It is a rainy, miserable night looking outside the entrance to DCs Black Cat. Rain drips down the glass pane of the Cats quaint Food For Thought Café. Inside, Rock Plaza Central frontman Chris Eaton comments, Man its horrible outside, no ones gonna come. The very thought that a band as creative and talented as Rock Plaza Central has to worry about selling tickets to their shows is upsetting to say the least. And sadly, Eatons premonitions were not far off, as a mere thirty-some people were in attendance in the Black Cats back stage. It was a small crowd in an intimate space, but for those who did come out to see the Americana army that is Rock Plaza Central, it might as well have been a sold out show. With an onslaught of horns, banjos, violins, mandolins, pounding drums, and guitars, Eaton and his bandmates produce a sound that puts many popular indie acts to shame.
Whether coasting through tracks from the newly released …At the Moment of Our Most Needing, or instrumentally crafting the rusty metallic sounds of Are We Not Horses, Eaton and his five stagemates captivated the small crowd song after song. Opening with Horses I am an Excellent Steel Horse, nearly everyone onstage shared vocal space, producing brilliant harmonies where it counted. The repetition of lines like Oh I Can or I am an excellent steel horse, as sung through five voices, produces a powerful, spine tingling effect.
Alternating between banjo and guitar, and surrounded by horns, strings, and mandolin, Eaton howled through each song with passion. Textures aplenty, songs culminated in one mass of folk instrumentation. But no one song stood out more than the glorious Fifteen Hands, a tune brilliantly recreated by the group in the live setting. On record, it perfectly illustrates the sounds that 15 legged robot horses would make if they were found somewhere other than Eatons mind. On stage, guitar and mandolin strings scratched like rusted metal legs, drums galloped and nayed, and the horses might as well have been right up there with them. Close your eyes, and you were watching these machines speed through the furlongs.
I sat down with Eaton before the show to discuss the new album, concept records, Justin Timberlake, and Jonah Hill. Eaton provided quite a bit of insight into his songwriting, among other things.
So first off, I love the new album. I understand that it was partly inspired by Faulkners Light in August. How much would you say the novel influences the album and how does an influence like that come about? In your case, is the inclusion a conscious thing, does it just sort of happen, or both?
Chris Eaton (CE): Thats a good question. I guess it was a conscious thing . . . but happened. I guess we started to write songs, and the lyrics were sort of coming together ’cause we often do new songs at shows before theyre really even figured out. There were themes that were coming up and then one day in the car I started reading this book and realized Oh, this is great and started referencing that. And just that kind of feeling or tone of that kind of era of America felt right. I wanted to make sure that the words went with that.
Is it a continuous narrative? I notice narrators switch between male and female?
CE: No, no. Well the book has probably 12 or 13 main characters. Every chapter is from a different point of view, even though it tells a story. The first chapter is this young woman and then she meets this guy and its from his point of view and he meets another guy and then it’s his point of view. It kinds of goes around a lot. Largely there were two or three characters I was thinking about a lot when I wrote it. Mostly the first character is this young girl who finds out she is pregnant and tells her, uh boyfriend is probably not the right term, but guy she is sleeping with. And he says, “I’m gonna go to the next town and find a job and ill come back,” but hes totally just Im getting out of here and he never comes back. She goes out to look for him. The World is Good Enough is a lot about that. Even Oh I can.
The idea of her leaving her town that shes never left to go out into this world to find this thing. She hitchhikes a lot, and how dangerous would that be for this 15-year-old, eight months pregnant, going off and getting rides from whoever? I mean, its a different time period, but the idea is that moment for her should be a very frightening decision to make. But for her its just the right decision, she just knows she has to do it. And it becomes a sort of “better to have loved than lost” kind of story. It doesnt matter that in the end she finds him and hes totally not in love with her, and is trying to avoid her, because the experience of the relationship that she has at that point is worth anything.
I feel like a lot of the time listeners hear about these influences or themes, but I think its hard for us to not make that idea THE STORY of the album. Do you think that should be the focus of the album, or just an element?
CE: Much with the last album, I dont think people would relate on the level of Oh, Im also a robot horse right? And maybe its easier to separate in that instance. But also, nobody is a 15 year old girl in the 30s or 40s, but we all have been in that situation where we make a decision to go do something even though its really frightening or even though it may be the wrong decision. But we have that faith and determination that were gonna do it and failing at it may be the best thing.
So would you say thats the central theme?
CE: Yeah. Whereas the last album was about trying to figure out who you are, more of a I think Im this, but other people are telling me Im something else. This one is more like all my life Ive been striving for this one thing, but it wasnt the right thing. Kind of working towards the right goals, I guess.
So I mentioned that I love the new album, but what I first heard from you guys was your album, Are We Not Horses. How did you decide you were going to make such an elaborate abstract story? How did you come up with the Horse concept? And was it your intent to make a concept album from the start?
CE: The same sort of thing. Those themes were coming up of identity and stuff. And at a show I just started talking about . . . The actual first time the line came up, I am an excellent steel horse that song, the song was about something else. I was singing other words, and it kept going on one night. We were singing it and one time I sang the words and then didnt sing them how I had intended to and that line I am an excellent steel horse came out. It came out and I realized, Oh, that links everything. With the new one, its like you have all these little ideas coming around and then all the sudden you find one thing that links them all together and then guides the rest of them.
Its a funny term concept album, I think most times when people do it, they really go into it with that kind of . . . theres a distinction between concept albums and rock operas and stuff. Most people go into it thinking, I want to do this. Whereas we have gone into our records thinking we want to make albums . . . as the distinction between an album and a song. I think most bands write songs . . . and to some degree some of these are songs and as Im writing things between albums Im thinking of the other songs Ive just written as well, and how they work together. And that, I mean really, every album should be a concept album. It just happens that most of them, and that concept being they actually work together, it happens that most albums tend to be collections of songs that may or may not. The good ones I think always have that.
So yeah, we did definitely intend to make something that would be better listened to start to finish than in chunks. Its the same thing with the new one. Theres moments on the new one that I feel like . . . I had a bunch of records when I was a kid that were like, you know, the story of the unfriendly giant, and in between there were these little instrumental bits. And theres moments of that for sure, where it feels like a story book. But, yeah, we wanted . . . and I think what we didnt do with the last album that we did with this one, was musically linking all of the songs. Not even by words, but theres, the keys are the same, they flow into each other, there are little musical parts that appear in other, different songs and stuff, so. Its just a way of making sure, its trying to fight against the iPod and the shuffle button.
People often compare your music, both aesthetically and in songwriting style, to Neutral Milk Hotel and Will Oldham. Would you say those are two artists who you think have influenced your sound? Who else have you guys been listening to, whats in your record collection? I notice a little more of a shift to electric on the new album.
CE: I have the Neutral Milk Hotel, the In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, I have that album. And I listen to Bonnie ‘prince’ Billy a lot, I think hes a great lyricist and singer and everything. Although, I dont think we sound like him very much.
I can see what theyre saying, I feel like your voice is the synthesis of Mangum and Oldham.
CE: Oh yeah!? Will Oldhams a way better singer than either one of us. But uh, the band as a whole . . . and I think youre right . . . I think those comparisons come about probably because of my voice more than anything.
Well I think on the new album especially aesthetically and by approach it sounds very similar to NMH. Not the sound specifically, but the way you approach it. Because if you listen to In the Aeroplane Over the Sea its much like a story and theres a lot of musical interludes.
CE: The new album? I guess I never thought about it like that. I havent listened to that album in a long time too. Itd be interesting to hear. I always figured that most of the comparisons came about from voice and on the Horses the way I strum the guitar, I think, feels like that as well. But, Im surprised that anybody would think it was NMH with this album. But, I guess if youre gonna be compared to somebody, it should be somebody good. (laughs) But, what I was gonna say, the way, because were creating songs often at shows or just while were recording. . . theres no . . . we dont ever talk about where we wanna go with it. And we all have really different influences, where were coming from. And its amazing to me that we end up where we do, and we like what we come up with. I dont think any of us listen to things that sound like us (laughs). And, for Neutral Milk, I think there are two of us on the last album that probably listened to Neutral Milk Hotel, like ever. Probably theres a couple more that would listen to Oldham, but uhh, yeah. Its the natural sound that comes out of the seven or five or six or whatever of us working on something.
What have you been listening to a lot and what do you think has influenced you directly?
CE: We listen to a lot of weird things. Well, in the van when were touring we end up listening to a lot of classic rock stuff and I think that theres some influence of that on the new record. Certainly in the live show, its a lot louder. And Scott [Maynard] seems to just collect, like hes got millions of songs on his ipod and its always on shuffle and theres always just stuff that I’ve never heard of. My musical history is sketchy at best. Like, ill be like, you know, I wont know anything. Some songll come on and Ill ask Whats that and hell be like . . . Dylan . . . or like The Band . . . I guess that makes me sound not very diverse, Dylan and the band, pick two people who are closer, right? But yeah, its neat to me that we end up in that place cause its not . . . I mean if we made solo records and wrote all the instruments we would never come up with that album, these albums.
As far as song structure, I notice a lot of the songs sort of revolve around one phrase or sentence. For instance I know I can or I am an excellent steel horse. They kind of play out like mantras from which other lyrics and thoughts branch off of. How would you say you approach the songwriting? Does it start with a fragment of an idea, like one of those phrases, and then kind of grow from there.
CE: It seems to be becoming that, like this albums a lot more of that. Like, the album before the last one, I think theres one song that has a chorus or something. But, I used to write things that had like no choruses, or anything, and I didnt write it that way. I think many of the songs do have choruses, but theres something in repetition that really appeals to me. And, its the same thing I do in my fiction as well, although its not as obvious because its spread out over a lot more. But something on the new album like Oh I can, that repetition of Oh I can over and over I think takes you through a number of stages of what it means. So that, you know it comes off . . . I think in the album it starts off feeling a little bit faltering, like, Im not totally sure if I can. But then builds into this majestic thing. The more its repeated the more it feels likemaybe, I mean it depends on what mood youre in when you listen to itbut its like a desperation, like youre trying to convince yourself you can and then I think comes around to a majestic sort of thing. Like, yeah I can do this. I think its really neat that you can do that over and over. Its kind of like telling the same joke over and over, and it can be funny the first time, and then becomes really stupid, but then its funny again. That happens a lot on the road, for sure. You end up telling the same jokes over and over again, the same references keep coming up again.
Do you write the music and lyrics at the same time?
CE: Yeah. I mean for the most part. They normally come together like one or two of the lines of lyrics, with a [musical] phrase and then the rest would probably come later. Like actually finishing the lyrics and stuff. Like Oh I can that just came out of a show one night, uhh, on that tour while we were reading the Faulkner book. And it had come out just in another song, I just started singing Oh I can and we did it together, and just the harmonies sounded so good that we just kept doing it. And then one night, the last night of that tour, there was a part in Light in August where this one character hes forgotten something and he has to go back and tell somebody something, but its uphill. And he knows that doing it is really going to ruin his life, but he decides to do it. Hes like I can bear a hill; a man can bear a hill. That sort of thing. And the end of that too, I can give down and cry, I think thats a direct lift from the novel, I can bear down and try, but I wont bear down and cry. I just happened to have read that that day, and so then all of the sudden at the show I started singing those things, and it sounded good. So thats how the song came about, and we were in the studio the next week, so . . .
I just recently found your awesome cover of Sexy Back. What prompted you guys to cover Sexy Back? It was actually surprisingly not funny. Its certainly an interesting idea and you definitely make it your own.
CE: I dont think you should do stuff to make them just funny. We were asked to do a cover of a weird song, like a hit song. And then you know, I dont think anybody did it funny. There were 12 different artists, and everybody went in with real sincerity, which made them all work way better. Because, a funny song is only funny so long. People come to that song originally thinking, oh thats hilarious but I think it just gives it a new . . . it puts a bit more emotion in the song and it gives it sort of almost a new meaning. Im really proud of that. We dont do a whole lot of covers. Were thinking about doing some more because we are doing a lot of radio sessions in the next few weeks and were asking do we really want a lot of different versions of Handsome Man? So were thinking about trying to play a lot more covers. We never do covers at shows except for one thats on one of our earlier records. But, theyre fun to do sometimes. And if you can do it in a way that adds something to the song, then its worth it.
Howd you choose “Sexy Back”?
CE: I dont know. I was having a really hard time with it. We almost did a Bonnie ‘prince’ Billy song, but then when we sat down to do it we realized that what we do and what he does is too similar to make it any different. And then somebody suggested Justin Timberlake, and I immediately thought of another song on that record that I think is a way better song, but it just didnt feel right, whatever we were trying to bring to it. And while we were in the studio I just started playing the song that way, and everybody joined in and before we knew it was recorded. (laughs)
What should we expect in the future from Rock Plaza Central? Any new novels or albums in the works as of now?
CE: The new record is now, right? (laughs) Its not even out in the states yet, so thatll be next. I am working on another book that Im hoping that, I think well tour for the summer and then maybe take the fall off again, and hopefully I can find time to finish the third novel and also maybe write another record and record that in the spring or something.
CE: Yeah, we spent the last couple of years playing a lot. And I like playing. And I really would rather travel and play less and then write more stuff. Like, Id be happier making a record a year and then touring just for the summer instead of putting out something and touring for two years and then spending the next six months working on a record. You, know I think its better for everybody. Going to see live music is great but, yeah. The CDs should be good too. I personally like listening to CDs more than I like seeing a live band. Maybe thats because most bands dont try to do anything different in a live show. So its like a replication of their CD, and they dont do it as well live sometimes, right? The really good bands are the ones that they just go, and sometimes you dont even know its the song. They just rip everything up and go out there and play. We did a show with Akron/Family and they just go out there. I dont even think they know what theyre doing half the time, but it sounds amazing.
On a side note, did you hear about how Jonah Hill recommended you guys?
CE: Yeah! I dont know how he got the record or anything, and Ive certainly never met him. It was in Alternative Press, or whatever, AP. But I tried to get a hold of his agent or something, and I couldnt, nobody really responded. But, I was like, dude, well send him a shirt. I’d love to see him wearing a Rock Plaza Central shirt in a movie or something.
Eaton and I shook hands and made our way back through the Cat’s Red Bar and into the secondary stage area, where the band would perform. Sipping his beer, Eaton stood and watched openers, Suckers, before heading through the Staff Only door frame, only to reemerge with his bandmates as performer. Eaton, however, refused to let the “performer” role restrict him, and he talked to the small crowd in between songs and earnestly shared his humorous anecdotes. The show was one of the first on what Eaton referred to as “the oragami tour,” as he attempts to make a new piece of oragami before each show. For D.C., the centipede he had tried to fold out earlier on was a disaster. It’s a good thing, however, that Eaton and co. are much better at playing great music than they are at folding paper.