ORGANIC GROWTH Plants and Animals

Indie rock? Jam band?
Nobody’s ready to vote this Juno-nominated Canadian outfit off the island yet.

 

BY JENNIFER KELLY

 

Plants and Animals, out of Montreal, have been on the road almost
continuously since their first full length Parc Avenue got the “next big
thing” tag in 2008. A glowing Pitchfork review, shortlisting for the Polaris Music Prize, and a Juno nomination: all
might have convinced a less hard-working band to sit back and bask in the glory.
But not Plants and Animals, a threesome that has used the two-year interval to
hone a harder-edged, more rocking and distinctly more “live” sound for a second
album La La Land (Secret City; read review here) – and to connect with
audiences.

 

“If you get a big review early on, you still have to
represent,” says Warren Spicer, the band’s singer and guitarist. “You still
have to go out and play shows for people. Because if you’re a shitty band and
you get a great review, you’ll probably get a bunch of attention for a while. But
the only way to gauge what’s going on is really by performing, being with an
audience.”

 

Plants and Animals began, modestly, in Halifax, when two of its three members met in
seventh grade.  Spicer, already playing
guitar, was deep into Hendrix and classic rock. Matthew “Woody” Woodley was
taking fencing lessons with Spicer’s brother.  They started playing together as
pre-teenagers, mostly rock at first, until they met a saxophone player named
Danny Orr, who got them into jazz. Spicer remembers busking in downtown Halifax, and for the
three of them, “It actually was really profitable.”

 

Spicer and Woodley headed to Montreal
for university, enrolling at Concordia
University for
electro-acoustic music composition. There they met Nicolas Basque, who now
plays guitar, bass and keyboards in the band.  The trio had begun to develop an interest in Chicago’s post-rock
sound, bands like Tortoise and musicians like Jim O’Rourke. “We were trading
CDs and stuff and then we ended up collaborating on a bunch of compositions,”
says Spicer.

 

At the time their academic focus was on abstract experiments
Spicer describes as “music without instruments and no meter and no time, just sound.”
Yet as he finished his studies, he found himself hankering for the kind of
song-based compositions that he could share with friends. “Nobody enjoyed it,”
he says, of his electro-acoustic output. “I couldn’t play it for anyone. It
became clear that it wasn’t something that I wanted to pursue. It would have
been too lonely.”

 

So, he returned to the classic rock of his early teens. “I
went full circle,” he says. “I started out when I was a kid playing Bob Dylan
songs on my guitar.  Then I went to
university and got heavy into weird, experimental, academic head music. I got
my fill of that and slowly started getting back to songs.”

 

Post-university, Spicer successfully applied for a Canada
Council grant with a series of demos. With the grant money, he got Woodley and
Basque to help him flesh out his ideas. The first self-titled Plants and
Animals
album came out of these sessions. It was all instrumentals, no
vocals at first, but Spicer says that the singing came about organically. “We were
just living and playing music with lots of different people and we started
singing,” he remembers. “I guess it might have been something I’d always wanted
to do but was afraid.”  

 

As they coalesced into a band, the three members of Plants
and Animals began working on their second album Parc Avenue. Fitting
sessions in between day jobs, paying for studio time themselves, it took
several years to complete. “It’s all over the place,” says Spicer. “There’s
stuff on that record that was recorded two years or three years before the
record came out.”

 

Parc Avenue was a surprise success, winning the band positive attention in Canada
and beyond. They were nominated for a Juno Prize, Canada’s Grammy equivalent and
shortlisted for the Polaris Prize. Plants and Animals took to the road, and as
they played night after night, their sound began to change. “We were playing
loud and getting into it equipment wise and really working towards a sound on
the road for a couple of years while we toured Parc Avenue,” Spicer says. “We’d really gotten away from what we were
doing in the studio with Parc Avenue,
which was a lot more acoustic guitars and more laid back.”

 

So, when Plants and Animals regrouped to record the followup,
they were a subtly different band. “There’s a lot more road references,” says
Spicer. “There’s a lot more about this new lifestyle that we’ve had to adopt. I
think a lot of the lyrical material came from looking out a van window – and
coming home from being away for a couple of months.”

 

The way they played, too, was shaped by months on the road. Spicer
says that one thing he likes about records by Canadian forebears like the Band
and Neil Young is that “they tend to be very natural. Not a lot of hiding
behind studio equipment. That definitely was part of how we made records. We
certainly keep it, like, kind of real as we can.”

 

The band also makes room for improvisation, both in the songwriting
and in live performance. “When we rehearse, we dedicate a certain amount of
time – not that we actually consciously do this – but we rehearse the songs but
we also will take one of the songs and just play it for like 20 minutes,” says
Spicer.  

 

Why? Spicer explains that it opens up the songs and keeps
them interesting. “You shake up all your expectations of what you can do with a
song, and you just kind of pull it apart. After you do that for a while,
there’s all this new information about how you can perform a song. It might not
be evident to the listener, because it’s not like you change the format of the
song.  Still, you learn that there are
all these other secret doors in various places. If you just play the tune the
same way over and over again, you just get really good at it, but it’s not as
exciting.”

 

Because of this open-ended tendency – and a shared set of
blues, country and classic rock influences – Plants and Animals sometimes gets
lumped in with the jam band contingent, a comparison that bemuses Spicer.
Spicer says that, at 14, he went to see the Jerry Garcia Band with his father,
on a trip to San Francisco,
and that the whole experience was “pretty amazing.” Still, he doesn’t think
that the term really applies to his own band. “There are elements of jam in our
sound. We could go there if we wanted to go there more,” he says. “But one way
or the other, we haven’t really attached ourselves to it or dismissed ourselves
from it. We’re not a part of it. But if somebody thinks we’re a jam band, it
doesn’t really matter.”

 

A good deal of the road’s raucous energy can be heard in
tracks like “Tom Cruz,” the album’s opener. “We just kind of banged that one
out one night. We were really psyched and there was just some kind of musical
energy that made us think that we were Tom Cruise. It just made sense.”

 

“Swinging Bells,” partly inspired by a video gaming machine,
deals with the uncertainties that face a young band – or any emerging artist
trying to make a go of things. Spicer claims he was thinking about an actor
friend in LA, who was trying to break into the movies when he wrote that song,
as well as his own band. And “American Idol,” one of the album’s highlights,
borrows a metaphor from mass culture to voice Plants and Animals’ own
challenges. “It’s not really about American
Idol
,” says Spicer. “It’s about approval, really, being approved. And again,
it has to do with adopting this new life as a band that releases records and
has to wait for people to vote you off the island or not.”

 

Spicer is mixing reality show metaphors a little, but the
message is clear:  Plants and Animals
want to make their case to you, on the road and via La La Land.

 

Asked if their relative lack of gimmicks might hold them
back, Spicer answered, “We’ll connect to who we connect to and those people
will appreciate us because of what we have to give.  That’s the important thing.”

 

 

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