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Sloan of the Mounties

North to Halifax: Sloan learned to rock in the farthest reaches of Canada.

Photo by Ray Lego

Canada's Sloan is twice removed from the U.S. rock scene

By Gina Arnold

IT HAS LONG been acknowledged that rock & roll, despite its urban trappings, thrives in isolation--in tiny towns like Tupelo, Miss., Athens, Ga., and Aberdeen, Wash., ancestral home of Nirvana. But if Nowheresville, U.S.A., can create the kind of bored-and-alienated climate needed to spawn a great garage band, how much better an environment can be found in Halifax, Nova Scotia, a city on the east coast of Canada that is a 14-hour drive from the next-nearest large city?

That's where Sloan--one of Canada's best young rock bands--comes from, and judging by the group's three records--Smeared, Twice Removed and its latest, One Chord to Another--Halifax is indeed a good place to learn how to rock.

Like many bands from far-off places, Sloan is made up of musicians who seem to have listened all the more carefully to the records they collected. Sloan has culled and blended its sources into a naive yet energetic mix of Big Star, Pet Sounds, the Ramones, the Raspberries and the Sonics. Songs such as "Underwhelmed" and the new single, "The Good in Everyone," are catchy and determined, but they have a remembered quality that's strangely anachronistic. You might term it observational rock.

"That's why we called our last record Twice Removed," agrees Sloan's Chris Murphy, speaking from Toronto on the eve of his band's latest U.S. tour (which takes it to the Cactus Club Friday). "Toronto"--home of the Second City comedy troupe, which nurtured many a Saturday Night Live cast member--"is a kind of a hotbed of observational humor, because they look at America and reflect on its culture from afar. In Halifax, we're observing Toronto, which is observing the States ... so everything is even more removed."

Canada, Murphy adds, has a regulation whereby 30 percent of all the songs played on the radio have to be by Canadian artists. "But we didn't notice that we were having Canadian acts shoved down our throats," he says. "We just grew up thinking that everyone on earth knew songs by April Wine and the Guess Who."

Despite its remoteness, Halifax clearly has many similarities to any other North American city of moderate size. "To begin with," Murphy says, "we were just suburban kids into metal. Andrew's from Dartmouth, and he was into Saxxon and UFO. I'm from Clayton Park, and I was into Triumph, Rush and Queen. Patrick was into AC/DC and Iron Maiden, but Jay was from downtown Halifax, so he's always just been into the Ramones.

By high school, however, the members of Sloan had all gotten into punk and hard-core--particularly the band Minor Threat.

After high school, the suburban Halifogians went to art school, where they met up with Jay and started the band. In 1991, they put out an EP titled Peppermint on their own Murder Records label. The timing was ridiculously right. Thanks to Nirvana's recent success, American labels were on the lookout for anything remotely similar, and Sloan was signed to Geffen stateside.

"It was so ridiculous," says Murphy now. "We'd never even met anyone on a major label at the time, even just a Canadian one. All we'd ever done was make tapes and bring them to the local college radio station in Halifax. We had no aspirations whatsoever, and we really weren't ready."

SLOAN'S AMERICAN debut, Smeared, received rave reviews in the press but no airplay, and its follow-up, Twice Removed, was totally lost in the welter of Geffen releases. The band was dropped--despite the fact that Twice Removed was named one of Spin magazine's "Top Ten Albums You Didn't Hear" for 1994--not to mention "Best Canadian Album of All Time" by the Canadian magazine The Chart.

Sloan nearly broke up in 1995, its members devoting their time instead to running Murder Records by signing and recording other Canadian bands--Eric's Trip, Super Friendz and Zumpano among them. But in 1996, Sloan got signed to The Enclave, a new label under the EMI aegis, run by Tom Zutuat, who signed Guns n' Roses.

The Enclave released One Chord to Another and promptly ran into financial difficulties. But here's where being Canadian became a distinct advantage. "We were able to keep our own record label," Murphy says proudly, "and that's been a huge coup for us. Americans don't care about the Canadian market--it's only 4 percent of their total sales--so they let us retain our record for sale here and gave us an advance. Well, we made our record for [only] $8,000 dollars, so we made our money up front, and we also get $7 per CD per sale in Canada."

Since Sloan's records have gone platinum in Canada, that's not insignificant. Of course, the band's success there is partly due to the Canadian-content rule, but it certainly belies Canada's reputation in America for producing extremely weak music.

"I understand Canada's poor musical reputation," shrugs Murphy, "since in America we're represented by Celine Dion and Shania Twain, and I'm down with hating them. But there's a lot of good bands in Canada, too, like the Inbreds. They're fantastic!"

Sloan would still like to "make it" in America, of course--but it's not betting the farm (or rather the record label) on it. "You can do well in rock," Murphy says, "as long as you're not impatient for success. If we can look back and have six great records which people will eventually buy, that's better than having one big hit."

These days, Sloan's members spend a lot of time in Toronto, where Murder Records is located, though they do frequently return to Halifax to see their folks. But Halifax, says Murphy, "just pretends to be like Toronto. Now, Newfoundland,"(another 14-hour journey north and east by car and ferry) "that's where it's at. It's so gorgeous there, and [it] really has a great arts community."

Sloan appears with Redd Kross Friday (July 11) at 9pm at the Cactus Club, 417 S. First St., San Jose. Tickets are $10/$12. (408/491-9300)

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From the July 10-16, 1997 issue of Metro.

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