Séan McCann has been a runner for 20 years. Lacing up his sneakers and hitting the road as often as he might pick up a bodhran, he’s been known to seek solitude in the sound of his own footsteps.
“It’s easier to run uphill than down,” McCann said. “Just because you see that downhill road in front of you, at the end of that, you might have shin splints. The easier road is not necessarily the best one.”
McCann’s running mottos can easily be mantras for his life and career. Over the past two decades, McCann and the other members of Great Big Sea have seen their share of mountains and shin splints, juggling tour dates with downtime, screaming fans and screaming babies, long stretches of road and long stretches of time away from home.
Twenty years of a winding road is a reason in itself to celebrate, he said — especially since he and the guys are still running.
The guys of Great Big Sea seemed to have been destined to play music together. In their days as MUN students, McCann and Bob Hallett formed a band called the Newfoundland Republican Army — “his idea,” McCann said — with seven others, playing one single gig at the university’s Grad House. After that, the pair went on to form Rankin Street with Darrell Power, whom they met at the Rose and Thistle, and Jackie St. Croix, and performed for four years, becoming popular among the university crowd and releasing a cassette.
In 1993, during another night at the Rose and Thistle, McCann, Hallett and Power came across Alan Doyle, playing on stage as part of a duo with John Brenton called Staggering Home.
“He couldn’t help himself; he was attracted to the light,” McCann said of Doyle.
It was obvious to me that if we had him, we’d have a frontman who could really sell the band. From my experience, that’s not something you can just do; you either are that or you’re not, but he was that kind of guy, which neither I nor Bob nor Darrell ever was.”
The quartet started jamming together, figuring out a way to combine original music with traditional sounds and instruments, and McCann remembers his father present at their first sessions, clipboard in hand.
“He was concerned about me and all of us. He said, ‘Give it a year and see how you do,’” McCann said. One year later, Great Big Sea had a record deal, had sold 10,000 records, and had played all over the country.
The rest is history, though it wasn’t totally a smooth course. Tours around the world, singing until their voices were raw, weeks together on a tour bus — it wasn’t always glamorous and when the guys got married and started having babies, it got more difficult for them to balance their time.
In 2002, drummer Kris MacFarlane joined the band, followed by bass player Murray Foster. Power left the band in 2003 to spend more time at home with his family.
The good times, however, have been plentiful. Today, with 10 records, two DVDs, and multiple tours worldwide behind them, as well as a fan base that includes Russell Crowe, Great Big Sea still remains one of Newfoundland and Labrador’s biggest musical exports.
It all comes down to passion, McCann said.
“I’ve got some sore hips and sore knees, but the energy and passion is still there,” he said, laughing.
“It’s like a drug. We are among the lucky few that actually got away with making it a career for 20 years. It’s amazing that we did it, but I think the reason we did is because we were all extremely focused on the band and that’s what got us through. We were all pulling the sled the same way.
McCann, Doyle and Hallett each have their own solo careers. McCann has released two records, 2010’s “Lullabies for Bloodshot Eyes” and 2011’s “Son of a Sailor,” while Doyle has taken up acting and songwriting with Crowe.
He’s currently promoting the recent release of his debut solo album, “Boy on Bridge.”
Hallett is a writer, having released a memoir called “Writing Out the Notes: Life in Great Big Sea” in 2010, and manages local talent through Garrison Hill Entertainment.
“The solo stuff has been a challenge to deal with. It’s great itself, but it’s hard not to step on the toes of Great Big Sea,” McCann said.
“My solo work wasn’t about money or fame; I needed an outlet artistically. Those are songs that would never make it on a Great Big Sea album. It’s all me and I think that’s why they have to happen and there’s a place for them.”
Since the beginning of the summer, McCann has taken on the unofficial role of Great Big Sea archivist. In celebration of their 20th anniversary, the band plans to release a box set, and he’s been charged with going through old demo cassettes and unfinished material and home movies.
Part of the box set will be the band’s biggest radio hits, while another will include their folk music. There’ll also be about 20 demos and unreleased tunes they never got around to finishing, as well as a DVD.
“It’s old footage from our first couple of tours across Canada. I had an old camera — they used to call me Séan McCamera — and I filmed a lot of it from inside the van, so basically you get into Great Big Sea on its first tour and you’re there,” McCann said.
“It turned out to be a very funny and engaging thing to see.
“I wanted the box set to speak clearly to the 20 years, and that means addressing the successes and the failures — well, I don’t call them failures, but the stuff we didn’t get around to finishing. There are some gems in there.”
Great Big Sea will launch their 20th anniversary tour Aug. 4 by celebrating a totally different milestone: they’ll take to the stage with Jimmy Rankin and The Trews in celebration of Torbay 250, acknowledging the 250th anniversary of the landing of Lt.-Col. William Amherst and 1,000 British troops in the area.
It’s an outdoor concert in Upper Three Corner Pond Park, and one of just a handful of gigs the band has played together this year.
“We haven’t played in so long, I’m dying to play. I think people have this notion of Great Big Sea that we all live in the same house, we all go to the same pub together,” McCann said with a laugh.
“The truth is, I haven’t seen Alan or Bob in two months. I think I can speak confidently that everyone wants to play a Great Big Sea show for a change. I’m excited.”
Tickets for the all-ages Torbay 250 concert are $31 plus tax and fees, and are available at the Mile One Centre box office or online at www.mileonecentre.com.
Dates for an upcoming anniversary tour have yet to be announced.