Gregory Macdonald, Vintage Keys with Sloan

If you haven’t heard of Canadian rockers Sloan, you haven’t had the pleasure of experiencing one of North America’s finest bands— affectionately dubbed “Canada’s Beatles” by their fans.
Image placeholder title

By Robbie Gennet

Gregory stacks ’em high with Sloan. Top to bottom: Roland Juno-G, old model Korg BX-3, and Wurlitzer electric piano.

If you haven’t heard of Canadian rockers Sloan, you haven’t had the pleasure of experiencing one of North America’s finest bands— affectionately dubbed “Canada’s Beatles” by their fans. Their impeccable vocal harmonies and unique mix of sensibilities gel to form an unforgettable sound. Sloan’s tenth album is called The Double Cross, a bit of a pun on the Roman numeral XX (20) because this is the band’s 20th year. Keyboardist Gregory Macdonald has been with the band since 2006, when he toured for Sloan’s Never Hear the End of It. His first recording with the band was 2008’s Parallel Play, and he’s been involved with everything since. Here, he shares his experiences recording The Double Cross.

Where did you record the new album?

The album was recorded entirely in our rehearsal space with our amazing engineer, Ryan Haslett. He assisted the recording and mixing of everything the band has put out since 2006, and this time he’s the sole recording and mix engineer. He’s really done a fantastic job, allowing the guys and me a ton of creativity and experimenting with sounds and ideas.

How does the new record compare to the rest of the catalog?

Image placeholder title

I’m thinking of it as the shorter version of Never Hear the End of It [2006]. Kind of like a hybrid of that record and [1999’s] Between the Bridges. Most of the songs are fairly concise—under three minutes. It’s truly a Sloan album that is unique and different from everything else.

How prominent are keyboards on this record compared with past albums?

I would say this record has the most keyboards of any Sloan album yet. Never Hear the End of It had a lot, but it was mostly piano. During Parallel Play and [2009’s] Hit & Run, I got to play some piano and organ, but on The Double Cross I’ve been able to pull out all my toys, even the Stylophone! The Mellotron and Chamberlin sounds in the Nord are all over this record, and piano is on almost every song. I think the only thing in our studio that didn’t make it into a song is my wonderful little bright red toy piano, though I think Patrick [Pentland, guitarist] did audition it once for something.

Holding up that Nord Electro 3 is an original Korg BX-3 from 1980. Its analog circuits gave it a sound that, while not perfect by today’s clonewheel standards, makes it (and its single-manual sibling the original CX-3) sought after even today.

Image placeholder title

How much freedom did you have to create parts? Were there also specific parts they wanted you to play?

I’m given total freedom to create my own parts. Of course, if I come up with a part that stinks, they leave it out. On the past two records, the piano was sometimes put on as an afterthought, but now the band is looking to me earlier in the recording process to add to the song. Once in a while, someone will have a certain part in mind from a demo they want me to re-create, but everyone in the band is quite competent on the keys, so in those cases they’ll often record those parts themselves.

Which songs stand out to you, and which keyboards did you play on them?

I used my touring rig in the studio, along with a couple of keyboards and pianos that we have in our space. My [original] Korg BX-3 and Leslie 145 organ setup makes a few appearances, mostly on two of Chris’ [Murphy, bassist] songs, “Follow the Leader” and “Laying So Low.” The latter has nice piano and organ parts on it that I’m proud of. The speed switch on my Leslie preamp pedal makes a really loud click, and it’s audible throughout the whole song, which I love. Jay [Ferguson, guitarist] has a really nice 1973 Rhodes you’ll hear often on this record, and we also used our old upright piano on many songs. That piano used to be in [drummer] Andrew Scott’s living room, but he needed the space, so he traded it for the smaller console-style piano that was in our studio. I came up with a neat little piano part on Jay’s “Beverly Terrace” that he loved, and it became a featured part that ended up changing the overall sound of the final mix quite a bit compared to his original demo. I bought a new Nord Electro 3, and I played it a lot on this record. I had fun auditioning all the sounds in their libraries and picking my favorites. I’ve been mixing sounds together. There’s one part in the song “Your Daddy Will Do” that has the Mellotron strings, flutes, and our real piano all playing the same part in unison, and it’s an amazing sound. I also snuck in a little part on my Stylophone on a song called “Shadow of Love,” a great new wave, Costello/Bowie-type song.

You really do need a Leslie for older clonewheels to sound right. Here’s Gregory’s 145.

Image placeholder title

How will the keys translate when adding these new tunes to the live set?

We always try our best to duplicate the record faithfully when we perform live. I’m thinking about adding a second Nord to the touring rig to pull off some of these new songs. There’s a couple times when I’ll need to instantly switch sounds or play a few sounds simultaneously, so that’s something I need to plan ahead for. The Nord can handle several sounds at once, but we also need samples, not just dynamic touch-responsive instruments like the Rhodes or piano sounds. I still have the Roland Juno-G, which I’ve used a lot on the road lately.

What are your favorite songs from the catalog to play live?

“Summer’s My Season,” a B-side from Between the Bridges. It’s a great song, and it’s mostly built around a great organ riff. Another one is “At the Edge of the Scene,” another B-side from the same record. It’s a fun, fast, bouncy piano song that changes tempo and key a couple times, which I love. “Who You Talkin’ To?” from Pretty Together [2001] has that great string-synth part and a nice bridge from Chris. “Before I Do” from Twice Removed [1995], is one of my favorite songs ever. It’s got lots of great piano and vocals, strange chords, and of course, the epic ending. “I Can Feel It,” also from Twice Removed, is a real crowdpleaser sing-along, and I’ve always liked playing it.

Do any of the four core band members play keyboards or use them to write songs?

Yes. Andrew is a great piano player, so he doesn’t often need me to play on his songs. I’m going to have to sit down soon with him and have him teach me how to play his new song, “Traces.” It’s very piano driven and a cool riff. The other three guys can all play just fine. Up until I joined, they had to do everything themselves.

*Song-by-song analysis of keyboards on The Double Cross.

*Find out if Sloan is playing near you.