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The 11 Keys to Keeping the Band Together: Sloan Share Their Wisdom
On the occasion of their 12th album and 27th year together, Sloan shares their wisdom on how to make musical matrimony last “So many bands make one great record and then can’t hold it together, or they put out one piece of shit and follow it up with many other pieces of shit,” Andrew Scott, the drummer for prolific Canadian power-pop practitioners Sloan, said in the alt-rock chronicle Have Not Been the Same. “We have a pretty strong background, and we’ve held on to our ideals and philosophies. We know what we are capable of, so the most important thing is just keeping it together.”
Scott said that in 2000, when Sloan, which formed in Halifax in 1991 and subsequently relocated to Toronto, was already close to 10 years old. Almost two additional decades later, the group, which turned 27 in January, is still keeping it together, releasing its 12th album this month, the appropriately titled 12, and embarking on a 43-date North American tour. Scott is a drummer, but he’s also a guitarist, a singer, and a songwriter, three labels that can be applied just as accurately to the three other members of the band: Jay Ferguson, Chris Murphy, and Patrick Pentland. Together, the four friends and colleagues, who range in age from 48 to 50, have been touring and recording continuously as Sloan for more than half of their lives, making them masters of not breaking up the band.
I could tell you that Sloan, which Have Not Been the Same called “a cult band of the highest order,” made more than a few of the best retro-rock records of the 1990s, including classics One Chord to Another and Twice Removed that they’ve never released a bad album and that they’re great in concert, where the quartet trade off instruments and take turns as front men. I think those things are true, but they’re also subjective, and I’m not an unbiased source I got engaged at a Sloan show. What isn’t debatable is that the group has been together without a lineup change for as long as just about any active, well-known band not named U2 or Radiohead, and its members have learned a lot about longevity along the way.
If there’s one musical phenomenon that fascinates me more than a band that lingers for decades with fewer and fewer original members and an increasingly convoluted timeline of additions and departures, it’s the even rarer band that resists entropy entirely, soldiering on with the same faces year after year. Last week, I spoke to primary rhythm guitarist Ferguson and habitual bassist Murphy about how Sloan has stayed together for so long as a productive and (mostly) harmonious unit, then distilled their reflections and advice into the following tenets of rock relationship counseling. This list goes to 11.
1. Distribute Credit and Revenue Evenly
The cornerstone of Sloan’s survival is that all four members profit and/or suffer from its efforts. Every song the band releases is credited to “Sloan,” and every dollar it earns is divvied up equally. It’s not a model that the band pioneered—Murphy and Ferguson both point to similarly constructed predecessors like U2 and R.E.M., as well as a Halifax band called Black Pool that Murphy had been in before, as financial influences (and the practice predates them too)—but it’s one that’s served Sloan well.
All four members of Sloan write songs and singles, but the credit and revenue split precludes the income imbalance that might otherwise arise from one writer’s song getting extra airplay. “If someone has a song at radio that does better and brings in more income than other people’s songs, we all share in that,” Ferguson says. That Three Musketeers ethos puts Sloan in stark contrast to shorter-lived bands that break up in part because one member disproportionately reaps the rewards of their efforts. “The example I always think of is someone like the Police, where someone owns ‘Every Breath You Take,’ which is the top radio song of all time or whatever, and then the other two are like, ‘When are we going on tour?’” Murphy says. “And Sting is like, ‘Probably never, because you guys are dicks and I’m rich.’”
Sloan’s democratic impulse extends to everything the group touches. In 1992, Sloan founded an independent label, Murderecords, to release its own music and that of other bands in the budding Halifax scene, which was then considered Canada’s equivalent of Seattle, the hotbed of grunge. Although Murderecords has never made much money from publishing other bands’ music—Murphy calls it a “community service project”—the four members owned equal shares from the start. When Sloan briefly considered separating after squabbles with major label Geffen marred the release of its second album, Twice Removed, the group collectively agreed to reduce the Murderecords stakes of Scott and Pentland, who were less involved in the label’s day-to-day business. But when Sloan soon returned to the studio, Murphy says, “we put it back to a quarter each so that no one would feel that they were making any more money than the others.”
2. Let Everyone Contribute Creatively
Sloan’s previous album, 2014’s double-LP Commonwealth, reserved a side for each member, and all four bandmates contributed three tracks each to 12. All but one entry in Sloan’s extensive discography features compositions by everyone in the group. It’s not a formula that would work as well for bands in which the songwriting skills aren’t as widely distributed—The Who weren’t at their best when they were at their most democratic—but for Sloan’s uncommon collection of singing and songwriting talent, the division of labor keeps every member engaged and helps the group ward off extended creative dry spells.
“The band is an artistic outlet for everybody,” says Ferguson, who notes that everybody in the group had written songs before forming Sloan. “It’s not like, ‘There’s the bass player who’s frustrated because he’s not allowed to contribute songs, because there’s two main songwriters.’ Everybody gets to contribute what they want, and … in general, everybody’s kind of the captain of their own ship for the songs they want to put on the record.”
When the Beatles—to whom Sloan’s sound is often reflexively, if onerously, compared—started making music less collaboratively, the change prefigured a breakdown in their bonds. But Sloan has worked that way almost since the start, appearing on and performing each other’s songs but rarely composing them together. “We do a little bit of collaborating, but it’s mostly four singer-songwriters who turn up the volume,” Murphy says.
Although each member has a distinct songwriting style and sings his own songs in concert, forming what Ferguson calls a “four-headed monster,” the group approach still requires each creator to put the band before his own ego. Murphy, the band’s most gregarious member—who schooled Michael Cera for his stint as Sex Bob-omb’s bassist—stands at center stage when the band plays live, and he’s sometimes mistaken for Sloan’s lead singer. But although he helped bring the other three members together and wrote most of the songs on the band’s debut album, Smeared, which he says initially made him Sloan’s “central character,” he didn’t try to steal the spotlight. “I encouraged everyone to write,” he says, adding, “We’ve taken great pains to put everyone’s face up front.” Every Sloan album cover that foregrounds any one of the members—Murphy, the duck-walking, word-playing goofball with big glasses Scott, the profusely sweating, punk-meets-psychedelia silver fox Ferguson, the sweet-voiced, ultra-melodic music nerd with a ’60s-style fisherman’s cap and Pentland, who pounds power chords and solos on his low-slung guitar and wears his hair like one of the Maiar—also features the other three. “Everybody’s a character, and it’s not like there’s one guy at the front and then three blurry guys standing in the background,” Ferguson says.
3. Own Your Own Music
By virtue of releasing much of its music via Murderecords (and purchasing the publishing rights to its first two albums after the fact), Sloan owns its own catalog. As a result, Sloan accrues all of the revenue if one of its songs gets licensed for a commercial, movie, or TV show, and the band doesn’t have to worry about who holds the rights if it wants to reissue a beloved old album, as it has for Twice Removed and One Chord and will soon do for its fourth album, Navy Blues.
In the decades since Sloan formed, computers and the internet have made it much easier to make and promote music without a fancy studio or an experienced producer. Murphy and Ferguson endorse the DIY process that the band has followed, for the most part, from One Chord on. “We make the records,” Ferguson says. “There’s nobody really A&Ring the record or listening in.” That process has not only benefited the band financially, but also brought the bandmates together. “I think we did become a bit more united once we were working for ourselves, putting the record out through Murderecords, and not having a marketing department in Los Angeles decide, ‘You know what, this doesn’t really fit the mood of the day, so we’re not gonna spend money on it,’” Ferguson says. Releasing music by lesser-known bands has also helped Sloan stay respected and relevant as its members have aged. “Having Murderecords gave us a lot of goodwill,” Murphy says.
Murphy mentions that making music is a much more pleasant, low-pressure experience when the band isn’t beholden to a label that paid up front for the production, as Geffen did for Twice Removed. “It just drove me crazy,” he says. “I much preferred the scenario of the first record, where they were like, ‘We like what you’ve done, here’s some money, we’re interested in promoting it,’ instead of, ‘Here’s $120,000, you better make something that we can use.’”
Retaining the rights to their hits and avoiding predatory publishers has played as important a role in Sloan’s staying power as its members’ shared musical sensibilities or personal rapport. “ a lot of horror stories about bands, and how they were ripped off and how they broke up,” Murphy says. But because Sloan avoided signing away the rights to its songs and getting locked into exploitative contracts, he adds, “we were set up for longevity.”
4. Don’t Do (Hard) Drugs
A long line of hard-partying, dangerously overdosing, and prematurely expiring rock stars has helped fuel a perception that artistic talent tends to go hand in hand with self-destructive tendencies. “I don’t subscribe to that,” Murphy says. One reason that Sloan has lasted a lot longer than the average rock band may be that off stage, the bandmates don’t behave like stereotypical rock stars. Neither Murphy nor Ferguson drinks, and although the band has overcome some personal struggles—Pentland, in particular, has been open about his issues with anxiety—it hasn’t had to deal with anyone being intoxicated to a troublesome degree. “It’s pretty even-keeled,” Ferguson says. “Nobody’s out of control or anything like that.” Murphy adds, “That’s another thing that you could attribute some of the longevity to, is just being clear of mind.”
Three of the four band members have long-term romantic partners and multiple children at home—as Scott sings on “Down in the Basement” from 2008’s Parallel Play, “And now I’m raising up a ballet boy and a hockey girl/And I’ve a wife that I really love”—which limits the group’s carousing on the road. Even in Sloan’s younger days, though, the band members rarely got up to any Zeppelin-esque antics. The closest they came to trashing a hotel room was when Murphy once jumped on Ferguson’s bed and Ferguson jokingly pushed him into the wall, leaving a hole in the plaster. “It was very non-rock ’n’ roll. I was basically tickling him,” Murphy says. “We’re pretty square,” Ferguson confirms.
5. Don’t Get Too Big
A band without a sizable following likely won’t have the will or the wherewithal to keep plugging away for decades. On the other side of the success spectrum, a band that breaks through on a massive scale runs the risk of succumbing to self-importance, pressure, or temptation, or becoming complacent and growing rich off of royalties. Sloan falls into a self-sustaining sweet spot where the audience is big enough to support its continued activity, but not so big that the band can afford for that activity to taper off.
“If you posed the question to everybody in the band, ‘If you had millions of dollars, would you still do it?’ I think you would get varying answers,” Murphy says. Fortunately for fans who want Sloan to keep touring and adding to its 200-plus-song catalog, that question remains hypothetical. “We’re not so massively successful that we can stop,” says Ferguson, who describes Sloan as a small business. “So we have to continue in order to generate income, just the same way anybody with a regular job does.”
As the band has aged and assumed greater responsibilities at home, touring and recording has caused more and more scheduling conflicts. “It’s just hard to make a plan with dads,” Murphy says. But Sloan still has to take its show on the road. “It’s a big piece of the pie of our business model that you have to get out and tour, because that’s where we generate most of the money that we would live on for the next couple of years,” Ferguson says. Even bigger bands make most of their money on the road, but the sweet spot helps here too: Sloan’s tours rarely send them overseas, and while they’re on the road for 70-80 days when they make the North American rounds, in years without full-fledged tours they’re home to help parent (and, sometimes to their regret, get up early) almost all the time.
6. Be Realistic
Most bands do dream about getting big, and Sloan is no exception. Although the group’s five-album run from 1993’s Smeared to 1999’s Between the Bridges made them eminent musicians in Canada, they haven’t become household names in the States. “By ’99 for sure, I was pissed, and I was like, why isn’t this getting any bigger?” Murphy says. “Like, what’s wrong with people that they don’t think that we’re the greatest band?” That bitterness might have broken up other groups that weren’t satisfied with their lot in musical life, but for Sloan, the feeling didn’t last long. As their musical contemporaries disbanded or lost steam, Murphy says, “I gradually updated my attitude from ‘Why aren’t we bigger?’ to ‘I’m glad that we’re here.’ … There really aren’t a lot of bands that are from our era that are intact and that are making music.”
Neither Murphy nor Ferguson downplays the appeal of popularity—“It’s not like we’ve decided not to make it in America,” Ferguson says—but both understand that they’ve had it better than the vast majority of bands. They’re still pursuing their passion, and they enjoy a flexible, forgiving lifestyle. One could call it settling, in a non-artistic sense, but they see it as gaining greater perspective. “I think it’s just about understanding your world and understanding the music business a little bit, and then managing expectations, and then you’re not disappointed,” Ferguson says.
7. Be in Other Bands First
Just as it can be beneficial to date before settling down with one romantic partner, a musician can learn a lot from being exposed to other band dynamics before finding his or her forever foursome. During Sloan’s brief trial separation in 1995, Murphy played drums for The Super Friendz, who were led by his friend Matt Murphy. Despite that pre-existing connection, Chris clashed with his new bandmates as much as he had with his old ones. “That was a little bit of an eye-opener, perhaps, for Chris, that the grass is not always greener,” Ferguson says (and Murphy confirms).
Another benefit of belonging to a starter band before attaining national notoriety is that it allows time to elapse, making musicians slightly older and wiser when decisions start to matter more. “You don’t necessarily think to get legal counsel or whatever when you’re a teenager,” Murphy says. “You’re just psyched.” A young and naïve Murphy and Ferguson played together in a band called Kearney Lake Road when they were still teenagers, and Murphy played in multiple other groups. By the time Sloan started, he was experienced enough to know how to handle fame and finances. “We were still young in the scheme of things, but not completely dumb-dumbs,” Murphy says.
“We’re pretty square.” —Jay Ferguson
Age also brings emotional maturity, which translates to fewer blowups and, by extension, fewer breakups. “When you’re 15 you’re gonna be giving someone a noogie even though they’re having a hard day, and it’s like, you shouldn’t give that guy a noogie right now,” Ferguson says. That sense of when to pile on and when to give a guy some alone time in the tour bus, he continues, “just comes with time and touring, and I don’t know if we had those skills in the really early days.”
8. Don’t Tour in a Band Bubble
Extended tours are isolating events. Although a band on the road might play to crowds of hundreds or thousands of different people per show, its members spend most of their time associating with each other. Put four people in close quarters for months at a time, and no matter how much they might like each other, the tedium of the road will cause friction that can fester.
Sloan releases that interpersonal pressure before it builds up by surrounding itself with a supporting cast of associates that can be a buffer between bandmates, including manager Mike Nelson, who’s worked with the band in some capacity since 1994 keyboardist and backup vocalist Gregory Macdonald, who’s performed with the band since 2006 and a longtime lighting guy, sound guy, and guitar tech. “We’re lucky,” Ferguson says. “We also have a crew who are our friends, so it’s nice that there’s a good mix of people on tour. … It makes it easier for sure.”
9. Avoid Rash Decisions
Although the disagreements with Geffen about Twice Removed and an ensuing frustrating tour laid the groundwork for Sloan’s rocky relationships in the mid-90s, the band’s short hiatus also stemmed from Scott’s decision to follow his girlfriend to Toronto, which forced Sloan into a long-distance relationship that strained the band’s performances and friendships. Ferguson remembers a meeting about the band’s future that seemed momentous at the time. “All of a sudden Andrew was like, ‘I’m staying here in Toronto,’ and I think Chris was like, ‘Well, geez, we should just call it quits,’” he says. “And then all of a sudden we were done, and Patrick and I, I remember looking at each other like, ‘What the hell just happened?’ To me it seemed like a rash decision.”
In the long run, the split was just a blip in the band’s history: After a few months of mulling a future apart, Sloan got back together and made their best-selling album. The rest of the group later moved to Toronto, and Scott married the woman he’d put before the band. But in the moment, it seemed to the other members that Scott was squandering their chance at success. “I was pissed at him, and in getting back together, I had to let that go,” Murphy says.
Long-lived bands learn to let a lot of things go. “When you’ve been together as long as we have, there are old feelings and grudges and relationships that are not great,” says Murphy, who acknowledges that the band doesn’t do as much “palling around” anymore—partly, perhaps, because most friends tend to see a little less of each other as spouses and kids compete for priority, but also because bands have baggage. On two occasions in the 2000s, Sloan went to group therapy to work through old issues. Being in a band is a lot like being in any long-term relationship it takes time, attention, and maintenance, and a hasty decision in the wake of one squabble can have ramifications for years.
10. Beware of Side Projects
For a band that’s well into its third decade, side projects are a double-edged sword. On the plus side, they can ease the feeling of being constrained by one group’s sound and allow a musician to branch out without leaving an old band behind. But they can also serve as a distraction or, in rare cases, become so successful that a rocker’s original act starts to seem extraneous. For years, Murphy and Ferguson, who had watched other groups splinter as their members reserved some of their strongest material for their own pursuits, were united in their opposition to side projects. Ferguson summarizes their stance as, “Don’t do a solo project, put all your creative energies into your main thing.”
“I always felt bad even talking about my mistress band in front of my wife band.” —Chris Murphy
In 2015, though, Sloan had a lean year financially, releasing no new music and playing only a dozen tour dates. To supplement his income, Murphy formed a supergroup called TUNS with Matt Murphy and Mike O’Neill of The Inbreds. In 2016, they released an eponymous album. The same year, Murphy also began playing occasionally in another supergroup called the Trans-Canada Highwaymen. “I was sheepish about even forming TUNS,” Murphy says, adding, “I refer to it as my mistress band, and is my wife band. And I always felt bad even talking about my mistress band in front of my wife band.”
Murphy justifies his dabbling in other bands by explaining that they don’t compete with his “Sloan brain.” The Highwaymen don’t do originals, and Tuns writes songs by jamming, which he says “doesn’t impact my cache of ideas.” Thus far, they’ve enabled him to bring in more money without reducing his Sloan output. “I think there’s room for ,” Ferguson says. “I would just be sad if Sloan collapsed due to that.”
11. Balance the New and Nostalgic and Fear Fading Away
The deeper a band’s catalog, and the more its old songs help its audience tap into an earlier time, the more tempting it is to mine the old material rather than generate new songs. Although Sloan has done some of the former, they’ve alternated between reissues and new, structurally inventive albums, mindful of avoiding dinosaur status by adding to their legacy instead of becoming an oldies act. “I think if we were just doing reissues, then it’s like … ‘Oh, look at them, they’re coming out again. Good for them!’” Murphy says. The band is playing most of 12 at its current concerts, even though that means knocking some fan favorites from the setlists.
Ferguson sometimes wonders how long Sloan could keep coasting on its past output, but he’s afraid to find out. “Maybe it would still be the same, who knows, but I would rather not risk that,” he says. “I would rather just keep all the plates spinning. If this is what we do to make things work, let’s just keep all those things on the burners.”
Ferguson doesn’t think of Sloan as an outlier. “But then when I think ‘27 years,’ like, wow, we have been around for a long time,” he says. He does some quick mental math and calculates that at roughly the same point in their career, The Rolling Stones were releasing 1989’s Steel Wheels. “I’m gonna argue that 12 is better than Steel Wheels,” Ferguson says. But, he adds, “I would encourage The Rolling Stones to keep making records … Sometimes there are fun bands with a really short, perfect career, like The Smiths or The Velvet Underground, but I like seeing a long career.”
And so the Sloan bus rolls on, stopping in Winnipeg one night and Regina the next, and hoping that one day, the world will wake up, do a double-take at Sloan’s discography, and think, “I can’t believe one band did all this stuff,” as Murphy says.
“If you asked me the question, ‘Would you still do it if you had a million dollars?’ I would say yes,” the veteran rocker adds. “I just want to keep Sloan together.”