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Who let the dogs out?

Rolling Stone cover winners come to Halifax

The Sheepdogs. Supplied photo by Alex Kirzhner
The Sheepdogs. Supplied photo by Alex Kirzhner

Aug. 18, 2011 is a day the Sheepdogs won’t soon forget.

After a tumultuous seven years spent climbing the ranks of Canada’s music scene, the roots rockers from Saskatoon were given an opportunity many artists can only dream of: They landed a spot on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine, becoming the first unsigned band in history to do so.

For bassist Ryan Gullen, the experience was surreal:

“You know at Christmas time, sometimes they have these things at the mall where they Photoshop your face onto a magazine? That’s honestly what it felt like.”

The now iconic cover shot was the result of Rolling Stone‘s Do You Wanna Be a Rock & Roll Star? competition. The Sheepdogs beat out 15 other bands from across North America to win the grand prize, which also included a contract with Atlantic Records (home to such legends as Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles and Led Zeppelin, to name a few), along with some serious bragging rights.

But Gullen is quick to remark the band didn’t actually enter the contest. It was their manager, Joel Carriere, who first turned the folks at Rolling Stone on to the Sheepdogs.

“We basically got a call from Joel saying, ‘Hey, you’re going to get a call from Atlantic and a call from Rolling Stone. They’re going to explain something really crazy that they’re interested in having you guys involved with,’” he remembers. “It was more of a big surprise than anything.”

Seeing it as an opportunity to gain some exposure in the United States—an increasingly difficult task for young Canadian bands, says Gullen—the guys accepted the invitation.

Gullen describes the eight-month contest as being “pretty long and drawn out,” and says the constant pressure of being on camera and doing interviews became overwhelming at times.

But in the end, their hard work paid off: The Sheepdogs, a group who, until recently, still had day jobs to help finance their band, were finally able to pursue music full time—something they’d been dreaming about for nearly a decade.

Consisting of Ewan Currie on guitar and vocals, Leot Hansen on guitar, Gullen on bass and Sam Corbett on drums, the ‘Dogs have been making music together for years. With four independent albums under their belts, and an old school rock & roll sound that could leave even the most diehard Crosby, Stills & Nash fan nostalgic for the ‘good old days,’ one might expect them to have reached this level of fame ages ago.

But Gullen will be the first to tell you the band hasn’t had it easy. “We spent a lot of time having people tell us our music was too niche, or too old-sounding, or that it wasn’t marketable to the general public,” he says.

Now, Gullen and his bearded comrades are selling out shows across the country, including a slew of performances opening for southern sleaze rockers Kings of Leon.

They’ve also been working with Atlantic to help promote their music and define their image. Recently, they re-released 2010’s Learn & Burn with new cover art, and the label has hired an entire team to design the band’s merchandise.

Of course, it hasn’t been all work and no play for the Sheepdogs. Perks from the last year have included performing on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, playing the legendary Bonnaroo music festival in Tennessee, and—the real highlight—meeting roots-rock icons David Crosby and Graham Nash at the Rolling Stone offices in New York.

“It was very strange meeting someone you look up to like that,” says Gullen. “We were kind of in awe.”

Their interaction also brought up memories of a fellow Saskatoon native who has left a fairly significant mark on the Canadian music scene: The one and only Joni Mitchell. Both Graham and Crosby were romantically involved with Mitchell in the past, and were ecstatic to hear the Sheepdogs shared a hometown with their former love interest.

“David Crosby told us, ‘Falling in love with Joni Mitchell is like falling into a cement mixer!’” laughs Gullen.

Now, as they embark on their first Canadian headlining tour since winning the competition, the guys are looking forward to playing some live music for their fans—both old and new.

“That’s always where we’ve felt most comfortable,” says Gullen. “We try to just have a good time, and hope that people feel good after they hear our music. That’s always what we’re going for in our performances.”

The Sheepdogs will be joined by Monster Truck at the Seahorse Tavern Dec. 3 and 4.

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Erica Eades
Erica Eades
Erica was the Gazette's Copy Editor and Arts Editor for Volume 144. She was an Assistant Arts Editor for Volume 143.

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