Braids make sticky, tangled, and impossibly charming indie pop. Much like shampooing with maple syrup, the Calgary quartet shows a penchant for experimentation outside of defined boundaries – be they social or musical. Their debut album, Native Speaker, out this week on Flemish Eye in Canada and Kanine Records in the States, combines tribal delirium with living soundscapes. Like mixing stimulants and depressants, Braids are your morning cup of coffee spiked with codeine. Infused with an undeniable sense of life, Native Speaker trickles from your headphones and burrows into the abyss of your eardrums.
Ca Va Cool recently had an opportunity to speak with Austin Tufts and Raphaelle Standell-Preston of Braids where we discussed high school friendships, climbing trees in the Rockies, and the healing power of grouphugs.
Jan: Another band I really enjoy is from Calgary as well – The Rural Alberta Advantage. But Nils, the lone Calgarian in the trio moved to Toronto to continue with the band there, much like Braids has moved to Montreal. Why do you feel these bands are making the move from Calgary?
Austin Tufts: Well, I’d say it’s 50-50. Some of the larger acts from Calgary do stay – like Women up until recently. Chad VanGaalen is very much rooted in Calgary. It really depends on what you want to get out of music. Living in Calgary can totally achieve a different thing than moving away. I think living in Calgary you get to maintain a sense of community – everyone here knows each other, you’re constantly going to shows with the same people. It’s really comfortable. I think bands that make it to the point where they’re able to travel all the time, like Women and Woodpigeon, it doesn’t really matter that they’re living in Calgary because when they’re at home they’re with their family and their friends which is inspiring to them. Then there are other bands like us and the Rural Alberta Advantage that feel they need to get out and explore things and realize that Calgary isn’t the be-all-end-all of cities for a music scene. Every band has their own reason for moving, a big one of ours was for university.
Jan: Why Montreal?
Austin: Three of us wanted to go to McGill really badly, and that city is so incredible for music anyway. We thought we might as well go and hit two birds with one stone.
Jan: What are you guys studying at McGill?
Austin: We’re not studying at the moment, we’ve taken this year off to focus on Braids. But for the last two years Taylor was studying philosophy, Katie was studying architecture, and I was studying jazz performance.
Jan: How do you like it so far?
Austin: I can speak on behalf of all three of us, in saying that all three programs are incredible. Katie was surprised at the amount of artistic liberty the program gave her in terms of an architecture school. The philosophy program has been good, it’s pushed Taylor a ton, I mean I live with him, and he’s always growing – it’s really inspiring to be pushed in that direction; and the music school is unbelievable.
Jan: How has this year off looked?
Austin: Well, it’s kind of an indefinite time-off. I guess until things slow down, we’re going to keep riding this for now.
Raphaelle Standell-Preston: [Laughs] Yeah.
Jan: Is it kind of a strange duality playing a student by day and a rockstar by night?
Austin: Well I wouldn’t know because I’m not a rockstar. I guess in terms of music, it’s tough and it’s not really possible. I think all of us felt that we weren’t giving either our full commitment and not really getting a 100% of our education or pushing the band to where we could have been. So after two years we decided we have a record coming and all these opportunities so let’s just do it. Since then we’ve become far more focused and got a lot more done.
Jan: Could you see yourself doing anything outside of music?
Jan: Yeah, I mean while growing up did you see yourself as a doctor or lawyer or was your heart set on music from the get-go?
Raphaelle: Austin would sleep by his father’s bass drum when he was a young child. So he grew up with music the whole time.
Austin: Yeah, my dad is a professional drummer, so that was always ingrained in me but for years I was intrigued by math and science. I really wanted to become an architect for a long time. Definitely something involved with physics would have been really cool. I think because I’ve gone into music school, I’ve realized I’m losing that side of my person. That mathematic, scientific way of thinking, it would be cool to start taking some classes again in that – because I miss that. It became very apparent to me in grade 10, like I’m decent at these things – math and science – but what makes me tick? Music. As soon as I realized I could go to school for music and take it to the next level I thought why wouldn’t I?
Jan: Was that the case for everyone?
Austin: When Taylor was first going to university he thought, “I don’t want to make music my living.” He viewed music as something sacred that he had a lot of fun doing. He didn’t want to have that pressure to support and sustain himself with music, because when you do that, there’s going to be a period in your life when you’ll have to take shitty gigs to pay for rent. He didn’t want to sacrifice musical ideals to be able to pay for rent and support children one day. It’s a weird thing going and studying music. The way that we’ve all found music together has been super natural. We’ve all been playing music we like to play and things come together. So no studying needed, just practicing and living.
Jan: How would you have described yourself in high school? Was music part of that time?
Austin: I think some of us were involved with music – like Taylor and I, while Raph and Katie were involved in Theatre. I’d say there was a super strong group of friends – like I’m a year younger than the rest of the band, so in their year there was a group of friends that crossed every genre of study. There were people who went and studied architecture, history, philosophy, music and theatre. It’s not like we pigeonholed ourselves, we’ve never been into defining ourselves as the musicians who only hang out with musicians.
Raphaelle: Or we’re the drama kids! We only hang out with drama kids.
Jan: What high school did you attend?
Raphaelle: Western Canada High School.
Austin: It was a great school. It’s like an IB school, so they bring kids from all over the city, so it’s not just like a “hey you live in this area, you go to this high school” kind of thing. So I’m really grateful for that because of the strong music program, the theatre program and IB.
Jan: Were you all in the IB program?
Austin: No, Raph and I weren’t, but Taylor and Katie were. I went there for music and because it was my designated high school.
Raphaelle: Yeah, mine too.
Austin: But Katie and Taylor both lived off in the suburbs and Katie went there for IB, and Taylor went there for music, IB, and French.
Jan: Raphaelle, I read a quote of yours where you mentioned that you wanted Native Speaker to sound like damp hair – do you think it lived up to that aspiration?
Austin: [Laughs] Yeah, that was from an andPOP interview with Dan Buscheikin from Toronto, also a friend of ours from high school!
Raphaelle: [Laughs] I don’t really think it sounds like damp hair. I think before we started the recording process I thought of it as potentially being able to sound like that idea – really wet and intertwined. That really came about, the intertwining of the hair, with how much we worked on the album and the collective nature.
Austin: I think the experience was more like damp hair. It was sticky, gooey, like we had so much trouble doing everything ourselves because it was self-recorded. It was a slow moving, convoluted, braided process. Everyone was always trying to put in his or her two cents. So yeah, the process was pretty damp. But I’d say that the final product has a little more of a sheen on it than damp hair.
Raphaelle: [Laughs] Yeah, it’s like blow-dried hair!
Austin: I think we all wanted the record to sound like what we feel live. After a while, we realized that the record is something different, so we tried hard to bring all the ideas we were having in our heads onto the record and capture them. It’s like when a painter is first learning how to paint, and asks “how do I express this thought I’m having with a fucking brush?” Like that’s a frustrating thing. I mean, we’ve been playing music for years together, but we’ve never really used recording software, so we were really fresh and new at it. It was hard to say, “I really want to express this, and I have this really cool idea” but we had no idea how to get that on tape, so that was the biggest struggle. I think it ended up sounding exactly the way it should have.
Raphaelle: Yeah, I think that’s sort of why the damp hair reference doesn’t really mean very much, because the whole album changed so many times over.
Austin: I mean it is still super gooey and layered, and certain songs have a sort of “stepping into an ecosystem” feel. That for me is analogous to damp hair.
Raphaelle: I think the album really is braided.
Jan: Speaking of all the intricacies and layers in your music, have you had any trouble translating that sound into a live show?
Raphaelle: It’s never been difficult playing live.
Austin: It’s never been hard for us to get it out, we’re really dependent on having a good sound guy. We’re not at the point yet where we can afford our own sound guy so that’s really frustrating because I think that’s something that would really take our music to the next level in a live environment at least. Playing all the parts live isn’t difficult because we know them so well. It always works and meshes.
Raphaelle: And emotionally, we’re all very invested in executing the parts. When we’re on stage it just becomes a lot about being with one another together. The music kind of transcends that experience.
Jan: So do you fuse all the songs together when you play live?
Austin: Yeah, every set, we never play individual songs. And that’s something we’ve been doing for years, it’s just interesting to us to be able to present something as a holistic music experience. It’s cool if you want to appreciate a song and clap, we’re by no means trying to inhibit people from clapping, and hooting and hollering, or whatever way you express your gratitude, but for us it means so much more to maintain focus from song to song. When you finish a set it’s so incredible, it feels like nothing else, rather than losing that moment and having to reset after every song. It’s really cool to be able to present something that’s continuous and fluid. It’s also a structure that really pushes us, it means we don’t have any time to fix anything, so any troubleshooting happens on the fly.
Jan: How did that mentality affect the recording of the album?
Austin: That was something we talked about before recording the album.
Raphaelle: The songs are the songs and they stand alone by themselves. When you’re on stage you’re presenting a bunch of material that can be strung together since it’s in a different medium. Whereas on an album the tracks are separated by the titles and that’s kind of one of the ways we looked at it artistically.
Jan: If you could put Native Speaker as the soundtrack to any movie, what one would you put it to?
Austin: I haven’t seen that movie yet! I’ve never seen something visually that represents our music – or at least some sort of video representation of it. I’ve seen a few pieces of art that represent sections of our work. I’ve never seen a continuous video shot.
Raphaelle: I don’t think it would be a storyline either. I don’t think a story movie would fit into it because it would change Native Speaker too much.
Jan: So you wouldn’t say that it’s an action flick with lots of gunfire and explosions?
Raphaelle: [Laughs] I don’t think so, I mean those things stand on their own. Like the soundtrack for Marry Poppins was made for Mary Poppins and the soundtrack for James Bond was made for James Bond. So I think we’d have to make a movie for it – but I don’t know what kind of movie it’d be. I guess you’ll see with our videos coming up.
Jan: What songs are you putting to video?
Austin: Lemonade, Plath Heart, and Lammicken.
Jan: Is that also a self-fuelled project or is someone else taking the initiative?
Austin: Nope, a few videographers approached us, some of them are our friends and some of them we’ve never met and they just posted some stuff.
Raphaelle: We’ve been having input as to what we’d like.
Austin: [Laughs] Yeah, we’re kind of picky! We had a lot of things that we really didn’t want and a lot of things we did want. I would hate to be a videographer trying to make a video for us. It’s really interesting to see how someone visually interprets music, especially someone who is trained or knows how to execute ideas in a visual sense. I think we’ll also film something for ‘Native Speaker’ or ‘Glass Deers’ but that’s further down the road.
Jan: Now that we’ve come to the end of 2010, do you have a best or worst thing that has happened this year?
Raphaelle: Favourite thing is finishing the album.
Raphaelle: Yeah, just having it done.
Austin: [Laughs] That happened so gradually that it wasn’t a thing for me. But yeah, getting the record done and being able to listen to front to back feeling really happy. Going down to CMJ was pretty fun, it was a real experience. Actually, you know what, I think the best part of this year was touring with Gobble Gobble.
Raphaelle: Okay, yeah, you’re right, you really hit that on the head.
Austin: Those guys are just the best people in the world. Getting to tour with them for three weeks in the summer and meeting up in Toronto and Montreal, and going to Alberta and B.C. it was so much fun. Going swimming in crazy spots, it was just so much fun, what a ridiculous time we had this summer with them. That was pretty special. Especially in Nelson, we showed up and CJ from Gobble Gobble books all of their own shows, so most of them are house shows and DIY loft spaces, so we pulled up to this house in Nelson on the side of a mountain and thought, “Okay this cool, what a great place to have a house show.” We went upstairs and they had this huge feast laid out for us, the salad was made with greens from their backyard and dandelions picked from the meadow, and this fresh cheese that was churned in the Nelson Valley and everything was local and super tasty. Then the guys were like, “Come climb this huge tree to catch the sunset!” So Katie and I climbed probably 60 or 70 feet into the air on this tree, and I found this spot to stand up and gaze over this incredible valley watching the sunset. So that’s like the kind of shit that Gobble Gobble gets you into. You kind of just follow them and they take you everywhere, they’re super inviting people.
Raphaelle: I don’t know if there was a worst moment of 2010.
Austin: I mean there’s been a few hard moments like when we first went down to New York to play a bunch of showcases for labels. That was the most stress we had in our lives as a band. That was sort of a test of our strength and our relationship together as people. We had some intense breakdowns like at the Mercury Lounge before we played we had this huge talk being so sad and unsure of everything. But you know we got brought back to it by each other.
Jan: I heard that your solution to most breakdowns is a grouphug.
Raphaelle: That’s exactly what we did afterwards, a big grouphug!
Austin: Just like touching everyone and getting that central focus back.
Jan: Would you say grouphugs cure everything?
Austin & Raphaelle: Just about.
Austin: I mean, I wish a grouphug could cure cancer. But any kind of mental stress, a grouphug brings everything back. It’s kind of become a little ritualistic thing, like every time before we play we have to hug. Sometimes we’re on the stage and we’re like “uhh…”
Raphaelle: [Laughs] But then we do it anyway!
Jan: Did you have any Christmas wishes?
Austin: I think being with my family was really cool, like I only got to see my sister for one day this year, and my parents for ten days, just because we were really busy this summer, so it’s great to be home again. I hope that this next year is fun, it’ll be our first record, and our first global tour, so I’m really excited about everything. I hope that it all comes together in a nice a manner, and that we have the strength to handle all the shit dealt our way, because no matter what there’s going to be shit dealt our way because we’re a small touring indie-rock band – and shit never goes right for small touring indie-rock bands.
Raphaelle: That’s my Christmas wish too.
Austin: I hope that Katie gets home safe so that we can have a Braids Christmas. Last year we didn’t have a Braids Christmas, Raphaelle went to Guatamela and then she came back, and then we had to run and finish the record, and Christmas just never happened.
Jan: Sounds like you’re all over the place for 2011.
Austin: Yeah, I guess the only thing we can announce is the upcoming tour with Baths. That’s really exciting, we’re super glad to be on that. I guess this is our first North American tour, so we’ll escape some of that cold Canadian winter. Then we’re going to follow that up with another extensive North American tour, and then Europe in May. We’re working with a label in Australia so there’s talk of us going there too. It’s all really exciting. I think we’re going to be touring straight through until July with maybe June off for NXNE and a few festivals in Chicago. It’s crazy to think that we have up until July roughly lined up.
Jan: Do you feel overwhelmed with everything that’s happening?
Austin: Oh yeah, big time. I wish I could just not check my email for a day [laughs]. That would be nice. It’s a constant stream of things, it would be really nice to have the entire music industry take a holiday for a minute so I could take a holiday for a minute!
Braids celebrate their album release at Montreal’s Sala Rossa tomorrow. You can also catch them alongside Baths at El Mocambo in Toronto on February 19.