“We literally would be on tour today, had everything gone according to plan,” says Braids’ Austin Tufts as we start our conversation. Speaking remotely to Tufts and bandmates Raphaelle Standell-Preston and Taylor Smith from the Montreal studio where they’re isolating together, it’s clear that the trio are trying to find the positive in the current situation. “We are gifted a bunch of time,” continues Austin.
After spending time, much like the majority of the world, absorbing the new reality of isolation and social distancing, Braids began to consider making music again. “It’s not exactly immediately inspiring,” explains Austin. “It weighs on you very heavily. We’re lucky in fact that we have the studio that can act as kind of a bunker for us. We can shut the door and can kind of forget momentarily what’s going on outside.”
What’s going on outside includes the June 2020 release of Shadow Offering, Braids’ fourth album and first on label Secret City. Shadow Offering is a gorgeous work of avant-pop with a focus on space, stories, and feelings. Somewhere between the minor electric piano chords of Radiohead, the relaxing swirls of Blue Hawaii, and the bright electronic pop of Chairlift, Braids provide a headphone masterpiece as great for ecstatic dancing as for lazing on a couch.
Ableton Live is central to Braids’ songwriting, production, and performance, so we caught up with them and discussed sudden lyrical influences, getting Operator to behave like a hardware synth, and how they’ve brought their new album to the stage.
*Live 10 Suite required: open the Live Set and adjust the Chain Select Ruler to hear the different Operator patches
How have things been with the shutdown? I imagine creativity is difficult during such a stressful time.
Austin Tufts: It’s been a bit of a double-edged sword in that way. We are gifted a bunch of time that we… we literally would be on tour today, had everything gone according to plan. And we were very much on trajectory for all the live rehearsals and spending all of our time focused on that, and kind of like a bunch of inertia and momentum headed one direction, and then all of a sudden very abruptly had to change course.
It definitely took a while, like a week, at least for us to even begin to fathom making music, or you're spending all your time focused on public interaction: things like interviews and running social media and promoting a record and live performance and all that. Then all of the sudden, needing to shift gears into something that's a little more like… to kind of get your head into a dreamier state, which is very much like putting on an entirely different outfit.
And then also just trying to manage the fact that at once you're gifted a bunch of time to work together. But by the same token, it's not exactly immediately inspiring. It weighs on you very heavily. We're lucky in the fact that we have the studio and can act as kind of a bunker for us and shut the door and can kind of like forget momentarily what’s going on outside.
Taylor Smith: We're pretty used to spending a lot of time together already, so these are pretty much the only social interactions that we're having. It's just the three of us. We're lucky in that, you know, we have this isolated space where we can come to safely. And it's nice to have people to bounce your sort of apocalypse mindset off of and be like, “OK, we’re getting through this, right? We're getting through this. Are you OK? Yes. OK. OK. Let’s make some music.” So that definitely helps.
How does Ableton Live fit into your creative process in the studio?
Taylor: I guess it's ever-evolving in a way. How we're going about things now, or in the last few weeks, is maybe a little different than how we were going about things for this record. So, I'll focus on the stuff that seems most prominent to the workflow while making the record.
We've been heavy Ableton Live users over the last 10 years. I started on Logic way back when, but transitioned over to Live a long time ago. And for us on this record it was very much two pieces to the puzzle. One was using it as a performance instrument, mostly for me. So Austin plays drums, Raph sings. We all do a whole bunch of stuff, but in terms of like general jamming, that's typically the setting, is Raph singing and playing guitar, Austin playing drums and then me running Live as a sort of live instrument, to sequence, to sample, to do sound design and that sort of thing and sort of bring Ableton Live in as you would a typical instrument in a live band situation.
And then for this record it was used as the main DAW for tracking and creating demos and doing all the editing and basically like the main songwriting tool in terms of actually putting songs on the page, so to speak.
Raphaelle, when you’re writing lyrics, do you find it easier to write lyrics and music together or to write one after the other?
Raphaelle Standell-Preston: Oh, it's all of those things. I think that I’m quite an intuitive person with writing and quite reactionary to whatever it is I’m hearing or doing. So I tend to write a lot on my own. Sometimes I’ll be singing a bit of gibberish and hear little words that pop out and then make a poem based on that. Like for “Eclipse”, we had gone to a quarry in Montreal to see the big solar eclipse in 2017. Usually I write lyrics, very, very quickly.
[Looks at the others] what did Chris [Walla, producer on Shadow Offering] call me with my quick lyrics?
Raphaelle: Yes. I’m a little bit of a supernova. Like I burn fast and burn bright. I just have to be able to capture that moment. And I think that’s how I would describe my writing process: supernova.
Austin: Yeah. Honestly, being a collaborator on the other side of that is a very exciting thing because you keep these little ideas or whatever that Taylor and I will maybe show each other, and we'll know, “OK, this has this feeling and we know to bring it to Raph when the feeling is right.”
And then literally it's like lightning strikes. It’s like you can't even press play or you can't sit down and play the chords or play the beat or whatever until there's already a track recording, because from the moment that you play the thing Raph's mind is just thinking and churning out ideas and phrases and melodies that often morph into gibberish words that then turn into beautiful poems.
Raphaelle: Which then turn into chord changes.
Austin: And actually, shout out to Ableton for being able to create a software where you can create and then instantaneously record whatever at the same time and not have to stop any flow. Like that's… I mean that's huge!
Speaking of “Eclipse”, there’s a really interesting stew of different parts in that track. On the one hand, there are these very earthy sounds, like the piano where you can really hear the hammer noise. On the other hand, there are these lush reverse reverb tails; when things get quiet, you really hear them going off in the distance. I’m curious how you struck a balance of sounds in the recording?
Taylor: “Eclipse” was really… I mean, part of that is a big shout out to Mike Davis who mixed this record. We had him here for a month, alongside Chris, who we co-produced this with.
Austin: Mike engineered the whole thing.
Taylor: Yeah. He was definitely the perfect person to turn what was a project or a song in particular where we were really trying to, like, bathe in it, and make that work from a multi-layered perspective, and have that work across the song and create the scene changes that really drive the song forward.
Looking at the genesis point, it was written with… we had two pianos in the studio at the time and both Austin and I would spend a few hours just playing the sort of piano riff on the other side of the room, like totally open, the pedal totally running, just to like bathe off the feeling from that sustain. In particular, we had one piano in here that was from 1910. And it's this big beast that's a super tall, upright piano and has these old, old strings on it.
It's super loud, like it's clearly meant for a parlor or something like that where you need a piano to carry across a huge room of people. It's so resonant and so whacky and sounds kind of crazy. And that was the piano that ended up in the recording of, well, the whole record. Yet, we were sort of intentionally throwing tons and tons of layering at this and having it almost feel like you've got kind of like a detailed piece of ambient music running alongside this kind of contemporary guitar-driven kind of rock song in a way, you know.
And yeah, I guess, Mike found a way to make it all fit!
How was it working with Chris Walla [former guitarist/songwriter for Death Cab for Cutie]?
Taylor: Chris has great emotional intuition. He's able to just nudge and push gently in a way that feels very natural. And for us, we walked into this record thinking… pretty strictly having an idea in mind as to the ensemble we were writing for.
You know, “the songs are going to have one polysynth, one piano, they're going to have two guitars, drums and a vocal and maybe an organ and that's our world,” you know, “and this is who we’re writing for.” So we're always kind of writing two guitar parts and that's it and just kind of drawing a line there. And Chris just says, “well, why don't you try just one.” You know, like, this isn't what we thought it was going to be.
At the time, like I remember having a lot of emotional difficulty letting go of the record that I thought we were going to make. Like that was not an easy thing to see that train or car drive by like, oh, there it is, we could make it, but it's gone, we're making something else.
Austin: Yeah, I remember, Chris was just enabling us and enabling each individual to really reach for what they were hearing and their version, their own individual version of what they wanted to hear, not just the collective version.
It's amazing because when you always have to have group consensus, it's kind of like you get a little bit of a watered-down version of the thing. Or, you can really stand up and say, “I champion this idea!” And if people can't... like, people need to be able to allow you to have those moments. And that was really cool.
I remember Raph and Chris tracking vocals, like harmony parts. And I was just like, “No, there's not supposed to be vocal harmonies or doubles on this record. This is a single voice record. I want to hear Raph singing and it's like…”
Raphaelle: I was like, “No!”
Austin: …and Chris just said, “Raph, do you want to do another harmony?” And Raph’s like, “yeah!” And they were just building these huge stacks of harmonies, like 12 vocal layers. And I was having a fucking crisis in the tracking room [laughs].
Raphaelle: You were so mad.
Austin: You know, I had my headphones on and I was just thinking “I need to leave” and I just left. I thought, “this is crazy! We’re not making the record I thought we were making.” And I came back the next day and listened and was like, “these are so good, so beautiful.”
Raphaelle: “Young Buck” has so many [vocal layers]. “Young Buck” has like eight, all tucked in there.
Taylor, you mentioned previously that Operator was pretty heavily used on this album. Can you elaborate and share some examples?
Taylor: I had always used Operator across many of our records. This time around, I wanted to chase the themes that we've been talking about, chase performance and chase something that felt “live” and “in the room,” and less sculpted and automated or drawn out. So I tried to build out a version of Operator if it were a piece of hardware, so to speak. It also kind of dovetails into our idea of really consciously picking the palette for the record. And way at the beginning of the writing process, being very strict as to what that might be.
One instance of Operator [on every song] was like guaranteed. You know, that song needs to have a piano instance of, you know, this or that, and wanting to develop a bit more of an emotional connection to the instrument and to the synth.
I built out a MIDI controller setup that every time we were pulling up a new song and deciding to jam together, I'd have an instance available where I could program in some notes and I knew that that knob was the filter every time. This was the attack, release, decay, whatever, every single time, and develop Operator so you have all the freedom and flexibility that comes along with using soft synths and software, but more of a hardware synth kind of relationship, where the instrument felt consistent every single time.
From a sonic perspective and where that actually ended up, you know, all those songs on this record have a foundational synth performance and all that was done on Operator. In “Eclipse”, it's mirroring the piano line. In “Young Buck”, it’s that mean arpeggiated sequence, in “Snow Angel”, same thing, that mean arpeggiated sequence. In “Just Let Me” and “Note to Self”, those held chords that kind of grow and swell, that's all Operator.
That was very much my, you know… Raph has her voice and playing the guitar. Austin has the drums. And for me on this record, I had that synth. Alongside that I was chopping up piano samples and doing all kinds of other stuff that we were talking about, but very much the bedrock was this version of the synth that I developed over the course of the two years that it took for us to write this record, and got very deep on what parameters were my parameters, and making sure that that carried over from project to project. And each time developing that consistency such that I could dig into the new terrain.
What is the transition like between finishing something in the studio and then preparing to tour with it live?
Taylor: For me, it's definitely a big undertaking. Just by nature of instrumentation and personnel, when we go and play shows, we typically are just the three of us. That's something we want to experiment with in the future. But for now, that's the paradigm. And Raphaelle sings and plays guitar and Austin sings and plays drums. And then sort of everything in between kind of falls into my territory to figure out. With each record, I guess, with each successive record, the needs are different and as a result, the set up in the process is different.
Quite typically, once you've finished the record and are beginning to think about how you bring those songs to the stage, there's always a prolonged period, at least for us, of experimentation of what that might look like. Is it going to be sample driven? Is it going to be sequenced?
We’ve done live performances way back when we didn't have a computer. It was just guitars and drums and vocals and textures and stuff like that. So, no sequencing, nothing like that. And live looping and that kind of thing. And then we've done records that have a computer involved, but the sequencer is not running – it's basically just a big sampler. And then with this one, we're getting into more sequenced elements and trying to figure out how to have our cake and eat it, too, in that we have sequences, but we aren't rigid. We can still perform. We can still have a musical conversation amongst each other on stage.
From a process perspective, it's a few months spent dressing a few songs up a certain way and seeing how that feels and then dressing them up a different way and seeing what that looks like, and bringing in various pieces of equipment and trying to find the sort of format or the paradigm in which the music's going to sit and in which it allows us to, like I said, have that musical conversation on stage and still be somewhat visually engaging and enjoyable to watch from an audience perspective, and that it makes sense musically.
Austin: And not having the tech overwhelm the three of us live, such that we can actually be in the moment as performers and musicians, not just technicians.
There was a time when we were so hell-bent on having the live show sound exactly like the record that we compromised our own ability to enjoy playing live, because it was like we were essentially four, five cogs in a machine. We were going off the deep end of live looping and stuff. It was very cool, it was very interesting. And, I'm sure, you know, doing an exposé on what that live setup looked like would be an interesting thing for a lot of Ableton readers.
But this version of our live set is definitely the most just deeply human and musical and expressive. Raphaelle and I, we’re kind of lucky in that our big contributions, it’s all played stuff: vocals, guitars, drums, things that are one to one, nothing under the hood. This is the version of the live show that we're presenting now where Taylor can actually flex his skills as a producer, as a musician, as an electronic musician, which is so fun.
Text and interview: David Abravanel