Plastic Ants singer-guitarist Robert Cherry has called Cincinnati home for the past decade, but he still looks back fondly on the time he spent in Cleveland. While in Cleveland, he served as the editor of Alternative Press
magazine for ten years. He also played in numerous bands and was a fixture on the local music scene.
“When I moved to Ohio in high school, I started playing in clubs as at the age of 16,” he says in a phone interview. “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.”
In 2009, 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. Last year, the band released a terrific new album and is just now touring in support of the album.
“I definitely favor the British scene,” says Cherry. “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.”
The band’s current line-up includes keyboardist Guy Vanasse, who brings a classical element to the band.
“When we first conceived the band with Guy, we were referencing bands like the Zombies where the keyboards were heavily featured but it was still a pop context,” says Cherry. “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. [Vanasse] had never played in a band setting. 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 think any of us listen to them but I can see that going on.”
The band’s latest effort, last year’s chamber pop-inspired Falling to Rise
, provides an “interesting collision between classical and rock.”
“I don’t even consider it rock music,” says Cherry. “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.”
Recorded and mixed by the Afghan Whigs’ John Curley at his Ultrasuede Studio, a place where the Whigs have recorded, the album has a lush sound. Cherry says Curley helped the band achieve that sound.
“You have expectations of someone from their public persona,” Cherry says of Curley. “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 but as a producer, he’s almost like a psychologist and knows how to pull the best out of people. You never feel like you’re in the studio and on the clock. You just feel like you’re creating.”
The vintage-flight-attendant-themed album trailer and making-of-the-album info graphic that accompanied the album’s release speaks to the thematic content.
“The whole album had this aviation theme and we wanted to do the vinyl because it gives you an enriched listening experience,” says Cherry. “[On the album cover], 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, and 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.”
One of the album’s highlights, the somber title track, features a duet with Lisa Walker, a Cincy singer-songwriter of some stature who's a member of the indie rock act Wussy.
“That really was, for me, a transcendent moment in the studio,” says Cherry. “She is one of my all time favorite singers and songwriters. We asked her to sing on it and fortunately she said yes. I can’t imagine anyone else singing it with me. Even if I had Chrissie Hynde’s phone number or PJ Harvey’s or Stevie Nicks’, I'd still want Lisa to sing on the track. She nailed it in two takes and ended up hanging out with us for the rest of that session.”
Given that Cherry has had to keep a day job over the course of his decades long career, what exactly keeps him motivated to put his time and resources into making music?
“I just reach back to being that 13-year-old kid and what inspired me to start in the first place,” he says. “I clearly love music and am super passionate about it. Writing songs seems to be a natural reaction to life for me. The songs just keep coming. As a songwriter, you feel obligated to share it with people and try to make a connection. 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.”
Plastic Ants, Golden Streets of Paradise, The Night Divided, 9 p.m. Friday, Aug. 21, Beachland Tavern, 15711 Waterloo Rd., 216-383-1124. Tickets: $7, beachlandballroom.com.