That Wasn’t All: The Plumtree Story

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Image courtesy of Label Obscura

Nicholas Friesen @Nicholastronaut  March 6, 2017

Halifax quartet Plumtree existed in that sweet spot for pop rock perfection – 1993-2000. In that time the then teenaged band, made up of guitarist/vocalist Carla Gillis, guitarist/vocalist Amanda Braden, drummer Lynette Gillis, and bassists Catriona Sturton (1995-2000) and Nina Martin (1993-1995) released three full length records and a handful of EPs and 7”s, racked up thousands of kilometres on the road with the likes of Thrush Hermit, The Weakerthans and The Local Rabbits, and even grabbed a few awards before calling it quits 17 years ago.

Since, Braden (now Bidnall) has become a professor at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, while Martin is a prof at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Sturton continues to make blues music as a solo artist, while the Gillis sisters continue on as a duo in Overnight.

Oh, and one of their songs, “Scott Pilgrim”, inspired a certain graphic novel series from Bryan Lee O’Malley, which was the basis for the Edgar Wright film Scott Pilgrim vs. The World.

Evil ex boyfriend battling bass players aside, Plumtree is currently making new waves for re-releasing its three classic LPs (1995’s Mass Teen Fainting, 1997’s Predicts the Future and 2000’s This Day Won’t Last At All) on vinyl for the first time via Toronto’s Label Obscura (the same nice people who handled last year’s Inbred’s vinyl reissue campaign).

“I didn’t know Tim (Lidster) at all before, none of us knew him,” Lynette Gillis says over the phone from her home in Toronto. “We have a website, and he found the email on there, and was hoping we’d actually receive it, because, you know, we’re a band that broke up 15 years ago.”

The former members of Plumtree dug Lidster’s release plan (a special bundle is available March 10) and are excited to get the long out of print discs into people’s hands for the first time on wax.

“Personally I’ve always had this dream of records, to hold them in my hand,” Gillis says. “This is stuff we produced throughout our musical lives, it’s really exciting. There’s something very satisfying about having those three documented that way and doing it right.”

Having only ever self-released 7”s before, Gillis is adamant that the releases warrant the vinyl treatment, as they are meant to be heard as complete pieces (as opposed to just a collection of songs on an iTunes playlist). She’s also an avid collector of the format.

“I love vinyl, and I choose vinyl very carefully, partly because of the cost, the space and the weight,” she says. “It’s something I really love, but it depends on the album. Some stuff I’m fine just having the digital. I find that with records that were especially made for vinyl, like I’m a huge Queen fan, and I’m trying to collect more of the Queen records, and to me, having that on vinyl is what it was made for.”

Lynette and Carla put out 2015’s incredible Carry Me Home, their debut as Overnight, on vinyl with killer artwork from O’Malley.

“That was partly Carla and I saying, yeah, we’ve never released anything on 12 inch,” she says. “It felt to us like a complete record, we wanted it to be experienced as a complete record, and we decided to invest.”

While Overnight is Lynette’s main project, she says it slowed a little in 2016, but with conscious efforts toward something new, 2017 is looking to have a few bright nights.

“We played quite a few shows around (Carry Me Home) and got kind of tired of that set,” she says. “We tend to be kind of slow writers. The advantages and disadvantages of not being on a label and being so independent is we just take the time we need. I don’t want to play a show if we don’t feel excited about it. I feel like we’re kind of getting into gear more recently.”

Upon forming Plumtree in ’93, Lynette notes that the poppy quartet was one of three bands she and her metal-loving sister were playing in – and it was their least favourite (at first).

“We thought of Plumtree as number three on the list,” she says with a laugh. “It was my drum teacher who connected me with Nina (Martin) the bass player, he took bass lessons at the same place. He connected us because we were ‘the girls’. We were a completely weird band for a long time because our musical tastes were just so different. Amanda (Braden) came over to jam and she was wearing a Beastie Boys t-shirt, which in hindsight is so cool, she’s like 15 or something. They’re all talking about Sloan and stuff, and that was so not our thing.”

The other two bands the Gillis sisters were in never wound up playing a show, and Plumtree became the focus after a local campus radio station asked them to play an event.

“So we played three songs, and then we played at this bar, and then, ‘Why don’t you play Halifax Pop Explosion?’ We kept getting asked to play stuff,” Gillis says. “We were kind of an odd band, and we didn’t even know that we were weird. Then Thrush Hermit were like, ‘You guys wanna go on tour for a week?’ It was so exciting.”

It was at the end of a five-week tour with the mighty Hermit in the summer of 1995 that Halifax label Cinnamon Toast Records came asking for a full length. With a few EPs behind them, the band was ready to work with producer Paul Hogan at his Sound of One Hand Studio in Ottawa on its full length debut, Mass Teen Fainting.

“I have no idea how it was received,” Gillis says with a laugh. “I think we were pretty happy with it. I hear it now and I cringe in parts, the production in certain places, but at the time we were very proud. It was a big deal to make a full length album. We were very involved in every part of it, working with the person who was making the artwork, it was like a big art project.”

Being teenagers in a band meant touring in the summer and finishing high school/starting university in the fall, and the recording of the band’s follow up, 1997’s Plumtree Predicts the Future (with Sloan producer Laurence Currie), came at an interesting time for Gillis.

“When the band started I was 14, so when we did Predicts I was 18 and I started art school,” she says. “There was a huge amount of change going on when we made that album. We were having our first relationships, going to university, growing in huge ways, so I always think of that.”

In the ‘90s it might have seemed uncommon for an up and coming band to put education first (whereas today nearly everybody has a day job/goes to school while trying to “make it work”) but Plumtree was made up of levelheaded young people. That, and nobody (parents or management) ever steered them in one direction or the other.

“We were really studious people, so this thing happens where if you’re all different ages, Carla went to university first, because we were still in high school, so she felt she may as well start university,” Gillis tells. “Then Nina and Amanda went in, and I remember being kinda disappointed, like, do I do this too? So we had no one advising us, at least I didn’t. Our parents wanted us to go to university, but they didn’t really go on about it. Likewise, we didn’t have anyone in music giving us advice really. Nobody was saying if we stuck it out we could probably do it. Nobody was advising us on any of those levels, we were making it up as we went.

“Art school was the only place that made sense to me that I could think of going to. The whole time I was so invested in music, and making art projects always invested in music. In a way, I do feel like we really could have benefited from some people, like a really good manager… I don’t think we really realized the potential in it. We were having really great experiences but we were not making money.”

After seven years of being in a serious band, the sleeping on couches and low-paying gigs at the bottom of the bill took its toll.

“Since then I’ve known all types of people, like The Weakerthans and Joel Plaskett, who have just kept at it and found themselves in a good place over time,” she says. “We weren’t even realizing it could be a career or anything.”

The band decided its last record, 2000’s This Day Won’t Last At All (released via Endearing Records) would be its last. They also decided not to tell anyone this little tidbit.

“In hindsight, I think we made some pretty weird decisions,” she says. “If people knew that was your last show in that city then it means something, but we decided not to tell anyone.”

At the same time, label interest from Murderecords and Mint Records came pouring in. Despite the buzz, the members of Plumtree had made up their minds.

“I don’t mean this in any bitter way, but I think we always got the shaft,” Gillis says. “I feel very grateful for the experiences, but we were playing so many shows and tours where we were playing first, and I think back, and why were we playing first? We’d paid our dues. There were quite a few times where we were put on bills where we coulda been placed better. If there was somebody helping us out it coulda made a huge difference. You play as the first band and you get paid as the first band, and we struggled.”

Carla Gillis and John K Samson, image courtesy of Plumtree.ca
Carla Gillis and John K Samson, image courtesy of Plumtree.ca

While there were a number of downer tours and gigs, Gillis notes that touring with The Weakearthans in ’98 was a highlight.

“I didn’t know who they were before we went on tour, and we weren’t sure if we wanted them on the tour,” she says, laughing. “Who is this band? They ended up being really good friends and treating us better than any band we’d ever toured with. They were so respectful and cool.

“(Touring) was fun but it was pretty exhausting by the end (of the band), and it wasn’t changing. It’s not like, oh now we’re selling out hundred-seaters, it wasn’t really changing. That’s why it’s so neat to have the Bryan story where, okay, one person came to one of those shows we played for 15 people and he noticed us and did something with that.”

Yes, The Bryan Story. Writer and cartoonist Bryan Lee O’Malley is a lover of the ‘90s CanRock, and decided to name the protagonist of his second book after a Plumtree song.

“It was totally weird,” Lynette says of receiving a copy of 2004’s Scott Pilgrim’s Precious Little Life in the mail from O’Malley, whom none of them had met.

“He was influenced by the band, ‘Oh neat,’ and I just put it aside,” Gillis jokes. “Then we get another one sent to us. It was issue number two, then issue number three, and they were continually getting glossier, and like, this is so cool. Then we get an email and it was from Universal Pictures and it was about making this movie. At first we weren’t sure if it was gonna happen, it wasn’t like we were asked to suddenly be connected with that movie, it happened gradually with the comics and emails, and it just got weirder and weirder. They have $60 million to make this picture, and Michael Cera’s in it, and he’ll wear you’re shirt, and … this is so weird. How is this happening? It was kind of a surreal thing.”

Since, the members of Plumtree have become friends with O’Malley, who, over a picnic in Toronto’s Trinity Bellwoods Park just before the film’s premiere, revealed his reasons for including Canadian acts like Plumtree, Sloan and Metric in his precious little world.

“He basically wanted to create his own little reality where we were the biggest band in the world, and in his head as a teenager we were a big band for him,” Gillis says, slightly embarrassed. “It’s so neat how you can do that with comics, he created another little world and it’s just through his eyes. He wanted all those bands to get attention. Through the whole process of making the film he was very adamant about us being credited and just putting attention on that scene and that music.”

Visit plumtree.ca and labelobscura.com for more information.

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