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Posted September 6, 2020 by Jeff in Tunes
 
 

Plastic Ants Get Spacey on Forthcoming Album

Plastic Ants
Plastic Ants

In 2009, singer-guitarist Robert Cherry formed Plastic Ants, a heady indie rock act that makes restrained, moody music that sounds influenced by classic British acts such as David Bowie and Roxy Music. 

Currently based in Cincinnati, the group will release A Soft Escape, another album of terrific Brit pop-inspired chamber pop tunes, in September.

Recorded and mixed by the Afghan Whigs’ John Curley, the album has a lush sound that recalls some of the great alt-rock acts from the ’80s and ’90s (think the Church, the Verve). 

Having just issued Music Resource Center of Cincinnati, a teen recording and performing arts program. There’s some amazing talent rising up there with the community’s support, including John’s role as a recording instructor there. 

I’m assuming you were always a fan of the Afghan Whigs. What’s it been like to work with John Curley?

The Afghan Whigs clicked for me when I first heard the Uptown Avondale EP, which was recorded by John. He also recorded “If I Were Going,” the lead track on “Gentlemen,” which opens with the distinctive rhythm of car tires crossing the metal-grated surface of the Roebling Bridge down here. The recordings just had an audio verité that I immediately responded to. You could hear a love of ’70s-era Stones, for instance, and early ’70s-era Abbey Road Studios recordings. Based solely on that, he was the first person I looked up when I moved to Cincinnati and wanted to record some demos. I was hoping I might find someone as talented as Don Depew, who I recorded with up in Cleveland. Fortunately, John was the solid guy I sensed he might be, and he just became a good friend and collaborator. Some people might only know him as an amazing bass player, but he’s also a fantastic audio engineer, producer and mixer. To appreciate his approach, it’s helpful to know he was a professional photojournalist before the Afghan Whigs got off the ground. He knows the best photos happen when the subject isn’t aware they’re being observed, so he uses that same approach when he’s trying to get a great take out of you. For instance, he captured some of my best vocals after telling me he just needed a quick scratch vocal as a placeholder. 

When did the songs for this new album begin to come together?

The first songs started to appear right after our last album, Imperial Phase, which came out in 2016. And the album’s last song, “Broken Spell,” emerged late last year. They’re all a personal response to the last four years, which, as everyone knows, have been quite a ride, layered with the personal loss most of us experience as we get older. I’m sure that’s why the theme of escape emerged.

What did you want to do differently this time around?

This might just be a traditional “third album,” which is to say a crystallization of everything we set out to do when we started. We also expanded to a sextet, with contributions from our cellist Shira Beder and guitarist Robbie Reider. The sound of the six players performing together in a rehearsal space is literally what you hear on the album, with fairly limited edits and overdubs. Unfortunately, we lost our friend and long-time mastering engineer Dave Davis last year. He was a big part of the creative process at the end of each album, and we were really feeling his absence when it came to wrapping up the songs. He made absolutely everything he worked on sound better. It’s still a big loss for musicians down here. Fortunately, Cleveland’s own Adam Boose at Cauliflower Audio stepped in to help us out with the final masters. He has magic ears and a sympathetic approach to the music that brought out the best in John’s mixes. Anyone who works with him knows he’s the best-kept secret in the industry. 

I feel like the string arrangements are more pronounced and complex. Is that the case?

We’ve always had strings of some variety on a few songs, but for this album, we had Shira [Beder] playing Guy’s cello arrangements in rehearsals as we experimented and worked up the songs. So the string parts are more integral than ever. Amazingly, this is Shira’s first ever band — and Guy’s, too, for that matter — so it was great seeing the band experience through her eyes. Although she still hasn’t watched This Is Spinal Tap.

Where did you go to record and what was the experience at the studio like? 

John’s Ultrasuede Studio space closed down in 2018 after 25 years (a cover of Tom Petty’s “Walls” was the last thing we recorded there), but fortunately, he found a new home at a place called The Lodge, a masonic social hall in Dayton, Kentucky, that was converted into a multi-purpose arts and events space. That’s where we filmed the video for “Broken Spell,” too. 

The music video turned out great. 

Thanks. The Lodge definitely has a strong vibe that suits the song, so it felt right to shoot the video there back in February of this year. The huge performance space was perfect for the light design we had in mind, too. Cincinnati puts on this citywide light-based arts festival called BLINK every few years, where artists turn almost every building into a motion-graphics installation. We spotted the work of a guy named Scott Budd there, and he created a custom design for the song and the space.

And what was it like to work with director Patrick Miller?

Patrick is a great friend and just an amazing talent. He’s based up there in Hudson. He and I have been collaborating on creative projects of one kind or another since I first moved to Ohio during high school, in Aurora — first in bands like Blue Luggage (he’s also a drummer), and then on music videos once he jumped behind the camera and into the editing suite. He has a great eye, but I think his talent as a drummer also shows through in his flowing camera work and rhythmic cutting style. 

This is a strange time to release an album. What’s it like to put out new music during a pandemic?

You could insert anything after the phrase “this is a strange time to…” and it would be all too true! In keeping with the theme of escape, our hope is that it’s not viewed as our “pandemic album.” Despite our band name, we tend to write about some fairly heavy themes — usually with an optimistic turn— so with any luck, the songs will find a home in some hearts and ease some minds, even if they’re discovered years later. That’s our hope at least. The ideal is something like George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass, Bowie’s Hunky Dory or Simon and Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water — a balm for the soul.

Assuming things return to some semblance of normal, do you anticipate touring in the new year?

The world will emerge from this season hopefully sooner rather than later, but until then, I think we’re just trying to focus on what’s tangible and somewhat in our control, just taking it day by day. That said, we had our first physically distanced band meeting last week, and I think we’re ready to start on the next album and try some new approaches. So… expect a barbershop-raga musical recorded entirely using household objects as instruments sometime in 2025. 


Jeff

 
Jeff started writing about rock ’n’ roll some 20 years ago when he stood in the pouring rain to hitch hike his way to see R.E.M. on their Life’s Rich Pageant tour. Since that time, he's written for various daily newspapers, alt-weeklies, magazines and websites. Feel free to comment on his posts or suggest music, film and art to him at jeff@whopperjaw.net.