Finding Your Native Tongue

Braids’ Debut Is All About Communication

“We all came together in the language of music. It’s about finding out how to truly communicate with each other, about finding each other’s ‘native tongue’.” —Austin Tufts, Braids

Austin Tufts, drummer for Montreal quartet Braids, is bringing bagels back to the band’s shared Outremont apartment when I reach him on the phone.

“Fairmount or Saint Viateur?” I asked.

“Saint Viateur!” Tufts said with a level of excitement wholly appropriate for fresh bagels. “But that may just be because we live closer to there than to Fairmount.”

Bagels are only one of many things Braids has to be excited about. The band of best friends has been attracting a lot of attention for their distinctive brand of dreamy avant-pop, full of textural melodies and innovative takes on song structure.

Calgary transplants Tufts, Raphaelle Standell-Preston (vocals/guitar), Katie Lee (keyboard) and Taylor Smith (bass) came to Montreal when all four were accepted to McGill, though they have since gone on hiatus from their studies to focus on touring.

They’ve crafted their aesthetic with striking meticulousness and a level of introspection beyond their years: Tufts, Standell-Preston and Smith are all only 20 years old, while Lee is 21.

“We’ve really found ourselves here,” Tufts said. “[Montreal is] a wonderful city to grow up in, and I think our experiences of growing up have really influenced our music since we moved here.”

That euphoric and frantic transition from adolescence to adulthood is fodder for Braids’ debut album, Native Speaker. The title—which comes from the song of the same name— embodies a common thread throughout the album’s seven songs, a concept Tufts describes as “the language that is your native tongue, that you speak the most clearly, that is your purest form of communication.”

“For the four friends in Braids, we all came together in the language of music. It’s about finding out how to truly communicate with each other, about finding each other’s ‘native tongue.’ It’s really a cohesive tool for the whole record because a lot of the songs are about love and about growing up, finding yourself, and finding that other person who you can be yourself around and be totally open and honest with.”

The album’s thematic structure speaks not only to romantic ideals, but also to the dynamic between the band members themselves. Since moving to Montreal, the band has been both living and working together, causing their songwriting to evolve into an entirely collaborative and cooperative process. Even Standell-Preston’s lyrics, which often verge more on poetry, are inspired by and then woven into the musical arrangements.

“Usually, one person will bring in a sound—it could be an effect or even a concept for a song form,” Tufts explained. “Once we have something to start from, we end up doing a sort of stream-of-consciousness jam until we find something really wonderful-sounding. Most of the time, once Katie and Taylor and I get a foundation, Raphaelle will be writing as we’re playing. So it’s directly inspired by our playing the song, what it’s making her feel emotionally, and all the memories and feelings the sound is evoking.”

This penchant for experimentation is consistent throughout every aspect of their creative process: the recording of Native Speaker was 100 per cent DIY, meaning they had to teach themselves how to do everything from start to finish. Intent on seeing their vision to its fullest potential, the group took their time recording, re-recording and over-dubbing every single part.

Surprisingly, unlike many bedroom recordings, there is nothing low-fi about Native Speaker. Every sound, synth effect and sonic layering in each track are all purposefully calculated. Even at its most hazy, reverberant and textural, the sound is still decidedly clean.

But that clarity did not come easily. According to Tufts, Braids spent the entire summer of 2009 in a garage-turned-recording studio in Calgary just recording the drum tracks, working diligently to get each track to sound just right.

“It was basically a self-taught tutorial on how to mic drums,” Tufts said. “It was trial and error, every day.”

Time became an issue once they had to return to Montreal for school, so they set up a studio in the back of their Outremont apartment and worked late into the night after having spent the whole day at school. And with all the acclaim surrounding the final product, not to mention their spot on an upcoming North American tour, all that hard work seems to be paying off.

“By the time we sent it off to the mastering studio, we were still recording,” Tufts said. “It was crazy. We didn’t want to stop until it sounded the way that we wanted it to. There are still some things that we went into the mastering session uncomfortable about, but now they’re just little endearing flaws that we’ve really come to love.”

Braids album launch for Native Speaker is this Thurs., Jan. 20 at La Sala Rossa (4848 St. Laurent Blvd.

Show starts at 8 p.m. Tickets are $10 at the door. The lineup also includes Pop Winds and Long Long Long.

This article originally appeared in Volume 31, Issue 19, published January 18, 2011.