With their sun-dappled harmonies, classic rock guitars and country-rock shuffle, the Treetop Flyers sound like they’ve been dharma-bumming around Big Sur all their lives. However, only one of the members is even American. The rest hail from the right-hand side of the Atlantic — London, to be precise — which is historically not renowned for its sunny skies.
The five Flyers grew up listening to their parents’ record collections which were comprised primarily of West Coast artists from the ‘60s and ‘70s. So it’s natural that those old sounds would creep into their new songs. But, as singer-guitarist Reid Morrison clarifies, “We want to innovate, not copy. We want to take what we like and make something new. We want to be the Treetop Flyers — no one else.”
With the band preparing to launch a tour to promote their full-length debut album, The Mountain Moves (out in June on Partisan Records), Morrison spoke to CMT Edge about defining their sound, putting up with Mumford & Sons comparisons and running drugs (sort of).
Morrison: In West London, there’s a night called Blue Flowers [at the George IV pub in Chiswick], and they had people like Mumford, Laura and Adele. [Treetop Flyers guitarist] Sam [Beer] played there with his old band. I used to play there with my old band. We all played on these same bills, and out of nowhere, it started to attract attention. Mumford especially went on to be huge worldwide. We were always on the periphery of that, for whatever reason. That’s why we started this band — because we were all there watching this happening and thinking we could do that.
But the Treetop Flyers sound nothing like those other acts. It must be a pretty diverse scene.
That’s what’s great about it. When we started, we did a few gigs for Communion Records Night and put out a couple of singles through Communion [which is owned by Mumford & Sons multi-instrumentalist Ben Lovett]. We got comparisons to Mumford a couple of times, and I thought, “Jesus Christ, what were you actually listening to? It’s completely different.” Just because you do harmony singing, everyone thinks you sound like everyone else who’s doing that. But there’s a varied array of music, and I think that’s how it’s lasted so long.
What makes the Treetop Flyers different from your previous bands?
If you do music for a few years, you can always tell when something feels right. It’s like when you have a girl over, you know if she’s pretty sound or if she’s going to be horrible. From the very first session, we knew something good could come of this. And you don’t want to be in a band that’s not going to do much. We get along together personality-wise and playing-wise, and we keep getting stronger and stronger. And broader as well, which is really what you want in a band. You don’t want to just stay the same.
Your sound is rooted in a lot of ‘60s and ‘70s West Coast acts like Neil Young, Crosby Stills & Nash, even America. Was that intentional or just the natural outcome of this group of people playing together?
We all grew up on that sort of music. Our parents played it a lot around the house, so eventually, at some point it’s going to come out. It was obviously a starting point to build upon, but there was not initial discussion about playing this kind of music. Put us together in a room, and that stuff comes out. We have a lot of other influences that are not West Coast sounds. I’m a huge fan of Otis Redding, and I love reggae and stuff like that. We love Fairport Convention and Black Sabbath. So our songs are a mishmash of all of these different things.
Is the band name an intentional reference to the Stephen Stills song?
It’s always funny when you’re trying to think of band names. We had one of those ridiculous three-week conversations because nothing ever sticks. Sam, one of the guitar players, suggested Treetop Flyers, and I thought it was a cool name. I didn’t know it was a Stephen Stills song at the time, though. I was never one to pick a song from an artist [as a band name], but it seemed to fit. The song is about drug running with this group of pilots who got together after the war to use their skills to smuggle drugs. We liked that idea because we were always in bands, and then we got together ourselves to play music.
Can you tell me about recording the album in California? How much of an influence did the place have on the music?
We were trying to find producers and had a few meetings with people over here. We made a list of producers we figured would probably say no. But if you don’t ask, you don’t get. For years, I’ve been a fan of Noah Georgeson [who has produced records for Joanna Newsom and Devendra Banhart], so we thought, let’s ask him. Luckily enough, he said yes, which was amazing. Then, where do we make it? He wanted to stay where he was based, which was fine by us. None of the rest of us had been there before. We flew from Austin to L.A. and recorded in the canyons on Zuma Beach. We’re fans of that Neil Young album, so it was pretty cool. I think it really did have an effect on the music. I used to wake up in the morning and do my singing while there were eagles flying all around. It was completely different for us coming from the city, which is gray. If you’re in that kind of environment, it has to seep in some way. If it doesn’t move you, you’re not human.