Broken Social Scene: An ever-changing Canadian collective of rock'n'roll royalty

More of a musical family than a band, the freewheeling Broken Social Scene embody the anti-pop ethos. Edward Helmore meets them
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

It's close to midnight and Kevin Drew, co-founder of Broken Social Scene, is sleeping on the floor of a New York recording studio, headphones clamped to his head, hands clasped in the attitude of prayer.

He'd been leading the members of the Toronto collective through "A Maid of Amsterdam", a sea shanty scheduled for the second of Hal Wilner's Rogue's Gallery compilations. "Maybe we should do it balls out. Louder, freakier and crazy," he offered right before lights out.

Broken Social Scene have no shortage of members. Nine squeezed on to David Letterman's stage earlier in the day to play "Forced to Love", a single from Forgiveness Rock Record, their first new album in five years. It was a "sausage situation", notes Lisa Lobsinger, a member the band picked up in Calgary several years ago -- though not as tight as it can be. Sometimes the number of members rises to 17.

So Drew's inebriation is not much of a problem: the rest, led by the other founder-member Brendan Canning, jam on regardless, crafting the loose anti-pop sound that's sustained them for a decade. For reasons of temperament – and perhaps geography and climate – Canada seems to specialise in large, sprawling groups of musicians. Montreal has Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Arcade Fire; the Wainwright-McGarrigle's folk family set; and Toronto, the Scene itself around which other bands like Do Make Say Think and singers, among them Leslie "1234" Feist and Emily Haines, orbit.

In kind with Canada itself, the Scene's identity is defined by its inability to define one; and individual will is expressed through community. Canning calls the band an "easy rock Wu-Tang Clan"; others have likened them to the Liverpool Scene, the late-Sixties poetry-rock collective, or even Fleetwood Mac in view both of their mixed-gender make-up and historically elastic romantic arrangements.

It's not that every member has slept with every other, Canning explains, just some. "These are the trials you have to live through as a band. It's just propinquity. Men and women living in close quarters... things happen. We used to be together, now you're married and now you are. Things get messy."

The mess and mystery extends to the music. The band's densely orchestral; occasionally, music tends to be defined by emotional feeling, its lyrics full of profound, meaningful nonsense. "Sometimes I don't really know what the lyrics are about," confirms Canning. Songs tend to sprawl, they build and dwindle. On Forgiveness Rock Record, the band continues with established themes. Some groove or rock; some run to ambient, some to disco, some anthemic, and some, like "Sweetest Kill" and "Highway Slipper Jam", are in the same vein as the earlier "Lover's Spit" and "Anthems for a Seventeen Year Old Girl".

Is it a jam band? Are they neo-Deadheads? A prog-rock outfit? A hippie concept? Mostly, Broken Socal Scene are Nineties indie rockers who abandoned the rigid system of music business available to bands signed to major labels.

Given the primitive economics of being a musician, it could be that playing in a collective is now, practically and philosophically, the more natural position. "We were just friends who got together and played a lot," explains long-serving guitarist Charles Spearin. "We'd play 10 new songs and never any of the old ones. Then we became a touring band and the character of the band solidified to a degree."

The band was not slow to notice that bands like Godspeed with their own independent label, Constellation, were more in control of their destiny and tended to have longer careers than groups that honed themselves to templates established by a music industry, a business that was already showing signs of systemic failure. Though less politically charged than Constellation, Broken Social Scene's Arts & Crafts label flourishes as home for the band and a kind of clearing house members multifarious solo projects.

"It's amazing that it works at all," considers guitarist Andrew Whiteman aka Apostle of Hustle. "A cohesive plan is next to impossible. It's faulty and that's how it's always going to be. Striving for perfection isn't going to benefit anyone."

In creating a communal, mixed-sex, post-rock idyll for themselves they were surprised to find a spacious niche in the marketplace. "Our music is not directed at men or women – it's directed at everyone," says Canning. "When we toured Italy in 2004 (the only time), we played one show to a room of 200 people and there was four women in the audience. I just thought, 'Well, I'm never playing Italy again.' Why would I want to play to a room full of dudes? It's gotta be both because we're not just guys rocking out together. We're men and women rocking out together. It's not just a band, it's a family-run operation and we're intertwined in so many ways."

Not even the original members Drew, Canning and Spearin (who started playing as K.C Accidental in 1998) are certain how the band functions.

"There was never the moment when we said, 'OK guys, this is the band. You all got to quit yours.' That would be somewhat of a dictatorship."

Members and associates drift in and out, they play on each others solo projects, and come back together when the feeling rises. To members, Broken Social Scene never really breaks up, they just go on hiatus. As Feist told Stuart Berman, author of This Book Is Broken: "Broken Social Scene will be a band when we're old and grey, even if it's just at pot luck, because it was never something that needed to be defined."

While the band's lack of discipline can drift into aimlessness, it's also produced moments of focus and beauty. Across several albums, 2001s Feel Good Lost, the acclaimed You Forgot It in People in 2003 and an eponymous release two years later that cemented their indie standing, the Scene relay a message that anti-corporate collective grooviness is still a real possibility in the era of Simon Cowell.

"Well, he's living in the very coiffured world," Canning perks up, "and that's the most boring trite rubbish you could ever suffer through."

For the new release they drafted in John McEntire, the Chicago producer known for Tortoise and The Sea and Cake, for a more focused production. The Scene, though, remain firmly rooted in indie rock, recruiting along the way the help of J Mascis. They supported Pavement this week and appear on the original languid indie-rock merchants' line-up at ATP this weekend. But Broken Social Scene do not use irony of the distancing kind: "It's irony that pokes through irony," explains Spearin – and their concerts are epic affairs that can last up to three hours. "They have a slight church-like tone, like coming to confess sins of some sort," Canning explains. "But there's also a comedy element. We embody a lot of what an entertainment show should be – inclusive, emotional with highs and lows. Kevin's the frontman but he's got so much support for that role – we all take our positions at various times."

Continues Spearin: "You don't know what he's gonna do – not in a dramatic rock'n'roll thing – but as a master of ceremonies. He's gonna take the audience on a journey. But is he going to be your drunk uncle Ricky at someone's wedding or go on an Anthony Robbins self-empowerment trip? Right now, the funny self-help attitude is cresting a bit."

Or at least it was until guru-in-the- making, pixellated with beer and grass, felt the need to rest mid-sea shanty. Canning, on piano, steps in for the fallen brother. Broken Social Scene are used to a certain element of chaos. In fact, they thrive on it. They simply close ranks and the music plays on.

Broken Social Scene play Butlins, Minehead, tonight, Great Escape Festival, Brighton, tomorrow, and Heaven, London WC2, on Mon