The Sadies – Tales from the cryptic
As cathartic as punk is when you’re young, dumb and terminally pissed at your parents, Dallas and Dean eventually decided they were interested in more than sending mosh pit kids to war. Once it became evident the Sadies were aiming for something more than writing the sequel to “Sheena Is A Punk Rocker”, Robinson bailed, and Travis signed on as a guitarist, officially making the group a family affair. “The more we went toward country, the more our original drummer shied away,” Dallas explains.
Committed as the four Sadies are to each other today, the early days were considerably more casual. As the Good boys and Dean began fusing classic ’60s surf with distortion-jacked country, timekeeping duties were split between a couple of refugees from Halifax, the Nova Scotia city that briefly became a grunge mecca in the early ’90s. Sharing the drum stool were Andrew Scott of cult-Canuck rockers Sloan, and Belitsky, formerly of onetime Sub Pop contenders Jale.
If all of them had anything in common, it was that they were busy playing in other projects. Dallas gigged with instro-rockers Phonocomb, while Scott enjoyed the major-label life with Sloan. As a part-time member of Toronto footnotes Maker’s Mark (which would eventually include Dean and Dallas), Belitsky switched between guitar and drums, alternating with Scott, in case you’re keeping score on an obviously incestuous scene. While his occasional collaborators in the Sadies were all busy cranking the amps, Travis was working on a doctorate in classic bluegrass and old-school country by playing guitar with his father Bruce and uncles Brian and Larry in the Good Brothers, a five-decades-spanning bluegrass band that’s something akin to a Canadian Carter Family.
“Originally the Sadies were just for kicks; everyone else had things going on,” Travis says. “Then Neko Case needed a band for a tour of the States so we did it, even though we were still full-on with our other bands. That led us to signing to Bloodshot. Then we bought a van, and once we had a van and a small record contract, we were kind of obliged to start playing as the Sadies a lot more.”
Looking back, Neko Case marked, in more ways than one, the emergence of the Sadies as they are known today. The ever-opinionated indie queen was at least partly responsible for introducing the band to the world via the Bloodshot hookup. Just as importantly, though, by making the Sadies her go-to boyfriends for her live shows, she helped Belitsky, Dean, and the Good siblings gain a reputation as lethal hired guns. Thus, they’re as busy today with other people’s projects as with their own.
Including New Seasons, the Sadies have released six studio albums of original material and a 2006 double-disc live set, In Concert: Volume One, on which the endless list of guest stars includes Robyn Hitchcock and The Band’s Garth Hudson. Sometime between touring relentlessly for 2005’s Favourite Colours and beginning work on New Seasons, they found time to score and release the soundtrack to Tales Of The Rat Fink, director Ron Mann’s biopic on hot-rod-obsessed pop-art legend Ed “Big Daddy” Roth.
What’s just as impressive as the Sadies’ prodigious output is the number of artists they’ve been asked to ride shotgun with, both onstage and in the studio. Since first hitting the road with Case (who they backed on her 2004 live album The Tigers Have Spoken), the band has recorded and toured with antiquated scuzz-blues survivor Andre Williams, alt-country founding father Jon Langford, and, most recently, ’50s-fixated Heavy Trash hellions Jon Spencer and Matt Verta-Ray.
Langford, who brought the Sadies on board for his 2003 album Mayors Of The Moon, isn’t exactly lost for words when it comes to praising his former collaborators.
“I always appear shorter, stouter, grayer and even more hopelessly inept when I am in their godlike presence,” he says. “But I am hooked nonetheless and would willingly crawl naked over broken glass to hear their twisted intricate flurries of sonic majesty.”
Spencer may not be quite as poetic, but he’s no less a fan. After catching the Sadies play with Case in early 2005, he enlisted them for Heavy Trash’s gloriously greasy sophomore album Going Way Out With Heavy Trash. The Sadies showed up and then proved again that they are nothing if not adaptable, as comfortable with rebel-yell rockabilly as they are with malt-liquored blues or art-house Americana.
“The first time the Sadies made an impression on me was when Matt and I were just finishing the first Heavy Trash record and we went and saw Neko Case at the Bowery Ballroom in New York City,” Spencer says. “She had the Sadies as her band. You could tell they were great players, but they weren’t stepping all over her or each other. They were working together with her to put on a great show.”
Considering the Sadies don’t lack for high-profile cheerleaders, one might ask why it has taken them so long to be recognized as contenders. Bruce Good — father to Dallas and Travis, and founder of the Good Brothers — has a ready-made theory.
“There are three things you need to succeed in this business,” he says. “Of course, you need a reasonable amount of talent. You need very good direction, and you need luck. Luck is one third of the whole thing. With these guys, I think their talent has exceeded their luck.”
The Sadies have their own take on why their career seems to have unfolded at a pace best described as glacial. Their first two albums, Precious Moments and 1999’s Pure Diamond Gold, established a pattern that would take a while to break. Both discs were recorded with Chicago-based punk-rock kingpin Steve Albini, who’s more likely to simply record a band than to try and shape them. In addition to the lack of outside input on the songs — which Dallas says he actually has no regrets about — there was no budget for making sure everything was note-perfect.
“For our first record, we booked a weekend in Chicago,” Belitsky remembers. “That was it; the record had to be done in that time. With each record after that, we took more time and had more ideas as to what we really wanted, to the point now where we are super-focused and dialed in to what we’re about.”
Getting a handle on where the Sadies are coming from isn’t as easy these days as it once was — no shock considering the range of influences the band now draws upon. That country still works as a starting reference isn’t surprising, considering it was always around the Goods when they were growing up.