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If pretending to ride an invisible horse “Gangnam Style” didn’t capture your imagination in 2012, here at home the year also marked the debut self-titled album from Saskatchewan roots rockers The Sheepdogs, who took the road to success in beat-up vans and hand-me down beaters.
Taking home a slew of Juno Awards this year, the winners of Rolling Stone Magazine’s “Choose The Cover” contest in 2011 (1.5 million votes made them the first unsigned band to grace the cover) kept the momentum going by touring with Kings of Leon and John Fogerty.
A documentary on their life after the Rolling Stone cover called premiered this month at the Whistler Film Festival.
Ewan Currie, the Australia-born, Saskatoon-raised guitarist and lead singer admits with the group’s success, his life (including a decision on a car) has been put on hold.
“The last two years of my life I’ve been on the road almost non-stop. I don’t even have a home let alone a car,” he says. “We’ve been travelling so much and that’s what you’ve got to do to be a successful musician. You’ve got to be busy.”
His first set of wheels, a hand-me-down 1993 Plymouth Acclaim in which he took his road test as a 16-year old — the only car he’s ever owned — gathers dust in his mother’s garage. “Very non-descript. It’s literally like a Pictionary drawing of a car,” Currie says.
Like The Sheepdogs’ laid back southern-style rock (no auto-tuning here) it’s clear Currie values simplicity, regardless of price point.
“I want to say in spite of it being unsexy, I loved the ‘no frills’ (style) of that car. It looked like a regular car,” he says. “To me it didn’t scream ‘break into me’ but it also didn’t scream ‘I’m a teenage girl’s car.’ I love things that are utilitarian and simple and I think it had some of that appeal.”
Growing up in the prairie city, visiting friends’ houses and getting to pit parties called for a set of wheels. Currie says it also helped with the ladies.
“When you’re a teen and you get that car, it’s pretty amazing to be able to pick up your girlfriend for the first time,” he says of the Acclaim. “It’s pretty awesome.”
But one thing he discovered was just how quickly costs can add up on a used car.
“I was broke most of the time. That’s the glamourous life of the starving musician,” he says. “I got to the point where I was registering it on a monthly basis, just pathetic.”
Even his car stereo was a patch job: headphone jack converters plugged into a discman, hooked up to tiny speakers.
“I would turn it up full blast and it would sound really terrible and trebly,” he says. “I remember listening to nothing but Creedence (Clearwater Revival) and The Kinks on my little speakers.”
Like novice racers who pour their money into the track car and take a beater as their road car, a struggling musician invests in the tour van. It’s essential to getting to the next gig in the next town and in Canada that can easily be a day’s drive away.
Currie says The Sheepdogs have had three vans or “Sheepdogmobiles” while touring: “Obviously the dream is to get the sheep dog van from ,” he laughs.
Not that the movie’s ’84 Ford Econoline would have been out of place. They’ve gone through a Plymouth Voyager (it pulled a small trailer filled with their gear) as well as two different Ford vans.
“The first one was pretty comical because it had an extra high roof on it — like maybe it was a church bus at one time,” Currie recalls. “It was great because you could move around and stand up in it, but it was terrible on gas. When you’re driving to Winnipeg from Saskatoon and you fill up two times you’re in the red.
“We broke down in those things all the time and it was a constant battle, but at the same time you kind of have this love for it too, because it protected you. It got you there and it was like your home. Sometimes you’d sleep in it. It was kind of a love-hate, quasi-marriage-like relationship with the old van.”
Despite frequent breakdowns, three separate instances of getting their windows smashed and having to purchase all the transmission fluid from shops along the way on one unforgettable trip, Currie says The Sheepdogs somehow managed to make the gig; only having to cancel one date over the years.
“You really just don’t want to miss a gig,” the front man says. “Sometimes when you’re starting off it’s hard to book gigs out of town and that’s the whole reason you’re in a band — you get on stage and play for people. The big thing is just, ‘how do we get to this next gig?’ and unfortunately there always seemed to be a lot of problems when you’re driving these old vans and have four guys who don’t really know that much about engines.”
But with their new-found success (The Sheepdogs’ album hit No.1 on Canadian music charts in its first week) Currie is planning to ‘dispose of’ the now 20-year-old Acclaim and buy a better set of wheels.
And while he jokes about purchasing a Bentley or other glam set of wheels “like a rapper or an athlete” to cruise around town, he’s got his eye on a more compact option.
“For some reason I really like the idea of driving a Mini and everyone laughs at me because I’m 6’3” and a big guy, so people think it’s hilarious,” he says.
“I like the idea that you can zip in anywhere and parking would be a cinch. Turning around would be easy and I believe the Mini has pretty good pickup too, for a little car.”