Rock Plaza Central

Rock Plaza Central
Ever since Rock Plaza Central’s ingenious 2006 album, Are We Not Horses?, took critics and fans by surprise, Chris Eaton has been difficult to pin down. The schedule of an unlikely indie rock hero and bandleader can be a busy one and Eaton has had his share of days on the road wondering if he’ll ever make it back home to Toronto. A few weeks before Rock Plaza Central are due to head out with Jason Collett on this fall’s Wood, Wires, & Whisky tour, Exclaim! caught up with Eaton for an informal chat about how Rock Plaza Central has affected his other life as a novelist/writer, what it’s been like meeting new fans across North America and how work on the band’s new album is shaping up.

What’s new, Chris?
[Laughs] That’s so open-ended!

Yes, yes it is.
Well, we’re playing a lot but I don’t think that’s new anymore. We’re doing a little trip to the states to play the Monolith Festival and it’s going to be neat to play in such a, I don’t know if famous is the right word but maybe "legendary” venue. Do you know Red Rocks?

Yes, of course! Where many people have made great live albums.
Yeah, I’ve never been before but it looks gorgeous.

It’s in Colorado?
Yeah and I’m looking forward to just going and hanging out. Normally we go to festivals and unless it’s something like Hillside or Regina or one of those ones where they want you there all weekend for workshops and stuff, you do your show and then you’re gone. Whereas with this one, we decided to stay. We’re going to play the show, stay the extra day and then keep touring after that, which is going to be nice and relaxing.

All of this is remarkable because it seems like only yesterday that… when did Are We Not Horses? come out again, two years ago?
Well, we self-released it two years ago, yeah.

Right, and now it has mass appeal and you’re travelling the world.
[Laughs] Well, we haven’t actually been to Europe yet. We keep making plans to go and then something comes up. We were going to go in July with some friends of ours called Frightened Rabbit and then they were like, "Oh, we have to do this…” and we said, "Well, we actually want to record anyway,” so we all decided to put it off until later. Do you know those guys at all?

I know I’ve heard the name.
They’re a band on the rise for sure; they’re gonna be something huge. They’ve never toured Europe but they’re from Scotland and have come over to North America several times over the past four, five months but still haven’t gone across the channel to Europe, which is really strange. So, we’re planning on doing something with them on their first trip. We’ve been going around North America a bunch of times. It’s fun. It wears on you, that’s for sure.

Is it all that it’s cracked up to be? You were in a position where the band were very obscure and the next thing you know you’re working really hard and touring. What’s that been like for you and your work as a writer?
The writing is a funny thing because I write best with routine. I have to write at the same times every day so I always joke that I wish I could get a good rut going. That’s easier for me. I tried for a little bit to get the laptop out and write every day, like in the van or when we get to the venue, but it’s pretty much impossible. I probably wrote a little bit on the last tour but it’s hard to see the screen in the van. Luckily I don’t get motion sickness. But, yeah, touring is one of the most exhausting things. You wouldn’t think that just sitting there for five hours would be so debilitating but it really does wear on you so much that by the time you get to the venue you’re like, "Ohh, I just gotta sit over here for a little bit.”

I’m aware of the media mania that greeted Rock Plaza Central and the last album. How are new fans reacting?
It’s been really interesting. Certainly the first time you go out anywhere you’re expecting nobody to show up [laughs]. "How could anybody in Tucson, Arizona know who we are?” We have pockets where we do better than others but there’s always some group of people who are like, "Oh, wow, your record changed my life,” or something. There’s something thematically within the record that seems to have reached people in a way that I wasn’t entirely expecting. So, it’s really nice when people come and say, "This got me through my depression.” The number of American military soldiers I’ve talked to who’ve said… I think we were playing in Dallas and this guy came from the base that was two or three hours away. He got off the base just for the night just to see us and he said that he went over to Iraq with two CDs and one of them was ours and the other was the Pixies’ greatest hits, and that was what got him through it. That kind of stuff just blows your mind. Two years ago I would assume I was writing songs for myself, in that they’re fun things to do. That what is going through my head could then connect with someone else is great.

Looking at it as objectively as possible is there something in it that you can see soldiers tapping into? Do you understand why it’s resonating with them?
Well, the theme of the album is really about people who feel outside of the in-crowd or what’s going on. Everybody feels like that at some point — not being sure where you fit into the world some times. The lyrics are open enough that I don’t think it’s anything specific and people can go, "That’s what I feel like.” When I think of this military guy I think of "Anthem for the Already Defeated.” That could easily be about the futility of going over and fighting a war or the stubborn strong-headedness of… The rest of the world’s been saying it was a mistake for the U.S. to go over there in the first place but they’ve been like, "No, we have to keep going.” You’ve already lost the battle then. You’re not achieving what you set out to achieve in the first place.

In a sense then the whole exercise is one populated by outcasts.
Yeah, for sure. Anybody who’s in the military is not somebody who was the most popular guy in school and is now like, "I want to go fight for my country.” That was more so the case in WWII especially. My grandfather went and volunteered for that war because his father didn’t fight in the first one and he felt, "That was wrong. We should be standing up for these beliefs.” Whereas now there are so many immigrants in the American military that aren’t citizens yet. They won’t let them be citizens but they’ll let them be in the army, y’know?

Well there’s that same analysis of African-American involvement in wars abroad without rights at home. You’re right, they claim to send the "best and brightest” but it’s often the least wanted whom go and serve.
Well, yeah, and they could be the best and brightest but it’s hard for them and they go over there because they don’t fit in more than they’re fighting for their country. Certainly the people we’ve talked to on these tours are not very fond of the current government, that’s for sure.

It’s interesting that they’ve found open space because, as I recall, Are We Not Horses? seems to have a narrative arc. Now you’re saying that it’s open enough where it could be about anything?
Well, no, I’ve always thought it was pretty open and people come up with their own narrative arcs for sure. Again, people you talk to at shows or who send emails will say, "This is what it’s about for me” and it’s like, "Oh, this is interesting.” I had to stop talking about it in interviews because I started off by saying what I thought was going on and then I realized it wasn’t nearly as interesting as what other people were coming up with. That’s what I’ve always done with my fiction too: to try and write things so that when people read it they piece things together on their own in different ways. That’s kind of exciting. It’s like kinetic and potential energy, where kinetic energy is going in a specific direction and potential energy is this thing that could go off anywhere. I think I write potential fiction instead of kinetic fiction, which I think a lot of people write. They have something in mind they want people to take away from it, where I just want people to take something away from it. So, there was a specific story about robotic horses who think they’re real horses but it’s non-specific in that it doesn’t exist. Metaphorically I think anybody can really latch onto that. It’s kinda messed up really. In my mind, I never would have thought it would reach people like that. I was thinking of it as a metaphor for myself.

I know you’ve been busy touring a lot. Are you working on your fiction at all?
No. I don’t really get a chance but it’s all right. I just like making stuff and the music is keeping me busy right now. I’m probably two-thirds of the way through a book, which is exactly where I was two years ago [laughs] and I’ll get to finish it some time. We’re doing the Exclaim! tour in October/November but we won’t be going out again for four or five months after that, I think. Whenever the record’s ready; I’m not sure when that will be.

So you’re devoting more time to writing music then?
Yeah, which has happened in a totally different way than in the past, where songs were written as they came and then thrown into shows. This process, because it’s hard to find free time to come up with new things, we went into the studio and hit "record” and we’ve been writing them as we go along. I’m not even sure exactly of the material we have so far what is a finished song for a CD, what’s something that’ll be scrapped and what’s an idea that we’ll probably re-record again anyway. I find it quite exciting really.

Is this a matter of circumstance where you have the resources and can afford to do this now?
No, not at all [laughs].

You’re just doing it to see what happens?
Yeah and it’s the only way we could get together. Maybe it’ll end up being a mistake, maybe we’ll end up spending way too much money. We’re not rolling in dough but there’s a part of me that doesn’t want to think about it. Every record we’ve done in the past we’ve gone in and done it in two or three days and part of that was due to monetary worries and that was also how we were working at the time. We still work that way and we may end up keeping everything. I still believe that the take on the record is just a take, a version of the song, not the version. We don’t tend to play them the same way every time. But there are certain things I want to achieve that I can’t exactly explain to myself even yet. There are certain songs where I’ve thought, "I know this is a great take and I like it the way it is but there was something that I kinda had in my head that wasn’t quite there that time.” So maybe I’m going towards a more definitive version of a song or something. I don’t know how to explain it but I’m willing to spend a couple extra days and try and dig outta debt later.

You’re recording at the Gas Station with Dale Morningstar again? Ah, he’s like an extra member. He gets it, I think, and he’s really easy to work with and he’s close. I think he’s really great at capturing sounds and mixing and he’s got this really neat thing that he’s been doing with, well, I shouldn’t give away his secrets.

He’s been recording the drums in these very interesting ways that I never would have thought of and so they sound really cool. I think it was something he was saving for us too. I’ll explain it more when the album comes out.

What about this new album? Where do you see it fitting in with people’s expectations of the band?
That’s a tough one because every song’s a little bit different. I think the moments that rock, rock harder. I’ve certainly started playing electric guitar more in the last year-and-a-half. It’s more difficult to work with acoustic instruments with different sound people, I find, so we’ve had that more often. And lately I’ve been playing more banjo live and on the new songs. I feel like it’s going into an Astral Weeks region. There’s a neat kind of rambling, largely improvised, galloping loop of music where everything’s going in and out, and Van Morrison just does his thing over top. There are certainly a couple of songs that we’ve been working on where the vocal or lyric part of it isn’t necessarily a melody from a pop song, it’s just another instrument. It’s really nice and I’m really excited about what we’ve done so far. There are some other things that are poppier and there’s one with a drum machine, which I think annoyed Blake [Howard]. He wasn’t there for it and I really needed a beat. It’s the worst, most boring beat ever but for some reason it really fits the song.

What’s the current state of the band’s membership?
Well, Rob Carson, who played banjo, electric guitar, and trombone, got a job teaching at a university in New York. That’s certainly made things difficult and he’s effectively not really with us anymore. He’s still welcome back, of course. There’s this guy we met in New York State and we asked him to play a couple of shows with us and he’s really great and fun to be around. So, I wouldn’t be surprised if we see more of him in the future.

You’re not saying his name.
Oh, I can give you his name, sure. It’s Louis Apicello. I don’t really know how you’d describe his role but every so often we meet someone and say, "Anytime you want to come and play…” He’s one of those kindred spirits [laughs].

What are your thoughts about this upcoming Exclaim! tour with Jason Collett? Is it something special?
I think so. We’ve been headlining a lot of tours and I find that when you do that you’ve got your fan base and they tell their friends about you the next time you come to town and things build that way. There’s an opportunity to reach a whole new crowd of people by opening this tour for Jason, in that they’re quite likely people who’ve never heard of us, let alone tried us out. I think it will be really great for us that way. One of the big things I really like about it is that it’s broken down into nice, digestible chunks. As I was saying earlier, touring isn’t my favourite thing to do. I like playing for people and different people and I love playing for people who’ve never heard us before. Then it’s this whole new discovery and you get to work in a different way. It’s wonderful to do a show when people know all the words and sing along but there’s also something really special about going into a room full of people who couldn’t care less and somehow winning them over. It’s a challenge that I really love.

Is there any other Rock Plaza Central news you’d like to share?
There is one song that I really want to release this fall.

This fall?
Yeah, I’ve already started working on a video for it. It’s probably the dumbest marketing idea ever.

Is it a politically motivated song?
It is, so it kind of makes sense to have it out now. It’s a non-partisan, politically motivated song.

About the American or Canadian election?
Either. It’s not specific at all. It could be about the election or not. It’s something that’s pretty open where it could be about the election or not, so I want to make a video that is election-based.

Can you tell me the name of the song?
Uhhh… the song is… I’m not even sure what the best idea is for this sort of thing, if I should just wait and unleash it on the world later. Maybe I’ll do that.

Okay, well thus far you’ve told me that it’s a non-partisan, politically-based music video of some kind based around a composition you’ve written but that’s all you’re going to say?
Yeah, you should forget I told you any of this.