Alan Doyle,
Great Big Sea makes a
music career of Newfoundland pride

(Interview by Tom Knapp, September 1999)

It doesn't matter how famous Alan Doyle and his band, Great Big Sea, become. Back home, they'll never forget Doyle's one eternal shame.

"I'll always be the one who dropped the ball in the seventh inning against Kilbride," Doyle said, a touch of regret entering his voice.

But, despite a bit of good-natured shunning by his friends and neighbors over that long-ago Little League blunder, Doyle has a burning pride in his homeland. Raised in Petty Harbour and living now in St. John's, Doyle is proud to call rocky, struggling Newfoundland home.

"I don't know why we are so inextricably attached to this rock in the middle of the water," he said during a recent telephone interview. "I can't quite put my finger on it, but we just are. ... Perhaps it's a place of myth we've created in our own heads, but it's a kind of bonding like nothing I've ever seen. It took so much for our ancestors to settle this place and eke out an existence, there's an incredible sense of community around it."

Great Big Sea is bringing a great deal of international attention to Newfoundland's traditional music, which is equal parts Scots-Irish heritage, maritime influence and general jar-in-the-kitchen foolery. The boys in the band -- Doyle, Sean McCann, Bob Hallett and Darrell Power -- learned much of their traditional material at Newfoundland "kitchen parties." Today, they play a rich and lively mix of traditional, neo-traditional, contemporary and original tunes, ranging from old favorites like "I'm a Rover," "Mari Mac" and "The Little Beggarman" to covers of REM's "End of the World," the Oysterband's "When I'm Up" and Slade's "Run Runaway."

"The essence is, it has to be a good Great Big Sea song," Doyle said. "It has to have high life, and it has to show the talents of the four members of the band."

With mostly traditional instruments and a rock 'n' roll attitude, Great Big Sea has breathed new life into songs they grew up singing. "I'm not surprised that people are interested in hearing Newfoundland folk music," Doyle said. "I've known for a long time that, in the right environment, this music will stand up to any music in the world. ... But I'm always delighted when people want to hear us sing it. If I live to be 1,000 and we play a million concerts, I'll never take that for granted. It's always a bit of a surprise every time the turnstyle clicks."

Doyle is also a bit astonished at how rapidly Great Big Sea has caught on in the United States. The band's first U.S. release, Rant & Roar, came out in 1997. Earlier albums (Great Big Sea, Up and Play) didn't get much attention south of the Canadian border -- although it did send them touring in Europe, where they shared a few stages with the Oysterband.

"I'm surprised how quickly progress can be made in America," Doyle said. "It's so big, there's so much competition. ... It's amazing how quickly you can move from a 200-seat club to a 400-seat club to a small theater to an arena. When the wheels get turning in America, they really turn quickly. And I'm delighted at the open arms we've encountered."

When the band isn't touring, the four lads are practically neighbors in St. John's, living "a golf swing, if not a powerful stone's throw, from each other," Doyle said. But they don't talk much shop at home, he said; in Newfoundland, they're just local boys made good.

The band just released Turn, its fourth album in Canada, although the current U.S. tour is still promoting Rant & Roar.

"The concerts are quite honestly the reason we started playing music in the first place," Doyle said. Recording in a studio is flat and lifeless when compared to a live performance, he said. And the applause, he added, "is a rush, an unparalleled rush. What if our mechanic got that? Wouldn't it be brilliant if we all had to applaud our dentist?"

[ by Tom Knapp ]