:: Bluebird Theater :: October 9 ::
By Brian F. Johnson
Like hundreds, if not thousands of bands, The Sheepdogs have spent the last seven years in a van dragging their asses around North America from show to show, only to return home from even their most successful tours dead-ass broke without much hope on the horizon.
It’s not that the bearded Canadian boogie rockers don’t have good enough chops, or enough attention. The group has racked up multiple awards, including several Juno Awards (Canada’s music awards). But in a saturated, diluted music world, finding someone to support an independent rock band that’s not already pulling in big money is about as likely as hitting the lottery.
But hit the lottery The Sheepdogs did when, unbeknownst to them, an acquaintance of the group dropped their name into the hat of a North American battle of the bands. The Rolling Stone-sponsored challenge pitted 16 very different bands and artists from around the continent against one another, and time and again through preliminary rounds, The Sheepdogs kept coming out on top. Finally, it was announced that the pride of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan were taking home the grand prize — a major label deal with Atlantic Records and their band on the cover of the famed magazine, along with the notoriety of being the first-ever unsigned band to appear on that legendary cover.
“I think that being on the road for seven years of work and losing money and not even knowing if there was a place for us in popular music, all worked to prepare us for doing the things that we’re doing now,” said bassist Ryan Gullen during a recent interview with The Marquee, while the band was traveling through The Hamptons on Long Island. “Having those experiences gave us not just an appreciation for this, but a readiness for it, as well. We’ve gotten over the crap that goes along with being in a band — the fighting and the being around each other all the time. We’ve gotten through all of that, so I think had we been a brand new band and been throw into this situation, I don’t think we would have been able to thrive in this environment.”
With a graciousness as well as a grounded now-is-our-time attitude, Gullen added, “Our career doesn’t end with us being on the cover of Rolling Stone. Our career kind of began in a lot of ways with that, and we know that we have to work really hard with touring and continuing to write really interesting and really good music for this to keep going. We just have to hustle and do it.”
Obviously, a huge part of that hustle is centered around the new album that had just come out two days before Gullen and The Marquee spoke. Shortly after winning the competition, the band went into the studio to record their self-titled Atlantic Records debut, and at the helm in the production booth was a man that The Sheepdogs knew well already, at least musically. When the band first started playing open mics in their Canadian town, about 200 miles north of Montana, the group played covers from Kings of Leon and The Black Keys among others; and now, in that studio, Patrick Carney of the Keys was producing their major label debut.
“That was wild,” Gullen said. “And very cool. We’re very like-minded in the kind of music we enjoy. We had pretty much self-produced everything up to that point and now here we were in a studio with someone that we not only respected musically, but also someone who understood where we were coming from.”
The year before, while the band was on tour with Kings of Leon, Sheepdogs lead songwriter Ewan Currie had been working on songs for this album, and when they hit the studio they had a decent idea of their material, explained Gullen. The group spent the majority of their time in the recording sessions “coloring each song as we went… Ewan comes up with song ideas, whether it’s a whole song or just a riff and then we all work on putting it together,” Gullen said.
The result is an album that could have easily been released in 1972, and it would have fit in perfectly alongside albums by Neil Young, Mountain, Mott The Hoople, The Guess Who, and, of course, The Allman Brothers, all of whom released albums that magical year for rock and roll.
From the gritty opener “Laid Back,” to the hard-driving “Feeling Good ” — which features a drum beat that is a clear homage to Gary Glitter’s “Rock and Roll Part II” — The Sheepdogs proudly and without apology play songs that are a continuation of the early ’70s era of rock and roll. And when the band gets to their track “Javelina,” their undying love for Allman Brother ‘guitarmonies’ is held out for all to marvel at — and they nail it. But as much as The Sheepdogs sound like all of those bands, there’s also a decidely original sound to their material.
“We definitely wear our influences on our sleeves and we’re not ashamed to admit it,” said Gullen. “As we were becoming a band, those were the groups that we covered while we were learning to play. There’s a lot that we like about that music, but we’re not copying or ripping anyone off. We take those elements and make them ours and then put them together in a stew of our own song. We’re just grabbing the elements that we appreciate. It’s like, if you really like Arcade Fire and are always listening to them and writing songs, your songs are going to sound like theirs. And with us, we’re all very like-minded in the music we listen to, so it’s even more streamlined.”
Let’s face it, a Rolling Stone band contest could have gone a lot of other ways, and there were a few uber-pop-types in the running for the prize. The fact that rock and roll and a band focused on content over commerce took home the prize, is a victory not just for The Sheepdogs but for all real music lovers. And like any good lottery winners should do, The Sheepdogs are spreading the wealth. “Our success [in this contest]cast a spotlight on independent musicianship,” Gullen said. “There are so many people out there who can’t get a record deal because it’s so difficult to promote it. But now we’re in the position where, you know, people always ask us who we’re listening to and who we like, and now we can shine a light on some of those bands, and when the spotlight is on us, we can share the spotlight with other people as well.”
For this first headlining tour since the release, The Sheepdogs have tapped the Belgian garage rock group Black Box Revelation (who will join them in Denver) as well as Cincinnati, Ohio’s Buffalo Killers (who unfortunately leave the tour the night before the Denver show).
:: The Sheepdogs ::
:: Bluebird Theater :: October 9 ::
Recommended if you Like:
• The Allman Brothers
• Kings of Leon
• Jackson Browne