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Broken Social Scene

Broken Social Scene



Photo by Norman Wong

Live in Portland October 24 | Crystal Ballroom

While they might not be a household name in every home, Broken Social Scene has quietly become a band that most everyone and their parents know, if not intimately, then at least in passing. That’s what nearly twenty years, five albums and a smattering of alt-radio singles can do for you. But twenty years is also ample time for things to go wrong.

Between the disparate schedules of fifteen members and finding time to stay inspired amid the pressing reality of life, kids and family, collaborating can become tiresome. Sometimes stepping back is the best answer. So, it was a logical conclusion in 2011 when Broken Social Scene announced their hiatus. With other projects like Feist, Metric and Stars taking many members’ time and an expansive eighteen-month tour for their fourth album Forgiveness Rock Record just behind them, a break seemed like a natural next step for the group. But after six years, it seemed as if that pause might become an indefinite silence.

That is, until six months ago when “Halfway Home” was released, suddenly and without much warning. Anthemic to its core “Halfway Home” was a beautiful re-introduction to a band whose effervescent, joyous music had been sorely missed. Then in July, the band’s fifth studio album, Hug of Thunder was released. In a year that has been fraught with tension and tragedy, Hug of Thunder seems to simultaneously recognize the times we’re in and transcend them with crisp, bright guitar melodies and comfortable, danceable rhythms. The album itself is a refinement of everything we’ve seen of Broken Social Scene before–softer upfront and sharper in purpose. This record doesn’t rush to its resolution: each sound fills its own space more confidently than any of Broken Social Scene’s prior work. And it does all of this without relying on the orchestral gimmicks many other groups turn to as their popularity swells.

Broken Social Scene has always been the supergroup that never felt invincible or out of touch. Their music and personas are grounded in reality, and that was never more apparent than when we had the chance to chat with co-founder of Broken Social Scene, Brendan Canning a few weeks ago. Between discussing the mutual struggles of pet parenting and side projects (we seriously recommend looking into Canning’s solo work), we spoke about the upcoming Broken Social Scene tour, what it’s like to work with so many other people, and Lil Yachty.

ELEVEN: How has working in such a collaborative setting for so many years shaped your voice as an artist or the perspective of the band?

Brendan Canning: When I first started out, it always seemed like it would be more fun not to have this small band where you can’t go off and do other things. Music is not a confining thing. It’s meant to be shared. Traditionally, music would be, whatever, sitting on the front porch and having a little jam with the neighbors. I guess that’s the school I’m from, as opposed to Beethoven sitting around composing by his lonesome. But then again, he had a bunch of people playing his music.

11: What’s the biggest joy of collaborating in this capacity?

BC: It’s great when a song comes together and it’s a good one. And then fifteen years down the road you’re still playing that song and it still brings you a certain elation because there you are in front of a bunch of people and you’re still in the game.

11: Do you think there are any pitfalls to being in such a large group of artists?

BC: Oh yeah. I think the obvious pitfalls at this stage of the game are scheduling and really wanting things to be a certain way sometimes. When you’re determined in your own feelings about how something should go, you get stymied along the way because certain things are not happening as fast as you would like. You really have to be so patient with this outfit because it really takes a long time for things to get done. As long as you have enough of your own creative outlet where you don’t have to rely on others so much, nurturing your other creative outlets is very important.

11: Would you consider that to be the other musical projects you’ve worked in personally?

BC: I’ve DJ’d a lot over the years so that’s kind of fun. ‘90s R&B jams, feeling totally free of any sort of feeling like, Broken Social Scene would not write a song like Faith Evans or Kendrick Lamar.

On the Social Scene side, we’re not really a singles band even though we’ve kind of had some good success, they’re indie singles, I would call them. We’ve been the voice of a certain movement, or at least adding to the fabric–we’ve never had an outright smash hit. And I still love big hits. It’s kind of funny being in this band. Trying to get everyone on the same page as far as what you’re trying to achieve is kind of a difficult thing, even though everyone kind of wants the same thing in a roundabout way with a few different roadmaps to get to the final destination. It’s a funny little band. We’re about to leave for our first North American tour in six years.

11: Do you feel like within this group you have natural leaders and listeners or does it change organically song-to-song?

BC: It’s definitely a song-to-song kind of thing. If someone has a vision for a song I’m not going to stand in their way. I’ve definitely learned at this point, to let some things go. But there are other songs where I’m like, “No, no, no, trust me, we have to redo that lead vocal,” and you have conversations like that or, “Trust me, that part has to come back in. This really helps finish the song. You’re not the arrangement expert on this one.” Lots of things like that. And everyone fights for their different songs and has different ideas, like, “I like that and that and that, but I don’t like that,” and sometimes it’s like, “Fuck you because I know this thing.” Or, sometimes it’s like, “Well what do you think it should be?” It can be a lot of chin scratching.

11: Has anything surprised you about the reception of your newest album, Hug of Thunder?

BC: I am glad that it’s getting received well. I feel like it was a strong effort to come back with and I am glad we were able to pull a record like this together even though it was a painstaking process on a lot of different turns for various reasons, because you’re in a band with a bunch of emotional characters and life has taken many turns for people as the years go on. You turn 40 and life gets weird. I’m just glad it’s reaching some ears and we’re selling tickets at venues and we’re able to go out and tour again. It would be a drag if we just put out a record and it got so-so reception and shows weren’t selling, but shows are selling so what do I have to complain about?

11: Looking back almost twenty years, has Broken Social Scene fulfilled the expectations you had when you started? Did you have expectations?

BC: You can never predict what it’s going to look like. You just have to do things. In the early days I would definitely say things like, “We’re going to be travelling all around the world and doing this,” and whether I really believed it at the time…I certainly said it enough times to keep that thought going. You have to just keep doing it. You look at a lot of bands growing up or when you’re in a band you think, “I could be playing these venues, what do I have to do?” and when we first started playing live it felt like something special. It’s never what you think it’s going to be. It will be a version of what you think it will be.

Photo by Nick Tiringer, courtesy of Indie88 Toronto

11: What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned with Broken Social Scene?

BC: It’s very humbling when I go off and play solo shows and I’m not in Broken Social Scene anymore. And it’s like, “Wait, we have something where we can sell a couple thousand tickets in Boston, but now I’m in Boston and there aren’t a couple thousand people here to hear my solo stuff.”

Having a career in music in whatever juncture is a luxury. You’re making something that is connecting with people. And you can try all you want to say this should have been this, but when you have something you just should be thankful that it’s there.

As the years go on it’s sort of about realizing that my role in the band is really this one thing so I’ve got to focus on it. The time away from this band helped everyone. It definitely gave me a greater chance to have that time away and introspection period that I think is necessary to continue on in a band like this, and to know what to expect and manage my expectations. That’s a good thing in life, to ask yourself, “What did you expect? What did you think it was going to be like? Did you really think about it? If you did, why didn’t you think of this, this and this?” There are so many different examples throughout rock ‘n’ roll history. You just kind of have to be a thoughtful person as best you can.

11: Do you have a favorite track on Hug of Thunder, and is it your favorite to play live?

BC: “Hug of Thunder,” the title track, I don’t know if it’s my favorite to play live though. If the crowd claps on the 2s and 4s in the chorus then it’s a fun song to play live because that really helps lock in the groove, and not just like, “Hey clap along!” It actually helps the song. People clapping during a breakdown is one thing, but to continue clapping when the chorus kicks in… we still need the 2s and 4s. “Stay Happy,” I like that one. Maybe ask me once tour is over. “Protest Song” is always fun because it’s a rockin’ tune.

11: Are there any songs you don’t get an opportunity to play live that you wish you could play live?

BC: Maybe like a Tears for Fears cover.

11: I think the audience would be very pro Tears for Fears cover.

BC: I have an ‘80s cover band that plays once a year and we play “Everybody wants to Rule the World,” and that is a very satisfying song. And it’s not a short song either.

11: Do you play on an anniversary or just once a year anytime of year?

BC: Whenever the phone call comes in. But it’s pretty much worked out to one gig a year. It’s a mixed bag of some of my musical compadres here in Canada.

11: What music has been inspiring you lately?

BC: New music is always inspiring. Or new old music. Whatever the day is. The other day I bought an Internet album and a Wardell Gray record. Wardell Gray was a saxophone player in the ‘40s and ‘50s, and the Internet is a band I never got around to listening to. It was on in the record shop when I went in and I was like “Oh shit, who is this? It’s the Internet!” And I never really caught that bug when it came out. There’s a lot of great stuff. Kaytranda here in town, Alvvays is a good Canadian act. There’s that group on the West Coast… I think it’s West Coast — Protomartyr. It really spans. Even that song “Broccoli” I like. Lil Yachty does that with someone.

11: I saw something the other day about how parents were tweeting Lil Yachty because that song actually got their kids to eat vegetables.

BC: Hey, if that gets kids eating vegetables, it’s done a really good job. Like instead of fucking eating Doritos and palm oil deforestation, get kids to eat broccoli. Saving lives with broccoli.