Hailing from up north in the mailing label-straining town of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada, the Sheepdogs spent the early part of their career doing a lot of touring in the country. But as bassist Ryan Gullen notes, it turned out a bit different than if they had started out in the United States.
“It’s geographically challenging to be a band in Canada! A lot of people don't realize how vast Canada is,” he laughs. “Our shows were always in cities like eight hours apart. So you have to figure everything out from cost and travel distance to weather and animals and everything that is the glory of Canada! And we had to learn how to exist in a vehicle with each other for that long!”
In addition to Gullen, the Sheepdogs includes Ewan Currie (lead vocals/guitar), his brother Shamus Currie (keyboards), Sam Corbett (drums), and newest member Jimmy Bowskill (guitar/multi-instruments). The band’s name came from an incident when Ewan was a child and wandered away from his front yard. When his worried mother found in him in a nearby park, the boy was in the company of said canine.
The Sheepdogs’ latest record is Changing Colours. And while it’s definitely still rooted in a sound that’s reminiscent of the 1970s, the band has really expanded their sonic palette, veering from Southern Rock and Country to Latin and even Psychedelia. Think if the Eagles and Grand Funk Railroad got into a mass group fistfight with Thin Lizzy and the Allman Brothers Band, and whoever was left standing formed their own new band. Those comparisons are just fine with Gullen, to a point.
“We’re not going out and exploring a brand-new sound, it’s very much inspired by ‘70s rock and roll. But we don’t want to be just derivative. This is the kind of music we like and that we listen to. And that’s the kind of music we want to make, new music of the same ilk,” he offers. “You can certainly replicate a Tom Petty or a Led Zeppelin, but you really have to also make it your own. Musicians always look to other musicians for inspiration.”
He also credits the newest ‘Dog with taking the band’s music up a notch. “Jimmy had joined us part way through out last record, and he’d played a couple hundred shows before we went into the studio,” Gullen continues. “He is an amazing musician, and he can play anything with strings very, very well. We were able to experiment with different instruments. And we spent a lot more time in the studio on this record than any other.”
Changing Colours also features an increased presence for Shamus Currie on a variety of keyboards, and all of it is catchy and upbeat. There’s even a multi-part “suite” to close out the record. But perhaps the most interesting track is the serious minded “The Big Nowhere,” which sounds like a lost Santana cut. That’s thanks in part to the guest appearance of band friend Adam Hindle.
“We basically gave him a bunch of beers and got him to play a lot of different Latin percussion instruments,” Gullen laughs. “And it worked out!”
The bassist also had something of a side gig with the Sheepdogs, directing and molding their videos, which are usually pretty light hearted. “Nobody” captures the band playing the song in a crappy bar as the musicians and their uninterested audience begin to fight in crazier and crazier scenarios. Gullen says that to add authenticity, they hired a professional film stunt fight coordinator. He thinks the guy worked on some Marvel superhero movies, many of which are filmed in Toronto.
“When Ewan is spinning me around on his head and I’m harnessed into the roof, it was fun! And rock and roll is supposed to be fun. That’s why we want our videos to be entertaining,” he says. “No one needs to make another black and white video with a band playing in a stadium and the tattooed lead singer arguing with his girlfriend. That’s a bit played out.”
Changing Colours is the band’s sixth full studio record, in addition to their two EPs. About half of those were self-released, which plays into how many listeners in the United States first found out about them. In 2011, the Sheepdogs beat out 15 other unsigned acts to win Rolling Stone’s voter-driven “Choose the Cover” contest, on which they duly appeared. Gullen says the fact that they were even considered was something of a fluke after a Toronto agent submitted their demo tape to the magazine.
“We were struggling to get noticed both in Canada and outside of it. We had just put out an album that we had recorded in a house because we couldn’t afford studio time,” he recalls. “Winning it gave us a bit of affirmation. The biggest positive thing is that we were able to quit our day jobs and pursue this full time. The biggest negative is that it was a competition, and we had to prove people that we were not a manufactured band. We never became U2, but that was never our endgame anyway. We just wanted to use it as an opportunity to grow our career.”
The band has gone on to win plenty of Juno Awards (Canada’s version of the Grammys) and their music is in regular rotation on radio stations up there. Though even Gullen admits there’s something of a geographical musical divide. “There are bands in Canada who regularly fill arenas that can’t play to 200 people in Texas,” he says.
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Speaking of the Lone Star State, while the Sheepdogs have played several times in Austin and Dallas, Gullen believes this is the first time they’ll set up their equipment in Houston. “Every musician’s first experience with Texas seems to be at SXSW, but it’s not a good representation. Texas isn’t just a bunch of guys in skinny jeans and lanyards walking around trying to look cool!” he laughs.
“But Texas reminds me a lot of Saskatchewan. If you were driving through Saskatchewan and were knocked out and woke up driving through Texas, you’d think you were in the same place,” he adds – before ticking off a few things the Sheepdogs really, really love about traveling in Texas.
“We love barbecue. And stopping at Buc-ee’s! The first time we went into one, we thought ‘What is this? What is this crazy Walmart-like truck stop!’”
The Sheepdogs play 8 pm at the Continental Club, 3700 Main. For information, call 713-529-9899 or visit ContinentalClub.com. $15.