Montreal’s indie-jamband Plants and Animals recently put out their third studio LP, The End of That on the Canadian-based label Secret City, which finds the band bridging the gap between their 2008 debut, Parc Avenue, and 2010’s darker La La Land. In the following interview, lead vocalist/guitarist Warren Spicer discusses a series of challenges the band experienced while recording the album in a Mansion in Paris that eventually wound up bringing the band members closer together, and led them to discover a sound they feel is truly their own.
The new Plants and Animals album takes some elements from the debut album and pairs them with elements from the second album, bridging the two sounds into something entirely new. Is that something you decided on going in or was that a natural evolution?
It probably just happened. I don’t think we were necessarily trying to do it. I ended up playing a lot more acoustic guitar on things so that’s something I didn’t do much of on La La Land. So we got back to…that’s a big part of it, that change of guitars. It really makes a big difference to have the acoustic guitar. It really changes the whole vibe of the thing. It kind of takes an edge off. The record before [ Parc Avenue ], may have a bit of a sharper edge.
What facilitated the change to acoustic?
It was just a sound thing. I played that specific acoustic guitar—it’s just my main instrument. Most of the songs are with that guitar. While I was working on songs and writing them on that guitar, a lot of them just made sense to keep them acoustic. There were obviously some others that were not going to be on acoustic. Also, there was something we wanted from that acoustic guitar rock; I always think of Bowie or something, like early Bowie stuff where he was able to make the acoustic…his guitar sounds more like a shaker, but it’s still got this not folk but not just electric guitar. It has this folk element and kind of a harder rock situation. It does a really interesting thing, I think.
You mentioned Bowie. Do you have any other new influences on this album?
It’s kind of same-old. I was probably listening to a lot of Bowie. A lot of the songs on that record were written in an attempt to start at point A and end up at a completely different location. A lot of them like “Crisis!” start somewhere completely different. It’s kind of like a musical ride as opposed to something more like groove-based where you can just stay on the same thing forever and ever. They were kind of built more as narrative things. I think that’s something that was probably picked up from listening to David Bowie songs, where you can start somewhere and you kind of have to get on board—not just if you want to—and there’s a reward for getting on board because you get to go through all kinds of cool things. And then you end up somewhere completely different.
Was that a direction (more complex songs) that you wanted to take on this album?
I think we didn’t want to jump back in the studio. We all just wanted to work on material without the pressure of being in the studio. We had more time to actually play the songs and step back from them and tweak them. There’s a couple of songs which we basically just pulled them off in the studio out of nothing. Sometimes that’s a great thing to do—to save some simple songs and not really work on them at all until the mikes are set-up and then give it a try. You just give it a shot. Every now and then you’ll get a song that comes alive for that moment in time and that’s just the way it goes. You get a great take and you wouldn’t have got it any other way.
Then there’s other songs that benefit a lot from just working on them and demoing them at different tempos and arrangements and just going into the details a lot more. I think we probably went into the details quite a bit more overall on the record in terms of finalizing our parts a lot better than we did before. On La La Land we had just got off tour and we went into the studio with a couple of songs. We basically just started pulling stuff out of our ass. This one was more about being able to see the picture before we committed it to tape. We wanted to actually know what we were dealing with. Like I said, there was some stuff that was pretty off-the-cuff, but most of it I’d say we worked harder on building it before we actually [recorded].
How do you approach your song writing process? Before heading into the studio? Write songs in Montreal?
Yeah, on that record. On this record, last winter basically, we were just rehearsing and working pretty much every other day. We got a studio that we worked in. We got all our equipment set up and a couple mics set up. I’d go home and write stuff out on guitar in varying degrees of completion and bring it to the guys and then we’d start working on it and trying to figure out what it is. It’s kind of like throwing spaghetti at the wall and some of it sticks and you know it’s ready…kind of like that process, where you might think you’ve got something good but then you actually start working on it with the band and then you realize it just doesn’t have any life or it’s not fun to play or something. I think that’s kind of the defining thing.
It ended up being the stuff that stays, the stuff that plays well—where you’re not working too hard, not going against the grain. I think that’s something I learned too from the last record. In general, I think just writing songs…you have to be conscious of who you’re writing for. Having been in this band now for over ten years, playing with those guys, you get a sense of what plays well. When I was working on those songs for this record I was a lot more conscious of what I thought we would play well as a band as opposed to what was just a great idea or wanting to do something super tight or funky, like later Bowie let’s say, that’s not us, we don’t do that. So there’s no point in doing that because it doesn’t work for us. That’s something I learned from trying to do certain things and realized “Oh, that’s not really our strength.” It was more like writing to our strengths this time.
As was the case with your last album, you chose to record this album in Paris. Was the entire album recorded there or did you work in other studios as well?
We did a bit of it there. We did a couple songs at that studio and then we decided to go back for the whole record. It’s like a big old mansion. The studio is called La Frette.
What does that translate to?
I don’t know. It’s just a town, a little suburb area that it’s in. It’s called La Frette sur Seine, which is the river [La Seine] that runs through Paris. So it’s on that river. It’s a small suburban neighborhood. Suburban in a European sense is kind of different than the North American sense. It doesn’t seem like the right description to me, when I say suburban. It’s like little cobblestone streets and stone, everything’s built in stone. Suburbs doesn’t seem like the right word, but that’s what they call it.