Broken Social Scene: Do you wanna be in my gang?

Broken Social Scene function rather like an alt.rock Toronto supergroup. Kevin Harley meets the leader
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The Independent Culture

One of the mixed blessings of any band's rise is the need to do more interviews. The Canadian indie-rock collective Broken Social Scene are a case in point, so much so that their much-interviewed main man, Kevin Drew, is getting wary.

"It's a misjudgement by a writer to think they could conjure up more than, say, two opinions from meeting someone right off," he says. "You're supposed to nail a person's character type, but can you, really? It takes ages to know someone. So it's funny when you get articles that say we're like this, or like that. You think, how could you write all this? You only spoke to me for 15 minutes!"

This is said with a friendly, mischievous twinkle. But it is a fair point, especially when it comes to pinning down his band. Sonically, and in terms of members, Broken contain multitudes. They pivot precariously on their record label, Arts & Crafts, and the core duo of Drew and the Toronto indie-scene veteran Brendan Canning, but they're less a conventional group than a rolling collective. Their fluctuating, 17-strong line-up skims the cream off the fresh milk of Canadian music, with contributions from acts such as Stars, Do Make Say Think, Feist and The Dears making them part Toronto supergroup, part alt.rock orchestra and part testimony to the collective aspirations of Drew and Canning.

Any band can use guest artists, but Broken actually sound like they've put everyone involved to good use. Released this year to giddy acclaim, their eponymous third album is a rare example of an indie-rock band using its community-based fringe status to create something thrillingly uncategorisable. There's flashes of Dinosaur Jr and My Bloody Valentine, but garage-rock, post-punk, new wave, country-soul and jazz influences also occupy its effusive rush-and-tumble of neo-psychedelic sound. Fifteen minutes? You need 15 listens to take it in, at least.

There's great creative ambition in it, hinging on the belief that bands who aren't tethered - aka indebted - to major labels can afford to take risks. "The majors have to follow a guideline," Drew says. "There's money that needs to be invested and made back. People's retirement plans are based on these bands. But with labels like City Slang and Arts & Crafts, there's a nice collaborative spirit that feeds us."

Broken's success was preceded by a migration from a major. They caused a US indie-scene splash in 2003 with their second album, You Forgot It In People, but it didn't sell in the UK, despite the band being attached to Mercury Records at the time.

In Leeds, though, where I meet them, their show has been upgraded to a larger venue to accommodate their growing audience. It was the same expanding scene in London, where their sold-out Mean Fiddler show was promoted to the larger Astoria.

For Drew, this upsurge in fortune is partly to do with having a sympathetic independent label this time and partly to do with a music scene that's conducive to word getting out. The UK, he reckons, has "one of the best scenes it has had for a long time, even with mainstream bands like Kaiser Chiefs and Bloc Party." Similarly, Canadian alt.rock is in fine shape. The mightily emotive Arcade Fire are its figureheads, but it's fair to say that bands such as Broken and Godspeed You Black Emperor! laid the groundwork.

"Now there's DFA79, Wolf Parade, The Dears, Black Mountain," Drew says. "People just seemed to start giving a shit a few years ago. These bands started going through their own channels, building up their little communities to help with the music."

How does this spirit of collectivity help Broken? "I think we're a perfect example of strength in numbers," he says. "We have Feist and Do Make Say Think and others involved in the band, which does well for them and us. It's like when there was a resurgence between 1994 and 1998, with labels like Thrill Jockey in the US and Ninja Tune and Mo' Wax. It stagnated for a while and now, well, here we are."

Broken started getting here in 1999, when Canning left a message on Drew's answer machine suggesting they collaborate. ("He courted me," says Drew.) They wrote their first album, Feel Good Lost, in Drew's basement. In January 2003, they put their collective ideals in motion when Canning's friend Jeff Remedios left a job with a major label to set up Arts & Crafts. "We brought in all these bands who were involved in Broken," says Drew, "because we knew that if we had them on the label, we could have a band. And we've managed to keep it together, too. At least, until now."

Indeed, maintaining Broken's unusual way of functioning can be a logistical nightmare. It's not all hugs and kisses. At one point, Drew accidentally caused a ruckus with The Dears' record label, Bella Union, by featuring the band's vocalist, Murray Lightburn, on one Broken song but leaving him low in the mix. "On a personal level, that was a catastrophe, because Murray's a friend," he says. "He's cool with it, but there's an apology Bella Union have never had, which is long overdue."

Does this mean the chances of Broken lasting as they stand are slim? Drew is realistic about the possibility of keeping tabs on a growing Scene. "It won't last because bands are doing their own thing. That's why we called this album Broken Social Scene. It's the title of our little army, to mark the era when this impossible ideal of getting all these bands on one album actually worked."

But if Broken's fourth album will be a different beast, it isn't just out of practical necessity. "Creatively, we have to do something else," says Drew. "The idea of making the same record again is about as appealing to me as trying to give myself a blow job. Which hurts, by the way. Tell the kids in London - don't try it! Meet somebody instead. It's more fun." On the strength of this ever-evolving Scene, that's something he can say with some certainty.

'Broken Social Scene' (City Slang) is out now; Broken Social Scene play All Tomorrow's Parties, Camber Sands, Rye, on 19 May (sold out) & Koko, London NW1 on 22 May