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Interview with Jay Ferguson from Sloan

Sloan, 1998
10 October 2019

Photo by Jannie McInnes

Canadian rock group Sloan has proven to be one of the most consistent and talented groups of the last thirty years. Don’t take my word for it; their second record, Twice Removed, was voted the greatest Canadian record of all time by a Chart Magazine reader’s poll in 2005; the band has been nominated for numerous Juno and East Coast Music Award awards over the course of their career; and their fan base continues to grow in numbers and intensity. The Halifax natives, on their twenty-eighth year together (and having recently released their critically acclaimed twelfth album 12), show no signs of slowing down, as the band celebrate 1998’s highly regarded Navy Blues in the form of a deluxe box set. This set is the latest in a series of reissues that have spawned tours and delighted audiences from the stage and from their turntables. Speaking from his home in Toronto, Sloan’s JAY FERGUSON sat down with Big Takeover recently to discuss Navy Blues, the reissue and the upcoming tour.

What was the inspiration behind the box set?

JAY FERGUSON: I think the original inspiration was from seeing what other artists were doing. I had originally wanted to do a tour of Twice Removed in 2009, which would have been the 15th anniversary of it. I don’t know if everyone was on board or it wasn’t the right time, or maybe we’d make a new studio album. We played a festival called Sappyfest in New Brunswick where we did Twice Removed in it’s entirety, and it was fun to play, and it was worth doing and we thought, “I bet you could do a tour of this and it would be good”. For me personally, I’ve always been a fan of bands that do reissues of older albums with a lot of extra material. A good example would be all those Elvis Costello records that came out on Rhino with a separate disc of demos and outtakes. His, I thought, were really well done with good liner notes and track annotations, and really geared for the fans who know the albums and really want to dig deeper. So, for me, as you would know as well, being a real fan of reissues of specific bands that you’re really into, it was something I was really interested in creating for our band, for the really uber Sloan fans. So when we decided to do the Twice Removed tour, it made sense to try a Twice Removed reissue at that point. So that spurred it on. I was inspired by the Sonic Youth box sets that had come out. They did one for Daydream Nation, for Goo and for Dirty. They were three LPs each, with a nice little booklet, and a download. I was kind of inspired by those coupled with the John and Yoko Wedding box set, which I thought was so nice because it had the record, but also, a couple of booklets, a poster and the little strip of photos from a photo booth. So it was almost like combing the Sonic Youth sets with the beauty of the John and Yoko Wedding album. So that was kind of the inspiration, but the real motivation would have been the Twice Removed tour—“Let’s do a reissue box set at the time of the tour, and fingers crossed, we can sell a thousand of them”.

It’s very clear how much time and effort is put in to these box sets. It must be exhausting putting all that together!

JAY FERGUSON: Well, the demos, for example, I have in a box of cassettes so it wasn’t too hard to separate the Twice Removed stuff from the One Chord To Another stuff, so that stuff is in one place. Same thing with Chris (Murphy), he has a lot of recordings as well. We had more than we needed for the demos and outtakes record, so it was a little bit trying to decide what was worth leaving off and what is worth keeping. So it was a little bit of balancing representation from everybody, and audio quality, and which is the best demo. For example, the song “Summer’s My Season”, which really didn’t really come to light until our Between The Bridges era as a b-side, or a Japanese bonus track, was demoed extensively during the Navy Blues time. There were, like, seven demos of that one song! So we used two different demos on the box set: one on the 7” single, and one on the outtakes record. So there’s a little bit of filtering and stuff like that, but it’s not too laborious. It’s better than trying to really scrounge up material. We’re lucky that we have enough; but in the end, it’s like “What photos do you leave out? What do you include?” Same with the audio. You try to use your best judgment of what sounds the best and what’s the most interesting. What has the different lyrics? What would be the most interesting for the fan? In those cases, being a fan myself (and Chris as well, to a degree), we just sort of ask ourselves, “What would be the most interesting for a fan, like “What would I like to hear the most?”, and just make the best judgment for it.

Was there any surprising material or songs you found while putting together this set?

JAY FERGUSON: The more surprising ones were the demo songs. Chris recorded some of Patrick (Pentland)’s demos on occasion, and when we discovered “Just One Shot”, which eventually became “The Day Will Be Mine” off of our last album “12”, that was surprising. Chris and I didn’t know that existed at all, so those were even more surprising… like finding some cool demo songs. Like Andrew (Scott)’s “Family Tree”, I remember parts of that song existing but I didn’t know we had a full vocal demo for it. So those were the real interesting parts for me. There were a lot of songs recorded for Navy Blues; it could have been a double album at the time. It helped actually that it wasn’t a double album because it meant there were songs to record for Between The Bridges.

It feels as though the Outtakes lp is like a bridge between One Chord To Another and Navy Blues.

JAY FERGUSON: Hmm, I see what you mean and yeah the outtakes for the most part seemed good enough to stand on their own and therefore inadvertently kind of formed a sort of “lost LP”…much in the same way that the outtakes collections both did from the previous two box sets. Even though they are not conceived as LPs, they are basically just a bunch of leftovers that kind of hang together nicely. Since there is a lo-fi nature to the overall sound of One Chord To Another, and many of the recordings on the Outtakes record are home recordings, you’re right it does make sense that there is an illusion of a sonic link between that LP and the more studio sound of Navy Blues.

At the time, Navy Blues (to me) felt like a new phase for Sloan after sort of breaking up and coming back with One Chord To Another.

JAY FERGUSON: A little bit. It was the first record, really, with high expectations because One Chord did so well. We did well at radio to a certain degree, and we had three high rotation videos at Much Music here in Canada, and the shows were getting bigger. So Navy Blues was the first record with real expectations both commercially and critically, to a degree. And it didn’t do as well as One Chord To Another. It came close. “Money City Maniacs” really did well for us at radio, and the video did well. “She Says What She Means” was a bit of an ambitious video, and I still really like it, but it definitely confused Much Music a little bit, and they didn’t play it as much. So we didn’t have that three video thing that really gave the album as much legs as One Chord To Another. So, it was a bit of a different era, but it still didn’t surpass sales of One Chord To Another. “Money City Maniacs” I think, as far a song at radio, definitely outlasted a lot of the songs on One Chord To Another. Like, “The Good In Everyone” and “Everything You’ve Done Wrong” are still played, but “Money City” is played at, like, Raptors games here in Toronto so that song really gave us legs and gave Navy Blues some legs as well.

It seems like this was a particularly fertile time for you guys as songwriters.

JAY FERGUSON: I think it was, like especially for Chris, Andrew and Patrick. Especially, I would say for Chris, who probably had the most leftover songs. It was definitely a good period for him. I feel like Chris generally always has a lot of songs on the go, but this time in particular it was a fruitful time for his songwriting for sure.

Is there anything about the record that, in retrospect, strikes you differently now?

JAY FERGUSON: I think for me a little bit, at the time, especially coming after One Chord To Another where the drums were recorded on cassette, and it definitely had a bit more of a scrappier, low fi sound that was exciting and energetic, recording Navy Blues I thought like, “Oh, we’re just making a studio record”, like it didn’t feel as special sonically. I thought the songs were good and everything like that, but I just kinda thought, “oh, we’re just making a standard studio record”. But listening back to it, I find it’s one of our best sounding records, easily. It’s great, it’s interesting…. we were doing fun, experimental things like cutting tape, splicing two songs together which we did on “Suppose They Close the Door” and “Sinking Ships”. I think it’s an exciting sounding rock record, which I didn’t appreciate maybe at the time. Also, I think a lot of people at the time kinda thought Sloan, as this Canadian indie band, making a record with like “Money City Maniacs” on it, or “She Says What She Means”, I think we were being criticized for like, “Oh, they’re just making a ‘70s hard rock record now”. But I feel like after you listen to the whole ting, that’s really not the case. It’s a record with a lot of variety on it, and to me, it sounds like a late ‘60s Abbey Road studio type of record, without sounding sort of high and mighty about it, but you know, I mean that style of recording or that sounds or whatever. To me, it doesn’t really come across as a 70s hard rock record or anything like that.

So you’ve just started the tour to celebrate Navy Blues, which you play in its entirety for the first set. How does it feel to revisit it after all this time, relearning and practicing the LP in order?

JAY FERGUSON: A big part of it so far after doing two shows, I’m just concentrating all the time (laughs). There are so many little guitar parts in, like in “Iggy and Angus” that we’ve worked out. “Suppose They Close The Door”, there are a lot of weird little parts, so it’s a lot of concentrating; it’s hard to enjoy myself so far. Hopefully it will become a little bit more muscle memory going on. But no, it’s satisfying. It actually makes me appreciate the album even more by playing the whole thing. Like I said, I hadn’t sat down and listened to Navy Blues all the way through in a long time, and I think it’s one of our best records and I love all the songs on it. You know, I will beat myself up over “I Wanna Thank You”, I’m kinda like “It’s kinda lame” (Interviewer VIGOROUSLY SHAKES HEAD). It’s fine, but whatever. But even playing that live I was like “Oh, you know, that’s not too bad of a crowd reaction”. It makes me realize how little I played on Navy Blues, to be honest. I played on my songs. I played a rhythm guitar, maybe, on “Keep On Thinkin’” and maybe on “Money City Maniacs”, but that might be about it. But on “Come On, Come On (We’re Gonna Get It Started) I think I played everything except the drums. I don’t remember why; I think Andrew was in town. It was the first record we made living in the City with Andrew and I think he was around a lot and played guitar on Chris’s songs. I think he played on “Suppose They Close The Door”, probably as well. So Andrew’s playing is on the record and I think the sound of it really reflects that. I think it’s great; I love Andrew’s guitar playing as well, and I think his style is felt on the record—and I think it’s better for it.

Is there a certain sense of nostalgia for you playing Navy Blues ?

JAY FERGUSON: Maybe a little bit, but I try to think of our body of work as just a body of work. Something we can play any part of, and it doesn’t really matter—it’s not about reliving old glories, it’s more just like being “We want to play these songs now”.

Sloan is currently touring Canada and the United States this autumn and winter. The new Navy Blues Deluxe set as well as all dates may be found at http://sloanmusic.com