I had the chance to sit down with Joel Plaskett at the Winnipeg Folk Fest in 2007. The former Thrush Hermit vocalist/guitarist had just released Ashtray Rock with the Joel Plaskett Emergency, a concept record about a teenage love triangle. During this interview he touched on a lot of personal stuff that I don’t think he has in a lot of interviews, as well as a few Thrush Hermit stories. I’m happy to share this conversation here in its entirety for the first time.
NF: Gordie Johnson (Big Sugar/Grady) produced Ashtray Rock. Did you know Gordie was born in Winnipeg at the Saint Boniface Hospital?
JP: I didn’t! How do you know something like that?
NF: I was born at the same hospital, I don’t remember how I know that. I think he mentioned it at a show once.
NF: How did this collaboration come about?
JP: I met him a few years ago and I’d heard through the grapevine that Gordie had stumbled upon those songs (from Thrush Hermit’s 1999 swan song, Clayton Park) and said “who are these guys? These guys are good” and then when I’d met him, he had expressed some interest in working with me. I didn’t know him that well and it was a really casual thing and he said “I dig your music man, we should do something sometime.”
There was nothing more said, and then I kinda registered it. We kept running into each other and then my manager, I was talking to her after I’d made a couple of records with Ian McGettigan – he used to be in the Hermit with me – and she said “well maybe we wanna consider an outside producer. You’ve mentioned Gordie had expressed interest and she said should we talk to him.”
Of all people I was thinking on a Canadian landscape, that make cool sounding records… I gotta say, I know Big Sugar stuff and I didn’t know a lot of the other work he’d done. I had him kinda pegged as a rock guy. So my one kind of … not worry but the thing I really sorta made sure I wanted to get across to him was that I wanted to make something that was more than just a big rock album. I wanted to make a rock album that had the depths of my influence from like folk music and stuff. I gotta say, I couldn’t have picked a better guy. He really was sympathetic to that and his knowledge runs deep and I learned a lot from working with him.
NF: He produced the three song single that came with the Make a Little Noise DVD, correct?
JP: I wanted to try him out, and I think he wanted to try me out. It was a mutual, kinda “hey let’s do this.” It’s not gonna break the bank because it’s not a full record, we’re not gonna get into a big production, we’re just gonna do it.
NF: During the closing credits of the Make a Little Noise DVD, a little girl (about three or four) sings along to your song “Extraordinary.” Where did this come from?
JP: Her babysitter and close friend of her mother’s has been a fan for a long time, and she came out to a show and showed Peter (Elkas) and I … she said “Lexi’s a huge fan, she knows the songs inside out.” Peter and I were playing on the La De Da tour in Winnipeg and Jenny came backstage and handed me a VHS and said “Check this out.” The tape was Lexi singing that song and I was like “Oh you gotta send me a copy of that.” Then I showed it to a bunch of people when we were putting the DVD together and we were like “we gotta get in touch with them and put this on it.”
NF: As Ashtray Rock is a concept record, did you consciously think about how you would play the songs live as you made the album?
JP: A little bit, yeah. We were conscious of trying to make a record that represented the heart of the three piece band that the Emergency is, but also bringing in the piano because I knew I wanted some piano on this one and the one thing I learned from Gordie … not learned, but the way he approaches records is that he wanted the sound pallet to be consistent and not that broad. Like this is the acoustic sound or the electric sound. We’re not gonna throw everything at it and see what sticks, we’re gonna make a record that sounds a certain way and evokes a mood.
In some ways the concept of that record allowed me to bring a bunch of songs that are genre wise very different. A song like “Fashionable People” and a song like “Nothing More To Say” don’t really belong on the same record unless it’s a part of a story. And so by putting them as part of a story it allows you to basically explore the total party side of what I do and the more intimate side of what I do.
The story was really intrinsic to that, because without it people might go “What the hell, those don’t belong on the same record!” But they do if you’re telling a story.
NF: How does being married to an artist (Nova Scotia graphic artist and cartoonist Rebecca Kraatz) influence your work? (She also did the cover art for Ashtray Rock and appears as a guest vocalist on the track “The Instrumental”).
JP: Lotta Rebecca in there. Becky, i’ve known her… we met years and years ago, she did the make up on the first Hermit video (“French Inhale”). I met her when I was young, been together a long time. She’s a cool, cool, cool girl. She’s really into the 1940s like you would not believe. In the sense that she kind of embodies it in this really kind of otherworldly way that is hard to explain, to put into words in an interview anyway. So all that kinda dreamy stuff about the ’40s is all for her ’cause that’s her thing. She’s watched like every old movie that you could possibly imagine. You know, she really likes ’50s rock n roll and she loves instrumentals.
She’s a very inspirational artist. So there’s a lot of little things in there for her that she gets and nobody else does and I try to make no bones about talking about her, and I sort of don’t wanna bring her into my public life because I don’t think she wants that, but at the same time she’s been such an influence on me that I wouldn’t want to pretend that she’s not a part of my life. In some ways I feel like as I grow as a performer and gain more of an audience, the more I can de-mystify what I do, the more I can treat it in a way that allows me to walk freely through the world like I know that I don’t want to sound like a rock star about anything, you know, but really I feel like … I don’t know if it’s the wrong way to go about it. Because at some point people are going to know too much about me. If I was really successful on some level, it would just drive me nuts because it would all just come back to bite me in the ass. But at the same time, if you hide too much, all it does is create people wanting to pick at you more. I just want to live like a human being and sing about stuff that I care about.
NF: What are your thoughts on Thrush Hermit, almost a decade after the band ended?
JP: I still stand behind some of those songs. I mean a lot of them I wrote when I was younger and I don’t feel necessarily like I wanna play a lot of ’em, but there’s a handfull that I feel pretty proud of, and there’s a couple songs on Ashtray Rock that the Hermit did. “Snowed In” and the song “Ashtray Rock” … I actually wrote the music and some of the words to that when i was like 18 or 19. “The Glorious Life” the Hermit did back in ’94 or ’95.
NF: Was “Come on Teacher” (from his Truthfully Truthfully record) a Hermit tune?
JP: I don’t think we ever played “Come On Teacher” … yes we did. We recorded it for a Sonic Unyon compilation right at the very end of the band (laughs). How’d you know that?
NF: What can you tell me about your experience working on the Sloan video “Underwhelmed,” where you and Thrush Hermit played a game of “spin the bottle” with a group of teenage girls?
JP: (laughs) I had really long hair at the time.
NF: You produced the new Two Hours Traffic record, Little Jabs. How did that come about?
JP: I met them years ago, I produced their previous EP and the record before that. I met them when they were young, they made a record on their own like an EP that was really, really good and they gave it to me at a show and I took it home and I listened to it and thought “man, these guys are really good.” I got in touch with them and said, “You know if you wanna record a couple of songs I’ll come produce some stuff for you.”
It was interesting for me because I could see how I could help them. I gotta say when we were younger Sloan kind of … we were our own band but Sloan took us under their wing and essentially put out our record under the Murderecords name and they mentored us in a lot of ways. We were young and their soundman Brendan McGuire recorded our first EP that we ever put out. So for me, having been helped like that as a musician, it kinda felt like, “Hey, this is something that I feel like I wanna do, because I just like that element of passing along to the community.”
So anyways, we made these records, I mean I think I definitely had a hand in it and you can probably hear my touches on it because I just approach things a certain way. I learned stuff from Gordie on my record that I took to the Two Hours Traffic record, having learned recording techniques that I was kind of newly enamoured with from Gordie. So I was trying to keep their own touch to everything. They really do their own things. They’ve got great songs, and I don’t want their audience to go out or get so attached to me that it doesn’t exist on its own. I hope we achieved that. I know we did and their songs are their songs, they write great words and great melodies. For me, it was just trying to make really high impact pop arangements. It’s just … you guys are a great band let’s make a wicked pop record. It’s not rocket science right?
NF: I’m curious as to who you would like to collaborate with next?
JP: I’m thinking I might make a more … I don’t really know what the next record is gonna be. I got an inkling that it might be something involving my dad, a more traditional and folk kind of record with him. Whether or not that’s the next thing I don’t know. As far as producing I’d love to make a pop record or some kinda record with Nick Lowe … I’d love to work with Nick Lowe. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to get in touch with him or afford him, I haven’t a clue. But I’m a huge fan of the records he did for Elvis Costello, as well as his own songs are incredible. I’m sure Gordie and I will do something again, whether it’s the next record or down the line. We’ve hit up a good friendship and I still feel like there is stuff to be learned from him. I just want to keep trying to re-invent my wheel if not the wheel then mine you know? Just kinda make records that are different from the last one. Keep people guessing a little bit.
Visit joelplaskett.com for more information.