Interview with Broken Social Scene’s Brendan Canning

By | February 8th, 2011 | No Comments

Broken Social Scene under the El in Chicago, where the band recorded Forgiveness Rock Record.

“I’m not one of those guys who gets excited about things,” Broken Social Scene founding member Brendan Canning told me in response to my question: “Are you as excited to talk to me as I am to talk to you?” Just kidding, but I do think I caught Canning in a moment of understandable distraction. We spoke by phone this morning as he did the dishes and generally prepared to hop on a bus bound for Atlanta, the first stop on BSS’s tour in support of Forgiveness Rock Record, the band’s fourth studio album. On Feb. 12, the tour brings the Canadian indie-rock collective to Revolution in sunny Ft. Lauderdale. Here is my interview with Canning, in which he schools me on a couple of the finer points of cold-weather living, talks forgiveness, and shares his insight on how local music scenes can break past their city limits.

Hey Brendan. Thanks for taking time to talk to me. I’m really looking forward to the show this weekend.

BC: Shit, this weekend. Wow. When you wake up and get the news that it’s minus 27 with the wind chill factor, and you’re going to be in Florida in five days – I haven’t even looked at our itinerary closely. I just know I get on a bus tonight, and I’m dead headed to Atlanta. I still gotta pack. Doing some dishes in the sink. Waiting for my dog sitter. You know, the usual pre-tour stuff.

Is it really negative 27 in Toronto right now?

BC: Yeah, we don’t call it “negative” – we call it “minus”. I know you don’t get that kind of temperature gauge down there [in Miami].

Yeah, you’ll have to forgive me. I can tell you that right now it’s about 70 degrees and gorgeous out.

BC: Yeah? See there’s my little incentive. There’s my glimpse of, yeah, it’s going to be exciting to be on tour, because I’m not going to have to wear my parka, or worry about whether my little dog gets salt in its paws. [BC goes on to explain the concept of sidewalk salting to melt snow. I only wish he had also explained the concept of snow.]

How is it different now getting ready to tour after the fourth album compared to the early days? More exciting? Less exciting?

BC: You know, I’m not one of those guys who gets excited about things. I’m more just head down, get prepared. Gigs themselves are really fun. That part is always great. But you’re leaving home, and I was just sorta getting into the swing of things of being back home. I just started watching Eastbound & Down, so I’m really kinda into that right now. So, you know, I gotta get all my shit done. I’m playing my soccer game at six o’clock, and at ten o’clock I’ll hop on the bus.

The Pitchfork review of Forgiveness Rock Record said the record represents the BSS sound. What does that mean to you? What is the BSS sound?

BC: I don’t know. I don’t get too worked up over what one reviewer wrote. I never actually read any Pitchfork review of this record. For me, I don’t what that means – “they found their sound”. That’s just a person saying, “This is what this band is all about.” You know, they’ve got us pegged. So I’m not going to pay attention to that. I think that’s just unnecessary pegging. But at the same time I understand you need people to review the record, and if that’s the review, that’s great. I’m happy for the interest. But I’d have to say it stops there. We’re definitely a band, and we grew into something together, and that’s the record we made at that period in time.

But do you feel that BSS has formed a certain identity as a band, settled on certain dos and don’ts?

BC: Yeah, certain behaviors – you know, you spend so much time together, it’s like, “O, Andrew is not going to like this” or “Justin is not going to eat that” or “Kevin is not going to stand for that” or “Charles is really going to love this.” I don’t know if that’s what you mean, but I think people are creatures of habit.

It’s just that, so much of the critical focus on the band is on the makeup of the band, on the size of the band, on the composition of the band at any one time —

BC: Which kinda gets redundant. You hear, “O, how many people are you bringing with you this time?” I don’t know. Eight, 10, 12. I can’t say. I mean, I know who’s going to be on tour, but maybe one show will have an extra horn player. But at the end of the day, it’s like fuck. You know, when Bruce Springsteen — when the E Street Band were touring, did that question get thrown at them the whole time? He had a big band. He had a bigger band than us. So did Van Morrison probably, and, you know, the Talking Heads. I think a little too much emphasis – but at the same time, we sorta put ourselves there. And that just seems to be what journalists, at least the amateur journalists, gravitated toward. There’s like this numbers thing. I don’t know. I guess there’s some sort of security in the numbers thing.

I was going to phrase that question as, “Does it annoy you?”

BC: It’s not like it’s so annoying. It’s like, Why do you care? Why don’t you just come to the gig? It’s going to be fun.

What can you tell me about the title of Forgiveness Rock Record?

BC: Well, you just have to understand the humor of where that title came from. And at the same time, beyond the humor of it, I suppose there’s a certain amount of truth to what it’s trying to establish. It’s sort of an unequivocal thing that should be going on in the world, you know, forgiveness, cohesive living, trying to be a good person. All those kinds of things. To be able to forgive and move forward — at least in our world that’s what we’re trying to do.

Is there a political dimension to it?

BC: I think everything this band does is political. You can’t really avoid the politics with this band. But [also forgiveness] between ourselves as band members. If you play in a band long enough, you’re going to be annoyed at certain things. So you better be prepared to forgive if you want to continue on. If you carry on that weight, it’s just that: weight. It stifles you.

The song “Texico Bitches” came out right after the Gulf Oil Spill started and has widely been interpreted as a comment on the oil industry —

BC: It’s not necessarily oil, but oil makes the world go round – oil or diamonds. But it was definitely funny timing.

Did you ever think that you would have tackled the subject matter of “Texico Bitches” differently once the enormity of the spill became apparent? I mean, the song is upbeat, sounds like something you might listen to driving in your oil-powered car with the windows down.

BC: Uh, I don’t think so. We’re definitely not going to write like a Bob Dylan type song about that. I don’t think that’s where this band is headed. Whether it’s an up-tempo or fun song, there’s no reason it can’t have lyrics that are just about running down the beach, you know, and frolicking in the sand and sun. Whether that’s what the mood indicates, there’s a lot more going on there.

Would you be willing to walk me through the symbolism of the video?

BC: Not really actually [laughing]. To be honest, I had no input. We just said, “Hey, make us a video.” So I don’t know if I’m the right spokesperson to talk about that video.

In that case, what was your reaction when you saw it?

BC: I thought it was interesting. I can’t say it had a massively profound affect on me. It really twisted where we were coming from. It gave its own interpretation, but stuck to the theme. Basically, it was the director and producer’s own interpretation. And whatever homoeroticism that’s going on there [in the video], it’s kinda all there in the lyrics, too.

All of the BSS albums have one or two instrumental tracks, including “Meet Me in the Basement” on Forgiveness. I’m curious how you decide a certain piece of music is not going to have vocals. I mean, “Meet Me in the Basement” rocks – didn’t anyone want to sing on it?

BC: I think the song basically makes its own decision at the end of the day. You have this jam, you listen to it, and you decide, “Does this need anything? Does it need vocals? No, maybe not this one.” It’s just as easy as that. You’ve got a piece of music, and it’s a group effort, and if anyone has a really good idea for a vocal, they would throw it down. But with “Meet Me in the Basement”, it worked as an instrumental, this sort of galloping charge.

In a recent interview, [BSS member] Charles Spearin said you were anxious to play “Me and My Hand” live. Is that true?

BC: I don’t know. I can’t speak for Charles.

No, he was talking about you.

BC: He was talking about me? You know, I don’t know. I can’t comment on that one.

What’s going on with the BSS Presents series?

BC: You know, we’re still in the middle of the BSS en masse, so nothing’s going on with that right now. I mean, there’s always plans to do music, but I can’t give you any sort of [heads up]. At press time, there’s nothing to report. But we’re always working on music. I can tell you that.

BSS’s last South Florida gig was at the end of 2008. Did you get a chance to explore Miami?

BC: No, not really.

Do you think you’ll be able to this time?

BC: Unfortunately it’s not a vacation. You’re in, you’re out. You try to pack in a little bit of fun while you’re there. You’re there to work, to play a gig and entertain and make sure people have a good time. That’s really what I’m focused on when I get to any city.

In Miami, the music scene seems to be bubbling up. Coming out of Toronto, which produced several now-successful acts, I’m wondering if you have any insight into how city music scenes can outgrow their borders and get broad attention.

BC: You know, it’s just an “If you build it, they will come” kind of mentality. Looking back, we really did have quite a talented crew, whether it’s Feist, Stars, Metric, Jason Collett, Do Make Say Think – whatever. I think word just got out.

Does it take more than talent?

BC: I think it’s everything, you know. Timing. It’s everything. The only thing you can do as an individual is try and work hard and do right by what you’re creating.

Where are you personally in terms of your evolution as a musician and an artist?

BC: Me, personally, I’m just trying to get through it all, you know, and enjoy myself. Make sure I can wake up in the morning and feel good about where I’m at, and enjoy the successes that the band has had and that I’ve had personally. And to make sure it doesn’t feel like a chore. To do right by myself, and in the same breath to do right by the people around me and my community. That’s all you can really do. I think that’s where I’m at.

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