Sloan celebrate album once deemed failure
Jay Ferguson, left, and Chris Murphy, right, of rock band Sloan pose for a photo in their Toronto rehearsal space on August 16, 2012. (The Canadian Press/Michelle Siu)
The Canadian Press
Published Tuesday, September 4, 2012 4:51PM EDT
Last Updated Tuesday, September 4, 2012 4:52PM EDT
TORONTO -- Now that it's a fixture on lists of the greatest Canadian rock albums of all time, it's easy to forget that Sloan's "Twice Removed" was once reviled.
Or at least it was by the behemoth of alt-rock record labels, Geffen, when the Halifax quartet delivered the glimmering LP, a thoughtful collection of brightly lit guitar-pop.
"Twice Removed" was an admitted left-turn from the group's distortion-contorted debut "Smeared," and at a time when the modern-rock charts were dominated by sludge-slinging Nirvana imitators, their sophomore album was not what the label wanted to hear. It was clean, back when "clean" was a dirty word.
The album killed the golden goose. It broke up the band. But now they're celebrating it, in the form of a deluxe vinyl re-issue and a cross-country tour during which Sloan will play the record in its entirety.
Back when Geffen first rejected it, when they asked the band to re-record the entire thing, the band certainly never imagined they would one day warm to the album.
"Self-doubt is my default setting -- but I was the most torn up about it," said bassist and co-frontman Chris Murphy in a recent interview from their cluttered Toronto rehearsal space.
"I probably would have done anything, I was so excited to be on Geffen.... 'Oh, they're asking us to record the whole thing again? I guess that's what you do. I guess that's what we should do.'
"I'm glad that we didn't."
So are the album's legions of fans.
But they didn't really exist back in 1994. Sure, Sloan did have fans. A couple years prior, they had inked a deal with Geffen -- the home of Nirvana, Beck and Sonic Youth -- on the strength of their 1992 "Peppermint EP," and followed it with their messy but charming full-length "Smeared" later that year.
That debut was a moderate chart success in Canada, but was most notable for the seemingly rosy future it forecasted. In truth, "Smeared" was a dissonant pastiche of various indie-rock influences, one which both belied the band's inexperience and hinted at real songwriting skill submerged under the layers of fashionable fuzz.
That album, of course, is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. But the band didn't really savour the idea of playing "Smeared" front-to-back every night.
"There'd be a bunch of songs where we'd be like: 'Ugh. Skip that one,"' laughed Murphy.
But to rich record labels eager to mine the continent's underground for grunge gold, "Smeared" indicated a band with the potential to combine pop prowess (check the wit of single "Underwhelmed") with the noisy rage that was all the rage on the charts in the grimy wake of Nirvana's success.
So, it was a natural decision for Geffen to pay for Sloan's sophomore record up front. But for a band in the midst of an adolescent transformation, the cash seemed to just make the task ahead even more daunting.
"I think I was probably the most nervous about it," Murphy said. "I think a lot of times when we tell the story it's the David and Goliath story. 'Geffen was mean to us' or something like that. But for the most part, what I was feeling was ... they paid us up front, and it was like: 'Hope you like this one.'
"So I was kind of dying inside like, 'Oh, I hope they like it,' wanting to please."
The band demoed roughly 70 songs for "Twice Removed." Then as they do now, the band had four songwriters and all were contributing, swapping instruments as they went. Geffen thought this democratic breakdown of duties was a marketing challenge.
Well, the music was apparently moreso. Sloan dug deeper into their influences -- including the Velvet Underground, Slint, '80s hardcore and, of course, some classic British pop -- while penning the songs that would form "Twice Removed." There was certainly a degree of defiance as they rejected the direction most of the rock world was drifting.
"We were kind of running from grunge and this sort of house of cards that it seemed to be -- all that 'poor man's Nirvana' (stuff)," Murphy said.
Added guitarist Jay Ferguson: "It was a reaction to not wanting to jump the bandwagon. There were so many bands out there playing melodic pop songs with distorted guitars. It kind of got a little played out."
It's not as though they were making the album in secret -- the A&R rep who signed them, Todd Sullivan, was present for the sessions and was generally supportive of the direction the band was pursuing.
Looking back, it's difficult to understand how such an accessible album could ever have been considered somehow radical.
The record simply brims with giddy hooks. There's the unexpectedly gorgeous chorus carved like a skylight into Ferguson's "I Hate My Generation," the "ba-ba-bada-ba" chanting in drummer Andrew Scott's transcendent "People of the Sky," or the delicate boy-girl harmonies buoying Patrick Pentland's "I Can Feel It." (Also worth mentioning is Murphy's brilliant "Coax Me," which features what he says is their most celebrated lyric of all time: "It's not the band I hate, it's their fans." It was inspired by a pretentious Kate Bush fan Ferguson knew in high-school.)
"We were like, 'Let's make the Plastic Ono Band record, or Fleetwood Mac's 'Rumours' -- what's wrong with those records?"' Murphy recalled.
"It's ironic that we were referencing ... a record that sold 25 million copies, and then it's like: 'What is THIS? My ears!"' he said, mimicking the response of the label. "It wasn't like we were referencing Can or (Einsturzende) Neubauten or whatever."
But there weren't many bands making polished, intelligent guitar pop at the time. The band agrees that the closest comparison in 1994 was Pavement's masterful "Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain," which provided the beloved California quintet their most successful record (although it came out on indie imprint Matador).
Geffen, certainly, was less interested in swimming against the current. To hear Murphy and Ferguson tell it, the label was primarily frustrated because they had promoted Sloan one way and now the band had made a drastic change, thus undoing whatever gains they had made.
"They heard it and it was like: 'We can't work with this,"' Ferguson said. "It seemed like to them it wasn't of the time."
Geffen asked Sloan to record the album again. The band refused. So the label put the record out without promotional support, essentially hiding it in plain view.
Sloan wasn't the only band to endure a process like this. Washington power-pop outfit the Posies were also asked by Geffen to re-record the album that became "Frosting on the Beater," and they consented (the well-reviewed album still wasn't a hit). And Weezer, who were coincidentally also signed to Geffen by Sullivan, saw their now-classic "Blue Album" released with similarly non-existent fanfare by the label until radio stations and MTV sensed a hit and lifted the record up.
With the benefit of hindsight, Sloan feels they made the right choice refusing to remake "Twice Removed."
"I'm grateful that we didn't go and re-do the record because it might not have made any difference anyhow -- even if we had turned up the guitars, they might have still been like, 'Well, whatever,"' Ferguson said.
"Our manager, Chip Sutherland, was very ballsy too," added Murphy. "He was just like, 'They're contractually obligated to release it. Let's just do it. You can't guess what they want. Just do what you do and maybe you can show them and it'll be a success.'
"Cut to: it was not a success."
The fallout was swift. Sloan essentially broke up. And Scott relocated from Halifax to Toronto, a move that Murphy felt amounted to turning his back on the band.
Murphy says he couldn't persuade the label to give the band $2,000 for a video -- especially galling after he watched the revolutionary "Buddy Holly" clip Spike Jonze directed for Weezer -- and he could sense those on the business side were losing whatever little interest in Sloan they had left.
Murphy and Ferguson continued running their Murder Records imprint in Halifax, but with one member gone, Murphy considered the band dead.
"It was so depressing," he said.
Gradually, the situation improved. The foursome was still writing songs, and they eventually got the idea to record a post-humous Sloan album to help their label. Then came gigs, and then the decision to make a video.
By the time "One Chord to Another" came out in 1996, Sloan was back together (and for the record, Murphy ranks that album as his favourite, above "Twice Removed").
Other factors had changed during their hiatus. While "Twice Removed" had quickly sunk into clearance-bin irrelevance Stateside, the record had found an audience in Canada thanks to support from college radio and MuchMusic.
The newfound love for the album first resonated with Murphy when Chart magazine ran a reader poll to determine the best Canadian album of all time, and "Twice Removed" took the top spot. It remained in top spot nine years later when the magazine ran the same poll.
And when music writer Bob Mersereau polled 500 musicians, producers and journalists for his book, "The Top 100 Canadian Albums," "Twice Removed" took 14th place.
The band struggles to understand why the album, shunned in its time, is so beloved now.
"I think there's an underdog element in that," Ferguson said. "But I also think there's a lot of good melodic songs. I think it's nice that it does sort of stand out in that era as sounding different than other things."
Beyond that, "Twice Removed" charted the rest of Sloan's musical path: the Beatles-bred pop precision, the always-coherent blending of four unique songwriting voices, and songs that were drenched in wit, not feedback.
But maybe just as importantly, the lessons learned through failure pushed Sloan toward musical independence. Since the mid-90s, the members of Sloan have run their own label, never needing to submit to the scrutiny of industry overlords thousands of miles away.
In a way, missing their big break brought Sloan together.
"We're the same four people, we have a giant body of work, it's exactly the way I want it," Murphy said. "We make enough money to have houses and we all pay mortgages -- so it's perfect for me, because I don't want to make so much money that we don't want to work, and I don't want to be broke.
"I think that we're still a credible band," he added. "And someday, maybe that record and our career in general will be discovered and recognized -- I don't know for quality, but quantity anyway. There's a lot of stuff!"