The Story Behind Every Plumtree LP

March 10, 2017 in features
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When Amanda Braden (now Bidnall), Lynette Gillis, Nina Martin, and Carla Gillis formed Plumtree in 1993, they were teenagers living in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Braden and Martin had taken lessons together on electric and bass guitar respectively when they were around 15 years old and decided they needed to form a band within about three months of learning how to play anything.

Their instructor connected them with Lynette, who had been studying percussion and drums since she was 11 and jamming with her sister Carla in bands called The Crashmats and Pongo Boy. The Gillis sisters were really into metal and hard rock so Lynette was initially perplexed by Martin and Braden, who bonded over the Beatles and local bands like Sloan, Thrush Hermit, and the Purple Groove Monsters.

Carla was hanging out in the Gillis family basement in Fairview, a community near Halifax, during the trio’s first nerve-ridden practice and by the next day, April 9, 1993, she had joined her 14 year-old sister in this new band, Plumtree. They never discussed an aesthetic and simply played once a week with Carla and Amanda leading the way with hooks, melodies, and arrangements that the band could flesh out together. The first finished songs were “Follow You” (about stalking the Purple Groove Monsters) and “Ode to a Podiatrist” (about Carla’s poor blood circulation freezing her feet) and early recordings were made in the practice space, at Chris Murphy of Sloan’s home, in a room in the basement of the former Trade Mart building with Marc Costanzo of Len, and released as singles and EPs via labels like Cinnamon Toast.

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The band recorded Mass Teen Fainting in Ottawa with Paul Hogan (a.k.a. Rod Glue) in 1995 with no budget, in between tour dates that summer. It was a hot one and the band and their road manager, Dusty Sorbet, stayed in Hogan’s unventilated attic, barely able to sleep, and almost entirely subsisting on a diet of $2 bagels with cream cheese.

Listening back upon the songs, Carla feels like she spent the record yell-singing, after many live soundmen urged her to sing louder at shows because they weren’t very good at their jobs. Lynette now views Plumtree’s gear for these sessions—Martin on a fretless bass, Braden exclusively rocking a12-string Rickenbacker, her sister on a metal Ibanez, and her on some old Ludwigs—as a weird combination of tools.

Sonically, the band’s varied influences (Elvis Costello and the Attractions, early Metallica, 50’s-60s girl groups like the Shirelles) are all evident throughout a record that’s ultimately a cleverly arranged collection of pop songs. But there were occasionally clashes.

Carla has a clear memory of tensions about the leadoff song, “Tropical.” She and her sister’s heavier inclinations often meshed well with Braden and Martin’s interest in poppier fare but everyone was definitely conscious of balancing these interests. The latter two weren’t around when Carla excitedly began layering distorted guitar parts over “Tropical” with Hogan. She and Lynette were thrilled with the results but when Braden and Martin returned and heard the song, they thought it sounded terrible.

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It was a disappointing, frustrating moment for Carla and led to a few hours of the silent treatment between certain members of Plumtree but the end result is the familiar, heavy version that made the album. And despite some edgier lyrics within these infectious pop songs, there was plenty of fun happening in Plumtree at this point.

The band’s lyrics were smart and contained obvious and inside jokes: the song “Sodium Chloride” is named as such because the compound, NaCL, contains the members’ first initials. Working in Hogan’s studio, they discovered a Bay City Rollers record in a corner of the room and the imagery and layout alone gave everyone a chuckle. Within its liner notes describing the band, there was a reference to the “mass teen faintings” and pandemonium the Rollers were causing on the road.

There were certainly no kids passing out from excitement at Plumtree shows but the phrase had a certain charm to it and, given their penchant for detached irony at the time (and in Braden’s case, a love of the Beatles and their mania), the four young women adopted Mass Teen Fainting for the title of their auspicious debut, which came out in 1995 via Cinnamon Toast Records. As you can hear, the record retains a certain innocence and scrappiness but what really shines through, beyond their talent for musical hooks and clever lyrics, is the young band’s spirit and determination to become the stars, both rock and otherwise, that they so admired.

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Martin wouldn’t last long in Plumtree, opting to attend McGill University in Montreal in the fall of 1995. A great bassist, Martin didn’t see a future for herself in rock ‘n’ roll while her bandmates continued to feel the stuff coursing through their veins.

They auditioned potential replacements for months—both women and men—but had trouble clicking with any of them. Braden also began taking courses at King’s College in Halifax and met Catriona Sturton in one of her classes. Sturton’s primary instrument is the harmonica (she has contributed parts to songs by other artists and has taught lessons for years) but was intrigued enough by Plumtree’s search for someone to take over from Martin to request a tryout. A fundamental issue here was that Sturton had never really played bass before.

Sturton studied a dubbed copy of Plumtree’s 1995 debut, Mass Teen Fainting, and worked on learning the bass parts over the Christmas holidays, on a borrowed, broken down Rickenbacker actually autographed by Geddy Lee. She finally earned herself a spot in the band in January or February of 1996. As with most things she puts her mind to, Sturton took her role seriously, exhibiting confidence and an exuberance to fit in and contribute; at her first Plumtree practice, she played a harmonica solo and added back-up vocal parts. It seemed as though Plumtree were whole again; Braden says this era was the tightest Plumtree ever were, as a unit of friends.

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Road-seasoned, the band opted to record their second record, Plumtree Predicts the Future, with award-winning, now Toronto-based, engineer/producer, Laurence Currie, who’s now known for working with Cool Blue Halo, Sloan, Wintersleep, Holy Fuck, and Amelia Curran among others. He’d established a professional studio in Halifax called Idea of East, which Plumtree found to be rather fancy and somewhat intimidating. Almost as soon as recording began, Carla backed her parents’ car into another parked vehicle, leading to an expensive repair bill.

She might have just been preoccupied. For Carla, it was a difficult time in life and her songs from this era feel particularly melancholy and angst-ridden. She was almost 20 years old, having boy trouble, and struggling with how to make her own way in life. She says the songs “Effin’” and “Going So Low” really capture some of that oscillation between codependence, confidence, terror, and just a life reality check.

On the bright side, Carla finally acquired a long-cherished Gibson SG while on tour with Thrush Hermit in 1996. She bought it in Calgary and it continues to be her primary axe and she’s pretty certain that the first riff she ever wrote on it was for the band’s most famous song, “Scott Pilgrim,” which appears on this album. In other auspicious trivia, Sturton says that “Scott Pilgrim” was the first new song the band wrote when she joined Plumtree, and her first self-composed bass line. There’s just something about that Scott guy.

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Lynette says the name of the song is derived from a practice when she confused the names of two band acquaintances, (Scott Ingram and Philip Pilgrim). Her band mates all thought it was a silly enough mutation to randomly name the song after this fleeting figment of a dude.

Canadian cartoonist Bryan Lee O’Malley was so taken with “Scott Pilgrim” and Carla’s insistent, pleading chorus, “I’ve liked you for a thousand years/a thousand years,” that he based his popular graphic novel series on the song and its namesake. In the books, Pilgrim is a musician in Toronto who falls in love with Ramona Flowers, a delivery woman with seven deadly exes that Pilgrim must defeat in order to safely secure a relationship with Flowers.

In 2010, a critically acclaimed film adaptation starring Michael Cera (who was raised in the Toronto suburb of Brampton) was released and there was renewed interest in Plumtree and their song. Pretty inexplicable stuff, really.

Carla felt that she was yelling her vocals a lot on the band’s first album, Mass Teen Fainting, and a listen back to Plumtree Predicts the Future causes her to draw the same conclusion. Currie said he wanted to capture the band at their most boisterous, even asking Lynette to do her best to channel John Bonham on drums, which felt like some pressure. She and Carla were playing in a punk band called Absolutely Nothing at the time, on the side, and were mostly listening to fast music, which might explain why this record (and accompanying videos for “Go” and “Scott Pilgrim”) displays Plumtree at their most energetic and playful.

For her part, Braden was smitten with Marshall Crenshaw and Prince and those classic pop influences made their way into her songs for this Plumtree record. Their love of vocal harmonies and hook-y instrumentation keeps things like “Hang Up Baby” light and breezy, where heavier fare like Braden’s “I Love U When You’re Walking Away,” has the cheekiness of a country kiss-off yet is framed as a pop ballad (even the “U” pays homage to an aforementioned purple-loving superstar).

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And while there are plenty of sonic ties to contemporaries like Thrush Hermit and the Super Friendz in the sound the band is best known for, there are shades of east coast song man Al Tuck on “Going So Low,” a coming-of-age folk lament of Carla’s that features Plumtree’s only ever in-studio guest musician; Tracy Stevens plays lap steel on the song.

A little more world-weary yet still super fun, Plumtree Predicts the Future is the sound of young people facing into the distance ahead of them, unsure of what lies ahead, yet pensively stoked to see what’s waiting to be discovered.

Unfortunately for them and their fans, the end of a long, long road was finally in sight.

In 2000, Plumtree released their third album via Endearing Records and by July 31, had played their final show together, in their hometown, at the Marquee Club.

They were always something of a cult band with a loyal audience but they seemed to invigorate and excite each other no matter how many people came to their shows or bought their records. By This Day Won’t Last at All, they’d made their most accomplished record even after reading the writing on the wall.

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Carla calls this ‘a break up album for all of us,’ because everyone in the band (except Catriona) had endured the painful end of a serious relationship and were still processing things, before the sessions began. Plumtree was formed by teenagers who were now on the cusp of adulthood. Their respective feelings and circumstances became increasingly emotionally complicated within the trajectory of the people and the unit. Formative and first serious relationships were ending; there were tensions between family members; devastating personal losses; and a sense that real lives and jobs beckoned—it was borderline freak-out, nightmare material.

And yet, making this record for a month in Toronto was like some fantastical dream come true. They worked with Justin Deneau in the repurposed arts building known as 401 Richmond in Toronto and all four moved to the city for a month, renting an apartment in the Annex area, and strolling to and from the studio where they often worked 12-hour days.

Braden suggests this wasn’t necessarily an easy album to make but that working with Deneau, who preferred practiced performances and few takes, was “difficult in a good way.” For Carla, the laser-focus on making and recording music meant she wasn’t thinking about boys or the gelato store she was managing back home. She and her friends were on a working vacation in Toronto in the summertime and the heat and bustle of the city and its people really nourished her.

Both Gillis sisters declare that This Day Won’t Last at All is their favourite Plumtree album, for its content and also the actual experience of making a record together. Lynette believes the band’s songwriting is at its best here. The record possesses a cohesive, distinctive sound and an exhibition of clever lyricists really coming into their own. Plumtree was more confident here, even as they studied at universities and colleges, headed towards uncertain futures.

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These mixed sentiments were captured to two-inch tape by Deneau, who worked closely with the band to get them exactly what they wanted, and was likely the band’s closest external collaborator. Deneau is a couple of decades older than the members of the band and Lynette describes him as looking and walking like Keith Richards, wearing giant turquoise rings and bell bottoms, while Plumtree slummed it in jeans and hoodies. Whatever; Deneau captured the band well on Neve console and, at his suggestion, Carla more or less completed all of her vocals in one take.

The band still mixed classic pop sensibilities with their own penchant for heavy, charged rock. Their grittier tones and melodies kept them connected to Halifax contemporaries like Sloan and Thrush Hermit but there are also hints of the finesse of Ottawa’s the Wooden Stars and the emoting of Weezer, whose Pinkerton, released in 1996, was slowly informing records by artists, Plumtree among them, looking to strike their own raw, emotional nerve both lyrically and sonically.

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As such, there was more experimentation in the studio on this record than any Plumtree had made previously. “Tonight’s Not Alright” was a full-fledged rocker before recording began but was completely deconstructed for a sparse, direct, desperate communiqué, almost exclusively played by the Gillis sisters, as though they were Rivers Cuomo and Patrick Wilson who put their respective stamps on Weezer’s “Tired of Sex.”

“My My” was one of the first songs Sturton ever wrote and she scored this goal with an assist from legendary east coast songwriter, Al Tuck. She received some life advice from co-workers she had, as a cleaner at King’s College, and decided to put it to words. It was in 6/8 time originally but changed in the studio, morphing into some distant cousin of Zeppelin’s “D’yer Mak’er,” as sung by Carla and featuring harmonica solos by Sturton. Some years later, “My My” wound up being featured on the Showtime series, Weeds, so light one up for that I guess.

Some songs, like Braden’s “I Could Draw a Line,” didn’t have lyrics until she wrote them in the studio. And yet, bolstered by Braden’s richer, bolder voice, they capture so much about the band’s wistful optimism at this point in their lives, including the poignant push within the blues-y phrase, “This day won’t last at all.” From experience and seeing the world a bit, Plumtree seemed harder, wiser, and less immersed in the innocence of what they were doing.

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And as was their wont, Plumtree’s songs at this time had cloudier meanings than most of their sunnier dispositions implied. This was band that thought a lot about the people and situations that impacted them personally and then filtered all of that stuff through their own unique, collective voice. They didn’t really get their proper due at the time, which was true for a lot of underground artists in the confusing, post-major-label-feeding-frenzy of the mid-to-late 90s. But they owned that, as much as they did anything great or crappy that came their way.

Plumtree was a great band that felt it all and, over seven years, taught many of us that it was cool to express ourselves fearlessly.

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By Vish Khanna

Vish Khanna is a music and culture writer and broadcaster and hosts the Kreative Kontrol podcast and Long Night with Vish Khanna late night talk show. He lives in Guelph, ON.

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