The Joel Plaskett Emergency are coming to the Breezeway on Friday. Elling Lien caught up with Joel for a chat about touring, stealing music, Zellers, and staying sane under pressure.
You’ve been up to a lot since you were here last year. How have things been?
It’s weird, you know, it’s kind of like anything – you get caught up in it and it becomes a bit of a blur. It’s been great. A great couple of years. Everything has just started to happen at an accelerated pace. It’s only a couple times a year that I step back and look at all that’s going on, and the rest of the time I’m just doing it. I’m immersed in it.
I went to Australia earlier this year [to promote the release of the album LaDeDa] for three weeks playing solo shows. We’re trying to work on a new record now, and there’s a lot to do. We also did a bunch of stuff in the States – a bit of band, and a bunch of solo.
How was the response in Australia compared with the States?
The U.S. has been tough, you know. We’ve got little pockets of fans, but they’re tiny pockets and sometimes it’s twenty people who might show up in a big city. The U.S. is really tough unless you get an opening slot, and we had a bit of that. …We opened for a guy named James McMurtry from Texas, and he’s all over the radio in Maine because Stephen King owns the radio station, and he put him on. We had two full nights at this theatre of five hundred seats. Packed.
But things in the States has been tough. Australia was better because I was on great bills and had great people organizing what I was doing. There were a few duds here and there. Actually, the worst show was opening for Russell Crowe’s band — just because it wasn’t really a listening audience.
Why do you think the U.S. is so hard [for Canadian artists] to break into?
Well, you have to put in the time and it’s just as hard in Canada for people who don’t have access to great shows. I don’t have a record out there, so I go there and any little headway I can make is good. So until I have a label, there’s not much point working on it that way. Everyone wants the Wilco opening slot, and Wilco probably do choose their friends to open for them no matter how many records they sell, but I’ve never been a real schmoozer.
But I met Bo Diddley the other day and that was awesome. I was just really determined to go meet him.
What was that like?
The best. My wife and I met him, and he talked with us for like twenty minutes. But the whole time I was standing there, and the whole time I was like … [whispering] it’s fucking Bo Diddley!
…And you couldn’t hear a word he was saying.
Well, I was listening to him, but I was just so blown away. After that I tried to think: “who would I rather meet?” and I couldn’t think of anyone. Maybe Jerry-Lee Lewis or Little Richard. …Mick Jagger is of less interest. Paul McCartney is of less interest. Elvis Costello… Though I respect them I don’t really want to meet them, but Bo Diddley was like meeting Mozart! [laugh] The first wave of rock and roll.
People from that era, in the 50’s, that’s when it gets heavy for me. When you touch down in the 50’s, that’s the fundamentals of rock and roll…
Does that music influence you now?
I grab from all sorts of places and I have a lot of little references within my songs that I know where they came from and I can point them out. There are some pretty obvious steals, but I try to steal from weird places and juxtapose into the style of music that I’m writing. Like there’s a song off Truthfully Truthfully called Radiofly, and the chorus goes: “Bye-bye bye, so long, so long.” And the melody and harmony idea from that comes from Huey “Piano” Smith, the guy who did “Rockin’ Pneumonia and the Boogie-Woogie Flu”. It was a song called “Popeye”, and he goes [singing:] “Popeeyyyyyyyyye” and I just ripped it. I ripped it and turned it into “Bye-bye”. But without a blues inflection and more Weezer to it.[laugh]
And how does stealing feel? [laugh]
To be honest, I like it. They’re cheeky little things that most people are not going to notice at all. You can hear it in the Stones and Zeppelin… It was shameless. [laugh] In my songs I have little lyrical nods. Like for example, there’s a song called “Extraordinary” off Truthfully Truthfully. There’s a reference to an old reggae song by John Holt, which starts with the line: “Strange things happen on a Friday night. Boys meet girls and lots of hugging and kissing.” [laugh] And mine is “Strange things happen on a Friday night. Boys meet girls and they all get tight.”
I love turn of phrase and if I hear it in a song, or if there’s a way to turn a cliché on its ear, I do it. A lot of things that people think are totally original, I’ve gone to a strange place to find it. To me it’s the nature of making music these days. It’s referential… a little bit of a spot-the-influence game. [laugh]
How do you take all the influences and make them work together?
Well, sometimes they don’t, but you surround yourself with great players like I have in the Emergency. Maybe I’ll play a tune for the guys, or it’s a collective influence and I mention like “I’m going through a Small Faces thing these days” and my drummer knows what I’m talking about and we fit that style into a tune. And we pretend we’re white boys playing soul music…
I’m pretty proud of our records. There’s this weird mesh of all this stuff that sounds familiar, but we’ve assembled it with a love of classic rock and older influences. And me coming up through indie-rock… Superchunk, Guided by Voices, Pavement… makes my approach a bit more flippant, I think. The lyrical approach is occasionally classic — but if it becomes too classic I sometimes want to take a gun and blow a hole in my foot to turn it into something else, you know? [laugh]
Putting the music together after all your success in the past few years, are you more aware of your audience?
It’s changed so much in the past six months. It’s been getting bigger and wider in terms of ages. Now the Zellers ad has helped get that song on the radio [“Nowhere With You” from LaDeDa appeared in their summer ad]. It went top ten on Hot AC [adult contemporary] radio yesterday, which is something I’ve never experienced. They’re middle-of-the-dial stations, they’ll play pop like Destiny’s Child, Nickelback and that stuff. [laugh] And we’re on those stations as a pop act. So that song was in an ad and suddenly it makes sense on the radio.
But what’s cool about that is it’s bringing kids, like five- to fifteen-year-old kids, to our music. There are a lot of teenagers when we get all-ages shows happening…
It’s weird. I’ve been doing this for so long, and it all of a sudden surfaces like this. I’m older now, and I don’t claim to be indie-rock any more… As you get older I enjoy playing to twelve-year-olds as well as sixty-year-olds. I like that the tunes are starting to be able to communicate to all sorts of people.
As a kind of safety mechanism, for the past year at live shows I’ve become very unapologetic about enjoying myself. So if I feel like being a goof I’m going to do it. Like for example at the biggest show we just had in Halifax-Dartmouth… At the heaviest moment of the set, the point during “Natural Disaster” when the song is finally rocking out, my guitar came unplugged. The band kept playing and everyone was looking at me and I just smiled. [laugh]
It was supposed to be so dramatic, and it was gone. The energy was sucked out in the time it took a guitar cable to come unplugged. But I was like, what can you do? I’m not that precious about it any more.
I think that’s what makes your attitude and music appealing. You seem to keep away from too much illusion.
Yeah, it frees us up and in some ways it frees the audience up because people aren’t afraid to dance or rock out.
It has been a real shift this past little while and there’s room to relax…
We’re entertainers and the songs have meaning and they convey heartfelt emotion, but at the same time I really want to just be myself during a show, and I think the audience sees that, and most people respect it.
I like demystifying what we do… This is how we do it. this is where the guitar plugs in, and if you’re wondering how I wrote this song, here’s where it came from, here’s what I ripped off… If you become really precious about it, it just pushes you into a box and you can’t talk to anyone.
…Why are you so nice??
[laugh] Well, I’m just trying to be honest. …Don’t get me wrong, I think we’re the best band in the world, but it’s all quite laughable. [laugh]
I guess it’s just the mood I’ve been in the past while, and the shows we’re been playing. They’ve been these huge open-air, summer shows, and I’m a bit overwhelmed. I’ve realized I can hop around on stage and have all these people respond, all these kids get into it. I get swamped by that after a while. Overwhelmed. People will call me at home every now and then, and everywhere I go in Halifax now, somebody knows my music. It’s cool, and it really is flattering. I’ve been embraced in the Maritimes and now across Canada, because of the Juno nomination [for Songwriter of the Year 2006]. All that’s really awesome, but my self-protective thing is to become goofier in the hopes that maybe people will allow me a bit more space.
You’re not going to be moving to Australia any time soon though…
No! [laugh] Maybe Saskatchewan. Maybe Saskatchewan.
The Joel Plaskett Emergency will perform Friday night at The Breezeway bar (MUN Campus) with Two Hours Traffic. Tickets avaiable at The Breezeway Bar, The Attic-Postal Outlet & MUN Student Union Offices.
To find out more about Joel and his music, visit his website at www.joelplaskett.com.