Joel Plaskett takes advantage of the changing music industry with new album Scrappy Happiness
Photo by Ingram Barss
After releasing the prolific three-disc-record Three back in 2009, it was no surprise that Joel Plaskett would release his next record in an unorthodox way. The music industry is changing and it’s the artists that are taking advantage of this change that seem to be succeeding. Joel took to the change and decided to record and release one song a week for 10 weeks, documenting the recording process along the way and then releasing the finished products as a record, Scrappy Happiness, when it was all said and done. MSN caught up with Joel Plaskett at the Starlight Room in Waterloo, Ontario to discuss the record, songwriting, rhyming and playing music with his dad.
What was more difficult, recording these songs so quickly, or putting out three records at once?
[It was] different, in a more intense ten weeks. It was probably easier. I get pretty obsessive about any project I work on. Having at least an exit point for this project was good. I know I’m just going to work really hard for ten weeks.
Was it just ten weeks? Because you didn’t write the songs in the same time.
No, the songs were written. We rehearsed a handful of them. Played them here and there, but it was kind of like, “Alright, let’s go to work this week on a song.” The first time the song was ever recorded, is what you’re hearing on the record.
So no demos.
No demos or anything like that. We’ve done some stuff live, and played some songs, but I made a point of not demoing anything, because I didn’t want to chase a demo. I wanted these to be the demos.
You usually demo stuff, I assume.
Yes and no. Most of Three wasn’t.
You played all the instruments on Three right?
Yeah, so it’s different with a band. A lot of the band records get demoed, or get some pre-production going. This was an exhausting ten weeks. By week five, you’re just like, “F***, I’ve got deadlines for another five weeks.”
The video on your website for “Slow Dance” certainly exemplifies that.
Yeah, and I would say that of all of the songs on the record, I would say that’s probably the one that I could see my way through it a lot clearer now. When I was doing it… I like the song enough that I’m happy it’s on the record, but I know if I press record on it tomorrow, it would turn out differently.
That’s interesting. Well, now that you’ve been playing the songs live for a few months, have they morphed?
Yes and no. The record sort of guided us to the live versions. Not all of them are going to get played live. There’s still a few that we haven’t totally tackled as a band. I played “Slow Dance” solo. We don’t do that as band. “Old Friends,” we haven’t done in a while. We were doing it a bit. “Tough Love” was really worked up in the studio, and that became the template on which we do it live. “Lightning Bolt” is the one that morphs a little bit every night. What we’re doing live is pretty true. I’m happy with the record. What has been happening on these shows, because Mo Kenney is opening the shows for us, I’ve been doing a version of “Somewhere Else” where she sings it. It’s an acoustic version, so that’s pretty cool. I’m playing a tenor guitar, and she’s playing six-string. We just do it together, the two of us. I like changing things up. Going electric. Going acoustic. Kind of playing with people’s expectations a little bit… different from what they thought they were going to see. “Lightning Bolt” is a big part of the set, that’s why I opened the record with it. I felt like it was kind of a mission statement for the album.
I was going to ask you that, because it was the last song that you recorded. The sequencing of the tracks was completely different than the way that they were released. Why is that?
I thought it would make a better record. The sequence of recording from week to week… I knew that I wouldn’t know the sequence of it until I was done the album. I didn’t want to be a slave to putting them out in the same order. At that point you’re not talking about ten singles. You’re talking about an album. The sequencing just becomes a part of how to make it flow.
Where do you write? Are you someone who can write anywhere?
I can’t write anywhere, but I just need some time to myself. I’ll write in a hotel room sometimes, but I’m usually too tired on tour to do a lot of writing. Sometimes I’ll just get lyric ideas and just document them. I write a lot at home, late at night, just in a little back room.
On guitar usually?
Guitar, or tenor guitar.
Yeah. I’ve written a couple of songs on piano like “Television Set” and “Rewind.” Those are pretty much the only ones. Then there are a couple of other ones that haven’t been released, that I wrote on piano. Everything else is guitar or tenor guitar, and I use a lot of open tuning and stuff. That’s why I end up hauling a million guitars. I’ve got all of these different songs in different tunings.
Do you labour over lyrics?
I usually edit them a little bit. But usually once I get the meter happening in my mind… I write more than I need, then I edit out what doesn’t seem as relevant. Or sometimes, it’s just, “That was it.”
You seem like someone who gets rhymes really easily.
Yeah I like rhymes. I’ve always liked the sound of language, percussion, rhymes, and meter. I don’t have too hard of time rhyming stuff. I enjoy the challenge of trying to internally rhyme the sentence. Not just the end word. Working off of earlier words in the phrase, so you get more complicated rhymes. You get three words in a line that rhyme with three words in another line.
What was the most daunting that way, on this record?
I like the words to “Lightning Bolt” a lot, just because there’s a lot of them. I like the mission statement behind that song. I think my favourite words on the album are for a song called “Old Friends.” It’s sort of the one song that most people don’t notice form the record. We don’t play it very much.
Why not? If you like it so much.
You want to keep the set upbeat with the band?
Yeah. There are other songs that are bigger moments, like “Natural Disaster” that rock at the same tempo. They are more direct. “Old Friends,” is a song that I wrote for myself and the friends that it was about. I like the words because they are personal.
On the record you sing, “Every young band wants to build The Wall, but a real rock record’s like a wrecking ball.”
I like the line. I guess for me, it’s just like the idea, that you’re out on the road and when you’re young, there’s a million bands playing. There’s always young bands coming up, and it’s great. Everybody who plays music has aspirations, or has the dream of it being something big. The actual alchemy of that happening are kind of for a chosen few. It might have to do with the timing. It might have to do with that talent. It might have to do with the reception.
Are you taking about the popularity of the record, or the creation of it?
Talking about both. Not so much the popularity. More in the idea of it relating to Hüsker Dü, as I mention in that song. They were like a very influential band, but not everybody knew who they were. The power of that record wasn’t in its perfection. Every band wants to make the perfect record. The Wall is like perfect, or some big composed thing. But sometimes just like a punk record comes along just blindsides you. It’s like Nevermind. It blows away everything that came before it. They didn’t know what they were making when they made it. They just made it. That’s for somebody else to determine. Sometimes a band finds its place in history. I’m not suggesting that I’m one of those people, but I think some things are just heavier than others. I don’t mean musically, or sonically. I just mean sometimes the stars align, and what means a lot to me, doesn’t necessarily mean a lot to somebody else either. It’s all a personal thing. I just believe in the power of rock music.
There’s a video on your website of your dad laying down some guitar parts. I know he toured with you a few years back, but does he play on your records often?
He played a lot on Three. He sang on Three. He played on the end of the Down at the Khyber record. He played on “Light of the Moon.” He played on In Need of Medical Attention. He didn’t play on La De Da. He didn’t play on Truthfully, Truthfully or Ashtray Rock.
What makes you think, “Dad come play on this one?”
It’s just the nature of his guitar playing, I knew it would complement that song. He’s a really steady guitar player.
We do something called Five Questions. Five quick questions. One word answers.
Road or Studio?
Isn’t that like apples and oranges? You go nuts if you do either exclusively. Either will drive you crazy. You have to say both.
Lennon or McCartney.
Either of them solo. I love Plastic Ono Band. If I had to pick one, Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band.
When you hear a song, what usually hits you first: music, melody or rhythm?
Song you’ve written that you’re the most proud of.
And in one word, Joel Plaskett Emergency.