? They’ve been rewarded with albums like Never Hear the End of It, which subverted their familiarity to some degree. Even Sloan’s last album, 2014’s Commonwealth, shows the band is still willing to playfully explore ideas. They take the clichéd album device (a la Kiss, or moreso, The Beatles’ White Album) of making four solo albums in one double LP, each one written by a different band member. This could have been a disaster (again, see: Kiss), but Sloan are so good at what they do that they make it work with cohesion.

What would have happened if Sloan had broken the United States market wide open? We’ll never know. Like I said, I’m selfishly glad that we can call Sloan something distinctly Canadian, and a band that’s always going to be worth shelling out a few bucks to go catch live.

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