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Viral videos, free hugs, and the Sick Puppies' rise to the top

A Dog's Life

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For more than a decade, Sick Puppies guitarist Shim Moore and bassist Emma Anzai chased their dream with little to show for their efforts. But then in 2006, a video Moore shot of Juan Mann's Free Hugs campaign featuring the Sick Puppies track "All the Same" became an international viral sensation. Suddenly, all the labels that had ignored them up until then were knocking down their door.

It was quite the reversal for Moore and Anzai, who had met randomly over two decades ago in an Australian high school music room during lunch and bonded over their unfashionable shared love of Silverchair. They formed a band together and slogged it out Down Under for seven years, releasing an album (2001's Welcome to the Real World) and a pair of EPs before decamping for America in 2004. Their arrival was greeted with an indifferent shrug.

"We had no following. Nobody cared about us, and we had to build up all the interest from scratch. So we went to Sunset Boulevard and handed out flyers and did what we could. We made sure we rehearsed 10 hours a day. And we built it up manually," says Moore from his Los Angeles home. "We always knew we were going to be an overnight thing. We just had to do all the work ahead of time so people could get there on their own."

Headed by the chunky atmospheric modern rock of "All the Same" and "My World," their 2007 major label debut Dressed Up As Life established a beachhead. The album cracked the lower reaches of the Billboard Top 200, and three singles charted on alternative radio. The duo was roadworn and weary when they returned to the studio for 2009's Tri-Polar. Influenced by their time touring with alt-metal/ post-grunge acts like Flyleaf, Seether, and Breaking Benjamin, it's a loud and muscular album. Tri-Polar was a bona fide success with three big hit singles, including "You're Going Down." It would've been the easiest thing to simply retrace their steps for their new album Connect, but Moore's not that kind of person.

"We don't want to do 'You're Going Down' part two. We want to do something more," he says. "We're always going to have heavy rock, but we weren't the same people so we realistically could do the same thing but it would always sound lesser, because you're doing it from a different place. So you have to do your version of the new thing. And when you raise the bar, it takes work to get there."

Some of Connect's more hard-charging tracks like "Walking Away," with its disturbingly obsessed brokenhearted lover, and the grunge-stomper "Gunfight" hark back to earlier albums. But much of Connect is driven by acoustic guitar and bigger hooks, like the lilting "Where Did the Time Go" and the jangly, jammy title track. Make no mistake, the new Sick Puppies' LP is more approachable than their earlier efforts.

Moore agrees. "We didn't want a record that tried so hard. We wanted songs. Good songs don't try hard."

They took advantage of the four years between albums to write more songs than they ever have, a necessary element in raising the bar. "We were looking for a very specific kind of song. You write 15 or 16 songs and one song would pop out and say I'm the direction you're looking for. The rest of the time you'd be just trying and failing," he says. "You write so much because you only get one opportunity every so many years to say something."

Indeed, that's sort of the impetus behind the album. As the title suggests, Connect is about music's implicit power to bring people together.

"Because that's what music is, man," he says. "It's a device. It's not a piece of bread. It's not food. It's a tool. A tool to connect. That's all it is, all it's ever been. You listen to it, you connect with the songwriter, you connect with the part of yourself you're trying to find. It's a tool, a bridge."

The quieter acoustic-driven tracks punctuate Connect nicely, cleansing the palate and making the louder moments gnarlier. They give the entire album a flow and dynamism, sprinkled with a generous dose of hooks and a side of serious riffage. Yet the album's effortless passage was hard-earned on the back as well as the front-end.

They recorded with first-time producer Johnny Andrews, who'd previously written string arrangements and played percussion in Reuben Blades' band. Andrews gave the album a surprisingly creamy elegance, but it was time-consuming. Andrews had Moore indulge in the unusual step of recording his power chords string-by-string, note-by-note to eliminate bleed and more easily manipulate the tone.

"Yeah, that was a fucking hassle. It literally takes three times as much time. Fuck. It was a painful fucking album to make. It was so arduous in so many ways," Moore says. Nor was that all Andrews asked. "He said, 'Learn how to play it because I want you to play violin. Can you play the banjo?' So I had to learn how to play banjo for this record. I mean fucking hell. I was brought up to be drenched in sweat playing rock 'n' roll and this motherfucker put us to work."

However difficult it was, Moore's happy he and his bandmates put in the time. "The enemy of great is good, because everyone can do good," he says. "Great is a motherfucker."

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