Sinking, Rising in the Strangest Places: The Low Branches

by | Apr 26, 2010 | MUSIC

“The Low Branches craft careful, quiet, poem songs–sung so sweet. Elegant in form, elaborate in beauty.” –Jonathan Vassar

“”My oh my, these songs of yours send me to a sweet, dreamy land where all things can happen – good and bad. It makes me think of dust and history and spiders – families, secret powers, and special nights.” –Liza Kate

“It is the most thoughtful beautiful music i have ever heard. Instrumental fresh. Lyrically emotive. Overall beautiful.” –Christopher Payne (Church Hill Records, The Richmond Scene)

“Their music has an intimacy that makes it feel like they’re playing just for me. They make incredibly powerful and intimate connections with their listeners (It’s still my dream to have them play in our living room)” –Antonia Fisher-Duke (Jonathan Vassar and the Speckled Bird)

“Despite being structurally simple, the music is subtly intriguing and immediately captures my attention” –Adam Tsai (of Nick Coward and the Last Battle)

It’s always bizarre to discover a new band through a cover song. As a youth, memories of awful groups like Alien Ant Farm and Orgy breaking through to the mainstream with the use of covers by famed acts such as Michael Jackson and New Order was strange to put it mildly. This would not be the case with the discovery of the Low Branches.

“The Low Branches craft careful, quiet, poem songs–sung so sweet. Elegant in form, elaborate in beauty.” –Jonathan Vassar

“”My oh my, these songs of yours send me to a sweet, dreamy land where all things can happen – good and bad. It makes me think of dust and history and spiders – families, secret powers, and special nights.” –Liza Kate

“It is the most thoughtful beautiful music i have ever heard. Instrumental fresh. Lyrically emotive. Overall beautiful.” –Christopher Payne (Church Hill Records, The Richmond Scene)

“Their music has an intimacy that makes it feel like they’re playing just for me. They make incredibly powerful and intimate connections with their listeners (It’s still my dream to have them play in our living room)” –Antonia Fisher-Duke (Jonathan Vassar and the Speckled Bird)

“Despite being structurally simple, the music is subtly intriguing and immediately captures my attention” –Adam Tsai (of Nick Coward and the Last Battle)

It’s always bizarre to discover a new band through a cover song. As a youth, memories of awful groups like Alien Ant Farm and Orgy breaking through to the mainstream with the use of covers by famed acts such as Michael Jackson and New Order was strange to put it mildly. This would not be the case with the discovery of the Low Branches.

After a highly trusted recommendation by Jonathan Vassar, I ventured to the band’s music page. I saw that the group had recorded a cover of Okkervil River’s “Get Real.” This being one of my personal favorites by the band, my expectations were difficult to aspire to. With the delicate nature of Christina Gleixner’s voice and Matt Klimas’ vast musical knowledge, the cover expressed the original’s anxiety and angst through a level of restraint that displayed even stronger emotions.

Following this initial introduction, songs like “Giant Sounds,” “Strangest Places” and “For Ellie” began their rotation in my musical memory. With the Low Branches’ strong sensibilities to artists like Low, they purveyed a sense of promise for what the future had in store.

With further help by Vassar, the band linked up with Allen Bergendahl to record a live session at Ipanema and participate in the first edition of the Listening Room (not only as performers, but as creative coordinators). This would be a defining moment for the group based on the exposure it provided them and the budding relationship developing between Bergendahl and themselves.

Word eventually got out that the Low Branches were intending on recording an EP in the New Year. They had decided to work with Bergendahl as well as local musical laureate Dave Watkins. The sessions would be taking place at the Richmond Ballet. I knew immediately that I had to find a way to be there to document this treasure of an experience.

As Begendahl and I approach the Richmond Ballet, he jokingly mentions how this has been unlike any recording experience prior. Watkins and Bergendahl recorded most of the EP with mobile equipment that allowed them to utilize all of the nuances the Richmond Ballet could provide. The recording sessions were also limited to nighttime sessions that spanned from nine to midnight. This helped to ease any frustration that may emerge from long hours spent recording and it enabled all parties involved to relax their focuses in order to achieve the best conceivable product.

Bergendahl makes a quick call to let Watkins know we have arrived. As we enter, we immediately head down to the basement quarters. This is where Watkins does most of his work. Through his contributions to the Ballet year in-and-out, they had allotted him space that encourages most of his musical ventures. It’s quite a treat to imagine the possibilities that encapsulate this unique spot.

In a room surrounded by amplifiers, instruments and computer equipment, Gleixner and Klimas await our arrival. After casual greetings, our small group enters an elevator to make our way to the third floor. There is a caution sign that warns us of using this device with more than five persons. Thankfully, we meet the recommended requisite.

The third floor is home to a giant space that can be manipulated for multiple purposes. At the moment, it is the home of the set pieces for the upcoming production of Romeo and Juliet. A wall separates another space on the opposite side. In this space, the Ballet can pull out bleachers akin to a high school gymnasium and offer live performances if necessary.

Bergendahl and Watkins note how this was one of the first places they attempted to record. Unfortunately there was a tremendous echo that came from the resonance of the room’s natural acoustics. Also, considering the proximity of the Richmond Ballet to Canal Street, they constantly encountered buses running on a regular timetable as well as common traffic. The view was beautiful from the room, but it simply didn’t work the way they had wished.

Fortunately, they were able to discover the luxury of using the pianos in house. They were lucky to encounter that most of them were regularly tuned. If anything, they may have been tuned the day prior.

It should be mentioned that although the group excels in it’s modest arrangements, that didn’t mean they weren’t going to take advantage of having their musical peers drop by and help out. In this case, they invited Adam Tsai of Nick Coward and the Last Battle to play slide guitar and Joshua Quarles of Jonathan Vassar and the Speckled Bird to play cello. The Low Branches were so ecstatic after hearing how the addition of Quarles’ cello enhances their songs. As a result, they are seriously considering adding the instrument to their repertoire. Besides Tsai and Quarles, one of their fellow live contributors Dave Lam stopped by to help out on violin. His assistance can be heard prominently throughout their sets at Ipanema and their appearance at the first Listening Room back in November of 2009.

The second floor of the Richmond Ballet was where the most success was discovered. They were able to make the most of these spaces to capture the necessary components of each instrument. It was quite an experience to just step in one room and then into another while noticing the slight differences in any of our speaking voices. It became instantly clear why it was such a worthwhile chore to examine this building to find the right place to allow the Low Branches to spread their musical wings.

The experiences weren’t all restricted to simply recording. The group is not commonly recognized for their use of drums. In one such occasion, Klimas and Bergendahl were both set up to record a few takes with a cymbal. As the song started, there were light touches to create a settling hum. In a matter of moments, Klimas slams the cymbal and catches everyone except for Bergendahl and himself off guard. Out of the absurdity of the situation, all parties involved started to laugh hysterically. They can’t stop either. Klimas and Bergendahl aren’t quite sure what is happening and their confused looks just inspire more laughter. Eventually the take is cut short and the two start from the top with smiles intact.

Then there were the faint signs of a ghostly presence on one particular evening. A sound began emanating from a corridor of the building. One by one, each person attending the session that night went out to search for it. Joking about it in retrospect, all parties realize that they were certainly not acting in accordance to the ethos of most horror films. It became even clearer as each person who would venture in search of the noise didn’t seem to return. Of course, all was well in the Low Branches world but the mystery of the sound in the distance has yet to be solved.

Out of all the places the group expected to record, they never suspected that they would be laying down tracks in the stairway leading to Watkins’ basement space. In order to capture the best possible violin sound, they set Lam up in the stairway. As he was in the middle of a take, another member of the Ballet’s crew that uses the space in the evening heard Lam as he walked by the stairway. In a random fit of excitement, he opens the door and exclaims “Oh My Lord!” Catching everyone off guard and if it had made it to tape, the Low Branches considered using the sample as an opener for the EP.

Now that my tour was over, we all situated ourselves in Watkins’ production room to discuss the EP at length.

The Low Branches decided to title it Sinking, Rising. Gleixner and Klimas decided to focus the record on the theme of water. Given Gleixner’s background in English and Poetry, it helped for her to create lyrical imagery that could best express this concept. They decided to have Sinking, Rising open and close with instrumentals. I can only imagine it helps to enhance the thematic nature of the release and act almost as bookends for a story that harkens all of the hauntingly beautiful emotions we have come to expect from the group.

While discussing the recording process with Bergendahl, he noted how working with Watkins was a dream and the feeling was reciprocated. For both engineers, they are used to working alone and having primary control over the production side of any given project. With this, they were both able to work off each other’s talents and if necessary, take the backseat and let the other take the lead. This saw some of it’s greatest benefits in how Watkins is quite the problem solver in a carpenter’s sense. Whenever Begendahl was in need of anything and I mean anything, Watkins could usually assemble any accessory in a matter of moments.

Besides this being the first official release for the Low Branches, this project proves to be a first for two other ventures as well. Sinking, Rising will be one of the first screen-printing jobs undertaken by the recently formed Triple Stamp Press. The pressing company is a collaborative effort by Branches enthusiast Vassar and Wil Loyal.

This release will also be one of the first initial releases for the label Church Hill Records. The label was started by Christopher Payne of the Richmond Scene fame and he describes the label as “the conglomerate of what I call our “musical family” everyone who is friends and playing on each other’s records etc.” Their first initial releases will include Luke Saunders, Ferdinand Thomas/The Florentines, The Low Branches and a few other undisclosed Richmond bands. The label will be making it’s debut at this year’s Macrock and even further so whenever Sinking, Rising sees an official release.

As the tour/interview came to a close, the Low Branches allowed me to listen to an early version of their song “Dipsacus Fullonum.” The song relished in including almost all of their collaborators. Even with a rough mix and scratch vocals, I couldn’t help but rest my head back and just let the song in. They were a few days away from recording final vocals and mixing everything down. Believe me when I say, there is something beautiful brewing in the basements of the Richmond Ballet.

R. Anthony Harris

R. Anthony Harris

I created Richmond, Virginia’s culture publication RVA Magazine and brought the first Richmond Mural Project to town. Designed the first brand for the Richmond’s First Fridays Artwalk and promoted the citywide “RVA” brand before the city adopted it as the official moniker. I threw a bunch of parties. Printed a lot of magazines. Met so many fantastic people in the process. Professional work: www.majormajor.me




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