The latest record from Plants and Animals proves with striking clarity that rock ‘n’ roll need not be convoluted and tedious. La La Land focuses on the twist and shout, sweaty psychedelia, and roaring guitars. The record opts to be played at full volume to an empty room rather than having to be throttled to an audience of thousands. Following up Parc Avenue, Plants and Animals have found a way to balance a louder, ripped-up sound while creating a tight collection of ballads that inherit the spirit of their memorable first effort. Their second album released by Secret City Records last month feels bigger and rowdier. La La Land sounds like Parc Avenue went to a night at the opera and decided to bring a six-pack and foam finger. I recently had the chance to speak with Warren Spicer and we discussed everything from Canada’s status in the music world and the new Plants and Animals record to whimsical CFL dreams and three-legged dog hybrids.
Jan: Are you excited for how La La Land will be received, how did you approach this album after the success of Parc Avenue?
Warren Spicer: You just hope for the best. I think we’ve made another record that we we’re happy with and it was done around Christmas time. So we’ve been sitting around and waiting for it to come out for a while, you kind of lose track of where it actually is. Then people start to get their hands on it and it takes on a life of its own – a more public life.
Jan: So when did you start work on La La Land?
Warren: I guess about last December.
Jan: So was most of the writing done in Montreal or while you were on tour?
Warren: I would say most of it was done in Montreal; some of it was done in France, too. We recorded half the record in a studio outside of Paris. We wrote and recorded some stuff while we were out there as well, but most of it was done in Montreal.
Jan: Is there a theme that underlies La La Land?
Warren: Not cohesively, no. We just wanted to write some more rock songs, to let some of our touring influence the record since we had really been working on a louder rock ‘n’ roll live show. We wanted to make a tighter rock record, I guess. Other than that, we came up with a bunch of tunes and figured out how it all went together.
Jan: What songs have you particularly enjoyed playing live between Parc Avenue and La La Land?
Warren: Well, some songs exist a lot better out on the stage than others. On the new album, we haven’t played a lot of it, we’ve only done a few shows with the new material but they all seem to be doing well actually. There’s stuff from the first record that we don’t even play live, so we’re going to play everything from this new record. I think ‘Faerie Dance’ from the old record will be something we’ll play forever, from the new record ‘Undone Melody’ is a good loud song, it’s got a nice arc to it and sits well on stage.
Jan: I caught your show in Halifax a little while ago, and heard a bunch of new material, you drew a great crowd.
Warren: Yeah, it’s such a fun city to play. It’s always nice to come home.
Jan: Do you find there is there a big difference between touring the States and Canada, do you experience a big divide between the two countries?
Warren: Well, you get a lot of good Mexican food in America [Laughs]. Coffee is a little hard to find. The audience is – I don’t think – I mean we’re all human it’s a pretty primitive activity performance, so it’s a similar situation wherever you go. Culturally, it’s also pretty similar; I think people know us a little better in Canada, so some of the shows people show up a little more psyched up. But I mean the west coast of the States has been really good, and other pockets have been good. The States is just way bigger, Canada is so united in a way, news travels really quickly here – even though it’s huge, everything seems way more connected coast to coast. While in the States each state has its own thing going on, I feel there is more cultural diversity regionally within the States. Canada is incredibly multicultural but I mean the difference between Saskatchewan and Manitoba might be harder to detect than the difference between Oregon and Texas, which makes it an interesting place to travel since there’s stuff going on all over the place.
Jan: How do you feel about Canada’s independent music scene, do you think we’re still putting out good bands or has it changed and slowed?
Warren: Yeah, we put out tons of good music – and it doesn’t seem to be stopping. So much music now has been done, and so many genres have been driven into the ground so it can be hard to break new ground, you really need to reinterpret certain things and I feel Canadian bands have had a really interesting take on things. There have definitely been some solid records in the past and we certainly have some great releases coming up.
Jan: On that topic, what records have you enjoyed this year, and what are you excited to hear?
Warren: I liked Wolf Parade’s last record a lot [At Mount Zoomer], and I know they just finished up a new one [Expo 86]. I’ll be happy to listen to that record. It’ll be interesting to hear what Arcade Fire come up with on their next record as well.
Jan: I caught Wolf Parade recently on their East Coast stint. Their new stuff has a stronger kick to it, but it doesn’t feel too far from Apologies to the Queen Mary.
Warren: Yeah, they’re a good rock band – a really good rock band. Lately, I haven’t listened to a lot of new releases that have stuck with me. Things might impress me for a little bit, but maybe it gets harder to listen to music constantly when you work in music.
Jan: Do you think you become more critical or it’s just more difficult because you become so focused on your own music?
Warren: Yeah, there’s like a time for it. I think now I’d be more open to listen to records than when I’m working on a record like La La Land. But at the same time it’s a good thing to do too because you can get inspired to write songs when you hear new bands and you tend to work in a reactionary kind of way.
Jan: Would you say anything happened in between the writing and release of Parc Avenue that would’ve changed the sound of La La Land?
Warren: The main thing would be touring like crazy and playing electric guitars. Making Parc Avenue was done while we were just playing in Montreal – we weren’t touring at all, just playing small places. There’s a lot more exploring the studio in a lot ways, and playing with instruments. After the release we went out and toured and had to figure out a way to do it all with two guitars and a set of drums. The main change is that we’ve found more of a sound, and it’s less nebulous, we’ve come into something more personalized.
Jan: Is touring your favourite aspect of Plants and Animals?
Warren: Yeah – No. It’s hard to differentiate what the best part is but there’s something about recording and getting kind of a magical take when things work. It’s a really special moment, likewise there’s really special moments on stage – the reason we’re in music is for that strange magical feeling. Those are the moments we’re hoping for.
Jan: If you weren’t working with Plants and Animals could you see yourself working on anything else?
Warren: I don’t know, I could probably do some other stuff. In a lot of ways life is: you take a turn here, you take a turn there and then the next thing you know you’re doing something. But I mean I’ve always done music, I think at this point this is the right thing for me to be doing, if I were doing something else I think I’d secretly want to be doing this and maybe be disappointed that I wasn’t. I’m glad that this is what I’m doing because it’s always been a thing that I’ve dreamt of aside from professional sports – but that wasn’t working out [Laughs].
Jan: What sport?
Warren: Well if I wasn’t doing this I’d be playing in the CFL.
Jan: Do you have any particular artists that you’d like to collaborate with or perhaps work with on tour?
Warren: It might be fun to do something really weird and make a record with people doing something completely different – like a dance record. Maybe with like Think About Life or something crazy. It probably wouldn’t work, but just the idea of going into something like, “let’s write dance music,” I think that could be a good thing to do. I think it would be something we would do on the side under some other title, since the Plants and Animals band still has some more ideas before we’re done. This record for us was trying to do something different than the first record, I don’t know what the third one will be about but it could be really different too.
Jan: How did the three of you guys end up meeting?
Warren: Well Woody [Matthew Woodly] and I grew up in Halifax and met when we were in grade seven, we went to Gorsebrook Junior High. We were already playing music at that point and went through various bands in junior high and high school so we’ve known each other forever. We’re kind of like brothers. And then I met Nic [Nicolas Basque] at University here studying music and doing really weird experimental crazy shit. So we kind of started out coming from a weirder place being involved in academic kind of out-there music and now we’re making rock songs. It’s been an interesting evolution.
Jan: So did you go to university together in Montreal?
Warren: Yeah, we were all in the music department at Concordia in Montreal. We actually weren’t doing very much performance though, we were all into composition and electro-acoustic stuff so it was super out-there. It was great, ultimately, it wasn’t going to be a career or life, but it opened up my ears to sound as opposed to just music, and understanding how sound affects you as opposed to just music and recording. It was perfect for university, it was exactly what I should have been doing, getting away from my guitar and getting into some really different kind of stuff. When I was done, the only logical thing to do was to make a rock band [Laughs]. It just didn’t make sense otherwise, I was studying something that was too academic to pursue outside of school.
Jan: Would you go back? Could you see yourself studying music academically, or did you feel you had to move away from such a formal background?
Warren: Yeah, I think I’m probably done in class for music. I think the pursuit now is kind of like looking for the Sasquatch. When you’re writing songs it’s kind of more being available when the moment comes, you can’t really get better at it by going to class – that’s what I’ve learned anyways. You have to keep open to it, musically I think I’ve figured out what I’m doing and what I’m good at. There’s certain limitations that we can avoid having gone to school, like if we wanted to do horns or strings we can do some basic arranging so that’s kind of nice that we don’t always have to get someone else to do things like that. Anything more complicated than that we would have to get some professionals to do it, but that’s the greatest thing ever really – to get a professional to do something they’re really good at. Then you don’t need to do a half-assed job of it yourself [Laughs].
Jan: In between growing up in Halifax and going to school in Montreal would you say you feel closer to one city or the other?
Warren: I’m definitely at home now in Montreal, I left Halifax when I was 18 and that was 1996, so I’ve been in Montreal for a long time. Strangely enough, a lot of Nova Scotians are in Montreal, it’s a fairly strong Nova Scotian clan here. There’s just a bunch of us that left at the same time and stayed. I kind of have a transplanted version of Halifax here in Montreal that I’m pretty comfortable with. My family is still in Halifax and I go back in the summer and sometimes for Christmas. It was my home until I was 18 and then I came here and it took a while before this felt like home, but it definitely feels like this is my home now. Halifax will be my childhood home, that’s where my childhood existed, but Montreal is where my manhood will exist.
Jan: Back to La La Land, is there any story behind ‘The Mama Papa’, it stands out on the album and has a definite funkier sound to it.
Warren: It was a song that was written really early on actually, we had been playing it live for a while before we recorded it. It was the only song that had any live performances behind it before we went into the studio. We tracked it in Montreal and then we retracked in France, and then we retracked it in Montreal again. It was the only song that we couldn’t figure out how to do, because it worked really well live right away, there was no problem, it was just a straight-ahead rock tune and we didn’t really think too hard about it – it just played itself. But in the studio it didn’t want to behave, it didn’t translate, it never felt right. By the end, the version we ended up using was the most interesting take because it’s a colour or a sound that we haven’t used very much before – there’s something kind of ’80s about the whole thing and I don’t understand where it came from. Nic added that hilarious television guitar line at the beginning, and a bunch of other weird stuff came together that made us feel like we had found a way of recording it that made it exciting again – the same way that it was when we played it live.
Jan: Between the three of you guys when you’re writing, do you split up and write the songs in certain pieces or does it depend on the song?
Warren: Well I write all the lyrics, most of the songs I had rough demos of. I would come home and write a song on my acoustic guitar and maybe have the lyrics or maybe have a melody. Some of the songs are a lot looser and were born in the studio. It always kind of depends, but I’m more of the songwriter and then as a band we kind of arrange and manipulate the songs. The lyrics come from me, but Woody will also kind of take a look at the lyrics and listen to me sing a song and make suggestions, we work on it together.
Jan: I know you have a tour coming up with the release of La La Land, so what are your plans afterward for the Summer or the rest of 2010?
Warren: We’ve got a few festivals lined up for the summer, so we’ll be traveling here and there. I think we’re also going to do two weeks in the United Kingdom. Chances are were hoping to get things happening in Europe, so hopefully the Fall will be about getting known in Europe since we haven’t done a lot of work over there – that’s the next frontier.
Jan: Finally, if you could be a plant-animal hybrid, what would be your mascot?
Warren: Well, what’s a plant with three leaves? Poison Ivy? I guess there’s no animal with three legs, but I think we’re like Poison Ivy and a three-legged dog that’s been in car accident.
Plants and Animals play The Opera House in Toronto June 24, the Montreal Jazz Fest June 25, and the Ottawa Bluesfest July 14.
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