THE STORY OF THE BAND CALLED THRUSH HERMIT
“It’s basically men in tights. It’s an extension of the circus. It’s entertainment.”
In its near-decade of existence, Thrush Hermit evolved from suburban East Coast teenagers churning outhyperactive inside-joke noise to one of Canada’s most beloved rock bands. Always valuing camaraderie over careerism, Joel Plaskett, Rob Benvie, Ian McGettigan, and Cliff Gibb will briefly reunite for a string of shows in March 2010, a stint that promises to be a meltdown of nostalgia, thrills, and proof that the Hermit can still help the masses Learn to Party.
Thrush Hermit was bornin the unassuming suburbs of Halifax, Nova Scotia, while lifelong friends Plaskett (guitar, vox), Benvie (guitar, vox), and McGettigan (bass, vox) were still mere high school brats cranking out songs in their bedrooms and garages. With a shared passion for rock equally punk and classic, theyaped Hüsker Dü even while studying Led Zeppelin solos, soaking up inspiration from the city’s thriving local scene even while dreaming of transcending fashions of the day.
These ambitious upstarts, aided by various friends stinting behind the drums, quickly garnered interest for frenetic live shows and homemade releases featuring songwriting that, whileroughly hewn, showed promise of great things to come. Hooking up with drummer Cliff Gibb solidified the foundation, and riding on a wave of interest sweeping the East Coast in the early nineties, they soon took their operation international.
The first release to attract national attention was 1993’s Smart Bomb. Released on murderecords, esteemed label of friends and early supporters Sloan—then making unprecedented waves of their own—the EP was a noisy, spazzy blast of unadulterated pop. Wearing its influences plainly on its sleeve, the record was a document of young menjust barely shedding adolescence. The eerie, hyper-saturated video for quasi-single ‘French Inhale’ captured the spirit of the band at that inspiring moment: nostalgic, goofy, and coated in unabashed nineties fuzz.
Thrush Hermit was quickly launched from basement schemes to international tours, festivals, and major label bidding wars. Even as the band’s songwriting became more honed, its live shows grew more dynamic and loose, largely due to extensive and ambitious (i.e., barely paid) touring across North America. A weekend studio stint in Chicago with the notorious Steve Albini (Shellac, Pixies, Nirvana) led to 1995’s The Great Pacific Ocean, another EP that was in many ways Smart Bomb’s darker, more unruly companion. Anchored by its explosive title track and released to popular acclaim on limited edition picture disc,it showed a band in transition: retaining lightheartedpop sensibilities even while delving into more somber territory.
After years of sticking to its independent guns, it was time for Thrush Hermit and longtime manager Angie Fenwick to entertain the mainstream suitorsthat had long beckoned. Through a developmental deal with BMG Music Publishing (now Universal), Thrush Hermit caught the ears of labels and programmers alike. After doing the showcase rounds and enduring countless uncomfortable Manhattan lunches with major label A&R reps, Thrush Hermit signed with Elektra/WEA in 1997, with hopes of infiltrating the treacherous American airwaves and bringing their mayhem to more audiences.
For six weeks in Memphis, TN, the band worked intensively with producer Doug Easley (Pavement, Sonic Youth, White Stripes), aided by the luxury of a slightly bigger budget and enough time to rein in their histrionic approach. Shirking the fuzz and clamour for a more streamlined methodology, yet never steering from melodrama, the result was their first long-player Sweet Homewrecker. From the power-melancholy of single “North Dakota,” the taut guitar blasts of “At My Expense” and “On the Sneak,” to the introspective laze of “Strange to Be Involved,” the album was a sprawling document of a young band still fighting to decide where it stood.
Once released, however, the album was met with a resounding clonk by fickle American audiences. Months of relentless touring in a renovated school bus brought many fond memories and much shirtless mayhem, but resulted in little sales. Elektra quickly lost interest in pushing Sweet Homewrecker, leaving the band on their own to etch out their fate.
Beset with humility and frustration, the four returned to Halifax to dust themselves off and regather their powers. When label politics at Elektra left them unanchored, the lawyers swooped in to clean up the mess. In the meantime, the Hermit shut down its touring schedule to consider the next move.
Wintry months followed, the four holed up in their rehearsal space, filling reels and reels of tape of songs on their trusted Otari ½” 8-track. Striving to recapture the rambunctious spirit of their earliest days, they also hoped toincorporatethe lessons, musical and otherwise,learned along the way. Whether through boredom or sheer force of will, they began to shirk the minimalist immediacy that had guided their previous efforts to allow songs to stretch out and meander, even whileretaining their anthemic ambitions.
Finally emancipated from major labelshackles, Thrush Hermit installed operations at Toronto’s Gas Station to whittle a new album from the dozens of jams accumulated in this period of isolation. Aided by oddball engineer Dale Morningstar, they created their most satisfying effort yet, the career-defining LP that would be titled Clayton Park, named for the neighbourhood where the band’s roots had first been laid.
Working on their own dime and on their own schedule, the four were free to pursue new whims and approaches; mighty jams ensued. Lumbering epics like Plaskett’s “Violent Dreams” sidled up nicely next to McGettigan’s lean “(Oh Man!) What to Do,” while Benvie filled in the weirdness with “Headin’ South.” Operating in a spirit of collective collaboration and optimism despite the setbacks, the record found the band at the height of their powers.
Unfortunately, as the sessions came to a close Gibb decided he’d had enough of thisdodgy lifestyle of a touring rocker, and graciously bowed out. Saddened but undaunted, the others looked to Benn Ross, a formidable presence on the Halifax scene who could reproduce Gibb’s mighty thump but also bring his own distinctive, bearded flair.
For Clayton Park’s release, they hooked up with longtime friends Sonic Unyon Records, knowing that after the anxiety of a major label,working with a smaller operation would provide the freedom, stability, and trust needed to continue on their own terms.
Years struggling in American obscurity had made them frustrated and ornery, with much to prove and everything to gain. Touring behind Clayton Park thus became a much more ambitious, tougher, and twisted version of their former feedback-drenched escapades. At the same time, they were learning to shirk contemporary fashions and operate strictly on their own terms. Videos for “From the Back of the Film” and “The Day We Hit the Coast,” both directed by Ante Kovac, found the band flaunting a decidedly au naturale aesthetic, both in sonics and fabrics: untamed hair, fur and leather, and winding, impassioned solos in an era when most bands were mired in synthetics.
Clayton Park earned Thrush Hermit its warmest response yet, posting record-breaking results on national alternative radio charts and even a Juno nod.But once the hubbub had died down and the band returned to its rehearsal space to begin preparations for the next record, they found themselves at a creative impasse. Though their friendship remained strong, their various musical leanings had diverged, and the band decided to go out at the top of its game. The limited release video Learn to Party was an instant collectors’ item, compiling their characteristically weird videos, live footage, and telling the story of a band whose lifespan mirrored the decline of true rock and roll innocence as a new millennium approached. That winter the band did a quick farewell tour, and in December 1999 Thrush Hermit played a final triumphant show in its hometown Halifax to the warm wishes of a sellout crowd.
The four went on to each pursue new projects, musically, artistically, and otherwise, but always remained in close contact. Meanwhile, the music industry imploded and a digital revolution radically reshaped the way rock bands could function.
Flash-forward a decade later. After many murmurs and threats of a reunion, Plaskett, Benvie, McGettigan, and Gibb realized the ten-year anniversary of the band’s folding was nigh, and the time had come to give the world a gentle reminder of the Hermit’s legacy.Older, wiser, but no less ferocious, Thrush Hermit will again grace the country’s stages in 2010 to remind us of that bygone age The Nineties—and once again, we will Learn to Party.