Interview: New Tricks: Broken Social Scene

New Tricks: Broken Social Scene

Seven years after the release of ‘Forgiveness Rock Record,’ the Canadian collective are back. We spoke to bassist Brendan Canning about what to expect and his own musical obsessions.

It’s been seven years since Canadian collective Broken Social Scene released their last album, ‘Forgiveness Rock Record.’ So why, after more than half a decade, have they decided to get the gang back together? According to bassist Brendan Canning, the trigger was realising that not only did the audience still really love the collective despite their hiatus, but that they themselves still got a massive kick out of performing as a band. Absence makes the heart grow fonder, as they say. So, while they’d been discussing getting back together to record for a few years, the group were spurred on to enter the studio after playing a few last minute festivals in 2015. “It just gave us the encouragement to get back into the jam space and make some songs,” Brendan explains.

Work on ‘Hug Of Thunder’ began towards the end of 2015, with recording kicking off earlier last year. For a band as big as Broken Social Scene, that timescale seems pretty quick, but Brendan admits that there was quite a bit of trial and error in the process. Despite this, there was still a “great energy,” generated by working with closely alongside best friends once again.

That close group of friends recently all banded together for a performance of new soaring single ‘Halfway Home’ on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert, and with 13 members on stage, it was definitely a case of strength in numbers. Brendan reveals that everyone you could see on the show that night is present on the record, from himself and fellow founder member Kevin Drew, to Stars’ Amy Millan and Evan Cranley, as well as Ariel Engle (“who’s kind of going to be our touring singer”), Andrew Whiteman and Sam Goldberg. Metric’s Emily Haines and Jimmy Shaw were also present, with Brendan revealing that the pair will be joining them on tour across the UK and Europe in May.

Although she didn’t make it to the Colbert performance, Feist is another member who’s contributed to the new record, bringing an idea to the table before the band “turned it on its head.” Despite being on the verge of releasing her own comeback album ‘Pleasure’ in May (her first solo LP in six years no less), Leslie Feist didn’t take too much persuading to be a part of Broken Social Scene once more. Brendan puts that eagerness down to the deep connection the band have cultivated over the years. “We’ve all got so much history between one another,” he explains. “it means something to everyone.”

So with ‘Hug Of Thunder’on the way (and out on 7th July), we chatted to Brendan about what to expect from the return of Broken Social Scene, ‘Halfway Home’ and his musical obsessions.

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Your new track ‘Halfway Home’ is quite a euphoric, epic way to make a comeback; what was the initial catalyst for that track?

I don’t think there was a particular catalyst for that song. Although it took a long time to finally come together, it wasn’t a spontaneous song, but the initial spark came together quickly. I think that’s just how the band sounds when we get together! It’s not like, ‘okay, we gotta do this,’ it’s just what we do!

Is some of how the track came together over a longer period of time down to how there’s a lot of people involved with the making of a Broken Social Scene record?

Yeah, I mean for that track there were six people in the room and then you add a horn section, suddenly there’s four more people, add a couple more vocals, suddenly there’s twelve people!

It’s nice that the songs have this kind of natural progression towards more expansive set-up, but at the same time the tracks never feel too busy. Is that ever a difficult balance to get right though?

Yeah, we definitely try to avoid sounding cluttered, that wouldn’t be fun for anyone! You’re right though, it’s difficult to get all the voices heard when someone has a part in one spot and someone else has a part in another spot. How do you negotiate who comes in where? What part are you gonna feature? Ultimately, you just have to do your best to serve the song – that’s got to be the primary goal.

How different do you think the new record is to ‘Forgiveness Rock Record’?

It’s quite different I think. We were rehearsing yesterday and playing one of the old ‘Forgiveness Rock Record’ songs and after we’d been rehearsing the new songs, it was interesting to jump back. We rehearsed ‘Sentimental X’s’ and then ‘Swimmers’ from self-titled and it just sounds like a newer sound. It still sounds like us, but it’s a freshening up.

So in that case, is ‘Halfway Home’ a good indication of what we could expect from the rest of ‘Hug Of Thunder’?

It’s tough to say whether it’s indicative of the record. I mean, it is right now because it’s the only song out there! It’s the centrepiece of the record, and I think it’s a very classic-sounding Broken Social Scene song. I don’t want to start grading the songs but… you just gotta wait and see!

That’s very mysterious! Does that mean that we can expect a few curveballs then?

I hope so! We’re still a band who likes to dig a little deep and make things interesting while keeping melodies at the forefront. I think when you have so much time apart and you come back, it gives you a new perspective on what you think the strengths of the band are. When you’re in the thick of it, sometimes it’s hard to get perspective on it, but when you have that space to step back it’s easier to see what the band is about.

Is there a running theme through the songs or do they pretty much stand alone?

It comes down to who’s writing the lyrics. I think at the core there’s always going to be a certain amount of joy with Broken Social Scene songs and also a certain amount of darkness too. We’re not gonna churn out some sugary pop songs, that’s not in our nature!

Has the current social and political backdrop cast something of a shadow across the new record?

I think it’s hard to not have it cast a shadow on the record. If you’re any sort of creative artist what you do should reflect the times you live in, so it’s impossible to separate yourself from what’s going on in the world. If you’re an artist trying to be honest with yourself and your audience, you owe it to the people listening to keep the music relevant and keep your ideas cohesive with some sort of stance you might have. It’s hard to avoid these things when you’re looking at your phone and any kind of news feed you have is just inundating you with bad news all the time. This is nothing new though. People have been inundated with bad news for centuries, it’s just we’re getting it faster now!

What was the last album you listened to in full?

I’m not sure, let me go to the turntable – I’m a record buying guy! It looks like it was either ‘The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill’ or Courtney Barnett’s ‘Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit.’ And then there’s a Los Lobos record here too, ‘Colossal Head.’ There’s three out because I DJed last night! Oh here’s one, it’s by Sonny Murray, ‘Big Chief.’ It’s more of a free jazz record. Side two of this record - I was blown away. If you really want to go into some territory no-one else goes, it’s really cool.

What was the first album that made an impression on you?

The very first one? Hmm. Maybe [Stevie Wonder’s] ‘Songs In The Key Of Life.’ It was mostly because of the song ‘Sir Duke.’ It was the beat, and that horn line! I loved that song so much as a kid so I bought the record. Then you discover these denser cuts on the album.

And do you remember the last album that blew you away?

Maybe MF Doom, ‘Unexpected Guests’? I know it’s an old record but I just bought it recently and I just love his production. His choice of MCs and samples, yeah, I’ll give it to MF DOOM! He’s a really incredibly talented guy!

Are there any new bands that really excite you at the minute? Perhaps a potential festival headliner of the future?

There’s a local woman in town here called Charlotte Day Wilson who I really like. We saw a band called FRIGS too, they’re really cool. And I like, they’re a little bit prog-y. I saw them in New York recently and in Toronto a few months prior to that. I feel like they’re a future festival headliner.

What advice would you give to a band starting out today?

Just make sure whatever you’re doing is meaningful to you and if you’re working closely with your mates, in whatever kind of band, just make sure you communicate. Communicate exactly what you hope to achieve and don’t keep too many secrets.

Outside of music, what is your biggest obsession?

I like soccer! In Canada my team is Toronto FC and internationally I support Ireland because I’m half Irish, but when I grew up I was a Liverpool supporter.

What do you think about Liverpool’s recent run of form under Jürgen Klopp?

The last match I saw was when they beat Arsenal 3-1 but, you know, Arsenal aren’t that great right now so I guess that doesn’t say too much! They’re an unusual team I think they make some unusual decisions that are sometimes good, sometimes bad but I’ve always like a lot of their players whether it’s Torres, Suarez or back in time a bit Heskey, I’ve always liked the players. Then there was the classic team that won the Champions League in 2005. The same day I was flying to Japan with the band and I was closing on my house, so it was a momentous day: May 25th 2005. Liverpool’s good!

Broken Social Scene’s new album ‘Hug Of Thunder’ will be released on 7th July.