Braids: Indie-Rock Balancing Act

Braids: Native SpeakerBraids: Native Speaker (Kanine, 1/18/11)

Braids: “Lemonade”

[audio:|titles=Braids: “Lemonade”]

At one point during the lead-up to the release of Braids’ first full-length record, Native Speaker, each of the band’s four members were on their cell phones talking to different reporters that all wanted to
know the same thing: who were they and where did they come from?

“’Can you give me a brief history of Braids? Where did Braids start? Tell me a little bit about the story of
the band,’” Braids’ drummer, Austin Tufts, says over the phone, slightly exhausted from constantly trying to find a new way to tell the same story. “I’m just glad we finally have a Wikipedia page.”

Tufts’ exasperation from answering the same questions, though, is as understandable as the benevolent unfamiliarity of the reporters asking them. After all, given the Canadian quartet’s nascent swell from relative obscurity to indie rock’s latest ambrosial darlings, the deluge of attention and interview requests is the kind of problem that most up-and-coming bands would like to have.

“That’s been the hardest thing, keeping the answers fresh when so many journalists ask the exact same questions,” Tufts says as the band mills about in the parking lot of its Little Rock, Arkansas hotel before heading to Dallas after an early-February winter storm canceled shows in St. Louis, Missouri and Norman, Oklahoma. “This is our fourth interview today. Right before the January [18th] release, we were doing like six or seven interviews a day while trying to work out six or seven new songs, and we had to constantly battle if we wanted to do an interview and make sure the shows on the tour went okay or write music.”

In the end, Tufts says that the band decided to just schedule massive “cluster-fucks” of interviews for each band member to take on his or her cell phone, all at the same time. That was the only way that the group could satisfy both the creative ambitions that put the band’s time at such a premium and the daily obligations of a young band thirsty for greater exposure.

There was a period of time, about a year ago, when most of what the American audience knew about Braids was that the group had filmed an intimate performance with music-video director extraordinaire Vincent Moon, known for his spontaneously penetrating music videos on the French music blog La Blogotheque. In one off-the-cuff, seven-minute clip, Moon follows Braids as it shambles and shuffles across an overgrown patch of railroad tracks playing “Lemonade,” the first track on Native Speaker. The bittersweet lyrics of Braids’ main vocalist, Raphelle Standell-Preston, echo a melancholic murmur set against Montreal’s graying urban landscape.

“…and what I’ve found,” Standell-Preston desperately croons in an Avey Tare-esque pitch, “…is that we’re all just sleeping around.”

The song’s fuzzy, unraveling guitar flutters between bustling surges of thick melody and ramshackle interjections of reverberating fluidity. Arpeggiated keys and an almost tantric duel of drum beats buoy the song’s contrasting harmonies before Standell-Preston’s percussive lyrics charmingly seep back in.

“We had to constantly battle if we wanted to do an interview and make sure the shows on the tour went okay or write music.”

“All we really want to do is love,” she sings, pausing intermittently for a succulent and chilly windswept effect — and for a long time, that ephemeral video clip served as the basic starting point for anyone trying to find out who the hell this band was.

“Things have definitely picked up for us in the last year,” Tufts says. “I’d say even more so in just the last five months; doing all the press lead-up to the record, we’ve just been focusing on the business end and getting our team sorted out. Wherever we put our focus is where we seem to excel.”

Excel they have. Braids is quickly learning that regardless of how long it has been playing— four years this February, Tufts says — it doesn’t mean anything when you suddenly begin to populate the radar of the omniscient indie-music hype machine like a rapidly intensifying tropical storm.

Formed four years ago in Calgary by guitarist and lead vocalist Standell-Preston, keyboardist Katie Lee, multi-instrumentalist Taylor Smith, and Tufts, the group moved to Montreal immediately after finishing high school and steadily worked to elaborate and refine its intricate blend of pop ambiance and experimental instrumentation. As evidenced by a clear rise in name recognition and media attention, Braids is just now beginning to taste the sweet nectar of the fruit that it has waited so patiently to grow.

With that newfound recognition, of course, comes the pitfalls of the loud-quiet-loud music-industry machinations. Native Speaker hasn’t been out for more than a month, but Tufts says that the band is already looking ahead to what’s next, contemplating more songs and a new record, but all in an undetermined future that is somehow already nostalgic.

“There’s this really great Karen O quote where she says she had 20 years to write her first record and 18 months to write her second,” Tufts says, “and that’s so true, because your first record is a culmination of all the experiences thus far in your life. For us, I think we’re really blessed because we’re not, in any of the territories we’re represented in, locked into anything more than a one-record deal, so we don’t have any label pressure for a second release.”

Without even 100 years between its members combined, Braids is a young band in many ways. Though it has toured the length of Canada twice over and ventured into New York and a handful of US cities periodically for shows, this is its first extended trek through the States.

But what Braids lacks in age, it makes up for in maturity and self-awareness. It’s a dedicated group with a positive grasp on the present and a well-balanced outlook on the future. In the past year, the Canadian quartet has had to hire a team of Canadian, US, and international representatives, including three different publicists, a booking agent, and two record labels — Kanine Records in the USA and Flemish Eye in Canada. Having previously booked, produced, and promoted itself entirely on its own, the band has had a hard time relinquishing some managerial control, but Tufts makes it clear that the band will ultimately be calling the shots.

It’s a difficult adjustment to transition from fun-loving twenty-somethings to ambitious musicians, to industry professionals, and then back again. Yet Tufts says that one thing remains constant: working for an abstract symmetrical balance, an equilibrium between obligation, necessity, and want.

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