Two albums. Seven million copies sold worldwide. A string of hits like "I'd Do Anything," "Addicted," "Perfect," and "Welcome to My Life." A worldwide legion of fans who can testify to the power of one of the fiercest live shows ever to hit the boards.
At this juncture, Lava/Atlantic rockers Simple Plan simply seem to have it locked. So for their crucial third album the group could just head back into the studio and do just what's worked so well in the past, right?
Welcome to "SIMPLE PLAN," not just an album but a statement of artistic ambition and growth from the Montreal-based quintet. As you'd expect from any band that would call its debut album "NO PADS, NO HELMETS...JUST BALLS," the self-titled release is a fearless, without-a-net excursion into dynamic music-making, taking what we love best about Simple Plan -- the unbridled energy, the ripping guitars, the hook-filled melodic sensibility -- and incorporating a slew of inventive sonic approaches informed by new collaborators such as Nate "Danja" Hills (Timbaland, Justin Timberlake, Duran Duran, Nelly Furtado), Max Martin (James Blunt, Kelly Clarkson, Avril Lavigne), and Dave Fortman (Evanescence, Mudvayne).
The new equation yields 11 songs that are unquestionably Simple Plan but still sound unlike anything they've done before, from the loping synthesizer loops of the opening track and first single, "When I'm Gone," to the tight dance groove and R&B flavor of "The End," the hip-hop styled beat of "Generation," and the unabashed power balladry of "I Can Wait Forever."
"I think we all felt we needed to do something that would be a little more daring and stretch the envelope of who we are," explains frontman Pierre Bouvier. "We were just trying to make a record that will leave a little more of a mark."
Drummer Chuck Comeau adds that "there was sort of a realization we needed to shake things up and really take chances and just go for it. To do something that was still us but would challenge ourselves."
Change, of course, comes with some degree of apprehension, and the band doesn't hide the fact they felt a bit of trepidation as they began to explore the new territory of "SIMPLE PLAN." Consider, after all, what Comeau calls the "comfort zone" the group came from, which includes 2002's double-platinum "NO PADS..." and 2004's platinum "STILL NOT GETTING ANY," with 2005's "MTV HARD ROCK LIVE" documenting the group's aforementioned concert excitement. Simple Plan has been running strong since forming in 1999; most bands in the same position would be comfortable rehashing what brought it to this point -- and fearful of rocking that rock 'n' roll boat.
"We were scared," acknowledges guitarist Jeff Stinco, "because at first, we didn't want to mess with something that we already knew worked and that we loved. We could've made another record like the second one and it would've been well-received by our fan base. But the new stuff was so exciting to us, and you have to follow that if you want to grow."
Bouvier agrees that, at times, 'we didn't know if we were on the right track with something cool or if we were just losing our minds." But, he adds, that was not necessarily a bad thing. "It's good to be scared," the singer explains. "You should be a little nervous. If you're not nervous, it's probably too safe. I think if you look back in the past, all the great records come from some kind of risk."
Simple Plan began working on the new album in the spring of 2006, shortly after wrapping up the touring cycle for "STILL NOT GETTING ANY." The expectation was for a quick writing process and equally speedy return to the studio for its follow-up. Bouvier and Comeau immersed themselves in the writing process and when fall rolled in, the band had assembled a pretty extensive collection of songs. But something didn't feel right. "Everybody was like, 'Yeah, yeah, this is great,' but nothing was sticking out as being really fresh," Comeau says. "We could feel that. We had strong songs, but they weren't really where we wanted to go."
At that point, the band knew they had to rethink their approach. A high regard for recent work by Justin Timberlake and fellow Canadian Nelly Furtado led the group to Danja, a young producer on the rise who had been thriving under Timbaland's wing for many years -- and who, coincidentally, had also targeted Simple Plan as one of the groups he wanted to work with as he expanded into the rock realm. So in April of 2007, Bouvier and Comeau found themselves in Miami -- foreign territory that started to feel right in short order when they came up with an initial pair of songs, including "The End."
Bouvier recalls that after that first session, "we were like, 'Oh, shit, we've got something really fresh here! We got stuff going on! This is what we've been looking for." The excitement and enthusiasm they felt was so strong it gave the band its second wind.
"We had this vision we should try to integrate some really cool, modern-sounding beats in the verses and then go into the big, soaring kick-ass choruses that we're known for," Comeau explains. "That was the kind of mix we had in mind and when we came up with ‘The End,' we knew that it really worked. I think that turning point started to give us a lot more confidence to keep writing and take a lot more chances, even with the regular kind of songs."
Back in San Diego, Bouvier and Comeau started doing just that, enlisting the help of an old friend, Arnold Lanni (Our Lady Peace, Finger Eleven), the man who produced Simple Plan's first album. That creative chemistry they had with Lanni when they first worked together was still very much intact.
"Working with Arnold again was so great. He's an amazingly talented musician and you can tell he really cares about this band on a professional level but, even more importantly, as a true friend. We've always been very comfortable working with Arnold, and it was awesome to collaborate with him again," says Comeau.
Another trip to Miami soon followed, and Lanni was asked to tag along. That second session with Danja yielded "When I'm Gone" and "Generation," two of the most innovative tracks on the album. The duo solidified the rest of the band's support by taking the Danja tracks back to Montreal.
"We were a little surprised at first," remembers guitarist Sebastien Lefebvre, "but it was OK. I think we felt like we were adding a lot of new elements to our sound, which makes it more than just the typical rock band. I think it really inspired us all, and we came up with some groundbreaking stuff on this album."
Bassist David Desrosiers adds, "We all wanted to have a different record -- we knew that. And, after being in a band for seven years, you want to still be excited about the music you're making. When we heard those ideas Danja had it was like, full speed ahead..."
In June of 2007, the band was finally ready to enter the studio. Dave Fortman was chosen to help achieve the sonic fusion Simple Plan envisioned as it recorded "SIMPLE PLAN" in Los Angeles and Montreal. "He was the one who actually felt the most excited about the record and making this different kind of hybrid," Bouvier says. "It was important for us to have a rock producer that could really capture the way we sound live but that could also, at the same time, embrace this new direction. It really was a collaboration between the band, Dave and Danja" -- and later, hit maker Max Martin, who helped the group finish "Generation." "Everybody chipped in, in order to make this combination of styles blend perfectly and achieve the kind of record that we had envisioned."
Considering the final results, "SIMPLE PLAN" seemed like the title best-suited for this project.
"We feel like it really represents us," Bouvier explains. "At this point in our career, with two albums that have done really well, we have that confidence and it just felt right that this should be the self-titled one."
The musical experiments also inspired Bouvier and Comeau to pen some of their most focused and provocative lyrics to date. "Save You" deals with Bouvier's brother's battle with cancer. "What If" is a wideview essay, inspired by the TV show "Heroes," about changing and improving the world. And though the swelling "I Can Wait Forever" is an unconditional love song about Bouvier's current relationship, much of the rest of the album deals with dark and even bitter romantic tumult.
"When people ask me to describe our sound," Bouvier says, "I always think of it as angry, negative, depressive lyrics over really poppy, uplifting music. That's the way it's always been. This is just a really personal record. It's a record about how we're feeling, so that's what reflects out of it."
Simple Plan is now ready to take "SIMPLE PLAN" where the band feels best -- on the road. The group has rehearsed extensively to work the new material into live performance shape and is confident it will rock its fans just as hard as its two predecessors.
"I feel so strongly about these songs," says Stinco, "and I've believed since we started this band that a strong song always prevails. These are definitely songs we can stand behind and endorse, and I can't wait to play them live."
Desrosiers was equally enthusiastic. "I felt like I was 12 years old again when I heard 'When I'm Gone' on the radio,” he explains. 'It just sounded so... fresh. I don't think I've ever been this excited about the band. I don't think any of us have, really."