Music by VICE

The Sadies Are Canada’s Greatest Living Rock Band

We talked to Canuck hero Dallas Good about everything we could including what the definitive Sadie's album is.

by Cam Lindsay
Feb 13 2017, 5:35pm

Illustration by Jeremy Bruneel

We're just minutes into our phone conversation and Dallas Good appears distracted. It isn't the joint he's smoking, it's the latest addition to his already historic family that is keeping him from finishing his thought. "Sorry, it's my kitten," he says with a laugh. "He's taken this opportunity to go fucking nuts." The kitten—Luther Perkins, named after the late rockabilly guitarist—was given to him just a few hours before our chat. Luther was a gift from his friend and regular collaborator over the years, Brian Connelly. Eventually, the kitty settles down and allows Good to chat for 80 minutes or so. His band the Sadies are releasing their tenth studio album, Northern Passages, which just so happens to be their first for new label Dine Alone. Signing to one of Canada's most successful indie labels over the past decade was just the kind of refresh the Sadies were looking for after spending the last 20 years as a cult band. But despite the advantages that come with a new label, the band—Dallas, his brother Travis Good, bassist Sean Dean and drummer Mike Belitsky—haven't changed much else. Northern Passages is yet another classic in the band's already classic-stuffed catalogue. Heck, it might just be their best one yet.

Although they're nowhere near quitting time, the Sadies have already amassed an impressive legacy in their time together. Their music, a seamless blend of country, rockabilly, surf and garage rock, has made them a favourite for legends like Neil Young, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Garth Hudson and their pal Gordon Lightfoot. While the likes of Andre Williams, Jon Langford (The Mekons), Neko Case, John Doe (X), and Gord Downie (The Tragically Hip) all came knocking to record collaborative albums. The Sadies are also widely considered one of the world's greatest live bands, but considering their history and everything they've achieved, that almost seems like a side note. Noisey took the opportunity to ask Dallas Good everything we could think of, and he was gracious enough to humour us in this time of geekery.

Noisey: Congratulations on signing with Dine Alone for the new album. Do you consider this a new chapter for the Sadies?
Dallas Good: I sure hope so. A new chapter would be great. We've been around for 20 years, so we're not gonna reinvent ourselves anytime soon. So if a new chapter can be born some other way then yeah, bring it on! That'd be great.

When did the decision come to sign with Dine Alone—before or after Northern Passages was finished?
After. We made the same assumptions as usual. We were really hoping we could work with Arts & Crafts again because we had made an album with Gord Downie. And of course, Outside has been incredible to us since day one. Lloyd [Nishimura, label owner], in particular. Even before Outside was a label, it was a label to us for a long time. I can't stress that enough. It was a little reminiscent of when we went from Bloodshot to Yep Rock in the U.S. about ten years. [Loud noise] Sorry about that, my new kitten just took this opportunity to go fucking nuts [laughs]! But yeah, it felt like this would be a great opportunity to try new things. Because of our work with Arts & Crafts it was really exciting to see how a different family works. And at the end of it our manager wanted to see what Joel [Carriere, owner Dine Alone] thought, and after all is said and done, it seems like it's gonna be a good fit.

Is that a real shot of the Northern Lights on the album cover?
Oh, absolutely. It was taken in Nunavut by David Kilabuk, who is a fantastic photographer. And yeah, it's real. If you Google his photos there are a lot more in that vein. It was amazing, we tried to contact him to use it and he was on a hunt for a week. The picture is of his hometown, Pangnirtung. We've never met him before, but he is a relative of one of the members of the Jerry Cans.

How do you feel the band has progressed with Northern Passages?
I haven't really thought of a progression because I think we've become a little more insular this time around. We didn't change the formula or the personnel, but we did make the record over a longer span of time in my parents' basement, which is an unfinished basement where I started playing, and will probably stop playing one day. It's also because my mother, my father, my brother and myself have amassed a number of amps that are not really useful for anything other than recording. And it gave all of us guys some space to bring all of our stuff from home, so we can have more time to mess around and experiment with the sounds more than the songs themselves. I'd say we did what we also do just with less eyes on the clock and with zero expectations because we were always under the impression that if it didn't work out these would just be low-risk demos. I don't know if that's an answer worth talking about, but it's the truth.

Do you like having all of that time to make a record?
Absolutely. In this case, it gave us a chance to focus more on each song. It's almost like a collection of singles. In my opinion that is how a lot of my favourite records were made back in the '60s. Of course, it can easily become a Chinese Democracy. But I think this album really made up for my lack of experience as a songwriter and a producer.

This is the second Sadies album you've produced, correct?
Yeah. I love that role. So far it's been really great. There have been growing pains because it's still new to me. I'm only just going within the infrastructure that we've already gotten comfortable with over the years. I feel like when I'm producing I'm actually just representing all four of us. I know where they're coming from at this point, and I know they wouldn't hesitate to tell me if I'm wrong.

The band recorded it in your parents' basement. Why was that the ideal studio?
They live in Newmarket, Ontario. It's just a suburban house we moved into when I was about 13, around the time I started playing in bands. We also have a band with my mother and father, and a couple of other family members, called the Good Family, and we do all of our rehearsing up there in the basement. To my ears, it sounds good. I am absolutely comfortable up there, for sure. And we have the best catering service in the world.

Photo By Heather Pollock

Kurt Vile appears on the song "It's Easy (Like Walking)." How was that connection made?
About six or seven years ago, we did a tour together where he opened up for us on the west coast. It was just him, and we didn't know much about each other beforehand, but we just both really liked each other. Over the years we've crossed paths many times at festivals. So we're friends! And we always wanted to do it. With this record, because we were making it song by song, the music was finished and the lyrics weren't. I thought it would see just how eager he was to do this collaboration we've talked about for so many years. And he gave me the lyrics and the finished recording a week later. It was amazing. We've done shows since then, and we've agreed to do more recordings, which I'm excited about and hopefully not jinxing.

I liked how you dedicated "Riverview Fog" to Rick White (Eric's Trip, Elevator).
Well, the song actually started as an email to Rick. Basically I call him up once a month or every couple of months. So I started writing an him to email that was totally in the tradition of an Eric's Trip lyric, which I tweaked a little bit. And I told him shortly after that I was gonna do it. But then they day we were releasing it I had cold feet, like I was dragging a close friend into a world that he was pretty clear he wanted to keep an arm's length from. It was just a giant relief to hear that he was cool with it. And then part of me realized that Rick would have done the same too, if the situation had been reversed [laughs].

The song is named after Riverview, where Rick and [ex-wife] Tara [White, nee Landry] lived. Riverview and Moncton are separated by the Gunningsville Bridge and a strip of dirt in between that is part of the Bay of Fundy. When I was with Elevator, and even with the Sadies when we did some recording up there, I spent quite a bit of time in that town just preparing for tours. All I can say is the way it was captured in the Eric's Trip and Elevator catalogues doesn't even give it justice to what kind of dreamy, psychedelic space it is. It's impossible for me to describe what it was like without using such cheesy expressions but it was really impressionable on me? Wait, fuck, this joint is not really helping my articulation at all.

I know he's been a huge part of your world. What does your friendship with him mean to your music?
So much. I feel like he's one in a handful of people that I'm lucky enough to call friends. Even if the music that we create is different I feel like we are both coming from a very similar stratosphere. I love Rick. It should go without saying that our careers have been overlapping for a long time now. I played in his band Elevator or Elevator To Hell or Elevator Through or whatever, off and on for ten years. I guess technically I still do, but we haven't done a show in over, fuck, ten years.

You and Rick were also in the Unintended, which also featured the rest of the Sadies along with Greg Keelor from Blue Rodeo. I guess that was more of a one-and-done type thing?
I wouldn't say that. No. Basically after doing a split record with the Constantines, touring that just didn't make a lot of sense. We thought we would only make it for the best of reasons and at the perfect time. We've written some songs since then, which were recorded a long time ago, just in demo shape, and whenever we talk we always toy with the idea of doing something new. Who knows? It could happen tomorrow.

You mentioned the Good Family. At what age did you get involved with the band?
Every summer as kids we would go out for a week with the band, but we weren't performing with the Good Brothers. That wasn't until my brother was about 18 that he joined the band, and same with me. Just playing live, I only did about three tours, whereas my brother was in the band for a long time. Given the nature of the music, it was pretty easy to make it a lot more inclusive for my brother and myself growing up. There were a lot of daytime shows, actually, there were also a lot of inappropriate shows too, now that I think about it. A lot of smoky bar shows when I was super young. But I loved it. That's not really much of the case, though. It was mostly festivals, fairs, those types of shows.

Was not making music ever in the cards for you and Travis?
At this point in life, it's hard to say. I'd like to romanticize it and say I could have been an astronaut. My folks did everything they could to discourage me from becoming a musician. There was never any sort of false pretenses about how easy it would be or anything like that. My dad always makes a joke where he said, "Okay, look at all of these instruments. Now don't touch them!" And that's what made us musicians, but he's full of shit. Truth is, I hated piano lessons and had no intentions of doing anything like that until I started hearing my friends butcher songs on guitar. Even then I only really started playing guitar to play in punk bands. It wasn't an academic pursuit at all. My brother, on the other hand, had been taking lessons from Red Shea, who was Gordon Lightfoot's guitarist, since he was about seven years old. So no, it wasn't something I was planning to do. But having said that, looking back, I've always had a sick passion for record collecting and the music I like and writing music, all of that horseshit. So it's probably best I do this instead of something else.

So you only started playing because you thought you could play better than your friends?
[Laughs] That is a bit of an exaggeration. My uncle actually taught me to play the ukulele when I was really young. Essentially that's just a tenor guitar, in terms of the tuning, so I did have a grasp on how to play chords and that. Though it's a lot different playing a ukulele than an electric guitar, for sure. But you could say my career is based solely on spite [laughs]. And don't think for a second I take for granted having such a huge musical family forced me into this shit. My brother was playing in bands super young, so it just seemed normal for me to do the same. I guess it gave me a head start maybe? Whatever.

What bands did you play in before the Sadies?
Well, jeez, I was in a whole bunch of bands. There was a punk band I played with in Newmarket or Aurora, that was my first one that played in Toronto. And my brother was playing a lot more with my father's band, touring almost constantly, so I ended up starting to play in these punk bands that my brother had been in before me. I was basically just filling in for him. I met a lot of older musicians he had been playing with, which helped.

The first bands I started playing with in Toronto were Guilt Parade, Blibber, and the Rat Crushers, and Sudden Impact, which was a touring, recording hardcore band that were fantastic. But I joined them on their reunited 1989 tour. All of these bands I was an afterthought in, which is why I feel uncomfortable listing them. For a short period of time, I also played in the Satanatras, which was a couple of guys from the hardcore band Chronic Submission and the guitarist from Guilt Parade. And with the Satanatras we did a lot with Phleg Camp, which is where I met up with Sean [Dean], of course. Basically, Toronto was a small scene back then, and through Travis' introductions I ended up playing in all of these bands with his friends.

If you grew up playing punk music, what made you decide to start embracing a country music influence with the Sadies?
Well, I was working at a guitar shop in Toronto, and Sean and I had a punk rock band that was very different from what the Sadies are now. But then Sean purchased an upright bass and we just changed overnight. We were just pursuing the other kinds of music we loved. Sean and I are very much of a Carl Perkins camp over Elvis. We just started going in a very different direction. And that was about when Travis got on board, and he just made the direction that much easier to go in.

I know before the Sadies you were doing Phono-Comb, which was a little more shaped by surf and art rock. Is it true you lost your drummer when the punk influence began to lose out to the country influence?
That is true. Ted Robinson is a terrific drummer and absolutely perfect for the pivotal time when we were going from one sound to another. But he was much less comfortable in that direction. In fact, he was playing a converted laundry hamper as his drum kit, which was weird, because we were playing acoustic at first. Ted was great, but we were going in a different direction. In fairness to him, Sean and I started doing shows as a two-piece. One was opening up for Congo Norvell, and I think another one was [the Demolition] Doll Rods. It was feeling like we were going more unplugged than we actually ended up going. The Sadies weren't a full-time band yet. We formed before Phono-Comb, but Shadowy Men [On A Shadowy Planet] were making a record with Jad Fair [Half-Japanese], and then the hiatus started up, so I jumped on board to help record and play guitar on that album. And then Phono-Comb became a band through that project. In fairness, Don [Pyle] and Reid [Diamond] had been working on songs leading up to that time. So in my first rehearsal with Phono-Comb, they already had like five songs as a two-piece. But yeah, that was one of the best things to ever happen to me, for sure. Don, Reid, and ultimately, Beverly Breckenridge [Fifth Column], who joined the band shortly after that, were three of my biggest influences.

So Neko Case needed a band for her tour, and you guys took the gig. Was that the turning point for the Sadies becoming a full-time band?
No, not even. That was just kind of a happy coincidence. I had started touring with Neko on her first record because Brian Connelly from the Shadowy Men did the majority of the playing on that album but wasn't able to tour and I was. But we did a Canadian tour and toward the end of it I made it clear that because the Sadies had a record planned that I wouldn't be able to do any more touring unless it was with them, which made a lot of sense. And then we did the tour together, which was about six weeks long, and at some point, the Sadies recorded our first album. By the end of that trip, it became important for us to focus on the album and tour, and she had obligations. She actually worked with another band for a couple of years before we worked together again. But our first North American tour was with Neko Case, for sure.

Is Neko the reason why you ended up on Bloodshot Records?
Absolutely. She is the whole reason we signed to Bloodshot. She wasn't the reason why we ended up in Chicago, because the Sadies had every intention of recording with Steve Albini, and we had also been talking to Touch & Go about making a record. But we went to Chicago to play a show, and there was a Christmas party at [Bloodshot co-founder] Rob Miller's house that was a lot of fun. We just became friends and it seemed like this was where we were meant to be. So all other talks were pushed aside and we went ahead with that.

I imagine the Touch & Go and Steve Albini connections were carried over from Phono-Comb?
Yeah, exactly. He recorded the Phono-Comb album [1996's Fresh Gasoline] as well as the Shadowy Men album, Sport Fishin'. We brought Steve to Toronto to record Phono-Comb. Sean had also made a Phleg Camp with Steve, so in retrospect, it just seemed to make sense. I love Steve, I think he is the best engineer I will ever get to work with. But I wish we had made those records with somebody else [laughs]. Just because we knew nothing about making a record and they are exactly what Steve would want them to be, which is perfect recordings of us doing what we do live in a studio. Man, our band needs reverb, bells, whistles [laughs], artificial things he hates.

Well, he always claims he's an engineer and not a producer, right?
Exactly. And we desperately needed a producer back then. Thank you for giving me the chance to articulate that. Hopefully, this won't come back to haunt me in the process [laughs]. I could definitely say that back then we could definitely have benefitted from a producer or we could have completely fucking imploded. Who knows? See that's the thing… I'm having an argument with myself right now. If we had a producer we could have easily fucked it up so badly! Besides no one heard those records anyhow.

The first few Sadies records weren't released on a Canadian label, which would make them imports in your home country.
The first three, yeah. I guess technically the first five if you include the Andre Williams and John Langford records. Actually, our third record [2001's Tremendous Efforts] was licensed by Outside, so that was our first Canadian release. But our decision was based solely on who we could work with at that time. We had made about ten demo tapes that we gave to Canadian labels we thought might be interested at that time and then we completely changed our sound and personnel overnight. And so it was a totally different band when we went on to work with Bloodshot. I guess we were lucky enough to have a community and circle of friends that we wanted to work with and vice versa, and it just happened to be in the States.

Was it a concern that you weren't on a Canadian label at first?
It didn't really matter because there weren't any Canadian labels that wanted us. There were a few labels that were willing to work with us, but by no means were they willing to give us a budget to record at Steve's or anything like that. We put out a 7" ourselves because no one else wanted it. And then it just seemed like things were working out better on the other side. The only place to go turned out to be the right place for us to go at the time.

So would you say your following in Canada came after you guys built one in the U.S.?
Well, that implies that we do really well in the States [laughs]. I think what it is is we were able to do a lot of rigorous touring in the U.S. because there are a lot of cities, for one thing, and because we had an American label, so we had a little bit more of a presence. We were just so adamant to do whatever it took to reach people that we would tour 200 days a year, no problem, or do really long tours. Whatever. We did what every band should do to have a proper chance at making it a career. For us, it's been really funny to maintain a livelihood that we're really happy with. Things change but we don't, it seems sometimes. We're so lucky to have sustained even a humble following after all this time that it's unique this relationship we have with North America.

Is there much of a difference releasing an album just by the four of you, instead of with someone like Gord Downie, Andre Williams or Neko Case?
They can be completely different recording processes, so it depends. I'm happy to be more specific. The Gord Downie album we made was done very much the way we make a Sadies record. We would individually bring our strongest ideas forward to Gord, and he would immediately start writing. That really encouraged us. The Sadies are so used to working with each other that we're not constantly high-fiving each other over ideas because that's just what we do. But with Gord, there was a lot more enthusiasm in that way, so it made that record a stand-alone project that wasn't happening the same time as something else. I wasn't working on another album simultaneously. We made it whenever we could with no time restraints. It's sort of how we made this new record. Only instead of six months, it was six years with Gord, literally. That's just the way it is when we work with other people because we have duelling schedules. The records with Andre though were made much more spontaneously. We bring an idea into the studio and Andre would bring his ideas, and we would mostly just capture it on the spot. So those are polar opposite examples.

I like how despite playing with all of these different musicians, the Sadies always sound like the Sadies.
That's the best part. I'm glad you mentioned that. We have never worked as a band for hire, as much as I can recall. We've always been working with our skillset, though we strengthen it every time, but it still makes us more confident going in to know that we can say, "No, we're not going to do a hip-hop song," or something. I only say that because that's the first genre I know that I would embarrass myself trying because I know that I couldn't do it very well. So far it's always been great for us, but I'm currently knocking on wood.

Early on Gordon Lightfoot told you guys to write your own songs instead of playing covers. Did he know you had covered some of his songs in the Unintended?
Oh, of course. No, Gord is a really good friend of the family. Actually, currently he is a real hero of the Sadies. He has been nothing but supportive. And he is somebody I should be star struck around but I can't be. I love the guy too much to adore him.

Is there a definitive Sadies album?
Hopefully the new one! But I wouldn't really say so.

If I had to recommend an album I would say In Concert, because the guest list is just so incredible and because you have a reputation as one of the best live bands in the world.
I appreciate that. The one thing I can say about that record as a negative, it felt like at that moment we were the world's best studio band [laughs]. Because those shows were so much fun and so drunken and these amazing family reunion shows that I'm amazed how clean the recordings are. Not clean, but how not-insanely-drunk-sounding they are. The cool thing about that record is yes, there are a million guests, but it's also a bit of a self-proclaimed "best of" from ten years ago. Maybe that's our best? I'm not too sure. Once we started working with Gary Louris on New Seasons that really changed everything too. He gave us a better perspective on how to be self-critical. I don't know if he would say that, but he definitely taught me a lot about songwriting and lyric writing. That was a turning point for the four of us. I think we'd agree that the studio process became a lot more fun from that point on. Before that, we were essentially doing what we did live in the studio without the bells and whistles that the studio had to offer.

The Sadies instill this timeless and unchanging quality to everything the band does, from your style of dress to your music. Was that a calculated move on your part from the beginning?
Absolutely, for me it was. It was specifically the way I dressed with the Sadies could only age well. I don't even have to say why it's pretty obvious. A rhinestone suit gives people something else to look at than my aging face. It's also part of a tradition that I was happy to embrace whenever it was, the early '90s when we started committing to going down this path. It's something I came by very honestly. Our first country suits were my dad's, so we can still wear them. When I say dad's I mean dads, plural, because my dad has an identical twin that he plays in the band with along with a young brother. So I refer to the three of them as my dads. Or at least I find myself doing it without noticing.

And this style is called "Frontier undertaker"?
[Laughs] I'll take that. I've heard worse. It's always easy to cringe when somebody describes you even with the best intentions. It's funny when somebody wears a ridiculously loud suit and then gets weird about how they're being perceived. I'll stick to my earlier answer: it's a tradition I'm happy to be a part of and it has aged well enough that I still feel comfortable without feeling like I need to reinvent myself after 20 years. It's what the Sadies is. And it's also a way for me to disconnect, like when show time comes.

Finally, I know you broke your leg a few years back after slipping on some ice in Saskatoon. That is a pretty damn Canadian injury. Is that something you're more cognizant of this time of year?
Yeah. Everything is different because of it. It's hilarious. I definitely navigate sidewalks in a whole different, geriatric kind of way [laughs]. It was a real drag, to say the least. It's made things like America's Funniest Home Videos impossible to watch now. Every time it's like, "Oh, hip fracture!" What happened was that I slipped and broke my foot off, basically. My boot stayed in one spot and my body went somewhere else. And so I knew I was likely gonna go into shock, which didn't happen. The sound it made with both bones breaking at the same time was like [makes popping sound with mouth], which was the title of our follow-up record, Internal Sounds. That album has my x-ray on the cover, so I've been milking this for what? Six years now?

Tour dates with Blue Rodeo
Feb. 10 - Barrie, ON - Barrie Molson Centre
Feb. 11 - Oshawa, ON - GM Centre
Feb. 14 - London, ON - Budweiser Gardens
Feb. 16 - Hamilton, ON - Hamilton Place
Feb. 17 - Hamilton, ON - Hamilton Place
Feb. 18 - Ottawa, ON - National Arts Centre (Southam Hall)
Feb. 19 - Ottawa, ON - National Arts Centre (Southam Hall)
Feb. 21 - Woodstock, NB - AYR Motor Centre
Feb. 23 - St. John's, NL - Mile One Centre
Feb. 25 - Halifax, NS - Scotiabank Centre
Feb. 26 - Moncton, NB - The Molson CDN Centre at Casino NB
Feb. 28 - Kitchener, ON - Centre In The Square

Cam Lindsay is a writer based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter.