Plastic Ants: When rock and classical collide
Falling To Rise, the new album from indie rockers Plastic Ants, starts with a piano-based power ballad “Hang On To The Good That You Got” that sets the mood for the album. It’s a somber number that has overtones of all the great Brit pop that came out in the ‘90s (think Blur, Oasis and Pulp). The former editor of Alternative Press magazine, singer-guitarist Rob Cherry called us from his Cincinnati home to talk about the album and his various influences.
I know you once worked as the editor at Alternative Press magazine. When did you start playing music?
I was at AP through the ’90s. I was there for a full ten years as editor. I started writing songs when I was 13. They weren’t good songs but I was encouraged by my parents. I took up guitar and it’s become a constant passion since then. When I moved to Ohio in high school, I started playing in clubs as at the age of 16. I shared the stage with [the Cleveland post-punk band] Death of Samantha in the early days. They made fun of us because we were a synth pop band at the time and they were what they were – a feisty post-punk band. We eventually became friends instead of rivals.
Where did you move to Ohio from?
I moved around a lot as a kid. I was born in upstate New York and lived in suburbs of Boston and of Chicago and of Milwaukee. As a freshman in high school, I moved to Cleveland. Even though I have lived in Cincinnati for the past ten years, I still consider Cleveland my hometown.
Would you say that you’ve been influenced more by British rock than by American rock?
I definitely favor the British scene. That conversation across the Atlantic has been going on for so long that’s it’s tough to tell where it started. I’m just interested in the best of rock and pop. There’s a British influence — Bowie and Beatles and Stones. Playing in a group, I’m just one voice in that four-piece band. Everyone brings in their own influences. What makes it interesting now is that we have a guy who’s classically trained. He had never played in a band setting. [Bassist] John [Curley] thought he’d be interested and he was. It’s a mix of rock guys and classical guys and a woman who plays cello in the studio, we ended up in this space where the common frame of reference is Abbey Studios in the early ’70s, from George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass to Pink Floyd and someone has even said that we have some Alan Parsons going on. I don’t any of us listen to them but I can see that going on.
Tell me about how the band first came together.
It’s had a really convoluted history. It really started in 2009 when I moved to Cincinnati. I looked up John because I really loved the sound he was getting at Ultrasuede Studioe. We hit it off and he was not only recording my music but contributing bass. I had friends in Toronto from a band I knew from up there. They came down to Cincinnati to record. We became this wildly impractical band of members with dual citizenships in America and Canada. We did one mini tour but realized having them make a 16-hour drive wasn’t sustainable. We brought in Joe [Klug], who also drums in Wussy, and Guy [Vanesse], who is the classical player. We thought it was still my songs and not far removed from what we were doing with the other guys so it made sense to keep it rolling. I think we put our first release in 2009. We still do songs from that when we play live. There was a big gap and then this new one that came out last year but just now we’re able to tour this year.
Were you trying to do something different with this album?
It’s interesting collision between classical and rock. I don’t even consider it rock music. It’s hard pop with timeless classical arrangements. We wanted to keep the instrumentation more acoustic because that’s where the songs originated and closer to how they were written. We like that instrumentation in terms of how timeless it can be. The collision of rock players and classical players made for some funny moments in the studio. At one point, John and I were trying to explain the appeal of AC/DC — a guitarist wearing a school boy’s outfit accompanied by a shirtless singer shouting sexual innuendos. They gave us this blank look and humored us. Now, we’re working on the second album and it’s coming along well.
It was recorded and mixed by John at Ultrasuede. Talk about what it’s like to work with him.
You have expectations of someone from their public persona. I was hoping he’d be this solid guy and he’s just that and more. He has a dark sense of humor. He’s open to trying everything. He’s a great audio engineer. As a producer he’s almost like a psychologist and he knows how to pull the best out of people.
What inspired the vintage-flight-attendant-themed album trailer and making-of-the-album info graphic?
The whole album had this aviation theme and we wanted to do the vinyl because it gives you an enriched listening experience. There’s this odd image of a plane that’s cut in half and sitting on the ground, suggesting it’s had some bad times. You open it and you’re in the cockpit and you put the record on the player. It takes you from a crash landing back into the cockpit where you’re steering the course. Then, you’re back up in the air by the end of the album. With the aviation theme, it made sense show the experience through the experience of a flight attendant. It seemed to tie the metaphor together.
Is that your turntable in the video?
Absolutely. It’s perfect for that. Part of the marketing of album is that you have to sell people on the experience of vinyl beyond just the music. We wanted to bring that to life. For us, it’s a more enhanced experience than downloading the music and listening to it on crappy earbuds.
The album’s opening song features a good amount of piano. Do you write songs on piano?
I write on acoustic guitar and then Guy and I get together and hash out the basic arrangements. He brings that element to it. Everyone does their parts. When we first conceived the band with Guy in the band, we were referencing bands like the Zombies where the keyboards were heavily featured but it was still a pop context. You had multiple singers in the group to do harmonies. I don’t think you’d listen to us and think we sound like the Zombies but that general context is what we were going for.
How’d you end up teaming up with Lisa Walker on the title track?
That really was, for me, a transcendent moment in the studio. She is one of my all-time favorite singers and songwriters. We asked her to sing on it and fortunately, she said yes. She was our first choice. If I had had Chrissie Hynde’s phone number or PJ Harvey’s or Stevie Nicks’, I would have still wanted Lisa on that track. She nailed it in two takes and ended up hanging out with us for the rest of that session.
What’s the story with “Tintype”? Why didn’t it make the album?
That’s from the new sessions. We have the next full-length in progress and that one came together really quickly that we liked a lot. We couldn’t resist and wanted to get share it early and get it out to people. The next album has a mix of different types of songs, but it’s representative of what’s coming up next.
What’s motivated you to stay active as a musician?
I just reach back to being that 13-year-old kid and what inspired me to start in the first place. I clearly love music and am super passionate about it. Writing songs seems to be a natural reaction for me. The songs just keep coming. As a songwriter, you feel obligated to share it with people and try to make a connection. That starts with the tangible thing of playing it to guys in your band to see if they even like it. It’s so fulfilling to create something like that and listen to it back. It would be maddening if I looked music as a way to make a living or a commercial pursuit. We focus on what’s tangible for us and what’s tangible is just trying to create the best possible song and put it in the best possible format to share with people. It’s not much different than when I was 16 and loading up my car to play what was then Mother’s Junction in Kent to play those shows. It’s still that same excitement. Hopefully, I’ve improved a little bit. It’s still a lot of fun.