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“Duke of Dartmouth” Joel Plaskett Takes a Look Back at His P.A.S.T.

Nova Scotia's pride and joy, Joel Plaskett talks new album and whether the scenic City of Lakes deserves its sketchy reputation.

by Matt Williams
Mar 16 2015, 2:33pm

Last July, Halifax’s legendary 126-year-old Khyber Centre was peering close to the edge of oblivion. According to a Halifax city staff report, repairs for the aging centre would cost as much as $4 million and was added to a list of properties the government would consider selling. A repair bill that Nova Scotia native Joel Plaskett believes is a “total crock of shit.” While whoever bought the building would have to develop it in accordance with provincial heritage property guidelines, they would certainly not be required to have it remain a cultural hub, which would be akin to cutting off a limb to the city’s artistic community, with 1588 Barrington Street “lucky if it becomes law offices or a façade,” Plaskett says. The Khyber is an integral part of Halifax’s cultural identity. It housed one of the city’s first gay bars back in the 70s. It’s been the home of the Heritage Trust of Nova Scotia. And it was also where a 19-year-old Plaskett met his wife Rebecca, who was working as a makeup artist on the shoot for Thrush Hermit’s first music video. As a result, he along with other members of the community formed the organization Friends of The Khyber to spearhead efforts to save the historic building. So far, it’s worked. Council voted unanimously to take 1588 Barrington Street off the list of surplus buildings for disposal. While the ruling was a small victory, Plaskett believes it's still an uphill battle to restore The Khyber. But one he’s prepared to fight for “I just believe in that connection to the past. When you cut it, it’s gone. You don’t get it back.”

Not surprisingly, Plaskett also commits deeply to that sentiment through the narrative of Joel Plaskett & The Park Avenue Sobriety Test, which contains as many wild twists and turns as the road to Cape Breton. The acronym for the title even spells P.A.S.T., a happy accident stumbled upon over emails to Pheromone Recordings head Kim Cooke. Deemed a “greatest hits of all new songs” by Plaskett himself, the P.A.S.T. is easily the Duke of Dartmouth’s most diverse offering. It turns on a dime from unabashed, giddy funk muscle to tender, classic love ballads, and hazy arena-size mini-epics to sparse, timeless folk songs. In the hands of a lesser artist, these multiple personalities might clash or confuse each other, but Plaskett handles each with ease, and a close listen reveals the true magic of the album: it’s the snapshot of a life, complete with depths of despair, lighthearted laughs, moments of rage, true love, reminiscence, and glimpses toward an unknown future. When Plaskett arrives in snowy west Toronto at Saving Gigi, he's just rushed over from across the street where he taped a cover of Lucinda Williams' "I Lost It" from her classic Car Wheeles on a Gravel Road. It's a song well-suited to Plaskett, and one that also deals with shifting areas and getting older, featuring a chorus that starts with Williams wailing, " I think I lost it, let me know if you come across it/let me know if I let it fall along a back road somewhere." Plaskett shouldn't worry too much yet, because as P.A.S.T. proves, he's still got it.

Noisey: What is the Park Avenue Sobriety Test?
Joel Plaskett:
I was walking my son to daycare, and there was this bent up guardrail in our neighbourhood in Dartmouth. It was all smashed up. A car had come down and jumped the grass and hit the guardrail. I was walking back later and I saw my neighbour Roy, and I said, “Hey Roy, did you see this smashed up guardrail, a car must’ve come down.” And he said, “yeah, yeah, that’s the Park Avenue Sobriety Test.” It’s such a wicked name for a song, it sounds like the Village Green Preservation Society, you know? And so I literally said that to him, “oh man, I gotta write something called that.” I sort of sat on the title for a while, and then it kind of dawned on me what the song could be about, so I wrote the song. About a year ago — I’ve been singing the song for a while — Roy actually passed away, which kind of changed the way I think about the song in some ways. Because it’s kind of about… just dealing with your shit, whatever it is, whatever you get stuck with. Ultimately, it’s like you versus your problems.

Money comes up a lot on the album. How has life and work changed for you since Scrappy Happiness?
I’m fortunate. I’m not strapped for cash and I have a career playing music for 20-odd years, touring and stuff, and Ijust all these opportunities. But the studio where I made the record, the New Scotland Yard, is in Dartmouth on this old street called Portland Street. If you spend almost every day there for the past few years like I have, you start getting familiar with some of the faces, and the disparity with the wealth divide. In general I’m just becoming a lot more aware of these issues and its started to creep into the songwriting a little bit. Ultimately, you’re left to deal with yourself at the end of the day as much as you are with the environment and circumstances. And I’m lucky enough that the problems that I have to deal with tend to be the stuff that I’m wrestling in my own mind, or internal dynamics between me and other people. It’s not like, “oh my god, how am I going to pay the bills?” It’s not a life or death thing.

Do you think the gentrification of Dartmouth, and seeing that economic disparity, has changed your view of the neighbourhood?
The gentrification is not happening that fast on Portland Street. I kind of moved into the end of a street that is just old bars and, if anything, I sort of feel like when you’re in a neighbourhood like that, it’s on you to try to make peace with what’s around you and not try to push it out. The internal dynamics of that neighbourhood have existed for a long time so now I’m a part of it beacuse I’m a business owner there. I certainly don’t want it to be a run-down rough street, but I also don’t want it to change at some lightning speed so all of a sudden you don’t recognize it because all those people are going to have to go somewhere else.

Even a “bad neighbourhood” is a neighbourhood where people have learned to live there forever.
Exactly, so why would you want to push that away? I think it’s just more the nature of the world, sort of like the gentrification of everything, but it’s not even gentrification. You’re just pushing poverty into the corners where you don’t want to look at it. And those corners are getting bigger. At a certain point, it’s not a corner anymore. it’s like 80 percent of the world. That stuff’s starting to make me more and more angry. I’m thinking about a lot of that on the record.

A lot of the time it can feel like a shot in the dark, even when people are trying their hardest.
That’s exactly it. There’s a song on the record called “Captains of Industry” which is a little bit maybe about that idea. There are these forces at play that you’re not even sure how you get to them, what they are and how to even change them, if it’s possible. I’m not trying to get all conspiracy theory here about shit, but there is a degree of that, where you’re like, “what is this system?” There’s a system in place that’s really hard to shake, and I’m thinking about that more and more. But I’m generally a pretty positive person so I’m trying to bring that to the record, too. Keep that liveliness.

How has being a father influenced your music?
I think about some different things, but I think about a lot of the same things. For example, my son means the world but at the same time I’m not writing songs about him to any great degree. I can’t tap into it from a sentimentality point of view too much. I think more it’s made me think about some of these things we’re already talking about, where you’re aware of what kind of world this little kid’s gonna be inhabiting as he grows up, and you start worrying about that kind of stuff. I’m sure parents have been doing that forever. I mean being a parent during wartime? Imagine what that must’ve been like and thinking, “what kind of a world are we gonna have for this kid? what’s this city gonna look like when they’re done bombing it?” So it gives you, certainly, a pause. If anything, the great thing about it is that it’s out frustration and adversity in a lot of perspective, where it’s like, “oh, this isn’t a big deal.”

Tapping into that attitude where you realize half the stuff or more that we worry about isn’t actually worth worrying about is pretty great.
It’s hard to get there, you know? And I come and go from it. I think the mood on the record reflects that, it kind of goes from pretty high to pretty low. I think people can relate to that. I think that’s how a lot of people I know feel. We’re all talking about the same problems; none of us have the solution. You don’t want to be apathetic about it, but you have to be able to laugh about it at a certain point, or else you’re just going to spend your life angry or sad.

You’ve always been an old-school, analog guy. How do you feel retaining those values when music is almost exclusively digital now?
I don’t know if it’s the equivalent of trying to save the Khyber Building or not (laughs) but it sounds better. Tape sounds better, records sound better. There would be some people who kind of disagree but for the most part, most people wouldn’t. Music has been shrunk, reduced to an MP3 or tinny, noisy, crispy top-end. Warmth is being eroded. And then there are things that sound good but they’re all sample-based or like, a quantized drum set with the snare replaced, so it’s like, “oh, it’s a fat snare sound, we took Al Green’s snare and dropped it in!” You’re just kind of appropriating stuff that somebody else spent time doing. You can do interesting things with that technology, but there’s still something to be said for setting up people in a room and documenting on that old-school equipment where you can’t fake it. You can hear the sound of tape on my record, you can hear the hiss. If you listen to the beginnings and ends of songs on the record, you hear the hiss. You don’t hear that on digital records. Some people say, “why would you want to hear hiss?” But to me, there’s something cinematic about the sound of that stuff, too. You feel like you’ve gone into a world where it’s somehow more real than a digital version. It’s kind of like if I take a picture of you on film, or I snap something totally clear, where you can see every spot on your face and every nuance of your eye, you’re gonna be like, “that’s too much!” Whereas, you take a picture with some shade, maybe a bit of blur, some lost information, and all of a sudden you fill in the gaps and go, “that’s a cool picture.”

Like the John Peel quote where someone is trying to convince him CDs are superior because they have no surface noise, and Peel strikes back with, “listen mate, life has surface noise.”
That’s sort of it. You can get overly precious about scrubbing things down to the nth degree and we use computers in the studio so it’s not like they’re not part of the process. But really I cling to tape, I’ve made my records on it, I like the sound of what it does. It eliminates a lot of this really high, high information that’s like a dog whistle. You don’t even hear it, but after a while your ears are tired and you’re not even sure why. But the tape just doesn’t capture it. It’s not even there. One of the things I liked doing for this record was just cutting stuff live; putting people on the floor to play. I had the most fun I think on this record of any record I’ve ever made. It was a blast. All these great friends in the room, everyone bringing their A-game. I cut some stuff myself, too, but I’m still listening to the record hearing stuff that I didn’t know was played.

So you think this has a completely different feel from any of your other records?
I think it is, I believe it is. I feel like there’s a connection to all my other records but this one has a totally different feel. It’s a little wilder, a little more loose, a little less scripted. “For Your Consideration”, probably the saddest song on the record, that was cut live late at night, just me and Erin Costelo on piano, and we did a couple takes of it, but that was probably the first or second take, and I said, “that’s it.” And we mixed it that night. I said, “let’s mix it, it sounds good on the desk, let’s mix it right now,” and it was done. That was the first song that was totally complete. We tracked it and finished it that night.

The difference in dynamic between “For Your Consideration” and “Alright/OK” is probably a bigger one than exists on any of your other albums.
Yeah, it’s all sort of crammed into 45 minutes. When you put them side-by-side it almost feels schizophrenic. But I think in the context of the story the record tells, it actually makes sense to me. There’s a narrative arc to the record in my mind. I don’t know if everyone picks up on it. And there should be ups and downs to an album. I’ve structured it in a sort of way where there’s a kind of reminiscence off the top, and then a separation and loneliness, and then this realization that other people are going through the same thing, and then you come out of it with a sense of humour.

You’re a big cheerleader for Dartmouth, and Dartmouth gets a bad rap from pretty much everyone who doesn’t live there. What’s so great about it?
For me, it’s this feeling of a small town more than anything. I think that’s what people are diggin’ about it. Living there, it’s sort of like, it doesn’t have the degree of development [as Halifax], although more is coming, they’re trying to bring a density to downtown Dartmouth, which I don’t think is a bad thing. A lot of the development that’s happening seems to be okay and in the right places. But the thing about Dartmouth now is, at this point, we have maybe one of everything you need. Like, espresso came to Dartmouth with Two If By Sea maybe four or five years ago. That was the first time you could get something other than diner coffee or Starbucks at the Mic Mac Mall. It’s so recent to Dartmouth, and now you can get it in like three places. So it’s not overcooked in terms of its development and gentrification. It still feels like a small town dynamic.

Is there any truth to the “Dark Side” nickname?
I’m not really the guy to ask, to be honest. I’ve been there 12 years. I think people have gone over there and been like, “what’s here? A bunch of bars and a Chinese restaurant?” But what’s great about Dartmouth is when you start walking through the neighbourhoods, there are these great residential neighbourhoods and a beautiful park, a lot of lakes. You can live there and have personal space but also this connection to a small town. You can get to the city like that *snaps fingers*. I’m a five minute walk from the ferry terminal and my studio so it’s just like my ‘hood. I think the reputation around it is changing. I don’t know that people look at it as despairingly as they did. I think people are recognizing there’s more to Dartmouth these days than there was. Although Dartmouth always had what its got going for it. People are just starting to recognize it now.

@MattGeeWilliams, for the record, loves Dartmouth with all his heart.