Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Ten Years After Splitting, Halifax's Plumtree Gets Their Closeup with 'Scott Pilgrim.'

Think about the crushes you had in your teens and early twenties. For even the boldest kid on the block, there was still some knockout who inspired stammering, knots in the stomach, or- in some cases- a fuzzed-up sugarbomb of a song that puts any crummy MASH note you wrote in study hall to shame.

For Carla Gillis, guitarist and vocalist for the now-defunct Haligonian rockers Plumtree, it was the latter.

“I was 19 or 20 when I wrote the lyrics to ‘Scott Pilgrim’ and in the throes of probably half a dozen crushes at the time,” Carla Gillis said. “There is one person who comes to mind because he was someone I’d liked for many years but, even at that, I think the lyrics came out of a general feeling of liking people but being afraid to act on those feelings.” The name itself was an inside joke among the band members- a friend named Scott Ingram had his name juxtaposed with another acquaintance named Philip Pilgrim. 

Fact: the ladies of Plumtree- Gillis, drummer Lynette Gillis (the two are sisters), guitarist/vocalist Amanda Bidnall (nee' Braden), and bassist Catriona Sturton (who replaced original bassist Nina Martin following Martin’s amicable departure in 1995) - are responsible for the name of Bryan Lee O’Malley’s bass playing protagonist, soon to hit the silver screen in the form of a Michael Cera-starring, Edgar Wright-directed comedy called Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (due August 15 in North America.) Plumtree’s song, with its infectiously simple “I’ve liked you for a thousand years” verses, has an, err, plum role on the film’s soundtrack, landing amid songs from a “who’s who” of indie rock heavy hitters- not bad for a song born of a crush and a band joke.

“’Scott Pilgrim’ was the first bassline I ever wrote,” Sturton said. “I’ve always been a very lucky person.” (The version included on the film’s soundtrack is the original track, recorded for a split 7” made with fellow Halifax veterans The Inbreds- both bands’ material is now available digitally through Zunior.com)

Plumtree could be seen as a bit of a muse to O’Malley. His most well-known character is named for their single, while references to their songs and to band members pop up throughout his work in often subtle places- for example, a Plumtree poster turns up on Zero’s wall in issue #3 of Hopeless Savages: Ground Zero (page 17, first panel, beneath The Who and next to Hot Hot Heat, for those who might be curious.)

 “In Bryan Lee O’Malley’s book before Scott Pilgrim [Lost At Sea, Oni Press], the school is called ‘Sturton Academy.’ I showed that to my mom and it was pretty cool.” Sturton points out that O’Malley drew inspiration from the Halifax scene, noting that, in addition to Plumtree, Thrush Hermit are another key reference point. Edgar Wright himself pointed out references in the Scott Pilgrim trailer, continuing the nods to the scene. (The film’s easter eggs include posters for “You Just Don’t Exist” and “Let’s Hope There’s a Heaven,” among others.)

“It’s really, really cool to be a part of this Scott Pilgrim world thanks to songs we wrote in our youth,” Gillis said. “It feels like we’re being rewarded or recognized for it now more so than back then.”


Gillis and Sturton noted that, during Plumtree’s initial run, the band played to small audiences, often in fire halls and house shows, their records underwritten by grants and any press earned through the band’s own pursuit of coverage.

“Fanzines and college radio were so important,” Sturton said. “That was how people found out about our shows.”

Fellow veterans of the scene in Halifax made attempts at breaking through in the US (the Thrush Hermits and Sloan each secured distribution through major labels at one point), but, despite a strong work ethic and some solid notices that landed the band on a festival lineup including Foo Fighters and Our Lady Peace, Plumtree remained a secret beyond their native Canada.

“The world was a little more regional before YouTube,” Sturton noted. “Canada was our region.”

“We never even concentrated on getting big in the States,” Gillis said. The band’s touring did lead them south of the border on occasion, including a trek to Los Angeles which included a taping of ‘The Price is Right’ where, Sturton pointed out, the band sat in close proximity to the host of the Mexican version of the program and met the show’s announcer, the late Rod Roddy.

Despite the era’s opportunities for anti-image alt-rock acts (“We never had fun hair,” Gillis said) and the ladies’ combined work ethic (all four members were full-time students while treating the band as a full-time vocation), Plumtree called it a day following a hometown show at the end of June, 2000.

Following the band’s dissolution, the group’s songs began to get traction in unexpected ways. A spot in an episode of Degrassi: The Next Generation (“Was That All?” is in episode 619, “Don’t You Want Me?”), here, an appearance in a comic book there, and the band began to receive more recognition outside of their home region.

“As you get older, I think it’s easy to feel a gulf between yourself and the generations coming up after you,” Gillis said. “So it’s cool that the songs are resonating with kids today.”

“[With the digital revolution] people can access your music all over the world. We got a letter from Italy yesterday from a guy who just discovered Plumtree through the SP books.”

(A note about the Degrassi connection: Gillis points out that this was, indeed, The Next Generation and not the original program. “That would’ve been mindblowing. It’s cool, I guess, but I don’t think we ever saw the episode or anything.”)

But does the July release of the final Pilgrim chapter (Scott Pilgrim’s Finest Hour, out July 20th from Oni Press) and the slot on the film’s soundtrack between Beck (as Scott’s band, SEX BOB-OMB) and Frank Black mark resurgence for the band?

There are no present plans for any sort of Plumtree reunion, though the band members have stayed in contact and three quarters of the band are involved in musical endeavors.

“Carla and Lynette are playing the [Finest Hour] release party with their band, Sister,” Sturton confirmed. “I’m coming in for that.” The lack of a full-scale reunion is partially due to the distance created in the past decade (Bearden is completing a doctorate; the Gillis sisters are based out of Toronto, while the Ottawa-based Sturton travels extensively as the sole Canadian employee of Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library program.)

Sturton is, at present, about to enter the studio with Rolf Klausener, the principal member of Ottowa’s alt-folk group The Acorn; she is also, at present, plotting out dates around her schedule with Imagination Station. (“Being in an indie rock band was the perfect training for the kind of work I’m doing,” she quipped.)


The Gillis sisters will be taking the Sister EP on tour following its release this month, though schedules are still being consulted. “It was so easy to do those things when we all still lived at home,” Carla Gillis said. “Now we’re adults with jobs… but we’ll definitely do some touring if there’s interest.”

Graphic novelists in need of inspiration would be wise to take note. 

On the web:
Scott Pilgrim comics by Bryan Lee O'Malley http://www.scottpilgrim.com

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