Long Branch: The Wavelength Interview

Purveyors of: Bittersweet country-punk.
File next to: Uncle Tupelo, Neil Young, Lucinda Williams
Playing: WL 698, Saturday April 23 @ Monarch Tavern. Get tickets here! 

Long Branch is the sound of sleeping in on a beautiful day, hitting snooze endlessly and without shame, since you have nothing to do today and when you know you get your shit together to get out of bed and out of the house it will be so worth it. Combining rural and urban influences, the alt-country-flavoured, punk-spirited quintet with the impeccable pedigree has been gigging around town (and out of town) in support of their 3-song single, “Lucky Me.” Wavelength’s Jonny Dovercourt caught up electronically with all five band members.

Please introduce yourselves! Though Long Branch is a new band, in keeping with this WL show’s theme of “Veteran Newcomers,” you are assembled from various alumni of numerous GTA ensembles going as far back as the late ’70s punk explosion (in the case of drummer Don Pyle). How did you all come together to make this new group? Did it happen quickly or was it a long time in the making?

Laura Pitkanen: Many of us have known each other for a long time through Toronto’s music scene and been in other bands together. Lisa and I have been a guitar duo since the late ‘90s — we also play in Adaptor 45 — and Lisa was in Chicken Milk and Venus Cures All with Sally. We started working with D’Arcy, who is in The Good Family (fiddle, guitar), a few years ago, and invited mutual friends Don (Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet, Phono-comb) and Sally to join. Right from our first rehearsal it was clear we were onto something exciting together, and then the band took off fairly quickly.

Lisa Myers: We played with D’Arcy for a while — we met her at a coffeehouse at the Native Friendship Centre in Midland and would go to Rama where she lived to jam. We lost touch for a while, but a few years later we ran into D’Arcy in Parkdale. We started jamming and then called Don and Sally to jam with us. The rest is history.

Sally Lee: Even though things came together quickly once we started jamming, a lot of that for sure came from the comfort and chemistry some of us had from having known each other for years. Lisa and I went through a lot together when we were in Venus and Chicken Milk, and Don was my upstairs neighbour in the early ’90s, even before I started playing bass for the first time. I was also in a video for a Shadowy Men song and contributed some vocals for a recording that his other band Phono-comb did with Jad Fair. Despite having a lot of friends in common, I didn’t really know Laura and D’Arcy until I started playing with them, but definitely felt like we were all on the same wavelength, like there was an unspoken trust and understanding based on the various personal connections we had with each other.

There’s a definite sense of bittersweet, countrified melancholy to the three songs on your Lucky Me single, balanced with some poppy optimism. What was inspiring you all music-wise, life-wise, otherwise, when writing material for Long Branch?

LP: Those songs are reflective of what it means to be in, or have gone through, hard times but still end up okay. I wrote those three songs a long time ago, around 2007, but perhaps because they are so introspective, I played them alone for all these years until bringing them to Long Branch — and we reworked them together. Now I see them as fairly happy songs, especially “Lucky Me.” There’s happiness in grit and determination, just as there can be lightness and hope in redemptive lyrics and moody, fuzz-fueled guitar.

SL: That’s great you can hear both those things. I’ve always maintained that “Lucky Me” has this melancholy vibe and didn’t get it when Laura said it sounded like a happy song to her. I guess there’s lots of stuff going on, which is a good thing. Bittersweet sounds about right, I guess.

Is there any significant to the name Long Branch, also an inner suburb of Toronto? As a group, are you inspired by the city and its various shapes and forms?

LP: Having grown up in Toronto, there are spaces, buildings, sounds, and visual references in everyday life that are iconic, and those that are so familiar yet somewhat abstracted or removed. I guess it’s like that anywhere. In Toronto, Long Branch is the name on the westbound Queen streetcar, and we encounter it everyday without really knowing where it goes. Long Branch is of course also a real place, but there is something compelling about places experienced through fragments. Long Branch also means a long stick.

LM: I like the idea that Long Branch could mean things like time spent, persistence, and far reaching.

SL: Many Torontonians associate “Long Branch” with the westbound Queen streetcar, so the name is familiar, but how many of us have actually gone all the way to the end of the line? It’s associated with a streetcar for an iconic artery in Toronto which passes through so many different neighbourhoods. Locals would recognize it as a place or associate it with the Queen streetcar, but others might just think of it as a woodsy reference. I guess you could say it embodies a tension between urban and rural in that sense. Which is very much in keeping with what the band is about.

Speaking of geography, you have members scattered all over Ontario. How does this affect / inform the way the group works?

LP: Everyone in the band has strong ties to Toronto, but Lisa and I consider Port Severn / Honey Harbour our home, so we describe the band as “from Honey Harbour to Parkdale.” We mostly rehearse in Toronto and Long Branch (and sometimes other bands and artists) also spend time at our place to work on music and art projects where we can have concentrated time. Don recorded the songs for the record release and he shot most of the “Lucky Me” video at our place too.

LM: I grew up in Milton but have ties with the Georgian Bay region through my Mom’s side of my family.

D’Arcy Good: I wouldn’t say we are scattered all over the province, but we aren’t exactly all living in a shared band house, either. Lisa and Laura still call Muskoka home, but spend a great deal of time in the west end of the city, where Don and Sally also reside. I was a Parkdale resident up until recently — I made a move to my family’s hometown of Richmond Hill. Long Branch members communicate a great deal, on almost a daily basis, and we have weekly meetings and practices. Geographic and logistical challenges haven’t seemed to affect us too much in a negative way, save for the odd snowstorm. Musically speaking, I believe that both the rural and urban influences can be heard in the songs. If you listen closely enough you’ll hear it.

SL: I am a city girl and lord knows I enjoy my creature comforts, but I have a deep and abiding love for the gorgeous countryside all around us. I love any excuse to get out of the city. Lisa and Laura’s place up near Honey Harbour is awesome, and they are both capable outdoorswomen who inspire me.

The video for “Lucky Me” — directed by Long Branch’s Don Pyle — is very lovely, featuring both a rural portrait of visual artist Margaux Williamson and a canine friend going through daily life somewhere in what looks like cottage country, as well as the band playing live in the basement of Toronto’s City Park Library. How does this concept evolve, and what led you to feature Margaux?

Don Pyle: I interpreted the lyrics as the narrator coming to terms with and reflecting on a past relationship. I wanted to create an almost banal portrait of that person going through their day, taking care of themselves, to show the inherent strength in that. She (Margaux) is seen in places that naturally stimulate reflection, but also doing everyday things like picking up groceries. I wanted to show a strong woman but without the cornball conventions of the usual signifiers that show “strength.” Maybe it’s more self-sufficiency being shown, but in that is strength. Margaux is a friend of some of the band members, so working with someone within our own circle, and with someone who makes movies and paintings and art in general, is a great way to keep a creative exchange moving through that circle. When I met with her, I was immediately struck by the mix of confidence, vulnerability, and curiosity she projected — all traits pointed to in the lyrics of “Lucky Me.”

City Park Library was a sort of stand-in for Margaux’s character’s local community centre. It actually is a self-created community centre in the form of a library, brought to life at the downtown City Park Co-op by my friend Jeff Kirby. It’s intended to be a gathering place where the lead character goes to be with “her people.” Using a community space was important to us, as was the band being shown in a place that is not a bar or usual concert venue. We wanted the focus to be the people and the space.

LP: Don did an amazing job producing the video and Margaux fit in so well with our song, the band, and our place. I found the whole experience of shooting the video to be quite personal. Our dog Goose is also featured in the video — she loves to carry around long branches.

LM: Laura and I consider this area home, and I have ties to the area through my Mom’s family at Shawanaga and Beausoleil First Nation, so I think of the area as being connected to my personal history. Laura and I identified these special locations for the video, places we have gone to frequently over the years, and we wanted them to be part of the narrative.

SL: Most pleasant, stress-free shoot I’ve ever been on. It was basically the band, Margaux, and her adorable boy Billy just running around to gorgeous locations in the woods and lake near Lisa and Laura’s place. Lisa and I took turns holding Billy when Margaux had to be on camera. And City Park Library was a revelation. Kirby is doing something really special there. It’s like Aladdin’s cave, and behind the green door (ha!) is this incredible jewel of a place, a unique community, right beneath all the concrete and hustle and bustle of the city.

Speaking of the library, are there other unconventional venues you would like to play or see more shows happen at in future?

LP: We’ve been invited to play in a few artist-run spaces (Artspace in Peterborough is a good space, and BBAM! Gallery in Montreal is a great alternative venue that’s also a record shop). These shows have an intimate feel that we found really inviting, so we’d love to play more shows like this in addition to the more raucous rock shows at bars and halls. We’re also really looking forward to playing festivals and outdoor spaces.

SL: I heard there is a Long Branch Legion Hall. That would be a cool place for us to do a show. Someone needs to activate the R.C. Harris Water Treatment Plant and / or the grounds around it.

What’s it like releasing music in this new era of digital streaming? You made the decision to release a 7” single as well as download. It is Record Store Day as I write you today, an event that is easy to be cynical about, but do you think that physical formats still have an intrinsic value?

DP: It brings up a complex series of questions when you release something on vinyl these days, and many of them are questions that are forced upon the actual record by surrounding circumstances outside of the physical object of a 7” in picture sleeve. The unfortunate side-effect of the economics involved in releasing vinyl is creating an object which now takes on some sort of status, rather than just being the vessel for your art. From the very high cost of printing paper sleeves, to the outrageous amount it costs now to mail a record anywhere, and the ridiculous wait times (seven months in our case) to press vinyl, it’s no surprise that all these barriers add up to vinyl being less and less viable. Particularly in independent music scenes, challenges are always something some people want to take on, therefore making releasing vinyl even more attractive.

To me, those barriers are a pain in the ass rather than a fun challenge, and contribute to making the record “elite” when it really shouldn’t have to be. Vinyl and record sleeve and label art are significant to us because of the tangible and tactile experience you have with them. Some of the members of Long Branch also make visual art. The connection of visual art to recorded art creates a more complex experience and serves to keep those mediums connected, as they are in this band’s minds. I also know that the direct tactile experience of putting a record on and turning it over, the feel of the paper of the sleeve, the colours, the texture, the images, are all part of creating a sort of magical self-contained environment. I have learned so many thing because of things I saw on record sleeves! I will always always always remember any song I hear from taking a record out of a picture sleeve, placing it on a turntable and then simultaneously engaging with the sleeve art and music, than any song I might also play once by pushing the play button on an AIFF file with no art. Vinyl forces an engagement that involves other aspects of art and brain function more than any other medium. I love digital too and am by no means a purist for either — downloads have a democracy and cheapness that no other medium has, so that has its own value as well, but when they appear on your computer’s window next to that doc you just entered your tax numbers into, they can’t help but be a less special experience to engage with.

LP: I agree with Don, I also connect more with music through playing records, reading the liner notes, and holding the physical cover. I have always kept my turntables and records, despite the industry tendency towards digital. I can see the benefits of digital in terms of its potential for distribution, and perhaps as offering an accessible format, but I haven’t made that switch in how I prefer to experience music.

You’re playing Wavelength this Saturday (April 23) along with three other awesome bands. What’s next for Long Branch after that?

LP: This spring and summer, we’re recording our debut full-length record, which we will also release on vinyl. Stay tuned!

SL: Someone invite us to play at their cottage this summer!

Anything you want to add?

DP: I’m excited to see Tough Age!

SL: Someone please remind me to go easy on the Bitondo’s between soundcheck and showtime.

Long Branch plays the Monarch Tavern for WL #698 at the Monarch Tavern, along with Germaphobes, Century Palm, and Tough Age. Get your tickets here.

— interview by Jonny Dovercourt