A Family. A Tree.
We Are the Willows celebrates a decade of tunes with local show
It turns out the name We Are The Willows is a bit prophetic. “I learned this fact about willow trees that they have incredibly deep root systems. And very rarely will they knock over in a storm,” says Peter Miller, the lead vocalist and songwriter for the band. ”Generally, We Are The Willows is this notion that together we’re stronger.”
Now that the Minneapolis-based, Eau Claire-connected indie band has been steadfastly making tunes for 10 years this month, that sentiment is proving itself correct over and over again. In band years, that’s a long amount of time, a big chunk of work, and it’s only made possible through those deep-seated roots.
“I learned this fact about willow trees that they have incredibly deep root systems. And very rarely will they knock over in a storm.” – Peter Miller on his band on We Are The Willows' origin
The last 10 years has found We Are The Willows cramming into vans and popping all over the country, from a tour leg opening for Blitzen Trapper to music festivals far and wide like SXSW and Treefort Music Fest to intimate DIY gigs peppered around the Midwest. They’ve been featured on Buzzfeed, NPR Morning Edition, local TV, you name it. Last year, they spent a chunk of time teaching workshops and doing performances in schools across Minnesota for kids all over the state.
Miller even looks back on some of the rougher parts fondly, from collapsed tours and broken-down vans to sketchy booking agents and going-nowhere PR efforts. “Some of that was devastating and kinda ruined me for a while, but now I’m like … ‘aww,’ ” he said.
To be a band that long – and to be a band this good for that long – takes a lot of effort, a lot of love, and a strong dedication to something bigger than the sum of its parts … and probably a dash of luck too.
“It’s literally a long-term relationship. It’s the longest relationship I’ve ever been in,” Miller said. “I’ve been lucky enough to work with really talented and giving people.”
Ten years ago with its first couple of EPs – Bravery and A Family. A Tree. – We Are The Willows was mostly just Miller up there with heart-rending songs about family, loss, and growing up, all centered around his striking countertenor. In adding what would become the bands core in the early 2010s, they found a profound strength in numbers. With the release of 2009’s A Collection Of Sounds And Something Like The Plague, you can hear the shift immediately with instrumental depth, moaning strings, shaking drums, electric guitars – the sound of a band realizing itself.
Then with the ambitious two-part 20-track double-album Picture (Portrait) released in 2016, it felt like a statement. The intimacy of that record – a concept album based on letters written between Miller’s grandparents – was intense and massive at the same time. With that record, We Are The Willows proved their unshakable staying power, letting the work evolve naturally and grow with wild branches.
Over the last 10 years, some of the band’s members have split off to do their own thing. Cellist Hillary James is seemingly everywhere with her indie band Bathtub Cig, her surf punk band Fiji-13, and touring with Her Crooked Heart. Travis Collins has done great solo work under the name A.M. Stryker. Miller himself has a really cool two-piece band with James called INSIDE VOICE, and does a lot of solo stuff as PETER M (“I’m doing this like eight-minute long cosmic opera that I’ve been working on for three years,” he told me.)
Real life stuff happens too, of course, but somehow for the core members of the band, it all comes back to Willows eventually, if only for the sheer joy of doing it. The band hit Minneapolis recording studio The Terrarium last month to track their next and third album, due out sometime next spring. The forthcoming collection is an exploration of what it means to be in love, to be a good partner, romance and mental health, anxiety, and the emotional labor a partner puts into a relationship.
“It feels awesome; I’ve never felt better about recording in the process of recording,” Miller said. “For the most part I just feel really good about everything.”
Life is good for the band that’s been at it for a decade now, and there’s no signs of stopping, or even slowing. For that reason, and for many many reasons, it’s a cause for celebration. We Are The Willows is throwing 10-year anniversary shows in three cities that mean the most to them – Minneapolis, Winona, and of course, Eau Claire. They’re planning to do a few old cuts, but go to the show expecting to hear some new tunes and a whole lot of love.
We Are The Willows 10-year anniversary show in Eau Claire is on Nov. 16 at the Plus with openers LASKA. Tickets are $10 in advance at www.volumeonetickets.org or $15 at the door. To learn more about the band, and keep track of updates on the new record go to www.wearethewillows.com.