Words by Sean Moeller, Illustration by Johnnie Cluney, Sound engineering by Patrick Stolley
One distinction needs to be made early in this report on Toronto"s Rock Plaza Central - the pioneers of Canadicana. Lead singer Chris Eaton is attempting to sound like Johnny Cash when he sings, not Neutral Milk Hotel"s Jeff Mangum, you jackals. Oh, the wavy, fly where it may stamp of Mangum"s soft impression of a voice may be there in familiar parts, but that"s not the intention of a novelist who"s been blurbed about by the acclaimed Jonathan Lethem and has written a book that"s been deemed required reading in course study at two different colleges.
He"s got that black, that tarry, inky black in his soul, the kind Cash had. And while we"re at it, wasn"t Cash the first to really define Americana music? It says America more than Son Volt and Uncle Tupelo ever have or will (no offense Son and Tup). We just didn"t label Johnny Cash back then. He did write about coal-burning trains and the kinds of people who take their lumps and then strike back like venomous snakes. That"s America - it"s heart and soul is in taking lumps and then getting even. Maybe the best way to describe Americana is to suggest that it"s a whole set of songs - more than one person can count by more bands than one can count - that are mostly optimistic, but mournful and from the view of a protagonist whose daily routine is waking up on the wrong side of the bed, with sloppy hair and the same kind of outlook on life.
These protagonists are from dead end towns where the industry"s gone south, but the high school sweethearts are still seeking each other out for no other reason than they conclude that there must still be love there and there must still be a way to make it work. Highlights of days include the six-pack of beer that gets demolished every night - half before dinner and half afterwards. There are those who are holding our honorable heroes down and there are various uncontrollables that help to mire the sunshine that gets only short peeks through the clouds.
Cash was great at maybe not getting to what made the everyman tick, but getting to the crux of the matters with those who didn"t usually get to say much. There are a lot of those people in America. It should naturally then be the skeleton for Americana music, rather than a bunch of fake cowboys getting a steel guitar and going at it.
Rock Plaza Central, on this year"s Are We Not Horses?, find the glass to be half empty and half full in a way that makes for well-rounded stories of very untypical business, but business that could be conducted by those characters in Cash songs, just with less bark and bite and more alone time to entertain all of the different remedies. They are not stories about simple love and simpler devotion, but high fiction of such purposeful intention - the kind that wants to tell a real story and not just work through a few minutes in the life of a guy who likes a girl. A problem with us Americans might be that we"d like to hear a lot of ourselves -- as Americans -- in all that we experience.
There"s good reason for that with Rock Plaza Central, a band that has been impeccably formed with musicians who find stunning ways to make their multiple instruments speak the tongues of the lonely and dreamier parts of downtrodden America without ever having to say it. The stories that Eaton pens are not about America. They could be about Canada. Who knows for sure? Eaton said that one of the things he doesn"t understand about the America is the "big book" - the Great American Novel as it"s called. Apparently, they go for the littler books of modest ambition where he"s from, but he spilled that he was himself working on one of those great big books that American writers set out to make before they drop out of the race. He"s working on that great book, but he already completed an album that"s as big as can be.
The Daytrotter Interview:
*We've talked about this a bit, but what were the circumstances surrounding Yep Roc signing you? This was a great land by you, wasn't it?*
CE: I think so. To find someone who still believes in cultivating an artists at their own speed instead of cranking them through a "this is how records are sold" model? The whole music world is changing so fast, there should be no more rules, so it's fascinating how you can talk to half a dozen A&R people and they sound they're reading from a manual. The Yep Roc guys all really seem to love the record, and are pushing it really hard because of that.
*With so many people in the group, are there members who get out of driving the van all that much?*
CE: Without a manager or booking agent or anything (a new approach to independent, I guess), we've been trying to delegate the work around the band. So I was happy to say right off the bat that I will never drive the van. Gladly give up some time to do paperwork for that.
*What don't we Americans get about Canada?*
CE: Ketchup chips and Smarties?
*Are you working on another book already Chris?*
CE: Yeah, I wrote about half a book a couple of summers ago while living in Panama with my partner. She's brilliant, and was provided with an internship doing community arts projects with indigenous youth down there. And then I had to work a lot to get myself out of debt and then the music took off, but I'm trying to find time right now to pick it up again. It's one of those mammoth books that always seem to get written by Americans, not Canadians. It's what we don't get about you. The big book.
*Which authors inspire you to put words together in an interesting and new way?*
CE: I really love Raymond Queneau. And Cormac McCarthy. And William Gaddis. And William Vollmann. There's some more mammoth book guys. Probably one of the best books ever is Georges Perec's Life: A User's Manual. It's the biggest inspiration for my current book, as both explore trying to make a compelling book without a real main character to follow through it, or any sort of linear plot. It's something that fascinates me more and more, trying to create a complete picture by showing random parts, much like we wrote the new album.
*We loved the approach you took with your session with us. Can you tell me what you all wanted to do and how it felt?*
CE: I guess we all wanted to have fun. So we had no plan. We kind of felt we would gravitate to the first instruments we saw and play them. The funny thing is that we thought maybe we were just annoying you guys, that you wanted us to just get on with it. That's how we do everything, though. Roles seem to have become more defined as we play more and more shows, but in the early days we used to run around the stage grabbing each other's instruments and playing them instead. Fiona's been plotting to steal Rob's trombone for some time now. Me, too. Seems we all played in high school.
*What do you all do for day work? Has it been hard for everyone to be committed to the silly act of rock and roll making and touring?*
CE: I don't think jobs have really gotten in the way of anything. It's harder to tour because we love our families. John's the only true 9-5er. He's trying to make sure we don't all die from global warming or something. Sometimes I try to make sure we don't all die because we don't all know about a new cell phone. And I think Rob tries to save people from the boredom of Shakespeare. I think he's winning that fight. In the end, we're mostly committed to each other. We want to keep making music. Lately, people from farther away have wanted to hear it, and so we've brought it to them. But in every case so far, we have gone not because we decided to book a tour, but because someone heard the live show was fun and asked us to come. I don't think we've said no yet. At least not outright.
*Does Jeff Mangum hold a place in your heart?*
CE: No? Not really sure how to answer that. I personally own In an Aeroplane over the Sea, and I really like it, but despite how much I think "Be Joyful" sounds like it could have come from that record, I wouldn't have considered it an influence. And the way we create our songs, it's purely coincidence. Everyone decides what their own part is going to be, and half the band has actually never heard Neutral Milk before. The funniest part is when people say I'm trying to sing like him. I thought I was sounding like Johnny Cash. Really, listen to songs like "Our Pasts Like Lighthouses." I was under the impression in the studio that I nailed it.
*Do you approach songs different than most writers/bands -- with a mind more attuned to narrative and story-telling?*
CE: By and large, the songs come out of kernels of ideas that I just start playing at shows. So we're probably one of the only bands that writes its songs on stage in front of people. Or they get written in the studio, in first takes, so that the version on the album is often the first time the song was ever played. And basically we all love albums more than singles, and so a narrative was a way to keep this one as a whole as much as possible. The War on Singles!
*What are you spoiled by?*
CE: Getting to play with these people.
*Who was the last famous person you met?*
CE: I tend to not leave the house. But we were really excited when Mary Margaret O'Hara came to one of our shows recently. We're trying to maybe do a collaboration of some sort, which would make us all pee our pants.
*What do you want people to say about you at your funeral?*
CE: Tell them about how I gave to charity. And tried to love my fellow man the best I could. But most of all, don't forget about the time on the beach. With fireworks above us. Oh, oh, oh...
*Who's not considered a living genius, but should be, in your mind?*
CE: I guess I have to say Smog now. Vollmann's still alive and pretty brilliant. Sorry to say that Perec and Gaddis are not. And have you heard Stina Nordenstam's music? Busta Rhymes?