Thrush Hermit Remember 'Clayton Park' 25 Years Later: "We Kind of Just Let It Rip"

Joel Plaskett and Rob Benvie reflect on breaking up, feeling validating by negative reviews, and inspiring bloggers

Photo: Carrie Musgrave

BY Ian GormelyPublished Feb 23, 2024

In 1999, Thrush Hermit were newly freed from a major label deal with Elektra and eager to let loose in the studio. Their second (and final) album, the surban rock masterpiece Clayton Park, saw the Haligonian quartet — singer-guitarist-songwriters Joel Plaskett and Rob Benvie, bassist Ian McGettigan and drummer Cliff Gibb — leaning into their well-honed live chops.

The record also proved to be the band's swan song, even though that wasn't how it was planned; Thrush Hermit split up at the end of 1999, though its members, particularly Plaskett who went onto a successful solo career, would continue to play pivotal roles in Canadian music for many years to come.

"There's something about it," he tells Exclaim!, trying to articulate its lasting appeal. "The title, the idea of it being a representation of us at the age we were at, and also the musical community and the suburbs we'd grown up in, and that time in the '90s, the mix of influences and stuff that we were under." Or as Benvie puts it in a separate interview, "We kind of just let it rip."

With Clayton Park turning 25 on Friday (February 23), and the album being made available on cassette for the first time ever by Toronto tape label Spirit of Analog, we spoke with Plaskett and Benvie about the "joy" of "one of the most positive recording experiences I have ever had."

What thoughts immediately come to mind when you think back on Clayton Park?

Plaskett: I think of that record really fondly. It was our last record, but also it was a really collaborative record. All of our records were, but that one was an interesting product of having played so much, doing so much touring. I liked the title of the record. We meant it not ironically, exactly — in my head, it was like Greetings from Asbury Park, New Jersey. There's something about it: the title, the idea of it being a representation of us at the age we were at, and also the musical community and the suburbs we'd grown up in, and that time in the '90s, the mix of influences and stuff that we were under. We did a lot of touring leading up to it and did a lot of touring on the other side of it. We had a really good time making the record because we were left to our own devices. Finally, we're starting to figure out how to actually self-produce.

Benvie: Making that record, at the old Gas Station [recording studio] in Toronto, with Dale Morningstar was a really fun and free experience. Thrush Hermit went through several distinct phases in its 10 years or so together, and that was a really distinct phase. We had kind of gotten out of the doldrums of being on an American major label and had spent a considerable bunch of time touring the States, somewhat unrewardingly. We were working really hard and fell into some contractual crud that tied our hands for a while. Then, suddenly, we were pretty free to do whatever we wanted. In the meantime, we had been just playing together a lot. We were a band that got together every single day and worked on songs and built our own little studio setup at home. Suddenly, we were free to do whatever we wanted to. We decided to relocate to Toronto for a month, found a great setup at the studio, and a great dude to run the show with Dale Morningstar, and we kind of just let it rip. We had absolute freedom to make it however we wanted, but also a pretty clear vision of what it was going to be. But enough undecidedness that it was a creative experience as well as a tactical experience. The actual making of the record was mostly a joy — one of the most positive recording experiences I have ever had.

You were paying to record at the Gas Station out of pocket, with no label waiting in the wings. Was there ever any fear that there would be no one that wanted this thing that you were creating?

Benvie: That was certainly a possibility. We had been so focused on trying to get something going in the United States and nothing really caught on. As a result, we neglected things back in Canada a bit. Part of our strategy, if we had any at all, was: 'Let's do some more things closer to home and not overlook the good stuff that we have going on in Canada.' That meant reconnecting with people we knew — some labels in Halifax, but also Sonic Unyon, who were having a really good streak at that time and we were friends with them. There was a concern that maybe we'd end up releasing this record ourselves, which wouldn't be the end of the world. But we weren't too motivated to do that. We weren't really a band that wanted to sit around thinking about marketing. Like many bands, we were sort of in that strange zone where we weren't obscure enough to be fully underground, but we weren't slick enough to be on Big Shiny Tunes. So being on a mid-sized label like Sonic Unyon really made sense. I think they were the first people we played the album for once it was finished, and they were psyched about it.

Plaskett: I don't know that there was fear. But I can remember the feeling of knowing that there was a sort of uncertainty about things. Cliff said that he was leaving right on the heels of finishing the record. I think he wanted to get off the road. But it wasn't a bad uncertainty. I think we knew we were making good music. Maybe an uncertainty as to who or what it was for, other than ourselves. Rob's kind of classic rock averse, even though he loves a lot of it. I don't want to speak for him, but I sense that he doesn't want something to feel like it's just a nostalgia trip, or too much of a throwback. And there's something I learned from working with Ian and Rob was that we always wanted to juxtapose. If we're going to nod to something classic, there was a tongue in cheek or an irony, as well as a genuine love for that.

One of the narratives for this record is that it's where Joel really came into his own as a songwriter — he wrote eight of the album's 11 songs, whereas previously songwriting was more evenly divided between him and Rob. Was there any competition or jealousy of each other?

Benvie: I mean, friendly competition. Joel and I have been friends ever since we were 12. For years, we had a really strong bond of both wanting to be songwriters, and sharing music and demos and bouncing them back and forth. [The division of songwriting] got a little unequal just because Joel is an extremely gifted guy and a great songwriter. He had a very strong vision from the early days of what he wanted to do and what he saw in his own music. Not in an arrogant way — he's just a confident guy who wasn't wracked by self-doubt. I never really had that same clarity of vision that he had. I didn't work as hard. I wrote a lot of songs, but I'd never spend more than, like, 20 minutes writing a song and I certainly didn't want to push them upon people. So it was kind of a natural outgrowth. Joel was getting better and more confident. He really took the reins and kind of became the leader of the band. I had certainly written a lot of songs for the album, and they kind of got dismissed by the four of us working together. But I think it worked out all right. I guess there was competition.

Plaskett: Rob and I still remain good friends, and I can't speak for Rob. But Ian, Rob, and I go back a long way. Ian was like the glue, the thing that held everything together. Ian and I had a relationship over certain things we were into together, and Ian and Rob would connect on certain things musically. Yet Rob and I were both really into lyrics. I don't know that there was competition, per se. But in terms of singing and fronting a band, there was tension, and tension is a good thing — you need it to send an arrow into the air, you need it on a boat, and you need it to make music, or else you don't get a note. Particularly on the heels of Clayton Park, when we broke up, I had a lot of material, and I was kind of itching to front more; I think that was fairly apparent to Rob. I sang a lot of the stuff on Clayton Park, and I think he was broadening his palate too. But I was probably pushing a bit harder. I made [my solo debut] In Need of Medical Attention just before Clayton Park, but it didn't come out until afterwards. We were all starting to side-project.

Benvie: Maybe there were times where I was at a loss — like, what's my role in the band? We have an awesome drummer and Ian is a super amazing, crazy, quirky dude, and Joel is this great frontman. Even today, I don't really know what purpose I served. But I think I was making it a little more multi-dimensional and made the band overall more interesting. It would have been nice to have had my name on more songs. But it was a pretty collaborative group effort.

Plaskett: Clayton Park was collaborative in the sense that we were playing to the strengths we had at the time. I love fronting and singing. Both Ian and Rob are really aware of production and like to fuck around, throw things at the wall and see what sticks sonically. Cliff being a great rock drummer and us mucking around with mics, trying to make the drum sound as big and unwieldy as possible, loving Zeppelin and Sabbath and Cactus — just riff rock. But trying to juxtapose — for me, at least — my love of Vic Chesnutt, Gillian Welch and Giant Sand, and wanting to bring some element of that [to it]. We were almost too tight when we made Sweet Homewrecker. We felt a lot of pressure because we had a major label deal. We went down [to Memphis] to work with [producer] Doug Easley, which we were so excited about. But we weren't loose enough to get to really play in that environment or do what we probably could have done if we'd had more of the attitude in Clayton Park when we made Sweet Homewrecker. By the time we had toured Sweet Homewrecker endlessly to almost no one in the United States, we had a bunch of other stuff that we were having fun playing.

Rob, did that sense of not knowing your place in the band inform your eventual decision to leave at the end of 1999?

Benvie: Cliff left right after we finished the record. He had other things he wanted to do. He was a little weary from some of the gruelling touring situations over the years. I think he was just tired of it. We totally understood that. Once Cliff left, things got a little less fun because we had a little more work to do in terms of getting the band ready to go on tour. At that time, Joel had a real vision for himself, and I think he maybe was already thinking about doing things on his own. But I was starting to feel that I wanted to do other things. We started that band when we were kids. In 1999, we were moving into our early 20s. The band was the dominant force in our lives for a very formative period. But then you get to an age where you're starting to think more about what you want to do in the future. So I started to think that maybe I don't really have a strong role in this band, and I don't really want to make it my life like it had been in years past. So once the touring cycle of Clayton Park was starting to wind down and we thought about the future, it didn't really seem like the future was all that interesting to me. So I gave notice to the guys and it was just kind of a depressing realization, but I think it had to happen. I think the band had kind of run its course by that point.

What do you remember about Thrush Hermit's last gig at the end of  '99?

Benvie: I think the last one we did was in Halifax. I just remember it being a real party. All our friends came out, and any ill feelings that had arisen within the band about splitting up were set aside because we wanted it to be a celebratory moment. We were always, first and foremost, about having fun. The only way we were going to end the run of the group was in a way that was very fun. I remember it being just kind of a party and staying up really late with friends and everyone around town, kind of recognizing that, "Oh, these kids who started out as goofs playing all-ages shows accomplished a little bit of something." We were lucky to get to do more than a lot of bands get to do. So it felt like a triumphant farewell, as far as I remember. I don't know — maybe I said horrible things! I don't remember. But I remember it being pretty good.

Clayton Park got a lot of critical attention when it came out. When did you get a sense that it had a long tail, and that it wasn't just something people were into for a minute and then moved on?

Benvie: We were proud of it, and we thought it was solid and bold. I think we tapped into something amongst a very small but hardcore audience who really liked it. But I don't remember getting any special recognition at the time. I remember there being some really bad negative reviews out East at home, which were fun to read. We took it as confirmation that we're doing something good, because most of the music that we were supposed to be up against was terrible. I don't think at the time we thought that it was like some monumental piece of work. I don't know if I really do now. I mean, people like it. That's the record people know, and I'm not gonna compare ourselves to the Velvet Underground, where 30 people came to their show but they all started a band. I think in our case, there's like 30 people who bought the record, but they all started blogs. So something endured about it. It's very rare that any record anytime has any kind of legacy beyond the usual duration, so the fact that this one has any at all is pleasing to us. It exceeded beyond our expectations.

Plaskett: I don't know. I really quickly jumped into other stuff. Medical Attention came out as the Hermit was winding down, and then I pretty much started on [Joel Plaskett Emergency album Down at the] Khyber material. There's Thrush Hermit demos of a bunch of stuff that ended up on Khyber, and even on Truthfully Truthfully to some degree. So I had a bunch of tunes that were sort of sitting there, and that's what we were working on towards the next record when Rob decided he was done. I just kind of changed gears and didn't really look back for a while. But I will say that, right away, moving out into the world with my own material and with the Emergency, the Hermit fan base had a lot to do with what got me going. Without sounding too surefooted or arrogant or whatever, we just knew the record was good. It was exciting to listen to. Maybe we're biased — I'm certain I'm biased — but I can still put it on and I can critique my singing or whatever, but I still think it sounds awesome. It's nice to know the record still resonates with people. It's meaningful to know that people still hold it up.

These songs are now older than you were when you wrote them. Can you still connect with them 25 years after the fact?

Plaskett: They're fun as hell to play because they're so riffy, and they're right there in my hands and my mind. I connect with them in the sense that I remember what they're about and where they come from. I feel like I'm in a different place, but that doesn't mean that I kind of can't go back there. "From the Back of the Film" was written when I got home from a family trip. I wrote it when I was 18 about when I was 17. I gotta give Rob a lot of credit for that immediate rearview mirror perspective. That was something Rob was really great at, and I think I learned from him. "French Inhale" has that, and that's on [our debut EP] Smart Bomb. He's writing from the perspective of an 18- or 19-year-old about the nostalgia of being 16. But Clayton Park is one of those albums where we were just so in the moment making it.

Rob, you've said in the past that Smart Bomb rather than Clayton Park was your favourite Thrush Hermit record. Why?

Benvie: I cannot be a judge of any of that music objectively. It's more the memories associated with it. We were so young, so wound up and energetic. I love the idea that we were writing songs that were ironically nostalgic about high school when we hadn't even finished high school. We were so excited about being a band and trying to make it sound like something decent, and it was such a mess most of the time. That we made Smart Bomb and somehow the alchemy came together pretty well is pretty great for kids who were like 17.

Smart Bomb is turning 30 this year and In Need of Medical Attention is turning 25 as well. Are there no anniversary plans for those records?

Plaskett: Smart Bomb, I don't go back and listen to it much. But I'm still kind of fond of it. It's basically the beginning of when I can start listening to our recorded output without, like, extreme cringing. Medical Attention, I loved making that record. Thrush Hermit had an Otari eight-track and [Super Friendz singer and bass player] Charles Austin had this four-track that he'd lend me from time to time, a Tascam 244. The Otari eight-track, I'd take it to the basement at my parents house in the suburbs while I was still living there, like up until I was 23, up until 1998. It was Tracy Stevens and Charles Austin and I recording these weird little tunes in the basement. "She Made a Wreck Out of Me" was recorded above the Subway at Blower's and Argyle on Charles's four-track, but then I took it to Moncton where I mixed it with Rick White and recorded "I'd Rather Be Deadly Than Dead" with [Eric's Trip drummer] Mark Gaudet on drums, which I was super excited about because Mark was sort of notorious — he wouldn't play drums with anybody. And it was nocturnal. At Rick's, he would get up at about five or six in the evening, eat breakfast, and then listen to music and watch television or shows until midnight, and then he goes, "Shall we go downstairs?" And then you go down to the basement and you'd work until five, six in the morning, and then go upstairs, eat a meal and go to sleep. I have a lot of memories of that record as far as being in Rick's environment. Rick and Tara, they were a couple at the time, and Tara sang on a couple of those tunes. My tastes were expanding from indie and alternative rock and even classic rock. I love a lot of roots and folk and kind of quiet stuff too. It was hard to fit that kind of material into the Thrush Hermit vibe. So Medical Attention was me starting to dip my toes into that kind of universe of music that I wanted to express myself with.

Do you hear any of Clayton Park's influence on bands that came after you?

Benvie: I don't. I think it maybe crystallized something that was happening in music then, possibly, but I'd have a hard time imagining it having an influence beyond itself.

Plaskett: Every once in a while I get texts from people going, "I'm listening to this!" Ewan [Currie] from the Sheepdogs, when the drummer for the Black Keys was producing a record for them, he sent me a text saying, "We're listening to Clayton Park right now!" It shows up in places. Jack Lawrence, who played bass in the Raconteurs and with Dallas Green, he came up to me when I first met him and he knew that record, which was kind of cool, too. It found its way to a few places in the States. Dallas, too. I've got some nice compliments from friends and people that I admire as writers over the years. So that's cool.

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