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In Need of Radio’s Attention

As I sit in a bar called Hugh’s Room on a Saturday night, I see the back door open and I see Joel Plaskett arrive along with Peter Elkas, guitars in hand. Just arriving late after the six hour drive from Ottawa to Toronto, these two men look dishevelled and tired after long months of touring and recording.

“I was in the States for a couple of months.  I drove down to Arizona, recorded a solo record down there.  I was playing everything on it.  I came up the west coast and I had to get myself back home,” Joel tells me as we sit down to talk about his solo tour, his work with The Joel Plaskett Emergency, the early days in Thrush Hermit and his upcoming album.  This show was the last of his tour, before he headed back home to Nova Scotia for a long deserved rest.   Plaskett hears the good news that this last show is sold out and makes the quick quip, “Hey Pete, we’re gonna be rich!” Plaskett’s sense of humour shines through most of our conversation.

In the early 1990s Joel Plaskett (guitar), Rob Benvie (guitar/keys), Ian McGettigan (bass) and Cliff Gibb (drums) started a band called Thrush Hermit. Following the grunge sound that had developed in the United States not long before, they also added elements from 1970s rock and roll.  In 1994, Thrush Hermit signed to Sloan’s Murderecords and released two E.P.s, Smart Bomb and The Great Pacific Ocean.

Sweet Homewrecker was their major label debut, on Elektra, and only venture on a large label. Sweet Homewrecker still featured the sloppy sound of their early work, but showed many indications of the direction that the band would be taking.

Asking what led to the Hermit leaving Elektra, Joel answered, “We wanted to get dropped [from Elektra], because our A&R guy got fired.  We just didn’t have anyone there pulling for us, so being on that label didn’t make any sense.  By getting dropped after the first record, we had a clause in our contract that meant they had to give us $60,000 US.  So we said, drop us drop us drop us and they dropped us, and they had to pay us off to get rid of us so it was awesome.  Worked great, bankrolled Clayton Park and we made a great record.”

By the mid-1990s, fellow Haligonians (natives of Halifax) Sloan, were hitting their stride with the release of albums such as One Chord to Another and Navy Blues, and bringing big media focus and attention to the east coast Canadian music scene.  This new focus led to perfect timing for Thrush Hermit’s release of Clayton Park in 1999.

I asked Plaskett what he thought Thrush Hermit brought to the Halifax scene after Sloan helped shine a light on it.  “Well, we kicked their ass.  We were a hard rock band.  At the time we hit our stride, we were the heaviest band in Canada.  I don’t think all our records were flawless, but by Clayton Park, we were the best band in Canada.”

“We loosened up as a band.  We didn’t write all the guitar solos.  We went into the studio and fucked around.  We bought an eight track with the money we got when we signed to Elektra.  When we came back from recording Sweet Homewrecker, we had a studio, a little eight-track studio of our own, that really [shaped] the way we made Clayton Park.

With Clayton Park, Joel Plaskett seemed to overshadow the other two songwriters, Ian McGettigan and Rob Benvie.  Of the eleven songs on Clayton Park, Plaskett wrote and sang lead on eight.  I asked Joel if he saw it in the same light.  “I don’t see it that way because it kind of came down to it, and it looked like I’m gonna have more songs on this record.  Rob had a ton of songs, but he was like, ‘Which songs of mine are going to fit this record, and what do we need on this record?  We need something fun; we need ‘Headin’ South’.’  We worked that one out live and [we thought], this is a great, kick ass rock song, and we all get to jam out on it.  The thing that I really thought and really still think is Rob’s strong suit, as a songwriter he’s really strong, but also he’s rhythmically strong. He has a really good sense of what makes a song compel itself and is simple.  ‘Headin’ South’ has such a deadly rhythm to it, and he added a lot of suggestions to my songs, and his guitar playing was always really aggressive.  Rob is a great piano player too, so he was playing keys on that record and playing a lot of lead guitar.”

"Ian’s song [‘(Oh Man!) What To Do?’] is a totally fun song on that record. It just cooks, right?  I like it because ‘From The Back Of The Film’, chased with the Ian song is like the record comes out swingin’.  I mean, I don’t think my stuff is any more mature.  The strength of that record is the fact that our roles at that point were becoming, as far as I was concerned, a little more defined in terms of what everyone’s strengths were.  I was writing and my singing was developing by that point.  Ultimately that is what kind of put the nail in the coffin of that band.

“I kind of thought that that record was really strong and we were heading a certain way, and I could see myself as basically the lead singer, but it would be a collaborative thing where we would all be involved in arranging the songs and Rob would still have songs in it, but I kinda wanted to be the singer.  That’s the goal and I thought we were starting to define ourselves and then all of a sudden Rob was like ‘I don’t want to fit into this definition of this band.’  And I totally respect him for that.  I understand that he is a strong-willed guy and is really talented in his own right.  I was becoming a domineering presence in that band from the way I approached the audience and the way people responded to me as the front of the band.  I’m an A Type.  I’m a forceful personality and I know that about myself.  And so is Rob.  He’s really strong-minded.  We get along great now, but I think he knew that record and when we were talking about the next record, he couldn’t see a place on it, so he got out and then we all just said, ‘if you’re not in it, the band doesn’t exist.’

“Then we broke up.” After touring across Canada with The Flashing Lights and The Local Rabbits in late 1999, Thrush Hermit called it quits.

Looking back, I asked Joel what his favourite song of Rob’s was and he replied, “Of Rob’s songs, my favourite I think is a song called ‘Strange To Be Involved’ off of Sweet Homewrecker.  I think it’s a touching song; I love that song so much.  It was one of the few songs on that record that we approached the same way we approached Clayton Park.  We did it a little looser.  We did it live.  We did the whole band live on the floor and Rob just sang.  It’s like a slow ballad. I think that’s my favourite song of Rob’s.  I love ‘Noosed And Halo Swear Words’ off that record too.” (Ed. Is this the place to mention this?)

1999 proved to be a busy year for Plaskett.  Not only had Thrush Hermit released their best work, Clayton Park, and toured across the country; Plaskett also was able to release his first solo album, In Need Of Medical Attention, a low-fi record.  Though released in 1999, In Need Of Medical Attention was recorded in the mid-‘90s, with Plaskett playing most of the instruments on the album himself.  He did however enlist various artists to join him on a couple of tracks, such as Charles Austin, Tara S’Appart, Al Tuck, and others.  Plaskett enrolled the king of Canadian low-fi Rick White (Elevator & The Unintended, formerly of Eric’s Trip) to mix this album.  “I like the sound of [what is] often the first take or first recording you do of a song. It’s your gut instinct, and sometimes its a good thing to just leave it that way even though its not a record thats going to sell a lot because its such a lo-fi record.”

I asked Joel Plaskett what the running themes were on the album.  “Medical Attention was about my grandfather dying; he was a doctor and I was thinking about him.  That was part of it.  A lot of that record was about growing up in Clayton Park.  I’m specific in some songs, and other songs, I just try to paint pictures of where I’m from and how I feel about certain things.  But I dedicated that album to my grandfather who had passed away [in] ‘96 or ‘97. So I wrote some of the songs for him.”

In 2000, Plaskett started a new project. Enlisting the help of Tim Brennan (bass) and Dave Marsh (drums), he formed The Joel Plaskett Emergency.  The Emergency are a three-piece band that could rock and roll with the best of them, while still being able to mellow out and get a little country on the listener.  Dave Marsh, also known as one of the many drummers for the The Super Friendz, along with Tim Brennan create a solid backing for Plaskett’s lead.

"The Emergency [albums, Down At The Khyber and Truthfully, Truthfully], are really band records.  Medical Attention is… I play almost everything on it myself, and I kinda took a long time making it.  I’m really proud of the Emergency records.  I think they show both my personality, but [also] the personality of the whole band in the terms of how we play together.  They (the records) certainly wouldn’t be the same without them.”

On the first Emergency album, Down At The Khyber, is a song called, “Waiting To Be Discovered.”  I asked if this song was about finding the fame that he once had as part of Thrush Hermit?  “To be honest I never felt that Thrush Hermit had too much fame.  We did alright.  I’ve sold as many records in this capacity as the Hermit ever did.  I’ve got more fans, and I’ve played to more people now than the Hermit ever did.  So that song isn’t really about that.  That song is really a little bit more about… more about just being in Halifax, watching people in Halifax having a hard time getting out of town.  [Also asking] what does it take to draw some attention to myself?  I take a hard angle when I write a song.  I certainly felt like I had a little catching up to do when there was a dip between the Hermit and when I started my new band and got Khyber out. I certainly had something to prove. I never felt like I’m back to square one [though].”

In 1994, Thrush Hermit had a song on their Smart Bomb E.P. called ‘Radio Blaster’ in which Joel sang, “I was sitting in the car with the radio blastin’.”  On the latest Joel Plaskett Emergency album, Truthfully, Truthfully, Plaskett sings in “Radio Fly,” “The radio, if it’s on another minute, better grow some wings and fly.”  The imagery of the radio changing from a form of entertainment to a device you wish to throw out the window had me wondering.

I asked him what changed in the past ten years?  Was it his lack of presence on the radio, or just good music in general?  “I’d love for myself to be on the radio and maybe somewhere deep down I have some slight resentment.   Everybody wants to be on the radio.  I think my music is worthwhile and I think the reason I’m not on the radio isn’t necessarily the sound of my records.  It’s the fact that they don’t smell money behind it.  Really that song is more about the fact that you flip the radio and you can’t find a fucking song.  You know there’s a couple that surface every now and then, certainly Sam Roberts was a total breath of fresh air. I don’t know what reason they choose to play these songs.  Certainly it’s not musical.  They’re not trying to make interesting radio.

Turn it back into independently owned stations, make the playlists come from DJs.  Let the DJs choose the songs.  If the radio was more adventurous, if it wasn’t so narrow. They used to take risks, I realise there’s so much music in the world, maybe it’s impossible to sift through it.  But I just feel that the fact that Clear Channel and Chum, they all just dictate, they’re piped in from somewhere, what’s getting played in Halifax is not [what a] bunch of Halifax DJs choosing what to play.  ‘You are going to play the new Theory of a Dead Man single whether you like it or not.’”

File sharing was another subject I broached with Joel.  I asked him how he thought it had affected him as an independent musician.  “I don’t know.  I sell about the same number of records all the time, to my die hard fans.  Maybe it’s affected me, maybe it’s kept me from selling 20,000 records, kept me from cracking 10 [thousand] maybe.  I don’t sell a lot of records.  I sell 5,000 records. That’s never changed for me.  I think, for my fans, if they just can’t find my record in a store, they just burn it, then they come to a show and buy it.  You know, I don’t think I’m getting ripped off by it, but having said that, I’d rather they paid for my music, and it would make it a bit easier if I did make a bit more money.  It would allow me to be more creative about the way I go about things.  I mean, I skimp on a lot of levels and I have to make a lot decisions based on the finances of it.  I can’t do something cool and artistic if it’s going to bankrupt me.”

The song, “Work Out Fine,” gives a sense of the world working out on its own.  “Well, that song I wrote in about the time it takes to sing it.  I guess I sort of subscribe to that.  I’m not a political guy in a lot of ways, so I suppose, it’s a lackadaisical attitude more than anything else.”

On Plaskett’s latest album, Truthfully, Truthfully, an old Thrush Hermit B-Side is included.  This track, “Come On, Teacher”, became the first single off of Truthfully, Truthfully,.  I asked Plaskett what brought this song back to life. “ It was fun live.  I wanted this record to have a couple of songs like “Come On, Teacher” and “Extraordinary” which are kind of goofy, but they’re fun live songs.  The audience reacts to them, so I thought, I shouldn’t be afraid to put them on the record.”

Joel Plaskett will be taking a break from The Emergency and is planning the release of his second solo album.  He says to expect it in the fall, but even his record label Maple Music hasn’t heard it yet.  “I don’t know how they’re going to react.  I know they’re waiting to hear this record.  I don’t know if they’re even going to see it as a commercial record.  It isn’t.  I don’t think it’s chockfull of singles.  It’s self-indulgent, it’s lyrical.  Intrigues me more.” 

A couple of hours later, the lights turned down as he took the stage to a packed room, guitar in hand.  Wearing the same jeans he wore in the video ‘From The Back Of The Film’ and a green shirt with Louis Riel on his back. Seeming to be the most comfortable I had ever seem him in front of a large crowd.  Plaskett takes command of the stage, tells stories, plays songs and leaves a gleeful audience and another tour behind for the trip back home to Nova Scotia.

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