Now that I've been a slow convert to his new album, I'll admit now that I wasn't a fan of Eaton's music back then: though he was obviously a clever, thoughtful guy, I felt his songs tried too hard to include as many chords as possible, his voice always went to the same strained high notes to convey drama. He gave up music for years, landing in Toronto and working as a copy writer in an advertising company while penning two novels on the side.
Ten years later, Eaton is fronting a seven-piece folkestra himself--still called Rock Plaza Central--and his songwriting has improved leaps and bounds, largely by simplifying its chord structures and allowing his band to weave themselves in and out of the songs at will. Things were looking up on the 2003 album The World Was Hell To Us, but the band has been thrust out of obscurity thanks to its late 2006 release Are We Not Horses?. A rave review by Stuart Berman in Eye likely tipped off his other employers at Pitchfork, who gave the band not one boost but two. Online orders and MySpace visits increased astronomically. A Canadian deal with Outside Music followed. Last week, the band announced that they had signed a US deal with Yep Roc to re-release the album, and they'll be venturing south for the first time this month. An irreverent, drunken country reworking of Justin Timberlake's "SexyBack" has helped as well, something I focused on in my article in this week's Eye.
A large talking point with this album is that it's ostensibly a concept album about robotic horses and their war with an army of angels--though that's really only there if you want it to be. You can take a line like "I am an excellent steel horse" any way you like, not necessarily literally. Musically, the band made the wise decision to hire Dale Morningstar of the Gas Station studio, located on Toronto Island; Morningstar (of Dinner is Ruined) has a lengthy discography of sculpting sense out of chaos, which is what Rock Plaza Central can certainly be during live shows at times. [It's a common pitfall of seven-piece folkestras; I know this all too well from experience.]
I saw my first Rock Plaza Central show in years a few weeks ago at the Tranzac. It was Eaton's annual anniversary show; he and his wife Laura were married in Sackville on New Year's a few years back, but they held a reception doubling as a rock show in Toronto the first week of January, a tradition they've maintained ever since. (The show this year was also notable for an appearance by Deep Kisses, the awesome rock'n'roll soul revue featuring the Lullabye Arkestra with members of Jon Rae & the River, including powerhouse vocalist Ann Rust-D'Eye. Book them now for your own love-in! Catch them this Saturday Feb 3 at the Boat.)
This interview is edited slightly; I shuffled the "SexyBack" part of our conversation to the front.
Rock Plaza Central
Chris Eaton and Fiona Stewart
January 15, 2007
Locale: Tequila Bookworm, Queen St. W, Toronto
I came across something really strange while researching today. Your Wikipedia entry says, “After a pair of glowing reviews from the influential music website Pitchfork, Rock Plaza Central recently came to prominence as a major indie rock band.” Do you feel major?
C: Wikipedia is a strange place, eh? Did you notice that there’s a footnote on every second word there? Whenever I’ve been on Wikipedia before, nobody cites anything. ‘Here’s the history of Russia, whatever I say it is.’ But this one footnotes everything for only two or three sentences.
F: I do find it entertaining to be in Wikipedia. Only because most of my students think it’s acceptable to use it in the research.
My girlfriend’s 12-year old daughter asked me something the other day, something that every grown adult should know, and I went to Wikipedia to research a simple answer. She caught me and said, “You can’t check that! People just make stuff up on there!’
F: Well, she’s well ahead of lots of people in university.
C: The best is when you go on looking for something, and someone’s erased the entire entry and just wrote: ‘Steve is gay.’ That happened once to me. But it’s usually corrected within minutes. I’m sure if someone changed ours, though, that it would be wrong for a long time.
This record came out in September 2006, and the album before that was in 2003. What do you notice has changed in that time, especially in terms of people finding out about this album much more quickly? It’s not like the internet wasn’t around three years ago.
C: I think it’s a better record, and that’s part of the reason it’s being noticed. It’s something I can’t really explain, though. We’re still trying to break even on the first one, but the second one, we’ve printed 5000 copies already.
Are you more internet-savvy?
C: No, but other people are, and they’ve probably heard it on MySpace. Even Pitchfork three years ago was still really just getting off the ground.
F: Blogs have been a big help.
C: Especially for the ‘SexyBack’ cover. I did a blog search this morning, and found this gay porn site full of explicit shots and right in the middle of it they say, ‘Hey, check out Rock Plaza Central’s awesome cover of ‘SexyBack!’ Things are showing up in really weird places. We have a review coming out in a magazine in the States who described themselves as being ‘in the spectrum between Maxim and Playboy.’ (laughs) That was their own self-description.
Which means what, they show half-nipples? I know you recorded the cover for the Coke Machine Glow site. But surely you must have known that by covering such an incongruous song, one that’s a huge hit, that it would get a lot of attention. Is that part of your grand marketing scheme?
C: It was the only one that worked out. We thought of several songs to cover, but most of them didn’t sound so much different than us, so there didn’t seem much point in doing them. We ran through the song five times and recorded it immediately. The whole song is in A minor, and I actually added a second chord.
Many times, the first time you might hear of a band is through a cover, especially if they take something very well known and do it totally differently, usually acoustically.
C: Most of the time I hate that.
F: I don’t. If it’s a band that’s good and they do an interesting cover, changing a song and re-arranging its elements you can really see what a band is capable of. That’s what interests me about those kinds of covers. Doing ‘SexyBack’ was us taking something unexpected and really putting our own stamp on it.
C: It sounds like it could be on our album.
F: It was an exercise for us, rather than a savvy marketing ploy!
C: I’ve been fascinated with covers for a while. I started a night at Sneaky Dee’s a couple of years ago called Forced Undercover, which was getting bands to come in and I told them what songs to play. Dave Clark had one of the best ones. He did ‘Go For Soda’ and ‘Faith.’ And on top of learning the covers, he took piano lessons and decided he was going to do it all on piano.
F: Sandro Perri’s was great, too. He did a Fleetwood Mac song, which he still does live.
C: It was this fun exercise of taking people out of their comfort zones, and doing songs that they would never think of doing but that I thought they could do a good job with. Most people took it and made it sound like they had written it. Jon Rae did this awesome Modest Mouse cover.
F: Reflectiostack [her other band] did a cover of ‘Enter Sandman,’ and we still play it.
C: Our band did ‘Eye in the Sky’ by Alan Parsons, and two lines of that song ended up in one of our songs.
Your last novel was based on Thomas Hardy’s Pair of Blue Eyes, and you billed that as a “cover version” as well. Did that help bring attention to it?
C: I think so. I’m not sure whether it was in a good or bad way. There were some interesting reviews where people decided they didn’t like it because it wasn’t really a cover or wasn’t that similar to Thomas Hardy. In a song context, when you do a cover, the last thing you’ll change in the lyrics. They’ll change the instrumentation, or might change it from major to minor, but the lyrics and the melody are often the same. Whereas obviously in a book, you have to change the words. It’s about working with tone and theme. There’s one awesome review that one woman wrote saying that if Thomas Hardy had lived through post-modernism and pop culture, he might have written this.
When Zadie Smith’s On Beauty came out, she talked explicitly about it riffing on Howard’s End. And that got her some mixed reactions.
C: I did this reading once out east, and this old man came up afterwards and said, ‘So, when are you going to come up with some original ideas?’ (all laugh) He said, ‘I liked your reading, but are you planning on exploring any original ideas at some point?’ There’s something about constraints that appeals to me. In that book, I knew there were certain plot elements that had to be there.
Now that this album is getting a lot of attention, are there plans to play more outside of Toronto?
C: There would be, but there’s been a lot of new children recently. Three new ones in the past year, and then another the year before that. You don’t want to go away for long periods of time. Fiona and [guitarist] Rob [Carson] are both working on PhD’s, which means regular teaching gigs. We can do long weekends, but doing a real tour is hard. We decided as a group that it’s more important to be together as a group than anything that’s expected of us from a label. A couple of labels told me that I could go on the road myself and get a pick-up band, but that just wouldn’t be the same thing.
How many are you officially?
C: Seven full time people.
Do you play gigs without some of them?
F: We do have some subs ready when people can’t make it. Sometimes we don’t mind having someone different, sometimes we want to preserve the feeling of the seven of us playing together. That’s the ideal situation, but we can do it minus one or two people.
C: We’re going to New York for a weekend in February, and ideally all of us will be there. Same with SXSW, which we’re doing this year. Those are the ones that are most exciting to me.
F: Local shows are sometimes hard to organize for us, but out-of-town shows are booked well in advance.
C: I’m pretty sure local shows are always the seven of us.
F: I’m sure I’ve missed a couple.
C: Oh, really? See, I didn’t notice.
F: Gee, thanks. Maybe you should go on the road with a pick-up band!
The first CD was in 1997, and then there was a six-year gap.
C: In a nutshell, I stuck with the same name because I’ve done it with a lot of different arrangements and different people before. I always thought about it as me with whomever showed up that night. Shortly after the 1997 album, I thought it wasn’t working for me the way I wanted, and I stopped for four or five years and didn’t play much music at all. In probably 2001 I felt I had to do it again, and started playing with whomever I could convince. One night it turned out to be everyone who’s in the band now except Fiona, who was in the UK at the time, and we immediately realized that it was the new band and it wasn’t going to change—other than bringing Fiona in. And apparently Scott knew from that moment that Fiona was going to be in the band too, even though she was on another continent.
When I listen to the new CD, considering how many people and instruments are on the album, it’s often the violin I hear playing the lead parts. Is it consciously the lead instrument, or are you just bossy?
(both appear baffled, laugh)
F: I think that’s totally unintentional. I think people will hear different things. The melody goes through all the instruments at some point. Scott plays a very melodic bass. It depends on how you listen to the record and what strikes you.
C: Or the frequencies on your stereo. I always thought of the band as seven people soloing at the same time. People almost never play a chord. It’s always little patterns. Maybe Fiona’s come out more because she’s swooping in and out of the general pattern.
F: People have commented that it’s contrapuntal to the rest of what’s going on, but it’s not a conscious thing. Anyone in the band would say the same thing. There’s no competition in the band over who’s playing when. Different night, different people will take different solos on different songs. Often me and [trumpeter] John [Whytock] will look at each other and say, ‘Ok, you go.’
C: We don’t have anything set in stone. The best thing is when two of them—and it’s always two of them, not me—are doing something together that’s totally unplanned, coming together and coming apart. There was a show we did in London not too long ago with Don [Murray] on the trumpet and Fiona on the violin, and it was like this other instrument combined.
How much do you cede to your bandmates in terms of arrangements? Do you ever tell them to reign it in?
Not even in the studio, because the album sounds more focused and consistent than that approach might suggest.
C: I think we’re all just that person who reigns it in. Nobody is very show-y.
F: Even the end of ‘Joyful’ when the violin and the crazy electric guitars come in, it sounds totally unhinged, but that was initially a joke. Dale and I were sitting in the control room saying, ‘Oh yeah, that’s gotta be in there.’ The guitarists were saying, ‘No, that was a joke!’ And we said, ‘No, that’s your take. It stays!’
C: It’s amazing to me when we play live that we all end together. Maybe not on the exact same beat, but everything comes down at the same time.
That’s the sign of a group as opposed to people who just find themselves on stage together.
F: Considering a lot of the songs came together in the studio, the arrangements came together while we were playing them. Rob and Scott are more focused on arrangements, so they’d be the ones saying, ‘This is where the horns should come in.’
C: ‘Joyful’ we had been playing for a long time before…
Is that an older song? Because I thought most of these were arranged in the studio.
C: Not much older. Maybe a few gigs before we went in the studio. But I remember having a conversation that this should be a shorter song, because it doesn’t have many lyrics in it. I thought it should be a three-minute song, but it’s six.
F: Maybe that’s when I did elbow everyone aside, because I do hijack that tune a little bit.
C: I think it was largely Blake.
That sounds like one of the more focused songs here, more specifically arranged, maybe just because there are very punchy horns.
C: That would be the overdubs, too. We try and record as many people as possible in the off-the-floor stuff, but horns are always added later.
How did your writing change? A lot of songs here are one or two chords, distilling itself to a smaller thing projected onto a larger canvas. As opposed to your earlier songs, which were…
C: Purposely complicated and convoluted? Yeah. Those first songs were written to play solo. When you’re up there by yourself, it’s important to change around a lot so people don’t lose interest or focus on you. For two reasons, I started writing one-or-two-chord songs. One, it’s easier to follow if you’re playing with different people all the time. And also, when you simplify that stuff, it frees up people more. It took me a long time to learn that!
F: It’s a nice thing when you have a couple of chords that people can play around on. You can listen to everything as it unfolds and not worry about following. Also, that makes it different every time, because you don’t ever want it to be the same.
What role did Dale Morningstar play in all of this? His whole aesthetic is about reigning in chaos, and the idyllic setting of Toronto Island also seems more conducive to letting accidents happen.
F: Dale is a personal favourite of mine. I’ve made many records with him. Now that the studio is on the island, it’s a really wonderful place to be. You can stay over there. It was really nice when you’re in the closed space of a studio working really long days with seven people who are rather opinionated about things…
Go out in the canoe!
C: I was told that, actually. ‘Go take a walk on the beach!’
F: The beach was like the child’s chill-out room. ‘Take a breather in your room.’ And it did wonders. You’d come back fresh and decompressed. Dale has amazing ears, and he comes into his own in the mixing process. With us, that’s really important because of how much is going on in every song. He was really able to sculpt something out of that and make everything sound great. He bides his time before he puts his mark on it. He listens and gets to understand people, and then says, ‘That note might not be the best.’ He was important in making it sound both live and structured.
Considering how opinionated you all appear to be, did you leave it to him to mix it, or were you hovering over his shoulder?
C: I was there, but it was mostly just Dale. People gave me notes, but—I don’t think I’ve told anyone this—I’d say, ‘This is kind of what people are thinking, but do whatever.’ What I like about Dale the most is that he’s really unobtrusive. We’d go into the room, start playing, and he’d just walk around and start setting up microphones.
This might be an obvious thing to say on an album with the song “My Children, Be Joyful,” but this does sound a lot more optimistic and joyful than your previous CDs, more extroverted. I don’t know if there are less minor keys or what.
C: Definitely not that. I think there might be even more minor keys. There’s probably less sevenths or something. Often when the songs are written, they’re not even chords, just a couple of notes, which allows the band to go off on whatever thing they want. I might think of them as being major in the beginning and they might end up being minor. The last album was a sad album, and I knew I couldn’t do that.
I’ve read you talking about how before you met your wife you mostly wrote sad songs. And on the last record, even the supposedly happier titles—“The Things That Bind You,” “I Hope You Live Long”—and they still sound like laments.
C: Half of those songs were about a bad break-up before that. Some of them are about her. But even the ones about meeting somebody are sad, in that early confusion of not knowing where things are going yet. I think you need that. A song that is just sad is really boring. There has to be some kind of glimmer of hope in anything to make it complex enough to listen to. With this record, there was a thematic idea that I wanted to leave behind writing about me, leave behind writing sad songs about me, especially.
Is that a 20s affliction?
C: Probably, yeah. I needed to do something else. The robotic horse thing happened by chance. The idea came one day, and it was one of the best things that ever happened. For something that’s so ridiculous, it opened up all these possibilities to address things that I think are universal—even though in this case they’re robotic horses.
I had a very funny moment at your wedding anniversary show a couple of weeks ago. I was standing in the back within earshot of your wife. Every time you’d introduce a title that sounded like a love song, one of her friends would ask loudly, “Laura, is this one about you?” To which she’d respond, “I told you before, they’re all about HORSES!”
C: (laughs) She told me about that. But they’re also about love and loss and dreams and being happy with you are. The songs that sound the happiest often have the saddest words, and vice versa. The chorus ‘We Will Not Be Defeated’ is in a song called “Song For the Already Defeated.” It’s almost a metaphor for the U.S. military right now. ‘We can win eventually!’ You feel so bad for people who believe they have to keep going. Yet it’s also a joyful thing to have hope.
F: When people say, ‘Oh my god, why don’t they give up already? They don’t give up!’ There’s a strength and a wonderful thing there even if you can’t understand it.
It likely depends on how much you sympathize with their cause.
C: Exactly. So in the case of the U.S. military…
But do all these songs actually tie in with the concept of robotic horses battling an army of angels? Certain songs definitely would suggest that, explicitly or otherwise, but there are others that don’t appear on the surface to be directly related at all, or don’t contain any obvious signposts that would link them.
C: Well, the blackout song, ‘Let’s Make Love Until the Lights Go Out,’ I’d say that’s the only song that wasn’t intended to be about anything other than the blackout. But there were so many other songs with images of lights in them. In ‘Glad For,’ there’s ‘We won’t stop running until we get to the lights.’ In the story in my head, they’re trying to get to this place off in the distance and they can see the lights and they’re running towards them, but the lights are just stars so they never get there. They can’t ever get there.
Do the metaphors ring through the entire record? Do they shift in different songs?
C: Like do the lights always mean the same thing? Not entirely, no. This applies to when I write fiction as well: using similar words, even if they don’t mean the same thing, makes a connection so that people can make their own links.
Does it make a connection or does it confuse them? ‘I was sure on the last song the animals were the U.S. military, and now I think they’re 19th century suffragettes!’ And you didn’t print a lyric booklet, so we can’t read the fine print to find out.
C: It’s really about involving people in it. If people want to create their own connections and decide what those mean, I’m happy with that. It’s kinetic meaning versus potential meaning. If I meant it to mean X, that’s kinetic, but there’s a lot of potential meaning that could take it in any direction.
F: Some people don’t care about the horses, they just like the music. But some people are really, really into the horses.
C: I had an interview with Alan Neale last week, and he asked me all these questions. Nothing about the music at all, all thematically about the horses. He’d say, ‘So in the first song, this means this and this means this.’ And I’m like, ‘Yeeeeeah…! This is awesome!’ He had some neat ideas about stuff that I hadn’t thought of but that made sense to me. It’s not like it’s a linear story. It’s little glimpses of parts that can be connected. Some people think it’s a happy album, and I’ve had many emails from people telling me that as soon as the album was over they started crying, telling me it reminded me of their dead friend. That’s what I enjoy about it.
How do you see those reactions in the microcosm of the band? Do the people in the band have a range of interpretations themselves?
C: There was a debate about the order of the songs, largely based on what they said about the story. It went on forever.
F: There’s a big emotional range in the songs. Whether they’re about robotic horses or about humanity, they run the range of different experiences. Depending on what order you put the songs in, it effects the emotional tenor of the record. Some orders made it really dark and disturbing, and others were really joyful. This one has enough of an overall arc, a unified experience.
If you didn’t end with ‘We’ve Got a Lot to Be Glad For,’ how would the story turn out?
C: That was the one thing I was adamant about. I knew it had to end there, because it really brings it together. It’s saying, ‘It doesn’t matter what happened in the first 11 songs. No matter what shitty things are going on in your life, there are good things too and you should be happy for what you’ve got. Don’t worry about what you are.’ Whenever I do interviews about this album I feel like I’m starting a self-help group!
Did you have any conversations with Laura Barrett before you wrote any of this? [The Toronto songwriter has a song called “Robot Ponies” that you can hear here]
C: No. I was living in Panama the summer that she wrote that song. Someone came into the coffee shop that Fiona was working in and started talking about this band who was writing about robotic horses. She assumed it was us, and we were all shocked when we found out there was someone else. It’s different thematically, but it’s certainly weird that they both surfaced at the same time.
There’s a split 7” in there somewhere. I’m also curious about anthropomorphism, Watership Down, Animal Farm… do you enjoy that kind of fiction?
C: Watership Down is awesome.
F: I was traumatized by it as a child. Did you ever see the animated film? Oh my god. My parents gave me the picture book. Can you imagine, the stills of the bad bunnies ripping apart the good bunnies?
You could do a graphic novel of this album, I’m sure.
C: There’s been talk, actually. We’ve been approached by some weird people.
F: Not weird!
C: Right, they’re all normal, nice, well-adjusted people, which makes it weird that they’re approaching us. There’s a theatre company in B.C. that does theatre with animals.
Can you explain that?
C: They involve animals in their theatre. Often horses. We’ve never seen a show by them, so I don’t know exactly how that works, but they’ve been doing it for at least 20 years. We just met her on the weekend at a show in Ottawa. And there’s a guy who’s an illustrator for the Fantastic Four who is thinking about graphic novel stuff, and his wife does kids books. And somebody got a tattoo of the album cover recently.
Is that a friend or relative?
C: Uh, no. She lives in Vermont! It turned out beautifully, actually. But the anthropomorphism stuff allows you to write about stuff and get away with a lot more things. You can be more melodramatic. When you sing a melodramatic song about people, that’s one thing, but there’s something about anthropomorphized animals that becomes more majestic.
F: Orwell was able to deal with a lot more subject matter in that form than if his characters are people. It’s something that artists and writers have done forever.
C: Horses in particular are seen as being really proud, so having an identity crisis as a horse is a big deal.
We don’t picture horses in therapy. I was at a dinner party the other night, where someone was complaining about the tendency of literary songwriters—people like John Darnielle, Colin Meloy, et al—to over-enunciate when they’re singing, and your name came up as well. Does your approach to lyrics effect your vocal delivery at all?
C: Not really. I’m not concerned with that, otherwise I would have put the lyrics in the album. When I sing, for the most part, because I am by far the weakest musician in the group, I want to do something as interesting with the delivery of the vocals as everyone else is doing with their instrument. I think the way I play guitar is interesting if only because I don’t know what I’m doing; I think I’m quite spastic, and couldn’t strum if I wanted to. When we’re recording, if I lay down my vocal track first, it will confuse other people because I don’t deliver things on the beat and stretch things around. Maybe that’s the opposite of what you’re talking about.
F: I think that person’s concern was that some singers are more interested in the story than the melody. In the case of Dylan, he’s a poet and is very particular about the way he delivers, but it’s also more of a rhythmic thing. But for [Chris], I think it’s more of an emotive thing.
C: There probably are similarities with John Darnielle or Colin Meloy. I just don’t know what they would be.
When I think of Darnielle, I think of a very uptight, clipped delivery.
C: He’s emotive.
He is, but I’m really not a fan, and I’m the only person I know who’s not. Meloy is much more melodic…
C: And he stays at much the same volume and tone. He doesn’t really lose it.
Although I do think both of those guys over-enunciate.
F: I don’t think you over-enunciate. There are a lot of times that, until we go into the studio, I have no idea what you’re singing about. We were all watching The Last Waltz the other day and having some fun at the expense of Van Morrison, and how unintelligible he is there. And the suit, of course.
I think he’s fabulous in that: so over-the-top and ridiculous, especially by the time he starts kicking. But you also know that he’s totally lost in it, and oblivious to anyone else or the importance of the event or anything, he’s just totally in the music.
C: I think a lot of my delivery, in terms of being off the beat, comes from Van Morrison. I used to listen to him a lot. And when he does a song live, you might not even know you heard it.
F: I always loved how he uses his voice as an instrument. I’ve never thought about the similarity before, but with Chris, he uses his voice more as an instrument than as a vehicle for the words.
Just some fact-checking: I know you moved here from Sackville, are you from there originally?
C: I was born in Moncton. My family lives in Sackville now, and I went to Mount Allison. I originally came here in 94, went back for a couple of years, and came back here in 97 to go to York for a master’s degree.
You went back this summer to play Sappyfest?
C: Yeah, it was weird. I hadn’t played a solo show in years. It’s not something I would have normally done, but [co-organizer] Jon [Claytor] asked me to do it. He told me a lot of people were doing solo stuff, which there were, so that was fine. They paid me a bit of money so that I could come home and visit my family.
Did you feel lonely on stage after all these years with the band?
C: Oh yeah. It was so weird. I said something in the set about ‘screw the band, bla bla bla,’ this whole rant. Then some blog the next day wrote that Rock Plaza Central had broke up.
F: I’m glad I didn’t see that. I was in Europe at the time!
C: That’s when I decided we were a ‘major indie band,’ because people were speculating about our break-up.