Broken Social Scene was formed in 2001 by Kevin Drew (bottom left) and Brendan Canning (bottom right), and eventually grew into a revolving cast of a baker’s dozen collaborators. Photo by Norman Wong
To say Broken Social Scene isn’t your typical band is an understatement. They’re not just a tight-knit group of musicians pursuing the common goal of creating great music—they’ve also got nearly 20 members ... sometimes. See, things are never simple with BSS. Formed in Toronto in 2001 by frontman Kevin Drew and bassist Brendan Canning, the project was initially more of a creative outlet away from the stress of being in other bands. But the duo quickly added guitarist Charles Spearin, while also welcoming contributions from members of fellow Canadian bands such as Metric and Stars. And that was just the beginning. Soon, the band stopped looking like a band and more like, well, a social scene.
By their second album, 2002’s You Forgot It in People, BSS had created a dense sonic signature built from musical input from a wide cast of contributors that come and go from the band at any given time. “It’s really interesting when I listen to other bands,” admits Canning. “I’ll be like, ‘Oh, yeah, it sounds like such a simple thought that’s coming across here.’ With Broken, it’s definitely not just a simple idea sometimes.”
But after recording four albums (and scoring a couple of Juno Awards along the way), the Toronto collective needed a break. Years of living in close quarters and the creative compromises inherent in writing with so many people had begun to take a toll.
Many members yearned to focus on other projects. “It’s almost painful when you have a vision for a song,” says Spearin, “and then everybody gets involved and starts steering it into new directions.”
So the members went their own ways after 2010’s Forgiveness Rock Record. Some put their energy into producing other artists, while others wrote and recorded their own material. But eventually the urge to bring the ever-evolving musical crew back together became too great. After a few successful reunion performances, Broken Social Scene decided to officially shake off the dust.
With the release of this year’s Hug of Thunder, the band has circled the wagons to continue its legacy. From the ethereal pop of the album’s title track to the mid-’90s industrial feel of “Vanity Pail Kids,” Hug of Thunder covers a lot of territory. In fact, when asked to explain the band’s sound, Canning found it easier to describe what they’re not. “We’re not the same as Wilco and we’re not the same as the National. We’re not the Flaming Lips and we’re not Dinosaur Jr., but we still fit in somewhere around there.” Though the band’s collective muse may be running in a million directions at once, both Canning and Spearin echoed that there’s one thing Broken Social Scene is for certain: a family.
Broken Social Scene is a very unique situation. How did it all come together originally?
Brendan Canning: I grew up in the ’90s, playing in a couple bands that were always chasing “it.” I mean, I was part of that band Len, who sang [the 1999 hit] “Steal My Sunshine.” But I just wanted to make some basement music with Kevin Drew on a 1/4” [tape] 8-track. We were just trying to make cool late-night music. That was our first album, [2001’s] Feel Good Lost. Slowly but surely, we started playing shows where there was a revolving cast of musicians. That’s basically it—just a bunch of friends playing music and trying not to get too bogged down.
Charles, what was your introduction to the band?
Charles Spearin: When Kevin and Brendan did the first Broken Social Scene recording, I was in another band with Kevin called KC Accidental. So I ended up mixing their record. KC Accidental already had a lot of players. We played with Emily [Haines] and James [Shaw] from Metric, even though Metric wasn’t a band yet, and Amy [Millan] and Evan [Cranley] from Stars, even though Stars wasn’t a band. So really, Broken Social Scene was kind of a blend of those two bands.
How do you see your individual roles in the band?
Canning: I’m kind of known as a bass player, but I play lots of shows where I’m on guitar more—but then I’ll be back in keyboard world, too. Sometimes I’ll even take a lead on a song or two, depending on the night. But everyone likes to play bass in this band. There’s, like, five different bass players in the band. Everyone loves to play bass, because you get to direct traffic in a certain way that guitar doesn’t.
Guitar is the traffic.
Canning: Yeah, exactly! “Hey, move out of the fucking way—there’s two other cars coming in the left lane!” [Laughs.]
Charles, you primarily play guitar but handle a lot of different roles.
Spearin: I do. I play guitar, bass, trumpet, and keyboards occasionally, although I would never call myself a keyboardist. But the guitar is my main instrument. And I’ve been very heavily involved with the writing of the music and the production since the beginning.
Hug of Thunder is the band's fifth studio album and it was released by the Arts & Crafts record label on July 7, 2017.
As a writer of such sonically dense music, how do you decide who plays what?
Spearin: We don’t generally start with a core progression. It’s more like everybody has their melody that they add to the pot. And often, I don’t even know what the core progression for the song is. I don’t know what the other guitar players are really doing. We’ve just managed to fit our pieces in a jigsaw puzzle.
How do you pull off such a layered sound live?
Canning: We’ve made our bread and butter on people knowing they’re going to get a well-oiled machine that doesn’t mind being a little loose around the edges. We’re not playing to a click track or anything like that—we’re a rock ’n’ roll band. I mean, yeah, there are certain parts of the song you want to hear because they’re the hook of the song. But at the same time, you’ve got to let songs grow a little bit.
With touring and recording, the band is very much a collective. What about writing?
Canning: It’s really a song-by-song case. Whoever’s around, whoever’s got the good idea, all the songs are going to have different stories about how they unfold. On certain songs a horn section has a strong presence. Or maybe there are different vocalists that come in, and they’re leading the track. Over the years, all the songs carried a slightly different tale.
Spearin: We let inspiration dictate the song. It’s way easier to be open-minded and let everybody else’s opinions influence the song. Once all the parts are in there, you can shuffle them around to reinvent the song. Often, it’s not until the mixing stage that you really know what the song is.
Canning: For me, it’s more exciting just to hear what gets added. We’re at our best when there’s a spark but everyone contributes. We try not to get too married to singular ideas. There’s a lot of different forces at work and we just try to keep it healthy and make it work.