SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Sure as witness the 20th anniversary of monumental albums by both Pearl Jam and Nirvana, as well as the beginnings of the feminist punk movement known as Riot Girl. REM and Metallica released the biggest albums of their careers in 1991. And it's also the 20th anniversary of the Canadian band Sloan. Who? Jacob Ganz has their story.
JACOB GANZ, BYLINE: Four guys. Ten albums. 20 years. The unlikely story of the band Sloan starts in Halifax, Nova Scotia, a college city in eastern Canada's Maritime provinces where four young musicians, Jay Ferguson, Chris Murphy, Patrick Pentland and Andrew Scott, met and started playing together. Here's guitarist Jay Ferguson.
JAY FERGUSON: We played our very first show at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design in Halifax, Nova Scotia, February 1991. We played in the cafeteria.
GANZ: It didn't take long for Sloan to bust out of the cafeteria. About a year after that first show, it attracted the attention of an A and R rep from the David Geffen Company, the label that just months earlier had put out Nirvana's game-changing "Nevermind." Todd Sullivan says he first heard the band while visiting a colleague in Toronto.
TODD SULLIVAN: He played me some things, he said, you know, there's really kind of this illuminating buzz on this band from Halifax called Sloan. And he played me one song, and I believe it was off a radio compilation and it was the song "Underwhelmed."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "UNDERWHELMED")
SLOAN: (singing) She was underwhelmed if that's a word. I know it's not 'cause I looked it up. It's one of those skills that I learned in my school.
SULLIVAN: And immediately, I just said, I gotta have more. Send me more. Can you get me more?
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "UNDERWHELMED" BY SLOAN)
SLOAN: (singing) I was overwhelmed and I'm sure of that one 'cause I learned it back in grade school when I was young. She said, you is funny. I said, you are funny. She said, thank you and I said, never mind.
GANZ: A couple of months later, Sullivan met the band and signed it to Geffen. Again, Jay Ferguson.
FERGUSON: It was very exciting and shocking that a band from Halifax, Nova Scotia, which bands never came there and bands never ever got out of that city, to get signed to such a large label.
Sloan already had its first album in the can, and the band was ready to go, with a unique calling card. The four musicians are all songwriters who each sing their own songs. Former Geffen rep Todd Sullivan:
SULLIVAN: There's Chris, who writes these amazing pop hooks, but he's a very wordy kind of writer.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DEEPER THAN BEAUTY")
CHRIS MURPHY: (singing) And your glasses, your hideous glasses, when you remove them I would rather skip my classes and be caught than to entertain the thought that someday you'll just put them on again.
SULLIVAN: You've got Andrew, who's very conceptual in his presentation of his songs.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A SIDE WINS")
ANDREW SCOTT: (singing) Where is my camera? This picture denies all my ties to this side of the road.
SULLIVAN: And Jay, he's like the super music fan and a lot of where he's coming from is about his relationship with music.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
FERGUSON: (singing) It's been so long. It's been so long. (unintelligible)
SULLIVAN: And then you've got Patrick, who grew up on punk and heavy metal, but writes these great universal pop hooks.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
PATRICK PENTLAND: (singing) I've gotta know what to you're thinking. I've gotta know where to keep it, 'cause it's causing a major reaction and (unintelligible) a major distraction....
GANZ: But that calling card was also, in its label's eyes, Sloan's biggest liability.
PENTLAND: Basically, if you've got four singers, you're screwed.
GANZ: Guitarist Patrick Pentland.
PENTLAND: What they want is Robert Plant or the dude from Matchbox 20 or whatever. They want a guy to promote and then they want people backing him up. But it doesn't work with four people singing. It's really hard for a label to promote that.
GANZ: Sloan didn't make it easier on Geffen by taking a hard turn away from guitar feedback toward cleanly recorded acoustic pop on its second record.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, YOU'VE GOT A THING FOR ME")
SLOAN: (singing) But you've got a thing for me. I can feel it. I can feel it. But I've got a thing for you, too. You can have it. You can have it.
GANZ: "Twice Removed" flopped when it was released in 1994, but would later become a serious fan favorite. Nevertheless, the process soured Sloan's relationship with its label and broke the band up for a time. Drummer Andrew Scott:
SCOTT: This is a creative, collaborative affair which is pretty thin ice at times. Four monsters that all have equal time.
GANZ: To that end, there are rules. Each album has all four members on the cover. In concert, nobody plays more than one consecutive song except Scott who comes out from behind the drum kit to play a mini set on guitar. All of the money is split equally no matter who writes what and everybody gets the same amount of real estate on each record. Bassist Chris Murphy:
MURPHY: That means that there could be songs on the records that any one of us or three of us don't like. But that's a testament to our democracy.
GANZ: And, as in any democracy, there are lots of different ways of getting things done. Sloan has released albums of straight-ahead power pop and '70s influenced hard rock. Their 10th studio release and their latest, "The Double Cross," came out this year, with 12 songs, three per singer. A decade and a half after they were dumped by their label, after they split up, Sloan now hums along under the radar with all four of its original members collecting a small number of devoted fans who know all of the songs by heart.
And not despite the band's rocky start, but because of it.
PENTLAND: I've often said if we'd made it huge for our first or second record, we'd be over by now.
GANZ: That's Patrick Pentland, but all four members say this. Not making it big saved Sloan. Here's Andrew Scott:
SCOTT: It's what we signed up to do 20 years ago and we've been fortunate enough to continue to make a living off it. It's not a grand living by any stretch of the imagination, but it's good.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
MURPHY: We've made a lot of money off Sloan if you spread it out all over time. If we made all the money we made in 20 years in one year, I guess we could've done it like that and then lived forever on our riches and not played together. But I'm glad we spread our millions over 20 years because it's been fun the whole time.
GANZ: Chris Murphy might be joking about the millions, but the fun, not many democracies can say that. For NPR News, I'm Jacob Ganz.
SIMON: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.
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