The Sheepdogs: A Solid Breed of Rock and Roll
It’s hard to believe it, but THE SHEEPDOGS are closing in on two decades of making music. It seems like yesterday that the band seemingly came out of nowhere to win Rolling Stone magazine’s Best Unsigned Band contest in 2011. Since then they’ve been painting beautiful musical landscapes using a palate of colourful classic, southern and roots rock influences, winning awards (including three Junos), touring the globe and racking up radio airplay with infectious singles like “I Don’t Know,” “The Way It Is,” and “Feeling Good.” With their last album, 2018’s Juno-nominated Changing Colours, The Sheepdogs continue to expand their sound, consciously moving the needle forward while staying true to their deeply-planted musical roots. “We identify strongly with rock ‘n roll, but there’s definitely some branching out,” says Ewan Currie, The Sheepdogs’ singer, guitarist, songwriter and occasional clarinetist. “The sounds we use on this – there’s more keyboards featuring Shamus and more stringed instruments. It’s still rock ‘n roll but there are more colours.”
With The Sheepdogs stopping into Niagara for shows July 11 and 12th at Jackson-Triggs Amphitheatre, Ewan took time to talk to GoBeWeekly about touring with John Fogerty, the best five years in rock, the power of the clarinet and why The Sheepdogs aren’t in any hurry to take on the mantle of “Canada’s Band.”
GOBE: It’s been 13 years since the band formed in Saskatoon. A lot has happened over the course of that time; has the reality of your career accomplishments matched or superseded the original dream you had when the band began?
EWAN: It’s actually been 15 years as of yesterday (July 8th). Staring down 15 years in a rock and roll band in 2019 is pretty amazing, because I don’t have to tell anybody that rock and roll doesn’t rule supreme on the airwaves anymore. It’s much more pop and hip-hop and country music, which really all just sounds like dance music to be honest. It’s amazing really. I thought I would do something in music because I love music. I don’t know what else I would do, but I didn’t know I’d still be in a band. 15 years together is probably six years more than The Beatles made it. Bands break up all the time. I know so many bands that broke up after one tour. We’re very fortunate to be where we’re at here.
GOBE: It really is a testament to what you’ve put together, this many albums deep into your career. There has to be a sense of pride there.
EWAN: Absolutely. It’s rare to have a career in rock and roll music in the modern era. It’s very satisfying to be the master of your own fate in terms of being self-employed and not having to go sit behind a desk.
GOBE: You talk about bands breaking up, certainly the fickle nature of fans has a lot to do with that. With the last album, Changing Colours, it’s an apt title given the ongoing evolution of The Sheepdogs music. Unfortunately, there are fans who buy into a band’s sound early on, but then bail or complain when a band starts to experiment and change. How do you balance your own desire to grow musically as an artist given that reality?
EWAN: That’s a good question. We have changed over the years, but at our core we’re very much the same band exploring the same territory. We’re very much a rock and roll band, we sometimes just use different sounds to do some of the same things. I think it’s not so much changing as it is adding to existing sounds. Over the years we’ve started singing more harmonies. We’ve added my brother in with keys and trombone sometimes. Jimbo (Jimmy Bowskill), our most recent guitar player who was added three years ago, brings a plethora of sounds from a country bluegrass background. So it’s not so much we’re changing, just adding and augmenting.
GOBE: Well, when you can add a clarinet into rock and roll you’ve moved the needle forward.
EWAN: (Laughing) It’s about time, right!
GOBE: It’s been a while since Ian Anderson established the power of woodwinds! When it comes to writing your songs, is it an organic process for you? Are you already writing for the next album for example? Or do you write whenever the mood hits you?
EWAN: It’s kind of a combo. I try to be organic about it. There’s a book called Songwriters On Songwriting. A long time ago I read through it trying to glean whatever I could. I couldn’t believe how everyone’s opinion was so different on everything. It seems like it’s really personal. What works for one person might not work for someone else. For me, inspiration will strike whenever it strikes. Sometimes it’s just like a little nugget of an idea. I’ll try to record it usually by singing it into my phone. I’ll squirrel away all these little nuts in my phone. Often times when that happens, I’ll be out somewhere at a bar or backstage at a show. It’s really noisy and I can’t work on the idea. When I get some time and I’m near a piano or have a guitar in my hand then I can actually sit down and figure the dam thing out. It’s half inspiration and half craft.
GOBE: And the thing about the craft of songwriting is that you don’t really know it works until you’re out in front of an audience. Is that the ultimate validation for a songwriter, when you have a bunch of strangers singing your lyrics back to you?
EWAN: Yes, it really is. As much as I consider myself the ultimate critic, it very much is the audience that determines the success of a song.
GOBE: You’ve racked up a couple more JUNO nomination with Changing Colours. The band has certainly been impacted by winning things – the Rolling Stone contest, Junos – but what do such accolades mean to you personally.
EWAN: I think it’s always nice to be nominated for something. It’s not always about trying to win things. I’m a big sports fan, but I don’t see music as a competition. Hell, if there’s an award I wouldn’t mind winning one. There’s a music scene here in Canada, and when you get recognition, you feel like you’re part of the community and that feels good as well.
GOBE: When you won the first Juno Award for Rock Album of the Year you beat out Sloan, the Arkells, Matt Good and Sam Roberts, four artists with pretty good track records. I can understand how the win made you feel like you joined them rather than beat them. That’s a good way to look at winning awards.
EWAN: Music is music, it’s creative. It’s not a competition. Awards are kind of funny.
GOBE: The first single off the new album, “Whole Where My Heart Should Be,” has a classic ‘70s feel to it. There’s so many influences woven into the tapestry of the music you write. What’s your favourite era of music? What’s the sweet spot for you?
EWAN: My brother and I always have this conversation about what is the greatest five year span in rock and roll history. I think it’s either ‘68 to ‘73 or ‘69 to ‘74, somewhere in there is the sweet spot. Music in the late 60s kind of morphed out of the simplistic pop influences it was doing and into the blues and psychedelic influences. Rock and roll kind of came into its own in ’68 or ’69. There were so many great rock and roll albums made. Even in that era, a band could be kind of so so, maybe the songs weren’t hits or anything, but the vibe could still be so good.
GOBE: And the volume being created was huge too. Bands were cranking out five and six albums over a five year period. One of the bands often listed as an influence on The Sheepdogs was CCR. You got the chance to tour Australia with John Fogerty. Did you get to meet him and what was the takeaway talking to him?
EWAN: Yea, we met him only one time. He was very nice, but it was very jarring because I’m such a huge fan. He’s one of the biggest in my books. It was pretty inspiring to see how much he liked performing and how well he performed at such an advanced age. He’s the guy that took care of his voice a lot better than a lot of the classic guys. Some of the guys have aged better than others.
GOBE: On the last album there’s another great Sheepdogs medley, beginning with “Born a Restless Man” through to “Run Baby Run” that also includes the song “Up in Canada.” Ownership of the title of “Canada’s Band” seems to be in question with the loss of Gord Downie and his mastery of weaving threads of Canadiana into songs. Is there ever any conscious attempt to reflect your Canadian roots in lyrics, or do the songs kind of take their own shape as you write?
EWAN: I don’t think we really consciously try to think about the Canadian thing. You talk to certain people around the world and they tell you the Canadian thing is not marketable or not in your best interest. There’s a lot of Canadian bands that have been here that don’t break out elsewhere, the obvious one being the Tragically Hip. They didn’t quite cross over. That song just kind of came about because we spend so much time in the States and I was continually using the phrase “up in Canada” in conversation with people explaining what Canada’s like.
GOBE: You’ve also toured Sweden, Denmark and Oslo. Did you approach those shows any differently or make adjustments given the cultural and language differences?
EWAN: No, it’s just the same old show. In those particular countries you mention, people speak English very well. Even in Germany and Holland they speak English well. It’s really more France and Spain that they have less comprehension of English. It translates well. It’s really about the feeling and the melody. In places like Spain the crowd goes nuts and they chant along like it’s a soccer game. It just shows you the power of the melody and the riff. It’s more than just lyrics. I’m sure they’ve heard enough rock music to understand about love and heartbreak and all that kind of stuff. Music is pretty universal.
GOBE: You’re coming to Niagara this week to play Jackson-Triggs. Speaking of different kind of audiences, you might expect this one to be a typical wine and cheese setting but the crowds can be pretty raucous. Given the choice, would you rather entertain a crowd fueled by wine, beer, whiskey or weed?
EWAN: Typically beer is the best rock and roll audience. Weed, it’s a good vibe but it’s mellow. But you know what, before we ever did Jackson-Triggs I thought it was going to be a real “sitting in the lawn chairs sipping wine” kind of thing, but the crowd really rocks, man. They really party, even though they’re drinking wine. The energies there. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter.
GOBE: For those fans who may not have seen the band before, what can they expect.
EWAN: I would say the same thing. Lots of rock and roll music with lots of singing, lots of harmonies, lots of solos, different instruments coming out of the woodwork. We give you a really good time with lots of variety. It’s real feel good music.
GOBE: Do we get an extended clarinet solo?
EWAN: Ah, no! I save that for the studio where I can have as many takes to lay it down.
GOBE: Final question then. In 2013 “The Way It Is” was used to sell the Cadillac ATS – was there any internal debate in the band about using that tune for commercials?
EWAN: No, that song really is about nothing, so it’s not like there’s any compromised message. The music industry has changed so much. The way that bands make money, we don'’ make money on record sales because nobody buys records. You have to look at trying to make money other ways. There’s bills to pay, careers to maintain. We look at it as just another way to put gas in the vehicles and pay for flights. It’s funny that we live in a world that’s DJ dominated. Rock and roll bands make way less money but it cost so much more to pay for equipment, pay people. Obviously if there’s something we objected to we wouldn’t do it. In that particular case, we took the money and ran.
GOBE: I hope you also got five Cadillacs for the band.
EWAN: (laughing). Unfortunately, no.
The Sheepdogs are:
n Ewan Currie – vocals, songs, guitars, clarinet, drums
n Ryan Gullen – bass, backing vocals
n Sam Corbett – drums, backing vocals
n Shamus Currie – keyboards, trombone
n Jimmy Bowskill – guitars, mandolin, fiddle, banjo, pedal steel
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