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Audio Reckoning Interviews Joel Plaskett

Joel Plaskett and the Emergency are conquering Canada, one town at a time. After an already extensive Spring/Summer tour to support their innovative new record “Scrappy Happiness”, Joel and his stalwart band were back on the road in September and October, and will continue to bring the rock to the people of Canada well into the New Year.

Joel’s musical journey began in the early 90s and he shows absolutely no signs of slowing down. Beyond his own performing/recording career, he has also become an in-demand producer and mentor for a new crop of artists who are looking for the heart of a good song.

I met Joel Plaskett outside Kingston’s Grand Theatre on a frigid October afternoon. After a quick stop at the Kingston Guitar Shop to check out some amazing vintage instruments, we headed to the Sleepless Goat for coffee and conversation.

So we’re in Kingston. Favourite Kingston show or show-related story?

We had an epic show, a very memorable show at the Grad Club. There were several there. But one comes to mind where Dave and I were insanely sick, to the point where I think I probably gave Kingston a cold because it was in such close quarters. It was bad. The reason I bring it up is that the last verse of “Love This Town” basically came from the following day, when Dave and I were driving ourselves home. We stopped at this rest stop, in Riviere-du-Loup, and I think they must have thought we were junkies because we were just hovering face down over these giant bowls of soup.

And that was because of a Kingston show?

From a legendary Kingston last-night-of-the-tour-so-we-gotta-level-this-joint-even-though-we-are-about-to-die show.

Halloween is approaching. Favourite childhood Halloween costume?

First year. Robot. Made out of cardboard boxes by my parents. I couldn’t walk up any kind of stairs so my dad had to carry me up to the doors. That was probably the best one.

We talked a little bit about Neil Young last time I saw you. What’s your favourite Neil Young album?

It’s a tie between “After the Gold Rush” and “Tonight’s the Night”. “Tonight’s the Night” is really insane, but “Goldrush” is kinda perfect.

That record kind of has both sides: the acoustic side of Neil…
-And the rock. And it’s a very interestingly paced record. That short little “Cripple Creek Ferry” song..its kinda perfect. So, I don’t know if I could pick between those two records. I love “Rust Never Sleeps” too, but those two are really the big ones.

Favourite comfort food when you’re on the road?

Bacon and eggs.

Favourite guitar player?

Jimmy Page.

Favourite Singer?

Irma Thomas.

You sort of came up in the Age of Video. What’s your favourite music video?

Best music video? “We’re Not Gonna Take It”, Twisted Sister. It blew my mind as a child.

What’s your favourite tune to play in the solo set right now?

This time of year it’s “New Scotland Blues”. I played it last night, I might do it tonight. The solo set is a real part of the show where I can change things up, take requests, stuff like that.

My next question is about how you build set lists. There’s definitely a flow to your shows, and there also seems to be a structure which you’ve hit upon. So, are you writing your set lists the hour before the show, or is it more like a few days before?

It’s usually an hour or two before the show, sometimes right before the show.

Do you have any rules about how you construct your set? Like “the acoustic set always goes here”? Or “we always play five new songs”?

Right now it’s usually seven or eight band tunes, and then four or five acoustic ones, and then a handful more of band songs. That seems to flow the best. I also pace it very much so for my voice. Start with some songs that aren’t too hard to sing, get it rockin’, get my voice warmed up, and then break it down, give my voice a break, and then bring the boys back. Also, this way at the end of the night when we’ve played for an hour and forty-five minutes to two hours, I still don’t feel devastated if I pace the set in that way. Otherwise I would get totally winded from singing hard the whole time, and some of the songs have me pinned to the mic.

So you feel like if you did two hours of just the loud electric stuff, you’d be blown out?

I think I would. I don’t know how Springsteen does it! I guess Springsteen does it by not singing the whole times. But I have seen him where he’s swung hard the whole time. But having said that, you know, there’s a saxophone solo for a few minutes, so he gets his moments. Don’t get me wrong, it’s immensely athletic, what he does, and he’s in really good shape. I don’t choose to work out or anything… he’s a very healthy guy.

Neil Young announced recently that he’s quit smoking and drinking. I think some of those guys get to that point where they think “if I want to keep doing this…”

Well Springsteen was always healthy I think. I don’t think that he’s ever been a big drinker or anything, and not that I am, but I’m also not a big exerciser, either [laughs]. I’m a skinny guy and I have only a certain amount of energy. So the acoustic set helps to sustain it. And also the acoustic set also gives me the opportunity to dig into material that people wouldn’t normally get to hear. In the theatres it makes sense because I have a quiet audience, so I can do songs that I can’t do with a band.

You started out right before the big shift in the music industry, the Internet. I’m curious as to how that affected the day to day of how you operated as a musician. Back then you were selling CDs and pushing videos. Did you suddenly realize that people weren’t buying CDs anymore?

Well, we never sold a lot of CDs, so my record sales went up, post-internet.

Just from the ease of access to your music?

Just from the fact that I was still building an audience and I’d never experience huge record sales to any great degree. People always thought that Thrush Hermit sold more records than we actually did; I think the perception of the band was bigger than the actual sales.

The legacy has definitely grown with time, I think.
We sold five thousand records, or maybe ten at the peak of it. I think “Clayton Park”, when we broke up, had sold five thousand. I had to build it back a little bit after that with “Medical Attention” and “Khyber”, but I caught up pretty quickly.

You made the transition to being a solo artist around that time, so it must have been interesting to watch the change. Were there other bands or people you knew who were saying, “this is the end of the industry”?

I think for bands that used to sell a lot of records, it was a quick comedown. But I was never a radio artist, so my sales weren’t driven by radio. They were driven by live shows, and at live shows people still buy records. So I never really experienced the brunt of it. I’ve never sold a lot of records. I still don’t sell a lot of records.

But you tour a lot! You’ve been on the road more or less constantly since you put out this record, right?

Yeah, it’s been a busy year. The road is where you sell records. So if you want to sell records, take the show on the road! Retail is selling some, but mostly its vinyl; that’s where you’re seeing retail pick up again.

I saw another interview with you where you were saying that you’re stoked to now have your entire catalogue on vinyl.

And at the shows, tons of people are buying vinyl; as many people, if not more, are buying vinyl than buying CDs. It’s remarkable.

And as a record label owner, that must be good for you as well.

It’s very cool; it’s encouraging. The only drag is that you have to haul the records around. They’re weighty, and they take up a lot of space. And if you’re dealing with the shops, shipping is more expensive, and you can’t really do returns. Vinyl is kind of a one-way transaction [laughs].

Let’s talk about performance a little bit. The last time I saw you it was kind of a special occasion, but there was this sweaty human communion going on, and the joy in the room was really palpable. It was a pretty rowdy, fun, joyful show. As a performer, when you’re onstage, what are you looking for up there? Transcendence? A sense of communion with the audience?

A new memory. Some spontaneity – where you hit a moment in the set when you think “hey that never happened before”! Those little musical moments, which are often informed very much by the audience. A joke that got cracked that turned into a musical joke or a unique musical moment.

Transcendence? Sure. Self-expression. And I’ve been thinking recently, a big part of the reason I like to perform and play… you can’t avoid talk of politics or the American election, and you realize how many people don’t agree – it can make you feel very separated from people. But in the live show, I don’t care about anyone not agreeing. I get up and play, everyone is just there to celebrate the music. I mean, a lot of the time it’s a very like-minded audience, but I don’t really know that and I don’t have to get into it. Everyone’s sharing a moment that’s just about the songs or the night out, or whatever it is.

And you don’t have to deal with anyone coming up to you and saying, “let me tell you why I love Stephen Harper” [laughs].

Exactly. So you can just remove [those disagreements] from your sphere. So yes, communion and a sense of community. Even if it’s just a very specific community- it’s the community that comes to my shows. But it makes me feel like part of the world.

That’s a good perspective, because in terms of creating that common spirit, you’re recognizing that not everyone is going to like the same things or have the same values. They might not even all like the same things about what you do.

Exactly. I don’t even know what it is they like about what I do. They might like one song, they might like the live show, but it becomes a moot point if everyone is celebrating and having fun.

So for you performing is about grasping after those kinds of moments?

Yes. And you can have people who are very particular about stuff questioning it or reviewing it, deciding if it was as good as the last moment. And that’s fine too; I’m not really privy to it. I just get up there and feel a shared moment, with people that I wouldn’t normally have that with.

You’re doing a residency at The Horseshoe Tavern again (December 12-16th). Five shows. What’s the plan for that? Are you doing the album theme again?

No, but I’m going to pull out a bunch of rarities and learn some of the back catalogue, I suppose. I definitely want to go deep into the catalogue and pull some stuff out. But I don’t want to do the full album per night thing. I don’t want to have that strict a format. I know that from a fan point of view it would be great, but at the same time I’d like to just go up there and wing it, take requests…

And I imagine you don’t want to fall into that trap of doing the album theme nights every time you play The Horseshoe.

And frankly I just don’t want to have to rehearse that much [laughs]. I want to pick the songs that I feel like singing, not that I have to learn. Some songs are just too technical to enjoy playing in a live show, especially as a three-piece band. I just really want to treat it as a celebratory five nights, plus I have more than five records now! We’d have to do nine nights or whatever. They’ll be different opening acts each night, and we’ll probably get some special guests. We’ll make some phone calls and see who’s around. I really haven’t thought about it. That’s the way I’ve been operating lately [laughs]. Four of the five nights will have different openers. Steve Potlz is going to opening two – I’m a big fan of his, I produced a record for him. He’s from San Diego. And he’s an entertaining show, I’ll tell ya.

He’s the guy who co-wrote that Jewel song [“You Were Meant For Me”], right?


He seems like an interesting guy. He’s in this music documentary that I loved called “Before The Music Dies”- have you seen it?

I haven’t seen it.

It’s really good. They use him as an example of how easy it is to write a “hit song” for a young female pop singer, and he’s great. In the film, he writes a great song, on the spot, and he’s really funny about it.

Steve’s probably one of the most creative, in-the-moment guys I’ve ever encountered. In fact, I’ve definitely learned a lot from him, because he’s really fearless. He just goes for it.

You do a lot of stuff like that: collaborating with and producing other artists. Mo Kenney is another good example. What do you get out of that process of working with other artists?

It’s nice to be invited to the party sometimes, if there’s something I can contribute to. In the case of Mo, I just heard somebody that I thought was really talented, and I thought that I would like to help her out. I could hear what I could bring to it. I think we’re like-minded; our tastes are aligned enough to make it work. She definitely is mining a bunch of stuff that I don’t know, but then I have a bunch of musical experience that she doesn’t have because she’s younger than me. But she’s a great guitar player, great singer, really great songwriter. It just seemed like an interesting project that I could see the beginning and the end of, and I knew it would be satisfying.

So you look for people that you can help directly?

?Yeah. Or, in the case of Sarah Slean… she came to me to produce half her record, “Land and Sea”. She saw stuff in my material that she liked, even though we were very different writers. And I think the thing she liked was the spontaneity, and that let’s-make- something- up- right- now kind of quality.

The work that you’ve done as a producer definitely has that kind of quality: that organic sound.

Sometimes in the studio you stumble across a beat or a sound, a moment, a hook, that can bring new life into a track. It doesn’t all have to be by design. Everyone’s who’s been in the studio has happy accidents, so I just like embracing that. Also I like things that are sparse. On a production level, I tend to opt for a fairly sparse approach. It’s rare that I fill up sixteen tracks of audio. That was probably the biggest difference between me and Sarah [Slean], because she’s much more orchestrated. That was probably the biggest challenge- finding a place between the two approaches. I like hearing lots of space in stuff.

That’s kind of a Zeppelin thing too, the idea of negative space in the actual sound of the recording, and being able to discern that texture.

Yeah and the thing about Zep is that even when there’s a bunch of overdubs, you can still hear every element of what’s there. It’s mixed really well, and it’s separated really well. Some of the things that they did orchestrally with guitars and mellotrons and stuff blows my mind. And with John Paul Jones in the band, they had such a deep knowledge base.  What could’ve stopped them? That band could do everything. John Bonham probably played trombone, we just never heard it [laughs].

You’ve got a new studio. What’s the first thing you’re going to record there?

I’ve been talking with Shawn McCann from Great Big Sea. He wants to do a solo record and we’ve been talking about doing some stuff at my studio. I think we could really connect on the folk music influences that I have. And this gal from Toronto called Meredith Shaw; she’s kind of a pop writer. I might produce two or three songs for her.

How did you start working with her?

Gordie Johnson produced her last record, and she’s been a fan of mine for a while. I met her and she asked if we could do some co-writing. We wrote a song together that’s really fun. I thought that was a good starting point for collaboration. So I’m excited for that and hopefully it’ll come together. And then obviously I’ll set the sights on some kind of recording for us [the Emergency] down the road.

On that subject: your last three records have been concept albums, in one way or another.  What is it about the concept album that seems to do it for you?

Well it’s not like I’m searching for a concept, it’s just sometimes they present themselves and away they go. Certainly “Ashtray Rock” became very scripted in terms of telling a story, and “Three” eventually turned into that, but it didn’t immediately start there. It became that.

So you find these things as you’re going?

Yeah to some extent. And even “Ashtray” was just a case of having all these songs and hearing the theme between them, and then it became very designed after that. But with “Three” I started the recording before I knew it was going to be a triple record. And then it developed, and I heard the songs in threes, and then it dawned on me one day.

Weren’t you 33 years old when you started it?

Yeah so I soon as I realized all of that, it started and then I stayed awake for seven months [laughs]. I don’t know what I’ll do next. I don’t think it will be as conceptual, but I can’t really say because I don’t know what the songs are yet. I would like to make a strong record of strong songs, so I think I’ll take my time with it. Not rush into it.

Do you have a bunch of stuff written already?

Yeah I’ve got a bunch of acoustic songs. I have a mellow record in my head, if I want to go there. I also have a handful of things that could shape up into rock tunes.

So it might be the Emergency and it might be solo – or could be both?

Yeah. I really don’t know until I see how I’m feeling in the New Year.

Are you going to tour this record [“Scrappy Happiness”] for another year?

No, this year is the big one. There will still be shows and stuff next year and we’ll still be supporting it, but I don’t want to rush into the recording of the next one. I think it would be cool for us to just track songs as they come along. I’d like to do it over a period of time, maybe take the opposite approach to “Scrappy”. Not stress the timeline – I’m always rushing. Once I get a project in my brain and I have the framework, then I can’t sleep at night and it’s always plugged in. So I don’t want to rush into another album cycle until I’m ready to do that. I’m writing songs and I’m excited by some of them, but I don’t want to pull the pin until I’m ready for the grenade to go off!

You’re doing ten shows in smallish towns in Newfoundland. Last time we spoke, you were toying with the idea of filming those shows for a documentary – is that happening?

Yeah I think these Heavy Weather guys are going to come and document it. They’re Newfoundland guys.

Have you ever let people follow you around with cameras for that much time before?

There’s a guy named Matt McKechnie who’s been filming us, but no, not that like that. I don’t know yet what will become of the documentary footage. We’ll probably have a daily video blog, but I don’t know if it will make its way into anything big and structured, or if it will be just something for me to watch twenty years from now.

If somebody wanted to make a full documentary on your life and work, would you be cool with that?

I don’t really feel like I’m deserving of it, right now. I don’t feel like there’s an interesting enough story to tell. Maybe in fifteen or twenty years, when there’s a larger body of work. I don’t know that I would want to dive into where it all comes from right now. I still feel like I’m in the moment, and I sometimes still feel that I’m not that far away from where I was when I was 18. It’s not that I feel young – I feel the twenty years I’ve been touring.

But you feel like you’re still climbing the mountain to some extent?

Well, to put it in perspective and I mean this in a positive way: I played Oshawa last night. In the theatre were maybe 350 people- awesome show, everyone was rockin’. Everybody paid decent money to come into this theatre and have a great show. I played in Oshawa in 1993 opening for Sloan to probably 500 people, and I went there and headlined shows to probably 300 in 1994 with Thrush Hermit. Granted, the ticket was probably ten dollars then and now it’s thirty-five. So if go there in ten years and is seventy dollars and I still draw 350 people, to me that is not a failure. I think it’s a success just to be able to continue to play music in Canada as a livelihood. I’m not complaining. I just mean that some artists would see that as no growth or not enough growth. But to me it’s just the reality of gigging in Canada, and it’s the reality of gigging on your own terms, which is what I like to do. So I don’t see it as a negative thing, but on a documentary level, it’s not the story of “Nevermind” by Nirvana, where they start a tour opening and by the end they’re headlining arenas. Maybe that would happen if we did a documentary! [laughs]

There are artists who were your contemporaries who’ve stopped and pulled back, in the sense that they’re not really actively touring anymore. You’re out there still touring – that’s how you make your living.

It IS the living, if you’re playing music: the live shows. Records don’t sell, so what are you gonna do? Unless I want to go to Nashville and become a writer or something, and that’s not really interesting to me.

Or you overhaul your music to the point where you’re not even doing what you want to do anymore.

Yeah, so that’s why I change it up. I put on different shows, I go solo, I go out with the band. It keeps people coming back, it gets me into different venues, gets me in front of some new people. I’ll open up for the Barenaked Ladies, I’ll open up for The Tragically Hip.

You’re pretty well-established in Canada; you’re famous and well-known by those crowds now. What is it like when you tour other countries?

It’s challenging but fun. It’s usually ex-pat Canadians or people from Australia or the UK who know me. But it’s small.
But you still get a kick out of going out and exploring?
Yeah now and then. We haven’t done any of that this year.  I might do some of the UK and little trip to the States next year. But it has to be the right opportunity; I’m not going to chase it now. My livelihood is in Canada, so I can’t go try and break a market unless I’m given an opportunity to get in front of a good audience. If it’s a short tour and it looks like fun, if I’m going to a place that I like… I’ll go tour Ireland and play cafes with somebody if I feel like taking that kind of trip. But if it’s another thing on the calendar just for the sake of touring, there’s other ways I can be spending my time.

And what’s the value in it at that point, chasing after something?

And what am I even chasing at that point? A new market? Am I chasing fame for its own sake? I’ve got people who dig what I do, and I’d like to reach more, but at the same time I’m not trying to conquer the world.

You may well conquer Canada. You seem to be on a mission to play every place you possibly can in our country! You guys will do those shows in smaller towns, and I love that.

I do cherish that ability, and the fact that the name has been built up enough in the larger cities that people will commute to the smaller towns for shows. It’s usually a mix of locals and people who are out for the weekend, which is great.
The locals really appreciate it too. The way Canada’s music is centered around the Toronto-Montreal-Vancouver axis, you don’t get a lot of artists of your stature playing those smaller towns.

I love the opportunity, and I don’t need a full house for a great show. I don’t need it to be sold out. That doesn’t get me down.

So you’re really just jazzed that people come and see you?

Yeah I dig it! I dig putting on a show, no matter where. We have our best shows sometimes in the strangest of places, because we’re just in the right mood. We aim to put on a great show everywhere we go, but some nights just click and sometimes those are in places that we weren’t expecting. It’s cool.

Alright, last question. This is the only question I’ll ask you about Thrush Hermit: do you ever get sick of people asking you about Thrush Hermit? [laughs]

No, not at all.  

There’s a lot of love out there for that band, now. Do you wish that love had been demonstrated more during the bands lifetime?

No. I don’t get sick of being asked about Thrush Hermit because, and this is no slight, but I outdraw Thrush Hermit now. So I feel like I’ve built something on my own beyond what I did with that band.

So that was like your rock and roll college experience?

Yes. I loved the band, and I think there are fans that we have in common, and then there’s people who like Thrush Hermit who aren’t necessarily interested in what I do. And that’s fine too, because I like that fact that that band had its own sound; there’s stuff that we do that I can only do with them. All the really heavy stuff, that’s Thrush. And the other guys bring that into the sound of the band. So I don’t get sick about it in that way. Also, as much as the legacy of it has grown, like when we did three nights at Lee’s [Palace], it’s not that much bigger than it was. It just means that when we play now, we’re selling out the venues as opposed to half-filling them. So I love the fact that it has built itself and new people have come to it over time. But I think if we really got back together and decided to make a go of it, we would still only have six months before people said: “you gotta do something new.” We can’t go rest on the oldies thing.

You mean like the Pixies ten-year reunion tour?

Yeah and they crested in a big way, but now they’re having success twenty years later. Or Big Star is another example. So we’re ten years out now, and maybe when it gets to twenty it will have grown enough! And frankly the main music press, when it comes to the retrospective review, is in England: Mojo, Uncut, stuff like that. Or in the indie world, it’s Pitchfork – if you type my name into Pitchfork, it doesn’t come up. And I don’t care or anything, because I have an audience. But Canada is still a bit insular. So if you’re a distinctly Canadian band, until those other countries take an interest in discovering something old from Canada it’s not going to crest on an international level.

It’s driven by the nostalgia.

Right, and it’s only in hindsight, if some writers go back and start championing a band, then the records will get reissued and all of a sudden it starts happening again and has some sort of international life. You see that with the soul singers right now like Charles Bradley or Sharon Jones, where suddenly there’s a reverence. At the time there were a million other people doing what they do.  Now it’s like “wow, new soul music!” [laughs]. So that’s the challenge. But I love Canada for what it is, and I’m so appreciative of the career I’ve had.

Anyone who has experienced the Joel Plaskett Emergency in concert knows that their shows are uplifting experiences. As a musician, he has a unique ability to be larger-than-life while remaining humble and relatable. It’s this mixture of rock and roll bravado and personal authenticity that makes him such a compelling figure in Canadian music. I highly recommend that everyone check out “Scrappy Happiness”, and stay tuned for the next chapter in the story of one of Canada’s greatest musicians.

by Colin James Gibson,Audio Reckoning