After their recent Coachella announcement and playing to packed houses of screaming fans for the last few months including last night’s performance at The Great Canadian Cabin in Ottawa, it’s clear that The Sheepdogs are living the dream. But rewind six months back, and you will find them fighting to find their place in the rocky and not-so-nurturing Canadian music scene. Many attribute their recent surge of success to millions of online readers of Rolling Stone voting them the winners of the magazine’s cover competition in August of last year — a win that crowned these humble musicians from southern Saskatchewan, the first unsigned band to land the cover of the taste-making music title. But there is a lot more to this prairie rock band than good publicity and a shot of good luck.
Working multiple jobs, tagging-in and out of their recording space, and never compromising their sound or mission, The Sheepdogs are the makers of their own success. They have been making music together for more than six years, and from the release of their first album in 2006 to their latest LP, Learn and Burn, their diverse influence, ranging from The Doors to the Beatles, shine through. Following what might be called the ‘Neil Young’ model, this group of Canadian musicians never gave up the classic Southern rock sound that inspires them. Rather than making concessions and tagging on to industry trends, the group continued to create and strive for something unique and completely contrary to everything else currently making waves in pop music.
Their ‘70’s inspiration doesn’t end with their music. One look at their Rolling Stone cover is enough to throw one back in time; the beards, bell-bottoms and long hair together conjure the legendary men and women behind the vintage sounds The Sheepdogs own songs pay tribute to.
Away from the madness of the bands throngs of fans, FILLER sat down with bass player Ryan Gullen’s in the band’s tour bus to talk about the whirlwind he and the boys have experienced over the last few months, their new found position as fashion icons, and the makings of their unique vintage sound.
You’re from Saskatoon, but you sound like you’re from the South. Where’s the connection?
Southern Saskatchewan (laughing)… just joking. I think the connection just comes from the type of music we like to listen to. I mean, there isn’t a sound that pertains to Saskatchewan necessarily but we just like music and a lot of Southern music. Would be no different than bands like The Rolling Stones or the Kinks or something like that, who took an old American sound that they like and made their own spin on it. We are kind of the same. We aren’t pretending we are from the South. We have a song called Southern Dream that is about being in Saskatchewan and being cold and wishing that you were down somewhere where it was warm and there are more interesting things to do than being in Saskatchewan. We don’t pretend that we are from there, but it kind of comes from the music that we listen to I guess.
The same goes for your vintage sound I’m guessing, does that also have to do with using vintage equipment?
Not really, Ewan and Lee have older amps. They have old 70’s amps, but a lot of that comes form the way we recorded it, in a funny way. We didn’t have any money and so we couldn’t afford to go into the studio, and so we just recorded it ourselves. And on account of that fact that we had to use two microphones, with the set up we had that was all that we could do, and so we had to do that. So we researched a little bit about how they did old recordings with fewer mics, and we tried to make it sound old. And it’s the way it is mixed as well. I mean, older equipment does sound better, but my base amp for example is a brand new one. It’s just the way you dial it in I guess.
How much influence does the band’s hometown of Southern Saskatchewan have on its songs?
Maybe not on an artistic level, but I think it is reflected though in the fact that I mean in the winter in Saskatchewan, there is very little to do because it is so cold. A lot of bands will spend a lot of time rehearsing because you spend a lot of time inside. Like, in January it gets as cold as minus 40, so maybe that has influenced it, and the desire to go and see other places.
What about other musicians, who do you count as the band’s biggest influences?
As far as influences go, we don’t really look to one person. People will say ‘why do you make music that sounds old, and our response typically is that the type of music that we like is not modern music, and so as a result our music is very derivative of the music that we like, which is older music. So of course Allman Brothers would be in there, but also The Band, Neil Young, Derek and the Dominos, or even bands like Sly and the Family Stone, and listening to old soul music, we kind of try to take elements of older music that is missing in modern music, like guys singing together in harmony, and really good melody in shorter pop songs, or guitar harmonies and things like that, stuff that doesn’t exist in modern music for the most part. We try to introduce that to our music and make it more modern.
How about you personally, who’s inspired the way you play bass?
There are kind of two people I really like. They are different but they are the same in the sense that they fill sound out by playing like busier base stuff. I don’t like bass players that just play the same one note thing thing. And that would be either Paul McCartney or Pete Cetera from Chicago. Now Pete Cetera got really weird in the 80s and he kind of ruined that band, but in early recordings, like 69 to 75, he was pretty cool. Paul McCartney as well, kind of fills music out by playing busier bass parts of not out of control.
I can see the connection. Let’s talk a bit about the band’s current fan mania, it’s been almost six months since the Rolling Stone cover, do things feel basically the same or has the spotlight changed things?
The music is the same. We are the same guys. People always laugh when they meet us and when we do meet and greets and people come, and hang out. They are like you guys are so down to earth. We are still just guys from Saskatchewan, its not like we have big egos about us. We were very fortunate in the way that things worked out, we spent a lot of time working really hard, and then to kind of be thrown in the spotlight and as a result have people enjoy the music, that’s way cool. And that stuff hasn’t really changed. We are not going to be any different because we are on the cover of Rolling Stone. Obviously lots of things did change as far as people knowing about our music and stuff like that, which is very welcoming. We are pretty much just the same guys, aside from the fact that we can do this full time, versus working jobs and being in a band.
Do you find things are different now that you are doing music full time?
It just means you can focus on it more. We haven’t done a lot yet aside from touring, but it’s meant we got to tour a lot and then we start recording in January. So we will see how that pans out, with us having lots of time to do it.
Well, if your current success is any indication, I think things are going to turn out just fine. Anything sorta strange about this whole fame thing?
Probably, getting recognized. Its one thing if you are getting off a bus and people are standing out front and they see you, but a lot of times we get to a city early in the morning and then we go to the mall or walk around town and getting recognized, that was weird for me. I guess I never really foresaw that we would be very recognizable. I mean obviously we have a recognizable look, but it still really surprised me. I was in Kensington market last month and a 70-year-old woman came up to me and was talking my ear off about how proud she was of us, and I was thinking ‘how do you know about our band?’ But, I guess a lot of people obviously do.
Any more strange or surprising chance encounters to share?
We have met some pretty interesting people. One person I didn’t think I would ever meet was Kid Rock. We went to Atlantic City to hang out with him, and he was supposed to give us some advice, but was just like “don’t let anyone change you, lets go party”. Apparently he is a pretty big fan of our band, and so we went up to his hotel room, and rev Run from RUN DMC was there. And the other funny person we met was Larry David.
Those are some characters for sure. What about the publicity you guys have been receiving — how has that affected your music?
The only affects should be positive. The last album we recorded by ourselves, but also we were working jobs. Id work all day and some of the guys would work on stuff during the day, and then I’d come at night but some of the guys would have to go work then, so the fact that we can focus on it. As far as publicity goes, I mean publicity doesn’t really affect your music unless you listen to some sort of album review that was negative and decide to take that to heart. But we haven’t really done that I guess, our reviews have been relatively positive.
Aside from the press you guys have gotten, you’ve also done celebrity appearances, specifically a spot on Project Runway. How did that come about?
We didn’t actually have any choice in the matter; it was tied in with winning the [Rolling Stone] cover. I am not entirely sure how it worked, but we were just told we would be on it. At first we were like, this could be alright, I had never seen the show, knew nothing about it, I was like this might be kind of cool, fashion designers making us clothes, sure, why not. But the whole experience was really funny. Did you see it? The clothes were so bad. I felt like they. They just were so out of their element with us. Obviously it was entertaining for the general public but it was weird for us. We rolled along with it and they were very accommodating, but we were definitely out of our comfort zone.
I can imagine it’d be a pretty unusual experience for anyone not in fashion.
The other thing that is kind of weird is that we probably have been recognized, especially in the states, more for being on Project Runway than being on the cover of rolling Stone, which is a bit of an indication of how our society is these days. (Laughing) But whatever, it meant that we got to play our music for people who probably normally would have never discovered it. I mean, you talk about wanting to reach people, people read us in rolling stone and that’s cool, and then that is a completely different side of things. We meet a lot of people that are really excited about our band that say they probably would never have heard us if it wasn’t for Project Runway, so that’s cool.
You obviously have a unique style, would you say The Sheepdogs have an interest in fashion?
Yes, but… we don’t like to over think it too much. I mean obviously we like older stuff, we like vintage clothes and wearing different things. When you are on stage, whether you are thinking about tit or not you are obviously going to dress a certain way, wear a certain T-shirt, even if you say you don’t care. We don’t necessarily coordinate what we wear, but we are definitely conscious of it. We like to look good in what we are wearing. Its one of those things that a lot of people would hate to admit but you definitely think about it, for sure.
And how do you describe the bands style?
Its definitely inspired by stuff that we like. It’s a combination of being comfortable and being vintage inspired. We like old clothes, we like old music, but we aren’t necessarily pretending, we aren’t going full out. Its not like I look at a picture of Peter Frampton in 1971 and exactly wear what he is wearing, that would be kind of outlandish. We like to wear stuff that is different.