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Imagination Is Key: How The Sheepdogs Are Keeping Rock 'N' Roll Colourful

Wednesday, 31 October 2018 Written by Simon Ramsay

It’s virtually impossible to do anything completely new in the realm of rock'n'roll, especially when some of the greatest acts of all time have already pioneered, innovated and explored the genre to its very limits and beyond. Does that mean like-minded young bands should just lazily imitate their predecessors or even give up? Hell, no. They need to follow the example set by the Sheepdogs, write the best songs possible and spice them up with as many stylistic and instrumental flavours as their talents will allow.

To many people in the UK this Canadian quintet will be most famous for being the first and only unsigned band to appear on the front cover of Rolling Stone magazine after winning a competition in 2011. That may have landed them a short-lived deal with Atlantic records, and opened numerous doors, but anyone who thinks it was some sort of gimmick should know the Sheepdogs were a hard-working outfit who made great music before those 15 minutes of fame and, seven years later, that’s exactly what they remain.

Following 2015’s wonderfully vibrant and sprawling ‘Future Nostalgia’ the band, who are led by principal songwriter Ewan Currie, utilised every ounce of their sizeable skill set to push things even further on this year’s highly acclaimed ‘Changing Colours’. Their sixth album to date, it sees them incorporating soul, bluegrass, folk, country and psychedelic flourishes into a vintage rock'n'roll sound that, although recalling everyone from the Allman Brothers and Lynyrd Skynyrd to the Rolling Stones and the Beatles, still feels as fresh and exciting as it is classic, familiar and comforting.

The group from Saskatoon are currently back in the UK on their latest tour, minus drummer Sam Corbett who recently revealed he’s undergoing treatment for cancer, and we spoke to Currie about anything and everything to do with making a unique rock'n'roll racket in 2018.

I’d like to start by asking about Sam. How’s he doing?

Okay. He’s started treatment. I think it’s gonna be tough, it’s fairly early in the development of the cancer so he’s got a good chance. He’s a pretty healthy guy, so we’re optimistic.

Was it a hard decision to tour without him?

Yeah it was. Earlier in the summer we had to cancel dates in the UK and Europe because he needed surgery. These dates are the make-up dates. It’s a conversation we had and he was okay with it. Initially, he was trying to see if he would be able to do treatment and still come on the trip, but it’s a lot to deal with so he’s sitting out for a bit. We've got some pals standing in playing drums, but they’re just keeping the seat warm for him.

It’s been said there’s no new territory to explore in rock'n'roll, but 'Changing Colours' finds you spreading your wings further than ever. How have the Sheepdogs cultivated an idiosyncratic sound that isn’t too derivative or deferential?

It’s always about trying to be like your heroes and then, on the way to sounding like them, you inevitably fail and end up sounding like yourself. Growing up I used to listen to a lot of new bands that would sound exactly like the Beatles or the Stones and you could never shake the fact it was just a facsimile. I think we have a healthy dose of sounding like ourselves. If you listen to my voice it just sounds like me so it’s all about putting a lot of ourselves into the record.

Looking at your album credits, I don’t think I’ve seen a band who – between them – play as many instruments as you guys do. How did you develop such a broad skill set?

My brother Seamus and I grew up in a musical house and we played piano first, then I played clarinet and he played trombone. We came from that background before getting into guitar later on, so it was like we had that inner bag of tricks. We also listened to lots of diverse music: rock, soul and country but also music with a lot of horns like jazz and all kinds of stuff. Sometimes Seamus, Jimmy (Bowskill) and I will be sitting around in a hotel room at 3am getting drunk and we’ll be listening to Artie Shaw or something really old school. We’re just really curious about lots of music and the cool thing about rock'n'roll is it’s very pliable and you can bend it to meet up with all kinds of music.

Does having that bag of tricks at your disposal really help you add those new colours?

Yeah. Don’t get me wrong, we’re not experimenting all the time. My favourite song on the record is Nobody. I love that straight forward, easily accessible and basic rock'n'roll song. But I love variety and those big sprawling albums that have all kinds of sounds and are a real feast of flavours.

Jimmy joined the band a few years ago and made his recording debut on ‘Changing Colours'. What has he brought to your music that that you didn’t have before?

Beyond playing a really nice electric guitar he’s a fine bluegrass musician. He can play pedal steel, banjo, mandolin, fiddle and violin. We’ve had some of those instruments on our albums before but, for example, Waiting For My Time, which has a lot of overdubs and is a little weirder than something we might have made before, comes about because I can have Jim go into the booth with the violin and just layer and layer and layer all these parts and get really creative with it.

When you have somebody who’s very good at picking things up by ear and playing them, if you were a painter, it gives you more colours to paint with. That’s the comparison I would make and I think, going back to your previous question, people think of rock 'n’roll as being guitar, drums and bass. That’s certainly the foundation but we like to stretch it and incorporate other instruments and sounds. I always think about the Beatles as the greatest band and they were always trying to take that basic rock n’ roll formula and stretch it with their imagination. I guess imagination is the key.

You write all the band’s songs. How do they come to life once you bring them to the rest of the group?

It depends. A couple of the songs we had been jamming in soundchecks on the road, like Nobody and Saturday Night. The Big Nowhere, I’m Just Waiting For My Time and Let It Roll were done in the studio spontaneously. I might send demos of me with a guitar and singing a vocal to the guys and then we might have some rehearsals, try and get it together and go in and cut it.  I might just start working on something and then we’ll completely cut and paste it in the studio, building it up with overdubs and things like that. Different songs require different approaches. We’ve made a lot of records and I just feel the more we do it the less I know about the right way to do things. There isn’t this set method I subscribe to. It depends on the song, so I try to keep open minded.

Are there any tracks on ‘Changing Colours’ that completely changed from what you envisaged once the rest of the guys got their hands on them?

Let It Roll. We were trying to cut it as a quicker uptempo song and couldn’t get it to sit right. I had the idea to slow it down and put a Nashville guitar on, where you have a bunch of high tuned strings as opposed to conventional acoustic strings. It has this really jangly sound. Then we put the pedal steel on and it became a slow, mellow groover. Initially it sounded a bit cheesy but as soon as we slowed it down it just gained this gravitas it didn’t have. Sometimes you’ve got to record a song twice before you get it the right way.

The Big Nowhere is something of a departure and has a classic Santana vibe. What can you say about that track?

We were jamming in the studio and I wanted a drone type of sound that would thicken it out. I had our engineer record me overlapping long, held tones on my clarinet. It has this really weird, sort of reedy, overtones going through it and reminded me of the sounds of the street; car horns or the white noise of traffic. I was thinking about the theme from Taxi Driver, the opening credits, which was a very influential piece of music for me, but the streets, dirtiness and all that stuff. Lyrically it connected to a book called The Big Nowhere by a great author called James Elroy and I love the evocativeness of that title. It also connects to where we came from. We’re from a part of Canada that people think of as the middle of nowhere, so it evokes a lot of different things.

Are the closing medleys on ‘Changing Colours’ and ‘Future Nostalgia’ composed with a medley in mind or compiled from separate ideas?

A bit of both. Sometimes we figure ways to segue from one to the other, but it’s something I’ve always loved. I love the second half of ‘Abbey Road’, Bohemian Rhapsody or McCartney’s ‘Ram’ album where he has Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey and all these little bits and pieces that flow.  

Sometimes, thematically, you come up with segues so that things flow together. When we play live we try to have a lot of things that segue because it’s really boring to watch a song and then pause and then a song and then pause. I like it when bands craft a flow to their set. It’s showmanship. It shows that they’ve put some thought into it, not just playing the songs well, but how they’re presented. It’s become a thing where we like having a medley at the end of our albums so I hope we keep doing it.

Looking back with the benefit of hindsight, what were the positives and negatives from the wonderful exposure you got from being on the cover of Rolling Stone?

We didn’t make any money until that happened and, basically in December of 2011, I finally got my first credit card. I was 27 years old. It was a long time to be scraping a living. We could then quit our jobs and start focusing full time on music. That’s a huge thing, especially for a band that plays old school rock'n'roll that radio stations are hesitant to get into. It’s meant we’re a pretty robust touring act in Canada. We have a career here where we can make money. It hasn’t translated into success in America, the UK and Europe but it’s definitely given us a start and we’ve been touring and building it up the organic way.

In terms of negatives? Maybe some people have associated that competition with the American idol kind of vibe. Like ‘oh, you didn’t earn it. You got a free pass because of the show.’ Mostly it was a solid boost for a bunch of broke guys from a city nobody’s ever heard of.

A lot of modern rock bands are increasingly adopting a contemporary synthetic pop sound and working with outside writers and big name producers to try and garner commercial success. Would you ever consider that?

No. The closest we ever came to anything like that was when we made a record with Pat Carney from the Black Keys and there were a couple of songs (on there) that sounded very Black Keys-ish. It was a tough experience. Those songs did well. They got used in some beer ads which obviously gets you a little bit of money, but the whole point of playing music for me, and I think the other guys would agree, is because we love music. If I wanted to get famous I’d probably become a modern country singer. In North America country is massive and it’s super, super calculated. You put a cowboy hat on and sing about pick up trucks and dirt roads. It’s real uninteresting and unimaginative but makes huge money.  

I want to make music from a place of love. I want people to listen to our music and feel like I did when I listened to the Beatles or Stevie Wonder or Creedence because it’s a special, special feeling. I do't care about being famous. I would like to be respected for making good music. That’s much more important. I’m modest in my goals but I just want to make a kick ass rock'n'roll catalogue."

There must have been times during your career when people put pressure on you to modernise your sound and image?

Yeah, I think at the time we were working with Pat there was an expectation we might do more of that kind of thing and I found it frustrating. That’s why, after that record, I took back producing control because I wanted to guide us back to making the kind of music I was hearing in my head. Our label, they’re into letting us do what we want and I don’t think there’s a lot of expectations of hits. We get played on the radio pretty good in Canada, at least on rock radio, doing what we do even now. We’re at our best when we do the music that we like.

Around the time of Future Nostalgia, you said: ‘I’m pretty aware this this is the death rattle of rock and roll but there are so many people that love guitars and harmony so it’s a matter of finding those people.’ Do you still feel that way or have things changed at all?

I’m pretty optimistic. We did our Canadian tour in February / March, it had been a couple of years since we did a big tour, and we had the best sales ever.  When I looked out in the crowd I couldn’t help but be very pleased by how many young people there were. 19, 20 year olds coming to their first show knew all our new songs, not just the ‘hits’ as it were. It made me feel encouraged there were still tonnes of young kids coming up.

I think, although it’s the death rattle of it being the culture, there are always going to be people who like it because it’s very different than the music that’s popular today, which is very much about personality. It’s not like music, it’s a lot of beats and slick tuned vocals, drum samples and all that kind of stuff. What we’re doing is very much its own thing. I don’t think we’re competing with that, we’re more of a niche thing. In this mass manufactured world of music, we’re like the artisans, labourers who hand craft something that takes longer to make, is more expensive, but more satisfying.

'Changing Colours' is out now through Dine Alone Music

The Sheepdogs Upcoming Tour Dates are as follows

Wed October 31 2018 - BRISTOL Fleece
Thu November 01 2018 - CARDIFF Globe
Fri November 02 2018 - BIRMINGHAM Actress and Bishop
Mon November 05 2018 - LONDON Borderline

Click here to compare & buy The Sheepdogs Tickets at Stereoboard.com.





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