The Sheepdogs earned a standing ovation Friday night in Toronto, but not for any concert or club gig appearance (although that was them performing acoustically on the cinema’s rooftop). What had the fans out of their seats was their response to the Saskatoon band’s performance in John Barnard’s The Sheepdogs Have At It documentary movie which premiered at Toronto’s Cineplex Yonge/Dundas Square venue.
When news broke that The Sheepdogs had beaten out 15 other unsigned bands to appear on Rolling Stone magazine’s front cover August 18th 2012, and in doing so earned a U.S recording contract with Atlantic Records, independent producer/director Barnard decided to capture the events which followed the band’s historic win and tracked the Sheepdogs’ activities for the next year. Thus “The Sheepdogs Have At It” (Farpoint Films), captures their road travels, the making of their self-titled Atlantic Records debut produced in Nashville by Black Keys’ drummer Patrick Carney and Austin Skaggs as well as talking to the parents of band members Ewan Currie, Ryan Gullen, Leot Hanson and Sam Corbett to provide some historical perspective to the band’s current success.
[quote]”It’s not like the old days when they funded a tour bus and sent you on the road opening for AC/DC.”[/quote]Prior to Friday’s premiere, bassist Gullen allowed that viewing the documentary themselves allowed the band to fully realize just how far they had come in the past 12 months. “We have been so busy, we haven’t had a chance to put things into their proper perspective,” noted Gullen, amidst a flurry of media activity at Toronto’s Cambridge Suites hotel. “It’s just been one big whirlwind of activity. It’s neat to reflect on what we have done and what we have achieved. It’s like looking at a scrapbook of a year that was like a big blur to us.
The band members were receptive to the idea of Barnard capturing their activities on film but they had one major stipulation. “It had to be real. We didn’t want anything contrived,” explained Gullen. “We wanted the highs and lows to be reflected in the documentary. If he shot us performing a big gig we wanted him to then shoot us going out drinking afterwards. We are music fans and music documentary fans and we wanted our fans to feel they were watching something real. You can tell what is real and what is put on.”
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This included footage of the band alluding to firing their tour manager and struggling along, handling their own gear. “He cost us a whole bundle of our money ” explained The Sheepdog bassist. “He kept being asked about it and he didn’t know how to answer that question. We had encountered previous problems with him; the final straw was that he lost all of our money. We had toured without a manager for years so we could handle it but we had been on a nice trajectory and then we had to go back to how we used to do things.”
[quote]”Two hours out of Saskatoon, we pulled into a gas station to fill up and our line of credit was exhausted. We had scrounged up our personal money just to get home.”[/quote]As suggested by interviews with the band’s parents, The Sheepdogs were far from being overnight sensations. Currie, Gullen and Corbett were high school friends in Saskatoon who came about their southern blues roots via their exposure to Napster. “Napster meant you didn’t have to listen to just what was on radio. You could listen to what your friends were listening to, go on the internet, stay with one thing yet go down this rabbit hole of musical experiences. When we got together, we shared an appreciation for honest music and we built our band around that appreciation.
One of the bands, The Sheepdogs appreciated was Kings Of Leon and when they discovered Prince Albert native Leon Hanson had a similar attraction, the final piece of the band’s lineup was in place. Being a southern rock blues band in a dance/pop environment wasn’t easy and although the band recorded two independent CD’s, “Trying To Grow” in 2007 and “The Sheepdog’s Big Stand” in 2008 they struggled in unanimity, executing several unsuccessful tours which left the band financially broke and disillusioned. “Did we almost quit? Absolutely, several times,” allowed Gullen. “There was one Canadian tour, about a year and a half before the Rolling Stone contest. We were travelling across the country in a beaten up Dodge van that went through a full tank of gas every three hours. We’d get to a show and like 10 people (sometimes even less) would show up, we were not making any money. Our van got broken into in Toronto, Kitchener, Calgary and Vancouver so we had to spend money repairing windows and replacing personal stuff. Then two hours out of Saskatoon, we pulled into a gas station to fill up and our line of credit was exhausted. We had scrounged up our personal money just to get home.”
“What are we doing, we asked ourselves,” reflected Gullen. “We were having tons of fun but we asked ourselves, how long you can spin your tires. How long do we want to keep pushing it.
The Sheepdogs’ big break came when they cobbled together enough funds to record an indie release “Learn And Burn” in 2010. They passed a copy along to Dine Alone Records owner Joel Carriere who at the same time received a phone call from a contact at Atlantic Records in New York. “He told Joel the label were looking for entries for a contest Atlantic were sponsoring with Rolling Stone magazine to find an unsigned band for the cover – and did Carriere have any bands in mind,” explained Gullen. “Joel said actually I have this band The Sheepdogs, even though he hadn’t actually seen us perform”.. Carriere is now the band’s manager.
One of some 16,000 entries in the contest, The Sheepdogs made it to the final 16 before being confirmed as the winners – appearing on Rolling Stone Magazine’s August 18th 2012 cover. “Being the only Canadian entry help,” allowed Gullen. “We got tremendous national support.”
According to the documentary though, winning the contest, came with pressure the band had never faced before. Suddenly the previously unknown band was now receiving international attention. Atlantic rush released a five-track EP, “Five Easy Pieces and The Sheepdogs found themselves in Australia opening for John Fogerty and even found themselves opening for Kings Of Leon, the initial source of their inspiration. “In the documentary, a rep from Rolling Stone magazine says that if we recorded a great record, great things would happen to us – but if we didn’t record a great CD, all these positive things would disappear. “ I mean who goes into a studio and says `we are not going to record a great record – we are going to record a mediocre record! I mean, talk about pressure.”
Still, as the doc depicts, The Sheepdogs responded to the direction from producers Patrick Carney and Austin Skaggs and the resulting self-title album debuted at No1 in Canada and has even enjoyed exposure in Europe where the band concluded a successful Winter tour and are set to go back to Spain, Holland and Great Britain before appearing in a number of festivals in Canada and The U.S – yet surprisingly little touring activity in the States. “Surprisingly, Europe seems to like us. I think they appreciate our honest music coming as a change from the dance/pop music they are accustomed to. We met this very proper Englishman in Nottingham whose prize possession was one of Ronnie Van Zant’s hats. He just loved Southern Rock.”
“Atlantic is happy with our record,” noted Gullen. “But it’s not like the old days when they funded a tour bus and sent you on the road opening for AC/DC. The onus is on us to produce but they are helping us as much as they can.”
What The Sheepdogs have achieved is to star in their own movie documentary by performing honest, basic roots rock music which is rapidly winning over a national and international audience. The Sheepdogs have forged an identity based on their own honesty. They have won three Juno awards in 2012 and won two inaugural Music Express awards for best single “The Way It Is” and “Best Club Venue Live Group/Artist”. Now add movie stars to their ever expanding list of growing credits.