Nicolas Basque of Plants and Animals on progressing from sprawling instrumentals
Plants and Animals (due tonight at the hi-dive) began life as an all-instrumental band in Montreal that made sprawling rock epics informed by an improvisational sensibility. But by the time the band was ready for its 2008 debut full-length, Parc Avenue, it no longer seemed to feel the need to explore all directions at once. While that record still showed signs of the trio's origins in more progressive improv, it also displayed hints of where the act would go next.
The moodier, darker La La Land sounded like a record Neil Young might have made with Wire as his backing players, and the album's tighter songwriting showed the fascinating ability the outfit had for reinvention. On its latest release, The End of That, the outfit explores the existential dilemmas of people in their late twenties, when you're kind of through figuring out who you are and now need to discover what you're about; it's half modern indie pop and half a meditation on lessons learned from the past on what gives music a compelling warmth and resonance. We spoke with the sharp and affable multi-instrumentalist Nicolas Basque about the band's evolution and the new album, which mixes new sensibilities with those from another time.
Westword: This is from a while back, but what made you want to cut back from writing sprawling instrumentals to something more pop-oriented?
Nicolas Basque: I think it came naturally. When we did instrumental music, we were just out of university, and it was part of the project that Warren [Spicer] had received a grant for. It was more like we were all students of composition, and we were really into Jim O'Rourke and Steve Reich and minimal music. So we wanted to do something along those lines, but with guitar and drums. That's how we started that band, basically, with twenty-minute instrumental songs.
At the same time, Montreal had a lot happening. A lot of venues were opening, and a lot of bands were passing through town. So we were often asked to open for bands. We ended up showing up, opening for some bands with no song really planned out. It was just improvised, like playing on two chords and jamming forever. For a time, Warren and Woody [Matthew Woodley] were in a band where Warren was starting to sing more.
He always sang, but never in the context of our band. He wrote a song once, "Mercy," from Parc Avenue, which has vocals, and he worked on that idea, and when we played that song live, people seemed to enjoy it even more. It was more structured, but it came naturally. We developed the tools with the instrumental band, but we really felt like we were making another project after a while. Warren wanted to sing more and we felt it was better for us, so that's how it worked out.
Your first full-length album, Parc Avenue, has been described as kind of coming from the creative perspective of an eight-year-old. What kinds of experiments did you try out then that led to choices you made for changes for your second album?
I think a lot of it was the touring, playing more together. Parc Avenue is a bit all over place, and I think that's something that's charming about it, too. But when we finished it and were thinking about another record, it's something we wanted to change, because we thought if we did the same all-over-the-place thing, it's not original, and we didn't want to do that all the time.
That's something we wanted to change, and I think that change had a lot to do with the recording process. Parc Avenue has [more of an] an arts-and-crafts kind of feeling to it than our other albums. We learned a lot in the recording process in how to get better sounds and guitar tones.
We didn't do that with La La Land, but something that we always thought was missing was to have the lyrics more fully formed in the writing process. We often had a song tracked and we didn't know what it would be about. That's something we wanted to challenge ourselves to do. To add the lyrics a bit before, have them worked out and sang and knowing what would happen when with the lyrics. And not, "Oh, I wish I knew that word came there; I would have played that differently."
Even with La La Land, we added the lyrics later. I think with The End of That, everything was written before we tracked, so most of the songs were sung live -- which is a plus for us, because we had a tendency to do vocal takes forever on the other records, and probably some of the first takes were better. Having the vocals live was like, "Okay, that's what it is. It's good." We didn't go back, because the emotion tends to be diluted after a few times.
I guess also we learned a lot with Parc Avenue because we engineered some of it, but a lot of it was done at Warren's apartment. The vocal overdubs and even some back tracks were done in his apartment on the 24-track. So there was a lot of learning of mixing work, how to repair stuff and details that are important to know. I think we learn a lot from every record. You finish and you think, "We could have done that, opened that door."
So La La Land represented adolescence in the thematic trajectory of your work. What is it about that time in life do you feel is reflected on that album, and does the title refer to being kind of out there daydreaming?
I think there's a dark side to La La Land. It's more than even the lyrics. I think musically there's something more down on that album. I think there's something about that which sometimes in adolescence you're searching for what you want to do. There's a naive aspect that's not there anymore. I think in the singing there's a Bowie-esque aesthetic. On that album, I think Warren wanted to sing not in character like Bowie would do, like in a Broadway show or something, but play a bit with that. I think there's some of that search for who you are.
Maybe that also related to how I said earlier we were seeking more unity and maybe something clearer. But at the same time, I think it's an experimental record in the sense of trying stuff out. I think that relates to the quality in adolescence where you search for who you are and also you're a bit darker. There's a messy side to it, and even though I think that record has a great sound, I think things are bleeding into one another. I think we wanted to change that for the record afterward.
Also in adolescence there's a lot of angst.
I don't think we saw it at the time, but I see it now that it was a reaction to things we liked less about Parc Avenue or wanted to change. With touring, there's stuff we wanted to play louder or not as loud, and I think that [awareness is reflected on La La Land as well].