Adding their own flavour to classic ‘70s rock’n’roll and the power of ’74 Waylon Jennings’ live shows.
Canadian band The Sheepdogs have been going for just over eighteen years, and thanks to the pandemic they are as excited about recording and playing live as they have ever been with tours played and scheduled plus a new album ‘Outta Sight’ to promote, and even a Christmas single ‘I’m Ready For Christmas’ which they recorded in 40 degrees of summer heat. Americana UK’s Martin Johnson caught up with founding members Ewan Currie, prime songwriter, lead vocalist, guitarist and keyboard player, and bassist and background vocalist Ryan Gullen over Zoom to get an insight into the world of The Sheepdogs and the affinity with their UK fans. Currie and Gullen confirm their loyalty to Canada and their home audience, though this loyalty has been known to be tested on winter tours in their frozen homeland. While they are influenced by classic rock’n’roll of the ‘70s, Currie and Gullen explain how they are always looking to put a Sheepdog spin on their music, which is rock’n’roll with dollops of folk and ameicana, though the guys aren’t keen to define their music too much. They also wax lyrical about playing at Levon Helms Barn, and what that experience meant to them. Finally, Ewan Currie may be proud of his rock’n’roll heart, but he shares his obsession with Waylon Jennings’ live recordings from ‘74.
How are you?
Ryan Gullen (RG): We are currently at home but will be leaving on tour tomorrow. We sort of split the North American tour over a couple of legs and we are going now until the 18th of December. We are doing over fifty dates in North America in total so we are trying to split them up a little bit
What did the pandemic mean for the band?
RG: Probably the worst thing that happened to us was that we all got COVID when we came to England in February and got stranded there, but apart from that we managed to stay healthy. It is pretty great to be able to get back at it and play rock shows to packed rooms again. No matter what we did during the pandemic, it was nothing like playing live and travelling to different countries because we were stuck in Canada only a little while ago.
Ewan Currie (EC): In the end, we did a lot of recording which was good, and what was not good about it was that it was really limiting to musicians and bands because so much of what we do is being in a room with people, which was the very thing we were avoiding. We kept making all these plans but everything kept getting cancelled because here in Canada the restrictions kept changing, so just when we thought we had a plan it was out of the window because the regulations changed. We were always trying to make sense of something, and in the end, the best thing we could do was just go to our studio and record. Here we are out on the road now, but we managed to put out an EP and one full-length record that we made during COVID.
‘Outta Sight’ is a very upbeat and joyful record, was that deliberate?
KC: I’m not really negative, though I can be negative in my personal interactions if I need to be, haha, and I like optimistic music. We always try to be optimistic with the music, and we are like a good-time band and we are pretty sure nobody wants to wallow in the COVID era talking about being stuck inside and wearing masks and stuff. We just want to keep it fun, and that has always been what our music has been about.
RG: I think there was also an optimism about the music, I think we thought we would be doing what we are doing when the music was finally released, being back in rooms playing to people and like music being back, which kept us positive. We wanted to make an album that would be fitting for that and we were optimistic about that. The process was very frustrating because there were a lot of stops and starts, and uncertainty about how, where, and when we could make the record. We were all in the same city and room, we didn’t want to do it over Zoom, and I think we had great optimism because of that.
What are the songwriting dynamics within the band?
EC: I wrote a bunch of stuff, and usually what I do is demo things and they can be anything from a guitar and a voice to sometimes I will put some drums on, play bass and maybe add harmonies. I will then usually place some demos in a file and send them to the guys, and I like to see what they are immediately vibing on. When we got to the studio, it was just like, what do you guys like? The first thing we did in the studio on the day was listen to the demos, and the guys immediately threw out what they were reacting to because you want people to be stoked about it, you want that energy to come up right away. You don’t want to force through what you are working on. We would then just go into the other room where everything was set up, sit in a circle and just try and hack our way through them. It was really basic, but it was a kind of back-to-basics record. Everything was so tricky due to COVID, and it was funny when the Beatles documentary ‘The Beatles: Get Back’ came out during the pandemic, it is kind of a good analogy for us because we were kind of getting back to the basics of just being in a room and playing. We were very much sitting around and playing like The Beatles do in that doc, where we had our stuff set up, though we were stoned and we didn’t bring our wives or anyone. Less people around, and doing things for sure, haha.
RG: That is one of the things we enjoyed about making this record, it was like the essence of the band from the early days. In the very early days the three original members myself, Ewan, and our drummer Sam would just get together and sit in the basement have a few beers and just throw around ideas and play together, and this was sort of reminiscent of that. We sat around in a circle and jammed the song and when we felt it was ready to cut we would hit record. The moments were captured with everyone playing together rather than being piecemeal or doing it over a longer period. Each song for the most part was formulated in that moment and recorded in that moment.
It sounds like you enjoyed the recording sessions, even though the circumstances may have been strange. Did you get any sense of the band being rejuvenated because you’ve been going for nearly twenty years?
EC: Yeah, eighteen years last summer I think. The pandemic was a really shitty time, and we couldn’t do shit so being able to pick up our guitars and play music was very, very satisfying. That classic thing of not knowing what you’ve got until it has gone was going on for a while, and that made it a bit extra special. For a band like us who have been a band for a long time, and we’ve done a lot of touring, I find that now we are touring again I’m feeling fresher and enjoying it more than I have in years, and there is no doubt that the pandemic is playing a role when it was snatched away for a bit.
RG: Yeah, and I agree with Ewan that this is something we have essentially been doing for eighteen years, and it has been none stop for the majority of those years, and having an enforced stop was a bit of a refreshing thing. I find in music you are always thinking many steps ahead, you are on tour and you are thinking about the shows coming up sometimes more than being in the moment of the show you are playing. Once a record is done you are thinking about another record, and I think having it stop, and everybody having to stop so you are not losing out by not being busy, I think as a band it allowed us to recalibrate a little bit. I think it allowed us to approach things with a refreshed attitude, both the excitement of getting back to do something you didn’t miss until it had gone, or thinking about how we can be a bit smarter with the touring and having a moment to try to think how are we going to make the record. When the pandemic started we were about to go in and make an album in 2020 in the States, and a bunch of tours ended up getting cancelled, and in that pause at a time when we were supposed to be really busy, had a pretty positive outcome for our band if only for our mentality and mental health and things like that.
You are still based in Canada, why haven’t you moved South to America?
RG: We are from the centre of Canada, and it is pretty isolated, but Ewan and I both live in Toronto now which is the centre of it all for the most part. There is always that temptation to move to America, with musicians moving to LA, New York, or Nashville, and I think all of us at some point have considered it, but we are still very much a Canadian band, and Canada is very important to us. For the most part, the biggest success that we have is in Canada, so it makes sense that we have our home base in Canada but we travel to other places, and are families and the majority of our friends are all here. Being on tour a lot, and being in these other places on a regular basis maybe there is a little bit of a need or desire left. We are about to go across Canada on tour through November and December and it is going to be unbelievably cold, and when we get to the California part of the tour we will be asking why aren’t we living in LA, haha.
You seem to have cornered part of the Juno Award market, what does that mean to you?
RG: It is funny, we’ve won four of them and have been nominated many times, but we are not the type of band that sets out to win awards, it is very nice when it happens, but we don’t make that our thing. All the times we’ve won a Juno Award we’ve been on tour so we’ve missed the award show, and every time we’ve gone to the Juno Award Show when we’ve been nominated, we haven’t won an award, so we’ve joked next time we’re nominated maybe we shouldn’t go, haha. It is nice to get the recognition, and those weekends are kind of fun with partying with your friends’ bands, but for the most part, it is not our thing to chase awards or anything like that.
What do you think are the main characteristics of the Sheepdogs sound, how would you describe it?
EC: I struggle with that when you are just having a conversation, I’m a musician but then people ask what kind of music we play I’m like, I like singing rock’n’roll but I know that is too generic. Sometimes people say ‘70s classic rock, and we are not ashamed of that because it is a beautiful era of music. We laugh about it at times, but we know we fit with americana and folk as well. We’ve played festivals with hard rock heavy metal bands, and we’ve been on jamband stuff lately as well in the States where there are different names and different labels. We are rock’n’roll, we’re guitars, we’re harmonies, but the thing with music, and I don’t want to quote Frank Zappa here, is it can be anything you want it to be. To me that is the beauty of it, you just have to let your ears tell you what it is.
RG: We don’t really want to pinpoint any one single thing, and we want to challenge ourselves to be different and try to do different things, and as such we don’t want to look to just one kind of music. It is really interesting, in the UK we’ve found our audience and we did a tour with Rival Sons, which is obviously more of a heavier rock band, and we also played Black Deer Festival multiple times where we are playing with more americana and roots bands and fitting right in. We really like that, the fact we can go and slot into different places. ‘Outta Sight’ is a much more a rock’n’roll record, whereas our last album was maybe more of a folk and americana type record. It’s funny because we will meet people and they are like we remind them of this particular band, there was somebody recently who told us we really reminded them of Molly Hatchet. That is a band I’ve not really listened to, to be honest, but it was still cool because that band was dear to that person so I will take it. So that is one of the funny things about trying to pinpoint what we do as a band, and we just try to be eclectic from where we try and pull inspiration from. We don’t want to be absolutely derivative of that ‘70s rock thing, we do still want to be creative with our music.
I seem to recall some footage on social media of you guys at Levon Helm’s Barn, what did he mean to you, and what did seeing the facility up close feel like?
KC: Oh, that was amazing, super cool. You know what it is, it is like every musician who ever walks in there will be like, I wish I had this, or our version of this because it is like in a beautiful, wooded part of Upstate New York, and you’ve got this nice wooden house, or cabin, and a place for musicians to go, and the people who go there are real music lovers. There is even a big pond you can go and sit by, and it is very musical and very welcoming, and it is a real music lovers kind of place and the vibe is like instant, everybody was in a good mood there. When you walk into a good venue you just feel the vibe, and that probably means you are going to have a good show.
RG: And then you add that Levon Helm lived there and all that magic, and then there is all the stuff that was recorded there. There is just really good energy in that place, and it was great to chat with all the people who work there, and most of them have been there since the early days, just local folks from Woodstock who have been brought into the family when Levon moved there. It was a real special one for us because we are naturally really big fans of The Band, and we love Levon as the one non-Canadian member of The Band. There are a lot of venues that have a special energy for various reasons, but that one was extra special, being welcomed into what was Levon’s home, and his wife still lives there. It was a pretty neat experience, and I remember hearing how amazing The Rambles were, but we never got to go, but to have the honour of being able to play there in that same space was pretty incredible.
You’ve just been to the UK as well, I believe.
RG: We were only there for four days, we just did a quick run of shows there, and I think I mentioned before we went there in February and did a run when basically things were only just beginning to open up, and the shows sold out and were really well received, and we got COVID and had to cancel a show in Bristol, and we got stuck there for a bit until we tested negative and could come home. We wanted to come back and make up for that Bristol show, and also because our Manchester and London shows were all sold out we thought we should do some more shows there. It was really quick, and we’ve been really well received, the fans are enthusiastic and receptive in the UK, and technically we’ve been there three times, and on a fairly regular basis we get a festival in June, haha.
Are there any differences between your American/Canadian audiences, and those in the UK?
EC: Yeah, I think so, but it is really difficult to think of the how and the what.
RG: I think there is a little bit more of an americana audience in the UK, whereas our American audience is maybe a little bit more rock-leaning, but it is really hard to say. What I think is interesting about the music we play in the UK and the US is they are places we are constantly going to and trying to grow, and what is really enjoyable, and we are seeing now, is that places we haven’t been able to go to for a while in the UK we feel really welcomed back. Things feel ten times bigger than they are in some cases, so we maybe don’t have a gigantic following in the UK but it is certainly a dedicated audience.
EC: I don’t know, it is really hard to say. It is interesting that there is more difference between the UK and Europe, so in Europe they love rock’n’roll but they don’t have a lot of bands who are doing it credibly, so rock’n’roll is seen as an American art form, it is an English speaking art form. I think the Brits do rock’n’roll as well, and probably better, as anybody. You just have to look at the track record of the greatest Scottish, Irish and English bands. Americana is even more specific to Americans. I think when you get a country twinge, or a southern rock thing, that is a little bit more rare over there, and European fans do appreciate bands who bring something a bit different.
You’ve got a Christmas single, what is the story behind that, and who is Santa this year?
KC: Whoever fits in the suit, haha.
DC: Come the end of December we can decide who has put on the most weight after we are back to eating out every day now we are on tour, haha.
KC: Seamus, my brother, and I have done a couple of Christmas songs with our BROS side project, so we are kind of experienced in the Christmas space, but this is the first time we’ve done a Sheepdogs’ single. It is fun, and not something you think of doing when you start a band, and it is a weird thing, you assume there are a million Christmas carols out there, but they are just another version of ‘Jingle Bells’, or the same twelve Christmas carols we always hear. There is a surprising thirst that people have for new Christmas songs, so we figured we would throw our hat in the ring and write a Sheepdog song that was about Christmas, haha.
When did you record it?
DC: That’s always the funny thing, we recorded it in the middle of summer, and I remember it being 40 degrees Celsius. The air conditioning was all that was making it feel in the least bit bearable. You are never going to be able to record a Christmas song at Christmas, you are always going to have to record it months in advance. I just remember being unbelievably hot, classic, haha.
Were you tempted to decorate the studio?
KC: We should have just cranked the air conditioning.
DC: And put some of that spray stuff on the control room windows, haha.
KC: It is weird having to have that mindset when you are wearing shorts, or whatever, but that is why we are professionals, you know, haha.
DC: Our whole joke all along was that if you want a Christmas song you just have to add the sleigh bells, it was when we put the sleigh bells on that it took shape, for sure, haha.
At Americana UK we like to ask interviewees what they are listening to now, the top three artists, albums, or tracks on their playlists?
RG: An artist that I’ve just discovered because I saw them open for Marcus King in New Orleans when we had a day off there, is Neil Francis. I’d heard the name but I hadn’t investigated too much, but I bought both his records at the show and I’ve been listening to them since. He is up and coming but I think people will really dig him.
EC: I’ve been listening to this guy, Waylon Jennings, haha, a young upstart. I’ve been on a real Waylon Jennings kick these last couple of months, and most recently I’ve been digging his 1976 live album. I can’t believe how good it is, it was recorded in ’74 in Texas, and the crowd are just going mental for all the Texas references, it is just awesome.
It is more rock’n’roll than country.
KC: It is super rock, the band is just chugging, and he’s singing great with great solos. I’ve really been loving listening to live records because that is what I do every night, and I find it really inspiring. I like trying to learn something to throw into our own set, you know.
RG: The Sheepdogs recorded a live album about a year ago finally when shows were allowed to come back inside in Toronto, at least, we did four nights at a legendary venue in Toronto called Lee’s Palace. We recorded those four shows and put a record out called ‘Live At Lee’s’ and we’ve just released it on vinyl as well. It was one of those things where we always thought we should put out a live record, and we didn’t necessarily plan to record those shows but it was so special because the energy was just great because it was the first show indoors for everybody since the pandemic so it was really fun to do.
Is there anything you want to say to our UK and European Readers?
EC: No because I never have an answer to that question, haha. I’m happy to answer any questions people ask, but everything that I need to say is in the music, I think.
DG: If you haven’t heard of us, check out some of our songs and come see us sometimes, because we seemingly come over all the time, haha.
The Sheepdogs’ ‘Outta Sight’ is out now on WEA International and ‘I’m Ready For Christmas’ is also out now as a digital single release.