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Plaskett / Elkas story in Citizen today


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Indie rockers share struggle

Collaboration benefits singers Joel Plaskett, Peter Elkas

T'Cha Dunlevy, The Montreal Gazette

Published: Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Joel Plaskett and Peter Elkas, good friends and now touring buddies, find solace in their shared status as Canadian indie-rock singer-songwriters staking out a place for their music in challenging conditions.

They play the Capital Music Hall Saturday, with Elkas opening, then joining Plaskett and his band, the Emergency.

"We've played the same clubs, toured together, been frustrated by the same walls that get presented and challenges in terms of getting your name out there," said Plaskett, on the phone from his home in Dartmouth, N.S.

Those walls are starting to come down. In the case of former Montrealer Elkas, they're burning down. His softly sung and eminently soulful second disc, Wall of Fire, was produced by Charlie Sexton.

Sexton shot to prominence as a guitarist for Bob Dylan in the late '90s, playing on his 2001 album Love and Theft and returning for an appearance on 2003's Masked and Anonymous. Sexton also produced Lucinda Williams' Essence album and Edie Brickell's Volcano, among others.

Elkas says his collaboration with Sexton was a surprise.

"When Charlie's name came up, I had no idea how it had happened. It was just my manager doing what managers do. Suddenly he said, 'Charlie Sexton's going to call you.'"

Shaky Trip

A few phone conversations later, Sexton was on his way to Toronto -- the prospect of which made Elkas nervous. "I was sh---ing bricks," he said. "I thought we would blow it."

They didn't, of course. He and his band played Sexton their "tightest track," Wall of Fire's title track. "Charlie walked in and said: 'You guys sound great.' The next thing I knew, he was setting up a drum kit."

Sexton became an aggregate member of the group for the recording, as a second drummer beside Gavin Maguire and, of course, as a guitarist. As a producer, he contributed by convincing Elkas to simplify the music.

"I was all into this soul vibe," Elkas said. "He was concerned about it not being believable. He reined us in, saying: 'Not so many harmonies. You sound like you're trying to be something you're not.' I appreciated that. It's easy to get caught up in your own thing."

While Sexton was getting Elkas to tone it down, Gordie Johnson was getting Plaskett to beef it up.

"His intention was to get us out of the club and into the arena," Plaskett said of the former Big Sugar and current Grady frontman, who has produced albums by Reel Big Fish, the Trews and Gov't Mule. Johnson also produced Plaskett's Make a Little Noise EP, featuring the radio hit Nowhere With You, released last year.

"He said, if you're going to make a hook, make it a big hook."

Plaskett's recently released fourth album, Ashtray Rock, may be Plaskett's most hook-filled CD. Irresistible riffs, funky beats and singalong choruses abound. And if that sounds like fun, it is.

"I had a really good time," Plaskett said. "I really enjoyed singing on this record ... I'm getting a little goofier and less precious about it."

Plaskett's former band, the Juno-winning Thrush Hermit, was part of Halifax's post-Sloan rock explosion of the mid-'90s. Ashtray Rock, a concept album about two young guys in a band who have a falling out over a girl, was inspired by his musical youth.

"It's not totally autobiographical," he said, "but I was thinking about Thrush Hermit, and playing music when we were young ... We all met when we were 12 and 13. One guy would date a girl, they would break up, then the other one would be going out with her."

Now 32 and happily hitched, Plaskett tries to balance making albums and touring with the comfort of married life.

"It's a juggling act. I care about my wife, and want to be at home, but I'm compelled to do this thing, going out with the boys and playing rock'n'roll."

Which is where Elkas comes in.

"We have a mutual and longstanding friendship," Plaskett said. "We love each other's music."

The lines blur on tour when, after performing in the opening slot, Elkas returns to the stage to play guitar in Plaskett's band, the Joel Plaskett Emergency.

Elkas has also been popping up in the opening slot for another Canadian singer-songwriter, the venerable Ron Sexsmith, who appears on Elkas's album.

Elkas said that happened because his bass player, Doug Friesen, also subs in for Sexsmith's bassist.

Sexsmith stopped by the studio when Elkas and his band were working on the song Willpower. "He said: 'I think I might have a harmony for that.' OK, twist my arm."

The Joel Plaskett Emergency and Peter Elkas play the Capital Music Hall, 128 York St., Saturday. Tickets & times, Ticketmaster at 755-1111 or ticketmaster.ca.

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