For those of you about to paunch…
The Newfoundlanders Great Big Sea
Great Big Sea might be floating on a Sea of no Cares now, but
sure there was some paddling to do before they got out there. In the past decade,
the Newfoundland Canada band has tread its share of water and come out swimmingly.
It is here that we shall end the puns.
With four previous studio albums that have sold over one million copies in Canada alone the band has managed to establish itself as Warner Music Canada's most popular domestic group, outshining the likes of more 'radio friendly' rock and pop acts.
Not satisfied resting on sheer sales figures alone, Great Big Sea tours across Canada as if they were trying to get away from someone they owe money to. Outside of their native land, they've no trouble putting bums in seats either. It's the same deal everywhere they go: touring into a new territory, the band draws around 100 people on their first time in town. Over the next few trips into the area, that number bops up to 500 and then to a thousand tickets sold per night. With mainstream radio and television nowhere near catering to Celtic music in North America, band member Sean McCann says he feels comfortable stating that Great Big Sea's success comes as a result of word of mouth: the mouths belonging to the band's dedicated fan base.
"We'll do many shows ands you'll see repeaters," says McCann. "It's almost turning into The Rocky Horror Picture Show at this point. We get people coming up to us saying, "Oh, you forgot this word here" and stuff; they know the show better than we do which is kinda funny. They sing along with every single song, and they almost know the order that we do them in. We do change them, but that tends to upset them sometimes as well. We love that, that's great - it gives the people what they want. We just think it's funny. We were thinking we should just set the act up as sort of a travelling Broadway show, and we could hire other people to play Allan and me. 'Tonight: Featuring an up and coming Starlet playing Allan Doyle in The Great Big Sea Show!' It's certainly a powerful feeling. Our fans tend to be great; they do kind of respect our privacy. We live in a very small town, and I get lots of waves or honk the horn when I'm walking down the street. If I walk into a bar, people might fire out a pint, so I'm not complaining. It's all good and very positive. I just hope they'll always like what we're doing. There's too many of them now that if they change their mind about me, I'll be in very big trouble." McCann offers, however that while the band's fans are in his opinion, the best any group could hope for, not everything goes as planned. Logistics, good promotion and sound management play as much a part in any unit's success as the folks dolling out the dollars for a ticket do. With out them, McCann says, things can take an unexpected turn, or go badly.
"There's been a few hecklers over in England that we've had to silence. There was one incident and the heckler was Richard Thompson. We got along fine with him. It just seems that the English, once they get a few pints in them they consider heckling a right and an art, and we didn't really realise it. Our first time we played the Cambridge Folk Festival, Richard went on right after us, and he of course was back in the wings. We didn't even recognize him at first. He was just sitting at the side of the stage, yelling out some rather…descriptive things. He became a fast friend. We asked him afterwards 'why are you doing that to us?' He told us, oh, we're English, that's what we do. Actually during his show there were several such incidents in the crowd, which he seemed to relish. I guess it just depends on your background and culture. That was a bit of culture shock. There was also this one German tour that I thought was a particularly bad one. Our German promoter went bankrupt before we got there. We got there and we didn't have thousands of German fans to begin with, but we'd done well there. The fans just didn't know we were there unless they were online. We didn't know this until we got there, and we were thinking 'gee, we did four or five hundred people here last year…why are there only forty?' That was a bit of a blow, and it went on for ten days. By day ten we were just thinking it was terrible. Better still, it was in January and cold. Germany has never been known for its food either, so there was really not too much to look forward to at the end of the day. 'Ah, another sausage with no bun, here we go.'"
But hey, that's just one bad experience out of any number over the past ten years, right? Well yes. And for the most part, Great Big Sea's neighbours to the south really have no idea of what to do about it.
For a while during the mid to late nineties, Celtic music had something of a renaissance over hear, thanks largely to the success of shows such as Lord of the Dance, and cross-over recordings like The Chieftains' Long Black Veil. Folks simply couldn't get enough of the stuff. Festival numbers swelled to record proportions, record sales were up, and the likes of Alistair Fraser and Gaelic Storm went down with the ship in Titanic. By the turn of the millennium things had nicely quieted down again, leaving the lot of us to listen to our hornpipes and reels, happy that the beer tents and concert halls were now a touch less congested. Fads and tastes change, and by and large the music industry changes right along with it. To see a band like Great Big Sea coming down across the boarder into boy band territory and do well? It's a mystery akin to the pyramids…or why pre-formulated boy bands are so damn popular on both sides of the water.
"Record executives and promoters in the states just scratch their heads and say 'what am I gonna do with this?' We don't enjoy the same level of support that we do in Canada. For example, we're the biggest selling domestic act on our label and have been for a while. But in America, they hear accordions and fiddle and just think its not going to work. A lot of people just put their heads down and walk away. This is the third record [distribution] company we've gone through now. In the states we're on Rounder Records now, which is Allison Krauss' label, so we're probably in a happier place. The other thing about America is that it is so competitive compared to here. They say that all you have to do is get one hit in America that is so much harder to do there than it is here. There's just so many bands and so many labels - there's a thousand releases a week down there. So just getting anyone's attention is really difficult. I think a lot of Canadian bands that become big in Canada and then disappear as soon as they cross the border, I straight out understand why now, because it is just so much harder. But with the bigger market, if you can capitalize on it, if you're successful, the rewards are a hundred times greater. If you can do it, super. But it amazes me how difficult it is down there. We just plod on. We just go and go and go; People are surprised to see us return and double and triple our numbers. Still, they generally charmed. They find us very frank and up front but very friendly. I think one of the things that does shock people is that we all love a pint after a show. We're sober when we go on, but after, we'll have a couple of pints. It's not just us in a dark room, it's us and we'll be having a chat. That's very much part of our culture in a big way that seems to be absent in a number of American cities for example. Like in Boston: It's supposed to be a big Irish drinking town, but you can't get a drink in Boston after one o'clock. In Los Angeles, you can't get a drink after two o'clock, and it's supposed to be a rock & roll town. We're the kind of people that don't mind sitting around to three or four and having a pint. We're pretty good like that, but some of the people in the business I know are just floored by that, and they're not trying to keep up at all. It's our job to try and teach these people; to try to encourage them in the ways of the Force, shall we say. "
The band's propensity for touring continues to pay off. Their latest offering Sea Of No Cares, debuted at number one on the Canadian charts, and is enjoying good video and radio play. McCann says however, that while being at the top of the charts might feel like top of the world, it isn't as massive as it used to be. Music piracy, and peer to peer sharing on the Internet have hurt effected the music industry over the past few years in a dramatic fashion that McCann tries to explain.
"How do I put this in perspective? Number one now, is equivalent to selling 11,000 units, where as say, Turn debuted at number nine three years ago and that was 18,000 units. So, sales being down in general, due probably to the proliferation of CD burning and that kind of activity, all the numbers have shrank by about 20 per cent. We're still holding our own selling 100,000 units fairly quickly. But it's kind of weird, because the market is shrinking at a rate where eventually making records will not be attractive to us at all. We wouldn't be able to make any money off of it; we'd be making them at a loss. I hope it doesn't happen. We own our records. A couple of years ago, that meant something. Now it really doesn't, because as soon as they get out they're being copied for everybody to use. We're not the only band to discover this problem. Luckily, we are one of the few bands out there that has a loyal fan base that is willing to pay to see our show. It means that we can earn a living the old fashion way, which is to get out there playing. It's great to have that as a back up. But if you're a Toronto rock band that doesn't sell as many albums as Great Big Sea, and can't command 10,000 people on a tour, how do you survive? Anyway, with this record we've enjoyed way better video play, radio play's been up; everything has been up except for actual sales, which just proves the point that people burning music is having an effect on the industry."
No matter how well it's selling, Sea Of No Cares is a fine album, and quite possibly the band's most ambitious work to date. Recorded over a three-month period last year, the release marks a departure for the band. Up until now, most of Great Big Sea's great big hits have been penned and tested while on the road. For Sea of No Cares, McCann says that the band tried to avoid their tried and true method at all costs, preferring instead to hack away at their music in the studio for a change.
"I found it easier for me, I don't know if everyone found it easier. The decision that we had to make was whatever we write, let's just write what we're going to write and see where it goes. Let's not write Great Big Sea songs or shanties. In the past we've been a little bit conscious of having to write a particular sort of song for a particular album, because we know our fans like that type of song. This time, we didn't so that. I found it very liberating, but it was at first some cause for concern. I was happy about it, but we were worried that with this record there were 'type A' songs that have been on previous records that just don't exist on this album. Luckily our fans have chosen to stay with us, which is great. We won't test them that hard every time. This record is definitely song directed. Alan and I do a lot of the writing together. We brought in Chris Trapper, who plays with the Push Stars in Boston. He's a very prolific writer. He could just sit there and edit our songs and help out immensely. We've learned enough from him over the past two albums to definitely improve as writers. As a rule, people just show up with songs, and we just sit down and jam them out. We're a democracy; we're all buddies and stuff and split everything down the middle. As long as everyone likes it, we proceed."
Well. It would seem that everyone must have liked it, as Sea of No Cares is currently on shelves and shifting as many units as you'd please. The band is due to launch a large-scale tour in support of the album this fall; leaving the fingers of their devoted fans nibbled down to bloody stumps in anticipation as the countdown to ticket buying time ticks away.
And even still, the band has mad plans for the future.
"There's a project that Alan's been working on slowly. It involves getting Canadian artist to do Newfoundland folk songs. Like getting Blue Rodeo to sing the Pity Harbour Bait Skiff, and songs you might just not recognize. There's a bale of songs about Newfoundland written by Newfoundlanders, and folk songs that were written about Newfoundland, but we don't know who wrote them. We want to get bands like Big Sugar, 54-40, Treble Charger, Our Lady Peace, and all these other bands to play stuff you wouldn't be surprised to hear Great Big Sea do. We want to get these guys to do this kind of thing. That's an on going thing we've been talking about. We just got off the bus tour and we got to thinking, 'what band, Oh! We'll get the Tragically Hip to do this one.' We've already gotten six or seven bands to sign on, and they've all agreed to do it, even though they have no idea of what 'paunching a hole in a dory' is. We'll explain that to them as we go. It'll be a bit of a culture shock. But the way we see it, it'll be a salute to Newfoundland from Canada on a rock & roll level."
For those of you about to paunch, we salute you.
Related Internet site: www.greatbigsea.com
Photo Credit: All photos from www.greatbigsea.com
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