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

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

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
News
Owen said he finds films boring but Tom Hanks managed to hold his attention in Forrest Gump
arts
Arts and Entertainment
Bono and Apple CEO Tim Cook announced U2's surprise new album at the iPhone 6 launch
Music Album is set to enter UK top 40 at lowest chart position in 30 years
Arts and Entertainment
The Michael McIntyre Chat Show airs its first episode on Monday 10 March 2014
Comedy
Arts and Entertainment

Review

These heroes in a half shell should have been left in hibernation
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North
books'The Narrow Road to the Deep North' sees the writer become the third Australian to win the accolade
Arts and Entertainment
New diva of drama: Kristin Scott Thomas as Electra
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Daenerys Targaryen, played by Emilia Clarke, faces new problems

Sek, k'athjilari! (That’s “yes, definitely” to non-native speakers).

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Polly Morgan

art
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

    Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

    Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
    British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

    British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

    Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
    Let's talk about loss

    We need to talk about loss

    Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth
    Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

    Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

    Women may be better suited to space travel than men are
    Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

    'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

    If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
    James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
    Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

    Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

    Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
    Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

    Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

    Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
    How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

    How to dress with authority

    Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
    New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

    New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

    'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
    Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

    Tim Minchin interview

    For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
    Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
    Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

    Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

    Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album