The traditional rock band, songwriting equilibrium usually breaks down into one of two situations. It's either a cult of personality, with one domineering figure holding the reins, or an uneasy alliance between guitarist and front man, each eyeing the other warily across the stage in a case of bitter one-upmanship. But it's the rare communal band that's blessed with four equal songwriters, like in the case of Canadian power pop heroes Sloan. It's probably just that balance that's led to such a long and fruitful career.
"I don't think any of us feel held back," explains guitarist and vocalist Patrick Pentland. "The rule is, essentially, you can do whatever you want. You just expect that everybody's putting their best foot forward. There isn't like a frustrated drummer or bass player; everyone gets to contribute what they want to contribute."
On Sloan's latest, Parallel Play, what Pentland contributes are songs like album opener "Believe In Me," a burning organ groove buoyed by the band's trademark gorgeous harmonies and a ripping guitar riff. "It's becoming more a four-solo-records-on-one-record thing right now," he says. "Everybody's comfortable with that."
Of course, that sort of thing only works out when everyone's carrying their weight. No such problem here. Jay Ferguson's "Cheap Champagne" is a mellow, psyched-out soft rocker and Chris Murphy chips in with "Living the Dream," a Rubber Soul-style acoustic stomp, while Andrew Scott's "Emergency 911" is a throttling, dirtied-up garage anthem.
It's a broader spectrum than casual fans of the band, often saddled with a Beatles-esque qualifier, might have expected. "I think people are just wearing their influences more on their sleeves," says Pentland. "There's a reggae song and, like, a Bob Dylan song, and I've got a Jesus and Mary Chain type-thing and a psychedelically organ type-thing. For me personally, I wasn't interested in really writing rock songs for this record. I wanted to do something that kind of covered what I listen to now as opposed to when I was 16. Sometimes songwriters say, 'I really like that song by Brian Jonestown Massacre and I'm gonna rip it off, but I'm gonna do it with a little bit of The Stones, or whatever, or The Beatles or a little bit of Love and Rockets or The Cure ... I can work from that perspective.'" It's a refreshingly candid admission that may just make Pentland the most honest musician one has ever interviewed.
Genre-tripping aside, Parallel Play still sounds unmistakably like Sloan. Which is what, exactly? "I used to say it was the way we sing, the harmonies," says Pentland. "That was the Sloan sound." There's a bit less of that come-together spirit here, however: "This one was a weird one to make because we tried to make it quickly. Two of us have new kids, so we didn't have a lot of time. People would come in with finished ideas and music and basically just whip it off as quickly as possible. There wasn't a lot of cross-pollination among members. I didn't really know what the other guys were doing. I would just kind of do my stuff and go home."
Moral of the story for infighting bands out there? Leave each other the fuck alone.