Friday, November 18, 2022

My Sloan Story: How I Became Besotted

So I keep trying to get back to this to tell my weird little story, and I keep getting interrupted. This working-for-a-living thing is pretty inconvenient sometimes. 

As I noted, this is all about lockdown, and that weird gray haze we were all living in, because popping out of it was far too disorienting and terrifying. There are times, these days, when I’m running from place to place nonstop (today is a 14-hour day, if you are curious), that I miss the days when I would roll out of bed, get the kids to cross their bedrooms to their computers, grab a coffee and wander into the spare bedroom to try and work. (Like the rest of us, I was only middlingly successful at that.) But that world–in black and white inside the fog, and jarring Soviet-era greens and browns and rusty oranges outside it–left me almost desperate for something new, something different, something that was mine without my knowing it yet. 

Because I was at the computer essentially nonstop, I had music playing all the time. My music, and yours. Apples in Stereo and the Aerovons. Badfinger and Blue Ash and Blondie and Big Star and the Beatles. The Cars, the Clash, Cheap Trick (and you know I can’t keep this alphabetical thing up forever). XTC, Shoes, the Cars, Fountains of Wayne, Redd Kross, Guided By Voices, Teenage Fanclub, the New Pornographers…. You get the idea. Power pop once saved my life when I was mired in a deep depression: I needed it to come to the rescue now. And damn, it sure did.

I found Sloan.

It took a bit: the algorithms I had set up did pretty well, and when you have Spotify* on 12 hours a day, they dig pretty deep into the corners for you. Yeah, you start with the same hundred songs, but eventually it starts trying out new stuff. And as I noted in my first post on this topic, it was the words that pierced the veil first. That makes sense, I think. I am a writer, and  words mean a lot to me. (I read recently somewhere an interview with a female musician (maybe Jill Sobule or someone in that vein?) that she has the words first and the music is written to fit them. I can tell you honestly: I have never heard a male composer say that. It’s music first, then words. I have no idea what this means; I just think it’s weird.) Anyway, these distinct little phrases just kept kind of reaching out for me. There was no consistency to the singing voice or the musical style, except insofar as they were in our general wheelhouse, but every time I clicked out of the work I was avoiding to check Spotify, it was the same name. Sloan. 

I made a sensible adult decision (which I duly announced to the spouse) to become obsessed with this band. I mean, everyone went a little Covid-crazy, and this was better than making sourdough or posing my family like paintings or  joining Q-Anon or something. I attacked it very methodically, in a scholarly fashion. First, I looked at their videos on YouTube, reasoning that these were more likely to be the “singles” than other songs. (Little did I know that Sloan releases basically every song as a video; it’s just that some of them are album cover art. But whatever you’re looking for, it’s probably on YouTube.)  So that filled a couple of weeks as I started putting a timeline together in my head, reading old interviews, etc. 

I was helped immensely in this aspect by finding Sloancast, an extraordinary podcast put together by two Sloan superfans, Rob Butcher and Ken Gildner. If you are interested in the band’s history, in people who have worked with them, and in a meticulous breakdown of almost every album, the Sloancast guys are your best bet. I never miss an episode. (And as of ten days or so ago, they have had all the members of the band–alphabetically by last name, Jay Ferguson, Chris Murphy, Patrick Pentland, and Andrew Scott, as well as member-at-large Gregory MacDonald, on as guests.)  A podcast like this would be any band’s dream, honestly. But there is another, called the Sloan Selection Podcast, which is more focused on putting songs from their (pretty immense) catalog side by side and choosing a winner. Good fun, but I personally prefer the history/background stuff more. 

[insert here the requisite amazement that there are four singers and four songwriters in this band, that they have been doing this with the same lineup since 1991, that they do Cheap Trick-levels of touring, that they split everything equally. Not to say that these things aren’t amazing, because they are, but just that any profile of Sloan will mention them.]

So this is what happens when an academic dork takes on a new band. Figured out who they were, their likely most popular/well-know songs. Then (god help me, I wish I were making this up) I went to discogs and printed off every track list off every album. That meant reshuffling a bunch of stuff in my head, reorganizing the timeline, but remember that I got 30 years of music in one huge information dump. The process took a bit. Then (cringing again), I got a highlighter and marked off the songs I already knew. To quote Chris M, so far, so good. Starting with the EP Peppermint, I worked my way methodically through the entire catalog, highlighter in hand. It was kind of fun seeing songs I was already besotted with in their own context, like seeing a picture of your partner as a kid posing with their own family, or in a school picture. Peppermint (1992). Smeared (also 1992). Twice Removed (1994). One Chord to Another (1996). Navy Blues (1998). Between the Bridges (1999). Pretty Together (2001). Action Pact (2003). Never Hear the End of It (2006). Parallel Play (2008). The Double Cross (2011) Commonwealth (2014). Twelve (2018). So, so much to absorb, and man, was I absorbed. (I’m leaving out probably a dozen EPs, single releases, and live albums, maybe more.) 

The thing is, the Sloan guys and I are about the same age. That means our musical inspirations and tastes are roughly analogous, or at least contemporary to each other. They pulled from sources I mostly knew, but some not intimately (My Bloody Valentine, who I only knew a bit of, loom large in the lore, for example.) But on most things? Hell, yeah, exactly in my sweet spot.  (In a recent interview, Chris M was asked about a specific little musical grace note in one of their new songs, “Magical Thinking.” The interviewer suggested it was a callback to “People of the Sky” from Twice Removed. I said to myself, “Nope. That’s from Duran Duran’s “Planet Earth.” Like that ) The spouse says that if you went into a lab and made me a band, Sloan would be the one. 

But this whole process, as absorbing and delightful as it was, also pissed me off. Why? Because I could not stop asking myself: HOW DID I MISS THIS BAND?!?!? It’s utterly inexplicable to me. I went to shows regularly, though in the 90s I was somewhat handicapped by being in a big city that was not on the way to anywhere (Miami), so few bands came that far south. I did go to shows in NYC, though only when they lined up with school breaks. But I listened to college radio. I watched 120 Minutes like it was my religion. I knew cool people, including one invaluable friend who worked in a used record store off Tompkins Square Park, who could turn me on to stuff. It makes no sense that a national border could make that much difference, and yet it did. (Even in the rollout to their most recent album, Steady, out less than a month at this writing, there were a couple of videos that I knew were dropping, yet we initially couldn’t see them in the States. It’s a global world, publishing/copyright/rights people. Catch the hell up.) And so, even in my pretty much pure delight with Sloan, I curse bitterly the years I didn’t know, the shows I didn’t see, and all of the rest of it. I’m making up for lost time (seeing them for the third time next week, and fourth in February), but still. 

Anyway, there’s my Sloan story, and though I will never be the kind of superfan Rob and Ken are, I stand in awe of their encyclopedic knowledge. (And thank Rob in particular for being gracious to a complete noob in this world and helping me along.) So if you are reading this blog (and still reading this post), this band is something worth hunting down. They live in our world. This is our music. 

Thank me later. 

* I know, I know, I know. But for a lot of musicians (who weren't making Joe Rogan money), this was pretty much their only income stream for the last couple of years. I wasn't going to stop supporting them.