Alan Doyle often gets associated with Russell Crowe as a musician (he's contributed to several of the Australian's bands) and as an actor (where he's appeared in Robin Hood and other projects). Give the guy a break: Doyle's had a 20-year career with Canadian folk rockers Great Big Sea and he's recently launched his second solo album, So Let's Go. He spoke with Music Times about the inspiration behind the title, how he met Crowe under the most Canadian of circumstances and how, if he'd had his way, he'd be shredding in a hair metal band and not singing Newfoundland sea shanties (with no offense meant to sea shanties).
Music Times: We realize that Great Big Sea is on hiatus, and this album So Let’s Go isn’t your first solo effort, but I’m curious what it’s like writing music for yourself versus for a group? How do the dynamics change there?
Alan Doyle: I always like the songs for Great Big Sea. It was fun because you knew the drums you had ready to make use of. An easier way to say it is, it would be a shame to write songs for Great Big Sea and not have a full chorus that four guys could sing on. It would also be really cool if we wrote songs for Great Big Sea that had an amazing bodhran part, because we have a great bodhran player, or those kinds of things. You kind of write with the guns in mind. Whereas, for my solo record I don’t think about any of that stuff. I let the songs be whatever they want to be and then I put I a band together after it’s done, I sort of put the horse before the carriage.
And I guess this is the obvious question, what did you have in mind different moving forward from Boy on Bridge to So Let’s Go?
The So Let’s Go project was really the idea to make a pop music record that was centered around something really honest and simple and folky. I’ve sort of been noticing a lot of pop music around the world is really a bunch of huge productions around something very simple...maybe just a single guy playing guitar and singing a gospel song or something. So I thought it may be a cool experiment to have a pop music record that was centered around a guy from a fishing town in Newfoundland whistling and playing mandolin and to have him be the center of it all...his story, his stuff. The heart and soul of the record is really simple and very, very traditional and Celtic, whereas it’s about pop music at the same time.
Going along with that, you like to not only play the different guitars, but you like to work in the more traditional strings—banjo, mandolin, bouzouki—do you have a preference among those?
I don’t know...I change it all the time. My favorite instrument to play lately is a four-string tenor guitar. It’s really simple and tiny-sounding, but I suppose if I had to pick one that was my main strength, it would be a simple old acoustic guitar, that’s kind of what I play on stage.
If you had tried to be ambiguous and not given me an answer to that question, I had a follow-up ready to call you out. I was going to ask what you’re shredding on at the encore because that’s normally a good answer.
Yeah, what’s your default answer? When you’re playing a difficult song, the one you learn to play it on first. And it would definitely be a simple, old acoustic guitar.
I understand that Boy On Bridge, the title to that album was a reference to a film role you once had, so I’m curious about the story behind the title So Let’s Go?
It’s really a saying that I’ve been saying my whole life. My friends know me as the guy who says “so let’s go.” I’m serious, it’s kind of the thing where it’s always been my call to action. I’ve always been the guy who acts a little bit before he thinks and I’ve never been one for overthinking it before you jump into it. I don’t know...I think some people in my life kind of talk themselves out of things, or find real good reasons to not do something they want to do and I was like "guys, I want to go and see the things, so let’s go." And I said it so often, in so many different circumstances that it’s a real call to action that time is short and if you have the chance to do this thing or have the night or go to the thing or whatever, you should take it.
So you’re not going to let us pigeonhole you as the solo performer who’s named every album after film roles he’s played?
(Laughs) That would’ve been a good idea, but of course I’ve only had two solo albums. My next role will be called Backender [another film reference...and a joke, we're pretty sure].
Going along with the acting connections, you’re often seen in the company of a certain big name Hollywood actor...
Oh, Russell [Crowe]?
Oh, I was talking about Scott Grimes.
(Laughs) That’s fantastic. You know what, he’s about eight feet away from me right now. He came to us for a little trip because we’re in his neck of the woods playing in Massachusetts, just outside of Boston and that’s where Scotty was born. I’m often with Scott Grimes and Kevin Durand and Russell. Of course we worked on the Robin Hood movie and that’s where I really got to know those guys and they have been tremendous supporters and friends to me for over a decade or more now. Whenever any of us get a chance to get together and work on a TV show or a record, we always kind of jump at the opportunity.
I was going to ask if that’s how you met Scott, through Robin Hood, because I know he’s in the music video for the title track on the new album.
Yeah, that’s right. I wanted to shoot the video in Los Angeles on a day off. I wanted great actors as well who were around and I asked Scott and the lady in the video, a girl named Jes [Macallan], now I think people would know her from being on a show called Mistresses. I’ve known Jes for years as well and they both just keep doing these favors for me, it’s fun. I’m lucky.
That makes sense that the actors do the favor for their musician friend by appearing in the music video. So what do you have to do for him, how does that work?
Write songs for his records. Yeah, I’ve written a bunch of songs for projects for him and for shows he’s worked on. Always just different ways that we support each other like any good friend would, but it’s also a sneaky thing to find time to have a weekend with your buddies.
And I was definitely setting you up with the last couple questions...because for the readers' sakes, I definitely have to ask how you and Russell Crowe got together musically?
Oh yeah, it was simple, a very Canadian way in that. We met at the National Hockey League awards in Canada—we were both giving out a trophy. Before we met, he was in Toronto doing a movie called Cinderella Man and we happened to be going through Toronto at the time, but he had heard of Great Big Sea many years before from Kevin Durand and Scott Grimes and a bunch of those guys when he was in Canada in the late '90s, working on a movie called Mystery, Alaska. And so we met there and started a friendship and he had a band in Australia and I ended up writing some songs and producing the record for that band and then he helped me write a bunch of songs for Great Big Sea and for movies and then it all went down where he was doing a movie and they needed an Irish fellow who knew how to play and so I ended up playing Allan A’Dayle in Robin Hood and it’s been a great friendship ever since.
So is one of you like David Lee Roth and the other is Eddie Van Halen? Is that how that dynamic works?
Exactly like that.
Which is which?
You know what’s funny when I was a kid I played a guitar and I always thought I wouldn’t be Eddie Van Halen...all the band was him. And I never thought I’d be the front guy and it turns out I was the David Lee Roth. I don’t know what their relationship is. I think I wander in-and-out of roles, which I think I do. Sometimes I’m the guy and sometimes I’m the other guy. I think it’s one of those things where I can give you so many cool, different projects, I’m equally leading and following. It’s a wonderful place to be if you’re willing to take it on.
Getting away from the '80s hair rock and maybe back to something you’re more comfortable with...
I’m not comfortable with anything as much as I am with 80s hair rock.
It was influential with my wife because I was a teenager in the early '80s and where I grew up in a little fishing county, we’d just gotten cable television when I was in the middle of my teenage years. We can see music videos and stuff that bands make. That was awesome because 14 year-old me was excited. And I listened to the ways those bands put on a show and I loved, of course I grew up in a Celtic and folk music environment, we see those bands, the way they did it. I never understood why folk music wasn’t performed in such an entertaining way, like rock music. I never quite understood why they couldn’t be played in the same way if they wanted.
Well, nowadays you’re looking at Mumford and Sons, you’ve got The Avett Brothers, you’ve got some more folk/bluegrass-influenced bands that are really breaking it big. I’m wondering if that’s had an effect on your neck of the woods, Newfoundland and Labrador and folk music from that area.
Yeah, I don’t know. A while back, I feel like The Avett Brothers and Mumford and Sons had an effect on Labrador and in Canada the same way it would everywhere else because they’re so popular and it’s such good indie music, but I think when I was a kid there were versions of that coming from England and Ireland that we were aware of that not many other people were in North America because they didn’t make it that far. When I was a teenager I had Richard Thompson and Fairport Convention records and The Bothy Band. That was the stuff that I knew. The Irish folk music was very influential in this land where it probably even got noticed in your mainland.
We salute you for keeping up those traditions, but for that third solo album...if you want to do something a bit more '80s hair rock...
One of the greatest blessings in my life was in the '80s when I was still in high school and stuff. I couldn’t play guitar well enough to be Eddie Van Halen and I couldn’t sing high enough to be the lead singer in a hair metal band. And if I could have been either one of those two things, you and I probably would not be having this conversation right now because I’d still be in spandex with like a wig and singing in Steel Pants or whatever my band would’ve been called. I love it so much; I wouldn’t have been able to get past it...It’s only by my own shortcoming that I was saved from the decade of my 40s in spandex.
If I could play guitar like Van Halen I wouldn’t be interviewing anybody. Looking forward then, do you foresee more music in the immediate future?
Just about it. For the next 12 months, it’s primarily music. I have some other things that I do here and again. I have a book to write for Random House Canada. I just finished a little tour for a book I put out up here and I do teaching stuff. Every now and again maybe I’ll get a little gig acting in a TV show or something, but the bulk, 90 percent of the next 12 months is touring for the new record. And then I’ve got a month in April of 2016.