If there’s ever been a band that was truly the product of its surroundings, Montreal-based Flotilla is it. The indie rock group originated in a tiny corner of the Plateau where, in 2004, roommates Veronica Charnley and Geof Holbrook happened to be living.
The story goes like this: Charnley, a singer and guitarist, and Holbrook, a classically trained pianist studying composition at McGill, wanted to start a band. So they grabbed Éveline Grégoire-Rousseau, a harpist from down the street, and Mark Nicol, a drummer who lived upstairs, and Flotilla was born. “We all inhabited this very small area and just rehearsed in each other’s houses,” Holbrook remembers. Though Nicol has since been replaced by drummer Benoit Monière (who, consequently, lives a few blocks from Grégoire-Rousseau), and Charnley and Holbrook now divide their time between Montreal and New York, the band’s roots still continue to influence their music. “I don’t think I would have written the same kind of music had I not been living in Montreal,” Charnley says.
The kind of music that Charnley and the band have created defies quick categorization. Though their first album, 2006’s Disaster Poetry, is clearly in line with the indie aesthetic, the band’s newer work is stylistically broader, something that Holbrook attributes to a creative process that has evolved and become more organic. “When we went into the studio this time, we had the songs in various states of completion, and we had three weeks to record, so it was really more of a creative time. We were finishing writing the songs and arranging them in the studio, and it became really spontaneous. A lot of interesting things were happening.”
The band members’ variety of backgrounds also contributes to their unique sound. Grégoire-Rousseau is a McGill-trained classical harpist, Holbrook is working toward a doctorate in avant-garde composition, and Charnley studied jazz vocals in university before going on to complete an MA in creative writing. While Monière has the least formal training of the group, “He has this great instinct for music,” Charnley says. For Holbrook, the band’s classical influences enable much of their originality. “It becomes very easy to be creative, because you’ve learned how to think about music in a very broad way,” he notes.
It’s interesting to observe how the band has brought these influences into music also inspired by groups like Animal Collective and Grizzly Bear. “It’s pretty obvious that a classical harp is an unusual thing to hear and see onstage,” Charnley says, and she’s right. But the harp makes for a nice compliment to the other instruments’ volume and force, making the music more lush and complex.
It seems that the band is starting to hit its stride. They’ll be on Exclaim magazine’s list of Artists to Watch in 2009, and their latest album will be released in the spring, followed by a substantial tour. It’s safe to say that Charnley and Holbrook are excited about the journey that lies in front of the band. “If you look flotilla up in the dictionary it’ll tell you that a flotilla is a group of ships that are moving together, or travelling together,” Holbrook notes. “I think that’s a good way to think about what we’re doing as musicians.” Here’s to hoping their voyage is a long one.
Flotilla plays November 28 at Casa del Popolo. For more information, visit myspace.com/flotillamontreal.