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Great expectations

Halifax rock trio Great Plains Finally gets its outstanding, long-simmering debut, Home of the Totem, into the world this week. “You have to put something out of quality,” says singer Sean MacGillivray, “something with substance.”


Listen to "Unnatural" off the new album Home of the New Totem.

"Ultimately, I am at the point where I am only doing things I am passionate about. I don't do anything in my life that is monotonous," says Sean MacGillivray. "It's been my goal and the way I've structured my life, and structured the decisions I've made and who I play with." He's calling from Toronto, where he's playing bass in Jenn Grant's band The Night Painters at Canadian Music Week. The thing he's currently most passionate about is singing for and playing guitar in Great Plains, the catchy, intense, thought-provoking rock trio that's finally releasing its long-awaited debut Home of the New Totem with Halifax shows on March 15 in Hell and March 16 at The Pavilion.

No one could pin the lively act's first release as repetitive when every minute detail seems to incite an intellectual discussion. Its depth is partly attributed to a recording process that began in the summer of 2005. MacGillivray says the depth—and the delay—of the recording is predominantly due to the band's unrelenting desire to finish something of quality, not to mention the problems of associated costs and conflicting scheduling.

"It's important to me that it's done properly, even if it does mean waiting a little longer," he says. "Really, we could go back into the studio tomorrow and record another record, but right now we're focused on the immediate and touring."

Drummer Jeffers Lennox is a PhD candidate in history at Dalhousie University, while bassist Lachie MacDonald's talent is in high demand with Die Brucke, Horses and the Tom Fun Orchestra. MacGillivray has collaborated, as drummer, bassist, guitarist and vocalist, with the likes of Burdocks, HOTSHOTROBOT, Rebekah Higgs, Spincycle2 and Grant. MacDonald and MacGillivray, friends originally from Cape Breton, played in the same circles for years before coming together in Halifax. Lennox, a transplant from Toronto, responded to a want ad for a drummer posted on, of which MacGillivray is the administrator. The first response Great Plains had to the posting ended up being its final selection.

In addition to being a go-to sound engineer in the city, MacGillivray is also a graphic designer, which proved useful in crafting the album's cover.

"I spent a long time on the cover art. It's a cardboard die-cut package with a 12-page booklet, including all the lyrics," says MacGillivray. "You have to look at the entire package and creating the feeling that when you pick up the CD, you are holding something of substance, and not a jewel case.

"There is no way I am putting out a record with a jewel case. I've seen too many broken jewel cases. For something that is so ubiquitous, it is such a flaw in industrial design. Plus it's a little more unique and you feel like you're getting something different."

The record's presentation speaks to the progression of technology coinciding with humans' obliviousness to its meaning.

"On the cover there are a number of telephone transmission poles, all different kinds, and I always thought they sort of looked like these giants striding the land. I went with that," he says. "Those are the new totem, those are the inukshuks of our day...those are the things that indicate the passage that people were here—These massive, modern structures."

The physical art parallels what Home of the New Totem's nine songs say to the listener via a thematic link. Maybe the most sought after local live bootleg (until this week), "Unnatural"—a slow-building indie power ballad that crests on MacGillivray's holding the final syllable of the title for a soaring 12 seconds—is as infectious as the popular technology that inspired its crafting.

"When we think of technology, we think of computers and cell phones, and all the gadgets people have welded to their ears. I am here in Toronto right now and cell phones are more cybernetics than communication," says MacGillivray. "They just have them permanently on their faces. Everything that we do is an adaptation to our environment...everything we build, from fire to the wheel to cell phones. These are all adaptations and it is quite normal for us to do these things. But of course the problem is we have the technological capital to build these things but lack the intellectual and moral capital to actually use them properly and responsibly."

Although the album does represent a focused perception of sociology and reality, MacGillivray makes it clear his intention is not to preach. The ideas he presents purposely challenge the audience's thinking, but the songs are composed with Lennox and MacDonald in such a way that they're still an engaging listen.

"It's supposed to be just provocative on the topic, and it's possible that if you're not paying attention to the lyrics you don't get anything from it at all, which is fine. The thing that's important to me when doing a record is putting together something that's accessible and it gives you a reason to listen to it," says MacGillivray. "Like, there have to be layers, I like there to be a layer that's really easy to listen to because it still has to be a good song. There has to be a melody—the elements that make a piece purportedly, intellectually substantial do not excuse one from writing good songs. But I am not forcing the ideology on people."

Great Plains plays intense thematic rock whose songs are epic in depth—if not necessarily length. The melodies instantly hook diverse audiences, giving them a layer which could appeal to someone in an Evanescence t-shirt while simultaneously attracting the attention of a Weakerthans fan.

Though MacGillivray sees a place for unfocused songwriting, and isn't faulting others for taking a different approach, he realizes he would not have completed his personal goals without it.

"I like the folk tradition a lot. I kind of like a story, I kind of like a narrative," he says. "There are some bands that pull it off. I think The Weakerthans are a band that writes lyrics of substance that I really enjoy listening to. I don't think the ideological portent of the songs should overshadow the quality of the song—I think that's a fallacy for sure—but a song can be good and substantial as well. And I try to convey that."

MacGillivray hopes to tour Home of the New Totem at least twice—the first run begins immediately in Fredericton after the record's local release, heading out to Ontario and back to Halifax on March 31 supporting The Golden Dogs—and has video ideas for virtually every song on the record. The priority is for "Warheads," which he envisions in black-and-white Super-8, a format consistent with his vision for the song.

"Warheads' is about men and the particular way men behave that lead to things like arms race—the particular insecurities of your average men, and it draws parallels to the guys in their souped-up Honda Civics," he says. "It's boys and their toys, and the song sort of talks about what are the roots causes of bigger, better, faster, more in men. Is it nature or is it nurture?"

The Canadian music industry's declaration that the compact disc is no longer a viable medium to distribute music is not one lost on Great Plains, who have spent years writing, recording and mixing, then sitting on the finished product for the better part of a year. They just don't necessarily agree with it.

"Maybe a little less than a month ago, the president of EMI went on the record as saying "The CD is dead' and then Sam the Record Man closed. It was just like, "Oh good, we've worked three or four years to put this out and now CDs are over,'" MacGillivray says, laughing.

"You have to think about it. The people who are saying the record is over are the people who think selling 40,000 records is failure. If we sell 20,000 of these damn things I will be ecstatic," says MacGillivray. "If we do a single re-press I will be quite satisfied. It is not easy to move a million units on one song—it shouldn't have been easy in the first place."

In terms of what Great Plains is offering fans for the first time on March 15, MacGillivray is confident the trio's ability to perform live will add something beyond the expectations for the album. Remembering countless days spent on unfulfilling projects, unable to re-coup enjoyment for his hard work, he and his bandmates already feel as though they have accomplished something exceptional and unusual.

"You have to put something out of quality, something with substance. You can't write one hit and fill the rest of the record up with garbage and hope nobody hears the rest of it," he says. "It doesn't work anymore. That I will concede to the president of EMI—that is over."

Great Plains CD release w/The Prospector’s Union and Medium Mood, March 15 at Hell’s Kitchen, 2037 Gottingen, 10pm and w/16th Avenue, Mugshot, Crush Luther and She’s No Angel, March 16 at The Pavilion, 5816 Cogswell, 7pm, $7.

Chris McCluskey is a correspondent for XM Radio and “Scene & Heard” columnist for The Coast.


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