Four years ago, Plants and Animals finally came up for air after an intense five years of nonstop writing, recording and touring that saw the release of three albums. The Montréal three-piece knew they wanted to write another album but they needed to escape the whirlwind and reset. Listening to their instincts, they took time to balance their lives again and avoided the pressure of a deadline. They started families, collaborated with other musicians and met in the studio whenever inspiration brought them there. Out of this relaxed approach, a new album was born. Waltzed In From The Rumbling is the result of three years of casual, natural creation that invited in new inspiration from Serge Gainsbourg and Van Morrison to J Dilla and John Coltrane. The band’s jazz instrumental roots led the recording sessions resulting in a complex pop record that has the unpredictability and epic sonic journeys that have become signatures elements of Plants and Animals albums.
Stories Behind The Songs chatted with Plants and Animals drummer Matthew Woodley before their performance at the Field Trip festival in Toronto about the creation of Waltzed In From The Rumbling.
First of all, I want to thank you guys again for doing the Behind The Album, Track by Track feature of Waltzed In From The Rumbling for Stories Behind The Songs a few months ago.
M: Well it was a pleasure. It was fun retracing those things and trying to put them into succinct little chunks because you don’t think about the songs that way when you’re working on them. It’s like a trip down a little memory lane. It was nice to sit down and recap. I guess it’s like writing in your journal at the end of the day. Everything is in hindsight. I’m glad you did that piece and I’m glad it’s out there. It made us sort of come together to be able to go out and talk about this thing before we play it.
After working on the Behind The Album piece, a few notes about the lyrics stood out: on “We Were One” the lyrics came on the spot, for “Stay” the scratch lyrics that were done as it was happening were also kept on the album, for “Flowers” lyrics were sung because it felt like there should be vocals on the song. Do those examples of lyrical process reflect the way that lyrics usually come for Plants and Animals albums?
M: Yeah very much so, very much so. Especially for this album. We’re not really like a singer-songwritery band. We can work on a song for years before there’s any singing on it at all and then all of a sudden Warren will sing something and then it becomes a song about something. It’s almost like this meaning gets imposed and so in that way there’s kind of a lot of pressure on that too. Because when most people listen to a song, they listen to the words, at least first and foremost. But yeah, we work in terms of music, in terms of instrumentation. We come from an instrumental background and we’ll spend forever thinking about a guitar sound or where something comes in and drops out or how the song begins or ends and the arc of the whole thing and then the lyrics come in. This time I think Warren improvised a lot of things when it was time to sing. He always has a melody in his head and he didn’t really have words in his head, maybe little fragments or things like that and things would come out and sometimes he would change them, sometimes Nic and I would chime in on what was going on and often enough his first instinct just felt the best. It felt the most natural and often those were improvised. They felt right.
I want to talk about the three part epics that you do on each of your albums. How did that start?
M: I think that grew out of our instrumental jazz nerdery days when we were in university and we should have been listening to pop music or whatever. We were into weird stuff almost out of rebellion but just to sort of be different and as we got further into “normal” music and singing and stuff like that we still retained a little bit of that. We’re always looking to put twists and turns into music and I guess we found through playing that that also works with people. Ultimately that kind of thing comes more naturally to us and it’s closer to us than writing a three minute pop song.
M: Yeah, on this one there’s definitely two and then there are other songs that are micro-multi part epics but not big sprawling three part epics. There’s a couple on every album. Again, it sounds little a cheesy, but we communicate through our instruments in the beginning, you know? We all have our things that we play, there’s two guitars and drums, and we’ll usually sit down and play together first like that. And then we’re in the studio and we have the advantage of overdubs and adding whatever the hell we want everywhere and we turn them into songs but at the beginning, we talk to each other through our instruments and often improvise a lot.
M: More pieced together but sometimes we would take a part that sounded cool that might have been the only good part of a three part epic and take it apart and puzzle it back together another way.
Before this album you guys had finished a huge whirlwind of writing, recording and touring multiple records with only a couple of years between albums. Then you had four years between your last record The End of That and Waltzed In From The Rumbling. In that time, how did the conversation come about to do a new album?
M: We knew we were going to do a new album right away but we just didn’t have any motivation to complete it right away. We said let’s take as long as it takes for everyone to be happy. We started working three years ago and it took three years of going back to the studio and taking breaks and going back to the studio to actually finish it but I guess at the end of the whole process we sort of saw a deadline and we thought, “Shit, we should probably finish something or else we probably won’t be doing this anymore!” (laughs) But also, we knew we needed to reset and get out of the cycle of touring and spend some time at home. We have families now and that was sort of part of it too.
M: No, I think a lot of it came out of the last album’s process which was too quick. We wrote a bunch of songs and we went to a studio in France which was a beautiful, amazing, relaxing place with birds chirping all day and we said we were going to hole up for two weeks and execute all of these songs that we’d written and it kind of just didn’t go as planned, you know? We started running into deadline after deadline from recording to mixing to mastering and then all of a sudden we’re stuck in this bottleneck and we have to get this record finished. This time we said, “Let’s take our time and do something that we all know is right.” We all had the advantage of time and hindsight because of that. We could always work on something and look back over it after a month, even some songs we revisited over a year later. It’s a nice way to work. It was kind of luxurious this time and we all did other things on the side as well. We played with other people, Warren produced a bunch of records, I played with a bunch of other people, Nic played with other people and also he writes music for theatre in Montréal. It’s like any relationship – if you spend the same amount of time with the same people all of the time it can get stale and if it didn’t get stale it got predictable. Spreading out helped. I think taking a break and playing with other people allowed us to stretch out and lose our own egos a little bit and make us more open to taking advice or suggestions from other people. That’s a good thing.
I imagine there would be a lot of chances to be inspired and be able to bring new ideas back to Plants and Animals when you were creating outside of the band. I feel like this album sounds… new. I think this album seems like an advancement in sound, a little bit more complex musically, more unpredictable all in a good way. It makes you want to pay attention, listen and get your teeth right into it.
M: All of the above, all of the above. Yeah. We made a somewhat conscious decision to be unpredictable and not to the point of just to be clever. We sort of had this rule that if it doesn’t feel good and it’s just clever then forget it, it’s garbage. So we always went for that. And we tried to step away from the main stream of our influence for a long time which was a late ’60s, early ’70s rock cannon, you know? We all listen to a lot of different music, not just that, so we tried to step away from that and [Serge] Gainsbourg was a big one and hiphop was a big one.
M: I think the record’s a grower in a way and sometimes that’s a tough thing in this world where you have to capture people’s attention in two seconds but… so what, you know? It’s such a tough battle to fight all the time and we still wanted to do that to some extent but I think that this record, if it’s your kind of thing, it gets better the more you listen to it. You start to hear things in there the more you listen to it and we all like that in music so why not do that, you know? We’re not just trying to please people and give a blast of sugar as quickly as possible. I think it’s closest in approach to our first record Parc Avenue . It feels like coming full circle.
Read the story behind each song on Waltzed In From The Rumbling in the band’s own words with the SBTS Feature BEHIND THE ALBUM: WALTZED IN FROM THE RUMBLING – PLANTS AND ANIMALS
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