From their upbringings in the suburbs of Halifax, Carla and Lynette Gillis had big rock star dreams. From their first instruments to their first shows, music seemed like the only option for the two sisters. Along with high school friends Amanda Braden, Nina Martin and Carotrino Sturton, who replaced Martin in further years, they turned their passion into something worth sharing with the jangly, thought out guitar sections, steady drums and catchy lyrics that would come recognizable with the Plumtree name. Working between school and life, the band toured with fellow east coasters, living out their summer fantasies on the road before deciding to focus on other projects after a cool seven year run in 2000. Even those not terribly well versed in the band’s three album catalog can find themselves familiar with the words “I’ve liked you for a thousand years,” from the 1997 single “Scott Pilgrim”, the influence behind the graphic novel series of the same name. The inspiration drawn from the song by Bryan Lee O’Malley would go to put the band back on the map creating a resurgence that no member expected. While the added fame that came with the Scott Pilgrim movie and two of Plumtree’s tracks finding homes on the soundtrack, the band all see themselves in different areas of the country and their lives and have no plans of reuniting. Not even now, 17 years after the initial split and the recent vinyl reissue of the band’s three album catalog, out through Label Obscura. That being said, they all look back fondly on their time together, especially former front woman and guitarist Carla Gillis, who I got the chance to speak to about the reissue, being a high school rock star in Halifax, inspiring a best selling graphic novel series and proving yourself as musician.
When you first started Plumtree you were all pretty young. You were 16, Lynette was only 14. What was it like being in the local music scene at such a young age?
C: Plumtree wasn’t even our first band. We were in several bands before that. But we were these obsessed teenagers, music was our entire life. I feel like people go their whole lives never finding this thing that electrifies them and we were so lucky to find it when we were young. It created so much of this energy inside of us to jump in and learn our instruments and start bands. Before Plumtree it was very much a private thing, playing in our basement but we had rock star dreams! We loved Guns n’ Roses, Metallica and bands with videos on Much Music. We saw that and thought, we’re gonna do that. Then Plumtree started and that was when we got out of the basement. It was just the right place, right time in Halifax. A lot of bands were getting started and there was an all ages club. But we got offered a show and it was completely terrifying. The music we were making didn’t really make sense to me but I just went with it. Very melodic with jangly guitars and I kept thinking, what are people going to think of this!? I almost panicked but it was only a 4-song set and we got through it. But the support was there and we all really appreciate it.
You mentioned your rock star dreams and watching bands on Much Music and stuff like that. What was it like watching these things happen and seeing your videos on Much?
C: We were maybe only on Much a few times actually. But at the time we were playing Molson Amphitheater and Edge Fest which was super fun and exciting. At the time people, would always be like, ‘You must be the most popular kids in high school!” We did not feel popular at all! But I remember the thing that Lynette and I got the most excited about was the first time we were interviewed by the daily newspaper in Halifax because of this song we had put on a compilation and they sent a photographer to our house. We lost our minds! We thought that this was it, we had hit the big times. We just ran up and down our dull suburb hollering. But yeah, there were the little bursts of excitement but for the most part we just had our heads down and we were working, trying to make things happen. Because this was the time before the internet you didn’t know what people were saying about your band. Thank god! I couldn’t handle it if I had to see jerky or misogynistic comments. It would have been very hard to continue. We were fortunate to just be oblivious to the outside world and we could just do our own thing. It’s impossible to avoid that these days.
Being an all female band in the 90s, misogyny unfortunately must have been something you still had to deal with though.
C: It was hard to tell if it was because we were girls or because we were very young but definitely at almost every show we had to prove ourselves. It was a constant series of people not believing in you. It played out a lot with patronizing sound guys trying to do things like change the settings on my amp thinking that we don’t know what we’re doing. Halifax was always a supporting town and the guys in Thrush Hermit, who were high school friends, were really great inviting us out on tour all the time and allowing us to get our music across Canada. I could probably tell you a ton of annoying things but really it was just feeling like you had to prove yourself before you played and then you played well and totally rock that’s when suddenly people were nice to you. We were actually pretty nerdy about our instruments and took playing very seriously so it was always so frustrating when people assumed we didn’t know what we were doing or when we’d read a review like, “and they can actually play!” You’d never read that about male bands. But every single woman has had to deal with that.
You mentioned touring with Thrush Hermit and you’ve also toured with a lot of awesome Canadian musicians and bands like Julie Doiron, Eric’s Trip, the Weakerthans and more. Do you have any good memories that came from those times?
C: The Weakerthans tour really stands out for me and I think the other members. They were just really good dudes. It was just little things about it. Like one day I remember John (K. Sampson) wanted to buy a new amp and he was asking me my advice! Asking what kind of amp to get or what his next guitar should be and I know it doesn’t seem like a remarkable thing but this was the first time in my life that a guy was asking my advice on gear. It’s something that people would take for granted but it really mattered to me. They just had that vibe the whole tour. Super respectful. Super supportive. There was just never that vibe that they were guys and we were girls. We were all equal. And that just really stood out.
So, you were all in school at the same time so touring could only really take place during the summer. Did school ever effect other aspects of the band like writing or recording?
C: Yeah, so the band was built around our school schedules so whenever class would let out for the summer we would tour. I didn’t realize until years later that those are the worst times to tour, I mean that seems to be the festival circuit and we were never playing festivals. Back to school time is the best time to tour! Bodies back in cities, ready to socialize. But we were always in class then… There was one time when Amanda, the guitarist, she was very academic, loved school and wanted to do her masters. It was very hard convincing her to take time off but she did one fall semester and it was so fun. People came out to shows!
Did you ever think about quitting school and playing full time?
C: I wanted to very badly. Lynette would have joined me probably. There was some built in tension. Some of us really wanted to focus on the band and leave school behind. Others did not. Obviously, we would never leave high school behind but when it came time to figure out university and what not I graduated first. I didn’t want to go to university but they were all in high school so I started courses but then year two came and Lynette was still in high school so I just stayed and finished year three. When we initially started playing music there was the dream of going to LA because that’s what we thought you had to do. We thought there was nothing happening in Halifax. I was gonna go to the Guitar Institute of Technology, Lynette was gonna go to the Percussion Institute. So, we were gonna go and get extra, extra good and join a record label and just do it the old school way. But it’s funny to be so focused on that and not noticing how vibrant your own community could be. We were so focused on looking outside of it that we didn’t realizing how much could happen in Halifax, and in Canadian music history that was the best place to be at the time.
Bryan Lee O’Malley actually took inspiration from you guys for his series Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. How did that come to be? Did he inform you of this or did it come as a surprise?
C: He used to come to our shows, he was a fan. I remember one show at the Embassy in London, in a little side room beside the bar and it was a Wednesday night in the middle of winter so no one came except for Bryan and his little sister, who was underage. We gave her our guitars to carry in so she could get in. I don’t know if it was the first time he saw us but we became friends at that show. I think that was in 1997 but it was many years after that he wrote to us and sent us the first book which he told us was named Scott Pilgrim after the song. That first issue was so cool because there were a lot of Halifax references in it and one of the characters in the band plays a guitar that looks just like Amanda’s. So we flipped through and was like “this is so cool!” Then a little while later he sent the second one. I forget when he stopped sending them but we started to hear that it was getting really popular. Maybe 2009 there was the rumour about there being a movie and we didn’t get too excited about it because we never imagined it would ever happen. But then it did. It took us a long time to understand the impact those books had. We hadn’t spent much time together over the years. We were all out in different cities, you know Amanda’s all the way in BC with kids, but we all convened in Toronto for it. We had one song in the movie and two songs on the soundtrack and all of a sudden, we were so busy with Plumtree again which was weird because we had ended it 10 years before. It’s never really slowed down since then.
We’re still handling mail orders for t-shirts made to look like the one Michael Cera in the movie. But it’s a really, really cool thing to be a part of but also one of the flukiest things that ever happened to us. We could never have planned for the band to have this resurgence.
So, you mentioned the Plumtree’s split that happened 17 years ago. What was it that made you decided to call it quits?
C: We were all in our early 20s, Amanda was interested in continuing in school and was moving to Toronto to go to York, Katrina wanted to teach English in Japan and Lynette wanted to study fashion in New York. I was the hold out who was happy to stay in Halifax and continue in bands. The band just felt like something we were feeling our way through and never had a clear, strong intentions for. At some point while recording the last album we were still not seeing a lot of people at shows and living off a five dollar a day tour budget. We were also at the point where we had moved out of our parents houses so we were paying rent. You know, we were starting adulthood. So, we were driving home from recording in Toronto one of us proposed that we could end the band. As soon as it was voices we all kinda looked around and it seemed like an exciting idea, to let it go. We got home and all started looking towards other things. I was more than happy to keep playing music but I think we were all just excited to end this thing and start a new phase of our lives.
What have you been up to since the end of Plumtree?
C: I went to Vancouver and did and MFA in Creative Writing. Every year I took a song writing course which was a dream so by the end of my degree I had a ton of songs. While we were out there Lynette and I had a band called Bon Tempe with my ex, so the 3 of us. But we both finished school and we decided that Vancouver was too far from Halifax so we moved. She moved to Toronto in 2007 and I moved here in 2008. Bon Tempe had come to a close at that point but Lynette and I had made a commitment to always play music together, so we could be 70 and still be in a band together. So, when we got to Toronto we found new people to play with us. The band was called Sister and then we realized there were a lot of bands called Sister in the world. Including a fairly popular Swedish, metal band. We started a Bandcamp but all of their tour dates started coming up on ours and people would be emailing us like, “You’re playing in France!?” So, we changed the name to Overnight. We’ve released a couple EPs under the name and then a full length back in 2015.
But my life since has still very much been music in every way but a lot more writing about it as I’m now the Music Editor over at Now Magazine. I still go to many, many shows, interview my favourite musicians, get to be a cheerleader for so many great bands and in my spare time still put my own stuff out there.
So, 17 years later Label Obscura is reissuing all three albums on vinyl which leaves the question, why now?
C: Their focus is fairly East Coast. They released a lot of music from bands in our scene. I never asked them but I guess Plumtree makes sense hopefully because people are still interested in the music and we’ve never released it on vinyl before. I think also because so much has happened for the band, even after our breakup, there’s an interesting story there. And at some point we all released that 2017 has been 20 years since we released “Scott Pilgrim”, which came out in ’97. Either way we’re really happy about it. Some of our friends have a design company and well, this is an example that we didn’t know what we were doing but you know how some bands have a vision or an aesthetic and they just work together? Ours don’t. So Yorodeo redesigned it so it looks like of a more cohesive trilogy. There’s some new liner notes and never seen before photos. The hardest part was finding photos we were all okay with. We took terrible photos! We were very anti-image and we didn’t want people to care about how we looked. We were trying to send a signal for people to not pay attention to our gender so we didn’t wear makeup and all looked pretty endogenous. But it also means that we look back at the photos thinking that we couldn’t look worse!
Plumtree’s three LPs, Mass Teen Fainting, Predicts The Future and This Day Won’t Last At All, are all available on vinyl via Label Obscura now.