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, and he also played in numerous bands and was a fixture on the local music scene.
In 2009, he formed Plastic Ants, a heady indie rock act that makes restrained, moody music influenced by classic British acts such as David Bowie and Roxy Music.
Next month, the group will release A Soft Escape, another terrific album of Brit pop-inspired chamber pop tunes. The album, the band’s third full-length, represents its most realized effort to date as the songs pack a quiet intensity that recall ’80s and ’90s acts such as the Church and the Verve.
“The four of us were really just starting to get to know one another when we made Falling to Rise, so the songs remained closer to their largely acoustic origins, with overdubs kept to a relative minimum,” says Cherry in an email interview. “I tend to think of it as a glass-bottom boat, where you can through the songs, down to the ocean floor. The arrangements on Imperial Phase tended to be denser, and maybe spacier in places. So… a glass-bottom boat vs. the Hubble telescope. Since then, we’ve added two members, played out more and developed songs for a live setting. We just have a better understanding of one another’s strengths, so we we’re able to push those a little further."
Cherry says the Plastic Ants have benefited from the fact that the Cincinnati music scene has gotten stronger too.
“Maybe based on geography, there’s always been a dynamic merging of styles, from players coming up through roots traditions, to formally trained classical players, to people like me who started out as inspired amateurs with more of a conceptual approach to sound,” he says. “As a band, we’ve been really inspired by the 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 [producer and band member] John [Curley]’s role as a recording instructor there.”
Recorded and mixed by Curley, who also plays with the iconic indie rock act Afghan Whigs, at his Dayton, KY-based studio the Lodge, 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).
"The Afghan Whigs clicked for me when I first heard the Uptown Avondale EP, which was recorded by John [Curley]," says Cherry. "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, Cherry looked up Curley when he moved to Cincinnati and wanted to record some demos.
"I was hoping I might find someone as talented as [Breaker's] Don Depew, who I recorded with up in Cleveland," says Cherry. "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.”
The Soft Escape songs started to appear right after the band's last album, Imperial Phase, 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,” says Cherry. “I’m sure that’s why the theme of escape emerged. 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, the group lost 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 Cherry says the band felt his absence when it came to wrapping up the songs.
"He made absolutely everything he worked on sound better," says Cherry. "It’s still a big loss for musicians down here."
Cleveland-based Adam Boose at Cauliflower Audio stepped in to help the band out with the final masters.
“[Boose] has magic ears and a sympathetic approach to the music that brought out the best in John’s mixes,” says Cherry. “Anyone who works with him knows he’s the best-kept secret in the industry.
Just today, the band launched the album's pre-release with a performance video for "Broken Spell" that it was fortunate enough to shoot this past February at a Masonic-hall-turned-art-space in Dayton, KY. It features some particularly evocative psychedelic light design by an artist featured in BLINK, a citywide installation.
"The Lodge definitely has a strong vibe that suits the song, so it felt right to shoot the video there," says Cherry. "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.
Hudson-based Patrick Miller, who's also a drummer, directed the video.
"Patrick is a great friend and just an amazing talent," says Cherry. "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, 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."
Cherry realizes it’s a strange time to release an album, but then it’s a strange time to do just about anything.
“In keeping with the theme of escape, our hope is that it’s not viewed as our ‘pandemic album,’” he says. “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. 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, the band just held a socially distanced meeting and has already begun contemplating its next move.
"I think we’re ready to start on the next album and try some new approaches," says Cherry. "So… expect a barbershop-raga musical recorded entirely using household objects as instruments sometime in 2025.”
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