Broken Social Scene: a brief (for a band with eighteen members) history…
After so many achievements (not to mention Canada’s ascension to the top of the indie rock oil well), it may seem a bit disingenuous to say that the acceptance of Broken Social Scene still comes a surprise. But on the expectant eve of their eponymous third record, it remains a bit crazy that anyone outside Toronto cares about this band. Call it a Canadian inferiority complex, but some things just feel strange.
And yet, as hindsight renders pipe dreams into fate, and recasts failures as lessons learned, few can now imagine that this band was ever destined for anything less than wild, iconoclastic success. The truth is, both views of the band are correct — at nearly every turn, BSS has succeeded for the very reasons it should have failed.
Broken Social Scene was started in 1999, born of a theme that has become the stalwart of the band’s existence — friendship in tough times. Kevin Drew was a talented, but essentially unknown musician who specialized in lovely bedroom instrumentals. Brendan Canning was a vet of several Toronto almost-made-its, including hHead, Len, Spookey Ruben and By Divine Right. His was a theme shared by nearly all local musicians who had their kick at the American can — Canada’s best artists seemed destined to be ignored outside the confines of home.
Leaving live music behind, Canning had become a prominent Toronto after-hours DJ. It is here that Drew’s friendship gently coaxed him back into music.
In the dead of winter 1999-2000, cocooned in a basement, the duo worked on their elegant debut, Feel Good Lost. Though mostly instrumental and somnambulant, this recording set up an important template for BSS’s growth — Drew’s restless creativity was tempered and focused by the senior Canning’s gracious experience. Around this yin-yang orbited numerous talents such Leslie Feist, drummer Justin Peroff, Stars’ Evan Cranley, and Do Make Say Think members Charles Spearin and Justin Small.
As Feel Good Lost neared release in early 2001, the duo had already begun creating a live band that pointed toward directions far more expansive than the disc suggested. Reflecting Drew and Canning’s partnership, the group was a mix of cagey vets (Andrew Whiteman, Bill Priddle) and wide-eyed “kids” (Peroff, John Crossingham). Experience informed youth, and giddy exuberance rekindled old passions.
Still, most of these musicians had other bands to which they pledged their main time. BSS was a side project, an escape, an experiment — one where the only constant was the willingness to go from feedback workouts to daydream soundtracks to indie-rock soul jams without worry of continuity.
For one year, Broken Social Scene was whoever showed up, playing whatever was written the day before. Chaos theory as applied to indie rock.
After a year of gigging around town with the fairly solid line-up of Drew, Canning, Peroff, Whiteman, Spearin, Crossingham, as well as vital support from Feist, Cranley, and Metric’s Emily Haines and James Shaw, the band decided to record a new album. At a meeting in a west-end bar, the band debated and narrowed a list of some 28 songs into a more manageable 16 tunes. The recording, at the studio of local wunder-producer Dave Newfeld, was to be handled with strident focus. But nothing in BSS works as planned...
Sure enough, on the first day problems with new studio equipment kept the band waiting to record. A bored Spearin began toying with a new bass line. Catchy and propulsive, it wasn’t long before the other members began jamming to fill the time. Despite the previous night's decision-making, by the end of the night the bassline became the first new tune recorded for the record, “Stars and Sons”, aptly named for Newfeld’s studio.
What eventually happened next, (after months of recording, rerecording, and countless mixes), is now well known — You Forgot It In People was released in October 2002 to great local praise, a fanfare that slowly but surely grew in volume and breadth. Instead of the spate of Canadian shows and quick return to studio that most expected from any Toronto group-du-jour, Broken Social Scene spent the next two-and-a-half years on tour in the U.S., Europe and Japan. Drew and managers Jeff Remedios and Daniel Cutler also launched their own imprint, Arts & Crafts, which became home to BSS and its numerous satellite acts, such as Apostle of Hustle and Stars. All the while, You Forgot It In People sold over 150,000 copies worldwide.
Despite the scheduling headaches, trauma, and ulcers it entailed, BSS managed to tour continuously over 2003-04 by sharing members with busy acts such as Stars, Metric, Do Make Say Think, Jason Collett, Feist, and Raising The Fawn. Unlike so many touring acts, the line-up of the band changed from leg to leg, even night to night — no Broken Social Scene show was ever the same.
Somewhere in the spring of 2004, the band began to focus on recording their follow-up to YFIIP. Of course with offers for Coachella, Lollapalooza’s (failed) resurrection, and Europe’s hot festival circuit, the studio was proving quite elusive. Even when time was available, the band had further considerations — Canuck director Bruce McDonald had asked the band to score his new film, The Love Crimes of Gillian Guess.
This is where Dave Newfeld’s Stars and Sons studio became most vital. As George Martin was to The Beatles, Newfeld is a vital part of BSS’s success. After the intense experience of YFIIP, the producer became the band’s “sixth man” — a workhorse whose dedication to recording the band knew no boundaries. The band stole studio moments wherever possible, knowing that as they toured, Newfeld was working maniacally, shaping each tune into another of his trademark headphone masterpieces.
As the band closed 2004 with a triumphant run at NYC’s Bowery Ballroom (not to mention a coveted Pixies opening slot at the Hammerstein), it was time to leave the stage. With the dawn of 2005, the band’s typically Herculean recording energies went into not one but two separate album projects — the first with Newfeld, the second with Do Make Say Think member Ohad Benchetrit at the helm. To make the recording schedule complete, Drew, Canning, Spearin and Benchetrit flew to London in early September 2005 to work on yet another soundtrack, this time for the film Snowball.
Most likely in your hand now is the result for the extensive Newfeld session. Broken Social Scene is a fitting title for the band’s third record as this album is an apt aural representation of the band’s friendship. It is messy, overrun, irregular but spirited, passionate, honest and hopeful. Throughout all of this, BSS has still managed to check schedules, find extra chairs, and host its live ten-person dinner parties night after night. It isn’t the easiest way for a band to exist, but once you’ve experienced the conversation and camaraderie that occurs, there really is no going back.
Complete and utter chaos — who doesn’t like to be surprised by what the new day will bring?