Interview: Alan Doyle

great big sea

(September 2009) According to their bio; Great Big Sea is a bastard. Forged from the loins of Figgy Duff and Ryan’s Fancy, GBS found its feet on the unforgiving streets of St. John’s, and stood their ground when others faltered. When asked about their unlikely success, founding member Bob Hallett is typically candid: “We weren’t the best musicians in town,” he says, “we just wanted it more. We were driven by a bloody-minded need to succeed and we were rewarded for our bleeding.” Well 15 years and 9 records later the band still wants it and returns to the road to visit all the places they didn’t get to last time around. I first interviewed Alan back in 1993 after the release of their self titled debut album. Well a lot water has passed under the bridge since then including a bunch of platinum selling records and a new acting career for Mr. Doyle. I spoke with him from his home early one morning…

Mb: Hi Alan. Where are you calling from?
AD: I’m home in St John’s.
Mb: How’s the weather out there?
AD: Gorgeous today. We had the storm come through a couple of days ago but it’s passed and there wasn’t much to it. On Saturday night we were in Toronto. We played the Molson Amphitheatre and the storm was heading home so we left the venue pretty much right after the gig. We got on the earliest morning flight home and we got the only flight into Newfoundland. There wasn’t really that much damage. All part of living on a rock in the middle of the ocean.
Mb: Used to it are you?
AD: Hundreds of years of storms here. There’s not much to it. We call it “the wind”.
Mb: So you’re out touring Ontario in September.
AD: Ya, we have a great run coming up. Just really continuing the “Fortune’s Favour” tour. We’re playing some places we didn’t get to before we took a break. We’re playing around Southern Ontario and Upstate New York. We’re in the lucky position of having more towns than our tour can handle. Back to Peterborough… we haven’t been there in few years. I’m not just saying this either, but I can’t remember ever having a bad time in Peterborough. The best couple of gigs there were on the lake at that festival.
Mb: The festival of Lights.
AD: Ya, what a laugh. And of course Peterborough has that beautiful theatre as well. And we played once at the hockey rink.
Mb: And that’s where you return to… you have a big following here.
AD: We’ve always had a blast there. We even got a ride in the back of a “paddy wagon” in Peterborough. It wasn’t as an incarceration. It was a special guest thing. There hasn’t been a limo since that has out done that ride!
Mb: Tell me about the movie you just acted in.
AD: I just finished principal photography on a new Robin Hood movie. It’s a big Universal picture starring Russell Crowe, Cate Blanchett and directed by Ridley Scott. I play Alan A’Dayle. He’s the musician of the “Merry Men”. It was a 22 week fantasy land. It was fantastic.
Mb: First journey into acting at that level?
AD: Ya, pretty much. I knew Russell for years and I knew Ridely a little as well, and Russell asked me over a year and half ago, in passing, if knew how to play the lute. “Like a medieval lute? (laughs) I play something like a lute every night!” He said “Do you think you can come to L.A. and read for a movie?” I said, ‘Sure! What is it?” He told me what it was and I was like “Woe! That would be cool!” So I spent 20 odd weeks in the UK and the movie is out next May, so I’ve heard.
Mb: So what did you like about the experience.. or didn’t like?
AD: The hardest part about it is the duration. That’s a long time to be in one place working on one thing if you’re a traveling musician. I’m used to being in a different place everyday doing something different. Working on a movie that big you’re in one place for a long time working on the same thing. That would be the only complaint I’d have about it. The rest of it was fantastic. The best of it is the knowledge of it that you’re making art on such a massive level. It’s such a huge artistic effort. From the script to the actors to the direction and the photography, the sets and the costumes and it goes on and on and on. All these artistically minded story tellers trying to tell the greatest story of all. Just me being a tiny part of that was amazing.
Mb: So did you get scenes with Russell or Cate?
AD: I can’t tell you that now! Well, right at the end of the movie when the aliens land… (laughs).. Yes, of course. I did a bunch of scenes. I hate to talk about any of the content of the movie. I’m not being secretive about it. It’s just, a movie of that size and scale, I can’t really comment on, and I suspect nor could Ridley, on what the final product is going to look like yet. I could say “I did this dandy scene…” and that scene might not make it!
Mb: Truth. OK, let’s change it up… Tell me about working with Hawksley Workman on the CD.
AD: He’s amazing. I mean, Hawksley… he’s a savant. We’ve known him for a long time and I’ve always loved the way that Hawksley exaggerates and cartoons music. “If you’re going to sing a bit loud, then we’ll sing really loud. If we’re going to sing high, we’ll sing so high your lungs burst”. I thought that sort of thing would treat our music fairly well and we’d be able to respond to that kind of enthusiasm in a very positive fashion.
Mb: I like on your CD liner notes where you suggest no one can remember who played what… was there drinking going on?
AD: Oh God, more than you can… (laughs) Ya, of course! It’s a record! But it was literally about how we did the record. We basically recorded the whole record twice. First we did a pre-production or rehearsal session. Usually a band would do that in a garage or rehearsal studio and try to remember what they did. We own our own studio, so we just did it in the studio and we recorded all that stuff. Some of which we kept and made it to the final record. Some of which, I played the drums on while we were rehearsing just to show someone a part. Some of which Sean would have played a bass line and handed the bass to Murray.. or one time Murray played the guitar and then I played the piano on something that we ended up liking, and I’m a terrible piano player. When we came back and re-did the whole thing we kept songs or didn’t keep songs or kept parts from here and there and I didn’t have a clue how to credit this record. Like there’s a cool banjo part on one of the songs that no one can remember playing! Somebody did it! It’s on there! (laughs) So it’s part “haziness” I confess and part spontaneity.
Mb: I imagine listening back you wondered “Who is this band?”
AD: On “Fortune’s Favour” that’s exactly what we wanted. We said “Look, no rules. We don’t need to introduce ourselves to anybody anymore. Let’s bring in a guy that we love and trust and let him have the reins, fully and completely.” And it was to that degree. We said ‘You’re the boss”. And he found it very refreshing. If we didn’t like something we certainly spoke up, but we let Hawksley run the “camp”.
Mb: What’s your favourite song on the CD? I know that’s a cliche question but…
AD: I never pick my own songs. I’m always more keen to brag about other people’s songs. I think “England” is one of the coolest folk songs we’ve ever done, the one that Sean sings. That was, ironically enough, the most sparse and most untouched. He wrote it in about an hour one day and I just fell in love with it.
Mb: How long do think you’ll tour this record? Are you working on anything new right now?
AD: We just got together again last weekend and we did a small run of gigs and for the rest of the summer we’re doing the odd weekend here and there and then the end of September, we start in Peterborough on the 23rd, and then we do dates in Ontario.. all places we didn’t get a chance to play last time. Then in October we head to the States… and then we’re going to record the next record just before and after Christmas.
Mb: Any surprises on it?
AD: I couldn’t tell you. It’s all a surprise to me, so far. In another week we’ll all get together and see what we have. We’ll see who wants to sing what, then rehearse and then record the “Greatest record in the history of music!” (laughs)
Mb: That’s what is coming next? And that’s the one you play “trumpet” on?
AD: Burn your Abbey Road. (laughs) It’s the on-going journey, not to sound all heavy about it. I think when you’re in your early career you have this notion that the song you’re about to sing or write for the album you’re about to record, needs to say everything about you and everything to everybody and that the song has to have the greatest message in the history of the planet, you know? But as you get older and more content, I suppose, you become really willing to let songs be about something small. About something little… a moment. I think you come to learn that the best songs are about that. With the “Fortunes Favour” record, that’s a complete snapshot of 3 months of our lives.. and that’s it.