Broken Social Scene are the royal indie-rock armada/collective from Toronto, Canada. They are the sonic Tenenbaums, the Fleetwood Mac of today. Grand guitar orchestrations parted with brass, woodwinds, and violins are housed in erratic song structure, pop experimentation, and the chaotic playfulness of founding members Kevin Drew and Brendan Canning. Everything about BSS varies—sounds, singers, instrumentation, and members. The variance gives them their wide, idiosyncratic strength. Live, the band can swell up to 12 or more people, and from song to song, you never quite know what you'll get. It could be a triple-stacked guitar ride or a gold-streaming horn section or hazed-pop simplicity like "Lover's Spit." The one constant is melody. No matter how varied, how expansive, or how unconventional the song, it always routes itself back into an arresting melody. There's always something in a BSS song you can find yourself humming later.
Since 1999, BSS have released four full-lengths, and a slew of EPs, B-sides, solo releases, film scores, and soundtracks. Their latest, Forgiveness Rock Record, was coproduced by Tortoise's John McEntire, a Mozart of production and sounds. Sonics on Record cover the spectrum from tattered lo-fi loops to celestial pin pricked 808 bells to the grandiose melodic theatrics of "Meet Me in the Basement." Drew's vocals are pearly and unperturbed throughout. Guitars flourish, aligned and sustaining, then dive into the tightly wound Sanskrit-filtered kinetics of McEntire-produced drums. "World Sick" comes and goes in waves. The beat conjugates regimented, then McEntire folds the output of the band in and out roundly. "Sentimental X's" marks the first time that vocalists Emily Haines (Metric), Leslie Feist, and Amy Millan have sung on a track together. BSS excel both live and in the headphones, and they're well worth your trip to KeyArena's main stage. Brendan Canning spoke from his home northeast of the border.
Where are you? And what are you doing?
I'm home, in Toronto. I'm walking my dog. His name is Santy. He's a Chihuahua. It's short for Santana. I wasn't the one who named him. The person who named him before named him after Carlos Santana.
Broken Social Scene have many changing members and numerous combinations. What are the pluses and minuses of having such a big and ever-changing band?
It's just more variables. You can plus or minus that. More variables means the music can take more different turns and shifts, and be exciting that way. Or maybe someone doesn't agree with someone. Logistically, it can become difficult, but that's kind of the obvious thing—more people to be in-check with.
How do you work with all the variables in the creative process?
There's no simple answer there. It just gets worked out. When we get around to composing, we all chip away at it. Different formations of the band occur at different times and places. We try to keep everything flowing. Whether it's two people who work on a song or six people. I don't feel like I've missed out on anything because it hasn't been a smaller band. Smaller bands may have something that's easier to recognize about them, but we sort of have an elusive character of a band. People who know us and get it understand it in a way that makes me really happy.
How does recording a film score differ from recording an album?
With a film score, you're not serving yourself so much. You're not serving this idea in your head that you want to establish. You're serving whatever's on the screen, trying to be as sympathetic to that as possible. But at the same time, make sure it's something that you love.
What was the process for Scott Pilgrim vs. the World? Did they show you scenes from the movie?
For that, they told us to write a bunch of 3-to-14-second-long punk songs. The director, Edgar Wright, showed us a picture of the 8-year-old drummer in the movie to give us an idea of what to go for. When we saw the picture, we were like, "Ahhhh, we get it." For some of the scoring stuff, we went to England to work with Nigel Godrich [Radiohead]. There were some places where Edgar had put in Broken Social Scene music as temporary music for a scene, so we were giving them a different version of what they were using.
How's Santy? Still walking him? Do you have to carry plastic bags in Canada to pick up the number two? Or is it free shitting up there?
Oh no, we have to carry the bags. Sometimes I just use a leaf, because Santy has such insignificant poop.
Like an hors d'oeuvre. Put a toothpick in it, and bang, there you go.
Yes. Because otherwise our trash goes to Michigan.
Speaking of foods on a stick. You gotta try the Shishkaberry's at Bumbershoot. They're unreal. Strawberries dipped in chocolate, on a stick. They register strongly on the luxury end of taste sensation.
I know about Shishkaberry's. Save one for me.
I'd like to see a Broken Social Scene album produced by Nigel Godrich. I'm announcing that right now: Broken Social Scene's next album is going to be produced by Nigel Godrich. And the album is going to be 50 10-second-long punk songs.
You never know. That would be really fun for us. Too early to make a call on it, though. I love short punk songs. Love that shit. I could so be in a D.R.I. cover band.
What's the latest for Broken Social Scene, besides doing your new album with Nigel?
We've got a tour with TV on the Radio. We're playing Austin City Limits and the Rifflandia Festival in Victoria, BC. Bumbershoot, of course, in Seattle, then the Malkin Bowl in Vancouver the next day. Northwest, get ready, we're coming for you. In November, we go to South America. After all the touring, we'll take stock of the situation.
What was it like working with John McEntire for your last album? Did you have expectations? He's a guru-lord of sound and drums.
I didn't really have any expectations. I didn't know him before on any sort of personal level, other than one day we had done with him in October of 2008. We had a day off while we were on a tour in Chicago, and we went to check out SOMA Studio to see what it was all about. But making an entire record with someone is an entirely different trip. You go on a long journey with them—seven or eight months.
What about working with him surprised you?
Maybe the fact that he was so chill. I didn't expect that. He's a very chill guy, and he's not into a lot of dialogue. We went from working with someone before who was into lots of dialogue to John, which was a different thing for us. We can all wear our producer hat in this band, and John has his own unique approach to it, a very chill approach. He's great.
While recording the album, you all also recorded an album of more open B-side-style material called Lo-Fi for the Dividing Nights during downtime, using SOMA's second smaller studio. What was it like to have that completely creative release, where you were recording with no pressure?
That was sort of what helped keep the engine going. We had transplanted ourselves down to Chicago, away from our homes, in a different city. It's hard to keep six guys busy at the studio all day long. And it would be different portions of the band going down there at separate times. Studio B was a nice thing to have happening in case you wanted to work on an idea or whatever. And stay busy. Something like that is key for a band like ours.
Who are the bitches in your song "Texico Bitches"?
That's a statement on big money. Your classic big money doing dirty things. I guess it could represent any oppression in your life. There's always room in the world for a song about people who are feeling oppressed, or who are being oppressed. That one started when Spiral Stairs (Scott Kannberg) from Pavement was curating a music festival in Calgary called Sled Island. He had come to Toronto to rehearse, and that song came out of it.
Oppression is ever-present. Sometimes, with news media here, I can't tell the difference between actual bad news and scare tactics. The only thing the Republicans ever talk about is how bad everything is. But all they want is for Obama to not be president. It's all about power for them. So what they say can't be trusted. The politicians care more about getting votes and their own political careers than they do about the country or the people in it. Do Canadian politicians use scare tactics?
Oh yeah. We have the conservatives versus the liberals, more on the provincial level right now. It would be like your voting for governor. It's all about smear and spin. It's politics. It's a circus, a total freak show. Whether it's going to be Tim Hudak in Canada from the Progressive Conservative Party, or Michele Bachmann in America. People are so inundated with all the negativity, it's hard to steer clear of it.