One-on-One with Great Big Sea’s Alan Doyle (Part 2)
Here is Part 2 of my lively, informative conversation with Canadian singer/songwriter and Great Big Sea frontman Alan Doyle, in which we talk about psychotic travel itineraries, conversations with people in the Sobey’s lineup, and the merits of Def Leppard. (Click here for Intro and Part 1.)
Chris: Do you ever feel like you are trying to write anthems for people when you sit down to write a song?
Alan: Every time (laughs).
Chris: It seems like you sort of channel your audience. Like the song, “My Day.” It sounds like something people could really get inside and sort of take on as their own anthem.
Alan: I’ve found I can’t help it. I wish I could sometimes. I write songs to sing for people, more than I write songs to put on records. I’m writing a concert, not writing a record.
Chris: But that’s a good thing though.
Alan: With “My Day,” it seemed like there were a million songs on the radio that all started with some ukulele or mandolin or something, playing some faux-reggae beat, with some simple thing about “Drops of Jupiter” or something, I can’t remember. What was that tune, the one with the “Hey-ay-ay-ay.” That perfect pop voice. The Train guy.
Chris: Oh, “Hey Soul Sister.”
Alan: Yeah, and then Jason Mraz had another one. And I was like, “Fuck you, I’m writing one of those songs!”
Chris: And it worked! I just want to talk a little bit more about your experiences with Russell Crowe now. Since you’ve befriended Russell, you’ve found yourself in interesting places musically. You’ve played with Sting, you’ve played with Elvis Costello, I’m sure you’ve played with more people you haven’t even mentioned. What do you think brought you two together as friends? Your primary relationship with him is friendship, right?
Alan: Yeah, pretty much. Yeah, it’s grown into that for sure. We met up first ’cause he had heard some Great Big Sea stuff, in particular a song called “How do we Get From Saying I Love You” from one of the earlier Great Big Sea records. So Russell became a fan. And we met up in 2004 just before a Toronto gig and he was like, “Would you like to write a song sometime?” I was like, “Yes, gladiator, I think I would like to write a song. That would be cool.” So you go and you do it, and it ends up you really like it.
Chris: Well obviously he saw something in your writing that could accentuate what he was trying to do.
Alan: Well he wanted someone to produce a record. And as luck would have it, my wife Joanne and I had just gotten married and were on our honeymoon in New Zealand, about to come home. And he got ahold of me and said, “The movie I was about to do just got cancelled. I have 10 weeks off. What are you doing?” “Well I have four weeks off.” “Okay, come over.” So I flew over to Australia to write songs and when I showed up he’d already had a band hired and we were making a record that I was producing. And like, Bones was in the band…Bones Helman from Midnight Oil and I’m like, “Oh hey! How you doing!” When you’re with Russell, his lust for life and experiences makes it trial by fire, constantly. And if you’re ready, you’ll get something good out of it. And if you’re not fucking ready, you’re going to burn.
Chris: And you know of course, the average Newfoundlander thinks that Russell’s here in town all the time. If there’s anything going on, people always wonder, “Is he here? If I go to a party with Alan, I wonder if Russell Crowe is going to be there?”
Alan: Trust me, I get it all the time. You’d figure that the Internet and social media would’ve erased that. ‘Cause how hard would it really be for you and me to find out where Russell is right now?
Chris: Not very hard.
Alan: Probably would take one minute? It might take a minute. It wouldn’t take two minutes. “Well there’s a picture of him walking the streets in Turkey, yesterday, so…”
Chris: In spite of the ready access to information on the internet, some people still don’t seem to want to bother looking anything up.
Alan: Here’s my favourite conversation in the Sobey’s lineup lately: “Yeah I was hoping to get you to do this thing, but you’re hard to get ahold of.” I’m hard to get ahold of? What? There are entire pages on the Internet with phone numbers, emails, manager’s numbers, quick links. I’ve basically tweeted my professional life almost to the hour in the last couple of years!
Chris: What do they want? Your home phone number? Be invited over for supper?
Alan: Hard to get ahold of? Yes b’y.
Chris: The Great Big Sea box set that recently came out, XX…do you think it’s a milestone in the band’s ongoing life or more a signal that things might slow down a bit for you guys, being parents now and all?
Alan: Oh, I don’t know. It’s definitely a marker. That’s the cool thing about Great Big Sea, especially in the last six or eight years. We never know where we are in the journey. It’s like, “Are we still right in the beginning of this, or…what are we doing?” It goes through that phase where “hmm, maybe this will be our last tour.” And then nine years later you’re like, “Yeah, that wasn’t our last tour at all.” With The XX thing, it’s really the first time we ever kind of stopped and patted ourselves on the back a little bit. Because we never do that. We stopped and went, “Okay, this is an occasion that needs to be marked.”
Chris: Well it’s kind of nice when you put everything together. You put it all on one table and go, “Okay, here it is.”
Alan: Yeah, and you know, it’s like we never do that kind of thing. We spent basically the last 10 months before it came out putting it together. And like, man what a body of work! I mean, like or not, good bad or indifferent…man that’s a shitload of stuff!
Chris: Yeah…a shitload of travel, a shitload of everything. I remember talking to either Bob or you about when you played in the States and Europe in the same day or something? I’m always fascinated with your travel. I don’t think I could physically do what you guys do.
Alan: I’ll tell you what it was: the last day of The Chieftain’s Tour. It was in San Diego, down under the bridge in the outdoors. The Guinness Festival. It was Sunday afternoon, I’m pretty sure. Yeah. We opened the festival at noon, and we flew out in the early afternoon. We flew San Diego to Toronto, and we got in Toronto at about 10:00 at night – just enough time to make the Heathrow flight. Then we flew Toronto to Heathrow, got in London at 7:00 in the morning or whatever, then flew from London to Lisbon and played at the World Fair with Diana Krall on Monday night. We got up again at 4:00am, went to the airport in Lisbon to get on a 6:00am flight to connect us with the 8:30 flight from Heathrow to St. John’s. I remember at 2:00 that afternoon walking down Duckworth Street [in St. John’s] going, “Wow. Did that just happen?”
Chris: Have you found a way on the road to relax and get your sleep? With the bit of travel I do by plane, I never sleep. On tour it seems like it’s never any more than five hours sleep before you’re up and on the go again.
Alan: Well I’ve sort of physiologically convinced myself to fall asleep in any kind of moving vehicle. Can’t stay awake. Can’t drive out to the cabin without falling asleep. But there’s whole advent now of being able to work while you travel. I pretty much edited the rough mixes for Boy on Bridge via laptop on airplanes. I’ve gotten on so many flights from St. John’s to Toronto where I’ve had my headphones yanked off by the flight attendants when we’re landing. Gordie Samson’s gag all the time is like, “I only comp  vocal tracks on airplanes. Save ‘em all up for a flight home.” It’s perfect! What a perfect thing to be doing on an airplane. But different people have different tricks. You’d just be tortured if you didn’t have some kind of coping mechanism, whatever it is.
Chris: And audiences are not going to think about how you might’ve had a long flight or didn’t sleep much; they just want you to be on.
Alan: Like Bob Hallett always says it: “Tonight is night 21 of 32 for us. This is night 1 of 1 for them.” And they’re paying our fucking mortgages. It’s show business.
Chris: I’d love to have a conversation with you about this aspect of the business. I was talking to [Toto guitarist] Steve Lukather last week, and he was talking about that too. He said he sees these guys on late night TV. They get their one shot on Letterman, and they can’t even form a simple guitar chord. He said that these guys might as well go home already; they haven’t got a prayer.
Alan: Yeah, it’s like the competition to put bums in seats right now is so big that you know…people have to be thrilled by a show.
Chris: Bands had videos back in the ‘90s that they could kind of push on people as a surrogate means of selling the band. But video is gone now, so a band like Nirvana wouldn’t have a prayer in this climate now. But back then it could be sold by video. The, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” video was what made them what they were.
Alan: This is true I suppose for every kind of music. That whole grunge movement I never liked, really. I liked some of the bands, including Nirvana…like the songs. But the shows were just like, wow. I wouldn’t be arsed to go. It’s like, “So you’d rather go see Def Leppard than go see Nirvana?” Any fucking day! He’s on a pulley, jumping up and down! He’s spitting fire out of his mouth! And he’s farting and there’s girls with tits. It’s fucking excellent! Now I don’t have Def Leppard on in my car. I have Nirvana on in my car. But when I go to a concert, it’s showtime. And my favorite bands – or the most successful bands, I think, in history – are the ones that have both. Queen…is there a better studio band than Queen? Who had a better concert than Queen?
Chris: I know, and they [Queen] don’t get the credit they deserve for their vocal harmonies. I mean, you talk about CSN and their vocal harmonies but they sort of peaked in ’71 as far as their vocal harmonies on records go. But Queen is, you know,…
Alan: Incredible. You watch them at showtime. What’s going on at showtime? Whatever it takes! I’m sure if Bono walked on stage and realized that people wanted to see a plumbing show more than hear U2 songs, he’d go get an arc-welder. His whole approach is like, “there’s no one leaving this fucking room that doesn’t have their hands up [motions with his hands] when they’re walking out through the door. Not one!”
Chris: Well Bono recently said he doesn’t want to do another U2 record unless he has something to give, which is interesting too. If he feels like he doesn’t have something to really knock out of the ballpark, then he’s going to refrain. Sting had a long break between records one time, and people asked him why. He replied, “I had nothing to say.” That’s an artist’s concern for the audience isn’t it? He doesn’t want to just do something just half-assed?
Alan: Don’t know, I can’t really say. With Great Big Sea we always had five guys fighting to get their songs on the record. We’ve been blessed and sort of cursed by the fact that we’ve never been a big band. You know? We’ve never had a hit song. We’ve never had…you know, we’ve had some videos and stuff that got on the air. But we’ve never had a hit song. We’ve never had a song that really stayed in the top 20 of any chart ever in our career. Our progress has been so slow, yet so steady. Like our biggest year, that we’ll ever have in our career, is this year.
Chris: In some US cities you can attract up to and beyond 2000 people a night now. I mean, there are literally hundreds of American touring acts that can’t do that.
Alan: For every Canadian band that doesn’t make it in the States…there’s 685 American bands that don’t make it in the States. Look, when we started touring down there I figured there’d be a lot of good bands. I had no idea there’d be so many fucking amazing bands. And they’re all dogging it out for that top part.
Chris: Yeah, I’m learning about the PR side of things now. And I realize that all these PR people are just going crazy trying to get their acts heard.
Alan: Oh yeah, the competition is unbelievable.
Chris: Alan, thanks so much for taking the time to chat. I know you’re busy. It’s been a pleasure.
Alan: Any time, man!
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