Published Mar 25, 2012Joel Plaskett is done second-guessing himself. The darling of Dartmouth's 2009 album, Three, was a boundless sprawl of 27 songs on three separate disks. Three years later, he's daring to show some restraint. Plaskett's latest release, Scrappy Happiness, consists of ten songs recorded over the course of ten weeks, all of which debuted on CBC Radio shortly after they were finished, leaving no time for self-doubt. "The motivation was to do something in the moment that came out as in the moment as possible; to not toil and second-guess myself and to do something that was different from the last sprawling record," he says. "At the end of it, there are just ten songs."
With self-doubt out and the Emergency back in, Plaskett's affinity for never doing the same thing thrice remains a self-innovating challenge, just a more focused one. "I like making stuff. It's nice to keep creating and presenting things in different ways," he says. "You always look at things in hindsight and think that they could be different or better. It's nice to do something and then move on."
What are you up to?
Today I was working on the edit for a video that's going to be downloadable when people buy the CD. There's a little extra content for people who buy a physical copy of [Scrappy Happiness]. So I've been working on that ― it's an eight-song acoustic video. Also on the horizon before I go on tour in April, I have to finish producing this record for a gal named Mo Kenny. We've been chipping away at it for the last year, in my spare time and hers. It's a record we've been working hard on. I'm proud of what we've got so far. I'm producing it and I play a bunch of the rhythm section instruments on it. She's a great guitar player and singer and has some really cool songs. It's just been kind of a Scotland Yard [Records] plunky production. It's her first album, so what's cool is that she has a sound and a way that she plays but there's no preconceived idea of what she's supposed to sound like. It's fun for me as a producer. If I play a rhythm track on a song of hers, she's like, "cool, a rhythm track," as opposed to, "you're not as good as my old drummer." It's been really cool.
What are your current fixations?
A writer named Denis Johnson. I've read all of his books, although I'm still looking for his early collection of poetry. He's really amazing. Probably the most famous thing of his is a short story collection called Jesus' Son, which turned into a film at one point. That's one current fixation. And a writer named William Gay, who just passed away. I've been watching and reading a bunch of stuff about him online, because I love his writing so much. Musically my most recent fixation ― and it's cool because I haven't had something new that I've been into for a long time ― is a songwriter named Todd Snider. This guy's been around awhile. I saw him once but was reminded of him because I was reading a William Gay article about him. He just put out a record called Agnostic Hymns and Stoner Fables. He's really amazing. I've been listening to that record and watching some stuff online about him. One fixation led to another. William Gay led me to him, which is kind of nice, when you go poking about and something that you like leads you toward something else that you like. I loved Tree of Life. That was probably the last movie I saw in the theatre. It blew my mind.
Why do you live where you do?
[Dartmouth, Nova Scotia] is the world that I know, first and foremost. Comfort, right? Familiarity is really important for me. There's enough bustle here to keep me interested, but I also get to go away. When I return here, the pace of Dartmouth is really great. It's not fast-paced. One really great thing about Dartmouth is its proximity to Halifax, which has a little more bustle to it. Dartmouth feels like a small town right next to a bigger city, and not even that big a city. And frankly, my community of friends. I just know so many people here. It would be tough to leave.
Name something you consider a mind-altering work of art.
The graphic novel Snaps, by Rebecca Kraatz. I'm biased, she's my wife. But that's a really amazing book.
What has been your most memorable or inspirational gig and why?
Springsteen at the Philly Spectrum about two-and-a-half years ago. Two nights in a row ― one night on the floor and the next night in the stands. Me and Pete Elkas went down as well as JC from the Horseshoe and a handful of other people. I'd only ever heard about how good Springsteen's shows were, and it was beyond my expectations. I'm not a church-going man, but there was an element of "People are going to church right now." There was a bit of an education there as far as him out-rocking anyone 30 years his junior.
What have been your career highs and lows?
Opening for Paul McCartney was certainly a career high. But frankly, I feel like my career high has been the ability to put records out on my own terms. I've been really lucky. That's not to say that there haven't been any low points within that ― you have to fight and struggle to maintain the ability to put records out on your own terms. As for a low point… There was a corporate gig we did for Circuit City at a fake casino night at some hotel outside of the Toronto airport. I don't even remember where it was. I just remember that we flew in, went to this faceless hotel, set up in a ballroom and everybody came in for this casino night. All these Circuit City employees gambled, with real or fake money, I don't remember. It doesn't matter, but the crux of it was that we had to keep our volume really, really, really low so not to disturb the good times of this gambling Circuit City party. That was hard. Certain things in rock 'n roll are not supposed to mix.
What's the meanest thing ever said to you before, during or after a gig?
There's a song of mine called "Love This Town." It's about an experience I had in Kelowna, back in the Thrush Hermit days. We played at this club called Flashbacks and this guy came up to me after the show and said, "Hey man, were you in the band?" really enthusiastically. I told him I was. Then he said, "You fucking sucked." The enthusiastically posed question really set us up to knock us down.
What should everyone shut up about?
Jersey Shore. I've never, ever seen the show. I don't know the characters. I don't know anything about it. But I'm fucking tired of hearing about it.
What traits do you most like and most dislike about yourself?
I can jabber on. That can be a double-edged sword. I like to talk. That's why my songs are verbose and that's why conversations like this take a long time. I speak as I'm thinking. I don't think and then speak. That's what I dislike about myself. I speak my thoughts too soon. What do I like about myself? My right profile is nice.
What's your idea of a perfect Sunday?
A 10 a.m. start, a good cup of coffee that I make myself, JJ Cale's Okie on in the background and a nice, crisp, clear day to step outside to in the afternoon.
What advice should you have taken, but did not?
Set up the "Rock & Roll" sign no matter how many people are in the room. The one night Thrush Hermit decided not to set up its "Rock & Roll" sign, it was in Norman, Oklahoma and we played to an empty bar on a Sunday night with five or seven people there. Two of those people were in the Flaming Lips. And we didn't set up our neon "Rock & Roll" sign. I mean, if you'd want to leave an impression on anyone, that's who it would be, but we decided to leave it in the van that night, thinking it would be a crappy gig.
What would make you kick someone out of your band and/or bed, and have you?
Lethal socks. That would probably do it.
What do you think of when you think of Canada?
Joni Mitchell's "A Case of You."
What was the first LP/cassette/CD/eight track you ever bought with your own money?
I don't have a very clear recollection of when allowance started, but I can't help but feel that it was Daryl Hall & John Oates' "Out Of Touch," the 45 of that song.
What was your most memorable day job?
I've only had one. Working at the public archives in Nova Scotia, dubbing all the analogue reel-to-reel holdings for CBC Halifax from the 1950s to 1980 or something. I transferred all the recordings from the Springhill mining disasters. The best part of the whole job was Max Ferguson's Rawhide comedy show. He was this guy from London, Ontario who moved to Halifax and created this character named Rawhide. The show played country music, and he was a classical music guy so he basically made up a country and western character to make fun of what he had to play. He developed this character that became more popular than the music that he was playing, and this went on for years and years.
If I wasn't playing music I would be…
I might be teaching.
What do you fear most?
End-of-days kind of stuff, like environmental collapse and nuclear war. That's the kind of shit I'm afraid of. It's not so much for myself; it's a generational thing. What kind of world are kids inheriting?
What makes you want to take it off and get it on?
Environmental collapse and nuclear war.
What has been your strangest celebrity encounter?
I met Bo Diddley in Halifax when he played here. My wife and I went backstage and I got to talk to him for half an hour. That was really cool. Then about four months later I was getting off a plane, coming home from Australia and he was there waiting for his wheelchair. He had been on the plane in first-class the whole time. So two Bo Diddley encounters in under six months, and then he died a few months later. Meeting a guy from the first wave of rock'n'roll is something I never thought I would do.
Who would be your ideal dinner guest, living or dead, and what would you serve them?
Eugene Von Bruenchenhein. I'd serve him chicken so he could use the chicken bones to make his sculptures.
What does your mom wish you were doing instead?
Staying home more, if anything. Being present.
What song would you like to have played at your funeral?
"Love on my Brain" by Jim Ford.