Published May 21, 2009Rock Plaza Central's career to this point couldn't have been better scripted if its driving force Chris Eaton had done it himself. It's about the only thing having to do with the roots rock collective that Eaton hasn't conceptualized since it began taking shape ten years ago in his hometown of Moncton, NB, the city where Rock Plaza Central's roundly ignored first recordings were made. Eaton's expectations weren't much higher when, in 2006, he set about making Are We Not Horses with a new Toronto-based cadre backing him up.
At first distributed in a miniscule first pressing before signing to Outside, the primitive, but often overpoweringly joyful performances on Are We Not Horses soon captured the imagination of indie rock tastemakers and mags from CMJ to Rolling Stone.
What made it all so unexpected was not just the album's dangerously pretentious storyline - dealing with mechanical horses at war with angels - but the fact that the ragtag group of drinking buddies Eaton assembled to make the record managed to draw even a semblance of cohesion from his fantastical songwriting visions.
The sudden attention the album received was a lot to handle, and the pressure to tour led to the amicable departure of a few members. Further complicating matters was Eaton shouldering responsibilities as being band manager, booking agent and creative figurehead. So instead of shifting focus back to his long-gestating third novel - his second, The Grammar Architect, was a "reinterpretation" of a Thomas Hardy work - Eaton remained committed to producing the follow-up to Horses, and leaned on his latest literary obsession in order to do it.
The theme of ...At The Moment Of Our First Needing, or If They Could Turn Around, They Would Know They Weren't Alone borrows liberally from William Faulkner's 1932 novel Light In August, principally about a young Mississippi woman's search for the father of her unborn child. "That book got passed around a lot in the van, to the point where we could all quote passages from it," Eaton says, adding that once there was time to concentrate on writing new material, he and the rest of the band fully embraced the notion of exploring the shared visceral response they had to the story.
"The way the album echoes the book is this core question of whether you're better off just staying at home, rather than chasing after something that could end up destroying your faith in the world," Eaton explains. "The funny thing is, you're not better off doing nothing, because then you don't realize that what you've done is wrong."
After pausing to ensure that that statement came out right, Eaton realized the unintentional parallel it suggests with his own reluctance to tour, something that wasn't diminished when their van flipped near Saskatoon last year. Still, he maintains that coming through it all provided the necessary confidence when the band reconvened at Toronto's Gas Station studio, evidenced by Needing's celebratory opening track, "Oh I Can," which builds to an ecstatic climax that would make the Flaming Lips' Wayne Coyne proud.
But throughout most of Needing, the band sound much heavier than their previous effort, especially closing track "The Hot Blind Earth," which can accurately be called Zeppelinesque through its string part's none-too-subtle nod to "Kashmir." Eaton is at ease explaining the change in musical direction at the heart of Needing, saying it was in part a reflection of the band's road consumption of classic rock radio in between readings of Faulkner.
"I think it's interesting that the last album had a sci-fi theme and sounded folky, whereas this one has a way more folky story but is more rocking," Eaton says. "The classic rock stations in the States are awesome, and don't always play the usual hits. That sort of became our common ground when we couldn't agree on what to play on the iPod. What also made a difference was that when some of the members couldn't keep touring the busier we got, we brought their instruments with us anyway. All of a sudden more of us were playing electric guitar and that eventually started making us sound heavier."
Although Rock Plaza Central is now a legitimate "critic's favourite" in the U.S., Eaton still seems bemused by the reaction people there have toward his work. Adding to this was news that a Contemporary English Literature course at the University of South Alabama planned to compare the themes of Are We Not Horses and Eaton's first novel, The Inactivist, which has already been required reading for other courses at the school.
"I would love to sit in on that class just to see how an album is dissected academically," Eaton says. "But I've already had several lessons in the past two years that you can't necessarily predict while you're making music what kind of audience will hear it. There were a few occasions when we were approached after shows by soldiers who had listened to our album in Afghanistan or Iraq. I immediately wanted to blurt out that they were definitely not the people I thought would be into our record."
Those fans are now eagerly anticipating seeing the current five-piece Rock Plaza Central line-up - rounded out by Blake Howard, Scott Maynard, Don Murray, and Fiona Stewart - hit the road again, and at least now Eaton knows how to prepare for it. "I've reconciled myself to knowing that it's necessary," he says. "We'll probably be doing three weeks on, and a week to two weeks off throughout the summer. It's when you get out there for a month or more that it starts to drive you nuts."
He adds, "I'm a big Survivor fan now. Going on tour has made me understand completely how people can get so crazy and unreasonable with each other just because they're not sleeping or eating properly."
Perhaps Eaton will find time to finish that third novel after all.