Members of Canadian rock band The Sheepdogs are not content to rest on their laurels, forging ahead with vigour and passion as 2013 begins.
But they certainly have every right to look back on the success of the past couple of years with pride.
Already a beloved concert attraction on the so-called ‘indie circuit,’ The Sheepdogs were catapulted to continental stardom after winning a readership contest put on by venerable American music publication, Rolling Stone, and were featured on the cover of the Aug. 18, 2011 edition of the magazine. That led to appearances on top talk shows and billing on some of the most important and popular music festivals, including Bonnaroo, and having one of their songs featured on the CSI television show.
Their 2010 independent album, Learn and Burn, garnered both popular and critical acclaim, with the single I Don’t Know, getting massive airplay on multiple radio formats on both sides of the US/Canada border.
It led to the band earning three Juno Awards in the spring of 2012, including Rock Album of the Year, Best New Group and Single of the Year, and a deal with Atlantic Records.
The band’s self-titled, full-length debut album for Atlantic was released in September, and was produced by one of the band’s biggest boosters, Patrick Carney, drummer for The Black Keys.
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Not bad for a quartet of lads from Saskatoon who’ve only been around for a little over seven years.
“The Rolling Stone thing was interesting. We were a band for a number of years and then suddenly we have this weird kind of thing happening. We’re in this competition and we win it,” said Ryan Gullen, the band’s bassist.
“For us it was an opportunity to put ourselves out there for people to hear our music and find out about our band, and we wanted to make the most of that opportunity. But it was a weird way of going about it. I think there was a misconception that we became stars because of that. People think we were ‘made’ on the fact that we won that competition. It was a small part.
“It’s not like we went from being a band in Saskatoon to suddenly playing arenas. There is still a lot of work involved. And for us, we revel in that challenge. And we want to win people over, not just from finding out about us from this contest, but we want to win them over by the records that we make and the live music that we play.”
[quote]All my stuff is literally at my parents’ house. I pop in and check my mail, sleep in a bed and then leave a couple of days later.[/quote]In other words, the Rolling Stone contest was the door that was opened a crack for Gullen and the rest of The Sheepdogs. They, including singer Ewan Currie, drummer Sam Corbett and guitarist Loot Hanson, had to kick that door in, and step through into a workload that would tax even the most seasoned of touring artists.
The band has essentially been on the road almost non-stop for the past two years, taking only a few breaks, including a short stint to record the new album.
When asked whether the band member continue to live in Saskatoon, Cullen hesitated for a second, because he said that The Sheepdogs essentially live on the road.
“Technically yes, we still live there. But we’re just always touring. Last year (2011) we toured 11 months of the year and this year (2012) it’s going to be pretty much 11 months. We recorded in January, took about three weeks in February off, and we’ve been on the road since then,” said Gullen. As 2013 dawns, the band has no dates listed on its website, but Gullen said they plan on being busy.
“There’s no reason for us to have a permanent place right now, because we are never in one place. We are never in Saskatoon long enough to justify having a place. All my stuff is literally at my parents’ house. I pop in and check my mail, sleep in a bed and then leave a couple of days later. So that’s kind of the vibe that we’ve been living in right now. “
When interviewed back in the fall, Gullen outlined how the band has truly been living the life of road dogs.
“In the last little while, we’ve done a trip to Australia, two trips to Europe, two trips to the U.S. and been all over Canada. It’s really important for us to not just focus on Canada, and doing as much as we can outside there. For us, like anybody, we want to do as much playing as we can. But obviously Canada is our home and things have been very good for us here. It’s a very tricky balance to try and branch out into new markets, but also to focus on places where we’re strong, like Canada,” he explained.
“Right now, we’re very much a touring band. And we want to be out there building things. Touring is one of the best ways, nowadays, to get your name out there. You see a lot more bands touring a lot more than they used to back in the day, because it’s now got to be your bread and butter. We feel that playing live is one of the main strengths of our band and we want to win people over and secure fans and spread the word better this way than just being represented by the album and hoping it sells itself.”
As for the album, to say it was rushed is an understatement. But the sense of energy and urgency is palpable on every track.
“We recorded it in two weeks in January. It was the only time Pat had available to do it. And that can be kind of a scary thing to do, because some people will spend months and months doing a record. But coming off playing live for so long, we were very tight and very together as a unit. So it came together very quickly and we are very happy with it,” said Gullen, who said that Carney did a good job of keeping the band, focussed, without changing the essence of The Sheepdogs’ sound.
[quote]When you are making music that you like and that is infused with you, and then in the end other people appreciate it, I see that as an honest way of making music[/quote]“Patrick is really big on finding the best parts of a song. You come in with the rough idea for a song, like the structure and different parts. His big thing is highlighting the best part of that song and making that the focus. Whereas [the previous album] Learn and Burn was a little more experimental, this album is a little more ‘dialed in.’ Patrick was like, ‘let’s cut out this weird little jammy part and let’s just focus on the riffs, or the chorus.’ And that style is very evident in the music he makes himself. We wanted to make an album that flowed together and had interesting parts and he would take the basis of a song and tell us just to focus on the core element. Then after that we would colour it with different instruments and harmonies.
“Each song has its own colour, and that’s kind of reflected in the album art. Which is how the process felt. We are taking the bare bones of rock and roll and colouring it in a Sheepdogs’ way. And Patrick was very important in helping us to set up the bare bones part and focussing on making songs as juicy as they could be. For us, it was a new way of looking at making music, and it was interesting and challenging at the same time.”
For fans of a certain vintage, it would have brought a smile to their faces to see the actual label on the CD or LP: the familiar green and orange of Atlantic Records’ heyday, when it was the label of Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles and Led Zeppelin.
“We actually spend a little bit of time hanging out with their archivist and he showed us some pretty cool pictures, some old ones that no one has ever seen before, like of Aretha recording. The history of the label is such a cool part of that. When we went to the artists doing the label for our album we said, ‘pull up that old logo, we want it.’ And they thought it was really cool that we were using it,” Gullen said.
“For us, the history of the label is a cool thing, and it’s great to be part of that. Being who we are, and the type of music that we like and the type of music that we make, it is a very cool part of what we’re doing. The nostalgia that is associated with that label is amazing.”
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The music itself has a ‘retro’ vibe to it, and comparisons have been made to practically every 1970s rock act that has ever recorded a song.
Gullen said The Sheepdogs have multiple musical influences, but aren’t trying to emulate or imitate any artist when they write their songs.
“We’re not trying to focus on one thing but more so a general collection of elements that exists in the type of music that we like. So when we’re writing music, or colouring our songs, it’s all about keeping it in that vein of music, whether a song was influenced by Joe Walsh in the James Gang or Steve Miller. We have said this forever: we have always wanted to make music that we want to listen to, and hope that other people want to listen to too. That’s the honesty in music. When you are making music that you like and that is infused with you, and then in the end other people appreciate it, I see that as an honest way of making music,” he said.
“But a lot of people have called us out. They said we sound like this or we sound so much like that. And it’s very easy to make those comparisons, and we’re aware of that. But the biggest thing for us is we’re taking elements of the music that we like and creating new music. That’s exactly what we’re doing.”
And its new music that seems to have an appeal across the rock and pop music spectrum as interest in the band’s music and live shows seems to not be abating as 2013 picks up steam.
For more information on the band, and any upcoming dates, visit thesheepdogs.com.
Photography by: Michael Carney