Plants and Animals are currently out on a North American tour. They perform this week in Pontiak, MI (5/10), Chicago, IL (5/11), Madison, WI (5/12), and Denver, CO (5/15). Find the full live schedule here.
Simply put, Plants and Animals is a great rock band. The Montreal-based trio of Warren Spicer (guitar, keys, bass, vocals), Nicolas Basque (guitar, bass, keyboards, vocals) and Matthew Woody Woodley (drums, vocals) consistently generate music with strut and substance, movers that move one, and all without mimicking others. They are that rare, pleasant reminder that rock’s DNA is still capable of pleasing mutation, where we recognize the ancestry in the bone structure but what’s built above it is new. They share some kinship with charming outliers like The Slip, Centro-matic and These United States – each a purveyor of sounds both original and readily likeable, tiptoers into experimentation with an abiding love of hooks, riffs and single-ready touches.
Plants and Animals third album, The End Of That (released February 28 on Secret City Records), coalesces all their strengths, a work that grows more dear and enjoyable on repeated spins with songs about what happens next after one finds themselves down in the dumps and stuck inside their defeats. It is, in a word, humanizing, filled with real emotions, candid observations, and more than a little to make one dance even in their gloom. Part of what’s always set Plants And Animals apart from the competition is their swing, and The End Of That blows us kisses through bee-stung lips as we leer at their pepper grinder hips. This is music ribbed for our pleasure, so to speak, and it’s nourishing for one’s mind to boot. Nice combo, and one DI was enthusiastic to talk to the band about. Woody was kind enough to give us a slice of his time to discuss the biology of this music.
This is your third full-length album, and that’s generally the make-or-break point with any band. Almost everybody can put together a debut because they’ve had a lifetime to compile material, and if they have any momentum at all the second album comes together, but you realize who really has their salt with the third record. You guys definitely deliver on your third. I walked away from my first listen to The End of That feeling like this band has seriously hit its stride.
We keep putting out different sounding things, different feeling things, and people are all over the place with the changes, but the feedback has been pretty positive, which is nice. Coming to this one differently was really a matter of reversing our [usual] approach and maybe doing something a little more professional when you’re creating music, recording music, and do more of the creative work before committing it to tape. Before we used to write a lot in the studio, and because of that our approach led to some really happy accidents but also some things that would have benefited from hindsight. Like, someone might play a guitar part really simply because we didn’t know exactly where the song was going and we figured we could give it more shape with overdubs. This time, we wanted to go in knowing what we were going to do and play live-off-the-floor so we were playing music together, all the way to the singing which was done live during recording. There were a few overdubs but the emphasis was on the here and now. To do that you have to know what you’re doing.
The vocals are great because they aren’t too careful. There’s a rawness to some sections that really suits the material.
That’s Warren. That’s his work. He put it recently that he’s being really natural, like sitting at the bar talking to a good friend, laying it down directly and honestly. That was what he was going for. He’s not the kind of guy who frets over lines, crossing out words over and over again. It’s just kind of raw, and that’s the way he’s most effective, and even more to the point, it’s how he writes lyrics.
The lyrics have a really interesting swing, where you’re meeting characters that undress for you little by little.
That’s what we wanted to do – lyrically, thematically – we wanted to be open, direct and honest. We wanted to be wide open. We’re not playing parts, not trying to be characters or anything like that. We’re just trying to be ourselves, and I’m hoping that came across. The End Of That as a title and a theme can immediately strike people as dark. It’s actually not. It’s just about doing the same silly things over and over again, and about taking in all the crazy things that happen to us with a smile and a grain of salt.
The general inclination may be to see it as dark but endings also represent an opportunity to do something new, a chance to start again.
That’s it. And maybe it isn’t over and you keep making the same silly mistakes. That’s maybe the irony of it all [laughs].
That’s human nature.
I think so, too.
There’s good beat throughout this album, but you’re not always doing a straight rock thing. What is your approach to drumming, especially since in a trio you’re all pretty exposed?
We’re all fairly exposed, and we’ve been playing [live] with a bass player for years now, and that opens things up even wider. My approach – almost to a fault – is I’m always looking for a little twist or something different than what first comes to mind – i.e. the straight rock beat, as much as I love that. I don’t know why I’ve always thought, “What can I do that’s different from what you expect?” Sometimes I do it too much, and then I think, “That’s too much. All this needs is a simple rock beat,” and I play that. Also, in my late teens and early twenties all I was into was jazz, and that’s a very lyrical form of drumming. So, I guess I have a bit of that.
It’s very conversational rather than being predominantly supportive.
It’s a root source but not really an inspiration any more. But, I’ve always been drawn to lyrical drumming. Also, the three of us have been playing together for so long – Warren and I since we were twelve and the three of us for more than a decade. We’ve gotten good at communicating through our instruments. We spend a lot of time improvising and jamming, and our early roots are as an instrumental band. That stuff all plays a part in how we are now.
That’s not unlike The Slip. It’s an interesting progression for a band, much different than the archetypal “kids in a garage” trying to work out rudimentary, primordial rock. It’s a different approach to come at it from the other direction, which Plants And Animals seems to have done.
It’s not just a straight line. We’re never going to go in just one direction – it’s not that simple. This [new album] is the most songwriter-ly of all our records so far, but I have no idea what it will be like on our next record. We’re always looking for some kind of twist. I don’t think we can help ourselves. We always make sure there’s a couple tunes each record that head in the epic direction.
The End Of That ends on a really expansive note with “Runaways,” which feels really open. A lot of albums end with a period and this one ends with an ellipsis…
…which is a good way to end an album called The End Of That, right?
Does it change the way you play having a bass player on tour with you? Does it change the dynamics of the trio?
Somewhat. We’re not writing stuff together and everything we play we’ve played before, now there’s just a bass player. We’re essentially playing the same parts, though we have rearranged some older material from past albums. In particular, it frees up the two guitar players, Warren and Nick, because they can do less – they don’t have to fill the holes. Warren doesn’t have to concentrate as much on the rhythm section with punch and strumming like he used to because there’s a bass player gelling everything together at the bottom. They don’t have to play in as many drop-tunings or worry about pushing tons of low-end out of their amps to balance the frequency settings. It’s just made things easier overall and made us feel less inhibited.
Who’s playing bass for you?
A guy named Eric DeGraw, who has played in a bunch of bands around Montreal. He’s been around for awhile, and he’s a true renaissance man and jack of all trades. It’s gonna be nice to tour with him. We’re good friends and chemistry is really important.
How did you get involved in making music with Nick and Warren? You’ve been making music together since you were pre-teens, and a lot of unspoken depth emerges when people have played music together that long.
It’s true, a lot of unconscious habits…which we work hard to break [laughs]. I met Warren up in Halifax when we were 12 on the first day of junior high school. I had just started playing drums and he’d just started playing guitar fairly recently. I went over to his place, his mom made us hot dogs, and he played “Purple Haze” on his guitar. Within a month we were jamming in my basement, playing a lot of classic rock. We grew together musically even though we had different bands in high school. We even played in a free jazz thing for a while with a saxophone player. Then, we went to Montreal at the same time, and Warren met Nick in music school and the three of us bonded. There was no real official beginning. I can’t even remember why we started playing together but we did and it worked so we kept doing it.
Trios in general are cool. There’s something about the chemistry of three people playing music together.
I totally agree. There was a mild fear about adding a bass player to the mix, and maybe the reason we’re going to keep writing as a trio – regardless of how good Eric or anybody is – is it’s just the way it’s worked for so long and we don’t want to toy with the chemistry too much. Adding bass is really about fulfilling that desire for low end frequency that your ear wants to hear, and gelling the music together. But I love all kinds of trios in history. It’s a triangle, a geometrical shape.
As much as a duo is a chance to listen in on a conversation, trios do the same thing but the conversation is livelier.
A certain je ne sais quoi [laughs].
Do you think it gives you a slightly different perspective being a rock band from Canada rather than the United States?
Not really. Rock ‘n’ roll feels the same here as it does a few miles down the road in New York or Boston.
One thing I really picked up on with The End Of That is how much more distinct you guys are becoming as a band, where it’s not just that you’re a good rock band but the shape of Plants And Animals is more defined, individual, clear.
I think that we have a sound, and we’ve more and more and more into a comfort level with that sound – and I think it’s broad and not this album exclusively. I would find it really satisfying if people just thought of us as Plants And Animals. Not to be too cliché [his voice slipping into a mock-hipster tone] but everyone is always trying to categorize us, man [laughs]. I do the same thing as a listener. It’s just an instinct, and writers kind of have to out of necessity.
It’s one of the pitfalls of writing about music, especially for an audience that often hasn’t heard the music in question. Often the only way to get across to them is by using familiar touchstones and broad strokes in the hopes they’ll connect with some part and explore further. However, my favorite thing as a music writer is bands I can’t do that with, bands that defy easy explication, and your band has definitely moved in that direction.
We move around a lot but we’re not trying to create a new genre of music. There are ties to a lot – to a couple of eras, to a couple of bands – but it’s a shifting thing. We put out Parc Avenue (2008) and people said, “Ah, they’re this kind of band.” Then we put out La La Land (2010) and they said, “Ah, now they’re this kind of band.” Now we put out The End of That and it’s different, and the next one will be different still. Rather than tell people we’re moving in a straight line direction, we’re broad and whatever is newest is just our latest offering. It’s harder for bands to do rather than solo artists – just look at all the different phases and albums David Bowie went through.
One of the appealing aspects of the new record is how immediately fun some of the tunes are. A song like “Crisis!” could be the beginning of a good-bad night of debauchery.
[Laughs] It was almost the end of a really good-bad night when we recorded it. It has this really loose, floppy feel to it. We were at the studio in Paris where we recorded the album. It was late at night after a day of tracking, and we’d had a few glasses of wine. It was kind of a nightcap to recording, and the next morning we figured it was sloppy and we’d re-record it. In the end, the loose, floppy version won.
”Somewhere between a crisis and a pretty good time” indeed.
Those kinds of nights boil things down to the first level of communication. That raggedness is where a lot of great music occurs. In some ways that lyric sums up this album pretty well – that space you get in when things aren’t going so well and you’re alive and you let go and just accept that you’re in the middle of it all and say, “Oh well.”