3 min

One chord to another

Opening for Sloan

I finally opened for Sloan. Well, not exactly, but close. I read from my writing on the same stage the Canadian alt-rock group performed on nine hours later, at the 2010 edition of Ottawa’s Westfest. To explain why this crossing of paths means so much to me, I’ll have to dig into my history and reveal a little sheet music.

From 1994 to 1996, I was a guitarist and lead vocalist in a Montreal prog-rock band called The Sixth Sense. This was before the movie of the same name — before Haley Joel Osment saw dead people.

We were three songwriters, friends united by musical influences and disenchantment with the suburbs. I’d write in my room or in the local Tim Horton’s coffee shop — always in the wee hours — developing my world-view one stanza at a time. We’d bring our latest material to the group’s basement jam space, settle down on the red shag rug and hash it out. Our lyrics fought for attention, found instruments and rhythms and grooves, and left us exhausted and happy. 

The Sixth Sense spent more than a year in the studio recording an epic, over-produced concept album called You Are Now Halfway to the Equator. The producer was great, but we forced him to layer and dilute each song with 24 tracks of special effects, including wind, ocean waves — and synthesized cowbell louder than in Blue Öyster Cult’s “Don’t Fear the Reaper.” We released 500 copies of the album on cassette and mailed it to dozens of university radio stations.

We even had stickers.

It was an exciting time in Canadian music. Halifax was the new “it” scene. Sloan had just released their pop-fizz album Twice Removed, featuring hits such as “Coax Me,” “People of the Sky” and “Pen Pals,” full of irreverent lyrics offsetting smooth harmonies. I remember the excitement of checking the mailbox for the new issue of Canadian indie music magazine Chart — the one with their foppish mugs on the cover about to break into a croon:  

If I drink concentrated OJ

Can I think Consolidated’s okay?

Coax me, cajole me

Sloan was supposed to be the new Beatles. We were supposed to be the new Sloan (minus the fourth member), but we only ever made it Halfway to the Equator. You could say that we were writing in different directions. We eventually disbanded. I remember pawning my guitar in a moment of despair and then being unable to buy it back because the pawn master was charging hundreds more than he’d given me for it.

There went my dream of opening for Canada’s Fab Four. Or so I thought.

I left music, but the writing stuck. I soon channelled my songwriting energy into short stories and found new freedom in this different medium. Then my thirst to spin longer yarns led me to write novels. I was convinced I had traded in my rock-and-roll membership card to become one of the book people.

But the writing has always tried to be music. It must know the past I’ve tried to forget, because I always end up writing about my favourite bands and modelling pieces of writing after records I love. The melodies in my sentences, I must admit, sound a lot like the 1970s radio hits I keep on heavy rotation.

I may have left music, but it had never left me.

I’ve recently acquired a guitar again. I tinker late at night, relearning the old licks and chords. Who knows where it’s going. Maybe I’ll cook up a song about how writing is best when it roams and shapeshifts, and how nothing is lost in the transitions. Writing will always bear your fingerprints, no matter the form, and that’s what counts. 

Everyone tells me I should see The Sixth Sense. I’ll bet it ends with a twist, like the one that happened at Westfest. 

It was a treat to share a hotel, luxury Porta-Potty, stage and microphone with Sloan and to see them play the songs that had coaxed out the writer in me 15 years earlier. But it was positively intergalactic to down “concentrated OJ” with them backstage — just like in the song.

Fingerprinted appears in every issue of Xtra.