Sloan's 'Commonwealth': Where Has This Band Been All Your Life?

Our review of Sloan's 'Commonwealth' includes song-by-song details from keyboardist Gregory MacDonald.

How a band like Sloan—four super-talented Canadian musicians/songwriters who have been together for almost 25 years—have managed to escape mainstream success in the US is beyond me. Sloan is putting out some of the best music of their career at a point when many bands merely coast or lose their mojo. Their latest album (their eleventh!), Commonwealth, continues their upward trajectory.

Since the 2006 release of what may be their best overall album Never Hear the End of It, the members of Sloan have continued to hone their writing skills and performing chops. An essential ingredient is longtime keyboardist and backing vocalist Gregory MacDonald, whose role has grown as the band has evolved. Piano is a big part of Sloan's sound—sometimes more so than is evident from a first pass. Macdonald is a true MVP both on record and onstage, where he multitasks with seemingly effortless skill.

I got the chance to speak with MacDonald about his parts on Commonwealth, a double-album on which each of the band’s principal songwriters composed music for one of the sides. While you listen to this stellar new release, his remarks about each song (below) should give you some insight into the intricacies of Sloan’s arrangements—something to chew on while you contemplate how you've missed out on Sloan for so long.

Guitarist Jay Ferguson's side

"We've Come This Far": "This song is so heavy. It’s been hanging around in various forms for a long time, I remember hearing it in demo form for Parallel Play (2008) The whole intro section is lifted from Jay’s original home demo; we were never really able to re-create it. It’s a bunch of Mellotrons all mashed together. The flute loop at the end is from the same demo. I played a nice little grand piano belonging to our friend Todor. We had all but given up on trying to make our poor old upright work by this point. I took a slightly different approach to how Jay played it, but he seemed to like it. I think I pounded out some low-octave whole notes with my left hand under the solo at the end. This song marks the first time I’ve used a grand piano on a Sloan record."

"You’ve Got a Lot on Your Mind": "This is a newer one of Jay's songs, with elements that evolved from a demo that floated around for The Double Cross. We used the same little grand piano for this one, and the intro sort of fleshed itself out once we knew we wanted it to come out of 'We’ve Come This Far.' Jay had the riff, but it was a bit of an awkward transition until I added the left hand chords, made it sound more cohesive I think. There’s also a little Minimoog bass part buried in the intro and choruses, which Jay played. The strings that come in for the back half are all Mellotron, I think."

"Three Sisters": "This song was the reason we tried out the grand piano in the first place, and we loved it so much we ended up going back [and] replacing almost all of the pianos on the album with it. Jay knew from day one he wanted this one to be a grand. There’s also a patch called Medieval Flutes (classic Jay) playing along with the piano for the whole song, played by Jay. The string patch at the end is just a Logic patch I think. One thing I love about this song that I must mention, even though it’s not keyboards at all, is the vocal part under the guitar solo, I’m really happy with how that turned out. That was my idea and my arrangement. I’m so glad it worked out."

"Cleopatra": "Another one of Jay’s newest, this song came about quickly once we started recording. The little piano lick in the pre-chorus was twice as long but got cut down during mixing. To be honest, I think it’s the Nord on this one as we just did it quick in our studio and we liked it so it survived. The strings are Jay’s parts, I’m not sure what he used. I don’t think I was there that day. Nice straightforward little number. I like all the backup vocals on this one too, and it’s fun to have Chris and Patrick’s voices in there along with mine. The riff in the middle section is Nord as well. Jay wrote it and I played it."

"Neither Here Nor There": "That’s Jay’s real Rhodes, one of the nicest ones I’ve ever played. It gets used a lot. Nice soft action and really barks when you wail on it. I can’t remember if he played it or if I did though. I probably did. He almost always gets me to play his keyboard parts, but this one was so tiny I wouldn’t be surprised if he just whipped it off himself."

Bassist Chris Murphy's side

"Carried Away": This song probably has the most keys and the most me on it. This song really changed a lot from its inception. Chris and I demoed it a lot, and parts came and went and it took a long time to get where it ended up. The intro riff part came last; I remember him working it out on an acoustic guitar in a theater dressing room one night. That riff is a bunch of different sounds all mashed together. There is a real string quartet playing the line, but we thought it was a bit wimpy and I wanted to toughen it up. I wanted it to sound like 'Race for the Prize' by the Flaming Lips, and I built a little monophonic Mellotron violin patch with huge portamento on it, and that survived for a while before Chris chickened out and we went for a more straight-ahead Mellotron string patch blended in with the real strings. Then we had a little eureka moment when I pulled out the [Critter & Guittari] Pocket Piano. I love that thing so much. We were sort of at a standstill with it, and I just said “When in doubt” and reached for it. I played along with the line and that was what we were looking for. But it was such a gnarly patch it had this really hard attack on it so we decided to roll back and I would just start playing early, and we would just cut the beginning off. Only when I played that single note off the top I remember we all looked at each other and … we knew we had figured it out. This is so fun to play live. At the last minute, Jay got nervous about the intro note but thank god he didn’t make us cut it. There’s also a Minimoog patch doubling the bass guitar in the intro. The rest of the song is me playing Jay’s Rhodes through Chris’s old Deluxe Reverb. Chris wrote the parts and I played them. The back half of the last chorus and outro are all real strings recorded live in our studio."

"So Far So Good": "Back to the grand piano again. This one had the upright for a long time but we replaced it late in the recording with the same grand piano. All the piano was done in two afternoon sessions at our friend Todor’s studio. I really like the performance on this one. I would say most of the ideas and parts on this one are mine. In the middle part there’s me playing my old Korg BX3 through my Leslie 145. I remember asking Chris, 'Is this part too Russian?' He laughed. Also features some tasty guitar by Andrew played through that same Leslie. I directly copped a lick from an old B-side called 'Summer's My Season' a couple times in this one as a little Easter egg for the super fans. The outro has extra left-hand piano bass and big organ chords. The la la laaa part came to me in the shower one morning during the mixing phase, and I demoed it quickly and Chris approved. It ends with that nice big B7sus2 chord hanging over the end because we knew from the beginning it was going to be married to 'Get Out.' I just let it hang forever at the end and we laid it over the next song in mastering."

"Get Out": "Lots of the grand piano on this one. Also has the organ with the Leslie on full speed in the choruses. Ryan threw in a few cool-sounding backwards piano notes, too. The second verse was fun—got to boogie woogie a little. Also has a nice Mellotron string sustained over the second half of the second verse, played that on the Nord Electro. Chris and I came up with all the parts together as we went along in the studio. Originally the demo was all organ, but we ended up making it mostly piano."

"Misty’s Beside Herself": "I accidentally changed the piano riff in the chorus of this one while tracking it and made it almost exactly the same as 'Carried Away'! Whoops. Same grand piano on this one. Our old little upright was so out of tune it was driving me nuts, especially on this one. The pocket piano makes another appearance in this one, playing a subtle little part in the second and third choruses. I like how everything drops out and the piano goes up an octave in the breakdown. The strings are both real and MIDI on this one, I believe. That was all arranged and tracked by Chris."

"You Don’t Need Excuses To Be Good": "Barely any piano in this one. It’s real grand and it’s played by me. The part was my idea."

Lead Guitarist Patrick Pentland's side

"13 (Under a Bad Sign)": "The only thing I did on this one I think was sing some backing vocals. If there are any keys on it, they were played by Patrick. I think it’s all guitar that’s been heavily effected. I did try to sneak a little noise from an old Boss percussion pedal I have in the stop, but I think it got cut."

"Take It Easy": "Again, I think this one is all Patrick. I am pretty sure he sang all the harmonies."

"What’s Inside": "The first time I heard this song was during mastering. Patrick did everything himself."

"Keep Swinging (Downtown)": "That’s me playing the piano. We laid down the Nord to get the arrangement and I’m pretty sure we kept it. The little transistor organ part in the second half of the verse was on the Nord too I believe."

Drummer Andrew Scott's side

"Forty-Eight Portraits": "This song is the only one that features our upright piano, and it’s all played by Andrew. It took about a month for him to teach it to me to perform live. Chris and I sang all the backups on this one. Andrew also played Jay’s Rhodes and my BX3 a fair bit too. All the strings and horns are real as well. I don’t think Andrew knows how to use MIDI.