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An interview with Katie Lee of Braids

by Robert Ker

Braids stands out as one of the brightest young bands in an indie subculture that stresses a tribal, communal nature in its music. The Canadian quartet’s debut long-player, Native Speaker, came out earlier this year and is a sparkling set of dreamy, slow-burning pop that rises in psychedelic bursts and recedes into twinkling abstraction. They bring their tour behind the album to Space Gallery at 8:30 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 10. Pepper Rabbit opens. I recently spoke with Katie Lee, keyboardist and backing vocalist, on their rise to prominence and approach to their live performance.

Hillytown: 2011 has been a very busy year for you.

Lee: This is our first headlining tour, and we thought we had it down pat because we’ve already done two North American tours this year.

Yeah, you were opening for bands like Deerhunter. What’s it like now to tour and play for people who come out just to see you?

There’s definitely things that change when you headline. You have to get there earlier. We have to play a longer set. There’s more pressure on you to play a good set, but we always stress playing a good set whether we’re an opener or a headliner, so it’s been pretty much the same. When you open, you can’t expect everyone to pay
attention to you, because not everyone’s there for you, but you do what you’ve got to do to win them over. When you’re the headliner, people are there for you so you’ve got to give them a good show because they paid to come see you. It’s the same both ways.

Can you tell us how you got together?

Lee: We all met in high school. And it wasn’t until the last year of high school when we all decided to start playing music just for fun. We started a band for a battle of the bands competition in high school, which we lost to a Red Hot Chili Peppers cover band. We didn’t have costumes! And then Raphaelle (singer Raphaelle Standell-Preston) submitted a song for the Calgary folk fest and she won. We played that. And then we all decided to take a year off after high school just to try out music and see how it went, and a bunch of people in Calgary urged us to keep playing music, and so we all moved to Montreal together.

You started off playing more straightforward rock and pop. What led to the switch to more experimental stuff?

We were all sort of writing individual songs, not so much collective songs, and that was something we wanted to do — to write more collectively. And a lot of the music that inspired us at the time were on the experimental pop end of things. And not having the boundaries of a standard rock/pop song helped us write more
collectively and not have it like, “this is the verse and this is the chorus.” That was sort of what we were writing before, and that’s easy to write when you have a songwriter in the band, but since we wanted it to be more collective.

How did switching the band name affect you?

I guess it confirmed that idea of being a collective band. We moved to Montreal and our first show there was actually with Deerhunter, and we thought it would be appropriate to change our name at that time. We moved to a new city and this was a transition in our personal lives as well as our band. At that point we were
like, “We are a collective band, we’re not just a singer-songwriter band anymore.” And The Neighborhood Counsel, which was our other band, didn’t signify or define anything. That name was just something that we came up with for the battle of the bands. Since we were taking ourselves so seriously, Braids was kind of the perfect definition of what we were trying to do and what we were going for.

Can you discuss the challenges in growing your popularity as an unconventional band? What are the avenues you can take?

Even though we are an unconventional band, and there are many unconventional bands out there, we still gather comparisons. And that’s very difficult because some people choose not to listen to us because we sound like a band or there are clear influences from a band. That’s unfortunate, but at the same
time you can’t change the minds of people. We are proud of our influences because they are all amazing bands and they’ve definitely pushed us in the direction that we are now, and it’s not like we’re staying put in that area. We’re definitely trying to push ourselves to do different things.

I only ask this because I’ve read several of your interviews, and when asked about the Animal Collective influence you don’t come off as embarrassed or annoyed, the way that some people do. I found that interesting and was wondering what led you to accept that approach.

I think it was because Animal Collective was a huge influence on us in high school. When we first discovered their albums it changed our entire perspective on what music can be. It has this beautiful emotional side to it and that was something that we were striving for and they just did it perfectly. I think any young musician
or for anyone in High School or Junior High or younger, it’s awesome if they try to emulate the people that they look up to, because from that they can bring in their own style and their own sound as they grow. And I think Native Speaker was partly that — us trying to create this sound which was perfect for us but influenced by Animal Collective and from that growing. It was such a great direction that they pushed us towards. We’re not embarrassed by it because it is part of our growth.

I read that you fuse your songs together for one long, continuous piece when you perform live. Is that something you still do?

Lee: Our peers in Calgary did a lot of continuation through all their songs. We were seeing a lot of shows where bands do that and it’s very nice because it’s a flow from one song to the next. Instead of seeing these songs as “Here’s a song. Here’s the next song.” Presenting it as one long continuation allows it to be like, “Here’s the set.” It’s one long piece. And that’s something we really enjoy, and that’s why we really, really enjoy electronic music these days because they do that really well in their live sets. It’s nice to go to a show and have your emotions and feelings and the sounds ebb and flow from one to the next. Because we enjoy those types of live sets we tend to incorporate that into our own.

Those sets call to mind, for me, either rave culture or jam bands like the Grateful Dead. Did you grow up on one of those things or the other?

In high school we all listened to singer-songwriters. And we went to live showsand they’d stop between the songs and tell a little joke and that kind of thing. We’re not good comedians or anything like that, so our banter isn’t very exciting. So that’s also why we don’t stop in between songs.

Get tickets to the show here!