Nova Scotia

One Chord to Another: How Sloan survived a breakup to make their biggest album

When Halifax rock band Sloan regrouped in late 1995 to record their third and most commercially successful album, One Chord to Another, there was turmoil within the band. To mark the 25th anniversary of its release, CBC News spoke with the band to learn how it channeled tension into triumph.

The 1996 album was supposed to be Sloan's last one, but it ended up providing the blueprint for their career

From left: Sloan members Chris Murphy, Jay Ferguson, Patrick Pentland and Andrew Scott circa 1996. Their album One Chord to Another, dating from that year, was supposed to be their last, but wound up being their most commercially successful album. (Catherine Stockhausen)

When Halifax rock band Sloan regrouped in late 1995 to record their third and most commercially successful album, One Chord to Another, there was turmoil within the band.

For the release of their 1994 album Twice Removed, their U.S. record label, Geffen, declined to promote the album and provided little support to their U.S. tour, resulting in poorly attended shows. There was also tension among the band members over drummer Andrew Scott's decision to move to Toronto in 1993 to be with his girlfriend.

"And then when we got off the road, all of these problems that had bubbled up, I think, from a few years of touring and not really knowing each other that well, really hit," said guitarist Patrick Pentland.

"The way that we were arguing then is how we argue all the time [now], but back then it was a big deal, so it's like the band split up out of an argument."

Sloan is shown in an undated live photo from the One Chord to Another era. In this photo, Murphy plays drums, rather than bass, while Scott plays keyboards, instead of drums. Ferguson, who is facing the audience, normally plays rhythm guitar, but is playing bass in this photo. (Catherine Stockhausen)

While Sloan played some contractually obligated shows in 1995, the band's future was murky. Bassist Chris Murphy and guitarist Jay Ferguson both wanted to make one more album as a means of helping finance their record label, Murderecords. Pentland wanted the group to continue and Scott was keeping an open mind.

But out of the uncertainty, the band's biggest album, released in 1996, was born.

To mark the 25th anniversary of the release of 'One Chord to Another', the CBC's Richard Woodbury spoke with the band to learn how it channeled tension into triumph. 9:19

In honour of One Chord to Another's 25th anniversary, CBC News spoke to the band members about the making of the album and how it laid the blueprint for their now three-decade career.

Interviews have been condensed and edited for clarity.

Scott: Well, it was kind of a renewed chance to revisit what it was like to be in Sloan before Geffen came into the picture. It just made the approach to it so much more loose, and let's just do it for fun again and see what happens.

The process of recording One Chord to Another and Twice Removed couldn't have been any more different. Twice Removed was recorded in Hoboken, N.J., at Lenny Kravitz's studio, and at a studio in New York over a period of around two months at a cost of $120,000 US.

Murphy: Twice Removed was so wasteful. A lot of the budget was just about hanging out in New York.

Pentland: It was distracting making Twice Removed.

Unhappy with the finished product of Twice Removed and its Beatlesque sound, as well as the challenge of marketing a group made up of four songwriters with no leader like in most bands, Geffen decided to not promote the album in the U.S. after the band declined to rerecord it. In Canada, Twice Removed was distributed by MCA, which put more of a push into promoting the album.

While Geffen was interested in releasing Sloan's next album, the band's past experience with their label and uncertainty regarding their future meant they were wary of having Geffen release their third album.

Sloan's One Chord to Another was released on June 12, 1996. (Robert Short/CBC)

Murphy: We always kind of thought of [Murderecords] as an insurance policy for when we came crawling back, looking to put out our own records.

Pentland: I felt that I can write good songs and a lot of attention at that point was being given mainly to Chris, which was warranted because he had written most of the songs on Smeared (Sloan's first album).

With Scott in Toronto and some questions about his commitment to Sloan, the band wasn't sure what to expect from the material he was working on.

Scott: Chris Murphy probably thought I was going to deliver a bagpipe, hip hop, ragtime recording to go with the 60s, 70s rock that Sloan are typically known for. And I didn't, and I never would.

This photo shows an alternate take for the image that became the One Chord to Another cover. (Catherine Stockhausen)

Ferguson: We didn't really know what his songs were going to be on One Chord to Another. I think Chris was worried that Andrew was going to send a couple of songs that really didn't fit in with what we were doing. And when Andrew sent down the rough mixes of tracks that he had recorded in Toronto, A Side Wins and 400 Metres, I think we were all very excited because they sounded awesome and they fit in perfectly what with what we were doing.

With Sloan picking up the tab for recording One Chord to Another, the decision was made to record it in Halifax at a recording studio located above an office on Barrington Street. The location of the building — between the Macdonald and MacKay bridges — provided the inspiration for the title of Sloan's fifth album, Between The Bridges.

Pentland: It's not exactly as glamorous, but that was fine because we figured that'll be how we end things, just like how we began things, you know, in a little indie release or whatever.

Murphy: We had all been in DIY underground bands where we're recording albums or recording cassettes in somebody's basement or a really small studio.

Sloan perform at the Juno Awards in Hamilton on March 7, 1999. The band won for Best Alternative Album at the Junos in 1997 for One Chord to Another, marking their first and only Juno win. The 1997 Junos were also held in Hamilton. (Kevin Frayer/The Canadian Press)

To save on studio fees, the band recorded mostly on evenings and weekends. Ferguson, Murphy and Pentland were in Halifax, while Scott was in Toronto.

Murphy: We definitely didn't like fooling around in the studio, like, we would kind of work things out at home and then come in and really know what we were doing.

When it came time to record the drums, the decision was made not to do it in the studio but at Sloan's rehearsal space using a four-track cassette recorder when Scott was in Halifax during Christmas 1995.

Scott: It was a very productive couple of hours.

'I really thought that One Chord to Another was Patrick taking complete ownership and basically kind of taking over and, you know, kicking ass,' says Murphy. Pentland wrote two of the album's biggest hits: The Good in Everyone and Everything You've Done Wrong. (Catherine Stockhausen)

The approach was reminiscent of 1960s recording techniques and gave the drums a vintage sound.

Scott: Oh, I love it. It's incredible. Sounds like a Who record.

The album's producer, Laurence Currie, was not a fan of the drum sound.

Ferguson: He wanted us to credit us for recording the drums on the album. He didn't want his name to be attached to the drum recording because they just sounded so scrappy. But to us, they sounded very exciting.

Another example of the band's do-it-yourself approach was how they recorded the piano parts in the track Junior Panthers. Lacking a piano in studio, they instead recorded the parts at Murphy's parents place and again used the four-track cassette recorder.

Murphy: Not being proficient piano players, I played the left hand and [Jay] played the right hand.

Murphy played the root note, while Ferguson played the chord.

While Sloan's first album, Smeared, was heavily influenced by shoegaze music from the U.K. that the band was listening to, Twice Removed had Beatles and Fleetwood Mac influences. For One Chord to Another, the album had an eclectic mix of styles and was released on June 12, 1996.

The album's opening track,The Good in Everyone, is a smidge over two minutes long and sounds like something by The Sex Pistols.

Scott: The Good in Everyone is pretty awesome because it packs a solid one-two punch.

Murphy: Jay and I were looking at each other saying, "Geez, I don't know. Which one of us is going to tell him, basically, that he can't do that? That's outside of the palette that we're using here." And then in the end, we just let him keep it and I'm glad that we did. It was perfect. It meant we weren't just an indie rock band, we could show off our our hard rock influences.

Pentland also wrote Everything You've Done Wrong, which features trumpet player Mike Cowie.

Murphy: As he was blowing the trumpet, we were in the control room basically giving each other noogies and wrestling, just so giddy, like, "Look at us. This is our record."

Pentland: I kind of wanted it to sound like Chicago, and it did sound kind of like Chicago.

He does have one regret about the album.

Pentland: My problem with One Chord is my voice. I feel like I wasn't very confident and some people that I've talked to like my voice on those songs, but I feel like my voice is way better now than it was 25 years ago.

To promote the album, the band received a grant and made a video for The Good in Everyone, which got heavy airplay on MuchMusic. Prior to that, the band's videos only got sporadic interest from the network. The band decided to play some shows and the songs were popular on radio as well. One Chord to Another ended up selling more than 80,000 copies.

Murphy: And through luck and circumstance, it became our most commercially successful album. That $8,000 bought us our freedom.

Pentland: The blueprint it established was that we were capable of making our own records, either by ourselves or in whatever studio we chose. We didn't need anybody else. We're very self-sufficient as a band. We own our records. We own our publishing. We can distribute our records anywhere we want to.

Ferguson: There's so many friends that we have that are in bands that were on major labels and were tied up for periods of time. And then, they're off the major label and they don't know what to do or they don't have a lot of control over their career.

Sloan receive the Directors' Special Achievement Award at the 2018 East Coast Music Awards gala in Halifax. The band is currently working on its 13th album. (Darren Calabrese/The Canadian Press)

Since One Chord to Another, Sloan has released nine more studio albums. The bigger songwriting role Pentland took on for One Chord to Another translated into other big hits for the band.

Murphy: Patrick started the run of The Good in Everyone, Everything You've Done Wrong, Money City ManiacsLosing California, If It feels Good Do It. They were all massive, our biggest singles.

Sidelined from touring because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the band has tour dates lined up for this fall and is working on its 13th album, which it hopes to release in the fall of 2022.

Ferguson: I feel grateful that that we did not just end things at the end of Twice Removed and that we decided to carry on.

Scott: It makes me feel like the luckiest guy on the planet, 100 per cent.

Murphy: I'd like to think that we're still making good stuff. You know, hopefully 25 years from now, people are into the record that we're making right now.

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