Back in 2008, The Sheepdogs completed what they now refer to asthe ‘Worst Of All Worlds’ tour. While travelling close to 3,000 miles across Canada between gigs, setbacks and disasters came thick and fast. Their van was broken into several times, and the whole experience turned into a hellish hotbox of break-ins, breakdowns, broken windows and no sleep.
Backstage at London’s Lafayette in March 2022, things are decidedly cushier. Guitarist Jimmy Bowskill shakes out his stage suit: a pink number that’s part rhinestone cowboy, part ice-cream man. Drummer Sam Corbett eats hummus and talks about his two small children. Coffees and seitan burgers are passed round. In such circumstances, it’s easier for Ryan Gullen to recall The Worst Of All Worlds with something approaching fondness.
“…And then the transmission fluid all leaked out,” the skinny bassist/band manager chatters, his 70s-porn-star ’tache bobbing excitedly. “So I’m driving us all the way from Victoria to Calgary, cos I’m the only one registered to drive it, and it’s ten hours, and the guys are cheering me on, passing me cokes and huge coffees… There’s hundreds of experiences like this that we’ve gone through as a band. We’d find ourselves with limited money and trying to get to the next city and stuff. We spent a lot of years doing that.”
Frontman Ewan Currie sits back in a velvet-lined chair, nursing a black coffee. About 12 feet tall and dressed entirely in denim, he looks like a lumberjack king – a commanding but kindly presence next to his considerably smaller bandmates. A small Native American pendant, won at a curling tournament no less, hangs around his neck.
“I remember we were somewhere in Arkansas,” he says. “I was driving the van that day and didn’t see this little post in the parking lot, and I drove the trailer right into it. So we had to source a new trailer…. You’re just dealin’ with a list of problems. You get used to them and go into crisis mode.”
When it comes down to it, most bands are a bit like children. Even the nicest ones. It’s what happens, naturally, once you hit a certain level and have people sorting your travel for you, telling you where to be and giving you cash to buy dinner. By contrast, The Sheepdogs are extremely self-sufficient. Snags don’t throw them.
Coming from a little-known Canadian town miles from anywhere, playing classic rock’n’roll at a time when it was wholly unfashionable, they had to work to get themselves in people’s faces – and pay off their debts afterwards. Learning from mistakes wasn’t so much a noble idea as a way of life.
“We would go on tour, rock our best line of credit, six thousand dollars or whatever it was, come home and think: ‘Okay, how are we gonna pay this off?’” Currie recalls. “We figured out that if we rented our own venue, got a liquor licence, put on our own shows, sold our own tickets, got our buddies to sell the booze, we could make more than just playing at a venue. So we started doing that, and that’s how we paid off our line of credit each time."
From there they grew into one of modern rock’s most successful cottage industries. Currie produced their last two records, including new album Outta Sight. In addition to bassist and manager duties, Gullen co-runs a production company with his partner, which creates all their videos. They know the power of good branding, as reflected at tonight’s merch stand laden with stylish tees, baseball tops, hockey shirts, records and more.
“No matter how much you pay somebody, nobody is going to care as much about your art and what you do as you,” Gullen reasons. “So even if it doesn’t mean that you do everything yourselves, because that’s not realistic, it’s important that you understand as much as you can. I tell that to other young artists as well: it’s important not to [just] say: ‘Somebody else will take care of it.’ I mean, look at how many classic artists ended up signing deals or losing a bunch of money because of someone pulling one over on them.”
Like their peers, The Sheepdogs found themselves with very different lives after March 2020 – lives that, for the first time since their late teens, didn’t revolve around gigs. They played four shows in Toronto in November 2021. One in Winnipeg before then. A few drive-through shows also took place, but it was quickly agreed these were a poor substitute for the real thing.
“Also it was, like, zero degrees outside,” Bowskill says. “We played one in Ottawa and it was, like, really cold. Like unseasonably cold.”
“And people are honking their car horns, remembers Shamus Currie, Ewan’s thickly browed, saucer-eyed little brother who plays keyboards, extra guitars, trombone and percussion, among other things. “You’d finish a song and hear: ‘Uurgh urgh urgh!’ You give the people credit, cos they were doing their best to try and have a good time. But yeah, a lot of things were being tried that just didn’t work.”
“I don’t think there’s gonna be any reinvented rock’n’roll experiences,” Ewan says in agreement. “The best way is still a bunch of people in a room, up against the stage.”
The Lafayette opened in early 2020. Nestled in a particularly box-fresh pocket of King’s Cross, it was forced to shut as soon as it opened. Now, it’s very much in business: a rare mid-size venue success story, at a time when so many others are shutting. Inside it’s exceptionally clean, with faux-industrial wood floors and metal pillars. The stage is framed by a proscenium arch that changes colour. Two bars sell craft beer and wine. ‘Shabby chic’, but not all that shabby.
The venue is part of a high-spec indoor food court of sorts. There’s a bar. Counters serve tacos, mezze and burgers. Pints and cocktails flow. The ceiling is carpeted with fake greenery and flowers. A DJ spins laid-back drum ’n’ bass. All the ingredients for a night out under one roof. Is this the way to open a new venue in 2022, and make a success of it?
Come show time, the venue is heaving. A buzzy, squashed-together sea of bodies, beer and band T-shirts, spread across two generous levels. We’d all but forgotten that rooms could feel like this. Suited and booted, the five-piece stride on to the applause of a homecoming audience. There are a few Canadians here, but it’s by no means just them making the noise. The first chords are struck. The cheers shoot up.
Without warning, a bass string snaps. Someone in the audience collapses. We hold our breath as Currie halts proceedings, calling for first aid. Is it all too much too soon?
Thankfully it’s not. After a few anxious whispers, the faller gets up and there is much rejoicing as the band storm into an opening one-two punch of How Late, How Long and Who?. They make it all feel so easy. Southern-rock sunsets and West-Coast warmth, captured in proper rock-your-socks-off packages. With music like this we could feel just as at home at a picturesque festival or a seedy, old-school dive.
“Hello, my beautiful babies, how’re you doing?” Currie spreads his arms, Jesus-style but much more down to earth. “We’ve got people fainting, bass strings breaking… In other words, it’s good to be back.”
From here the mood remains high throughout, even peaking on newer songs such as Thin Lizzy-meets-the Allmans romp Find The Truth. Vocal harmonies gleam. Twin lead guitar lines are laid on thick like jam – guitarist Bowskill’s experience as a bluesy (sort of Joe Bonamassa-style) solo artist is clear.
Even when he joined The Sheepdogs, in 2015, he’d use days off to go and find a blues jam or a bluegrass sit-in. Now, he tears through one outrageous display of southern-blues rock flair after another. Brand new shit-kicker Scarborough Street Fight (fresh from Outta Sight) receives as ecstatic a reception as anything played tonight, helped in no small way by the pint-sized 31-year-old’s chops. Even his bandmates are grinning at him in awe.
“Scarborough Street Fight got the biggest response of the night,” Gullen enthuses later, “and ninety-nine per cent of the audience hadn’t heard it yet, because it’s not out. That to me is exciting. It’s a whole different experience. I would prefer that to everybody coming just to hear the last two or three songs.”
Indeed, the fact that much of The Sheepdogs’ lockdown was spent writing and recording supports this forward focus. Currie – realising that ‘normal’ wouldn’t resume any time soon – acquired studio space in an old downtown building earmarked for demolition. Here, much of Outta Sight came together, with the frontman once again producing. It’s a sweet, sumptuous but ultimately straight-ahead rocker compared to the kaleidoscopic textures of 2018’s double album Changing Colours.
“With Changing Colours I was probably a little… varying,” Currie concedes, “a little too maniacal in pursuing certain sounds. So with this one I said I’m not gonna do that, let’s take it easy. And I think it’s more straightforward. I think that’s the record we needed to make now.”
At the Lafayette it feels like the record we needed to hear, too, building on older favourites such as Feeling Good and Nobody. All under the colour-changing pros-arch, and the glow of the band’s light-bulb sign (erected hours earlier by Gullen, using time that he really didn’t have). Details like these are small, but they sprinkle the show with fairy dust.
Midway through, Shamus walks centre- stage, trombone in hand. The audience roars in approval. Girls scream: “I love you Shamus!” It’s as if Jon Bon Jovi had just entered. And this is the response that prevails throughout tonight’s set. There’s no final hit-that-everyone’s-waiting-for flourish, because the whole show has been full of moments like this. Afterwards, the dressing room is all colourful shirts, hat boxes and high fives. Bourbon, beers and peanut butter sandwiches. It’s gone brilliantly, and they know it.
“That was fun!” a sweaty Bowskill beams returning his Stetson to its box.
“We all read a thousand articles where they were like ‘how habits will change in a post-pandemic world’,” Ewan joins in, beer in hand and looking gleeful. “Fuck that, we need some good real, old-school experiences.’’
The next day we receive a text from The Sheepdogs’ publicist. The band all have covid, except Ewan. The final show of the tour, due to take place in Bristol, is cancelled.
In the absence of official restrictions, such decisions are especially hard and ultimately come down to a sense of responsibility for crews and fans – murkier, you might argue, than the black-andwhite dictates of the law. The band are taking it on the chin, frustrated but accepting that this is one of touring’s occupational hazards these days.
“The funny thing is we’ve all been sick on tour many, many times in the past,” Gullen chuckles over the phone from the hotel room in which he’s currently quarantined. “But it’s just so nice to be back in these rooms with people hungry to see live rock music again. I mean, the energy at that London show was some of the best energy I think we’ve ever had; everyone was so happy to be in a room experiencing rock’n’roll together.”
And really, as their frontman/ producer says, it’s all in the songs – songs that stick, that don’t compromise, that were written with the unashamed goal of being as good as the classics that inspired them. Better, even. Isn’t that what all bands should be doing?
“I’m a song guy,” Currie reasons, over an al-fresco coffee in a park. “I’m a McCartney guy, I’m a Ray Davies guy, Gerry Rafferty. Give me those guys. But I also want to rock with the power of the Allmans or Thin Lizzy. John Fogerty is an amazing guitar player, but he’s a songwriter first. And he doesn’t even know how to play these long blues things, cos he had bad equipment, but that’s his sound. I love that.”
“We’re not in this to make a record, become a big band and then be done,” Gullen says. “Our goal is longevity, people liking you because they love what you do, and are there for the ride.”
A few days later, we have covid too. It is not fun, but even at our sickliest we can honestly say that yes, it was totally worth it.
Outta Sight is out now via Warners.