As we ride the crest into modern music's plethora of artist output, the definition of risk has taken new form. These days your four-year-old sister could record a single on her Elmo-digicorder and someone on the Pitchfork staff will call it the next big thing. And being shocking became passé 10 years ago when the public realized Marilyn Manson wears a suit to the Grammys. So with no social debacle too big to bounce back from, and with the outer-limits of all genre cross-breeding guaranteed to be accepted by somebody, how is a self-establishing indie band really supposed to go out on a limb these days? With Montreal's Plants and Animals, the key appears to lie in returning to the golden sacredness of song, and in doing so they make that Pro-Tools app on you iPad seem a shade less hip than it did yesterday.
I caught up with guitarist Warren Spicer last summer, just as the band was about to set off on another European tour -- adding into the 100+ shows they would perform in 2010. We talked much of the band's desires and intentions, but what comes across most is how proud these guys are of the music they're making. In a time of over-abundance and quick-shot releases, there's a refreshing coziness in an indie act being overly concerned about perfecting their sound. It's a point fully justified to the adoring critics and the guys behind the counter at your local record shop, but the band itself wonders whether this is really music that can win over a broader, A.D.D.-infused crowd. To really get Plants and Animals, you have to go deep, and that's an increasingly harder demand when most bloggers only listen to the first 30 seconds of a single. But P & A embrace a respect for tradition and sincerity that is quickly fading from the business, and acknowledge that a full dedication to their craft is really the only way they know how to do it.
Half of La La Land was recorded right outside of Paris. How much do you feel physical location effects the music you're making?
For us, I think it makes a really big difference. We tend to really get into a space and explore everything… it no doubt informs what we're doing. When you're in the studio you're a lot like a kid at the jungle gym -- you want to try everything out. And it extends to when you're not recording as well. If you're recording for five days, that's all you're really doing still, even when you're not recording. Whatever you're doing is still affecting what you're going to do the next day. If you walk out of the studio and it's a busy highway or an overpass it's going to have a different vibe than if you walk out and there's a really nice garden or something. I think that inevitably affects the way you see things and it's hard to say exactly how, it just changes your mood more than anything. And that's kind of what recording is about; especially with our records that are geared toward capturing a certain mood and a certain vibe. We're not looking for a sterile perfection that might not make a difference where you are, you know?
Some times you try to put a record together a certain way and what you really need is a certain piece of equipment and certain people to do, but for us the place and vibe gets in quite a bit.
So in the future is that something you want to experiment with, where you do sessions in Hawaii and Nepal?
[Laughs] Sure. Yeah, I think the more you do it, the more you start to realize what makes a difference to you and how you want to precede. I think with making this last record, and the one before it and everything else we've done together and independently, we've come to the realization that it's always a challenge to take the pressure off. It's mixed with a lot of excitement as well as the pressure, but I think going to new places and working with new people is a really good way -- ideally if they work the right way -- to A) make sure you're not repeating yourself and B) that you're not dealing with the same old things.
Did you have worries before going over to France like, "Oh fuck, we're going to spend all this time and effort and what if it doesn't work? What if this is the wrong spot?"
Yeah, I think that's the fear when you leave your comfort zone. The first record we recorded home in Montreal between my home and the studio that we've been rehearsing and recording at with friends for years. Before we went to France we spent a month at that same studio, so, for sure, I was reluctant to change, just to jump up and go do something completely different. We've never done it before with good results, but the France thing was OK because we already had some stuff in the bag from doing other sessions at home and it was only four or five days. Even though that's a lot of time in the studio, I think after we attempted to do a month, which I think was foolish. It felt like a good idea to limit it. I don't know how it's going to work when we start recording again, but I think it's going to be considerable different. I think we're going to record a lot less, in terms of doing consecutive days. I don't really see the point in that anymore.
Just to give yourself more space basically?
Yeah, more space -- that's the ticket for us. To have time to reflect, to have time to listen back to things and not have to move too quickly and make decisions too drastically. Just take it all away and not worry… you know when you're renting studios and the bills pile up and you're like "my god, we're spending too much money" and all of this stuff that has absolutely nothing to do with your songs. We're trying to find a way to minimize that stuff.
When you went to France did you already have all the material on the palette?
Not really, some stuff just came from hanging around there. We'd wake up in the morning and sit down at the piano or organ and the next thing you know we'd be working on song that came out of morning coffee. Some of it was stuff that we had been working on for a while, and some of it was completely new to us.
I find some of the high points of your music in the epic sprawlers that you write. For instance, a tune like "Undone Melody" starts so gentle and then builds and builds into this huge thing at the end. How does the process work for writing that way? Does it start at the beginning with "let's just see where this goes" or is it the game plan to get to the huge ending from the start?
Well… we have a tendency to do multiple movement songs. You have the first part and then the second part where you start jumping off the rocket ship [laughs] and fly off. So, I think with that one we just knew that the beginning was going to be dramatic and dynamic and then it was going to go into the wall of chords. It's kind of like some of the songs on Parc Avenue -- like the song "Faerie Dance" has a thing like that. It's something we allow ourselves to do and not think too much about it. If the song starts a certain way and ends completely different, that doesn't present a problem.
So would you say you're looking for a certain degree of sophistication from listeners? Or at least a level of dedication? If you just listened to a 30-second clip of one of your songs on Amazon or something, it wouldn't give you a clear picture of what a lot of your songs are like. A lot of your songs - you have to go through the movements to really understand what your ideas and motions are about. Do you ever think about that when you're writing these songs, that someone…
Might not connect with it? No, not really. I think it's one of our strengths and it makes us more unique than a band or album that you can digest really quickly. It might not be the best thing for business [laughs]. That's just more interesting to us as artists, but it all depends on the song, you know? Sometimes a song needs to be 3 minutes and have a groove and where you can get most of it in the first 20 or 30 seconds. And there are other songs that need a lot more time and space. I think we grew up, all three of us, really listening to music. And the three of us came from a musical education background and having done a lot of experimental music, your attention span gets incredibly challenged. That stuck with us, how really important it is to sit down and really listen to music. And that's nice to sit down and really get into a song you wrote -- it makes you feel good about yourself.