Rock Plaza Central recently played San Diego’s Beauty Bar in support of Are We Not Horses?, and lead man Chris Eaton kindly agreed to do an interview. He answered our questions by email while immersed in recording demos for the band’s as-yet-untitled upcoming release. Eaton and his band have been called “stars in waiting” by Rolling Stone and Are We Not Horses received high marks from Pitchfork Media, so we’re pleased to pick his brain. In addition to being one of the most creative songwriters working today, Eaton is also known for two novels, The Inactivist and The Grammar Architect (a “cover” of a Thomas Hardy book).
Owl&Bear: To begin, how was the band named?
Chris Eaton: There’s a lot of mythology to this, really. But basically, when I was making my first recording back in 1996, we were also doodling, drawing pictures of each other and writing weird things on a piece of paper. At some point, mocking the line-up of guitar, cello and banjo, my friend Casey McGlynn (brilliant painter, Google him) said “This is totally rock plaza central!” And he wrote it down in kind of AC/DC letters. I used that piece of paper as the cover for the tape, choosing a cool image to face forward, and Rock Plaza Central ended up on the spine.
Owl&Bear: Some of RPC band members also have academic careers. How does everyone make time for everything?
Chris Eaton: We don’t, really. Or rather, a lot of other things have tended to come first. We love playing music together, certainly, but we’re also pretty well-rounded individuals, with a lot of other interests that none of us plan to ever give up, including some other musical projects. Basically, we’re all insane workaholics who never sleep.
Owl&Bear: Let’s talk about the albums. First of all, I have to say that “The World was Hell to Us” has one of the best opening lyrics I’ve ever heard: “You know I’m only in this for the money.” I don’t believe that for a minute–what would you say you actually are in it for?
Chris Eaton: The money.
Owl&Bear: The song “The Things that Bind You” could reduce a big, strong man to tears. For all its poignancy, it also seems to have an underlying theme of hope and gratitude. Are you at heart a hopeful person? Many of your songs seem to have this tone.
Chris Eaton: I’m definitely a hopeful person, which is increasingly important these days as our world goes to shit. Things tend to work out. And even as I was writing that song about a breakup after five or six years together, in my head as I was packing things into the van, I had a feeling things were happening for some good reason. A year later, I met my current partner. We were married a year after that and I’ve never been happier.
Owl&Bear: Your song “Gutterdance” seems to be about accepting oneself and one’s place in the bigger scheme of things. It’s a song that leaves me reflective and joyous both at once. Could you talk about what gave rise to this song?
Chris Eaton: Same breakup, really, the contributing factors to which are many but ultimately boil down to me wanting to write and play music, and her wanting me to make some money (“harvest green in the city”, which I never thought of as people interpreting as drugs until a recent show), and that being the end of that. We broke up between Christmas and New Years, and we decided to throw a New Years party, anyway, telling everyone it was the last night we would be a couple. We ended up alone in the kitchen as the year turned over, and it was the last time we kissed.
Owl&Bear: Speaking of joyous, the band’s video for “My Children, Be Joyful” is brilliant! The muppet-ish characters, the high-kicking dog with his steak, the jugglers, the marathon-running sock puppets—how’d you come up with this?
Chris Eaton: All of that is from a brilliant kids’ show called Nanalan. I had been a big fan for a couple of years, and somehow when we recorded the song, it was the thing that was going through my head. The show’s creators agreed that the song made them feel like when they were making it, so we combined forces. It’s a very simple way to make a video, and something I could play a big part in, and I really love how it turned out.
Owl&Bear: In the gloriously straightforward “Fuckup” you say, “All of my relationships I’ve fucked up in all the right ways.” How does one do that? Because I might be doing it wrong.
Chris Eaton: The best part is that you can’t do it wrong. It sounds terribly hippie to say it, but I’ll quote a Victoria Williams song with similar sentiments: “You’re always on time.” You can’t be late for your own show because you’re the star performer and really the only important audience member. All of my other relationships ended in breakups because they weren’t right, and if I had managed to make them work, I wouldn’t be where I am today. All the “mistakes” we made have made us who we are. And I wouldn’t change that at all.
Owl&Bear: Let’s talk about the wars between humans, angels, and six-legged robotic horses who think they’re real and suspect they may have fought on the wrong side in the war (with the humans). For readers unfamiliar with your music, these form the thematic basis for your CDs The World Was Hell to Us, and especially your most recent CD, Are We Not Horses. I have several questions. First, why horses?
Chris Eaton: Not sure.
Owl&Bear: In your story, how/why did the horses come into existence?
Chris Eaton: My story is never as interesting as the ones that other people tell me at shows. I tried to keep everything open enough to let the listener in on the creation of it, and I love that collaboration.
Owl&Bear: Why do they have extra legs? Stability? Speed? Awkwardness? Why steel?
Chris Eaton: With extra legs, you kind of need to be thick-skinned. They also represent some sort of frightening future, I suppose. But mostly I wanted them to be as close to real horses as possible without being real horses. So sometimes I even picture them as indistinguishable. And in the video we just made for “I am an Excellent Steel Horse”, we made them out of images of real horses as shown on TVs.
Owl&Bear: They also obviously have emotions and the ability to reason.
Chris Eaton: Certainly.
Owl&Bear: Is that enough questioning about horses?
Chris Eaton: Certainly.
Owl&Bear: Some of Rock Plaza Central’s fans may not be aware that you are also a published novelist. The protagonist in your debut novel, The Inactivist, reflects on your own background in advertising: the character, Kitchen, is a confused but well-meaning advertising copywriter who is torn between doing his job and trying to do good in the world. This seems like a very human dilemma. How much of Chris Eaton crept into the character of Kitchen, or others in the book?
Chris Eaton: People have often asked me this question, and asked if any of the other characters represent anyone else I know, and to tell you the truth, they’re all me in that book. Just different aspects of me. Although I sometimes think I can be an asshole, Kitchen is way more of an asshole. He’s my asshole side?
Owl&Bear: Do the ideas in your prose and your lyrics sometimes cross-pollinate one another?
Chris Eaton: Sure.
Owl&Bear: Your other novel, The Grammar Architect, is a “cover” of Thomas Hardy’s A Pair of Blue Eyes–created in the same sense that a band would cover a song. It’s a really interesting idea, but it seems like it could have many pitfalls. Was this less of a concern because the book is (presumably) in the public domain? Can you tell us a little more about the concept? Also–what did you try to avoid when writing the book–and how did you make it your own?
Chris Eaton: This is a whole interview in and of itself. The decision to cover that specific book was done almost randomly. I even forget why it was that one specifically. I can recall reading a quote where someone wanted to do what Hardy did, but I forget the exact context. The idea is really about 15 years old.
Owl&Bear: Returning to the songs–as the band’s lyricist, how do you convey your ideas and images to the rest of the band? How does the band go about finding the right musical tone to fit the songs? Do you write most of the songs yourself and then bring them to the band, or is it more of a collaborative effort?
Chris Eaton: This is changing, but initially they were finished songs that I brought to the band, and more and more, they begin as nuggets of ideas that I try not to finish before the rest of the band touches them. This is so much nicer, because it takes them off into places I never would have even imagined. And with the change in tone and sound, I’ve thrown out entire lyrics and replaced them. There’s no way Horses would have been about horses without the sounds everyone was doing. The rhythms just seemed to gravitate to gallops, and how could we control it after that?
Owl&Bear: How does RPC manage to record its albums so quickly? 2 days for The World Was Hell to Us and 3 days for Are We Not Horses (Have I remembered that right?)
Chris Eaton: We don’t believe in mistakes, really. And we’ve always known each other pretty well, even before we really knew each other. I mean, we’ve always seemed to be moving in the same direction, and have anticipated what the other people in the band want us to play without even really thinking about it. So almost everything on the first record is live off the floor on the first take. On the second one, we wanted a bigger sound and needed another day to add more instruments because we couldn’t play them all at once. Being poor helps motivate you.
Owl&Bear: Rock Plaza Central played recently with Toronto’s acclaimed Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra. How did that come about? What was that like, being paired with such a different musical group?
Chris Eaton: There’s a show on Canada’s CBC called Fuse. They take two bands or singer-songwriters and ask them to play together, and often the results are quite interesting. One of their hosts came up with the idea for us to play with Tafelmusik as a joke, only because we both had albums with horse in the title. I think they were surprised when we jumped at it. That rendition of “Excellent Steel Horse” is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever been a part of. They’re great people and amazing musicians. It was a glorious night.
Owl&Bear: Does RPC enjoy touring?
Chris Eaton: Some of us do. I personally find it exhausting and grueling, and I’ve recently come to the realization that I’m not built to do it for more than a few weeks at a time. I love playing, though. And I love playing for people. And you can’t really play every night to people in your own town. So it’s a necessary evil.
Owl&Bear: What’s the strangest venue or occasion RPC has played?
Chris Eaton: And I can’t think of too many recent strange venues. When I was doing it on my own years ago, there were a lot more. I once played a bar in Edmonton that was mostly frequented by people looking to play the poker machines. I was the first and last night of live entertainment in that place. It was hilarious. But I still had fun. And I think the people who came out for the show did, too. The others…not so much.
Owl&Bear: Can we fans possibly anticipate a live album?
Chris Eaton: We’ve been talking about it for some time. We try to keep things fresh for ourselves at live shows, and don’t have any set ways that the songs need to be played, so sometimes the live version can be excitingly different. There are also some really old recordings that I don’t feel like pressing again in their entirety but I’d love to see some of them out there, so there’s a good chance we might release a disc of live and old material in the fall. November, maybe.
Owl&Bear: What can we expect with your next album, and how soon can we hope for it?
Chris Eaton: I expect it to be fun to make. And I hope it’ll come out next spring. Working on it now.
Owl&Bear: Before you go, can you tell us what you’re currently listening to and reading?
Chris Eaton: Listening to [RPC] demos. And trying not to listen to anything else so that I’ve always got them in my head to come up with lyrics. Finally reading Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury.
Rock Plaza Central – Daytrotter Session (MP3s)