Shake some action
Sloan finds focus with new producer
CD release Tue, Aug 19, 10pm. Club 279, 279 Yonge. Free to eye and 102.1FM ticket winners.
BY KIERAN GRANT
PHOTOGRAPHY BY ESTHER CHOI
"Am I gonna settle down?" Sloan's Chris Murphy ponders on his band's new single, "The Rest of My Life."
It's a moment of rhetorical reflection, perhaps, but if Murphy really is looking for a grounding force, he may consider hiring one: it seems to have worked for Sloan on their seventh and latest disc,Action Pact (in stores Aug. 19).
After a decade wrangling the songwriting talents of singer-bassist Murphy, singer-guitarists Patrick Pentland and Jay Ferguson, and
drummer-of-all-trades Andrew Scott into what often resembled four solo statements united under one banner, the group put its defiantly autonomous recording technique on ice and enlisted an outsider, producer Tom Rothrock, to coerce them into behaving like a traditional band. The overall effect is arguably their most cohesive yet, not to mention their most outwardly rocking and upbeat since 1998's Navy Blues.
As Ferguson puts it, "we were up for the challenge of having a producer tell us what to do."
Sloan had initially been attracted by Rothrock's production credits, which include ornate, string-swept epics by Badly Drawn Boy and Elliott Smith, Beck's eclectic early albums. Foo Fighters and Fu Manchu. They also liked the fact that he shared Sloan's love for AC/DC. Rothrock, on the other hand, was attracted by Sloan's live show, honed into a taut pop-rock assault during 2001's Pretty Together tour.
"He seemed to understand our eclectic bent," Murphy says. "Had we not gone with a producer we probably would have made an eclectic record again, so it's hard for us to take credit for some dramatic leap from Pretty Together, which we made in a totally opposite way from this record."
The difference was dramatic. For one thing, the would-be homebodies trekked to LA to record, the first time they've left Canada since Twice Removed in '94. More significantly, producer and compatriot Brenndan McGuire
wasn't there to play his usual part in the band's chemistry. That meant not working in the manner to which Sloan had grown accustomed -- dependent on even -- with each member often working on his respective songs in private and relying heavily on overdubs.
Instead, Rothrock was hired was to referee the kind of internal strife that has always powered Sloan (it did, after all, take a brief break-up to clear the path for 1996's critically lauded One Chord to Another album).
"There was a lot less of it than I expected," says Murphy. "I always feared that if we got a producer, Patrick would hate him. But Patrick really liked Tom. It was me who resisted at first because I didn't want to be told what to do."
Pentland's bond with Rothrock may be reflected in Action Pact's power-pop-centric track list. Both the guitarist and Murphy are well represented with five songs each out of a dozen. But the band sees the song selection as a random process in the service of the entire disc.
"When we were in the demo stage and Tom was picking songs at our request, he didn't even know who sang what because our voices sound quite similar," says Pentland. "We made an effort to not come in with demos that were too realized. Nobody was allowed to come in with string arrangements and quirky things -- which we love doing. That way everybody was on an equal footing."
The result is still Sloan-ishly multi-layered, with the prevailing pop-rock melodicism providing a sweet casing for some urgent and dark songs.
Ferguson best captures Action Pact's underlying bittersweet tone with "False Alarm" and album-closer "Fade Away," the latter a fitting, if carefully shrouded, ode to his band's longevity.
Likewise, Scott's presence as a drummer is especially indispensable, even if his off-kilter songwriting is conspicuous in its absence. The band chalks the lack of Scott tunes up to preoccupation with fatherhood (he has a 15-month-old daughter). Pentland also admits that Scott's adventurous style would have been a tough fit on the pop-oriented Action Pact.
"I don't think he likes that type of music much," Pentland says. "He was involved in everybody else's songs. He might have a pile of songs next time."
With "The Rest of My Life" already top 10 on radio, and label BMG looking to make good on their Action Pact investment, the bands seem more assured of "next time" than usual. That's as grounded as things can get for a band that could spawn four solo careers as easily as another group album.
Says Murphy: "This record was really expensive, and somebody else paid for it. I don't know if that will continue. But we've made records on the cheap before, we quite enjoy it and we can go back to that any time. I still believe in this band."