Braids are bracing for the big time

McGill students form three-quarters of a red-hot indie band that is earning rave reviews from top music critics

Like the perfect chord progression, one glowing review flows seamlessly into the next. From Pitchfork to Rolling Stone, critics are raving about Native Speaker, the debut album from indie rockers Braids. And three of the four musicians who make up the newest “it” band are McGill students.

But a symphony of praise can quickly become a disorienting cacophony when you’re barely 20 years old and have just released your first record, explains Braids drummer and Schulich School of Music jazz student Austin Tufts.

Braids members: Austin Tufts, Raphaelle Standell-Preston, Taylor Smith and Katie Lee

“I hope we don’t become one of those buzz bands that people recycle in three weeks,” he says. “I hope the press is written in such a way that people can look past the fact that we’re playing ‘hip’ music, and instead understand and appreciate the depth of what we’re trying to do.”

In addition to Tufts, Braids is comprised of architecture student Katie Lee (keyboard, vocals) and philosophy student Taylor Smith (bass, samples), as well as lead vocalist Raphaelle Standell-Preston (the only non-McGillian in the bunch).

Originally from Calgary, the quartet moved to Montreal in 2008 when 75 per cent of the ensemble was accepted to McGill. They looked at several universities, Tufts notes, but only McGill offered each of them a stellar program. It didn't hurt that the University was in a city that has produced Arcade Fire, Wolf Parade, Malajube and so many other influential bands.

“After we finished high school, we made the decision that this band was really something we wanted to do, so McGill and Montreal created the perfect opportunity. They gave us the ability to study what we wanted in a fantastic city where we can also pursue the band further.”

The move accelerated the group’s maturation process. Leaving behind their families and hometown, fending for themselves, and studying at McGill has translated into a new sound that's distinct from the band’s previous incarnation, called Neighbourhood Council, which also garnered some media attention back in the day.

In terms of his drumming, Tufts says his work with McGill instructor and jazz drummer Chris McCann and other students in the Schulich School of Music has helped him achieve a new level of proficiency as a songwriter and performer.

“Moving away for university really lets you grow up, and McGill is such a great place to do that because you’re surrounded by so many people who are constantly using their brains and inspiring you in different ways,” he explains.

While the critics seem unanimous in their conclusion that everyone who is anyone will have Native Speaker in steady rotation on their iPod this spring, that’s about all they agree on. Contradictions abound in the descriptions of the band’s lengthy compositions and multilayered sound. Writers tie themselves into knots detailing how Braids is artsy but poppy, dreamy but gritty, roots-oriented but progressive. The confusion probably just means that they have a unique sound.

Even Tufts hesitates to name any specific groups or musicians who have influenced their music. Instead he returns time and again to the strong personal relationships between the members as their source of inspiration – which feels appropriate since Native Speaker seems destined to be the soundtrack for countless late-night philosophical discussions.

It’s those friendships that keep Braids grounded. Despite all the accolades, Tufts and company remain a tight-knit group of college kids faced with a future full of unknowns: Will they return to McGill next fall or will they stay away longer and have to reapply? What will the road hold for them as they embark on a two-month North American tour? Will they still be critical darlings in the morning? Does it even matter?

“The thing that resounds most strongly through all of it is that I’m making music with my three best friends,” Tufts says. “It seems so true and honest. We’re just four people hashing it out and expressing our feelings and trying to have some fun while we’re doing it. That gives us the ability to let go and not be afraid. I feel like nothing can stop us.”

by Brett Hooton, BA'02, MA'05

To listen to some tracks from Native Speaker, visit Braids on MySpace.