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One-on-One with Great Big Sea’s Alan Doyle (Part 1 of 2)
Getting an hour with singer/songwriter Alan Doyle is not an easy feat these days. As lead singer of multi-platinum Canadian trad-rock band Great Big Sea, Alan is currently promoting the band’s box set XX that celebrates their twentieth-year milestone. He also released his first solo album in 2012 (Boy on Bridge) and has recently signed a book deal for an autobiography to be published in 2014. Add in some acting with Russell Crowe and you have a pretty tight agenda. Still, he managed to find time to sit with me on his deck under the midday sun, drink some strong coffee, and talk candidly with me about his music, acting, travels, and experiences. We ended up chatting at great length, so I’ve broken up the transcription into two sections which I will publish a week apart.
In Part 1 below, Doyle discusses breaking new ground in the early GBS days, producing an album during his honeymoon, and enduring protracted trips to Costco.
Chris: All right…so the first question I’ve got, and it’s one that I’ve always kind of wondered, is how do you negotiate being the most popular musician in the province? Like everywhere you go…
Alan: You mean like [popular Newfie singer] Brian Finn?
Chris: Ha-ha! I’m sure you’re used to this now, but does it ever get to the point when you’re not in the mood? This has stretched out to Canada from Newfoundland, where pretty much any city you’re in you’re easily recognizable. Does it ever get tiring?
Alan: I mean, I’ve hung around with some of the most famous people on earth. And I see how they can negotiate being famous and not being famous, according to the situation. If they can do it, I should be able to do it no sweat. My joke with Russell has always been, “I’m only famous on two streets! You know, you’re famous on every street!” Having people come up and tell me that they like my music has always been an enjoyable thing for me. ‘Cause I’m a ham. And not everybody is. That’s not everyone’s thing. But there are also times I’m in the parking lot and go to myself, “You know what? I can’t do it. I’ll go tomorrow.” I’m serious; it sounds facetious, but it’s true. I say, “Nope. Can’t do it.”
Chris: I guess that’s a result of you not being in the mood to be recognized at that moment; you’d rather not go than go and be closed off to people.
Alan: Well you can’t do that. Because it’s just not fair to people and it’s also, you know, it’s just not…it’s not a smart thing to do anyway. Man, you can’t spend your life going, “Look at me, look at me, look at me. Okay, not now. Look at me now, look at me now. Okay, not now!” You know? And you can’t ask people your entire professional life to be excited to see you, and then when they get a chance to see you in person, ask them to not be excited. It’s not fair. So if I go to the places where there’s a real good chance I’ll be recognized when I get there, I need to be ready for it. I mean, I can’t be surprised and pissed off about it. No sense in me going to Costco and not letting someone get a picture taken with me down by the socks.
Chris: It must take you forever to get through Costco…
Alan: You know my wife says to me, “I’m not going to Costco with you ‘cause you’ll be in there for an hour and a half while I’m out waiting in the car with ten jugs of milk!” But that’s all part of it. And I’ve seen other people jig it one way or another, you know? But my favorite one is…what’s Johnny Rotten’s real name? John Lydon. His famous quote was, “If you don’t want to be famous, just stop being famous.” That’s all. Go to the deli. Right? And then go to darts, and then go home 8:00. People will stop looking. And it’s brilliant, you know? I’ve always loved that quote.
Chris: It’s so true. I remember hearing years ago – and I have no idea if it’s true – that Greg Keeler didn’t want to be recognized when Blue Rodeo was starting to get famous in Toronto. And he went to the Horseshoe Tavern with these big glasses and a hat or something, and he was actually more conspicuous than he would’ve been if he had just gone as himself.
Alan: Well living in St. John’s really helps that, because there are different places in the world…usually bigger cities, where wearing some of your celebrity is okay. There are some places where it’s even encouraged. You know, where “bling” and wearing your celebrity actually buys you something, and actually increases your celebrity…and you become famous because you’re famous. But it’s not that way here [in Newfoundland] at all. It’s the complete opposite of that here. If you come back off your fancy tour with your fancy band and you show one slightest hint of, you know, a Rolex watch or something like that…get the fuck! You’re going to be butchered! Can’t do it. Imagine if I came out and said, “Yeah…call me ‘A. Doyle’ now. My name is A. Thomas Doyle.” Like, I mean I’d have…my face would be swollen from the punches, let alone the verbal abuse. That’s one of the reasons I still live here. It’s because I just enjoy the fact that…people will rebel against that kind of thing.
Chris: You’ve all [in Great Big Sea] decided to stay in St. Johns, whereas other artists years ago felt that they had to move away to succeed on a broader scale. Young artists can now look at you and say, “Those guys can come and go [from the mainland], so I can too.” You’ve been a model for other bands in that way. You’ve kind of paralleled yourself with this shrinking world, you know?
Alan: Well, the funny thing with Great Big Sea is…I cannot tell you how many times we’ve found ourselves doing something for the first time. We couldn’t find anyone else who’d done it. Like, even stuff as simple as, “how do we manage to get ourselves to and from Vancouver and not have it cost us an arm and a leg?” Fundamental band stuff like sitting in a St. John’s accountant’s office and trying to figure out the most tax-efficient way to transfer Danish Kronor into Canadian dollars. And it’s like…there’s never been a single Newfoundland entertainment entity that’s ever had to ask this question. I cannot tell you how often we’ve found ourselves doing something that nobody has done yet. And sometimes it’s a big visible thing, but most times it’s something that you would never even see. Just like, “Oh…payroll tax is different if we do it outside of Canada. What do Newfoundland tax laws say about that one? Well we don’t know, cause no one’s done it.” Just boring stuff like that. It freaks me out.
Chris: Well it’s all because of the larger pioneering picture, in that you’ve taken this band further than any other Newfoundland band. So you’re going to encounter that stuff.
Alan: Well, we’ve gotta figure out how to do it. You know? It’s one of the things I like about working with [GBS bandmates] Sean and Bob is that they’re never afraid to figure something out. And they’re never afraid to say “we don’t know how to do it.” And they’re never afraid to shag it up. And that’s awesome, ‘cause so many people are so terrified to say they don’t know something.
Chris: I want to talk about the co-writing for your new solo album. Not only did you do a lot of co-writing but you also did a lot of traveling. You worked with [television composer] Mike Post in L.A., Colin James in Vancouver, Toronto with Jim Cuddy, Nashville with Gordie Sampson,…
Alan: The whole Boy on Bridge project was really, like, sort of a part musical, and a part wanderlust experiment. I had all these friends whom I knew would give me some of their time if I could get in front of them, and be with them. And I wanted to learn how they did it. I wanted to learn how they made music. Cause I’ve made my own music…or I’ve made music with Great Big Sea, I’ve made music for other people who have hired me to make music for them. But almost everything I’ve done…in like 20 some years of doing it, I was kind of either the center of it or the driver of most of it. And I go like, okay, I don’t want to do a single brushstroke on this record like I knew how to do already. On this project I’d end up doing stuff that just would’ve been impractical or impossible for the whole band to do. It’s like, you know, “Okay you can get three hours of Gordie’s time if you go sit in the motel in Nashville for a week. And wait for him to get a cancellation and be ready.” It’s practical if it’s just me. I’ll go do my own thing and when Gordie sees a window for me to do stuff, I’ll go there. That’s awesome, that’s totally fine. And like, in the case of Mike Post, same drill. Like they’re all TV score guys, and they’re busy, you know? The whole thing about the collaborative thing was part musically driven and part wanderlust driven. I wanted not only to be in those places, but I also wanted to work in those places the way those guys work in those places. I wanted to know what happens there. So it was as much about satisfying my own curiosity as anything.
Chris: As far as co-writing goes, I know your lyrics with Russell go in a particular direction. They’re more literary than your other material. Does he go that way lyrically?
Alan: Well, Russell is sort of an apprenticeship. You know, I suppose it comes from decades of Russell writing and re-writing things for dudes to say. That’s what they do for a living. They find out the coolest way, the most poignant way to say something. And that’s part of any great actor’s job. But he also has a love of lyric-based music like Leonard Cohen, that kind of stuff, and in the poetry of it all. He’s become way more of a poet than I probably would ever be.
Chris: So it was a learning experience.
Alan: Here are the two things I’ve learned writing with Russell: the value of lovely language that normally you know, being the guy from Skinner’s Hill in Petty Harbour, I don’t employ that kind of language very often. And so that helps me out tremendously. But the other thing that’s way bigger is that I end up writing songs about stuff I never would’ve written a song about. Because songs are about concerts and girls, right? Maybe a car, I guess? Or something? What else is there? You know, I don’t think I’ve written a single one with him about any of those things. You know, it could be…you end up writing a song about a guy who’s just escaped from prison. It’s just a way more open palette than I’m used to. I found that really, really helpful, not only writing my own stuff with him but when I turn to go write with other people. A lot of guys like you and me, who started playing guitar in 1979, we all think the same thing. We all think a song should be about a girl or a car. You know, maybe drinking in a car with a girl could possibly be a song. Any of those three! That’s the best thing about collaborating with Russell; it’s like, “Let’s do a song about a political evangelist in Southern Alberta.” Oh, okay.
Chris: And you could bring that to someone like Colin James who adds a blues element.
Alan: Yeah, well…you know I have almost no apprenticeship in the blues at all. I know almost nothing about the blues. I haven’t got a clue. So I sat with my guitar and I started shagging with a song that’s like one of a million Chuck Berry songs or something, I can’t think of it. So I played this riff, and I brought it to the guitar player who was playing in Russell’s band at the time – superstar session guitar player in Sydney. Paul Burton. Paul’s a super monster blues guitar player. And I said, “Paul can we get away with this?” And he’s like, “What do you mean?” And I was like, “Is this too simple a blues riff?” “Well there’s only three, Al.” I said, ”But does it sound like another song?” “Yes, hundreds.” But some cool music has been made by people who are big fans of something but really don’t know anything about that thing. I think about, like sometimes, when great pop music comes out of Sweden. You know, with people who don’t speak English. And you look at the simplicity and the beautiful language, the simple language that lives in ABBA songs, for example. No English first-language person would ever write those songs. You know? “Super…Supertrooper, is that a word? Okay good.”
Chris: Another question about the themes in your songs, and I’ve noticed it over the years too, is that you are the eternal optimist. Not only are you optimistic, but you’re still searching. Like your song, “I’ve Seen a Little” is little ironic in that you have seen more than a lot of people have seen. And that sort of connects to being Alan Doyle. You’re still very optimistic, curious, and interested.
Alan: It was a cool lesson doing the Robin Hood movie, you know…where of course I had no idea what I was doing at all. Never done a movie gig or acting gig before really. Then I find myself on some of the biggest movie sets in history. Then I watch [director] Ridley Scott, Cate Blanchett, and Russell learn something everyday. Everyday.
Chris: They weren’t afraid to sort of express the fact that they were learning? That must’ve been a relief to you, learning yourself.
Alan: Awesome. They learn something everyday. The smartest people we know learn something everyday, and they never stop. It’s like traveling. Going to see a certain place is cool enough. But showing up in a city to play a gig, you instantly have the key to the back door. Even if it’s the shittiest gig you ever did in your life, you’re there for a reason. And plus, if the gig goes well, there’s hundreds of people…or thousands of people that will gladly show you where to go. You can be part of their night, and that kind of thing, in a temporary kind of way. And that’s part of the drug of it, I think.
Stay tuned for part 2 next week!