A Broken Social Scene song is easy to identify but difficult to define. They’re optimistic but not naive, exuberant but calculated.
For nearly two decades, the Toronto-based band has wrangled together a rotating cast of dozens of musicians and churned out seven albums as flexible as its collaborations. Many of the city’s top indie rockers, from Feist to Metric’s James Shaw, have joined the creative collective on stage and in the studio. With its most recent album, 2017’s Hug of Thunder, Broken Social Scene was welcomed back to the scene with unanimous applause.
CL spoke to founding member Brendan Canning over the phone from his home in Toronto, where we delved into the bran’s “spirit purposes” and the impact they have on others.
How many members do you have working in the studio on average?
We try not to max out with more than five but if you've got horns or guest vocals, it can get up to eight or nine.
Can you walk me through how you and the band create a song, given that number of members?
Well it really depends on the song. There’s no blueprint going in. It’s a bit more cosmic than that. Everyone sort of comes in with their idea of where a song should go, but our main goal is to make good music. So in the end we just have to decide on something. We have a lot of people involved who bring in their opinions and try to work together, and the core band sort of goes about that.
What are some of the more chaotic moments you have in the studio as you try to come up with a song?
You can be in the middle of tracking one song and all of a sudden you shift immediately and try something brand new. I don't know if that's chaotic. I think that's just playing good heads up ball and knowing when you've gotta switch it up. But it's not chaos. We're adults and we've been doing this for eighteen years so it isn't just chaos in the studio where everyone is fucked up on LSD. It's not chaotic. It's calculated chaos.
You mentioned that it was a bit more cosmic than having a blueprint...
Well because some nights you have nothing. Kevin liked the call it "spirit purposes." So we just start playing and follow the muse and see where it takes us.
Broken Social Scene is known for incorporating eclectic sounds, but there seems to be a consistent thread that gives the band an identifiable sound. Is there a sound or a message you're trying to convey that results in that particular sound?
Personally, I'm just trying to make music that isn't shit and I think everyone else is just trying to do the same thing. There's definitely a sense of celebration, big climaxes, and big builds in the music. But I don’t know. You tell me.
Well there’s always a degree of optimism, both lyrically and instrumentally. You used the term celebration. It’s an optimism or celebration with an undercurrent of uncertainty.
That's life isn't it? Try to live your live optimistically but you're blindsided every day by horrific news stories. You've got your problems politically, Canada has its problems politically. The world is an insanely fucked up place. There are way too many human beings on the face of it and way too many different ideas about how life should be led.
We're not doing something as important as working for Doctors Without Borders but we're doing our thing. Hopefully that music can inspire someone else to do something good. I've had conversations with a guy who was in the 82nd Airborne Division and at two in the morning he'd put on our album Feel Good Lost before he jumped out of a plane. Now, last I checked he was running for office in Saint Louis. Maybe because of Broken Social Scene, Damon Haymer has done something a little bit different in life, or wanted to create a different world for people. That's all it's supposed to do. It's supposed to lead you somewhere. That's our job.
On Hug of Thunder you have a song called "Protest Song." Here you're speaking about some political impact of your music. What responsibility do musicians have to be politically active in today's world?
As important as it's ever been. Since songs were written about concentration camps or whoever was writing classical pieces for Stalin or Hitler. When you hear stories about political fanfare songs but there would always be this underlying of someone doing something a little bit mischievous, to not be so nationalistic. Historically artists have always done political things that have been anti-establishment. We're not some incredibly anarchistic band, but at the same time we're at least going out every night and trying to convey feelings and messages that are counter to things like gun ownership.
I think someone could argue that today you have more of a reach than the average artist in the early or mid 20th century.
I don't know about that because there's way more mire to get through these days. Back then -- I can't remember the exact Russian composer writing for Stalin or Lenin, because I dropped out of university and was a failed history major -- but there was always so much music going on so everyone would get wind of it. Today, we can say something and it might reach someone but then they'll be hit with some other form of news source. It's annoying now going on Facebook because everyone is chiming in on generally the same topics, and often preaching to the choir.
When the movement that's happening in Florida, as far as anti-gun, that's where reach can be something significant. But what are we going to say? We're a Canadian band. We don't have those personal experiences. All we can say is, Yeah, go get 'em. We're just trying to do something positive en masse.
But in the end it's just music. The musician as a hero to all and all that stuff. If you're trying to exact change in any way, you do your thing. Is it going to be meaningful enough? Maybe.
I'm surprised you say it's “just” music.
Well I mean I won’t kick up a huge fuss if something sounds like total shit to me. It's still just music. What was crucial in one moment moves on to the next moment. We've got moments in life and we're just trying to make the best of this moment right now. Go out, play some shows, put a smile on people's face, and hopefully have them feel something.
Maybe inspire them to run for office.
Yeah! Who knows right? Like our pal Damon Haymer who introduced himself years back. Even our local councilman here said when he was in Africa "It's All Gonna Break" was his song and he'd be riding his motorbike in Nigeria with his hair blowing. You know, people get married to our music, dancing down the aisle to "Guilty Cubicles.” That's good. It means we're doing a good job. We're affecting lives in some sort of positive way.