For Canadian rock band Sloan, the song sung blue is a tale of two countries. In America, the band is a cult act, marginalized by a lack of airplay. In Canada, Sloan's a juggernaut with a string of radio singles and regularly sold-out auditoriums several times larger than the clubs the group struggles to fill stateside.
"It's kind of the best of both worlds," says Sloan's guitarist Jay Ferguson from his Toronto home. "I think any band that plays places that are too big, you sort of crave playing with people standing right in front of you. If you're playing clubs all the time, it'd be great to play on a stage where we could put all our gear."
Perched cleanly between rock and pop impulses, the quartet's variable sound is the product of an unusual co-op writing structure that finds each member bringing in his own song over which the writer has complete say. For the band's latest album, Action Pact, however, Sloan gave up that autonomy, working with a producer for the first time in a decade. The result is a full-on rock record.
"Tom Rothrock is known for producing these really ornate pop records," says a chagrinned Ferguson. "We get to his studio, he's going on about Ratt and AC/DC. He's a total metalhead."
The more pop-oriented Ferguson adjusted, rocking up his songs, such as the album-closer, "Fade Away," which reflects on how some of his Halifax peers fell by attrition while others such as Hardship Post seemed perfectly content to drift into the ether, allowing great promise to dwindle into nothing but a faded memory.
"I'm blown away that some bands didn't go for the brass ring when the chance presented itself," says Ferguson. "I just can't imagine that lack of enthusiasm for wanting to have a life in music."
Of course, putting the 10th anniversary of Kurt Cobain's death behind us, it's apparent there are different reactions to the rock star life. Take fellow Canadian Dan Bejar, a sometime member of Canadian super-group the New Pornographers, whose solo albums are released under the name Destroyer. Armed with noticeable ambivalence toward the music industry, his third album, 2000's Thief, is an acerbic broadside couched in gentle piano pop.
"I wanted an object for my poison and that seemed to be one -- not so much the music industry, because I expect nothing of it -- but more the conventions, tastes and machines that propel us through the underground culture business," says Bejar. "Music is designed as a soundtrack for something else, like lifestyle."
Bejar doubts he could ever reach the level Sloan has, and suggests that he wouldn't want to.
"There are things that I would have to do that are just not going to get done," says Bejar, before backpedaling in anticipation of objections. "I know I can only say so much before you say, 'The New Pornographers have sold shitloads of records, made videos and appeared on David Letterman.' That's true, but if you've heard the last couple Destroyer albums, it's apparent that [the Pornographers'] aesthetic and my aesthetic are quite at odds."
Bejar is correct given the distance between the New Pornographers' bright, slick, indie-rock sound and that of his terrific new album, Your Blues. While the first few Destroyer albums were underscored by bittersweet folk guitar and bubbling piano, his last two have effectively distanced themselves from that sound. 2002's This Night was both arch and rocking, and Your Blues boasts a rich, full-blown MIDI-orchestral sound. The only thing that's remained consistent is Bejar's oblique poetic lyricism.
"I'm not too interested in definitions or narrative -- I'm not interested in what words mean," says Bejar, growing passionate. "I'm interested in how the words act and their immediate effects. What happens when you take one thing and put it next to another -- is a new thing created? Do they negate themselves?"
Perhaps it's his iconoclastic approach to music that makes Bejar so keenly aware of music's boundaries, even after moving on from Thief's lyrical obsessions.
"I find myself more than ever on the outside, and not really relating to the concerns of other people doing music. I don't see Destroyer's songs as pop music, really," says Bejar. "It's not a condemnation of pop music or bands that have success, it's more to me stating what's going on in music. Like, one of my main goals is to create some kind of marriage between music and modernist poetry, as high-fallutin' and pretentious as that sounds. It's the kind of thing you're not supposed to say in indie rock, but that's what I'm into."
Which leaves you wondering how Bejar would react were this album greeted with the genuflection accorded former labelmate Magnetic Fields' equally idiosyncratic 69 Love Songs. Artists' raison d'etre, it's argued, is to reach out to as many as will listen. But for some like Bejar, such acceptance is clearly fraught with ambivalence.
Bejar frets at the potential demands of a still-distant success, demonstrating how often music is never just music, but for artists and fans alike can be freighted with ideas like commerce and compromise, instead of simply being about melody, chords and a beat.
Is Bejar's stand anachronistic and self-defeating in a market that sees old punk bands reuniting and underground artists all over commercials? No matter how tightly an artist grips their integrity, the audience ultimately decided the context. Thus a cult band in America (like Sloan) seems like Matchbox Twenty to those across the border, while a refusal to "sell out" may be greeted not with cheers but yawns of indifference and, eventually, a job at Wendy's. It's nearly impossible to dictate your audience and how they perceive you, all an artist controls is how they behave at the reception.
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