Tide still high for Great Big Sea

Since rising to prominence with their 1996 sophomore record Up, Newfoundland Celtic-rock band Great Big Sea has been a fan favourite throughout Canada. Over the course of 10 studio records (including one live album) and two concert DVDs, the band’s combined sales top one million units in Canada while also earning a respectable following south of the border.

Even more remarkable about the St. John’s-based band is how their success has endured, regardless of flash-in-the-pan trends or even when faced with the significant decline of physical music sales in the past decade; Great Big Sea has seemingly dodged the pitfalls that put an end to countless other groups.

Great Big Sea is scheduled to perform for a sold-out crowd at Casino New Brunswick tomorrow night.

Bob Hallett believes that one of the keys to maintaining democratic harmony within the band has been allowing each member time to pursue outside interests.

“Over the years, each of us had put time and effort into lobbying for one idea or another that everyone else might not have been terribly fond of,” Bob says. “Let’s face it, we are running headlong into our career and at this particular juncture of the band, I don’t think it would be healthy for the band or ourselves to have to continue pushing the other guys for something that they aren’t keen on doing. These outside interests ultimately keep everyone interested and excited about being in Great Big Sea.”

Some of those projects that Bob alludes to have included him penning his first novel Writing Out The Notes, while singer-guitarist Alan Doyle has moved into acting, starring alongside Russell Crowe in last year’s film Robin Hood. Great Big Sea multi-instrumentalist Séan McCann is, so far, the only member of the band who has branched out into other musical ventures, releasing two solo records to date, including the recently released Son Of A Sailor.

In the earliest stages of gathering ideas that would eventually comprise the tracks contained on Safe Upon The Shore, the band took a somewhat new approach to writing material. In addition to holding a song writing retreat in Western Newfoundland with guys like Jeremy Fisher and Joel Plaskett in 2009, the band started capturing new song ideas and melodies on Alan’s laptop as inspiration struck them while they were on the road.

“On our earlier records with some of those lo-fi ideas that we would have got on Alan’s laptop, we would have felt obligated to elaborate on them. This time though, if we heard something we liked, we left it alone. The first impressions were good enough; we did not feel obliged to try to recreate something for the sake of getting the perfect take.”

Recorded in St. John’s and New Orleans, Bob says he feels the touch and go nature of the making of Safe Upon The Shore did little to negatively impact the record’s coherence.

“We accepted long ago the reality that people aren’t listening to records the way they used to,” he said. “Instead of running through an album from start to finish, people are listening to a song here and a song there so ensuring the record had a specific flow to it was not as important this time around.”

Asked what the future holds for Great Big Sea, both immediate and long term, the first thing out of Bob’s mouth is that he hopes that less touring is on the horizon. Currently, he anticipates the next couple of years to be quiet ones in the Great Big Sea camp: In addition to being signed up to produce records by two different bands, he also has another novel approximately halfway completed.

“We played 170 shows last year but only have about 40 or so booked for this year. We are definitely not burning the candle as brightly as we did in the past.”

Come 2013 though, fans can expect some celebratory champagne to be popped. The year will mark Great Big Sea’s 20th anniversary and no one seems more amazed at this fact than Bob himself.

“It is really astonishing to think we are going to be around for 20 years,” he says. “Especially when there are so many friends we started with that are gone. The music business is gone and record labels are not rock star makers anymore.

“The fact we are still thriving in such a wobbly environment is surprising and humbling to us. We are extremely grateful for it and enjoy every minute of it. And through it all, we have managed to stay friends; a lot of others don’t enjoy that luxury.”

Article published in February 17, 2011 edition of the Times & Transcript