What a difference a year and a half makes.
In the summer of 2011, The Sheepdogs were an unsigned Saskatoon act, gigging whenever possible. They’d been playing together for seven years at that point. While the end of the band might not have necessarily been in sight, the blues-rock four-piece was certainly fighting an uphill battle.
Then, the band won a “Choose The Cover” contest and was soon featured on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine. And the rest, as they say, was history.
With appearances on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon and at Bonnaroo in the bag, The Sheepdogs were soon signed to Atlantic Records and released their self-titled major label debut LP. This wasn’t before netting three Juno Awards.
Despite the various accolades, bassist Ryan Gullen insists being published on the cover of the famed magazine wasn’t the only reason for their success.
“It was a good thing for us and it allowed a lot of people to hear our music,” says Gullen, reached on the phone from Chatham, Ontario before they took the stage.
“But at the end of the day, it didn’t give us much beyond that. We couldn’t just put our feet up, we had to keep working. We didn’t want to deny the success that magazine cover brought us, but we wanted to move forward and continue to push ourselves and grow as a band.”
That push resulted in The Sheepdogs, a 14-track collection that is as relentless as it is engaging. Major label debuts offer challenges for bands concerned with putting their best forward.
Yet as Gullen continues enthusiastically, it becomes obvious that, with the help of producer and Black Keys drummer Patrick Carney, the band were more concerned with putting every foot forward.
“We came off touring and went straight into the studio and recorded the album in just two weeks. We wanted to put it all out there, because we’d been out on the road for a year and we’d gone through so many changes as a band. We didn’t want to second-guess ourselves. We felt it was important to capture where we were at.
“For us, it wasn’t about making a record full of singles or separate songs,” continues Cullen.
“It was about making a record that’s cohesive, that you can listen to as a whole. We’re very conscious of that; it probably comes back to our love of vinyl. (Patrick Carney) was into that as well.”
The pairing of Carney with The Sheepdogs had as much to do with Carney speaking the band’s sonic language as it did with Carney understanding the pressures the band faces. Both bands have drawn the wrath of vocal hipsters, deriding their sound as being too accessible.
Cullen believes that Carney was able to introduce a balance.
“Having been in similar situations, he was able to guide us from just having made records on our own without any help to making a major label record, which is considerably different. His biggest help was showing us how to make a mainstream record while still maintaining our integrity. Once you achieve some sort of success, you have to be aware of that balance. We had to make the record label happy, though we still had to make ourselves and our fans happy.”
For the near future, Cullen maintains the only way the band can by stay happy is by staying on the road, which has become a second home for the band. Gracing the cover of an international music magazine may have gotten their foot in the door, but for The Sheepdogs, what’s more important is keeping those feet moving.
“It’s important to build a fan base organically. It’s an ongoing thing, but that’s what you have to do. You look at some of the biggest bands in the world, the bands we respect, they’re still touring their asses off.”
The Sheepdogs will play MacEwan Hall on December 16.
By Joshua Kloke
Photo: Matt Barnes