Mixing metaphors, making music

Rock Plaza Central improvise their way from jokes to real success

Toronto’s Rock Plaza Central are gaining attention for their improvised brand of folk-rock.
Toronto’s Rock Plaza Central are gaining attention for their improvised brand of folk-rock.

Toronto’s Rock Plaza Central pay more than just lip-service to the idea of creative improvisation in music. Going beyond on-stage songwriting—although they do that, too—everything from the folk-rock band’s membership to its name was made up on the fly.

“We were recording our first bit of music, which was just guitar, banjo and cello, and I think it was the banjo player who said, ‘This is totally rock plaza central,’ as a joke,” said the band’s lead singer and songwriter, Chris Eaton.

That joke wound up being written on the spine of the cassette tapes from the recording session, written in zig-zagged AC/DC print, and became the band’s name.

“It’s a bit of an accident and a bit of a joke and who knows, maybe a bit of a mistake,” Eaton said with a laugh.

The band has had the same seven members for the past three years, but before that, Rock Plaza Central was just a name Eaton used when he played shows to refer to himself and anyone he convinced to come on stage with him.

“My sort of philosophy on music for a long time, and still is really, that I like to change every time we play, so I thought at the time the only way to really do that was to basically stay solo but whenever I would book a show, I’d ask a few friends to show up, and when we showed up, ask the other bands if a few of them wanted to play,” he said.

That kind of laissez-faire attitude paid off in the end. While opening for a band called the Quiet Revolution in Toronto a few years ago, Eaton invited members of the other band to play along with him. By the end of the set, three of four band members had joined Eaton on stage. That was the last gig the Quiet Revolution ever played—the three members ended up joining Rock Plaza Central permanently.

Though the line-up hasn’t changed, Rock Plaza Central is still keen on creatively changing their live show and maintaining that original, unpredictable element.

“The same way the band came together is the way the songs come together. I’d have a little idea for the music and we would play shows where I would just start playing a song and anybody who wanted to put something into that song could, and everybody did—in ways that were both surprising and expected,” Eaton said.

“It’s like somebody’s playing something that surprises you, but it’s also exactly what you wanted to hear.”

Using strings, horns and caterwauling vocals to build big sounds to surround simple lyrics, Rock Plaza Central are rising stars in the Toronto music scene. The band has two wide-release recordings under their collective belt—2003’s the world was hell to us and last year’s Are We Not Horses.

Are We Not Horses, a strange concept album about robot horses, garnered a lot of media and fan attention and the band has been touring almost constantly since its release.

Though the album obviously follows a thematic thread, Eaton said he never intended to write a concept album about horses. Through improvising songs at a number of gigs, he came up with the horse narrative—a little at a time, and always on stage.

“I had written a song with two verses or something and when we played it, it would need to keep going and I’d have to make up lyrics on the fly—and weird, little images seemed to pop up when I was singing on the fly. So a song about being on a boat suddenly became about an excellent steel horse,” Eaton said.

“Even then we weren’t planning to do an album; it was just something fun for live shows. Gradually, we had like eight songs now that were about robot horses who think they’re real horses, so we decided when we went into the studio we’d make [the album] all about that.”

Horses have become a popular conceit in indie rock, but Eaton said the idea came independently of the trend.

“Scott [Maynard, the band’s bassist,] would say that it’s a ‘collective consciousness’ thing,” Eaton said. “There’s probably something going on there where the same images from other people are reaching out and people are collecting these same things and people are being inspired in similar ways. There must be something out there that made people be like ‘Oh, horses are really great.’”

Eaton said using the horse as a focus for the album allowed him to attribute human feelings and experiences on to the horses and remove himself or the band from being the centre of the story.

“They’re everything at the same time,” he said. “They’re in packs and they’re alone, they’re noble and also awkward. … With horses it’s something bigger and more epic.”

Rock Plaza Central are playing this Wednesday, Nov. 21 with Cuff the Duke at Alehouse. Tickets are available at Destinations and the venue.

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