Published Aug 23, 2009"I'm still sweatin' here," says Two Hours Traffic guitarist Alec O'Hanley, having just returned from a morning tennis match. "I've got a 12 pack of Corona sitting in my fridge, just waiting to get to the beach."
O'Hanley's laidback lifestyle is a strong argument for why he and his band-mates - singer Liam Corcoran, bass player Andrew MacDonald and drummer Derek Ellis, each of whom will turn 25 by the end of the year - have chosen to remain in their hometown, Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island. But as the best thing to come out of P.E.I. since Confederation, the quartet's refusal to leave could become a liability to their careers. "We are at a slight disadvantage," he concedes. "There aren't a whole lot studios of the calibre we're looking for around here. We have to make the trek to Halifax every time we want to cut a record."
Their most recent journey south yielded Territory, a more mature, but no less fun follow-up to the band's Polaris Prize-nominated sophomore album Little Jabs. "Little Jabs was characterized as a summery pop album," says O'Hanley. "Territory is less naively sweet."
Speaking on the phone on his day off from what band-mate O'Hanley quips is "the pants division" of Marks Work Warehouse, Corcoran explains that the band chose darker lyrical themes than on previous outings. Songs like "Noisemaker" and the title track are continuations of the sound established on Little Jabs but Territory delves into weightier topics like the downside of relationships and alcohol, embracing your dark side and the grey areas of spiritual belief. "We didn't really feel comfortable singing about those things until now," says the singer. "We had to explore some other topics because it just wouldn't be interesting if we came out again and it was all upbeat and happy."
"There is some material on there that's a little bit moodier and darker," agrees Joel Plaskett. Over the course of Two Hours Traffic's short career, the Dartmouth, Nova Scotia-based musician has become a mentor to the band and produced each of their three albums. "The guys wanted more ambience," he says. "It has a different energy than the last record."
Even with the success of Little Jabs, O'Hanley maintains the band felt no more pressure than any other group looking to capitalize on the success of their last album. "More than trying to make any drastic departure, we were just trying to refine our sound and experiment a little."
Frustration would be a better word says Corcoran, particularly when things in the studio didn't run according to plan. "There were a few days that were pretty tense. We felt every song had to be killer really. We only put 11 or 12 songs on a record. We try to make every song consistent in its own way. If anything is going wrong, we start to feel pressure pretty hard."
Three-quarters of Two Hours Traffic's members are songwriters, but competition for space on a given record is non-existent. O'Hanley, Corcoran or MacDonald will bring song fragments or bare bones arrangements to the group and bounce ideas off one another. "It's a collaboration for sure," says O'Hanley. His songs tend to have more fully formed rhythms while Corcoran's are more acoustic driven. MacDonald's, he says, tend to find a happy medium.
"They're obviously a democracy," agrees Plaskett. "They're writing songs together, but they're sung by one voice so there's a consistency there." Plaskett says Corcoran's vocals are what originally drew him into the music. "He's got a really natural voice. He sounds older than he is."
O'Hanley and Corcoran credit Territory's expanded sound to the opportunity to record demos and tracked about 14 songs at O'Hanley's parents' house in suburban Charlottetown. "We'd never had the time or money to do that sort of thing before," says Corcoran. "It resulted in a much better finished product."
Plaskett was then brought in to listen to the demos. "We like having an outside perspective," says Corcoran. "It's hard to tell sometimes when you've written them yourself. He kind of gives us an idea of what he thinks the best songs are and then we come to a compromise on what songs we're actually going to record."
Plaskett says that his job as producer is to hide a band's weaknesses so that their strengths become apparent. "I would challenge the parts of the songs or the arrangements that I didn't think were working," he says. "When I started working with them, they were a younger band. They were really green in the studio. I kind of directed things with a certain degree of authority and they were like, 'Cool, yeah.' As the nature of the dialogue would change I would suggest certain things and they would reject them."
Though named after a line from Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, the nucleus for Two Hours Traffic was actually formed in O'Hanley and Corcoran's Grade 11 biology class.
"It was Weezer that we bonded over in the beginning as far as musical tastes," Corcoran remembers. "Like The Blue Album. We were big Radiohead fans, as most people are, or were at some point. We listened to a lot of Beck back in those days." The pair began playing as an acoustic duo soon after.
"He had written some songs and I'd written a few and we just started playing each other's songs," says Corcoran. "He could sing pretty well and I could sing, so we would start doing harmonies and writing lead parts for each other's songs. It just went from there."
They recorded some songs, burned some discs and handed them out to friends before the two headed off to the University of Prince Edward Island to study chemistry. "When we got to university we decided we wanted to be a little more of a rock band and we got Derek to play drums and Andy became our bass player and that's been the line-up ever since."
They managed to pass along a copy of their six-song April Storm EP to Plaskett at a show in Charlottetown. Liking what he heard, Plaskett agreed to record a full-length album with the young band.
"There was about three songs on that first EP that really caught my ear," he says. "They really reminded me of the stuff I loved about the Lemonheads. And when I met them I said 'You guys really remind me of the Lemonheads,' and they were like, 'We've never heard of that band.'"
"He used to say the Lemonheads, Big Star and Hüsker Dü," recalls Corcoran. "It's kind of cool when someone says you sound like someone and you obviously didn't rip them off because you've never heard of them before."
Plaskett's continued presence as both a producer and mentor is fitting; both he and band have chosen lifestyle over career, firmly putting down roots in their home provinces rather than gravitating to a larger urban centre like Montreal or Toronto.
"In the beginning we were in awe," recalls Corcoran. "We were big fans of his and there was a bit of a gap there. But we've gotten to be really good friends. He invites us out with his friends when we're in the same town. There's no divide there at all. The stronger that the personal relationship got, it just made it easier for everyone to speak their minds in a studio setting. The better you know someone, you don't feel afraid of stepping on their toes. It results in a better recording in the end when everyone can just be honest with each other."
Corcoran concedes that "it will never feel normal to be considered on the same level." But Plaskett is prepared for what he sees as an eventuality. "Our aesthetics are similar, we come from the same part of the world... we made good records," he says. "If they blew up and completely eclipsed what I do, I kind of expect that. Bring it on."
Of course working with an established artist like Plaskett can create as many problems as it solves. It lends immediate credibility, but it also raises accusations of coattail riding and questions about just how hands-on the producer is in the studio.
Plaskett describes the relationship as more symbiotic. "Their association with me has helped them, but I also feel like I've gained a lot through working with them." He says it's similar to the one his old band Thrush Hermit had with Sloan. Back in the mid-'90s the Haligonian four-piece took Plaskett and his band-mates on tour with them, released Thrush Hermit's early albums through their own murderrecords label and passed along whatever advice they could offer. "It helped us in so many ways, but at the same time there was a point at which we really needed to exercise our own thing. It took us a while to find what Thrush Hermit was all about that was different from what everybody else was doing." He thinks Two Hours Traffic are already at this point. "The brass tacks of what they do were there [from the beginning]. They know where they're going. It's just a matter of helping them get there."
I really love that band," he says. "They make no bones about being a pop band. There's an earnestness that I think people connect with."
True to their Atlantic Canadian roots, both O'Hanley and Corcoran come off as extremely modest guys. But if there's one trait both have in excess, it's hometown pride. "The sheer musical talent that we've got here," gushes O'Hanley. "We're 35,000 people."
"If we had to move, it would be for business reasons. If we had the choice, I'd think we were going to stick around here," says Corcoran.
The band did give Toronto a go in 2006, when all four members left their native island. "I think it was a really necessary step that we had to make," says Corcoran. "We were done university and we had to decide if we were going to carry on with this thing for real. We didn't have a manager or anything like that. We weren't on a label. We needed someone to push us into the industry and to teach us how to promote ourselves."
They quickly found themselves playing a new music night at the Horseshoe Tavern, where Larry Wanagas, who helped launch k.d. lang's career, caught their set. They soon signed a management deal with Wanagas who would release their records through his label Bumstead Records. Armed with both a label and management, the band decided to return home. "A lot of things were up in the air," Corcoran remembers. "The label would have been happier if we stayed in Toronto, because when you're a young band in a big city opportunities can come up, like opening slots. And Larry would rather we be in Ontario. But he understood that we wanted to be at home and he was willing to work with that.
"You hear from people who can't wait to get out of their hometown and move to a bigger city. But I guess we just never felt like that. We've always enjoyed being from Charlottetown. We're part of the community here." O'Hanley agrees. "It's really nice to be with such a strong community and so many people that just breathe music. To be able to surround yourself with people like that is a rare blessing."
More than the rest of his band-mates, O'Hanley speaks like a career musician. He's the only member without a day job. Instead he lends his guitar skills to Charlottetown group the Danks along with MacDonald, and co-founded Collagen Rock Records, releasing albums from local Charlottetown bands like Smothered in Hugs as well as Halifax group Mardeen. He's also taking a page from Plaskett and is producing the new Boxer the Horse record. "I'm just another guy to bounce ideas off of," he says modestly. "I think I've spent enough time ripping apart pop songs that when I hear a tune that could benefit from some pop psychology, that I can jump in on it. It's not like what I'm doing is overly complex. But it's lots of fun."
Curiously, the day before I first speak with O'Hanley, he gave notice to his landlord that he was moving out. "There were people looking at my place last night. I was reading a book on the couch and they were poking through my closet." O'Hanley has to be out of the apartment by September 1. After the band returns from their cross-Canada fall tour, he'll make the move to Halifax. "I've still got to tell the guys about that."