BROKEN SOCIAL SCENE – ” Hug Of Thunder “

Posted: January 14, 2018 in ALBUMS, MUSIC
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All Together Now: An Interview with Broken Social Scene's Brendan Canning

There are seventeen people in Broken Social Scene. Each contributed to the band’s fifth and most recent album, Hug of Thunder, and each was on “relatively equal footing” during the album’s writing, recording, and mixing, according to co-founding member Brendan Canning. (He and Kevin Drew started the band in 1999.)

I cannot imagine how this works. I cannot imagine how seventeen people can approach anything that resembles a consensus on a single decision, let alone the staggering number necessary to whittle hours of writing, recording, and mixing into twelve songs.

Canning, it seems, isn’t quite sure either. what must be the messy, contentious, somewhat free-form process that begins with an exchange of musical ideas and ends, miraculously, with a finished album.

“It’s a band that has never-ending debates,” he said , “whether it’s songs, or whether it’s, ‘Where are you going to go for lunch?’ Whatever the thing that is to be decided that day, it’s an unwieldy beast at times because you have these hard opinions. Maybe we’ll have to agree to disagree on this or that; at the end of the day, we all kind of want the same thing. And the roadmaps are just a little bit different, so you’ve got to just do your best and let things evolve the way they’re going to evolve…It’s tough navigating sometimes with this band, just because there’s a lot of people that like to sit in the captain’s chair.”

Even if there is no single method for maintaining order, the end result makes an intuitive sense. Since the band’s second album, 2002’s You Forgot It in People, each album has featured over ten contributors. Music history is littered with great bands who suffered sudden and acrimonious breakups while dealing with fewer than half the personalities that make up Broken Social Scene at any given time. And yet, the band has avoided the public drama that would seem to be the inevitable result of such an arrangement, which involves solo and side projects that have found varying degrees of success (Feist and Metric being the two most prominent), and the perceived hierarchies that follow. There must be something that keeps small frustrations from building into resentment.

That thing, according to Canning, is friendship. This sounds like a cliché, but the reason Canning and his bandmates have not split is because for them, it’s not. Being in a band is hard. It is a series of compromises, frustrations, and the repeated toil that comes with any creative endeavour. Add the fast pace, endless travel, and forced intimacy that comes with touring, and the potential for explosive tension looms. The work of friendship–empathy, communication, loyalty, sacrifice–is what keeps a band together.

“We’re not faking our way through these relationships,” Canning said. “We actually have friendships, and we’re not just toeing some party line and making people believe, ‘Yeah, it’s all about the friendships!’ Because the friendships were already well in place before this band became a band.”

That foundation is what allows everyone to remain grounded through what Canning refers to as “the whole picture of a band,” which involves every step of the creative and promotional process: writing, recording, touring, merchandise, interviews, eating, sleeping. “It’s so many different pieces,” he said. “And is everyone emotionally ready for all of it? You’ve got to hope so because you’ve all got to spend a whole bunch of time together. This band is just a real good lesson in mental and emotional awareness.”

The solo projects help. Between albums, each member works on various projects that function as outlets to exert a greater degree of creative control and lessen the stakes when the band reunites. For his part, Canning has played DJ sets, released solo albums, written film scores, and recorded with other bands since Broken Social Scene took off. The personal and creative space allowed by these projects is invaluable.

“Sometimes you’re just not meant to be living on a tour bus with one another for months on end,” he said. “A lot of the time you just want to escape your role, because you’re tired of playing that role. You just get frustrated. It’s easy to get frustrated and it’s easy to start saying, ‘Well, if we hadn’t done it this way or this way, we’d probably be a lot further ahead!’ And all these stupid things you conjure up in your brain because you wanted your way here or you wanted your way there and you didn’t get it. Or no one’s happy because you’re fighting over stupid shit. Or you’re not coming together as a unit. And that’s really what you have to do as a band. You have to come together as a unit, and if you’re not doing that, you’re going to be in trouble.”

The time apart means the band reunites with intention. This time, it was the shooting at a 2015 Eagles of Death Metal concert in Paris that led to a series of phone conversations which, ultimately, created momentum for a new album.

There was also a producer, Joe Chiccarelli (previous credits include The Shins, The Strokes, My Morning Jacket, and Morrissey), who urged them forward. “[He] kept checking in on us,” Canning said. “Every few months he’d be in Toronto and want to sit down for coffee…Just sort of saying, ‘Okay, so where are we at? Did you work on any of those demos?’ And you have to give him the bad news, ‘Well Joe, we’ve had some good conversations, but we haven’t actually got into the rehearsal space yet, but we’re really working towards it and let’s talk again,’ and the same thing a few months later.”

Eventually, the band began recording in earnest. Some members brought in new ideas, others returned to old ones. As always, it was something of a mess to make sure everyone’s contributions were heard.

“If a part’s going down on this record, hopefully, it’s going to be a part that’s going to get heard,” Canning said. “You don’t want to go over someone’s part. You’ve got to be mindful of all those things. “But it’s a double-edged sword, because you’ve got to serve the song to its best purpose and…maybe one person is going to want to hear something a little bit louder, but at the end of the day, we’re all just trying to write songs that are going stick or be in people’s lives for hopefully a long time.”

Canning found himself both advocating for and questioning songs that would make the final cut. ‘Stay Happy’ was among those Canning fought hardest for. Though the song was popular among the band, Canning saw potential that led him to push for revisions.

“I sort of joke with [guitarist Andrew Whiteman], it’s a nice pat on the back for me when I hear someone compliment that song for a couple of certain things I fought for that maybe not even the whole band knows about…Everyone loved that song, but I, for one, wanted to see that song reach how far I felt it could reach. just take your small little victories. And the things that aren’t quote-unquote ‘victories,’ you just have to ride it out. You’re never going to get everything you want, because what would that even feel like? Maybe it would not be the right thing.”

Though the album is a product of hard-fought consensus, the chaos that shaped its production shows in the final product. During an interview with SiriusXMU recorded in March, Drew claimed, “We don’t really write songs. We write feelings, and then we turn them into songs.” The Broken Social Scene aesthetic reflects the ambiguities, micro-tones, and contradictions which define the human emotional experience. On Hug of Thunder, I hear an anxiety in the diffuse arrangements, impressionistic textures, and obscured melodic lines. Canning is surprised by my interpretation but does not dismiss it. “If that’s what you hear, then that’s what you hear,” he replies before mentioning a writer who heard a more celebratory tone.

This exchange is telling, and speaks to how the band, in its process and product, corresponds with the most fundamental human tensions: a simultaneous impulse toward intimacy and extraversion, clarity and obscurity, celebration and reflection. The album can be something of a Rorschach blot, open to a range of interpretations based on the listener’s perspective.

Canning is less interested in offering specific readings than in hoping the music makes you feel something. “Whatever you’re experiencing, I’d say, it’s right,” he said. “If it makes you feel a certain way, then you’re right because it’s your ears.”

Broken Social Scene’s fifth album, Hug of Thunder, is out now.

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