Newfoundland’s biggest band Great Big Sea just released a new album and are celebrating their 15th year. Elling Lien met up with Bob Hallett and Alan Doyle, two-thirds of the band’s core, to talk about the album, how they started, and where they are now.
In a way, it all started when Alan Doyle bought the terrible minivan.
“We owned a PA,” says Bob Hallett, who had previously founded the folk-rock band Rankin Street with Séan McCann, “and we argued and fought over that fucking PA more than over any song or any show, because it was huge. Moving it from point A to B was a major source of pain and frustration. Somebody wouldn’t show up, and you’d find yourself trying to stuff it into a Gulliver’s station wagon.”
Enter Alan Doyle. With his van.
“I showed up with the van and said, ‘look guys, I’ll look after the gear,’” Doyle says. “They were like, ‘I don’t care if he sings upside down or backwards, he’s in the band.’”
Hallett laughs. “It’s funny how you make these major life-changing decisions based on ridiculous qualifications.”
Ridiculous qualifications or not, Great Big Sea—intended to meld Newfoundland traditional music with the members’ own contemporary pop music ideas—took shape quickly from that point on. (Doyle says the van broke down five minutes after they let him in the band.)
It was 1993, and, at the time, bands like the Rankins and Ashley MacIsaac were rising to national attention. Turning on the radio, you could hear traditional music. You could see their videos on Much Music.
“There was a train leaving the station and we wanted to be on it,” says Hallett. “It was the right people and circumstances that allowed this to happen, in a way.”
But it wasn’t just luck, and fame didn’t come quickly. For its first few years, the band set out on an intense tour schedule which kept them on the road for up to 300 days at a time.
“Our bread and butter from the beginning has always been live concerts, and I think it always will be,” says Doyle.
Fortune’s Favour, their ninth studio album, is a stew of influences—from Fergus O’Byrne to Johnny Cash to Bon Jovi. Recorded with Canadian indie rock man of the hour Hawksley Workman, they were encouraged to trust their first instincts and resist the temptation to second-guess. The idea was to bring the happy accidents, the human mistakes, and energy of a live show with them into the studio. As it happens, many of the songs on the new album reflect on what it means to be up on stage.
“Making great albums is what we do, but it’s not the financial engine that drives us or any band these days,” admits Hallett. “Our desire to make a great album that people love and find interesting is both personal and professional.”
The live show is the heart of the band, but the performer’s dilemma is that an audience can’t take a particular stage performance home with them.
“The desire to make an album is the desire to make something that lasts,” he says. Concerts are ephemeral. An album is frozen, so it’s one of the milestones they use to mark their career. “But it’s not the engine that drives the band. It’s the playing.”
Although they worked hard to get where they are now, the rule was relatively simple:
“Go to that room in Saskatoon and put 80 people in there,” says Doyle. “Go back and put 120 in there. If you’re at a club downtown and there are 20 people there, don’t let them leave. Whatever you have to do to keep them in there, keep them in there.”
Great Big Sea will be performing at Gander’s Great Big Anniversary Concert on Saturday, August 2, atGander’s Cobb Pond Rotary Park. Other performers include Rex Goudie, The Novaks, Hey Rosetta!, Ron Hynes, The Navigators and Aislin House (formerly the Palmer Sisters). Tickets are $40 plus tax and handling fee. Phone: (709) 651-5927 or online: greatbigsea.com
Fortune’s Favour is now availble in stores.