On a recent sunny Sunday, three old friends meet at the baggage carousel at the Halifax airport. One’s flown in from Montreal, two from Toronto, and their paths are merging in the city that will always have a hold on their hearts.
Eleven years after the breakup of 90s riff-rock band Thrush Hermit, its founding members – singer/guitarist Joel Plaskett, singer/guitarist Rob Benvie and bassist Ian McGettigan – stand face to face and smiling, groggy from their early-morning flights but psyched to dive into the four days of rehearsals leading up to their reunion tour, which sees them play two sold-out shows at Lee’s Palace Friday and Saturday, plus an all-ages one Sunday afternoon.
Thrush Hermit never had a charting single, and their videos never spun in heavy rotation on MuchMusic, even at a time when MuchMusic still played music videos. But the brisk sales of tickets to their nine reunion gigs reflect not only the warm place their melodic Sloan-meets-Zeppelin-inspired rock still holds in the hearts of many Canadian 30-somethings but also a percolating 90s renaissance.
“The most interesting thing about Thrush Hermit is not necessarily the music,” Benvie says over coffee at a Spadina café with McGettigan and me a few weeks earlier. “We weren’t necessarily the most groundbreaking or successful band. We weren’t the Velvet Underground. But I think our story is quintessentially 90s.”
He’s shortchanging the music – members of Arcade Fire, Zeus and the Meligrove Band all cite them as an influence – but the 90s observation is dead-on. Thrush Hermit, whose first incarnation formed in 1989 when the boys were just 14, enjoyed a career full of the internal push-pull conflicts that now seem specific to that pre-Internet anti-sell-out era of indie rock: independent versus major labels, alternative versus mainstream, slackerdom versus ambition, fuzz versus polish, Value Village versus glam, earnestness versus goofiness.
The four-piece, which included primary drummer Cliff Gibb, who’s also in the reunited lineup, fought through the confusion with humour, but it tended to thwart any real chances they had at success.
Take the time they were invited to play the Edgefest mainstage in 1995, at the peak of interest in Halifax Pop Explosion bands: they delivered an entire set of Steve Miller covers just for a joke. Or the time MuchMusic asked them to play live in the studio – the band’s first national TV appearance – and they did a Nazareth cover instead of a “single” from their album.
They licensed a song to the Mallrats soundtrack, which sold just a few thousand copies, and passed on Dumb And Dumber, which sold half a million, because they thought Jim Carrey was lame. When Elektra, with which they signed in 1996, wanted them to use Butch Vig as a producer, they instead went with the more obscure Doug Easley, who’d recorded the Grifters and Pavement. They balked at spending money on professional equipment or proper per diems, yet blew thousands on a neon Rock & Roll sign and, later, a stock car.
“We were very confused,” laughs Benvie, now a Montreal-based author and guitarist for the Dears. “On the one hand, we were a super-poppy band into poppy music and Bruce Springsteen. On the other, we admired Fugazi and a punk rock philosophy. I remember once being outraged – outraged – that tickets to one of our shows cost $10. Ten dollars. And then going, ‘Okay, fine, we’ll just put everyone on the guest list.’”
McGettigan busts a gut over this.
“Meanwhile, we went on to sign with a major label, which was a miserable failure,” Benvie says. “We were principled about some things and pussies about other things. We’d entertain mainstream success but then scoff at it.”
The Thrush Hermit story is vividly and hilariously captured in audio, visual and prose form on the eight-disc box set The Complete Recordings, freshly released on Plaskett’s New Scotland label in time for the tour. (See sidebar for details.)
A glance at the accompanying 32-page booklet makes it clear that humour lies at the heart of the Hermit. Anyone who witnessed their live shows – as I did nearly a hundred times as a member of Plumtree, which regularly toured with them – already knows this. If the band was conflicted about their career path or angsty in their tuneage, they balanced that with un-serious performances that included fire-breathing, breakdancing, aerobic hyperactivity and that neon sign that blazed “Rock & Roll.”
McGettigan, now a Toronto producer/engineer/dad in his mid-30s, admits to some apprehension about pulling off his old stage moves. Bars won’t let you blow fire any more – his specialty – but there’s a chance he’ll balance his bass on his chin or tackle the splits.
Plaskett, who along with Gibb still lives in Nova Scotia, wonders if his shoulders can withstand 90 minutes of holding up his solid mahogany Gibson RD, which he used to wear slung down to his knees. (He uses lighter Strats and acoustic guitars these days.)
“I can’t quite turn things into the Bob Mould screamfest they once aspired to be,” Plaskett says the morning after the reformed band’s first practice, which he describes as “so friggin’ satisfying.” “But I’m sure the adrenaline of the night is going to carry us through.”
The Rock & Roll sign’s also back in action after a decade spent split in half. “Rock” was left behind in the band’s rehearsal space, “& Roll” grew dilapidated at McGettigan’s house in Toronto. Like Thrush Hermit themselves, the pieces have slowly made their way back to each other, at least for these two fleeting weeks in March.
There’s another reason for the brisk ticket sales. The resurgence of interest in Thrush Hermit is undoubtedly related to the skyrocketing success of Plaskett’s solo career, which he embarked on immediately after the four-piece called it quits in 99. A continuation of sorts, his early albums feature reworked versions of Hermit songs, though his newer material has moved away from jammy, classic rock toward folk.
In the last month alone, it’s earned him two Juno nominations, six East Coast Music Awards and, most recently, solo artist of the year at the Indie Awards during CMW. The accolades are for Three, the triple disc he released last year.
“We all look at the Hermit as being a really great time in our lives.”
“Ten years out of that, we’re able to be like, ‘Yeah, let’s spend some time together again. Let’s have some laughs.’”
Benvie got the ball rolling last summer during a trip to India, after realizing it had been 10 years since the band ended. Besides the fun of it, an anniversary reunion gave them a reason to re-release their back catalogue, which wasn’t available digitally.
Ironically, it was Benvie who instigated the breakup. He’s grown disillusioned with his decreasing songwriting/frontman role and what he viewed as the “boring, old-fashioned” guitar rock direction of the band. He and McGettigan were getting into electronic music, rap and studio experimentation. Plus, they’d all been joined at the hip since 14. It was time to move on and grow up.
Plaskett, for one, has kept top of mind the lessons learned during that exhilarating decade.
“The biggest difference between the way I operate and the way the Hermit did is that I look at stuff and think, ‘Cool, this sounds like an opportunity. It could be lame, but I’ll show up and make it so it’s not lame, at least not to me.’ I’ll walk into pretty much any scenario now, within reason. Of course it’s easier to do that on your own than within a group where democracy takes hold.
“But when we broke up, it was generally a weird time. The end of the 90s. The wrap of a millennium. In many respects, it was a really fitting time to end, because the 90s were over and we were a 90s band if there ever was one.”
The quintessential 90s band?
Plaskett pauses. “Or, if you squint, we were the essential 90s band. You have to squint until the ‘quint’ gets small enough. We were the squint-essential 90s band.”
by Carla Gillis