Lately, Broken Social Scene have been acting out of character.
They’ve been wrestling with the idea of ‘the after’; the concept of what comes next, the uncertainty it engenders, the optimism it can inspire, the anxiety it might encourage. In short, the future - both immediate and long-term, both personal and public. It’s not something you imagine the Canadian collective have lost a great deal of sleep over in the past. They’ve often sounded futuristic, as they did on their deconstructionist debut Feel Good Lost in 2001, or when they reinvented the fabric of indie rock collaboration with their breakthrough LP, You Forgot It in People, a year later. It’s just that even as they were breaking that ground - drafting an open-door policy on band membership in their native Toronto, and intricately carving out influential new niches - they exuded a kind of irrepressible, in-the-moment joy that suggested they were too busy marvelling at the power of music to unite to worry about five-year plans. On stage at New York’s Terminal 5, de facto bandleader Kevin Drew once barked, “we are a self-help band! You knew that when you came here tonight, didn’t you?”
We did. Broken Social Scene shows always were the band’s ethos taken to its gleefully chaotic logical conclusion; stages cluttered with up to a dozen musicians, audiences looking to park their troubles at the door, and somewhere in the space between, the sort of exuberant communion that few groups are capable of summoning up on a nightly basis. From the band’s perspective, it’s why they kept finding the time and space to keep Broken Social Scene alive, even as other projects were pulling them in different directions. On the other side of the fence, it explains the feverishness of their following - why You Forgot It in People became a cult classic so quickly, why they inspired a densely-researched oral history after less than a decade together, and why their decision to take an indefinite hiatus in October 2011 marked a bittersweet turning point in the Canadian rock canon.
Bittersweet because there was a genuine sense that fans of the band should have been smiling because it happened rather than crying because it was over. Every member of the band had different musical endeavours they needed to find time for, too; casual fans of the group will know about Feist’s solo career, and Metric, and maybe Stars and Do Make Say Think as well, but Drew and Brendan Canning, who between them form the nexus of Broken Social Scene, had designs on solo albums, whilst married couple Andrew Whiteman and Ariel Engle planned to collaborate together separately, and Jason Tait and Charles Spearin had avenues they wanted to explore, too. It was a miracle, really, that they lasted for as long as they did.
There was a veritable avalanche, then, of new music to dig into once the group had been mothballed but as good as much of it was - Drew’s gorgeously breezy Darlings is a particular standout - it wasn’t Broken Social Scene. There was also the nagging feeling that Forgiveness Rock Record, their fourth full-length and their first to be critically panned in some quarters - did not represent them going out on a high. “For all its merits, I just didn’t think that was going to be where we hung our hat and said, “goodnight, Irene,” says Canning of the album. “It just felt like we all still had more to add to the conversation. I never doubted that.”
Perhaps it says something about Broken Social Scene’s longstanding divorce from convention that, during their break, it was Canning who had the clearest vision and sharpest appetite for more. Between his lab-assistant glasses and ragged shock of grey hair, he looks every inch the louche professor emeritus of Toronto’s indie scene, and at least presents as so laid-back as to be practically horizontal; he calls, audibly chipper, whilst out walking his dog, occasionally breaking away to reroute him (“he’s as blind as a bat.”) Drew claims that it was Canning, in 2015, who set the ball rolling on the resurrection, converting his living room into a studio space and banging everybody else’s heads together within it.
Canning deflects the responsibility, instead blaming the persistence of producer Joe Chiccarelli for the reconvention; the triple Grammy-winning Boston native would check in every couple of months, just to see if Canning had anything cooking. “Eventually, I had to say, “Joe, as much as I appreciate all these breakfast meetings, we’re a slow-moving train,” laughs Canning. “But it did get me thinking. How would we go about putting together a body of work, when there’s so much water under the bridge these past few years?”
Still, the point is that he was thinking about it. Of the duo at the core of Broken Social Scene, you’d assume that it’d be Drew who lit the fire under the reunion. He comes over more intense than Canning; a palpably passionate deep thinker who, in conversation, veers frequently and dramatically between wide-eyed optimist and prickly pessimist. “It took some convincing,” he admits of the process of herding his friends and collaborators together for those early writing sessions. “Did we still have the chemistry? You need to have a way of communicating without saying much, and so we really, really tried to understand each other musically. That was the only way it was going to work. The fortunate aspect was that we had nothing to lose. We’d been gone quite a while. We knew we couldn’t control whether or not the audience had forgotten about us.”
They hadn’t. It was always going to take the hardcore longer than a few years before they gave up the ghost, but sporadic, cannily-timed public appearances kept them in the broader lens, too; they’d surface for a festival here, a television appearance there. Ironically, at times, it was the higher profile of the more peripheral members that guaranteed them a sense of ongoing relevance; when they played "Almost Crimes" on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon in 2013, to celebrate the tenth anniversary of their label, Arts & Crafts, they were introduced as “Broken Social Scene, featuring Feist”.
In fact, key to the sense of triumphalism that came to define Hug of Thunder, their 2017 comeback LP, was the fact that it boasted as all-star a lineup as the band had ever committed to record; hearing the likes of Feist, who penned the title track, alongside Emily Haines and Jimmy Shaw of Metric on a new Broken Social Scene album lent an additional frisson of wonderment to proceedings, the indie rock equivalent of being in attendance at the rare Wu-Tang Clan show where all of the surviving members actually turn up. Between that and the inescapable sense that the band’s inherent joie de vivre was more vital than ever in a much more turbulent world than the one they left behind in 2011, Hug of Thunder was a success; to the critics, a striking statement of intent and to the fanbase, a welcome balm after years of flux.
“It was really important that we were all a unit with Hug,” says Drew, on a separate call from Toronto. “We needed to make sure that everyone had their own moment on there. Everything we had come up with was with the aim of saying, “look, we’re still here. Our social hangs might have dwindled, but we’re still in each others’ lives.” It was about where we’d been, and now it’s about where we’re going.”
Which brings us back to the concept behind their latest releases - ‘the after’. Hug of Thunder successfully reintroduced them to an old audience and maybe, to some degree, to a new one, too. Touring the world behind the record reinforced the view that Broken Social Scene shows have a small part to play in counteracting the world’s ills; memorably, their first reunion gig proper took place in Manchester, the evening following the arena bombing. As that was winding down, though, the question became one of what next; like Paramore or, more improbably, Bros, they were reckoning with what happens after laughter, once the screaming’s stopped. They knew now that people still cared, but in a musical climate that had transformed markedly since 2010, was there still a place for Broken Social Scene in the long term?
“Listen, the only rhythm we ever understood is the beat,” says Drew wryly. “We never understood the algorithm. We were never a part of the social media train, or what fledgling version of it was around back then. It wasn’t until we came back that we realised that festivals were booking bands based on social media popularity, that kind of thing; we were naive to it. The same thing applied to streaming; we’re still very much back in the age of records being records, and vinyl still mattering, and you put it on and you flip it over.”
Canning was similarly bewildered by the landscape he returned to. “The idea of putting together a playlist, for me, is grabbing a stack of records from my collection and heading out to DJ somewhere. I’m not a huge Spotify guy. And then, the way it’s gone with social media…god, give me some mystery! I don’t need to know what you’re doing…” He tails off, catching himself as he threatens to descend into full-blown cantankerous luddite mode. “I do still think that a solid body of music is somehow going to have some reach. It’ll get there, in the end. Granted, it’s not 2003 any more, where a 9.2 Pitchfork review and a solid SXSW can really launch you career, but what are you gonna do? Things change. You adapt.”
Drew and Canning set about doing so by splitting what would have been a full record, Let’s Try the After, into two EPs, released two months apart earlier this year. It was at the behest of their label, but both liked the idea that it it would afford them a sort of rolling momentum at a point when both were pondering what their next move should be. “We’re still trying to maintain the kind of stability that we had when there was such thing as a middle class indie rock band,” explains Drew. “We’re just striving to survive by connecting with people and getting music to them. It’s really a different time - there’s no real guidelines now around what it means to sell out, or how you use music to feed your family, or how to keep going this big operation going on the road. You’re just trying to create something, and then figure out how to stand behind it. That’s exactly what we’ve signed up to do with Let’s Try the After.”
“I think it suits us,” adds Canning. “You know, we’ve carried on writing as we’ve gone along, and we’ve carried on recording as we’ve gone along, so why not just keep releasing as we go along, too? We’re still finding our feet a little bit, but we’re recalibrating. That goes for the touring, as well; there’s a realisation that maybe it doesn’t have to be full throttle any more. Maybe we can just hit New York, Los Angeles, Toronto, Montreal, a few festivals, a couple of weeks in Europe. Maybe we don’t need to be in Des Moines or Pittsburgh on a Monday night. I don’t want to use the word casual, but it feels like we’re doing things on our own terms again.”
That’s evident musically, too, in terms of the direction that Let’s Try the After has taken them in. This sounds like the Broken Social Scene we bade farewell to at the start of the decade, the songs the kind that we might have gotten if they’d followed up Forgiveness Rock Record in a timely manner. The fists-to-the-sky victory parade of Hug of Thunder has been replaced by something more thoughtful, more experimental and more faithful to the ideology that Drew and Canning, as the band’s creative crux, had cultivated during the early years. Vol. 2, in particular, centres around a clutch of songs that Drew masterminded, a decision that the rest of the group were happy to sign off on.
“The great thing about Social Scene is that ego really has nothing to do with it,” says Drew. “The song dictates everything. When we separated the two EPs, I was a little worried that the second one was Kev-heavy, vocally. What was really freeing about these EPs, though, is that we figured out, when we were out on the road with Hug with different lineups at different times, that all that really mattered were the songs. That realisation comes with age - that you don’t have to be in the room to be a part of the room. You don’t need to have witnessed something to say that it exists. You do what’s right for the band, so just because Feist’s not there and Emily’s not there and Amy (Millan)’s not there, that’s still OK. We’re all supportive of each other. Everybody’s always supported me, even when my lyrics might have focused too much on bodily fluids or taken a metaphor too far.”
Canning, meanwhile, rolls out an obvious analogy. “You have to take care of these relationships the same way you would with your family members. You can probably imagine how it is to try to get a bunch of people to be on the same page at the same time, and come to the same conclusion. We’re all creative minds, and we’re all stubborn individuals, and there’s times where we’ve lived that barbaric lifestyle of being in each others’ faces for the entirety of a long tour. Eventually, you get to know when there’s times you should listen to other ideas, and others where it’s better to just say, “don’t worry about my bass line - it’s good. We don’t need to tear anything apart here.”
If it’s the songs that define Broken Social Scene, then so do the themes within them; where Hug was a rabble-rousing blast of positivity, Let’s Try the After is more reserved in its optimism, acknowledging the darkness of the present moment and finding its victories in small acts rather than dramatic ones; Drew points to the opening lines of the title track - “how’s it going? I just wanted to check in, now that I’m in town.” It’s through those kinds of sentiments that the band’s onstage zeal is captured on record here. “You always hear that it’s gonna come around,” says Drew. “That what goes up must come down. These are the bumper stickers we’ve been living with. I think ‘the after’ is a really appealing thought, and by definition, we’ve always been an optimistic band. We’ve always existed to try to make people feel better, and that’s something that’s felt more important ever since we came back.”
"You always want to find a title that ties everything together emotionally, and encourages the listener to come with you. I don’t need to get into society, or the politics of where we’re at as a culture, but I love the idea of music as a defence mechanism - that aspect of still being together and doing this, when in this day and age, everything’s so focused on the individual - sharing what the individual is doing, and what the individual wants to see become popular. From the get go, we’ve always pushed this solidarity of community, with a very simple message of, “you’re not alone.” The struggle is real; there’s an underlying pain that runs through so much of life now, and all you can do is creative little ripples of resistance to that.”
Whatever the collaborative creative challenges the group sometimes face in a musical sense, Canning’s take is that a shared sense of the thematic direction is usually a surer bet, as is the case this time out. “We’re quite a likeminded bunch, and whenever songs are being worked on, there’s just something there that draws out music with a certain kind of emotional tone to it. That’s something that’s never been too elusive. I’ve always felt we were an optimistic group; that’s natural, it’s not something that comes out of a Monday morning marketing meeting - “let’s keep the positive focus in this kind of realm!” That side of things has always come to us very organically. Lyrics are spat out, and they either start to make sense within that kind of picture or they don’t. That’s kind of where that begins and ends.”
The question, then, turns to what ‘the after’ is actually going to represent for Broken Social Scene. For both Drew and Canning, it seems as if they’ve found that the bedrock of the band - the live shows, and the sense of unity that they promote - has survived a drastically changing landscape; “if enough people keep telling you that you’ve still got something special, then eventually you have to believe it,” is Canning’s modest assessment. As long as there’s an audience for them to play to, they can keep dipping in and out of the studio as it suits them; what’s important is that the bond between the group and their fans remains intact.
“We’ve been to the top of the mountains, and we’ve been down in the ditches,” Drew reflects. “We’ve made good decisions and bad ones, taken some opportunities and missed others. The thing is, we’ve done it all together - lived it together. We played SXSW earlier in the year, and it might have been the most chaotic thing we’ve ever done, but we still found the joy in it. As long as the show is important enough to overcome all of the bullshit - the immigration papers, the long travel days, all of that shit - then we’ll keep on. It’ll still be like a family reunion - you’ve gotta show up!"