More funner than total oblivion

Most bands would pack it in after being dropped from the major label home of grunge, Geffen, at that genre's peak of popularity (and after releasing what Spin Magazine dubbed one of 1994's "Ten Best Records You Never Heard"). And Halifax, Nova Scotia's four-headed pop machine, Sloan, almost did. When The Enclave, the midsized Stateside indie that released the band's latest packet of hooky gems, One Chord to Another, folded recently, you'd think Sloan would get the hint. But, according to the band's bassist-vocalist-songwriter Chris Murphy, Sloan is finally right where it wants to be -- moderately successful.

One Chord is perhaps the ideal outing for the band that once threatened to ruin the "Huge in Canada, nobody in America" cliché, only to have its obituaries all but written on the eve of the disc's release. One Chord is a scrappy, character-addled mix of bittersweet, heart-on-the-sleeve pop ditties written by four rock-weary members of a band that originally decided to throw the record together as a posthumous document on the eve of their breakup. If you need a comparison, look to classic rock luminaries such as the Beatles, Badfinger, T. Rex or the Raspberries, whatever you like, but Sloan '97 is a unique, sinewy pop outfit not afraid to rock.

"We wanted to make a record that didn't cover up for the fact that we didn't have much money, that first and foremost we had character," says Murphy. "There are so many records out there by bands trying to cover up for a smaller budget and just end up sounding glossy and lame.

"We wanted the record to sound funner. How's that, I'm 28 years old, 'more funner'?"

This emphasis on substance with style over mere style, facilitated by Sloan's pragmatic predisposition to a DIY attitude that utilizes the resources offered by the monied majors, is one reason it's still making records (the band also runs its own indie label, murderecords, on which it has now rereleased One Chord). Another reason is that Sloan enjoyed making the record, free from the harsh glare of the spotlight, so much that they decided to stick it out.

"We're not paralyzed by the fact that our label in the States has basically folded. We own all of our own records and just license them to the company. I know that's a boring angle, but not being on a major label really doesn't affect us," says Murphy.

"Mainstream success would ruin us," he continues. "Especially in the States, there's no concept of moderate success. And if there is, the bands that achieve that do it by constant touring." And though the members of Sloan have often expressed their love of KISS (for one, Murphy says "I romanticize Detroit because KISS is my favorite band and I always imagine that I'm playing Cobo Hall -- where KISS recorded KISS Alive! -- when we're there), they have no interest in rewriting road anthems like KISS's "Beth" to maintain mainstream success.

Indeed, it was mainstream "success" that almost put Sloan out for the count. After their debut release for Geffen Records, Smeared, spawned the hit "Underwhelmed," Sloan was the cause and the catalyst that brought A&R reps raining down on the scenic seaside "Seattle of the East," as Halifax was dubbed by a frenzied music biz press.

The dense, buzzing guitars, soaring harmonies and playfully punny lyrics of "Underwhelmed" seemed to back up the A&R cry of "There's gold on them thar shores!" But not for Sloan.

"We were called at the time Canada's Nirvana, only more recently we've been the Oasis of Canada. The Canadian media always want their own version of an international story," says Murphy. "We tried to get anti-grunge on our second and third albums."

The band went into the studio next with Jim Rondinelli, who worked with '70s downer-pop icons Big Star. The result was Twice Removed, an album that reflected both Sloan's ultra-democratic, four songwriter-singer approach to making records (indeed, it sounds like a compilation album more than one made by a cohesive, one-headed pop group) and the band's waning interest in shouldering the grunge mantle.

It was Twice Removed that was handed Spin's backhanded compliment. It was Twice Removed that was voted by Canadian critics "The Best Canadian Album Ever" (an honor the band is not willing to accept, by the way). It was around the time of Twice Removed that Sassy magazine gave Sloan the thumbs-up with their "Cute Band Alert." It was also Twice Removed that left Sloan's marketing handlers at Geffen scratching their heads. Thanks to Detroit's proximity to Canada, alternative radio airwaves here were graced with Twice Removed's near-hit-in-America, "Coax Me," which sported more of the punnery heard in "Underwhelmed," this time couched in classic, Beatlesesque pop form.

By this time, the band was on the ropes, pursuing outside projects and suddenly freed from major label obligations. Rather than go quietly, Sloan decided to throw together a record of songs the four songwriters had tucked away in their respective notebooks.

Which brings us back to the cohesive, hang-loose vibe of One Chord to Another as an organic progression of this classic pop affinity. No longer reeling from the ancient buzzword "grunge," Murphy says, "I think One Chord to Another is a reaction against a reaction. A lot of bands are out there making really bad, bland pop records to still react against grunge. They're afraid to rock out."

But not these cute, witty, hooky, underdog Canadians. The indie version of Sloan plans to prove that to really rock, it's better to be sinewy than muscular. Chris Handyside is a freelance writer for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]

Scroll to read more Local Music articles
Join the Metro Times Press Club

Local journalism is information. Information is power. And we believe everyone deserves access to accurate independent coverage of their community and state.
Help us keep this coverage going with a one-time donation or an ongoing membership pledge.


Join Detroit Metro Times Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.