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Getting Real: A Talk With Joel Plaskett

It seems only fitting that a venue as storied and successful as the Horseshoe Tavern celebrates its 65th anniversary with rock n’ roll from the equally fantastic Joel Plaskett. Wrapping up a successful year with the release of the critically acclaimed and Polaris Prize nominated Scrappy Happiness and heavy touring across Canada, Joel takes some time out to speak with the Panic Manual about the making of Scrappy Happiness, and of course, what the Horseshoe means to him. We chatted for a while and here are some of the highlights:

Panic Manual I spent a lot of time listening to Scrappy Happiness and I found the album more raw than your other ones – the content and the lyrics. What were your motivations behind this album and the direction you took for it?

Joel Plaskett For me I knew I wanted it to be a band album, so the material that I was writing, I had a bunch of songs to choose from for the record, I felt like I wanted it to be collaborative. In that sense if I [recorded] it on that weekly basis we’d all be thinking on our toes and I think that’s what kind of brings the urgency to it. On a lyrical and recording level—because of the time frame and the nature of the record, being a weekly deadline and never having recorded any of the songs before, it was more, “let’s see what happens” and so I think that brought an energy to it that was kind of cool. On a more thematical lyrical level, it was just about taking songs that felt good to sing and lyrically can get to where I’m at. Three was a really great record the way it was received and touring it was really, really good but it was kind of a challenge because there was a lot of international touring in the UK which was cool as an experiment, which is not to say I won’t go back; I do intend to go back, but it was hard after the initial blast in Canada, going international solo and duo and the band wasn’t as involved there was a bit of a disconnect there I think sometimes things can feel like a bit of a struggle. I felt like I wanted to make this record fun for everybody and for it to be in the moment. I tend to think a lot about things and so I thought about this album and when it comes to the live shows and recording that I would get to it and not hung up on some preconceived idea of what it should be.

Panic Manual The transformation to record [the songs] — was that something that was more spur of the moment? Did you feel that the music you were writing needed that kind of spontaneity?

Joel Plaskett I felt like the lyrics for a lot of these songs… a lot of them were written quite quickly and a lot of the sentiments reflect the struggle to find happiness in things… I felt like there was a connection between the approach to the record and the title of the record. The title came out of a lyric out of Lighting Bolt which to me seemed like the obvious choice as far as the centre piece of the album and the story of the album and I guess I just I was thinking maybe with Three there was a concept from start to finish [for] what the songs were about and they were structured methodically in terms of telling a long story in three acts almost. With this album it was more like there was a lot of variety within the songs but the thing that kind of held it together was the approach.

Panic Manual Your approach for Scrappy Happiness… is this something you think you’ll do more of in the future?

Joel Plaskett The thing I guess I sort of learned through having made a lot of records, I don’t think I would do it under the same deadline weekly type thing… I went through that process of going 10 weeks of intense work one song a week – that’s just an approach. I think that was part of the story behind this record, but I do feel like the idea of recording something and putting it out to the public really quickly is something I really like and I will take that with me whether it’s a single or another album done in the similar quick release fashion.

Panic Manual Well as part of the public I loved it because you’re always on your toes waiting for the next one and for me it was a great experience to hear it in that way and anticipate it in that way, that’s my praise for it!

Joel Plaskett That to me is an exciting thing to hear because that’s kind of why I brought in the videos and the whole approach – I just thought this’ll have an energy to it and let people in on the process. For me I find that if I just get down to it that’s when stuff starts happening. I can think about things and I really think about the writing and I spend some time with the songs but a lot of the time with the band I don’t even really commit to ideas… I show them things that almost don’t seem finished until I’m [say] “let’s go, I’m ready to sing this now, let’s learn this”. It’s almost like a live show – I don’t commit until I love committing to it on stage. Like in sound check you might be half singing or messing around, not really playing the song but when you get up in front of people then you go and that’s the time… It still might not be perfect but let’s put all of our focus and all of our attention right here right now. That was the same approach with the record and I think that’s why the record [stands] up to live shows and reflects that spontaneity we have live that has always been a hard thing to capture on a record. So I realized the way to recreate the live show is to not try and recreate it. It’s just to let mistakes fly or have the accidents be what they are and that kind of reflects the approach and through years of playing I’ve just become more free.

Panic Manual Given your run of shows this week it is fitting to ask a few questions about you and the Horseshoe. I find that club and bars like the Horseshoe are a dying breed – there seem to be fewer and fewer of those legacy bars where you can go to see a good show. What does a venue like the Horseshoe mean to you?

Joel Plaskett It’s a rock n’ roll room with crack in the steps and a smelly washroom, but having said that, the room is really well curated, the people who run it and all the staff, they’re all great and have been there a long time. I have a connection to them. But there’s a history of all these great shows – some of the ones I’ve had, some ones I’ve seen. Just the collective energy that the room has acquired through years of being a place… at the same time it is those marks on the floor, the drinks that have been served, and all the sweat that’s been poured out on stage by a bunch of bands giving it that brings the energy to the room. Just to get the invite to go in there was a no brainer… it’s going to be fun because people know the place, [and] you bring your best to the stage. It’s kind of casual but important and I like being a part of that. It jives with the way I present music.

Panic Manual What is your favourite memory or story to do with the Horseshoe?

Joel Plaskett Really my biggest memory if I really think of the place, I just think of Ian McGettigan, the bass player from Thrush Hermit and later the Emergency, but in the Hermit days he had a lot of pension for blowing fire and I remember just he would start the show by wrapping the head stock of his bass guitar in tissue paper and then he’d put grain alcohol in his mouth, light the tissue paper, and blow grain alcohol up onto the head stock of his bass. It’s blow a huge fireball up onto the ceiling. Looking up at the Horseshoe ceiling with this fireball on it and go, “Fuck, tonight’s the night we’re going to burn the club down”. It completely dissipated, we would never do that now… we were young and stupid and no one knew what we were going to do! If I think of the Horseshoe I look up at the ceiling and go, “Yeah right, I remember Ian McGettigan blowing fire”.

by Patricia, Panic Manual