The band, a perfect balance of local music luminaries and virtual unknowns, doesn’t play out with much regularity due to scheduling issues; guitarist/vocalist/primary songwriter Robert Cherry is a full-time creative director, keyboardist Guy Vanasse is a church organist/pianist/choir director, bassist John Curley continues to divide his time between the rejuvenated Afghan Whigs and his behind-the-board work at his renowned Ultrasuede Studio and drummer Joe Klug remains perpetually busy behind the kit for Wussy, behind the bar at the Northside Tavern and behind the stroller of his newborn daughter, Georgia.
After a side discussion on the supernatural merits of The Who’s rhythm section, Klug offers a bit of trivia about his new addition.
“Since you brought it up, I will add that she was born on Keith Moon’s birthday,” Klug says over beer and pizza at Ultrasuede.
“Well, I want to be there for her 16th birthday when she drives her car into the pool,” Curley says.
With any luck, Plastic Ants will have the staying power to be the musical entertainment at Georgia Klug’s sweet-16 soirée. The band’s sound hovers in the nexus of Indie Rock, Prog, Pop and an arsenal of influences stretching back to the members’ ’70s/’80s childhoods. Imperial Phase, the follow-up to 2014’s excellent Falling to Rise, features a slight sonic expansion with Cherry’s shift to electric guitar and a more cinematic lyrical scope, giving the band an urbane Glam feel, a bit like Al Stewart fronting the Spiders from Mars.
“It starts with ’60s and ’70s singer/songwriters,” Cherry says. “All the classic ’60s/’70s bands, then all the Post Punk bands in the ’80s, Brit Pop in the ’90s. And I definitely love the Spiders from Mars. I think the area where our tastes intersect is early-’70s Abbey Road era — George Harrison is a big touch point, and Pink Floyd. With this album, I think we all realized we had a passion for Yes. It’s one of those funny things that maybe you’re reluctant to admit — at least I was, based on where they wound up — but as we know each other better, you build trust and go, ‘Oh, you like that, too? Cool, we can try that.’
“There was a brief Metal phase, which has been amusing for Guy, who is classically trained.” Cherry continues. “John and I have been trying to convince him of the value of AC/DC. He just humors us, but we’re making progress.”
Cherry’s been making progress since arriving in Cincinnati from Cleveland 11 years ago. In 2010, the former Alternative Press editor proposed Plastic Ants to old friend Curley, a band which consisted of them along with two of Cherry’s Toronto friends, guitarist Calvin Brown and drummer Andrew McMullen. The quartet’s eponymous debut EP sparked some interest, but there was an obvious stumbling block.
“The thing had a built-in limitation by the fact that we lived in different countries,” Curley says.
“That was the most wildly impractical band ever,” Cherry admits. “Two guys from the Canadian Queen City and two guys from the American Queen City.”
That United Nations version of Plastic Ants played several shows, but the logistics of crossing borders to get things done proved to be daunting. By 2012, Cherry and Curley began exploring a lineup with more immediate local ties. Klug was an easy choice — he and Curley had been the rhythm section for Staggering Statistics — but the selection of Curley’s longtime friend Vanasse for the other open slot was a wild card for a variety of reasons. To begin, he was a keyboardist, so Plastic Ants would be losing its second guitarist. And his aforementioned classical training and lack of discernible Rock skills notwithstanding, Vanasse, who was sick and absent from the interview, had never been in a band before.
“I’d been in bands that had keyboard players, but not where keyboards were the cornerstone of the group,” Curley says. “I was inspired a little by The Zombies and the sound that those guys got. Rob and I definitely had conversations where we thought it would be cool to have keyboards instead of second guitar. Knowing Rob and hearing how he writes, I thought keyboards would be a cool way to open up the stuff he was already doing. Guy was an obvious choice because he’s a great person, easy to hang out with and fun to be around, like everybody else in the group.”
At this point, the musicians are working toward balancing their individual schedules to make more time for gigs, and finding the formula for translating Cherry’s demos into collaborative songs while maintaining their initial spark (as Klug notes, “Sometimes, by the time you get to the recording stage, the magic is gone”). But one thing the musicians agree on is that their songs need to form a cohesive whole.
“We all grew up listening to albums, we all like making albums,” Curley says. “We think about the recording of songs in terms of an album — how the songs follow each other. I wouldn’t know how to approach it any differently. The music industry is focused on singles, because that’s where the profit is. Fortunately, we can do whatever we want.”
The big differences between Falling to Rise and Imperial Phase has been Cherry’s shift to electric guitar, the growth and evolution of the quartet’s chemistry and Vanasse’s rising comfort level with the band; he and Cherry co-wrote two songs on the new album, a first for both of them. As a result, Imperial Phase is the sign that Plastic Ants is tapping into its potential in a major way.
“Falling to Rise was the first-ever album Guy had made, and I’m super happy with what he brought to that, but by this album, he was more what I would call awake in the process,” Cherry says. “He came with a lot more ideas, and he was more confident in what he was offering. And we all had a better sense of what our strengths were. Knowing that Joe is a multi-instrumentalist, beyond being a great drummer, we encouraged him to contribute in ways he hadn’t before. He gave us some cool synth solos on ‘Tintype,’ and on ‘Sea of Upturned Faces,’ Joe suggested that solo, which is amazing. That’s the exciting thing, getting to know each other better and what we’re capable of individually and then mold the band identity and push the walls out.”
PLASTIC ANTS’ new album is available Oct. 7. Pre-order it now by clicking the above album sample or go to plasticants.bandcamp.com.