Dad Rock: Why Joel Plaskett Made a New Record With His Pops
We spoke to the father-and-son duo about connecting and staying young through music.
Joel Plaskett hasn't aged a bit. His voice hasn't lost any of its youthful lilt since I first interviewed him back in 1995, when we were both teenagers. He's still as rhapsodic and talkative as he was when he was touring Smart Bomb with his old band Thrush Hermit. And even though there are a few greys poking out of his hair, he even looks as though time has not yet caught up with him over all these years.
Of course, Joel Plaskett has in fact aged. Duh. And the way that it's most obvious is the extensive set of recordings he has amassed. Plaskett has proven himself to be one of Canada's most reliable songwriters, both in quality and frequency. In 1999 alone, he released Thrush Hermit's swan song, Clayton Park, the debut album by Neuseiland, his side-project with Super Friendz members Charles Austin and Drew Yamada, and his debut solo album, In Need Of Medical Attention. Subsequently, he has steadily released at least one album of his own every other year, not to mention produced recordings by Two Hours Traffic, Al Tuck, Sarah Slean, Old Man Luedecke, Mo Kenney and Shotgun Jimmie, while running his own label, New Scotland Records. Along the way, he has also rounded up a handful of Juno nominations (including a win in 2010 for Adult Alternative Album of the Year) and a couple of Polaris Music Prize shortlists.
For his latest project, Plaskett has come full circle and teamed up with the man who first introduced him to music: his dad, Bill. The idea to collaborate has been a long time coming. Joel and Bill have been performing together on a regular basis over the last decade and even worked on songs together in the studio. It took a while but they finally realized the inevitable: they should actually sit down and make a record together. Their album, Solidarity, marks the debut album for Bill, who has long made home recordings of folk songs he's written both before and after he immigrated to Canada from the UK. For Joel, it was not only an opportunity to work with his biggest musical hero, but also explore another side of his roots through the folk music he grew up with. Noisey got both Joel and Bill Plaskett on the phone to talk about their familial collaboration.
Noisey: So whose idea was this record?
Joel Plaskett: I don't know, it might have been somebody else's.
Bill Plaskett: Occasionally when we play a show someone will say, "You should record an album together." That's one impetus.
Joel: It's always been in the band of my mind too. Dad played on Three and guested on a few other records, a song or two here and there over the years. And we've been doing shows together periodically, back to about 2005. After La De Da came out we did a short tour in Southern Ontario; that was the first time we did some acoustic stuff together. So there is a history of it there, but all of the material was mostly my stuff. And it felt like if we were going to continue to play together it would be nice to showcase what Dad does as well and the shared influences that we have and make a record that was more collaborative. Initially the idea was for my dad to make a record and I would just produce it or play on it. But it turned more into a record that really is the two of us. It's kind of a folk rock record that merges our two worlds and brings out the folkier side of what I do, but still has some production from my pop and rock world. It was really about us continuing to play shows together and giving my dad a bigger role. He's been writing songs for years, and he had a cassette of them, from which we picked a few to put on this record.
Who do you think was more excited about making the record?
Bill: Well, I'm pretty excited about it! For me it's a pretty invigorating thing. The experience of being in the studio and the experience of being involved with the mixing. And now we're involved with the process of translating it for a live performance.
Joel: I was excited to make it too. Part of the joy for me was that Dad was super excited about it. This felt like a different step where I could indulge my folkier side. My dad brings a deep-seated knowledge of the British folk genre, and a lot of my love for guitar playing comes from learning from him and his influences, which eventually became my influences. Whether that was Richard Thompson or Jimmy Page, Bert Jansch was a hero, and that is all stuff I've listened to. It was fun to push it that way.
What artists has Joel introduced you to, Bill?
Bill: I like Those Bastard Souls. When I listen to it in the car it's almost scary. There's also something mysterious. His lyrics are this edgy kind of stuff.
Joel: [Their album] Debt & Departure is one of those albums I passed on to my dad. I've always been a fan of the Grifters, particularly David Shouse. His lyrics and delivery have always had an influence on me, so that was one I sent his way and keep telling people about because you don't hear much about it.
Bill, what did you think of the music Joel was making back in the '90s with Thrush Hermit?
Bill: Well, I heard a lot of it because back in the early days I had to accompany them to the bars when they played. There was an interesting period when the lyrics were buried under this heavy, fuzzy guitar. And I would say, "I can't hear what you're singing about." It did bring a shift at some point, where the vocals came out.
Joel: That was when we sort of learned to sing. To a certain extent. That was an era. And to be fair, we weren't making music for our parents at that point.
Bill: That's right!
I imagine you were purposely trying to make music that your parents wouldn't like.
Joel: I mean, yeah, it was an active decision to do things our parents wouldn't like. You were around back then, Cam. It was a fuzzy time for a lot of bands.
Bill: For me it was witnessing the path you were taking and the way that you were learning your way on stage and how to arrange songs.
Joel: What I do know is different from Thrush Hermit and the way that band evolved, but I think what we did back then was really organic, for the lack of a better word. We were truly a band, and it was a democracy, and by the time we got to our last record, Clayton Park, we had coalesced into a heavy rock band. It changed over time and when we got there it made sense, and when we broke up it made sense. But the one thing that Thrush Hermit always had a sense of in the style we were playing, which is something I still carry with me today, was to understand and enjoy the idea of juxtaposition. We always wanted to try and bring in a new idea to push things around a bit. I tried to take that into my solo career. So I kind of went from the Emergency stuff, which was seeded in rock and roll, but then tried to push it with some folkier stuff. It's all part of the same wheelhouse. I've always wanted to not be doing the same thing all night, basically. I think that came from Ian [McGettigan] and Rob [Benvie] and how we talked about music and how we were always listening to a ton of different kinds of music on the road.
Joel, how was working with your dad different from Thrush Hermit or the Emergency?
Joel: Inevitably it's a quieter affair. Both the record and the touring show we're putting together. The nice thing is that it's allowing some of that quieter and different material to come to the forefront. So with this record, what's different about it is that it goes further back into the influences I had in my childhood that I actively wasn't interested in when I was 19 and 20 playing with the Hermit. There is a lot of Bouzouki on this record, and when I was first learning guitar, I'd pick up Dad's Bouzouki and just jam along when I was listening to Led Zeppelin. And then when things got grungier, Thrush Hermit went on a path where that folky stuff slipped away. So this was a way for me to come back to that. It feels like a pretty natural place, because it really was the foundation of what I was listening to when I was young and it really got me into stringed instruments. And there are a shit ton of stringed instruments on this record. There is a lot of Dad and I just hammering out on strings.
Joel, do you think you would have attempted to make an album like this on your own at some point?
Joel: No, I think it mostly came from the two of us making this record together and having his name on it as well. I wouldn't have been able to do the same thing. I may have produced the record, in terms of getting the sounds and curating the arrangements, but the actual instruments we chose to use were very much informed by my dad. So it was very much collaborative in that respect. I wouldn't have made the same choices had I been doing it on my own. And the instrumentation wouldn't have made sense in an Emergency context. Some of the stuff could sit on Three easily, so it's not so far removed, but because my dad is singing songs that also changed the pace of the record.
I like that there is a tribute to Al Tuck on the album. Were you familiar with his work, Bill?
Bill: Through Joel, basically. I've seen Al play.
Joel: He's one of my biggest influences. You probably know that, Cam. You can hear it in some of my stuff. He's one of the most gifted lyricists I know. Literally I don't know a better writer. He has a knack for words that has really rubbed off on me. In terms of people that I've met, Al is top shelf. He's an awesome guy and an incredible character. His presentation is not always the smoothest thing, so shows can be ramshackle but that's okay. His songs are so beautiful and funny. When I think about the influences for me there's my dad being the earliest one, just in terms of guitar playing and record collection. And then there are the Sloan guys, like Chris Murphy, who was a huge influence on me. Rob Benvie from Thrush Hermit, as a writer and my friend and contemporary, he was a massive influence on me as a lyricist. He would constantly push me to make my words better, because he was a great writer since 14, basically. And there's Dave Marsh from the Super Friendz and the Emergency. And then Al. Of course there are the records that I love by Joni Mitchell, Elvis Costello, and Neil Young. But so much of my influence really comes from the people I know that I've learned from being around and watching them play. I feel like "Dragonfly," the first song on the record, owes a bit of a debt to Al's loping delivery.
You guys have a big Canadian tour coming up in March. What do you look forward to most about this tour, not just as father and son but also as bandmates?
Joel: I'm all about those musical moments and those happy little accidents when you really lock into something that feels unique to Dad and I. Like, there are these times playing together where our voices blend together. The funny thing is I realize that I get a lot of my hard tees from when I finish words from Dad's English background. So there are all of these shared nuances you become aware of when you're actually trying to work together playing music. For me, the other thing is my desire this year and in my life is to do things with people that I care about. I always played with the Emergency for the same reason. It's not like I haven't been already doing that. But I think right now the idea of playing with this family connection, being in the moment is something I've felt, but it's becoming stronger for me now. I think this tour and this record with Dad just feels really natural.
Bill: Yeah, that's my answer too.
Mar. 15 - Truro, NS - Marigold Cultural Centre
Mar. 17 - Montreal, QC - L'Astral
Mar. 18 - Ottawa, ON - National Arts Centre
Mar. 22 - Winnipeg, MB - West End Cultural Centre
Mar. 23 - Regina, SK - WA WA Shire Centre
Mar. 24 - Saskatoon, SK - Broadway Theatre
Mar. 29 - Kelowna, BC - Mary Irwin Theatre
Mar. 30 - Nanaimo, BC - The Queens
Mar. 31 - Victoria, BC - Alix Goolden Performance Hall
Apr. 1 - Vancouver, BC - Vogue Theatre
Apr. 5 - Waterloo, ON - Starlight
Apr. 6 - Waterloo, ON - Starlight
Apr. 7 - Hamilton, ON - The Studio at Hamilton Place
Apr. 8 - Toronto, ON - Massey Hall
Apr. 12 - London, ON - Aeolian Hall
Apr. 13 - London, ON - Aeolian Hall
Apr. 14 - Stratford, ON - Avondale United Church
Apr. 20 - Halifax, NS - Rebecca Cohn Auditorium
Apr. 22 - Port Hawkesbury, NS - Port Hawkesbury Civic Centre
May 4 - Paris, ON - Dominion Telegraph
May 5 - Bayfield, ON - Old Town Hall
Photo by Lindsay Duncan.
Cam Lindsay is a writer from Toronto. He's on Twitter.