Navy Blues, the band's fourth full-length release (murderecords/Universal), finds Sloan in a place that they are somewhat unfamiliar with – advancing together with confidence. This is a band that, over the past couple of years, has weathered near disintegration, had a rejuvenation as a unit, and gotten a second chance at success in the USA - only to watch their US record company fold before it ever really got started. Yet, despite these perceived adversities that could have destroyed the band, Sloan is more in unison than ever.
"This is the first record that we've really had any real momentum as a band. We've gone through a lot to get to this point. This time we'd just had a record that did well and now here we are again. We're still together. There's no major blows ups," bassist/vocalist Chris Murphy affirms.
Recording Navy Blues found the band together in the studio for the most part, which they hadn't done since Twice Removed. "One thing that is different about this record is that Andrew was basically around for most of it. Last time he came down at Christmas and did all the drums in a day and then went home and did his own songs. This time even though it was still sort of it 'ye who wrote it rules it' there was a little more collaboration," Murphy admits. The collaboration is most evident on the first single, "Money City Maniacs", which began as a Patrick Pentland song and was augmented by Murphy. It also features the two sharing vocal duties.
Navy Blues was recorded in Toronto at Chemical Sound over the winter of 1997/98 and is once again produced by the band, with assistance from engineer Daryl Smith. "We are basically a self-produced band and I feel that we always have been. In terms of production being musical decisions, we almost always make them all ourselves," says Murphy. Drummer/vocalist Andrew Scott sums up their recording philosophy more succinctly; "Just let everybody do what they want. We're so wrong, we're right."
The band's newfound conviction and solidarity allowed for more freedom during the recording process. "We don't try and make records that are like our live show. I think we try and keep the recorded forum different than the live forum," says guitarist/vocalist Jay Ferguson. "Instead of just playing everything with two guitars bass and drums, (on the album) we'll have a guitar part played on the piano or the organ, or make up a different melody and have someone come in and play it on the horns as opposed to playing a guitar solo. I think it's just more inventive thinking.
"In addition to their standard line up, Sloan have included organ, piano, horns and cello on Navy Blues. "We've had horns and piano on our records before, but there's more of it on this record. Andrew plays a lot of piano. I wrote both my songs on piano and I'd never done anything like that before," says Ferguson.
The band also made use of the studio in ways that they had not previously tried. "Suppose They Close The Door" is actually two songs that have been spliced together to create one. "Basically I wanted to force us to cut tape," says Murphy. Tape was also cut in Andrew Scott's song "Sinking Ships". "'Sinking Ships' is, to me, the classic. It's genius. That song is phenomenal," says Murphy.
Navy Blues also marks a widening of the perceived Sloan sound. In addition to smart pop, lush melodies, and the signature dark intensity of Andrew Scott's songs, Pentland, Murphy and Scott have all contributed straight ahead, full-out rockers to the record. Although this may initially surprise some, Murphy is quick to clarify that "we didn't just make a hard rock record, there are other sides to our music. It's still kind of the same approach. We still mix our harmonies high; we come on to our guitars hard. We don't have 4 more distortion boxes each now."
"I think it (hard rock) is just as natural an influence to be showing off as any other influence we've that we have shown off before," says Pentland. "For me it was a big influence, and the style of music that we're playing on this record is basically the kind of music that I listen to a lot these days. It's energetic, guitar-based music. We toured for the last record and found that it was fun to play rockers to crowds like that. I really don't think it has that much of a hard rock edge to it, no more so than any other record we've done. Smeared is a pretty hard-edged record as well. So is One Chord To Another." Murphy agrees. "Hard rock can be cool. We're just showing people how that can be done."
Murphy also feels that touring for One Chord To Another had a tangible effect on the direction of Navy Blues. "I would say that part of it is definitely reactionary. You're playing at a big show, your audiences get bigger and you get tired of trying to play something with elaborate parts, or a real sensitive pop thing, and all people want to do really is crowd surf. Sometimes it's just easier to play something more hard rock. You don't feel as naked. It's not as hard on you."
The blending of tracks from four very distinct songwriters also shows both the development of the individual members, as well as the growth of the band as a whole. Scott ventures into a more pop vein with "On The Horizon", while Ferguson's respect for the classic Motown sound comes out on "C'mon C'mon (We're Gonna Get It Started)". "Money City Maniacs" and "Iggy And Angus" highlight Pentland's rock sensibilities, but "I'm Not Through With You Yet" shows a more country-tinged side to his pop awareness, and Murphy demonstrates his range by veering from the down and dirty rock of "She Says What She Means" to the pure pop of "Keep On Thinkin'"
Pentland recognizes the challenges of running the band in such a collective fashion. "On one hand it alleviates some of the pressure to come up with 12 songs yourself. On the other hand there is a little bit of you wanting to write songs that are going to be able to fit on the record – so that you've got a few songs on the record. It can be a little more complicated," he explains. Through working together and understanding and respecting their differences, Sloan manage to pull their divergent songwriting styles together to create an illuminating document of cohesion.
It is live where the band believe that the progression from Smeared to Navy Blues will become clearest. "I think that when we go out on the road officially as a Sloan tour we've got enough stuff that I think there will be a good balance between everything. We may do longer shows, showcase different aspects of the band," indicates Pentland.
"Navy Blues has some payoff music for people who aren't dedicated fans, who just want to come out and have fun," explains Murphy. "I feel that lately I've been down on people who just want to come out and just have fun and I'm like 'would you listen'. I feel like we should do that too; that we should just want to have fun and not try to project some art all the time, although hopefully we can do that without losing a sense of smarts."