There is a certain excitement that comes when you accomplish something that you have been striving for. It’s part relief, part genuine euphoria, and definitely part panic. Because now that you have reached this well-fought-for goal, what do you do next?
The Sheepdogs are a Saskatoon band that have been playing around for approximately seven years. It has been a long hard haul, but the light at the end of the sweaty, small, dark music clubs through the Canadian heartland came quite unexpectedly via Rolling Stone and a whole gaggle of music fans that voted for the band to be on the cover. And it wasn’t only Canadians that boosted them above their competition.
“It’s great, they got behind us big time,” lead singer Ewan Currie said about their home country supporters. “But it’s nice to come down here [the U.S.] and talk to people who are like, ‘I voted for you as well’. It’s not just we won because we had the power of one country behind us. It’s about the music”.
The four band members look more southern hippie than Canadian hockey jocks. In fact, vocalist Currie is not even Canadian by birth. He is from Australia and he moved to Canada when he was an adolescent. Thus his love for baseball and basketball was already ingrained in his physicality.
“I never really did get into hockey,” Currie recalls. “You got to start when you’re really young and I didn’t get to Canada till I was ten.”
But music was a whole other ball game. “We met when we were both in a concert band,” said Currie, explaining his first meeting with Sheepdogs bass player Ryan Gullen. “We both played clarinet … We weren’t friends at all really. In fact, I found Ryan annoying (laughs). But something eventually clicked between them and that was a love for music.”
“2004 is when Sam [Corbett], Ewan and I started playing music together,” Gullen describes on a recent call from California. “And then Leot [Hanson] joined the band about a year and a half later and we started going on tour.”
“We were basically a bunch of guys who really liked music a lot,” added Currie. “And we know specifically the kind of music we like. People like to say it’s an old retro sound or it’s certainly indebted to old style music. You know, rock & roll and soul and blues and all that kind of stuff. So we just try to be influenced by the music that we like and just kind of put it in a big pot like a gumbo and stir it up, make our own sort of bouillabaisse or something like that. And hopefully all the different flavors make our own unique Sheepdogs thing.”
“We also like the Beatles and the Kinks and soul tunes, you know, that are like two and a half minutes long” explained Currie, despite the band itself being influenced by The Allman Brothers Band. “They’re concise, well-arranged pop songs, classic good pop, not like Britney Spears or anything like that. We try to have elements of both in our music – some of the loose kind of blues feeling but also kind of the structure.”
Both Currie and Gullen were influenced personally by the horn-driven band Chicago. “I remember just falling deeply for that stuff,” remembers Currie of the early Chicago albums his dad owned. “It was like this great sort of fusion of melody and great players and great set of songs and songs that sort of flow into one another … I loved that it was sort of rock music but had all this kind of like soloing and all these different elements to it.”
Gullen agrees, as he named Paul McCartney and Donald “Duck” Dunn as major inspirations in his becoming a bass player, he also loved the early Chicago lineup with Pete Cetera. "His (Cetera) playing was “complimentary, not like wanking and showing off but doing something that fills out the music and gives it a whole new element to it without taking away probably what’s more prominent via the guitar and the vocal.”
“I just kind of learned on my own,” recalls Gullen about his bass chops. “Had I had more training I might be a little better. I tried to do my best by making things up and being creative and not playing a root note and holding one note. I try to fill out songs as much as I can. I do my own little art.”
The Sheepdogs spent 2011 in the bright spotlight that Rolling Stone shone on them as part of their search for an artist to appear on their coveted cover. Unlike the jinx that comes with being on the cover of Sports Illustrated, the RS cover boosts ticket sales and itunes downloads. But The Sheepdogs kind of did all this a bit backwards. They started off as semi-unknowns and became famous next. So how are they going to top that acclamation?
“Now, it’s sort of like we have to prove to everybody that we’re worthy of this attention,” Currie acknowledges. “It’s basically playing live shows and then making the next record will be a big step for us and we’re looking forward to that.”
When asked if he was overwhelmed yet, Currie didn’t seem too worried about all the people wanting their attention. “These people are interested in you and it’s much better than being ignored like we were for like six and a half, seven years. It certainly gets overwhelming here and there but we’re learning how to handle it and we’re doing better at it each day.”
“Being a traveling band can always be stressful but with things being a little bit more stable and the fact that people are excited about our music, we’re selling albums and people are coming to our shows and we’re in demand; it’s a lot less of a struggle to kind of build things up and put things together,” says Gullen when asked to compare the pre-hoopla days to now. “Before, we were working all by ourselves, booking our own shows, doing everything ourselves. Post-cover, things have been kind of easier … We really wanted to make that leap and make things happen but we weren’t sure how long we could continue doing that. I mean, we loved doing it but as you get older, you keep seeing your friends getting married and buying houses and you’re kind of like working a job that doesn’t pay very well cause it’s just a job you can leave and go and do other things and go on tour.”
“One thing I do miss about the old days,” continues Gullen, “is there was a lot less pressure put on you because people weren’t necessarily expecting anything from you. So as we move on there’s more pressure. Not like it’s uncomfortable or hard, it’s just that every show means a little bit more and a little bit more to people cause they’re excited to have the band and hear the record and they’re coming to see us, whereas before they were finding out about us as we were playing, then listening to the record. Now it’s kind of the other way. That’s probably the hardest thing. Well, it’s not hard, it’s the change. The pressures and the scheduling involved. But we’ve been working so hard for years to try and make this happen so it’s not like it’s a bad thing.”
Gullen gives a lot of credit to drummer Sam Corbett for helping the band remain stabilized through their years of struggling. “I’ve known Sam for a long time,” Gullen explains. “A lot of people see him as a little bit quieter but he brings a lot of stability to the band. Like in some ways, he’s the voice of reason when we’re working. A lot of times on the road, especially back when we were doing everything on our own, he was the one to bounce ideas off. He has this vast knowledge of music and information in general, and really smart and passionate about music … He would have a more logical approach to things and he’s really an integral part of our success and we never went beyond our means, didn’t stretch ourselves too far, and just did things as we could afford them. He gave us the longevity and we didn’t burn ourselves out or get too much in the hole financially and Sam played a big part in that.”
One thing they won’t miss is the van they toured in on those long treks across Canada. “That van ended up dying probably about two and a half months ago,” Gullen revealed. The one talked about so notoriously in the Rolling Stone feature “was actually our third van that we had gone through over the years and it died. The brakes went and all sorts of things were wrong with it.”
So do they think they might hang on to it for a Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame display one day? Gullen laughs. “I think it needs to be driven into a river more than anything … Right now it’s just sitting at my house but the best thing looks like just putting a brick on the gas and driving it into a river”.
“A lot of reasons bands break up is like personal reasons, financial reasons or losing that passion to continue on and keep doing it,” explains Gullen, contemplating on the band’s survival. “We were very mindful of that cause we realized that this was something we really wanted to do. So although it would’ve been nice to throw caution to the wind and be constantly on tour, we wanted to make sure those shows were as worthwhile as we could make them and that we were in a good mindset to be playing those shows and not phoning it in because we were tired of being on the road and hating each other. We’ve always tried to be smarter than that.”
And songwriting plays a huge part in being a band that is more than jamming and more than noise. “I write all the songs,” says Currie, who also plays guitar. “Sometimes I think of scenarios or vibes and thoughts that are just kind of not necessarily connected to me but I find the way that I write lyrics they somehow subconsciously reflect me in some way. Even if I can have some kind of total idea that is outside of who I am, somehow a part of me ends up being in there.”
With influences ranging from Paul McCartney to Stevie Wonder, they all sparked Currie’s creative sensibilities. “They’re like composers, great singers, they can play a variety of instruments very well and they had this incredible amount of creativity where they could do all kinds of things. I look to that as the ultimate musical model.”
“A lot of places in the United States we haven’t been to yet so we’re still developing those markets but we’re definitely seeing it,” “ admits Gullen about his fan base’s growth. “ Before, we were touring and we’d go into a new city and have to basically start from scratch, Nobody knew about us and we had to build it up. And now we have people coming to see us that know of our music and singing along to our songs and that’s all really cool. It’s the kind of stuff that gets you excited. It means that it’s making an impact before you even come into town.”
With a brand new year just beginning, The Sheepdogs are preparing for their next step. “We’re going to start working on [a new album] in January,” assured Currie. “So hopefully, mid-next year. It won’t take us long. We’ve got tunes in various shapes and forms ready to go”.
“We have stuff that we’ve been working on but we really haven’t rehearsed since like March maybe. We’ve just been touring non-stop,” adds Gullen. “But I guess the biggest thing for us is to just give ourselves the time to do that cause we want to make it the record we want.”
“We were all in a University when we started forming the band,” Gullen explains with a hint of nostalgia. “When we all decided to leave University to start playing on the road we always said, you can play rock & roll when you’re young, you can go to University when you’re old (laughs). You can’t really pull off starting a new band when you’re older and try to have success, for the most part. Ewan ended up getting his degree ,but playing in a rock & roll band while you’re young and giving t a try while you can handle sleeping on floors and traveling around in a van. Then you can sit in a classroom and become very book-learned later on in life.”