Plants and Animals rock, but in a smart way

Plants and Animals hit upon a magical formula by blending art-school pop and ’70s-toned classic rock
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If Plants and Animals frontman Warren Spicer is more than a little excited about the prospect of heading back into the studio this year, that’s easily explained. When he rings the Georgia Straight from his snowed-in hometown of Montreal, the singer-guitarist reveals that he’s hunkered down in work mode, tweaking songs for the trio’s next album.

In + out

Warren Spicer sounds off on the things that enquiring minds want to know.

On the first two Plants and Animals records: “We’d show up to the studio with a song idea and then start recording. That can be fun and spontaneous, but you also learn later on when you tour the material that you’ve learned to play the songs a lot better than when you were tracking in the studio.”

On happy accidents: “We know that accidents are an important part of any record. We’re not trying to eliminate that. There are songs that we’ve been working on in this new batch of material where we are like ”˜Okay, we’re not going to play this one again until we go into the studio.’ ”

On the downside of being a critical fave: “You never really know how people are going to react to the next one [record], or how to grow as an artist. I’m not painting a picture of despair and sorrow but it’s a very uncertain profession, because no matter how hard you work, it doesn’t necessarily pay off for you.”

Once Spicer and his bandmates—bassist Nicolas Basque and drummer Matthew Woodley—are happy with what they’ve got, they’ll be hopping on a plane to officially begin recording the follow-up to La La Land, their critically adored 2010 sophomore album. Forget suburban New Jersey, urban Detroit, or sun-soaked L.A.; when Plants and Animals pick a studio, they go the classy route. Their recording facility of choice, Studio La Frette, might sound like something found in the home of the Habs, but it’s actually located about a half-hour outside of Paris. And to hear Spicer describe the place, which was offered to the band by a Plants and Animals fan who owns it, it couldn’t be cooler or more beautiful.

“It’s in a mansion that’s on the river—on the Seine—kind of in a quiet residential area, but old, where everything is made of stone and there are all these small little streets,” he says. “The mansion is gated with a studio in a big basement room where there is a piano and instruments all over the place. It’s just really, really relaxing, so that you are able to focus.”

“Basically, half of La La Land came from working at that place,” Spicer continues. “When we go back to France, which we’ve done on subsequent tours since making that record, we’re always welcome to stay at the studio, because the old mansion has a lot of rooms for accommodations. We’re kind of like family to the people that own it, so we go and hang out there when we’re not recording. The last time we were there, it was after a show. We were all walking around that night, talking about maybe doing some recording in Montreal and maybe trying out some different studios there. All of a sudden we looked at each other and were like, ”˜What are we doing? We’re coming back here.’ ”

La La Land makes a good case that magic was in the air in France, with Plants and Animals having noted that the “nice Bordeaux” part of the record has its roots overseas, with the “baked potato” half coming together in Montreal. If that statement makes the album sound half gorgeous and half salted with songs that fall somewhere between George Thorogood and the Datsuns, it shouldn’t. La La Land does indeed rock, but in a smart way, with “The Mama Papa” reminding you why the Talking Heads were once untouchable, and “Jeans Jeans Jeans” showing those punks in Wolf Parade a thing or two about cranking the amps. But, drawing on everything from art-school pop to purple-skies alt-country to ’70s-toned classic rock, the album mostly confirms Montreal as Canada’s undisputed hotbed of top-drawer indie rock. The left-field songs are never less than adventurous, whether they’re being soaked with soft-bulletin piano (“Undone Melody”), ’80s-vintage sax (“American Idol”), or jazz-café guitar (“Kon Tiki”).

Looking back, Spicer sees La La Land as a learning experience. Coming off the Polaris Prize–nominated Parc Avenue, the group was eager to push itself to do something new in the studio, which would later prove problematic when it came time to perform the tracks live.

“A lot of the songs changed once we toured them and kind of figured out what worked,” Spicer says. “In the studio you can achieve success, and then go out and try to play the same songs live and realize ”˜This is not meant to be out here.’ Take ”˜Kon Tiki’—that’s one that was really difficult to translate. It has a feel and a rhythm that’s, I dunno, a little alien to us, even though it worked that day when we recorded it. It was a lot of fun to do, but it doesn’t take off live.”

Plants and Animals will head off to Paris with a better idea of what gets thinking-person’s hipsters hoisting the PBR cans on the dance floor and what gets them reaching for their iPhones to check for text messages. Spicer and his bandmates have already road-tested the material for album number three, which means that, upon landing in Paris, they’ll pretty much be ready to head to the studio and hit Record.

“We’ve been trying to really write all the parts for the songs and write the arrangements and figure out how to play them in the studio,” the singer says. “When we get there, all we want to have to do is perform the songs, rather than have to figure out who does what and when and all that kind of stuff. The focus will really be on the three of us playing.”

Based on the reception that Plants and Animals’ first two albums have received, that will no doubt suit the band’s already sizable following just fine. Spicer is the first to admit that he considers himself fortunate to be where he is today, and not just because fans end up offering him the use of old mansions on the outskirts of Paris.

“We’ve all been playing music for most of our lives, studying music at university, and then working at various things afterwards,” he notes. “I was working in restaurants and doing the typical things that musicians do when they don’t get the chance to do what we’re doing now. When all this started happening, after we made our first record, there was not only this moment where we realized that we had to quit our other jobs, but we realized that we’d be able to actually do that. As this goes on you realize that there’s been a really fortunate series of events that has led us to be able to do what we do.”

Plants and Animals play the Commodore Ballroom next Friday (February 18).

Comments (2) Add New Comment
Richard Basque
If you fly on AirFrance in February, look at their magazine. There is a page for their monthly preferred playlist. This month, 2 Montreal groups were selected: Plants and Animals and Arcade Fire! On all AF flights with on board music,you could listen to "Future from the '80s" on the by default music channel! Great recognition by a major airline!
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Tasha
Why must you reference PBR in every single review? Can't you think of any other beverages?
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