Toronto-via-Halifax foursome Sloan first came to the nation’s attention in 1992 with a smart-ass little pop song called “Underwhelmed”: three chords and the truth as known by then-adolescent singer/bassist Chris Murphy. And while it didn’t quite top the charts at the time, it has since been declared one of the best Canadian songs ever by several polls and remains a fan favourite. Murphy took a break from celebrating the band’s 20th anniversary tour in support of their latest release, The Double Cross, to reminisce about the song’s literary origins.
Thinking back to where you were when you wrote the song, what do you think you were you trying to accomplish?
I think it was a time in my life when I was literally trying to write poetry, something I would never consider doing now. I would have been about 19, just starting my university English degree, the kid writing in his journal. Way later when I was starting Sloan up with Andrew [Scott] we made up a tape for Patrick [Pentland] to learn some songs. I knew that poem I had and made up the music on the spot.
The lyrics set some of the Sloan trademarks, like the puns and wordplay. Did you enjoy that reputation?
We kept getting called clever and it started sounding derogatory. After our third record I figured I had to dumb it down. I would never accept that as a criticism now though. I’m all for being clever and dense.
Which wordplays were you most proud of?
Do you get the one about “rolling your eyes” and then “rolling your Rs” but it’s really your “arse”? That’s a pretty good one.
By the time this came out on your big Geffen debut recording Smeared, some said you were similar to Nirvana. But the original version on the independent Peppermint EP doesn’t sound like Nirvana. What happened?
We didn’t even want it on our Geffen debut; we were tired of it by then. But we realized we were signed, for the most part, to make that a commercial hit. Then a bunch of things happened and it wasn’t. A lot of people talk about it like it was a big hit but really only one radio station in Canada [Toronto’s 102.1 CFNY] played it. I don’t take offence. I don’t think Jimi Hendrix was on the radio that much either.
I remember talking to you when Chart magazine listed “Underwhelmed” as the No. 2 Canadian song of all time. You said, “I’m not interested in making hits, I’m interested in making history.” How do you feel about its legacy now?
I don’t know. It’s so goofy to comment on your own legacy. But I like it. It’s so simple, but part of what it really had is power – the drumming is so powerful… I’m thrilled that the song was in Bob Mersereau’s book of Top 100 Canadian singles. Although I notice that everybody else on the list is a millionaire!
Sloan is well known for sharing all the songwriting credits equally four ways. To what extent do you think that’s part of your success and longevity?
I feel like it’s the number one thing that keeps us together. I think I wrote seven or eight of the songs on the first record, but all I ever wanted to do was be in a band, and splitting the publishing and money four ways made a band where everyone was given an opportunity to share creatively and financially. I don’t know how you would last if you didn’t.