The Sloan archive is sprawling, impressively so. Credit that to nearly 30 years of activity and four unique songwriting voices in members Chris Murphy, Patrick Pentland, Jay Ferguson, and Andrew Scott. For nearly a decade, the Toronto-by-way-of-Halifax foursome have unearthed a trove of alternate takes, scrapped demos, and other unreleased rarities for a series of vinyl boxsets around early albums Twice Removed, One Chord to Another, and Navy Blues. With their new, limited edition B-Sides Win Vol. 1 vinyl collection, Sloan are showcasing deep cuts previously found on various singles and compilations.
This first volume covers the band’s early days, leading up to and around the release of their landmark Smeared LP from 1992. While arguably not the loudest period of Sloan (at the very least, it’s neck-and-neck with the air raid siren-blaring AC/DC worship of Navy Blues anthem “Money City Maniacs”), it’s certainly the scrappiest, equally pulling influence from the shoegazing sonics of My Bloody Valentine and various distorted factions of the American Underground.
Gut Feeling caught up with the Sloan’s Jay Ferguson to get into the details of their B-Sides, the guitars that got them there, and how a wardrobe malfunction led to a sweetly seething Sloan single.
This interview has been edited and condensed
The B-sides Win collection begins with an alternate, early version of “Underwhelmed”. Was this Sloan’s first actual recording experience?
Jay Ferguson: We would have been recording Sloan demos in Andrew’s bedroom, and also at a little rehearsal area we had at a store that I think Andrew’s mom owned at some point— Chris had a four-track machine, and I would’ve had my own four-track machine, too. We’d done those kind of recordings, and some of that stuff will end up coming out in the future if we do a boxed set for our first album, Smeared. But this was probably the first time we were in a real studio, where we weren’t just recording ourselves.
It was recorded for the Hear & Now cassette that came out in early ’92. It was a contest run by a guy named Terry Pulliam, who had a studio in his house; CKDU, which was a college radio station; and maybe some other people had their hand in it, too. You would submit a demo of your song, and they chose the best ones. A number of bands got free studio time at Terry Pulliam’s studio— it was a way for him to drum up business, but also, you know, a way to encourage young bands to record. They would also get the chance to be on a compilation for free!
That was our first foray into a proper studio, and the first song that we fully recorded, basically. Eventually we got to know Terry Pulliam and did more recording with him. Our first ep, Peppermint, and Smeared were basically the same sessions at Terry Pulliam’s.
If Terry Pulliam’s was technically another home-recording job, how different of an experience was it compared to recording songs in Andrew’s bedroom?
J: There was one big studio in Halifax called Solar, and that was an expensive studio; [Terry] basically had two bedrooms going. It was basically the same as in Andrew’s bedroom, but with better gear [laughs].
There was a bedroom upstairs used as the control room. He had a little mixing desk. I don’t know if he had an eight-track or a sixteen-track [but there was] a bunch of gear. There was a bedroom adjacent to it, and we would put amplifiers in it. I think it was his bedroom by supper time—When his wife would get home, we had to take the stuff out of that room and put it in the control room. We also did drums in the living room at one point.
There were just cables running all over the house with no talkback, no windows, or anything. You’re yelling up the stairs or looking in the other room, like, ‘are you ready to press record?’ It was a homemade affair, for sure.
What are the key differences between the Peppermint, Smeared, and Hear & Now versions of “Underwhelmed”?
J: The one on the B-sides record is basically the same recording as what’s on Peppermint. When we came to release Peppermint, we changed the mix and took Chris’ guitar out—Patrick is playing bass on that. I think we just added louder guitars, or at least turned them up. Same recording, slightly different mix...there might be some different percussion.
By early 1992, the nature of the way we were playing “Underwhelmed” onstage was becoming much less like the [Hear & Now] recording. It was more like what became the version on Smeared. We ended up re-recording “Underwhelmed,” reflecting how we played it live. I don’t mean to make it sound like we were trying to make it sound commercial, but it was better; it was more exciting, and of the time. Like a Sonic Youth/Nirvana/My Bloody Valentine-hybrid version, as opposed to the other one, which had a weird, looser beat.
Through the early period of Sloan videos, you’re seen playing a Mustang in the Smeared version of “Underwhelmed”; for the Peppermint version of “Underwhelmed” you’re playing this strange, angular guitar; and in “500 Up” you’re playing an SG. Did you similarly mix things up during the recording sessions, or had you stuck with a solid set-up in the studio?
J: If Chris played guitar, the guitar he’s playing was a Les Paul Junior. It was in the shape of an SG, but it has just one pickup. I think they were made in a brief window of time in the early ‘60s. I remember Chris buying that off a guy in Halifax in the late ‘80s.
I had a Telecaster that I would have used on the recording, that was my thinline Telecaster from ‘71. I don’t remember when I bought the white Mustang. It’s in the “Underwhelmed” video, but I don’t know if I would’ve had it when we made the record. Patrick would’ve had a Telecaster as well. It was a lot of the Gibson Les Paul Junior and a couple of Telescasters used on those earlier recordings.
A lot of the guitar was recorded through a really small Beltone amplifier, I don’t remember how many Watts. They were these old-fashioned, Sears-style, small amplifiers that would’ve been cheap back in the day. I think I found it at a garage sale for $15. That was the amp I used for a good portion of Smeared and Peppermint. As far as pedals go, it would’ve been a BOSS overdrive and a RAT pedal. Patrick had a few different things, too, but those were the main tools for the guitars on the album.
Being that it’s the “Jay song” on this first volume, what can you say about making “Pillow Fight?”
J: I found an old demo of it recently, because Chris and I have been combing through stuff for a Smeared box, and the demo was really bad [laughs]. I was just writing songs after Smeared, but I didn’t have tons.
The song is basically about being on tour with Chris. Chris and I would always room together; Patrick and Andrew would always room together because they smoked cigarettes. Everybody was young and rambunctious on tour; you’re just excited, it’s fun. Chris would often want to wrestle. We were all of us goofing around in a hotel room and I think Chris jumped on bed, just joking around, and ended up ripping my jeans. I’d already had a small rip in my jeans, but he ripped the whole leg—a massive rip— and they were the only jeans I had on the tour. I was furious! Livid! Like, ‘these are my only jeans, we have to tour for another two weeks!’ I remember blowing up at him, so furiously. Basically, that’s the genesis of the song [laughs].
We recorded it for Sub Pop, a split single [1993’s Never Mind the Molluscs]. Sub Pop was the indie label du jour and came to Halifax to sign bands like Eric’s Trip and Jale. I was excited to have one of my songs on the single. We actually recorded it at the big studio, Solar, with Bob Weston, who was Steve Albini’s engineer and also plays in Shellac with Steve Albini. He came to Halifax to record the sessions, and we recorded it live off the floor in a big room. We hadn’t really done that before, so that was a fun experience. Eric’s Trip were there recording their song, too. We had two days locked down in this big studio. We were jamming so much work into such a small amount of time.
How did you end up recording “Rag Doll” and “Laying Blame” in England with Ajali Dutt?
J: We would’ve been signed to Geffen already. We went and did a small tour in the fall of 1992, and we would’ve met all the people at DGC/Geffen UK. There was a woman there named Jo Bolson who was a fan of our band, and happy to promote us in England. We ended up going there three or four times on Smeared.
Back then, they would’ve been releasing “Underwhelmed” as a 12” single and a CD single, and we had “Amped” and “Sleepover”— which are also on B-Sides— put on the single. When we were on tour over their next time, in 1993, they wanted to release another single from the album, which ended up being “I Am the Cancer.” They were asking if we had any extra songs to use as b-sides for the single. They ended up setting up a recording session for [“Rag Doll” and “Laying Blame”], it was basically at the behest and encouragement of Geffen UK.
I think they knew we were fans of My Bloody Valentine, so they hooked us up with Anjali Dutt. It was great working with Anjali, but I also feel like we were asking her a lot of questions about mixing Loveless by My Bloody Valentine, since she worked on the record, and also on a number of Creation Records [releases]. We were fanning out.
I think those were really pro sessions. She did a great job. It was fun and quick—once again, only one or two days. I think we’d been playing “Rag Doll” live; “Laying Blame,” I don’t know. They were two songs kicking around after Smeared had already come out.
Was Sloan ever precious in terms of determining what makes an album track and what becomes a b-side?
J: Both “Rag Doll” and “Laying Blame” are good songs. “Laying Blame” could very well have been fashioned into the Twice Removed style of sound. I think it was more that we needed some songs [for the single] and these were what were lying around. Chris was writing way more songs than I was [at the time], so he might’ve been precious about some of the things he was writing, but on the other hand he liked “Laying Blame”. I don’t think we’re especially precious about things.
B-Sides Win was originally released as a larger digital collection before the band began breaking them down into these vinyl releases. Though not exclusively, this first one is heavily slanted towards the Smeared era. From a sonic perspective, what do these songs reflect about early Sloan?
J: I think all the songs are good! It really is a snapshot of what we were like live at the time. You can also really tell what our influences were, based on the way we were playing the songs, which was very much a Creation Records/My Bloody Valentine/Sonic Youth-style of guitar playing.
It reflects the time. It wasn’t like, ‘Nirvana’s the new thing, so we’re going to try and copy that’. Most of us liked Nirvana before they became popular; we were already into American underground music, whether it was Dinosaur Jr. or Sonic Youth. Those influences were always there, but they came to the fore at that point. The music we were playing all of a sudden became very popular.