Thursday, April 17, 2008

Simple Plan interview

Canadian band adds hip-hop flava to usual pop/rock mix on latest album

By George A. Paul

The following music biz scenario is all too common: a band hits big with their first CD, immediately records a second one that’s nearly as popular and goes out on a limb for the “difficult third album.”

Simple Plan’s career trajectory would appear to run along those same lines - except it wasn’t that calculated. Formed in 1999, the Montreal-based pop/punk group put out major label debut “No Pads, No Helmets…Just Balls” in 2002, but received little attention.

Steady touring throughout America (300 gigs over the course of a year) resulted in a Billboard chart entry for “No Pads” eight months later. Pogo-worthy singles “Addicted” and “I’d Do Anything” found favor with MTV’s “TRL” audience and radio in ’03, while “No Pads” and the ballad “Perfect” reached the top 40 in ‘04.

That CD and the follow up effort, “Still Not Getting Any,” went platinum on the strength of more insanely catchy pop radio faves (“Shut Up!,” “Welcome to My Life,” “Untitled”).

Now the quintet is back with “Simple Plan” (Lava/Atlantic). Produced by Timbaland protégé Nate “Danja” Hills (Justin Timberlake, Nelly Furtado), Dave Fortman (Mudvayne, Evanescence) and Max Martin (Avril Lavigne, Kelly Clarkson), it is a more mature effort where hip-hop, pop and rock elements combine into one satisfying sonic brew.

“The whole point for us was to try something new and keep things fresh,” said drummer/co-songwriter Chuck Comeau, in a phone interview from his home in Montreal. “Once you make that decision, you can’t really look back. You have to go for it. I think we did that.”

Although the guys came up with a solid batch of tunes a few months after their 2006 tour ended, the results were predictable. Instead, Simple Plan discarded the rule book.

“It was important to do things that would really stand out,” explained Comeau. “We took a hard look [at the songs] and said, ‘we need to push ourselves further.’ That’s why it took so long to make this record. We gave ourselves a chance to experiment.”

A Miami trip to collaborate with Hills proved fruitful right off the bat.

“We went there on the fly with nothing and started to jam together. After the first session, we had a bunch of ideas and ended up with two songs. We were so excited that we came back, did it again and worked on another two songs.”

Hills’ stamp is evident on leadoff track “When I’m Gone” (celebrity blogger Perez Hilton makes a cameo in the video). Boasting a loping rhythm, chanting chorus and bouncy keyboard melody, the tune is a real departure. Same goes for the intense vibe of Martin co-production “Generation,” which contains both a nod to the Ramones and “The Final Countdown,” a 1987 hit by Europe heard in the film “Rocky IV.”

“Dude, I love that song,” Comeau, 28, said with a laugh about the Europe comparison – one of his childhood favorites. “It just feels like a call to arms. When we first heard Nate play that riff, we thought, ‘that’s so rad.’”

Percolating sounds and Pierre Bouvier’s layered vocals dominate “The End” before transitioning into full-on rock mode. Hills and DJ Lethal (Limp Bizkit) also contributed a drum loop and programming to “Your Love is a Lie,” about a cheating partner.

“Nate is so creative,” Comeau enthused. “It was a different environment for us [in Florida]. It got us to think outside the box and write from a different perspective. That was really inspiring.”
Longtime female fans will gravitate toward the soaring ballads (“What If,” “No Love,” “I Can Wait Forever”), enhanced by a 16-piece string section.

The highly personal “Save You” shows how Simple Plan has progressed from juvenile fare like “I’m Just a Kid.” Comeau called the former tune “touching” because it was inspired by lyric writing partner Bouvier’s brother and his battle with cancer.

“With every record, we want to be honest, like an open book. On this one, we said, ‘let’s not shy away from any topic.’ I think there are more love songs. That’s something we really didn’t write about before.”

Elsewhere on the new disc, guitarists Jeff Stinco and Sebastien Lefebvre delve into some U2 and Guns ‘N Roses-styled riffs and Comeau adds counterpoint vocals a la Linkin Park.

Now that the band is closing in on a decade together, Comeau wants people to know Simple Plan is here for the duration.

“I think longevity is how you earn respect and prove you’re not some flavor of the week. When we started out, people thought, ‘they’ll be another one hit wonder.’ It feels good to earn your place…There’s so much more we have to accomplish. In a way, I feel like we’re just getting started.”

BONUS Q&A with Chuck Comeau

Q: Perez Hilton makes a cameo in the “When I’m Gone” video. Is he a fan?
A: It looks that way. He always has good things to say (about us). So far, he hasn’t trashed us. So hey, that’s good. We met him at the Much Music Awards in Canada and kept in touch. I’m a big fan of his page. I’m there every day. Gossip used to be this thing where you were totally ashamed to admit that you were into it. I would never buy an Us Weekly. Now that’s its online, nobody sees you. You can know everything and you don’t have to be embarrassed behind the counter. Much better. It’s like pornography – a lot easier to get your hands on. I love it.

Q: With some loops and programming on the new songs, will you take a keyboardist on tour?
A: Right now, we’re just doing sequencers. It adds a whole dimension to the show. At first we thought it might make the show a little sterile, but quite the contrary. It makes it more exciting and fun and challenging for us to play. Keeps you on your toes and it’s really coming out great (live). Down the road, we’d love to have a piano because we have a lot of songs (with one), so we’ll see.

Q: The band has utilized string arrangements in the past, but this time, you went a bit further.
A: It’s always magical when you’re in the studio and hear your songs played by people who never heard the music and they just come in and nail it. It adds a whole new dimension to the sound and makes every sad part sadder and adds such emotion to the music. That was one of the coolest things for me.

Q: Pierre’s vocals are very impressive on this CD, especially on the ballads.
A: Pierre really stepped up to the plate in my opinion. He took it very seriously and wanted to try different things. For example, he sings in falsetto, which he’s never done before. I think it sounds amazing. I don’t think he was super-confident about it at first because it was something he’d never done. He embraced it and said, “I’ll go for it."

Q: You and Pierre work on lyrics together. How has that working relationship evolved?
A: We each have our strengths and help each other out. I think Pierre is an amazing songwriter and is really great at finding words that sound good with a melody. In some ways, maybe I’m better at finding the big line that people can remember. We work as a team. I’ve known the guy for 15 years...There’s obviously a comfort level there.

Q: To me, “Holding On” has a panoramic, U2-ish sound. What vibe were you going for there?
A: The intro sounds a little like vintage U2. That was sort of intentional, coming up with that riff. We loved it so much. It took us a long time to figure out where to take it. We reworked it and finally came up with something we were really stoked about. It’s definitely different from the rest...On this song, I actually have a spoken word part, which is really cool. It’s the first time I sort of sing on a record. That was exciting.

Q: I also hear a few more prominent guitar solos, especially on “I Can Wait Forever.” Is that something Jeff pushed to do in the studio?
A: It just felt right. There was no lobbying from one side or another. I think we’ve grown more confident so we can do these things. We’re less worried what people will think…it definitely has an old school ‘80s feel. We grew up loving Guns ‘N Roses. They had great ballads. It felt like a throwback to that – us growing up, being 13-14 and in love with the sounds of Slash and Axl.

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