Monday, February 23, 2015

The Musiquarium (Sloan: part one)

I am entirely delighted to present a new episode of "The Musiquarium", written by Chris Hornbostel. This time, he discusses one of the greatest bands you've never heard: Sloan.
It is October of 1994. Somewhere in the middle of Iowa at midnight, an old Winnebago is broken down on the side of a lonely state highway, engine still wafting oily smoke tendrils. It belongs to a Canadian band called Sloan. They’re a four-piece band, crammed in this camper van along with a sound guy and a buddy who works their merchandise table for a tour of the States that couldn't be going much worse. A few hours earlier, the sound guy accidentally filled both empty gas tanks in the van with diesel fuel instead of regular gas, effectively destroying the engine and leaving them stranded in the middle of nowhere.

Half the band have gone for help, the other half huddle inside, chugging a bottle of Jack Daniels. Things are bleak, and this breakdown is the culmination of a very bad year. What began as a real shot at the brass ring (they were signed to a lucrative contract with Geffen after playing only 11 live gigs) has turned into a death spiral for the group. They've just put out their second record, but their label hated it and has refused to promote it. The most popular newspaper in Canada issues a snidely terse dismissal of that record in a virulent, zero-star appraisal. They assume that being dumped from their contract at this point is an inevitable formality. And so here they are in the States, playing shows in front of perhaps a dozen indifferent audience members at a time, no CDs in stores, no airplay on radio. The van keeps breaking down. The band is riven by internal dissension, feuding, and feelings of betrayal. There’s a feeling in the back of everyone’s mind that this ill-fated “tour” needs to end so everyone can get home and the band can officially break up and they can all get on with their lives. Six weeks later, sitting in a conference call, that breakup happens with the band not so amicably calling it quits.

End of story.

Except it is isn't, not even remotely.

This is the story of that terrible record that Sloan put out in 1994, the one that got made despite bitter feelings in the band, and made working with a temperamental producer who seemed at best indifferent to what the group was interested in doing. It’s the story of a record that the group’s label, Geffen, wanted to refuse to issue. They eventually did put it out under duress, mostly because the band’s manager called in a contractual clause. Even so, the label swore they’d not spend a penny promoting it. The name of that terrible record was Twice Removed.

Before we jump into that story, though, let’s flash forward 2 years. It’s 1996. Chart Magazine--the Canadian equivalent of Billboard--has just run a poll to name the 10 best Canadian rock and roll albums of all time. As you can imagine, Neil Young figures prominently--Harvest is number two in the poll, with After The Goldrush also in the top five. Joni Mitchell’s landmark album Blue is number three. The Band is in the top ten of course.

And there, at number one in the 1996 poll, sits Twice Removed, by Sloan. The little album that couldn't, written during interpersonal band turmoil and recorded under miserable circumstances--yeah, that record. A few years later, Chart ran the same poll, and Mr. Young reclaimed the top spot….but there’s Twice Removed at number two, just the same. A couple of years after that, Sloan found their way back in at number one. This, then, isn't just the story of a band at the far end of its own rope making a troublesome sophomore effort. It’s also the story of one of the best rock and roll albums of the 1990s, one which unless you’re Canadian is likely a complete non-entity to you.

The story here starts with Sloan in the late 1980s. A group of school friends--in what was then a musical backwater in Halifax, Nova Scotia-- eventually came together from different musical backgrounds and scenes. Bassist Chris Murphy and guitarist Jay Ferguson were punk and indie rock kids. Guitarist Patrick Pentland was more of a metal guy. Drummer Andrew Scott--a working artist trying to sell his paintings--was into Dylan, as well as more esoteric stuff. They put out a first record called Smeared in 1991.

Listening to Smeared today one comes away with thinking that the album is kind of a mess. It’s their most disjointed record for one thing. The band’s main influences sound like the British noise-rock movement shoegaze, combined with the experimental art-rock of an American group like Sonic Youth. Everything is so loud, though, that you could be forgiven for thinking that this is a grunge record, given the era. The folks at Geffen thought as much, and when they signed Sloan and reissued Smeared in 1993, they figured they’d signed a Canadian version of another Geffen band, Nirvana.

There’s one song on Smeared that deserves note. It is a song called “Underwhelmed” . In it, Chris Murphy spins a clever tale of a faltering university romance with a French-Canadian girl art student who “rolls her r’s, her beautiful r’s.” The song is jammed with hooks and shows off Pentland’s ability to effortlessly harmonize with Murphy’s lead vocals. These were all harbingers of Sloan being a whole lot more than just another faceless early ‘90s grunge group. Of all the songs on Smeared, it is “Underwhelmed” that sounds the most like what the group would evolve into. Newly signed to Geffen, the label promptly sent the band out to tour for what seemed like an endless 10 week span of playing every night. It exhausted the group, who realized together that they were sort of tired of playing the noisy songs off Smeared.

As a band, they decided that they wanted to make a record that maybe didn't sound like so many of their grunge and alt-rock contemporaries. Something with a little more of a timeless sound to it. Something more modulated. It was while they were writing these songs that troubles began. Andrew Scott was recently married, and his wife found herself with a chance to make a career as an actress but needed to move to Toronto for that. For a painter like Scott, that offered far more opportunities than living in the Maritimes, so he was all in.

The rest of the band--particularly Scott’s closest friend in the group, Chris Murphy--felt betrayed. They were JUST getting started. They’d just signed a record contract with a big label...and now one of the guys in the band was moving away? It’s unclear just how deep the animosity ran, but it’s obvious now, looking back, that Scott’s move by itself nearly broke up the band right then, and at the very least caused an undercurrent of mistrust throughout the recording of their second record, Twice Removed.

That record was going to be their first recorded entirely for Geffen, and the record label wanted the band to do it up right. They put forward a huge advance for the record. They enlisted a hot producer, Jim Rondinelli, who’d engineered Matthew Sweet’s breakthrough album Girlfriend. They booked a two month session for the band at Lenny Kravitz’s prestigious Waterfront Studio in New York.

There were recording problems, though. Rondinelli was going through a difficult breakup with a girl and at times seemed distracted to the point of indifference to the recording session (to his credit, Rondinelli pulled together the sessions and did an outstanding mix of the album and it sounds terrific). For their part, the band was bewildered with what to do with two months in a studio with equipment used by Zeppelin and the Stones and REM and Kravitz. They’d recorded Smeared for $1200 in someone’s house in a few days. Murphy--who’d end up writing the majority of the songs for Twice Removed--felt the pressure most acutely. He knew how much money had been staked on the album, and he actually felt guilty about it. What if the record wasn't worth that amount of cash?

When the band finished up their sessions--which could sometimes be tumultuous, given the rift between Scott and the rest of the group--they handed off the mix to their manager, who dutifully presented it to Geffen. That’s when the very real problems began. Geffen eagerly took it in, hopeful to hear their Canadian version of Nirvana. What they heard was something else entirely, because Twice Removed sounds like many things, and none of those things are grunge. The label was nonplussed more than angry at first. What happened to the noisy, loud, fishing province kids who’d recorded Smeared? This sounded like a completely different band.

The band’s manager passed on the bad news to the group. The label wanted to spike the record they’d turned in. The band wasn't angry. Being nice Canadian boys that they were, they felt responsible. They’d been given stacks of cash to make a record and they felt like they’d let the label down. While the band discussed amongst themselves how to make things right (maybe re-record a few songs louder? Grungier?) their manager was back on the phone with Geffen, laying down the law. The record was done. The version the label had was the final version. Geffen said no way. The manager then reminded Geffen of a contractual passage that had been meant to give the group the artistic freedom it craved. That clause required the label to put out whatever the band delivered, no matter what. Fine, said the label’s management. We’ll put it out...but we’re not going to market or promote it at all. Geffen also made it clear: following whatever tour the band wanted to do, there would be a long discussion about whether they were going to continue as part of the label.

Sloan were pretty crushed by this. There was nothing defiant in their stance against the label, and Murphy has since expressed the opinion that what they should’ve done was hopped a plane to California, gotten cozy with the angry record executives, and found out what they wanted the record to sound like. Thankfully (it turns out, in retrospect) none of that happened. What did happen was that desultory tour with the Winnebago and Iowa. The band fared a bit better back in Canada doing some touring, but not much. Twice Removed came out in August of 1994. In December of that same year the band sat down in a conference call with Andrew Scott to try to hash out their future. That call ended with the band breaking up, under the mutual satisfaction of Geffen, who weren’t interested in putting out any future records by the group regardless.

Some strange things started happening, though. A number of publications in America, Canada, and Europe began putting that broken, misfit, ill-fitting record that Sloan recorded into their year-end top ten lists. There’s a reason for that, too. Despite the troubled creation--or perhaps because of it--Twice Removed is a tremendous record. You've never heard it? You like melodic, guitar-based rock and roll? Stop reading this now. Go listen to Twice Removed. Seriously.

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