• By: Keith Whittier

The Sheepdogs Riding the Wave of Success Into Ottawa Dragon Boat Festival

Ottawa Life’s Festival City Series is back! We'll provide a unique look at some of your favourite events.
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Photos by Kamara Morozuk, courtesy of Ottawa Dragon Boat Festival and Ottawa Life Achieves 

If Saskatchewan’s The Sheepdogs could power paddle alongside the other racers at the Tim Hortons Ottawa Dragon Boat Festival (which they’re not), they’d name their team The Dragon Boat Gamblers.

If Saskatchewan’s The Sheepdogs could power chord play to a pack of ready to rock fans at the Tim Hortons Ottawa Dragon Boat Festival (which they are), they’d bring the thunder of their 70’s arena rock-style anthems with enough rumble force to possibly blast a couple of waves into the still evening calm of Mooney’s Bay.

Still surfing their own wave of success after three JUNO wins and landing the first unsigned band cover in the history of Rolling Stone magazine, Ewan Currie, Ryan Gullen and the boys will be rolling into town for a free show on June 20.

If you’ve never seen the Sheepdogs before, a warm summer night by the beach with a cold one firmly clenched in your one hand, fist pumping upwards with the other, is a perfect chance to hear what you’ve been missing.

The band is on a tour which included a run through the UK over the Spring in support of their aptly titled new album Future Nostalgia. Give it a spin and tell me you’re not transported back to some of the glory days of 70s radio. All that’s missing is the dust kicked up on the dirt road your barreling down and the Pontiac “Bandit” Trans Am.

Ottawa Life had a chance to talk to Currie and Gullen about how they’ve adapted to the band’s success, prep for their powerful stage romps (hint: it includes beer) and what was going through their minds those weeks you couldn’t pass a newsstand without seeing their faces lining the racks.

Ottawa Life: You made a pretty big move before hitting your teens from Australia to Saskatoon. How did you find that transition as I imagine it must have been pretty jarring?

Ewan Currie: Other than weather, Canada and Australia are fairly similar, so the change of culture wasn't too shocking. Mostly I was a weirdo for preferring cricket and basketball to hockey and had to learn a few slang words here and there.

Obviously, the music program you were involved with was an important one because you met Ewan there but what else do you find you learned there that would go on to be applied when you formed the band?

Ryan Gullen: There wouldn't be a specific thing learned in grade 7 band that directly linked to the band, but obviously learning about and performing music at a young age definitely contributed.  I think learning music theory and about music at a young age can really contribute to all walks of life and is an important part of education.

The Sheepdogs are your first band. Not a bad beginning, huh? As you don’t have past experiences to cull from, how have you found not only dealing with learning to adapt together as a band but, also, doing so while also achieving success the first time out of the gate?

Ryan Gullen: I think having limited experience in other bands was a benefit because when we were starting the band we all started roughly at the same place.  We learned all together, how to play, write, perform etc.  We all went into it with the same expectations so as a result its probably kept us together all this time.  There would definitely been some things I wish we knew at different points of our career but at the same time making mistakes and learning together was part of coming up as a band.  The fact that we were all experiencing everything for the first time together I think has been a contributing factor to our longevity.

The first time I heard you was on the radio and, to be honest, I thought you were a 70s group I’d never heard of before. Now I wonder if you were time travelers from that era set to show modern music just how kick ass 70s arena rock was. I’m sure you get this a lot but, honestly, how did you shape that sound?

Ewan Currie: By listening to the music of that era. Listening to the Guess Who or Joni Mitchell always moved me a lot more than modern music.  

Despite being not of that era, what was it in the music from then that had you going back?

Ewan Currie:  Guitars playing in harmony, bands with everybody singing together, dudes with mustaches who looked like they knew how to party.  Seems like a good way to be. Music is really uplifting and positive from that era.

While the 80s pop synth sound seems to be having a sort of renaissance, 70s prog-rock and Southern rock sounds like Skynard and the Allmans still seem to just be rooted and remaining of the era, outside of what you guys are doing. Why do you feel this style hasn’t broken out of the time period like some other genres have?

Ewan Currie: The 80s thing is a little more synth based, which makes it easier to achieve in ways. To pull off the guitar slinging thing you have to have chops. Chops and balls. So it's a little harder to pull off.  It doesn't seem as hip or cutting edge to be into rock n roll, but I'll be damned if everybody doesn't love hearing Creedence come on the radio.

Speaking of The Allman Brothers, as I write this sadly the headlines read of Greg’s passing. I have read that he was a great influence on you and you feel the Allmans event rose above The Dead as the ultimate jam band. What do you feel Greg’s legacy has been on music today?

Ewan Currie: He was the face of that band even after his brother, who was the leader, passed away. Despite his problems with drugs and alcohol he was a hell of a performer who gave it his all. He was also the best white blues singer ever.

With a lot of influences to pull from with so many great albums coming out in that late 60s/70’s stretch, if you could choose three albums only that you could listen to what would they be and why?

Ewan Currie:
The Beatles – The White Album. For endless creativity and variety.
Creedence Clearwater Revival – Willy & The Poor Boys. For good time partying.
Bobby Charles – Bobby Charles. For afternoon hammocking.

You’ve done a bit of touring now. You have a big Canadian following but I wonder how you have found the band has been received as your branched off into the States and UK?

Ryan Gullen: Everything outside of Canada is obviously something that we’re continuing to work on. We've had successes outside of the country but always something that we're looking to grow.  A big difference in both Europe and the US in comparison to Canada is that they are both very regional, so you can have success in one city, sell out a big show then drive 3 hours down the road and be in another country (or county in the US) and play to a much smaller crowd. Someone in Halifax and Vancouver that likes Rock music is typically listening to a lot of the same music. We've put in a lot of time touring but are always continuing to grow things outside of Canada.

I was surprised to find that it took so long for an unsigned band to grace the cover of the Rolling Stone but there you were in 2011 being the first. What was going through your heads when you achieved that accolade?

Ryan Gullen: It really didn't seem real, obviously the whole thing was a big whirlwind but being part of a contest and then being on the cover seemed very strange.  Obviously a huge honour and such a big boost for our band.  We'd be walking through an airport or mall somewhere in the US and see us on the magazine and it seemed very surreal. It always just seemed like one of those things in the mall at Christmas where you pay to put your head on a muscle magazine or something.

As far as what was going through our heads, we really just wanted to take the attention and channel that into making music and touring.  There was a lot of rigmarole associated with the whole contest thing, and first and foremost we are a band, so we wanted to take that and get out and show people that we were a band, and not just winners of a contest.

Did the band mentality change any after that as certainly the knowledge of and following for the Sheepdogs grew?

Ryan Gullen: No, we obviously had a lot more attention and pressure on us, but we were still the band we always were.  The mentality has always been the same. We’re dudes from Saskatchewan who make rock and roll music.  We make the music we like, record it and travel around playing it.  Just now we were afforded the attention to actually play to people and make a living doing so.

You guys just bring the thunder to your stage show. It’s an all out blast of rock awesome I once described as “a chainsaw whir of power chords and beautiful feedback”. How do you prep for these shows where you really seem to just leave it all out there?

Ewan Currie: We sit around casually in a small green room together, B.S.ing and drinking beer.

What’s been the strangest thing thus far that’s happened to you during a tour?

Ewan Currie: Partying in Berlin with the Trivago guy.

You’re first few albums were self-released. What were some of the things you feel you learned in that process that you took into the studio after eventually being signed?

Ryan Gullen: I think one of the things we learned was that we really knew who we were as a band and how to work together.  A lot of challenges can come from how a group of people work together especially on artistic endeavours.  When we were finally signed we were very clean on who we were as a band, as well as how we worked together.  We were very fortunate to have this time as it made navigating a bunch of new people involved and other pressures a lot easier.

You reached back at bit again for inspiration on how older albums were recorded for this record. Hell, it even came out on cassette! Can you tell me a bit about how you approached the recording process?

Ewan Currie: There's no real rhyme or reason. We just try to do what sounds best. Sometimes we utilize equipment that is old, and sometimes we use modern things. Often times we will use both together. We're not married to any one way. For our new record the main strategy we used was not to rush. Let things come together naturally.

You wrote all the cuts for this album. What’s it been like moving them off the page and into the studio/house recordings and, finally, to the live audience?

Ewan Currie: It's my favourite thing. To have an idea bopping around in my head which I refine until it’s an interesting nugget and can be turned over to the other fellas. Figuring out how to maximize its impact in the studio and then unleashing it on stage. Very satisfying and tremendously therapeutic. I recommend it.

Though your music is inspired by a lot of American bands, what does it mean for the band to be made in Canada, so to speak?

Ryan Gullen: It may be an American art form but Canadians have done rock n roll very well over the years.

Finally, you are playing the Dragonboat Festival here in Ottawa. If you could form a team what would you name it?

Ewan Currie: The Dragonboat Gamblers