Story by Patricia Dawn Robertson
REGINA, SASKATCHEWAN — This fall, the Saskatoon-based band, the Sheepdogs, have taken a break from their hectic tour schedule to recharge at home for a month. But it won’t be all rest and relaxation for the Saskatchewan super group. On Sunday, the Sheepdogs are going to rock out Regina as part of the 101st Grey Cup Festival. The hometown Roughriders, the Western Division champions of the CFL, meet the Eastern champion Hamilton Tiger-Cats in a game that will decide the league title (kickoff is 6 pm ET, TSN).
In September 2012, the Sheepdogs released their self-titled fourth album, the band has earned three Juno Awards and graced the cover of Rolling Stone. In November 2013, “The Way It Is,” is the featured song in a new Cadillac commercial.
Vacay.ca: Do you still live in Saskatoon?
Ryan Gullen: I do. In fact, I just stepped outside and realized just how awful it is out there in Saskatoon today. So I don’t know if I’m going to leave [on holiday] again soon. It’s minus-29 [Celsius degrees] with a wind chill here today. I just texted a picture of the weather network to the crew and everyone who is coming here for the weekend to set up our show for Grey Cup. “Get your parkas ready!” People are like, “Oh, my God.” It’s maybe minus-2 in Toronto where they are with no snow right now.
Vacay.ca: Well, they are coming west to Saskatchewan so get ready for the November cold. Are you originally from Saskatoon?
Gullen: I moved here at age nine so I consider myself to be a Saskatchewan guy. Being from Saskatchewan definitely has a positive impact on a person. When I travel around the world the people I meet always say to me: “Oh, I’ve never met a bad person from Saskatchewan.” To which I reply: “Oh, they’re out there!” And yet I think it’s so cool to have an identity that is so positive. There’s something very positive that local people take away from being from a place like Saskatchewan.
Vacay.ca: Does that affect your image as a tough rock n’ roll band?
Gullen: It’s funny because we make an effort to not embody everything that people typically think of a band. We like to party and we’re a rock n’roll band but we aren’t pompous. We’re still just fellas from Saskatchewan.
Vacay.ca: Are you unpretentious?
Gullen: Yes! And as you get out there and things get bigger it’s easy to get drawn into that pretentious side of things. I think we’ll always remain grounded. Even just coming up the way we did and having so many years as a band being unsuccessful. It’s pretty hard to pretend you’re the Big King Shit when you have just spent seven or eight years just driving around in a van. Going all over the country losing money and nobody knowing who you are.
Vacay.ca: That’s pretty grounding, isn’t it?
Gullen: For sure.
Vacay.ca: Are you a Saskatchewan Roughriders fan? Have you always followed football?
Gullen: Oh, yeah. Much like the rest of Saskatchewan. I’ve always been aware of the Riders and watched the games with my family. In the last 10 years, the team has been pretty popular. So it’s pretty exciting to see them succeed. To be playing live at the Grey Cup is pretty cool. We found out seven months ago. We were all joking about how crazy it would be if the Riders get in and play at the Grey Cup in their home stadium. But we weren’t sure that would even happen as they are known to screw up once in awhile.
Vacay.ca: Did you see the dramatic Western final against Calgary where the Riders won 35-13?
Gullen: I was watching it with my grandma and my grandpa. And then about two weeks ago, I had a friend visiting Saskatchewan for the first time. And they were flying back to Vancouver and the Riders were playing against the B.C. Lions that day [for the Western semi-final]. My friend texted me from the Saskatoon airport and said, “This is crazy man. I’m at the airport and everyone is crowded around a single TV.” And then they were calling for a flight to be boarded and the gate attendant says to the passengers: “You need to get on the plane.” Then the pilot piped up: “Don’t worry about it. We’re not going anywhere until this game ends.” That right there is what is awesome about Saskatchewan.
Vacay.ca: The CFL takes precedence over a flight schedule?
Gullen: It does. My friend just couldn’t believe the excited atmosphere in that Saskatoon airport. She’s from Vancouver so she knows the Canucks and everything but she’d never witnessed anything like this. When the Riders won, strangers were hugging and shaking hands. It was a great Saskatchewan moment.
Vacay.ca: Speaking of winning, tell me about the changes in your life since the Sheepdogs hit the cover of Rolling Stone and won three Junos. Has it been a wild ride?
Gullen: Every once in awhile you have to take time to look back and take stock. This is what I want to be doing but there are moments when you do 17 shows in a row and all you want is a day off. But then I remember this is what I want to be doing. It’s pretty awesome. It gets way tougher. Things are much busier as you succeed. But you get more people around you helping you out.
Vacay.ca: What was it like just before you broke out internationally?
Gullen: We were walking across the grass at a festival site, to which we probably played to like ten or twelve thousand people. And before the show we’re walking around with our suitcase full of merch trying to find the right table so we can do set up. It was at that point that we realized we have enough going on. We have to have people help us out.
Vacay.ca: Is that Do-It-Yourself attitude a Saskatchewan trait?
Gullen: Yes. We’re very much in the mindset of we want to do it all ourselves. We don’t want someone else coming in and we’re giving him or her our money. It makes me feel like my grandma.
Vacay.ca: You’re thrifty.
Gullen: I can just hear grandma say: “You don’t give anybody your money. You keep it yourself.” Just like an old Saskatchewan farmer.
Vacay.ca: What has changed for you?
Gullen: We have travelled so extensively and met all of these new people. It has been more than I ever expected. I’m so happy because my ideal of being a working musician was that I could finally quit my job, tour across the country once or twice a year, and make a little money doing it; to be able to make enough money that I can sustain a living from it. I have gone way beyond that original expectation. It’s all kind of crazy.
Vacay.ca: What’s your favourite travel destination?
Gullen: Spain. We have developed quite a following there. When we finished our European tour there I did a seven-day solo motorcycle tour of Spain. It was the best thing I’ve ever done in my life. It was the perfect way to end a busy tour. Spain has everything I want in a holiday: culture, history amazing food, and nightlife. Their coffee is so amazing. I drank like six cups of coffee a day. It was so damned good. If I had to pick a favourite personal travel spot it has to be Spain.
Vacay.ca: Is world travel a passion for you?
Gullen: Oddly enough it is. I travel so much for work but most of the time we’re just passing through. So when I get time off I look to return to favourite spots on our tour and really spend some time there. Mainland Europe is cool. I love the Southern US and Austin, Texas. It’s a city that’s easily one of the best cities in North America.
Vacay.ca: That reflects your music, too. It’s Southern Boogie.
Gullen: That’s right. We have a connection to the South. That’s apparent. And it’s reflected in the music the Sheepdogs like listening to in their downtime.
Vacay.ca: Bands like Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young were a big musical influence on The Sheepdogs?
Gullen: We got to meet David Crosby and Graham Nash. That was pretty crazy. It was also hilarious. We talked about Saskatoon and Joni Mitchell with them. Both men had suffered pretty dramatic heartbreak on her account.
Vacay.ca: Do you like to document your travels?
Gullen: When I was on my motorcycle trip in Spain, it’s hard to do when you’re driving. So I mounted a GoPro camera to the bike and I took some time-lapse photos. I would pick a song that I had been listening to that day and then add it to the shots. Now when I look back on that trip, I can appreciate the ride and I don’t have to sit there for two hours watching the road. I can re-imagine and re-feel what those moments were like.
Vacay.ca: Tell me what’s it like to have to juggle a day job and a music career before the Sheepdogs broke out?
Gullen: Well, everyone in the band had a job, some of us held two jobs. We recorded Learn & Burn in a house in Saskatoon. We were coming and going and it was really hard. But now that record has sold 100,000 copies so it was really worth it. There’s something to be said about having spent time in the workforce before you work at your art full-time. I don’t subscribe to the romantic ideal of quitting your job and running up a ton of debt. We pulled the chute on the work thing only when we really could. It doesn’t hurt you as an artist to have a reason to go out into the world.
Vacay.ca: What do the Sheepdogs have going on with the Grey Cup Festival?
Gullen: We’ve created some limited-edition Grey Cup Festival T-shirts with the Sheepdogs and the CFL. All of the proceeds go to the Children’s Hospital Foundation of Saskatchewan. And we have a great after-party we’re hosting at The Exchange. It’s going to be Manitoba Social style. We’ll DJ the music, serve a midnight lunch with cold cuts and a bar. We wanted to provide an alternative to the club night on the event schedule. A lot of people from Saskatchewan don’t know what a Manitoba Social is but I know and I think they’re very cool. You’d think it would carry over to Saskatchewan but it hasn’t caught on here and we have so much in common like curling and football. I like that a Manitoba Social is community-based.
Vacay.ca: And you are playing live at the 101st Grey Cup Festival, right?
Gullen: We’re playing live at noon on Grey Cup Sunday, November 24. The gig is at Evraz Place. It’s part of the pre-game show. And we’ll be playing live at the halftime show, too. We’re on the same bill as Hedley and Serena Ryder.
More About the 101st Grey Cup
When: November 24, 6 pm ET, TSN
Who: Hamilton Tiger-Cats vs. Saskatchewan Roughriders in Regina, Saskatchewan
Tickets: A very few tickets still remain on Ticketmaster.ca. A recent search by Vacay.ca found a pair of seats in the 200 level for $606 ($303 each).