Brendan Canning on Mending a Broken Social Scene
Illustration by Roxanne Ignatius/Torontoist.
After five years of touring, solo work, side projects, frayed nerves, jilted hearts, and bruised egos, the players and personalities of Broken Social Scene, Toronto’s most notorious indie rock collective, have united for the much-anticipated Forgiveness Rock Record, their first since 2005’s self-titled effort. (As we mentioned in Weekend Planner, the gang was together again, at least in its latest incarnation, over the course of May 9 at Criminal Records, Rotate This!, Soundscapes, and Sonic Boom. Next, they’re due to embark on a world tour and return to Toronto Island Park on June 19.)
Why so long between albums? Five years passes quickly when you’re busy, says BSS co-founder and guitarist Brendan Canning.
“Between the solo record that [fellow BSS co-founder and frontman] Kevin [Drew] and I made, the Do Make Say Think records, you got 2006 to 2008 where we all toured extensively, a film project”—Bruce McDonald’s This Movie Is Broken, which was filmed during the garbage strike and premiered at SXSW in Texas—”and then taking a year to make this record, and there you go, you got five years,” says Canning. “We’re not sitting around and getting old. Well actually, yeah, we’re getting old, but we’re working.”
You might guess that a little bit of the gap could also be due to some in-house drama that fractured the collective for some time, though such dirty laundry isn’t something the Scenesters readily volunteer themselves: they tend to leave that to the media. Let’s oblige them, then. During a taping of At The Concert Hall in Toronto (set to air August 3 on Bravo!), Drew was quoted as saying that Forgiveness Rock Record would be the last in the BSS canon, which Canning later denied. Guitarist Andrew Whiteman coyly told the Toronto Sun that the quotation was meant to gain attention.
Evidently, another one among a number of reasons for the backstage tempest was the 2007 Kevin Drew solo project, Broken Social Scene Presents Kevin Drew Spirit If…. Stars like Dinosaur Jr.’s J Mascis and rocker Tom Cochrane lending a hand alongside BSS alums such as Leslie Feist, Metric’s Emily Haines, and album co-producers Charles Spearin and Ohad Benchetrit—all this for a solo effort—led to scornful media accusations that Drew was taking advantage of the good name and work of his fellow Scenesters for his own personal prestige and gain.
While not naming names, Drew confirmed shortly after Spirit If…‘s release that noses were consequently put out of joint, and radio silence between some band members existed for a time.
For his part, Brendan Canning released his solo effort, Something For All Of Us, under the “Broken Social Scene Presents” banner the next year, to less fanfare, though one might suspect that Canning’s title was intended as a barely veiled message to his longtime friend and bandmate.
Water under the bridge now, says Canning, adding that no amount of drama justifies stifling the band’s potential, and the brouhaha added to the quality of sound.
“You say to yourself sometimes, ‘This is such a goddamn hassle; is it worth it?’ But yeah, of course it’s worth it. You’ve got something special going on,” says Canning. “I wouldn’t say that was the exact timing of it, but you’re in business together, you’re in a family together, you’re trying to create art together. You’re trying to withstand whatever pressures are being put on you. I mean, bands are bands. Shit’s gonna get fucked up, there’s no two ways about it. Whatever band I’ve been in, shit gets fucked up. I can’t think of any other band out there where shit hasn’t got fucked up. If you can name me one where things have gone smoothly the whole way through, I’d love to hear their story. If you and your pals or whoever you are all want to get along great and make some really fucking boring music, then great. But you need the push and pull, that’s what makes bands exciting. You can hear it.”
And you can. Forgiveness Rock Record is a deserved hit with critics and record stores alike, with its mix of driving, twangy rhythms (surprisingly unpretentious and rollicking, given the collective’s cache) and ambient post-rock chamber-pop. There’s a more streamlined sound with a different approach this time around: Drew, Canning, and the current recording lineup of Justin Peroff, Andrew Whiteman, Charles Spearin, and Sam Goldberg abandoned the ol’ homestead of Toronto and headed to Chicago’s Soma Studios to record under the watchful eye of producer and Tortoise drummer John McEntire, and then returned to Toronto’s Giant Studio and The Schvitz Studio to put on the finishing touches. (As ever, no BSS or BSS-related project would be complete without its guest stars, a lengthy list that includes Feist, Haines, and Stars’ Amy Millan.)
“It felt right,” says Canning. “We built this together, not to start quoting Starship. But essentially we’re all still pals. We all still play gigs together, and the whole Broken Social Scene thing is built on a lot of people. So it was good not just to have them, but a lot of new Chicago folks.”
So, old friends reconciled, new friends made. Broken Social Scene has expanded from Toronto’s confines, says Canning, and there’s nothing for them now but to look forward.
“It’s an exciting time for us,” he said. “You don’t want to spend all your time taking stock of things, but if you ever have that moment to reflect, you think not only did you achieve it, but your friends achieved it, too. You’ve all been on this journey together, and not too many people got left behind.”