INTERVIEW

Canadian trio Braids lost a member and have been learning to live with a computer

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The emotional turmoil, personal growth and weight of lessons learned amassed during a single summer in your early twenties is probably more epic and deeply felt than that of an entire lifetime. So it is for the members of BRAIDS, the sparklingly industrious musical trinity hailing from Calgary (but based in Montreal), who exude a knowingness far older than their years. It’s two summers since the band, then a four-piece, released ‘Native Speaker’, an album of striking complexity that garnered them plenty of attention for its sonically multi-layered and lyrically unabashed treatment of hazy, tumultuous youth. Lead vocalist Raphaelle Standell-Preston proved a fearless front-woman, yelping and chirruping her way through tales of feral sexuality and clandestine adventure, while the band chalked up support slots for Wild Beasts, Toro y Moi and Girls, award nominations and not undeserved comparisons to the more genius aspects of Animal Collective.

Sitting before me now, BRAIDS look weary, but there’s an undercurrent of bristling energy that’s getting them through the promotion of their new record. It’s clearly a time of dichotomies. Exhaustion and energy, excitement and trepidation – the classic emotional cocktail of the bittersweet – evidently they’ve been through a thing or two since the halcyon days of their first record and a single listen to their new album, fittingly titled ‘Flourish // Perish’, would tell you as much.  Drummer Austin Tufts (the specific owner of the bristling energy) deftly sums it up for me: “Yeah… life is crazy”. Where ‘Native Speaker’ was wide eyed and daring, the new album is altogether darker, wiser and more knowing. Fingers have clearly been burned, hearts broken, friendships cut adrift. Keyboard player Katie Lee left the band at an unspecified time during the recording, and while I’m wary about tugging on a potentially delicate thread, the band are more than happy to get this particular hurt off their collective chest.

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“We tried for about 4 months with Katie to make it work,” Tufts explains. “She had problems, and we would try and change things. We’d talk for two weeks, play for a few days. Then after four months of going back and forth like that it became evident that this was a creative relationship that couldn’t be salvaged and unfortunately there’s not really much of a friendship left anymore either. We all wish it could have ended amicably. It’s a tough thing to ask someone, to leave a band.”

“Especially,” adds Standell–Preston, with marked sadness, “when they’re a best friend.”

The cuckoo in the nest that catalysed Lee’s departure was a computer full of electronic sounds and a desire to radically change their process. Tuft’s continues: “Actually I found it very hard in the beginning too. Katie and I felt like we were left behind a little bit, with the integration of a computer and a totally new way of making music. It was a bit more like – what’s coming from your mind or heart, rather than what’s immediately on your fingers. Instead of jamming to create an energy or a vibe and then extracting all the best bits from it, we were starting with pure ideas, or amazing sounds and concepts and then we’d go from there. We spent a lot of time listening and talking and that was really hard for Katie; she didn’t feel as connected to the music.”

But with upheaval there’s always catharsis. Standell-Preston also cites a period of ‘crazy mental instability’ around the time of the first album and a difficulty to properly express up until the sea change of the last twelve months. On ‘Flourish // Perish’ it all comes tumbling out with melancholy fluidity and a raft of existential questions. “What are we living for? / What am I living for?” she sings on ‘December’. Other track titles shimmer around the corners of their experiential mind-set, ‘Together’, ‘Fruend’ and the first EP release ‘Amends’, in particular pointing at something hoped for, or idealised in this saga of friendships. “There’s still a lot of emotion in the band and a lot that we’re experiencing in our personal lives, but we’re all very much together,” she says. “In the past I’ve felt like I was fighting against the band, against this project. But now it feels very healthy.”

That desire for musical progression has paid off, too, and is immediately evident in the nine new tracks, which are boldly led by defiant beats and aching with an audible space in which Standell-Preston’s voice – noticeably less girlish and possessing of a new depth and resonance – has the freedom to roam.

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Tufts is harmonious on this point, saying: “there was a recalibration of us being like, ‘holy crap! Katie’s gone and we need to finish a record!’. But after that shock it was like the music literally started pouring out. From a month or two after she left to this moment, we’ve never been this creative in our lives, the music we’re making is the best music we’ve ever made.”

The root of some of this creative epiphany is clearly the band’s third member, Taylor Smith, who remains silent throughout our meeting, only stirring at the mention of Aphex Twin and to disagree with Austin during a debate about the merits of remixes. His predication for British trip-hop and techno pleasingly matches up with the notes I’d made when listening to the record (including an eerie comparison that both I and a random sound engineer from a recent tour make to Massive Attack’s seminal ‘Teardrop’) with its slew of crisp, glacial beats and haunting codas.

He remains mysterious, however, and lets Austin do the talking. “I’ll listen to a record, and be thinking, ‘holy shit, it would be so cool to be able to one day do that,’” says the drummer. “Then I go to sleep in the hotel room and Taylor stays up all night learning how to make that kind of music. He does almost all of the electronic work, the hands on production – we’ve been working together for so long now that he knows what I want, or I tell him and the next thing you know, the exact thing I want is at my fingertips on the keyboard.”

These three are clearly not just musicians but avid students, serious about craft and ravenous for the new discoveries that the practice of playing together might bring. The emphasis seems to be on experience however, getting their hands dirty rather than just gabbing about it, “That was always something that really annoyed me,” says Standell-Preston, “not that I’d experienced anything else with any other band, but it was like, ‘god we talk so much, why don’t we play more!’” That’s the part that seems to animate them, playing live, cranking the bass to chest shaking volume, getting so giddy that loops trip over themselves, filling a space with sound. The communion of a live setting is seemingly safe and free from nerves, despite having to cope with the not inconsiderable challenge of replicating the intricacies of their sound outside the studio. Seeing just three people make that much noise might seem like a feat of sonic conjuring or sleight of hand, but they are adamant about playing everything for real. Tuft’s explains: “The computer is the brain for the sounds and then all the electronic drums I play live. We believe very strongly in playing live and pushing yourself as far as you can to be a good musician. I play the parts I enjoy playing, but then I also play the backing parts that I don’t so that I can know everything. It feels really fake when you see a show and you don’t know what’s live and what isn’t. It’s all created live and we all feel really good about that.”

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‘Flourish // Perish’ is a soundtrack to both the infinitesimal and the epic, (there are those dichotomies again) or as they put it, “very much like going through the motions of a day, very naturally occurring. Not over glorified or glamorous or intense… like walking around, experiencing a moment.” A moment, or a day, or a couple of summers filled with instances of varying intensity – from the roller-coastering peaks to the domestic troughs. There is the sense that Braids tried to tame the animal urges of ‘Native Speaker’ and create more of a sense of intimacy and silence; the filtering of those starker techno influences, coupled with Liz Fraser-esque vocals achieving just that. After all this imposed introspection, not to mention the eschewing of outrageous Canadian landscape and fresh air for months recording in a windowless garage, the band are looking forwards and outwards. “Yeah, I’m ready for it to be easier!” Standell-Preston laughs.

And they’re not all seriousness and control; they’re gleeful about travel, about picking up British phraseology (‘bits’ oddly is a favourite word), about the fecund Montreal music scene of which they are a part, about the AC/DC on the jukebox and most of all the ‘new, new’ music that they’re already making. The clouds are lifting and they want to capitalise on this new found clarity, get their chops up for touring and bringing ‘Flourish // Perish’ to their growing audience.

Even in that title is the same sense of dichotomy – a push and pull of emotion and a fitting either/or precarity that they wisely know could tip its balance at any time. But it feels like both extremes, through their world-weary but life-giddy lens, are bathed in a pleasing kind of glory. Their trademark restraint is likely to protect them from disaster anyhow – as Standell-Preson confides: “I’m really glad that title came, I was going to do drugs to try and come up with one but I haven’t done them and I don’t really want to. I still have them in my desk!” Braids have been on enough of a journey of late. The last thing they need is a trip.

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