Last Thursday, I wrote this piece for AOL on Joel Plaskett.
After years of being a beloved hero of the Canadian underground--first in Thrush Hermit, and since 1999 as both a solo artist and bandleader of the Joel Plaskett Emergency--it's a relief to report that he's finally breaking through, both commercially and in terms of national respect. His latest, Ashtray Rock, debuted in the Canadian Top 40, and earlier this year he was paired with the Symphony Nova Scotia to launch the new CBC program Canada Live.
There's no reason all this couldn't have happened eight years ago or more: Plaskett has been a fully formed rock star since he was a teenager, with a strong songbook and the ability to be equally at home making hazy psych-country recordings with Elevator's Rick White, rocking stadiums opening for The Tragically Hip, or playing the heartfelt balladeer in the best tradition of Gordon Lightfoot and Ron Sexsmith.
Although 2001's Down at the Khyber will always have a particular place in my heart, Ashtray Rock may well be his most definitive musical statement to date, an amalgam of his various influences along with the occasional goofy side-trip (the doo-wop in "Penny For Your Thoughts," the electro break in the "Fashionable People"), all expertly woven together by Big Sugar's Gordie Johnson (whose diverse production skills are usually overshadowed by his own band's descent into cheeze rock at the end of their career). And Dave Marsh remains one of my favourite rock'n'roll drummers.
Personally, I'm not as sold on the album's lyrics, a loose narrative set in Plaskett's teenage years in the Halifax suburb of Clayton Park. Writing about "Drunk Teenagers" is one thing; writing like a drunk teenager is another, crooning "cruisin' for a bruisin'" like it's a deep thought. Whether he's writing in character or not, there are a few too many clunkers here to sour the whole experience for me a bit. ("They call him Johnny Hook-me-up/ I know he can hook us up." "Imagine if that lake was beer/ imagine if that rock was hash." "Their parents are ridiculously loaded/ let's get moving before I'm loaded.") Plaskett is a much better lyricist than this, as any of his four other solo records will attest.
Nonetheless, those teenage feelings were the focus of our conversation, which also touches on his early days in Thrush Hermit, his suburban experiences in Clayton Park and the Northcliffe Woods, Facebook, and the fallout of the Halifax Pop Explosion.
The Joel Plaskett Emergency plays Toronto's Opera House Friday (all-ages) and Saturday (19+) night. More dates and info can be found here.
May 9, 2007
Locale: Maple Music office, 11th floor conference room
This album is about high school and it’s pseudo-autobiographical. What drew you back to thinking about this time in your life? Had you been thinking about high school lately?
A lot of the press has said, “Plaskett creates teen drama!” And it’s kind of true. I’ve painted it in a way that it is about growing up playing music. I’m channeling the energy of what it was like when we were younger: those friendships and the complications and the mix of everything when you’re young: fashion, music, relationships, girls. It all gets blurry. As for the actual narrative to this record, it’s not like I had a falling out with a friend over a girl and it broke up a band. That’s not how things went down. But three of these songs date back to the Hermit.
Early or late Hermit?
The song “Ashtray Rock,” I wrote the first verse back in 1992, before Smart Bomb came out. I did it as part of the same four-track demos I did “All Dressed Up” and other stuff. And the song “The Glorious Life” is from 1994, which is when I met [album artist] Rebecca [Kraatz]. We’re married now, but that was a song about her leaving and us having a long distance relationship. The song “Snowed In” is a song that the Hermit did in later days; we recorded it for Clayton Park but decided not to put it on. Those three songs bring the nostalgic element up for me, because they go back there.
But a lot of the songs come from a more contemporary place, as much as they want to evoke that time. It’s also about having played music for this long, having loved a lot of different kinds of music and trying to bring that under one roof and having fun with it. As well as the challenge of trying to balance a life in music with my home life and my desire to be with my friends and family and my wife. The songs, in roundabout ways, refer to that as much as they do the past. Certainly the context makes people think that I’m channeling that [early] part of my life, but actually I’m trying to be as in-the-present as I’ve ever been.
How old are you?
I ask, because I’m 35, and lately I can’t have a single conversation with someone without Facebook coming up and people talking about the high school friends they’ve just re-connected with. Why do you think people are so obsessed with this right now?
Part of it is access to information. Who knows if people did that in the 70s: once they get to 30 they pull out the yearbooks and start checking the phone book. Probably they did. That’s when people are having kids and getting married, and people’s looks are changing dramatically. You usually look like you did until you’re a certain age, and then everyone starts to look different.
Is something missing from their lives that they want to mythologize their teenage years?
A lot of people are married or have been in several relationships at that point, and often you think of the formative years, what defined you as a person are those teenage years. Whatever music or something you do, often it’s from there until your early 20s when you really define yourself. For me, music is so wrapped up in that: touring from the age of 18 on, and the collective experience we had [in Thrush Hermit]. And I’m sure Ian [McGettigan] and Rob [Benvie] would say the same thing. There are a lot of inside jokes on this record that those guys will get. It’s for them. They might be scratching their heads at the concept of the thing, but at the same time there are references there for them that are fun for me to go back to.
The other thing that I’m noticing more now, is that by having a narrative to it, it’s allowed all these songs that are stylistically a bit different—acoustic songs, party songs—they can all live under one record, because the story has to go somewhere. I can take a song like “Nothing More to Say” that I wrote four or five years ago, that is kind of a negative energy song—it’s about betrayal. I demo-ed it for Truthfully, and did an acoustic version of it for La De Da, but it didn’t feel right in the context of those records and I didn’t want it there. But because it works in the arc of a story, the guy gets his heart broken and then he can sing a song like that. Maybe it might seem to some people like I’m distancing myself from my own music. But by having that, it allows me to embody the song as a singer, because I can play it as a character as opposed to it being about me all the time.
When I hear other people write about high school, you have to wonder how much of it character writing, and how much of it is really the author dwelling on that time of their lives. At what age does it become inappropriate to still be thinking about high school?
Yeah, right—I had to get this out of the way now! But a lot of this is not about high school. A song like “Fashionable People,” I just wrote and it happens to fit into high school drama. It’s about any kind of new awkward social circumstance, where you just want to drink to make yourself comfortable. It’s as high school as it gets, but you can be any age and feel that way. I definitely want it turned in to a musical that high schools will put on.
I hear High School Musicals are big these days!
Yeah! So I’m all for talking it up that way. But I also want to make sure that people don’t think I’ve done this completely nostalgic trip. I feel quite connected to the songs in a present tense.
Where is the physical place of Ashtray Rock?
Clayton Park is the suburb we grew up in. The joke I’ve been saying is that Thrush Hermit’s last record was called Clayton Park, so now I’ve just taken a Google map and magnified it to one rock in the middle of the park, where we hung out as teenagers.
So have you blown the cover of this secret drinking place? Are cops going to be hanging out there all the time now?
Maybe, I don’t know. I haven’t been back in years. I’m assuming it’s still there, because it’s hard to move a boulder. It’s in a protected park, I think. You can see a bit of the outside world from there, but I really have blurry memories of the place.
For obvious reasons.
Well, not really, because I didn’t even drink back in high school. I didn’t touch alcohol. I’ve written this record about drinking, but that’s something I got into more in recent years. [he offers a sly smile and laughs]
That’s what you’re telling your mom, anyway.
‘No, really, Mom, “Drunk Teenagers”—it’s all observational! I was there but I wasn’t partaking!’ But it’s true. Everyone else there was drinking, but I was more into skateboarding and music and girls. It’s fun for me to channel and romanticize an adolescence that’s a bit fictitious. Everything changes in your mind when you get older. Your memories are totally coloured by how wrapped up in your own adolescence you are. For me, it’s so wrapped up in music.
If you didn’t have to go around the fence, you could walk in 30 seconds from Ashtray Rock to the Thomas Raddall Library, where I checked out Husker Du’s New Day Rising on cassette. I’d never heard them before; this was Grade Nine, and I thought, ‘What the hell is this?’ It changed my life.
Did you ever meet the hip librarian who put it there?
I think I did, actually. I think it was this guy Josh.
Do you think there’s any connection between the album Clayton Park and this one?
Something the Hermit did that has continued in my career—and I think Ian, Rob and I all share this—is that we always celebrated where we were from. One of our first cassettes was called John Boomer, which was named after a guy we went to high school with. We just thought he had a cool name! Clayton Park was our last record, and when we were looking for a title, we just wanted to say that this is where we’re from. We’d be playing in Calgary and someone would come up and say, ‘We went to Clayton Park Jr. High together!’ That’s still happening to me now.
When I was thinking of a title for this album, I was thinking of Soundtrack For the Night, then when I stepped back I realized it sounded like a Journey album, or something equally corny. But Ashtray Rock is perfect, and it sounds like it could be some kind of dance.
The Ashtray Rock Lobster, perhaps? So how old were you when you started Nabisco Fonzie? [The precursor to Thrush Hermit]
I think we jammed when we were 13 or 14. It’s blurry. I’d like to think we were 13, but I think we were 14.
So this isn’t even a high school record, it’s a junior high school record.
Much of this record is memories of junior high. There’s a reference to a guy who ran for junior high school president, on the platform that he was going to build a pool under the floor of the school gym. Ian and Rob can attest to that, and we’ve shared many laughing memories of that.
Has he come out of the woodwork since? Mr. “Keep Metal Strong”? [This was the yearbook caption that the character left]
Dave Boyd? I actually Googled him and found some stuff and debated whether to contact him or not. I didn’t want to freak him out. In recent years, he ran for the Halifax Party in Clayton Park/Fairview. I read a blog where someone said, ‘The best thing about this record is that Joel mentions Dave Boyd! He used to buy alcohol for us!’ I didn’t really remember him at all; I just remember this character and the fact that his yearbook caption was exceptional! But this guy said that Dave Boyd ran for the Halifax Party on the platform that humans and robots should be allowed to marry. (claps hands, laughs) I was like, ‘Yes, he’s still at it!’ He was a local eccentric, and I suspect he’s no different now. I basically wrote that song as an inside joke for Rob and Ian.
And the bar code? [which features the phrase “Keep Metal Strong” in the design]
Yeah, his yearbook caption said, ‘Dave would like to thank his teachers, especially to Mrs. Parsons. Keep metal strong!’ For me, this time was when I liked Metallica and Joni Mitchell at the same time, and I still like that stuff. That’s when I established a lot of the music I love now. It’s become more refined, but that’s when it was anything goes. You can love Thin Lizzy and Nick Drake at the same time, and I wanted them both on the same record.
The last time I interviewed you was around the time of Truthfully, and you were about to make a commencement speech at Halifax West High School. How did that go?
It was wicked! I was so nervous—way more nervous than I’ve ever been for any show. Ten years later I graduated, and I had to say, ‘Look, I didn’t go to university. I took two half credits and just started playing music.’ The speech basically said that everywhere I go I run into someone from school, and I talked about the Northcliffe Woods and the Hemlock Ravine, which was the other place we hung out. All the students totally knew what I was talking about. And I just said, ‘Wherever you end up, you won’t forget where you’re from. And ten years later, we have nothing in common—except that we have something in common.’ That’s the beauty of it. If you weren’t adolescents together, you wouldn’t have that bond. Now you’re totally different people and you might be fat and balding, but you have that in common. ‘We’ll always have Ashtray Rock.’ It was a fun speech to write, but it was hard to pick the tone of the words. Though I didn’t use the words ‘fat and balding.’
That’s probably exactly what they wanted to hear, as they set out to disperse into the larger world.
To me, this album is about making a really large world really small. It’s more about the details. The scope of my music is not like U2 or something. But even them, when you think about it, the scope of their music is very Irish. You still get a sense of where they’re from.
And you also take something that’s very small and making it universal. Finally, are you and Dave Marsh the only original members of the Halifax Pop Explosion who still make a living making music while remaining in Halifax?
No, Charles Austin runs a highly successful studio where he records all the indie bands. He’s really busy. He’d be the obvious guy.
Of course. I guess I didn’t think of him because he doesn’t tour so much.
As far the Pop Explosion scene, though, people from that era who are still playing music and living in Halifax, there’s not that many. Most of them are in Toronto. I have to be careful here in case I forget about anyone. Drew from the Superfriendz is still there, but he’s in med school. Matt Mays and the Guthries guys were a bit later. But I should say that even though they weren’t on the radar of the Pop Explosion scene, but the band with Ruth [Minnikin] and Dale [Murray]—[we both struggle to remember the name of the band, the Booming Aeroplanes]—were early on the ground floor. Those guys were a teenage band. I didn’t know who they were at the time, but they go back a long way on the scene.
Where did [new Emergency bassist] Chris Parnell come from?
Chris is younger than [drummer] Dave [Marsh] and I. He’s 23 or 24 now. We’re multi-generational now. He played in a band called Slight Return, which was not emo, but maybe a math-y band, for lack of a better word. They were a real all-ages band, and I saw them a couple of times and they were pretty cool. It’s funny, Chris picked me up in a cab a few years ago. He drove a cab when he was 19 or 20. He said to me, ‘If you ever need someone to do some playing…” I always liked him, and when it worked out that [occasional bandmate and longtime friend] Ian [McGettigan] couldn’t be in the Emergency anymore because he was too busy—plus he was living here [in Toronto]—I really needed someone who could commit.
[Original bassist] Tim [Brennan] is in Dublin?
No, he’s back, but he has a kid and is teaching at the Art College. He would be available for some shows, but I really needed someone to commit. Dave and I took a leap of faith, because Chris is a lot younger than us. Dave and I, our references are the same. We’ll talk about the Small Faces and all this old stuff that we love. To have a guy that doesn’t have the same references, a lot of that goes over his head. In the Emergency, Marsh and I spar over the drums, that’s where the push and pull of the band comes from. So the simpler the bass is, the better, it doesn’t ebb and flow as much as the guitars and drums do.
You were mentored by older people like Sloan, and even today Dave Marsh is your drummer. What’s your relationship with younger bands in Halifax today? Do they come over to your house to watch Bad Lieutenant? [This is how Plaskett met the much older Marsh, introduced by Sloan’s Chris Murphy]
Ha! Not entirely, but I am involved with a band from Prince Edward Island called Two Hours Traffic. I’ve been helping them out and producing their records. That’s been fun. And that’s served as—not a mentorship, because I hesitate to use that word. But there was a lot I could bring to the table, and it was a lot of fun and they were receptive to it.
Would you use the word mentorship to describe what you felt when Thrush Hermit, who were all teenagers at the time, started hanging around the older Halifax musicians?
Yes and no. We were all young, and I really have to credit Sloan and particularly Chris Murphy for being so helpful, encouraging, and being involved in so many aspects of what we did. He did mentor in the way that he was really forthcoming with his knowledge of what was going on around them. We learned from watching the mistakes they made—not that they made a lot of mistakes, but we watched them find their footing. And of course we made a lot of our own mistakes as well. We were also trying to carve our own [sound]. We were very influenced by them, but we were also strong in our own right. So yeah, I would say they mentored us and took us on tour and put out our records. What else would you call it?