Joel Plaskett and Peter Elkas Brothers In Arms

Joel Plaskett and Peter Elkas Brothers In Arms
On one hand, there's Halifax rocker Joel Plaskett, one of the few survivors of the early '90s Halifax explosion who translated the popularity of his band Thrush Hermit into a successful solo career. His new album, Ashtray Rock, is an epic concept record that chronicles the journey of high school friends who form a band in the Halifax suburb of Clayton Park, where Thrush Hermit was born. Ashtray Rock is also a real place (not a genre) - a prototypical backwoods hangout where so many formative experiences occur (first kisses, first tokes, first fistfights and forever friendships); it's a universal spot for any bored high schooler with an after-school destination and too much time.

On the other hand, there's Peter Elkas, ex-Montrealer, ex-Local Rabbit and emerging singer-songwriter who bares his heart on his first full-length album, Wall of Fire. It's a soulful, romantic flipside to Plaskett's more raging party-starter, but there are many deep connections between these two long-time friends.

They shared a label then (murderecords) and now (Maple Music); they both got their first "break" through the generosity of Halifax band and murderecords founders Sloan. They've toured together with their old bands, as solo artists, and now bring their full outfits on the road for a national tour. (Elkas will join Plaskett's band the Emergency on stage as well.)

They first bonded, as teenagers opening for Sloan, over a mutual admiration for Bruce Springsteen, another artist who's balanced band and solo impulses and who likes epic, sweeping statements. So we got Elkas and Plaskett together for a photo shoot designed to reference (but not copy) Springsteen's classic Born to Run, and asked them to interview each other.


Keast: The second I heard both records, I thought "we have to put them on the cover together, and the link between them is that Pete's record is personal and introspective, like Darkness on the Edge of Town and Joel's record is a concept-oriented rocker, like Born to Run." Does that ring true for either of you?
Plaskett: Actually, I think of our two new records as Born in the U.S.A. and Tunnel of Love.
Elkas: I think that's more accurate.
Plaskett: Yours is more Tunnel of Love for sure. It's super-romantic.
Elkas: Springsteen is romantic in the sense of bromance, which is what we have.
Plaskett: My new record is about that. It's about the friendship of two friends playing music together, which is a very Springsteen kinda thing.
Elkas: Bruce explored the bromance thing quite early, before ever getting around to man and woman.
Plaskett: What I've been loving about your new record, Pete, is hearing the focus. It is a shift from the schizophrenia of wanting to try a bunch of different things, finding your feet in the studio and writing different kinds of songs. I've always tried to have themes on the record, but it isn't even until this record that the theme and all the little bells and whistles and the songs all slotted into place for me. There's what you're trying to do conceptually, what you're trying to do as a writer, and what you're trying to present as a sound. Often, I only get close to two out of three.
Elkas: This record is kind of a culmination of all the stuff you've ever tried in your solo career.
Plaskett: I was trying to marry the acoustic guitar and the rock band, for sure. I wanted to bring the two worlds together. I've done so many gigs solo in the past couple of years after [2005's acoustic album] La Di Da, and a lot of band gigs, but I don't want them to feel like totally separate worlds. But deeper than that, I wanted to actually have a record that referred to my entire catalogue, as far back as the Hermit - this record is as much about growing up, playing music with my friends [and Thrush Hermit band-mates] Ian [McGettigan] and Rob [Benvie]. It's not entirely about them, but it certainly references that time. They're going to hear a lot of inside jokes that we had together, a lot of it harkening back to when we were kids. There's a nostalgia to it, but I wanted to bring it into my updated context. Not make it sound like an old record that I did, but actually pull some of the same strings that I would have back in that old band.
Elkas: Where the songs specifically come from, and at what point did you decide to make it a concept record?
Plaskett: There's one I wrote in 1992. There's another from '94. There are three songs that date back to the Hermit - that's why it feels nostalgic for me to even sing some of these songs. A handful of them are new, and a handful of them are things that have been hanging about for a few years. What was weird was when I thought, "I want to make this concept record," I had basically the central song: "Soundtrack For the Night," the last song on the record. I thought "here's the story that I want to flesh out, and I've got these other tunes that kinda link into it" but I couldn't see the whole picture. I was talking to [Big Sugar guitarist] Gordie Johnson, who produced it, and I've got this song "Drunk Teenagers," which goes back a few years - that would be a good way to start a record. I've got a beginning and an end, and I've got these other snippets and songs. When I'm singing these songs to him, I realised how many lyrical through-lines there were, through some of my old stuff from Thrush Hermit, because I'm constantly referring to my own phrases, recycling stuff. He was like "oh, that fits there!" There was a collaborative effort in terms of the structure.
Elkas: There's a marriage of stuff going on. Marrying your rockin' side with your acoustic side - would you say that one is basketball and one is swimming?
Plaskett: I hadn't thought of that, but that's wicked!
Elkas: Because the record starts with this soundtrack of people playing basketball and then the sounds of a swimming pool. Can you explain what that's about?
Plaskett: In junior high there was a guy who ran for school president on the platform that he was going to build a pool beneath the floor of the school gym. He was awesome - his yearbook caption said "keep metal strong." I just remembered that, and I wrote this little tag song at the end. So yeah, basketball and swimming.
Elkas: So which is basketball and which is swimming?
Plaskett: Rock'n'roll is basketball and solo is swimming - because you do one by yourself and one on a team. Would you say on your record, you were trying to do a similar thing? Your band sounds slamming on it, and it's a big part of it. It sounds like a group effort - [with] two drum sets on a lot of it, it almost sounds like an extended band. I hear you, in terms of your thing, but there's some pretty heavy playing on it.
Elkas: Absolutely. We did half of it in Toronto and half of it in Austin with [producer] Charlie Sexton working on it, and I left Toronto with pretty much finished bed tracks. Because it's so off the floor, a lot of the music was already there before we started doing overdubs, and I thought, "wow, I've barely played on my own album." I think I've been searching for that since the Rabbits broke up, to have the camaraderie and the group thing, because frankly that's why I started playing in a band in the first place. I was in the Local Rabbits and didn't play any instruments yet - it was good enough to be in the band and play harmonica and bongos on the street. I've actually come full circle now, just playing harmonica and bongos on this tour.
Plaskett: I find the balance between the two to be a real challenge. Anyone who works with me knows the degree of control I want to retain over everything I do. I certainly try to take advice from people and listen, but I also really try to keep my hands on the whole thing. But I love the camaraderie of playing and I know that there are so many things that I get from my band. You have to strike a balance in your life where you want to be social and collaborative, and the times when you want to make a definitive statement on your own.


Buying Locally, Touring Globally
Sloan was a huge influence on both Thrush Hermit and the Local Rabbits; Plaskett and Elkas met as teenagers in Montreal when Thrush Hermit was on tour with Sloan, and the Local Rabbits opened the gig. Sloan's dedication to supporting local talent gave both bands important early breaks and informed their approach later.
Plaskett: We were on our first tour with Sloan, that Montreal gig, and you guys showed up. It was like seeing a reflection. There were three of you and it was really the three of us. Cliff [Gibb] was playing drums, but he was older - he was hanging with Sloan, he was friends with Patrick Pentland; Ian, Rob and I were all 18, the Rabbits were 17. We didn't say it, but looking back on it, that's why we connected. We've have had such a long-standing friendship - I have such a love of the Rabbits, and such respect for Pete as a musician, it was great that we got to the point that we can play together. I feel flattered that you'll come out and play with the band; it certainly makes what I do stronger when we're together.

Plaskett has continued the extended family theme by supporting rising Maritime bands like Two Hours Traffic from Prince Edward Island; this interview takes place in a Toronto studio where Plaskett is producing their new album. The moment we arrive, Plaskett enthusiastically grabs Elkas to "car test" a just-completed mix. For an old-school rocker like Plaskett, the car stereo test - how good it sounds loud, on the highway - is crucial, so they head to the parking lot before we talk.

Elkas: I can tell from hearing the new record and just briefly hearing the stuff you're working on with Two Hours Traffic, your producer chops have gone up.
Plaskett: I'm starting to pay more attention to how records are made. Ian [McGettigan] was always the guy who did that in Thrush Hermit. I was worried about tracking songs or what the guitar part was going to be; Ian was like "what about this compressor?" I still don't have a massive interest in all that stuff; for me it's an arrangement thing, hearing what devices work in the studio for maximum impact, and also realising that there's really no right or wrong way. You just have to do what feels right.
Elkas: I really felt like that, going in to make this record. This is where I think our records really differ. All I could do was rehearse the band as much as possible and get as tight as we could, and start rocking. We set up off the floor and [Charlie Sexton] said "okay, play." We played "Wall of Fire," which was the tightest song that we had, and he came in and said "you guys sound killer." From there, he set up his satellite [drum] kit and it grew bigger and bigger ¡X he wound up playing second drums on every track. It became this real good times vibe, but more and more out of my hands. Also, all the players in the band are accomplished guys in their own right and also not making much money, so they've got to be able to put their fingerprints on this thing. But allowing them the space to breath and trusting them to do their thing really gave me a kick-ass record, but it could've blown up in my face. I just lucked out on that.
Keast: As artists, do you think that there's a responsibility to help out younger bands, as you may have been helped in your early career?
Plaskett: I'm doing this stuff with Two Hours Traffic, who are from P.E.I., because I've taken an interest in these guys. I've hired Ian [McGettigan] to come in and help with mixes, because he's got another set of ears that I trust, that I go back with. I'm not necessarily branching it out into a community of people that I don't know, but I'm trying to keep the community of people that I value, like Pete and Ian and my band. It's partly because I want that feeling of camaraderie. It's as much of a selfish endeavour as an outward one, frankly. Even producing stuff - for me, it's a focus away from my own music, which I need. It gives me chops that I can bring back to my own music. I love working with another band, because I can hear someone else's songs. Certainly, working with Two Hours Traffic, I love their songs and it's affected the way I write in subconscious ways.


The Romantic and the Clown
For all their commonalities, Peter Elkas and Joel Plaskett speak with very different musical and lyrical voices. Where Pete is introspective, Joel brings the party; when Pete is open hearted and vulnerable, Joel takes the piss. It's a dichotomy that plays out very clearly on their new albums.
Elkas: There's a quirkiness that's popped up, and it's like you're embracing it. There's a hilarious vibe to [Ashtray Rock].
Plaskett: You're an outward romantic, unabashedly lovey-dovey. It's soul - you're going to a place that's really classic soulfulness. You're putting yourself out there, something that not everyone is going to think is cool. I think it's cool. I love it. For me, as I'm getting older, I'm taking music less seriously and more seriously at the same time. And I think my sense of humour is getting stupider as I get older. When we go on tour, every day we're just laughing. I want that to come across in music. If I'm having a good time, I don't want to feel like I have to curb my sense of humour for someone who's not going to think it's cool. I put doo-wop songs on this record, man. After the mix was done, I was sweating, going "oh shit, I'm gonna catch a lot of flack for this." But I was like "I love Billy Joel's Glass Houses! Fuck that!" It was cooler to put that on - the idea was I wanted, like, Bowser [from '60s doo-wop band Sha Na Na] on one song. I might get called on that. Certainly not everyone is going to think that's cool. It's pretty goofy and probably really nerdy, but Neil Young did it!
Elkas: Yeah, Neil had the Shocking Pinks. You can reassure yourself by looking at guys like Neil who always try something different and have great careers.
Plaskett: The other thing is I just find the music business to be fucking ridiculous, and a lot of the time, immensely overdramatic. I love a nice sweeping statement - I love the Smiths as much as the next guy - but there's a lot of humour in the Smiths. There's so much that seems overwrought right now. Even in a lot of modern pop-punk stuff - everything's so amped and there's so element of glitz to the thing that shimmies the wrong way. I'm constantly searching for something that feels like you have some understanding of the individual outside of an outward image: "I'm hard," or "I'm dramatic" or whatever. Why don't you show us when you're laughing? You get a sense of people when they're sad on record, but you don't often get the sense of someone being goofy, but in the context of their other moods. What I like on your record is that I hear a focussed version of the Pete I know.
Elkas: I'm really happy with it being a calling card kind of a record. I'm pretty excited about everything right now. I think touring with you is the perfect way to begin.