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EQ interview with Jay Ferguson of SLOAN



SLOAN:  CONTRACT ENVY AND HOW TO DEAL WITH IT           by Will Richards
from *EQ* magazine Fall 1993 issue            transcribed by James Covey
------------------------------------------------------------------------

        By now you no doubt might have heard the name Sloan around.  But
just in case you have been living in some kind of cave for the last 18
months, here's a little background:  Sloan are a four-piece out of
Halifax (in fact, probably the root cause of the present east-coast
feeding frenzy) who play a not-too-abrasive noise-core, heavy on the
melodies and harmonies and not too heavy on the guitars.
        Last year, before you could say "pay your dues," the band had
signed with the corporate champions of indie rock (said with tongue so
far in cheek it hurts), Geffen.  Sell out young?  That remains to be
seen, but after listening to this interview with guitarist Jay Ferguson
it would seem that despite what you might assume, the band is well on
top of a situation that would leave many others very much out of sorts.

EQ:     So what's it like being in Sloan right now -- being on the road
so much?

JF:     I'm lying in a bed, our manager just showed up.  Most of the
shows on tour have been just great.  No complaints right now.  It gets a
bit tiring but we remain focused on what we want to do, which is play to
help set up our next record which will be out in the spring.  When we
toured the states it was for three months and it was exhausting.  Being
away from home for three months is no fun at all, especially if you have
a slew of lame shows.

EQ:     Where are you getting better received?

Jay:    Probably in Canada because that is where we are best known.

EQ:     Do you find that as a band you get treated better in the States?

Jay:    No, for us we get treated really well in Canada and, actually,
Germany.  In the States it's up and down.  There are a lot more shady
promoters in there than there are in Canada.  When we played at
Concordia we got the weirdest rider -- we got pepperoni hot-rods and
like two blocks of cheese.  All in all, I think we've been really lucky
because we haven't got dicked around much.

EQ:     Are you getting better response from all-ages shows than bar
shows?

Jay:    For sure.  Those are the best shows to play.  Playing the bars
is really boring I find.  Well, not boring but not as exciting.  Plus
I'm sure that half the people that buy our records are under 19.  All
but two of the shows on this tour are all ages.  The position that we
are in in Canada we can demand to do all ages shows and not have to
settle on a bar because of the money part.  It's a nice position to be
in.  I think we're very lucky in that aspect.

        I get the impression that the band feels this way not because of
some self-righteous Fugazi-like dribble, but out of pure acknowledgement
of who their audience is.
        Make no mistake about it, Sloan make fairly lightweight, radio
friendly rock -- hard enough to get a bit of pushing and shoving at the
shows so the crowd can work off some suburban angst, but not so harsh as
it wouldn't get played on the radio.  [JC note:  would that that were
true!]  One has to wonder what will happen to bands like this once the
phase has passed -- are they totally at the mercy of their labels?  Only
those with a label strongly behind them will be allowed the time and
effort to grow and change.

EQ:     How do you feel about your contract now that the initial rush
has subsided somewhat?

Jay:    Again, we're really fortunate in that aspect.  Chip Sutherland,
who also manages us now, negotiated for us.  We took our time to
negotiate it.  From the moment it was offered to us we didn't sign it
for about five months, we went over all the picky little details.  We
have the right to give Geffen whatever we want, which is cool, but
realistically, we couldn't give them like a record of one note of noise.

EQ:     You couldn't hand in *Metal Machine Music II* and expect them to
be thrilled.

Jay:    Well, we could, but then they would just say, "We're not going
to promote it, see you later" so it's not really in anyone's best
interest.

EQ:     It's unusual for a band at your level to have that much control.

Jay:    Yeah, well, we took our time, we were lucky, and we didn't take
a huge advance so later we would have some money coming in, and have
some money for tour support.  But Geffen have been cool about things
like the cover.  It was like, "So, what do want to put on the album
cover?" and we said, "Well, we have this weird orange Polaroid, can we
use that," and they were completely into that.  It's all very together,
they don't make decisions without asking us.  A couple of things I
couldn't believe we did.  Once there was this promotion that they wanted
us to do; they sent us these leather jackets to paint, and they were the
ugliest leather jackets, with fringes, that you've ever seen.  At first
we thought it was a test -- that Geffen was testing us to see how lame
we were.  In the end we sent them back and said that we're not doing
this and that was fine with them.  What we did instead was we'd done a
video for a song 500 Up and we'd worn these gas station attendant
jackets and after we'd done with them we just wrote on them and gave
those away as a promotion instead of these lame fringed-leather jackets.
But so far I'm pretty happy with Geffen.  You're bound to have fights
with any label, independent or major, but for the most part I think
we're really lucky, we've had opportunity to do things that we wouldn't
have had elsewhere.  We owe them five more records, with options for out
on their part after every second album, no options for out on our part
until after the sixth record but they only drop you if you're a total
fuck-up.  There are no actual figures in the contract saying we have to
sell so many records.  They do seem willing to stand behind their bands
and let them grow in whatever direction as long as they sell.

EQ:     How has the record been selling?

Jay:    I don't know.  In Canada I think it's between 30 and 40 thousand
and about the same for the states, which isn't a lot for there.  I think
that maybe Geffen is a little disappointed with sales in the states but
we've had some problems with radio down there.  We had someone working
the record there and then they changed positions at Geffen and they had
a new radio person jump in the middle of our record and it didn't seem
to work because he wasn't there from the beginning.  But we have done
well in certain places -- the east coast mostly and to some degree the
mid-west.  The only place where it was really hard was in the south.  We
did a whole loop around the States and it was difficult, you know,
around places like Baton Rouge.

EQ:     No matter what you're doing around Baton Rouge, it's hard.
You're all fiscally independent now?

Jay:    Pretty much.  It's a really nice position to be in.  It's a
total dream, what we're doing -- being able to live off of playing
music.  It's what I've always been into.

EQ:     How did you guys get noticed so such? [JC note:  fast?  soon?  I
don't know what "such" means here either...]  I mean this was before the
(second) Halifax Explosion.

Jay:    We'd played four shows outside of Halifax by the time we were
offered a contract with Geffen, which is totally absurd.  We had to jump
into it head first.  We probably weren't as prepared as many other bands
are, but I think we've gotten through it okay so far.

EQ:     Do you feel you've been lucky as such?

Jay:    A lot of it is luck and a lot of it is being in the right place
at the right time.  There are a lot of bands that have done well on
luck, but I think ultimately we have really good songs and I'm very
proud of the records we've made.  In the long run that's what'll keep us
going when all the luck or the hype is gone and once people are bored
with hearing about us.  I hope that we will still be able to make really
good records that will last a really long time.  I'd hate to make some
really popular record that's totally lame and in ten years time just
cringe at the thought of it.

        The whole notion of working with major vs. indie labels has been
a bone of contention for as long as people have been making records.
Nowadays, the lines between majors and indies has been blurred
practically to the point of being completely erased, and it would seem
that if you keep your wits about you and don't go "Wow, a record
contract.  Cool.  Where do I sign?" the first time someone shoves a
piece of paper under your nose, you can probably get a lot more out of
working with people with money than those without.
        Seems obvious but...
        The smart bands (or bands with smart advisers/lawyers seem to
have gotten a grasp on this concept).  Sloan seem to be a good example
of this.  Hell, even Nirvana had to go back and re-work the material
they initially submitted for *In Utero*.  Having said all that, not all
bands are in the position that Sloan are in because of that ugly beast
"commercial viability".  The trick is not to get too bitter about it --
hey, you choose your musical path.
        So, like it or not, Sloan goes forth into the world as a
representative of Canada and its music.  Maybe they can make up for
some of the embarrassment that some of Canada's other so called
"alternative acts" have caused us.

EQ:     How have you found the response worldwide to being a Canadian
band?  Do people have preconceptions as to what they think Canadian
music sounds like?

Jay:    Some people do because the only exposure to Canadian music is
either Bryan Adams or the Tragically Hip or, in England, the Doughboys.
I know what you mean, though.  In some places there is certainly a
Canadian stereotype, or Canadian "fog" surrounding you.  We haven't
really promoted ourselves as a Canadian band, we've always promoted the
fact that we're from Nova Scotia.  Of course in the States they think
Nova Scotia is in Europe.  We did an interview with this person from New
Jersey and they said at the end "...thanks for the interview, I thought
there would be a language problem with Nova Scotia being in Europe," and
it was like, "Oh, okay, see you later."  I couldn't believe it.  This
was *New Jersey*!  If it was in Louisiana or something I say, "Well,
okay, that's fine" but this was unbelievable.  Being from Canada
certainly hasn't gotten in the way, in fact in some cases I'd say it's
good because there's a certain media interest around Nova Scotia right
now which is spreading to the States.  There's a three-page article in
*Harper's Bazaar* (EQ note: a fashion/lifestyles mag that probably
spends more on paper clips than we do on putting out this mag) and
*Spin*.

EQ:     Are you going to continue to make Halifax your home?

Jay:    I want to and see no reason not to.  Andrew (Scott, drummer)
moved to Toronto but just because his girlfriend lives there.  It's been
a bit of a logistic problem having one member live in another city, just
in terms of practicing and working out new material, but usually he
comes down before we tour or record and it hasn't been a problem as
such.  I don't think it gets in our way at all.

        As mentioned in the intro, Sloan seemingly came out of nowhere
and landed a contract that left many people gasping and crying into
their already watered down Biftek beer.  (EQ note:  Ask someone you know
from Montreal to explain that to you.) [JC note:  Colin?]  In typical
musician/scenester fashion, people seemed more ready to put them down
rather than be happy for their success and the fact that a major label
was paying attention to Canadian bands.

EQ:     You probably hear a lot about how the band came absolutely out
of nowhere and all of a sudden you're living on easy street and people
are saying it's so unfair and blah, blah, blah...  How do you feel about
that, when the truth of it is that you did Kearney Lake Road before this
and other projects amounting to almost seven years of making music, and
now you get people dissing you saying "they never paid their dues" and
crap like that?

Jay:    That sort of pisses me off.  We even had that in Halifax from
people who had no idea that we'd been in other bands before.  I think
they were just too lazy to take note of what was going on around them.
Now I feel vindicated.  Nobody outside of Halifax noticed Halifax bands
before and now you get all these Toronto bands, not *all* Toronto bands,
but certain ones, complaining, who are going, "Who are these brats?"
Well, you never paid any notice to us before and now we're getting our
chance.  We've been helping other bands put out records.  We brought
Thrush Hermit on tour with us this time.  It's good to be in a position
to help other bands get noticed.

EQ:     What Canadian bands are you listening to these days?

Jay:    The only bands I know as such are bands from out east.  Eric's
Trip, jale, etc.  I don't know a lot of other Canadian bands that I
really like... maybe Grasshopper from Toronto.

EQ:     Do you run into a lot of people that have snubbed you in the
past and now want a piece of it?

Jay:    Not too much, we've been pretty lucky.  I think it's more the
other way around, people who liked us in the beginning think "these guys
are jerks" or something like that, just because we've had a degree of
success and signed with a major label.

EQ:     So what's going on with the new stuff?

Jay:    We did some demos just before we left -- about 12 songs -- and
we'll probably record in November.  [JC note:  Sloan have been doing
more demo recording, but they won't record 'til the new year; they are
still shopping for a producer.]  We're not sure who we're going in
with... we've been thinking about Lindsay Buckingham.

EQ:     As in Fleetwood Mac?

Jay:    Yeah.  It would be kind of like having Brian Wilson without the
mental problems.  The guy at Geffen Records suggested Lenny Kaye (Patti
Smith Group), but I don't know.  Patrick (Pentland, guitarist) mentioned
Don Fleming, he's done some great records (Teenage Fanclub, Hole,
Gumball, Posies etc) but I'd be afraid to use him just because so many
people have used him.  It would be fun to find Klaus Voorman (bassist
for the Plastic Ono Band).

EQ:     Is there anything that you are planning for this next one, in
terms of sound?

Jay:    I hope so.  I'd like to make a different record, but it's
probably going to be a bit of a fight.

EQ:     More guitars.  I think that is really the strong point of the
band.

Jay:    I was thinking the opposite.  Personally I'm into the sound of
the Beasties Boys record, the Breeders, Unrest, stuff like that...  the
sound on those Plastic Ono Band records is wicked... so I think
ultimately it's going to be a fight.

        Love them, hate them, or be totally indifferent to them, Sloan's
success is probably in the long run a good thing for Canadian music at
many levels.
        It's interesting to see how many times in the interview Ferguson
talks about being lucky or fortunate.  A musician with some humility and
an appreciation for what they have is refreshing as opposed to the usual
notion that world owes any schmuck who picks up a guitar or hums a
melody for a living.  Go out and prove that you deserve it!
        This and the overall level-headedness with which they seem to
conduct themselves may be what will give this band some longevity once
the whole cuddly-noise core thing is past.  We'll just have to wait and
see.

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------
James R. Covey         <JRCOVEY\!/ac.dal.ca>        What syllable are you seeking,
..........................................        Vocalissimus,
Department of English                             In the distances of sleep?
Dalhousie University  Halifax, NS  B3H 3H5        Speak it.