Lead singer of Celtic rock band Great Big Sea, Alan Doyle, talks Newfoundland, celebrating 20 years, and his pal Russell Crowe
This is your first-ever tour of Australia. On behalf of all Australians, we’d like to ask: What took you so long?
(laughs) Foolishness, that’s all. There’s only one answer: foolishness. We should have come years ago. Just time and distance, that’s all, the same things as always. We’ve wanted to come to Australia for well over a decade, but we could never make it work out. As luck would have it, we had a bit of a break in schedule, so we could finally make it down. We had a lovely offer for the Byron Bay Bluesfest and could do gigs in Sydney [April 5] and in Melbourne [April 3]. It all made sense, finally – finally.
In the early days of the band, you used to tour up to 300 days a year. What is about touring that Great Big Sea loves?
It’s what we’re best at. You know, I think it’s because from day one we’ve always loved it. In the early days, if you had a band that was out on an island off the mainland, if you’re going to travel, to tour, it’s really expensive. You’d better stay out for a long time. The tours ended up being a bit longer than if you were in the middle of the country. We’ve always gone for a long time, and we fell in love with the travel, and we fell in love with bringing our music to places. The thrill has never left us.
How would you describe Great Big Sea’s music to someone who isn’t familiar with you, but who might want to go after they read this interview?
We come from a very traditional Celtic culture in Newfoundland. Lots of fiddles and whistles, instruments that you would mostly associate with music from Ireland and Scotland. But we also grew up as teenagers in the 80s, so we liked hard rock and punk and all the stuff that other kids listened to. We combined the two, and ended up with heavy Celtic pop.
The band uses a lot of different instruments – you yourself play guitar, banjo, mandolin, and bouzouki. What do you think of the current trend where everyone and their mother is playing the ukulele?
[laughs] Blame it on those really good Hawai’ian kids on YouTube, who are so good at it. I think certain instruments rise and fall, don’t they. Sometimes the harmonica is really big and it goes away. Ukulele is one of the most beautiful stringed instruments in the world, so I’m really glad it’s getting a bit of a resurgence.
Great Big Sea is really into traditional songs – sea shanties, Celtic tunes. How do you go about finding the old songs?
Some of the songs that we’ve recorded I call the “Newfoundland Top 50”. You know, there’s like a couple of dozen traditional songs that everybody knows. That’s a unique thing, to be from a place where just about every Joe walking up the street knows the words and the melody to a couple of dozen songs that live in his own backyard. There’s an amazing amount of common material. And then, some of them we went back looking for – it depends on what song it is. We always seem to get a thrill to be in a place where Newfoundland culture has this.
Your fans are legion and stalwart. What is the craziest length a fan has ever gone?
A little while ago, we met a couple who had basically tattooed 4/5th of their arms and torsos with various Great Big Sea images. The mermaid from the front cover [of The Hard and the Easy], lyrics down their arm, an imagined portrait of Merri Mac [from the song of the same name]. I thought that was easily one of the most extreme things I’ve seen. It’s pretty cool that people like it that much.
That’s awesome, but scary. Tell us more about this whole “Ships and Dip” cruise the Barenaked Ladies invited you on. What is that all about?
It’s a floating music festival, basically, that leaves Miami and comes back 7-8 days later. It cruises around the Caribbean to different places. From 3pm to 3am, the ship is covered in venues where people play and sing. You can hear some of your favourite bands, or bands you’ve never heard of. It’s basically like a floating Byron Bay Festival.
Sounds pretty fun. Are you going to be doing it again in the future?
Yeah, hopefully. There’s a plan for us to be doing one in early 2014 – I’m not sure about 2013. It’s a great laugh.
You’ve been playing together for about 20 years now. Have you turned into the Rolling Stones where you don’t talk to each other before shows, and you write memoirs about each other?
[laughs] Who says the Stones do that? No, no. We all live in a small city. Our kids go to the same schools. I’m meeting Séan and Bob tomorrow at lunchtime, actually – we’re doing a photoshoot for the artwork for our 20th anniversary record.
We love Great Big Sea’s harmonies. How do you figure out which person sings which bit in the harmonies? Do you just fight it out?
It started out by default. We knew we had to have some harmonies and stuff. In the first gig we did together we discovered that Séan could sing really high, a couple of the guys could sing really low, and I could sing in the middle. It was just picking notes here and there and making sure it worked, then we got a bit more studious about it and learned with some great producers and great vocal arrangers. It’s the thing we like to do the most – just sing together.
You all have side projects. Probably your most well-known side project is working with Russell Crowe’s band. How did you get involved with Thirty Odd Foot of Grunts [now The Ordinary Fear of God]?
I met Russell in 2003, when he spent a lot of time in Toronto filming a movie called Cinderella Man. Great Big Sea passed through there a couple of times over that summer. We met up and he came to a gig. We struck up a conversation and a friendship, and started writing songs together. A few months later, I found myself in New Zealand, and on the way home I went to Australia and ended up writing a bunch more songs and producing a record [for them]. I toured around a couple of times in Australia with that band and Russell. It was one of the coolest music travel experiences I’ve ever had. It was really one of the first records I produced, and was a great experience – still is. Russell and I have written probably 30 songs together over the years.
How often do you get to see one another in person?
It depends on the year. We saw one another quite a bit when he asked me to come and be in this film we did called Robin Hood in England. I played a musician guy [minstrel Allan A'Dayle ]. We all lived basically very close to each other just outside of London for six months. Then Russell came to St. John’s and we filmed a little television show together called Republic of Doyle. We played a couple of concerts together and released a collection of our songs called The Crowe/Doyle Songbook.
There’s a great debate in Australia and New Zealand as to whether Russell Crowe is Kiwi or Aussie. Since you know him, can you settle the question once and for all: which does he consider himself?
[laughs] He was born in Wellington, I believe, and his family moved to Sydney first when he was 13 or 14 if I have my story right, but the internet will tell you. I know Russell has a deep connection to both countries, but he’s lived in Australia for all of his adult life.
Great Big Sea has its 20th anniversary coming up. What kind of extravaganza do you have planned to celebrate?
One of them you mentioned already: we’re planning a cruise. That will probably be the last thing we do on the tour. But the big thing we’re doing is a Great Big Sea boxed set, a collection of our best traditional music and our pop music. There will be some B-side rarities, that kind of thing, a DVD, a book. It’s a real celebration of 20 years. It kicks off at the end of 2012 and starts a 14-month world-wide tour.
Is Australia going to make it on the tour?
Australia would be awesome, wouldn’t it. This is a real great chance to introduce ourselves to Australians. It would be such an amazing thing if the result of this week is Australia becoming a regular stop.
Where do you see Great Big Sea in another 20 years?
[laughs] Well, that’s a good question. I think 20 years from now I’ll be sat on the phone, ideally in the exact same office in the exact same house, talking to you about our 40th anniversary and how we’re going to go to Australia in a couple of weeks. It sounds clichéd, but Great Big Sea started we didn’t want to have the greatest hit in the world and then disappear, we wanted this to be our lives.