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WATCH: Sloan talks about new album ‘Commonwealth’

ABOVE: Watch members of Sloan appear on Global’s The Morning Show.

TORONTO – The new Sloan record, Commonwealth, distinguishes itself in many ways: it’s a double album, the second-longest of the band’s career; it’s divided into four sides, each a solo showcase for one of the quartet’s creative engines; and the final song is 18 minutes long, an Andrew Scott-penned marathon of superglued song sketches.

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And despite all that, the new Sloan record essentially sounds quite a bit like a Sloan record.

Of course, that can be said of pretty much everything in their catalogue since their adolescent (if audacious) debut recordings Peppermint and Smeared came out in 1992.

Little that they’ve done since 1994’s Twice Removed has sounded much like what was going on in rock music, but it’s all sounded of a piece: sure-footed, polished power pop.

“From our second record on, it’s like, what year is that, 1981? Or 1965? Or 2008?” pointed out Chris Murphy recently, surrounded at Toronto’s Gladstone Hotel by his bandmates Scott, Jay Ferguson and Patrick Pentland.

“A lot of the songs — I don’t know about all of them — could be on any of the records. It’s fairly interchangeable. Except for a deliberate attempt to make a streamlined record on our 2003 record, ‘Action Pact,’ it’s been pretty much just an eclectic, whatever you’ve got at the time (process). I could probably take all the songs that we have, which is 200 of them, and I could probably create albums out of it with different sounds or something.”

Here, Pentland interjects from a nearby couch.

“It’s odd, because … in a weird way, you’re kind of comparing us to AC/DC or something, where every record sounds the same. And you’re probably right,” said Pentland, clad in a Jesus and Mary Chain shirt.

“But it’s four AC/DCs because we’re all doing our own sound throughout it.

“None of us have really changed our sound that much, I guess.”

The process hasn’t changed much, either. Even as Commonwealth boasts its “four solo records” conceit — which indeed winks at Kiss and their ill-fated series of solitary ego workouts — Murphy stresses that the only real difference was the track sequencing. The four members worked largely in isolation on writing their songs, but that’s what they’ve always done.

In a way, the segregated nature of their contributions sort of goes against the band’s defining narrative of democracy and unity, one that sees them evenly splitting both the mike and the money.

But it’s the way they’ve worked since the second record, and any deviations from the formula were flitting and even infamous.

“When we recorded our album Action Pact,” began Murphy, again taking aim at the 2003 record, one of only two in the band’s discography that failed to chart in Canada, “we had a producer (Tom Rothrock), which we usually don’t have. And he was really into this idea of us recording everything together. So we’d come in, he’s a real ‘vibe’ guy — like a surfer basically — put on a click, weird beat, and be like: ‘Just play something. Now you play something. All right, YOU play something.’

“And it was just,” he pauses, “garbage.”

Considering that the band has always essentially been composed of four solo artists, their cohesion and consistency is surprising. Pentland attributes that in part to the fact that, individually, their tastes have been more or less unchanging since the band’s beginning.

On the other hand, Murphy says he’s been actively working to make timeless-sounding records since their distortion-contorted debut Smeared.

“I think that I spent some time being so mortified by our first album being so of the time, slash, behind the time that I was hell-bent on not feeling that way again.

“I don’t hate our first record anymore. I never really hated it. It (was just) so ’88, but we were doing it in ’91.”

Although their next record, 1994’s dramatically more mature and now-beloved Twice Removed, first laid down the blueprint for their sound — cheerfully lit power pop tinged with jangly psychedelia — they still hadn’t completely committed to the one-for-all thing.

“Patrick was probably trying to make songs within the confines (that) we were allowing him on that record,” Murphy pointed out. “He used to refer to Jay and me as the ‘alt gestapo.’”

“When we made that record, I thought: ‘What the (hell) are you doing? We made this record, it got us on a major label, and now you’re making a completely different record?’” Pentland recalled.

Finally with 1996’s One Chord to Another, the band achieved egoless equality. Pentland even gave the band its first two Top 10 singles in “The Good in Everyone” and “Everything You’ve Done Wrong” (their third, and to this point final, Top 10 hit was 1998’s “Money City Maniacs,” also a Pentland composition).

Each member of the band agrees that Sloan wouldn’t have lasted if it couldn’t constitute a creative outlet for all four players. They’re the first to drop the “democracy” term, by the way, although Murphy wants to clarify exactly what that means.

“We’re not a democracy where (we say), ‘What do you guys think of this song?’ and then we all vote or something. It’s not like that. It’s like: ‘OK, we’re all in this. We’re all going to give ourselves. Everybody’s going to get songs, and you can do them however you want.’”

And how are disagreements handled?

“If you don’t agree with someone, but the other guys do, you just have to step away and trust that they’re making the right decision,” Pentland replied.

“Or wait and say I told you so.”

Sloan’s last full-length, 2011’s lush and punchy The Double Cross, was critically celebrated by critics in the U.S. and did better there than some of their past records.

Still, Murphy points out, “we haven’t had a pay increase in 10 years.” The band seems utterly bored by discussion of sales or broadening their audience.

“It’s hard to compete with the nostalgia people have for the songs that came out in university or whenever they were in love with life or whatever,” said Murphy. “I think the music that we’re making is just as good, but it would be naive to think it’s going to have the same kind of effect on people.

“We’ll reach some young people, but it’s mostly people who have been following us all along, and our music has already changed their world in a way our latest record won’t.”

It was in part the disappointment surrounding the much-battered Action Pact — an album fuelled by a major investment from the label, Pentland says — that crystallized a way forward, one where Sloan would double down on its Sloanness and worry less about fitting in.

“A lot of pressure came off us,” remembered Pentland. “After a while, it was just like, this isn’t going to happen. We’re not going to be superstars. So let’s just focus on being us. We don’t care about being on Letterman anymore.”

©2014The Canadian Press

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