“I wish it had happened a little quicker and earlier, but you know…” Matthew Woodley breaks into laughter. We’ve been discussing his band, Plants and Animals, and their relative newcomer status in the UK and Europe. “Well, here we are.” And where is that? Upstairs in The Fleece, technically, but I suspect he’s referring to the fact that, after the best part of a decade and a half, the band are finally accruing a decent following this side of the Atlantic. They’re about to open for The Dears when we meet (my gushing review can be found here), though if didn’t know otherwise, you might think it was the other way around: everyone outside the venue seems to be asking what time Plants and Animals are playing.
Back in Canada, their work has been critically well received over the years, though Woody (as he prefers to be known) is the first to admit that nothing has surpassed the adulation that greeted their 2008 debut, Parc Avenue. Nominated for both Juno and Polaris awards, the album captured a freewheeling spirit that sounded both effortless and accomplished. Woody recalls that time with fondness. “We wrote for ourselves, to a world with no expectations, who had no idea who we are, recorded over two or three years while having day jobs. Chipping away at this giant thing until it became Parc Avenue.”
It didn’t hurt that their native Montreal was enjoying a huge amount of attention at that time, not least due to the tidal wave of critical adulation that met a certain local debut by the name of Funeral. “I think there was a wave in Montreal, and we caught it,” Woody admits. “Maybe as it had crested and was going down, but there was still a lot of media interest in the city. Arcade Fire had already blown up, Spin magazine had already shown up and made a little cartoon-ish map of all the areas in the neighbourhood where all the bands were coming up.” Nonetheless, there was never any question that Plants and Animals had earned it. “Being a band from Montreal was seen as an asset, for reasons that could be looked at as superficial, because it’s a trend. But also because it was legit, how good the scene was.”
In 2012 the band released their third album, The End of That. Its recording has since been described as “not a gratifying experience” by singer Warren Spicer, and Woody seems to agree. “We set a goal for ourselves to write an album, and then to go to a studio, and execute it over two weeks. And so we didn’t cut ourselves enough slack. I don’t think we were as solid with the material, technically and emotionally, as we could have been. We pushed ourselves into a corner, in this studio in France, obviously very far from home, and placed the expectation on ourselves to go and play out these songs; to mix it between these set dates, master it between these set dates.” It proved a strenuous time for all of them, something they were keen to avoid when it came to recording last year’s return to form, Waltzed in from the Rumbling. “We painted ourselves into a little bit of a corner, and with a little bit of hindsight, we realised we didn’t want to do that a second time around. So we took a long time working on this album. By sheer coincidence, we all had kids at the same time. That’s as good a reason as any to slow things down. But we needed to reset, to find our sound in the studio again, spend some time at home.”
It worked. Waltzed was a triumph, spearheaded by single “No Worries Gonna Find Us,” a rallying cry against the forces of anxiety and depression that sets the tone for the rest of the record. “I think it’s the most honest and open [album] lyrically. And also in terms of the way we worked with each other in the studio, we were really open and relaxed. I think any kind of ego things that existed before were diminished, if not eliminated. We were just happy working together as a collective.”
The new album also marks some of their most expansive work to date. I wondered whether they’d ever been tempted to let loose and make something truly epic, a stadium indie affair. “You know, we went even further than you hear on the record,” Woody tells me. “At one point we had someone writing arrangements for about half of the songs – these grandiose, epic arrangements. We let it breathe for a little bit, then went in and pulled a lot of stuff back. You can go over the top with that stuff, and the old cliché ‘less is more’ really rings true with our music, and a lot of things in life. We definitely went backwards. But sometimes you have to go forwards to know when to go backwards…” Naturally, a lot of it comes down to the editing process as much as writing. It’s something the band have always retained maximum control over. “We wrote so much in the studio, then went away and digested it, sometimes even over five months, and then we’d go back in and listen to it with fresh ears, those echoes kind of removed from our minds, and edited quite thoroughly. And we don’t have a neutral third party because we self-produce. It was literally just the three of us most of the time. We didn’t even have an engineer to say…” Guys, that’s ridiculous? “Yeah,” he laughs. “Or just, you know, you can stop now. You nailed it.”
At 14 years old – longer if you consider that Warren and Woody have been jamming since they were 12 – Plants and Animals look stronger than ever tonight. Are they tempted to call it a day, go out on a high? Don’t bet on it. “We’re going to go home and keep writing. We don’t look ahead too far into the future, but this is what we do still, we like doing it, and we’re excited to keep making music. I mean, it feels like a bit of a reset, this album – not so much in Canada, but a little bit in the States, and definitely in Europe, some places where we’re introducing ourselves to people for the first time.” This evening, in front of an appreciative Bristol crowd, we’re thrilled to be making their acquaintance. Better late than never.
Passed out from the Waltzing EP is out now on Secret City Records