Stress wouldn't seem to be a problem at an old manor outside of Paris. But despite the wine, the cheese and the picturesque countryside, Plants and Animals found themselves with frayed nerves instead of focus.
The Montreal indie-rock trio decided on a new process to record their third album, working longer and more carefully on songwriting before setting foot inside La Frette Studios. With time running short and pressure mounting, the band wasn't getting things right. So when a neighbor complained about the rock music interfering with his holiday family reunion, the forced break was just what the band needed.
"Stress is the enemy when you're in front of a microphone, because you can hear it afterward," says drummer Matthew Woodley. "... We extended our plane tickets for a few days and decided to take advantage of that time, and it just made us work differently, and it started to make us have more fun."
The loose vibe on The End of That comes from that low-pressure situation and the "bubble" the band got to work in with engineer Lionel Darenne (who recorded Feist's The Reminder at the same studio). Woodley describes La Frette as "somewhere between this great big grandiose mansion and a country home," with paint peeling from the walls and great high ceilings.
"The place you're in when you're doing something can shape the outcome a lot, and this house was a wicked place to be creative in," he says. "I can't imagine this place being anywhere other than in France, because of the flavor and feel and architecture and the bread and cheese and wine, but I don't think it was France that inspired the record. It was this wonderful bubble we were in."
The band recorded almost entirely live (as opposed to multi-tracking), working out the songs ahead of time instead of using the studio to flesh out ideas as they'd done in the past.
"We wanted to avoid a lot of postproduction and just sound like three people playing together straight-up. This time, we can see the whole picture, and it's more of a question of execution. It's liberating," Woodley says.
Plants and Animals started a decade ago as a strictly instrumental trio, good friends playing music together just for the enjoyment. Woodley, multi-instrumentalist Warren Spicer and lead guitarist Nicolas Basque did that for five years, recording two EPs before putting together their debut album, Parc Avenue, and going out into the world as a touring band.
Woodley describes the band's instrumental period as experimental and even a bit wanky.
"Because of that, we got good at playing our instruments together, and we didn't worry about writing hits or even singing," he says. "That's always going to be there as a foundation of what we do. I can't imagine it any other way."
Parc Avenue was nominated for the 2008 Polaris Music Prize, and its follow-up, La La Land, also made it to the 40-album-long list for the top Canadian album prize. But despite such early success, the band wanted to strike out in a different direction for the new album.
"We've always done a lot in the studio," Woodley says. "We spent two years making our first album, and the second time, we also did a lot of writing in the studio. We thought it'd be better to look at the material, and the decisions end up different."
The End of That is a record that takes a look at adulthood and growing up, with Spicer's lyrics talking about facing down an "existential crisis."
"They're pretty direct and blunt. It's about a time in life. When you first hear the title of the record, it can sound dark and ominous, but it's not," Woodley says. "I think the lyrics come across as having a beer with a friend at the end of the day. It's an ending, but it's also a celebration."
"Well holy matrimony! / Everyone is getting married or breaking up / And the stroller situation on the sidewalk is way out of control," Spicer sings on "Crisis!" as he describes the difficulty of relating to peers who have embarked on more-traditional paths than that of a rock 'n' roll band.
On "No Idea," it's Spicer asking, "Do you fear loneliness? Do you fear getting left behind? All your friends are getting married and having a time?"
Woodley says the lyrics shouldn't be read as a diary, but more as a general description of the questions a lot of people deal with about maturity and adulthood. And there's still an optimistic thread that runs through the songs.
"We're not opposed to families and strollers or anything like that; it's just more like, 'Oh shit, what's happening?' That's the existential crisis that Warren is poking at. But it's all done with a wink and a grain of salt," Woodley says.
Musically, The End of That finds the band updating vintage rock 'n' roll styles of greats like the Band, the Grateful Dead and Crazy Horse, alternately rootsy and psychedelic, equally comfortable in frantic jams and simple folk. It's the same type of alternative-history classic rock played by contemporaries like Blitzen Trapper, Dr. Dog and The War on Drugs, slicing and shuffling big-name influences into a sound that's familiar and even recognizable, yet impossible to pin down.
Woodley says that the more careful songwriting/preparation and the live recording of The End of That have the band the closest it's ever been to playing the songs onstage as they sound on the album. And once again, those instrumental roots become a big strength as the band heads out on tour.
"I like being onstage and playing to people who are listening in the moment. Personally, it's my favorite," Woodley says. "I find it to be harder in the studio, because you listen to yourself playing more. We all love playing live. That's where we're at our best."