Great Big Sea celebrates two decades of music

Members Bob Hallett and Alan Doyle open up about how the St. John's band has lasted for 20 years, and what award they not-so-secretly crave.
Bob Hallett and Alan Doyle of Great Big Sea are promoting the band's upcoming 20th anniversary with a new compilation, XX. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

The members of Great Big Sea haven't spent much time looking back over the years — and they've spent even less time patting each other on the back.

"Kicking each other in the ass is probably more like it," laughed the band's Bob Hallett in an interview this week in Toronto, seated next to frontman Alan Doyle.

Well, that changed as the band reached its 20th anniversary, marking the occasion with the newly released career-spanning retrospective XX, available either as a two-disc collection or a four-CD, one-DVD boxed set, replete with oddities, rarities and eccentricities sure to appeal to fans with a completist streak.

Well, since the St. John's folk-rock troubadours were already reflecting, The Canadian Press asked Hallett and Doyle to retrace their steps along a journey that almost exclusively followed those roads less travelled.

Answers have been condensed and edited.

Canadian Press: Putting this collection together required revisiting a lot of old tunes. Did you feel the impulse to change anything?

Alan Doyle: God yes.

Bob Hallett: Everything. Given time, we would have gone back and re-recorded it all again. (Laughs) But what was fun was to hear ideas that went astray or got left behind ... and say, "No, that was a great one. Why did we let that go?" Or, "That was terrible. Why did we persist so long?"

Bob Hallett and Alan Doyle of Great Big Sea. Says Doyle, 'The way to be in a band for a lifetime is to want to be in a band for a lifetime.' (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

CP: Is there a record you look back on more fondly than the rest?

Doyle: (1995's) Up... was a crash course in how to make a record. We felt the weight of expectations. I just remember realizing halfway through that we really had no clue what we were doing, and we couldn't speak a musical language that every other musician could seemingly speak. I remember Danny Greenspoon produced that record and he would say very common musical terms, like, "Just sing a third above and we'll go from there." Well, I have no idea what that is. What does that mean?

Hallett: The one for me that stands out ... would probably be (2005's) The Hard and the Easy record. After a long period of being heavily produced, and making records very quickly and really worrying about how they'd sell ... that record was made in an atmosphere of complete indifference and freedom. No one was expecting it to sell. There's not a song on that that I can't listen to and say, "That's a great song."

CP: So, how about the opposite — is there an album you look upon less fondly?

Hallett: I would echo Alan — Up. Even though it's a record that sold almost a million copies, I find it painful to listen to because I hear us struggling with the process, and trying to come to grips with the idea of making records like a real band, and re-learning our instruments and how to sing and everything. I remember how difficult it was, to turn into professionals overnight.

Doyle: We realized very quickly how in over our heads we were.

Hallett: Oh my God. "We're phonies. We're complete frauds."

CP: Not many bands make it 20 years. How do you maintain harmony?

Doyle: The way to be in a band for a lifetime is to want to be in a band for a lifetime. Not to want to have the greatest summer of your life or to have a No. 1 single and then go and spend the money on a plane.

CP: Was there ever a time in those 20 years where you worried the band would break up?

Doyle: Only every day. Constantly. You constantly worry. And if worry is too strong a word, it's constantly on our minds because we've always considered ourselves so lucky to get to do it. The only ones rowing the boat are us. It's not going to coast. So yeah, I think it's that kind of honest desire to keep it moving forward and a fear of it stopping that has always driven us.

Hallett: We always felt like underdogs. We're here with accordions and our bodhrans trying to get on radio.

Doyle (sarcastically): Yeah, we had a very serious plan to overtake the charts with sea shanties. It was brilliant.

CP: You've been nominated for 11 Junos, but you've never won. Be honest: does it bother you?

Doyle: Of course. Yeah.

Hallett: Losing, that's fun!

Doyle: We always put on our posters, "Juno nominees." Really what that means is Juno losers. The reason we haven't won a Juno is because it's hard to win a Juno, because there's a lot of good records. There's times where I've felt like the records that won the awards that year, well, of course they were going to win — they're amazing. There's other ones where I've thought, "I think we should have had a shot at that." But you know, it would be great to finally win one so we could take that "Juno losers" off our posters.

Hallett: You know all those speeches at the Oscars, "It's great just to be nominated." No, it's not. Nobody goes into a contest hoping to come in second. You want to win. But to say does it bother us? Literally the only time we ever think about it is when someone asks us a question. I'm not sitting at home at night going, "God, I wish I had a Juno!"

CP: You've consistently released platinum or gold albums. Is there a sense that the popularity of the band is underrated by the Canadian music industry?

Doyle: It's been a blessing to a certain degree. There's definitely people in the Canadian music business that, one day when they open a piece of paper and they look at Great Big Sea's ticket sales or album sales, they're going to be shocked. Very well established people in the Canadian music business will go: "Oh. Really? I thought they were a pub band."

Hallett: We've never had a top 10 hit. Our last song that made the top 20 was in 1999 (Consequence Free). We've been really lucky to have a big year at the business level but to do it outside the critical radar of the music business.

Playing live has 'never been hard'

CP: Your live shows have had a good reputation.

Doyle: It's never been hard for us. Even before Great Big Sea started, we were born out of the corners of pubs in downtown St. John's. And those rooms aren't quiet little coffee houses where people come to hear the tender word — man, you better go in swinging or you're not coming out. You really have to be up to the task. When we got to do concerts — ticketed concerts where people came to hear our songs and that was the main reason they were in the room — it was easy. All we have to do is play. We don't have to compete with the gambling machine and the screech-ins and the rum toss.

Hallett: All the stuff you worry about ... the sound is terrible, or the strings broke, or you forgot the words? All that stuff had happened to us a million times. Getting booed off the stage? At least they weren't fighting with us. Playing those dockside pubs for sailors and drunk students was a massive way to learn the music business from the outside in.

CP: Did you have any memorably bad gigs?

Doyle: Thousands. (One was in) Jackson, Mississippi. Bullet holes in the side of this biker bar, I'll never forget. It was called Nick's. We're in the deep south, and this is the day that (former prime minister Jean) Chretien announced that no, we're not going to join the war effort in (Iraq). We were in a (tour) bus that had been wrapped ... in a big Canadian flag on the side. So, we were going to die. There's going to be a race riot against Canadians. It wasn't a great gig. We had about 40 people there. Thirty of them were there to throw stuff at us.

(But) I've often found that because we're successful, people think it's because we didn't make any or many mistakes. And of course nothing could be further from the truth. Massive, epic failures, constantly. That's what saves you because you learn how to do stuff, you learn how not to do stuff.

CP: You must be considered the most successful musical export from St. John's of all time.

Hallett: If success is measured in sales and concert tickets, we're ahead of everyone else by a factor of 10. But that's not all of it either. Ron Hynes has probably written more beautiful songs than we ever will. Figgy Duff reached into the past and made it real in a way that we've never been able to achieve.

Representing Newfoundland

CP: Has representing Newfoundland ever felt like a heavy thing to carry around?

Doyle: No, it never felt like a heavy thing and it still doesn't, even though we realized that we were probably going to be people's first impression of Newfoundland and we wanted it to be a good one. We never set out to be the poster boys of Newfoundland tourism necessarily. We just love where we're from and don't mind talking about it.

CP: Twenty years ago, did you anticipate this sort of longevity?

Hallett: Early on, we all quit our jobs as a way of sharpening the point of our ambition. The first couple years, everybody had a Plan B — I'll go back to school, I'll be a lawyer, (or) substitute teacher. Five or six years in, we realized: there is no Plan B now. This is what we're doing, for better or worse, rich or poor.

Doyle: Years ago we really hoped in our heart of hearts that we were making something that we could do forever. And even though we wouldn't have said that out loud, that's what we hoped. And that's what we still hope.