I first met Joel Plaskett in the early ’90s, when he was a pale, reedy teen playing in yet another East Coast post-grunge indie band, Thrush Hermit. At the time, I had to wonder about the staying power of that latest wave of “The next Seattle scene” bands coming out of Halifax, and I used to ask them about it.
A lot of them thought they’d be the next Nirvana. Sloan told me they’d take things as they came, man. I think Plaskett said something more along the lines of “This is all I want to do.”
Flighty indie rock guy, I told myself.
Twenty years later, we’re chatting again, and I ask him how he emerged from that shaggy, crowded field and became the success he is.
“I never had a backup plan,” he laughs. “No degree. I’ve been pretty much single-minded in my pursuit of music.”
Indeed he has. Long after Thrush Hermit drifted away, Plaskett remains a Canadian indie icon, a Polaris prize nominee, a Juno and ECMA winner, a big-stage rocker who also turns up in small neighbourhood pubs.
You’ve seen his face on photocopied band flyers, taped to utility poles in cities across Canada, for years.
“Because of the Hermit, we had a publicity deal, and a record deal, so we got our foot in the door and that carried over for me even after we broke up,” Plaskett says. He and the Hermits were assisted early on by Sloan – by far the scene’s most successful export – and Plaskett still credits that band with spearheading the wave of good music coming west from the Maritimes. “It’s survived because it’s always been there. The history of live music on the East Coast is long and rich,” he says.
“Bands didn’t make it out here on tour. They played Toronto and Montreal but they never got this far east. So we had to make our own and entertain ourselves. You see it here in Halifax and in places like Newfoundland.”
And even after that initial ’90s alternative-rock buzz died down, new, interesting sounds keep coming out of Halifax.
“Halifax is unusual. It has a thriving arts college and it’s a military town and a shipping port, so people are always coming in and out and mingling with the people who’ve been here for centuries. You get the kind of mix that leads to a solid live music scene.”
Plaskett still lives there, but he spends much of his time on the road.
“It’s been a wild summer. We were cancelled in Calgary because of the floods, and we had a tornado warning during another show,” he says. “But other than that, the dice have been rolling really well for us.”
Which brings us to Peterborough. Plaskett opens the Peterborough Folk Festival Friday night, playing a Market Hall show with local singer-songwriter Dylan Ireland, which leads into Saturday’s full day of free live music at Nicholls Oval and Sunday’s DIY day at Millennium Park.
For shows like this, Plaskett leaves his band, the Emergency, behind and travels light.
“I’m still doing a mix of shows with the band and solo acoustic stuff, which is what I’ll be doing in Peterborough,” he says. “Although I’ll have my dad with me.”
His father? Absolutely. Bill Plaskett is a veteran folk player who gave his son not only the talent he needed to succeed, but surrounded him with music from an extensive rootsy record collection.
“His background is English traditional folk music,” Plaskett the younger says.
“Whenever I get the opportunity to bring him in, I take it. There’s a huge influence of English folk in my music, and that comes from him. It gave me a better ability to mine those influences.”
He laughs, humble as always.
“I mean, I’m kind of a flighty indie rock guy – so when I do this, he’ll be there to help keep me grounded in the tradition.”