“It’s that Friday five o’clock vibe, where you’re shaking off the dust after a long work week: What am I listening to on that drive home?” asks Ewan Currie, lead singer and guitarist for the Sheepdogs.
Situated at a table at the Burger Bar, a local dive in Asheville, North Carolina, Currie sips a Miller Lite ahead of his gig at the nearby Grey Eagle and muses on the 9-to-5. Being in a band may free him from that grind, but the music he makes is directly inspired by it. “Life can be dull and boring, and with a lot of tedium,” he says. “Music is freedom, it’s fun and it’s a party — and that’s exactly what I want our band to be.”
It’s been a little over a decade since the Sheepdogs, a rip-roaring rock ensemble from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, won Rolling Stone’s “Choose the Cover” competition and became the first unsigned musical act to appear on the magazine’s cover. Today, they’re crisscrossing both sides of the Canadian border on a fall and winter tour in support of their latest album, Outta Sight, hustling to make a dent in the U.S. market
“To put it bluntly, we’re still trying to make money in places that aren’t Canada,” Currie says. “We’re still scraping by in the United States, the U.K., and in Europe. But we’re always trying to figure out how to keep moving forward, how to establish ourselves outside of Canada.”
That invisible barrier of the international border — in terms of radio airplay, marketing, and building a live audience — is something that not only the Sheepdogs battle, but has been a conundrum for other great Canadian bands, from Tragically Hip to Blue Rodeo.
“When we started this band, even before we had any concept of what success we might have or might be available to us, we wanted to be a band that makes records and goes on tour,” Currie says, “and we’re still doing those things.”
Outta Sight is meat n’ potatoes rock, shot through with the type of swagger and grit that once powered rock radio. In essence, the Sheepdogs sound like all your favorite classic rock bands — the Allman Brothers, Crosby Stills Nash & Young, Grand Funk Railroad — and yet nobody sounds like the Sheepdogs. The songs on Outta Sight have melodies that evoke the era of dueling guitars, multiple harmonies, and thunderous percussion. Tracks like “I Wanna Know You” could fit seamlessly on an FM Gold playlist between classics like “Boys Are Back in Town” or “Radar Love.”
“We were always trying to grab as many influences as we could and just smash ‘em all together,” Currie says. “And by doing that, you couldn’t tell which one we were.”
The starting line of the Sheepdogs takes place in 2004 at the University of Saskatchewan. Currie, bassist Ryan Gullen, and drummer Sam Corbett met on campus and got together to jam classic rock standards and traditional blues riffs. Eventually, the trio enlisted a lead guitarist, bought a cheap, shitty van to tour in, and hit the road.
For several years, the Sheepdogs roamed endlessly around Canada, playing any stage that would have them, even if it was hundreds or thousands of miles from Saskatoon and only a few fans turned out. They maintained a “keep truckin’” mindset, fueled by a poetic stubbornness to not give up.
“Because we were very DIY at the start of our career, and we were very much hands-on with everything, we have a keen appreciation of everything that goes into keeping things afloat,” Currie says.
In 2011, the Sheepdogs’ demo was submitted to Rolling Stone’s “Choose the Cover” contest, in which readers voted for an artist to grace the cover. After several rounds of voting, they emerged victorious — even if there was some blowback.
“Some people felt we didn’t deserve to be [on the cover], and we’ve spent a lot of years trying to bust that notion,” Currie says. “If anything, [winning the contest] probably plays into the humble, hardworking core of this band. We’ve always been determined to prove ourselves — we played a lot of shows before that competition came along, and we played a lot after, too.”
While the Rolling Stone cover may now be yellowing with age, the Sheepdogs remain vital. In the last decade or so, the band has released several acclaimed albums, two of which reached multi-platinum status in their home country. They’ve had radio hits in Canada too, and won a handful of Juno Awards. Most importantly, they continue to add to their fanbase.
“We can’t retire, so we’ve got to keep working,” Currie says, getting ready to head over to the night’s gig. “It’s been 11 years since the [cover contest]. We’re constantly trying to grow, and the only way to do that is touring. If the show is fun, the record is good, and the people are singing the new songs, then that’s a good indicator that what we’re doing is worth it.”