Brooklyn-based chamber-folk trio Plume Giant will perform at Mass MoCA on Saturday, Oct. 12, at 8 p.m.
The band — Nolan Green, Oliver Hill and Eliza Bagg — first met in a much different setting, Yale University, where Hill and Bagg were music majors, specializing in classical and performing together in a quartet. Green ran an open mic series that Hill attended and played in. The three hit it off and started making music together, first concentrating on singing three-part harmonies and exploring sounds from there.
“At first, we sounded pretty different,” Hill said. “It was a little more of a folky thing.”
As the band worked together and grew, the sound also evolved, bringing in some of their influences, like The Byrds and The Mamas and The Papas, as well as their own backgrounds.
“All of us had different projects that have all made their way in,” said Hill. “Eliza was a really serious classical singer and violinist, so harmonically that’s her vocabulary that she’s rooted in, so a lot of the dense, harmonic stuff is coming from her. I was in more folk-band type stuff, so I think a lot of that, and the fiddle — I played fiddle with a lot of people, and that’s sort of less what we’re doing now, but that was more part of things earlier. And Nolan was actually in funk jam bands. I have no idea how that translated. He was in a band called Ja Booty Top that worshipped the Grateful Dead. Cool, but not really what we’re doing.”
The band’s relocation to Brooklyn has also had an effect on its sound, being able to live within a music scene that they had only previously been visiting in order to work, and also surround themselves in the area’s potent, Brian Wilson-inspired chamber pop scene.
“When we met in New Haven, we were coming down to New York a lot to play shows,” said Hill, “and more and more, we found they were in Brooklyn or with bands that were from Brooklyn, and so to us, after living in New Haven for two years as a band, it didn’t feel like such a dramatic move, like moving from Kentucky to Los Angeles. It just felt natural, like we had been commuting and now we are actually here being able to live and breathe every day.”
“And living in Brooklyn, there’s always so much amazing music here, and I feel like bands around here, like Grizzly Bear and the Dirty Projectors, who are making this really, carefully composed music, it’s really appealing for us. It’s put together in a thoughtful way.”
Brooklyn has had an effect on the subject matter of their songs, as well
“All three of us are songwriters, and we all bring bits and pieces of songs, but we bring them to the finish line together,” said Hill. “We definitely write about living in Brooklyn and watching movies, we watch a lot of movies, and city life, riding the subway, and trying to have a relatively honest reflection of what we’re spending our time doing, and not having it be about these wildly romantic moments that only happen once a year. The songs are more about what we’re seeing and hearing, and also about relationships and friends. “
Pulling from their classical background and embracing a chamber folk sound has allowed them to sculpt their own style within that structure.
“It frees you up to have all kinds of counter melodies and that kind of thing, if you have the orchestral instruments in the mix,” Hill said. “The whole time we’ve been together, it’s been a journey of coming to sound more like the music we listen to and become more retro, more based on rock-and-roll music from today and from the ’60s. I think that a lot of it has been sitting in the same room together.”
The band boasts an array of musical instruments in their current arsenal — electric and acoustic guitars, hollow body electric bass, synthesizers, viola, drums, violin and harmonium — and is always ready to expand. Bagg has been playing an omnichord, an ’80s instrument that Hill describes as “kind of like an autoharp that has really cheesy beats.”
Hill says that the band’s philosophy directs them to take into account what a song actually needs, rather than restricting the tools to what is already on hand.
“Every song that we arrange or put together, it’s like we’re pretending we don’t have the constraints of what instruments we play or are able to juggle in a show,” he said. “On a song-by-song basis it’s a new arrangement and we even have to buy instruments as necessary.”
The trick, the band has found, is rectifying the ambition inherent in their recordings with the sound in their live performance, and giving the arrangement for each an equal importance.
“It’s always a challenge,” said Hill. “I think that’s always one challenge, after you get out of the studio, where you can do whatever you want and follow your heart with overdubs and which instruments are where, there’s always a challenge to see how it’s going to translate then into a live show, where you have to pick and choose which elements of the song you’re going to highlight to keep the altogether vibe of the song.”
The band is recording an album with Dan Molad, the drummer from Lucius, with the hope it will be finished and out in a few months. Hill said it represents further movement for the group into the realm of electronic sounds, which they blend more and more with the traditional acoustic and classical instruments that originally brought them together.
“There’s more synthetic sounds, more electric guitars, and also more orchestral sounds on it, so it’s a move away from the type of music that you can make in one room,” Hill said. “The last record was more a song-by-song basis and this is more trying to create a whole album based on what we’ve been doing for the last year in Brooklyn.”
Hill said the electronic sounds and expansive musical elements are the result of band members hearing things that they liked in other people’s work and just wanting to build on that in their own.
“It’s really based on listening,” he said. “I think that we’re writing in response to what we’re hearing, and so it’s kind of that itch of if you hear a song and you say, ‘how did they make that sound and how can I make something like that?’ You do a little research and you can plug and chug and find new sounds, and repurpose them for different things.”
The band’s embrace of older technology in their music functions as an aesthetic signpost announcing that though they live and create in the 21st century, they do not march into it grabbing every pretty element they can.
“It’s like cars, in a way,” said Hill. “Some of the sounds were just made better. And also our real sonic stamp, like it’s something that really signifies an era, like if you have a certain type of amplifier, that’s the type of amplifier they use in old Motown records, and people know that, whether or not they know the amplifier, you plug it in and it’s like, ‘oh, Motown.’ There’s so much amazing musical technology now, but I think some of it maybe just signifies things that we’re not as interested in.”