ROCK PLAZA CENTRAL with the BESNARD LAKES, WE ARE WOLVES, POP LEVI, BABY EAGLE and WOOLLY LEAVES as part of CANADIAN MUSIC WEEK at Lee's Palace (529 Bloor West), Friday (March 9). $10. 416-598-4753, www.cmw.net. Rating: NNNNN
They're one of the city's most rambunctious, engaging live bands, their latest album is an orch-folk gem, and online indie tastemakers from the wankers at Pitchfork to blogger BrooklynVegan harbour boy-crushes on the group, but in the 12 or so years of their existence, Rock Plaza Central have never held a band practice.
Okay, technically the Torontonian psych-folk freaks have rocked through one official practice. According to band myth, the milestone happened midway through 2003, shortly after the formerly amorphous outfit settled into six-sevenths of its current lineup and shortly before they recorded their first album.
Nobody remembers what happened at the jam, but it doesn't really matter. Formal practice runs counter to RPC's prevailing ethos of serendipitous inspiration and sudden, exhilarating tangents.
"Nearly four years later, we're still just getting to know one another, really," explains Rob Carson, who handles banjo, trombone and guitar duties. "All seven of us have only had that one rehearsal, cuz we just play live. We'd book a show at the Tranzac once a month and Chris'd say, 'Here's a new song,' and we'd just play it.
"It means every time feels just like the first time, like we keep replicating this idea of coming together fresh and new and letting music happen from there."
Five minutes into a conversation with Carson, drummer Blake Howard and vocalist/guitarist/songwriter Chris Eaton, who founded the band, you totally get how their approach works.
It's a drowsy Sunday morning in Parkdale and the caffeine hasn't hit our synapses yet, but the three dudes are shooting ideas across the café table like faulty cap guns.
Snap! A list of all the references to robot horses that have galloped into their collective psyche since Rock Plaza Central released their robot-horse-themed concept album Are We Not Horses (Outside) last fall: He-Man, BraveStarr, Yul Brynner's Westworld, Dutch artists, American military films, bad online artwork.
Snap! A negative review from a San Diego critic accusing RPC of having no emotional depth becomes a discussion about the zoo and Three's Company.
Snap! A treatise on William Blake, the Chrysalids and similar 1950s sci-fi books, Italian Futurists, Canadian painter Alex Colville.
"This is what being in this band is like," Eaton interrupts, laughing. "One tangent after another. If you actually have any questions, you can try to ask them at any point."
Why fight it? The allure of Rock Plaza Central is winding them up and watching them go.
The reason this works in conversation is cuz they're all idea-driven super-geeks (Carson is an English professor, Eaton is a well-reviewed novelist) who thrive on esoteric debate. And though the unstructured looseness could signal disaster for most bands, the reason it works for RPC onstage and in the studio has a lot to do with experience, talent, ties to the local improv jazz scene (Howard plays with Dave Clark's no-holds-barred Woodchoppers Orchestra, for example), chemistry and beer.
"There have been shows in the front room of the Tranzac where we'd play for pretty much nobody," Carson recalls. "And we would drink a lot. There was one night when Don Murray (who plays mandolin and trumpet) spilled more beer than I'd normally drink in a night. We were so used to playing for hours at the Tranzac and drinking so much that if you had to pee you'd just get up in the middle of a song and go. There were enough of us that you could lose somebody and the rest would just cover. But I think there was a song where all seven of us peed."
Those days are likely behind them. Since the Canadian release of Are We Not Horses in September 06, RPC have been on a steady climb out of the tiny Tranzac front room onto much bigger stages. U.S. indie Yep Roc signed them stateside. A bizarro twangified cover of Justin Timberlake's SexyBack, commissioned for a podcast by webzine Cokemachineglow, became an Internet phenomenon.
All of a sudden, the band Eaton started over a decade ago as a casual solo project that included anyone else he happened to invite onstage found bloggers feverishly announcing their "U.S. tour" (at the time, it consisted of two dates) and bookers soliciting them for gigs.
At a recent Williamsburg show, they were shocked to hear the sold-out house singing along to their rickety folk-rock tunes, despite the fact that Are We Not Horses has yet to be officially released in the States.
"It was completely bananas," Howard begins. "In Williamsburg, they wouldn't let us leave the stage and wanted Chris to barf on them and marry them."
Carson continues. "I was eavesdropping outside that Brooklyn show and heard rampant speculation, things like 'I wonder if they can live up to the hype?'"
"'I hear the singer is 8 feet tall!'" Eaton crows.
"'He has 13 fingers! He has laser vision,'" adds Howard.
"Since then, I've heard even more things about that show," Eaton adds. "Apparently, there were sparks coming out of my armpits. They were concerned for me."
An appropriate affliction for a man who managed to translate a garbled lyric about excellent steel horses into a full metaphor-dense concept album about a post-apocalyptic world in which angels have been banished from earth and six-legged mechanical equine beings battle and make sweet love with the lights out.
Considering the current trendiness of all things freak-folk, it's not surprising that people are glomming on to RPC's fiddle- and banjo-enhanced rustic orchestra right now. Beyond au courant genres, though, what makes Are We Not Horses so interesting artistically is the levels of contrast on the album.
There's a neat dissonance between Eaton's arcane visions of a weird techno future (the references to 50s sci-fi writers like John Wyndham in our conversation make total sense) and the organic, acoustic feel of the songs, between the grim doomsday themes and peppy, upbeat melodies. We're talking about an album that features a shouty children's choir on a jazzy song about going gently into that good night.
Eaton says that contrast was a conscious choice.
"This album was supposed to be our happy album, and I think it is - at least the tone of it is. But there's certainly a lot of darkness. I don't think one or the other is very interesting on its own. If you have a really happy record with happy lyrics, it gets saccharin and boring. Same with, 'Oh no, here's my sad song,'" he says, making an exaggerated emo-boy frowny face. "I do think there's a lot of stuff on the last album where even if it sounds sad, the lyrics can be pretty positive. Those combinations are really exciting and interesting to me."
Additional Interview Audio Clips
Chris and Rob explain where the original concept behind the robot horse came from...kinda
Why the fact that Are We Not Horses is based upon an open-ended story and left open to interpretation is key
Is it frustrating to suddendly see more and more people in Toronto jump on the Rock Plaza Central bandwagon now that they're getting positive feedback elsewhere ?
On recording with 24 eight-year-olds
Music from Rock Plaza Central's release Are We Not Horses ?
My children, be joyful
When we go, how we go, part 2
Video for Rock Plaza Central "SexyBack" cover