After 23 years as a band, Sloan have done something they’ve never attempted before. Commonwealth, their 11th studio album, is divided into four solo sides each helmed by a different band member. Named after the four playing card suits, the solo sides each have a distinctive feel and focus while remaining characteristically Sloan.
The Peak sat down with guitarist and part-time lead singer Jay Ferguson to discuss the concept of the new album, the recording process, and the band’s ceaseless experimentation with the form and presentation of their unique brand of power-pop.
“Its nice to have a specific angle to a record as opposed to ‘here’s just another album’,” explains Ferguson. “We’re one of the few bands that could make an album like this, because everyone is already a singer and songwriter.”
Sloan have shared songwriting and lead vocals on each album, but this is the first time that the band has made such a deliberate break between the songs. While Ferguson’s side, “Diamond,” technically opens the album, he makes it clear that Commonwealth can be listened to in a far less traditional way. “It makes sense to listen to it as a record as opposed to a CD. There’s a natural break where you would flip the record over. But we didn’t want to present it even as side one, side two, side three, side four . . . you can kinda start the record anywhere.”
The divided nature of the record only serves to enhance each band member’s different songwriting styles, from Ferguson’s power-pop, to Chris Murphy’s more orchestral psychedelia to Patrick Pentland’s hard-hitting, distorted rock songs. “We all brought our own songs into the sessions. In terms of songwriting, everyone was pretty much left to their own devices,” Ferguson explains. “We knew what was going on with each other’s sides, but there were no boundaries. Everyone kinda does what they want.”
While much of the record could fit neatly with previous Sloan records, drummer Andrew Scott’s “Spade” stands out as an entirely different beast. The side consists of only one track “Forty-Eight Portraits,” an almost 18-minute medley of song splices reminiscent of side B of The Beatles’ Abbey Road. This medley style of songwriting has become something of a tradition for Sloan, whose records often consist of one- to two-minute songs that segue into one another, forming a cohesive whole.
“I love making songs like that. It’s an interesting way of presenting them. I was trying to make them more economical,” says Ferguson. “When you join them together like that, it’s one of the few experimental things you can do with a pop-rock format to make it more interesting. It’s one way to experiment with song form, you know, instead of making electronica or something that wouldn’t suit us.”
Ferguson says that the band has already started playing the epic “Forty-Eight Portraits” live, which will surely be a set highlight when the band hits the Commodore on October 18. “That was the first song we learned to play on the new record, we thought let’s just dive in and tackle the hardest one,” Ferguson explains. The unique nature of the medley, and the difficult nature of playing it live, are simply new ways that Sloan continue to challenge themselves and their listeners, creating something new and exciting out of the traditional form of rock n’ roll.
Sloan are clearly a band that know what they can do, and do it well. They write guitar based pop-rock songs that are catchy, economical, and simple — but never simplistic. After 23 years and 11 albums, Sloan may have not changed their songwriting style or musicianship drastically, but they’ve found new, creative ways to present and record their songs.
The medley form of their recent albums, with tight, short songs flowing into one another, has led to some of the biggest acclaim of their career. With Commonwealth, they’ve achieved another success: a drastic change in form that highlights each band member’s individual strengths while providing the listener with a challenging yet ultimately rewarding listening experience.