“Stories are not so much what the truth was, but more about the emotional space everybody was residing in at that time.” – Joel Plaskett
Growing up in Lunenburg, a UNESCO World Heritage site, on Nova Scotia’s South Shore, it was only natural for Joel Plaskett to pick up a guitar and embark on a career in music. Besides the beauty of the setting, Plaskett’s dad Bill is a veteran musician and co-founder of the Lunenburg Folk Harbour Festival. Not long after settling in Halifax, where his family moved when he was 12, Plaskett formed his first band with friends Rob Benvie and Ian McGettigan. Later, with the addition of a drummer, this threesome morphed into Thrush Hermit. In the mid-1990s, the alternative-rock band achieved critical acclaim south of the border. And, its final effort (Clayton Park), released in 1999, was nominated for a JUNO. That is where one chapter in Plaskett’s musical journey ended and a new one began.
Just before the new millennium, after seven years together, three EPs, and a pair of full-lengths, Thrush Hermit disbanded. Joel realized it was time to go solo with a new group of players. Since then, the Joel Plaskett Emergency has released three more critically acclaimed records and Plaskett has released six solo records. Not one to look back, the prolific songwriter released yet another opus in 2020: 44 — a four CD boxset of four 11-song albums connected visually and thematically. But, as the pandemic lingered on, nostalgia embraced the Nova Scotian and he decided to pause and celebrate the 20th anniversary of Down at the Khyber with a livestream concert this past February and rerecording of the dozen songs on this award-winning album.
Amplify caught up with the 46-year-old on a Friday afternoon. What follows in the latest Record Rewind is the JUNO Award-winning artist’s story of the genesis of the Joel Plaskett Emergency and the making of the band’s JUNO-nominated debut.
The Genesis of The Emergency:
The Hermit broke up the end of 1999. I had already played a bit with Dave [Marsh] in a five-piece for my first solo record In Need of Medical Attention, which was more folkie, and released in September 1999 just as we announced the Hermit break-up and final tour. Dave and I formed a fast musical connection. When the Hermit broke, I also had heard that Tim Brennan was coming back to town; he and Dave were the rhythm section in a third incarnation of a band called Black Pool that included Matt Murphy from The Super Friendz. For New Year’s Eve 1999, Catriona Sturton, Al Tuck, and I piled into my 1969 Pontiac and drove up to Cape Breton, where Tim is from, to celebrate with his family. Maybe I have blurred things, and rolled it all into one night, but for my narrative, to the best of my memory, I said to Tim that night, ‘When you get back to Halifax, you, me, and Dave need to get together.’ That was the spark.
The Khyber Building
The Kyhber building was a low rent art space with all this history in the middle of downtown Halifax. There was a bar [The Khyber Club] on the main floor where we could gig and we could set up our gear to record on the third floor. There were cracks in the plaster and a leaky skylight … it is ramshackle by current safety standards, but it was an old gothic Church of England Institute and a gorgeous building. The turret room on the third floor, just down from the studio, had incredibly high ceilings. That is where Thrush Hermit filmed the video for “French Inhale” and where I met my future wife, Rebecca, as she was the make-up artist on that shoot. That building, or more specifically the people who entered that building, changed my life. For me, that space is extremely nostalgic.
When we recently did the 20-year anniversary livestream show for Down at the Khyber I returned to that space and walked through the building for the first time in eight years. I was reminded how wicked it was, but also how hard it was to lug our stuff up and down the stairs at the end of the night since there is no elevator.
Recording Down at the Khyber
Two months after forming our new band, we started to jam in the Khyber building in the fall of 2000. Charles [Austin] was an old friend from The Super Friendz. He was kind to let me rent part of his studio space. We renovated a room next to Charles’ studio Ultramagnetic, affectionately known as The Mullet. We drywalled and isolated that second room from the rest of the building. We also made a rehearsal space next to Charles’ studio. We quickly got the songs for Down at the Khyber worked up and started recording not long after. Ian McGettigan, my old bandmate from Thrush Hermit, co-produced and engineered the record.
The sound of Down at the Khyber owes a lot to the building, and also to Dave and Timmy, who play a certain way. For Dave, we had his kit miked from a distance; he is such a dynamic drummer that you need to mic him like a jazz drummer or like Bonham and it works … when you get distance on Dave, the microphones start to dance and you can hear those dynamics in the way he plays. Ian [McGettigan], who has better ears than I do, carved things up using whatever gear he had in front of him. After hours, we used some of the hallways for recording with microphones. On “Light of the Moon,” the backup vocals, and the main guitar and vocals, were recorded with me sitting in the stairwell with a mic on me and another one dropped further down the fire escape to get these longer reverbs. We also set up the drums in a small room, but we would open up the doors to the hallways with all the old plaster to get the sound we wanted. We had a console and we used limited gear. It was nothing fancy. We had a great plate reverb that Charles [Austin] had picked up from the CBC in Halifax when they decommissioned it and we also had a tape machine I had bought in Toronto after Thrush Hermit recorded Clayton Park on a similar model that I loved. That record has a pretty peculiar sound. It’s not hi-fi, but it was pretty hi-fi for the time. It has a lot in common with the records we loved like Big Star, Zeppelin records, and the Small Faces … it doesn’t sound like those records, but it has the same spirit.
A lot of the songs were written ahead of time or I had played them previously in the Hermit like “Love in the Air,” and “Maybe We Should Just Go Home.” A couple others came together when we started to play the Khyber Club downstairs from the studio. One cover, “Cry Together,” I had learned from a Hortense Ellis record … a Jamaican soul thing. I just loved the way she sang, “You got to do what your art tells you to,” dropping the H of heart. The way she said that was so cool. We were playing downstairs and covering a variety of artists from Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions’ “I’ve Loved and I’ve Lost” to “Walkaway” by The James Gang. All of those influences show up in the way we are pushing stuff around and in the arrangements. Twenty years on, these songs still stand the test of time and they are still fun to sing.
On 20 Years Gone and Revisiting Down at the Khyber
It’s pretty wild! It’s also weird and gives me a strange feeling to think the record is that old. I’ve been busy and made a lot of music since then, but there is a contingent of my audience that still calls this one their favourite. That record just has a certain energy. We had a livestream broadcast in March where we revisited the album at the same studio. We recorded one day with Timmy [Brennan], the original bassist in the Joel Plaskett Emergency, and one day with Chris [Pennell], who replaced Tim in 2007. Then, at the end, they both played on “Light of the Moon.” We filmed the overdubs and stitched it all together. We also re-recorded the record and did a limited run of 500 LPs. It was so much fun. What was really cool about re-recording it is that I feel the new versions still have the spirit of that record and my singing has gotten better since these songs were first recorded 20 years ago. I stand behind the vibes though we created back then. It was the beginning of the Emergency and our three-piece in full flight. It was such an exciting time.
Down at the Khyber By the Numbers:
- Released July 10, 2001
- Named the 46th greatest Canadian album of all time by Amplify contributor Bob Mersereau in his book The Top 100 Canadian Albums
- 82nd in CBC Radio’s 100 Greatest Canadian Albums Ever list
- Nominated for a JUNO in the Best Alternative Album category in 2002
1) Down At The Khyber
2) There’s Love In The Air
3) Maybe We Should Just Go Home
4) Clueless Wonder
5) This Is A Message
6) Unconditional Love
7) Waiting To Be Discovered
8) True Patriot Love
9) Blinding Light
10) It’s Catchin’ On
11) Cry Together
12) Light Of The Moon