BSS's Brendan Canning discussed the rebirth of his band before playing his first New Orleans show in seven years.
Canadian indie pop big band Broken Social Scene could very easily be the punchline to a joke your alt uncle tells at Thanksgiving or the subject of a Hard Times headline. Instead, it’s a juggernaut, a force to be reckoned with in any self-loathing, introspective millenial’s iTunes library. The collective has been around for 15 years now, losing and gaining musicians, taking breaks and getting back together. All 15 original members reconvened last year (along with three new ones), returning from a seven-year hiatus to release their sixth LP, Hug of Thunder. Last Wednesday, BSS converged on the Joy Theater to play a celebratory set comprising music from almost every chapter of the band’s career. Before the show, founding member Brendan Canning spoke with My Spilt Milk about his group’s unconventional creative process.
“It’s like getting a bill passed through the House,” Canning says. “There’s lots of voices. And you just try to make sure that you know the unifying voice. I think we know when something sounds like a BSS track. But it’s not the easiest process to get the songs together and get them finalized and written off with everyone 100 percent happy on everything.”
Imagining the sheer negotiation skill it would take to get a piece of music approved by a band the size of BSS is enough to make any reasonable person shudder. Only eight of the 18 listed musicians on Hug were also given writer credits, but that’s still an absurd number. “You kind of have to take ego out of the equation,” Canning says. “I mean, there’s always gonna be times where it’s like Oh, fuck. I haven’t done anything today. I’ve been hanging in the studio for twelve hours. But maybe that one thing you add is just the thing. Maybe it took you two minutes to get that idea across and then you’ve got another ten hours of sitting around and letting someone else do their thing. This band is about trying to keep things flowing. Are you gonna help or are you gonna try to stymie the process?”
Canning says he and cofounder/frontman Kevin Drew still functioned as de facto “leaders” on the album, but everyone had a part to play. “Someone like Charles [Spearin],” Canning offers. “When we’re in rehearsals and we’ve got an idea, everyone puts their phone up to their amplifier and sends [the recording] to Charles, and Charles all of a sudden magically has a demo and has edited all the parts for you. That’s a pretty crucial role and certainly an ability I don’t have.”
BSS is a collective in the purest form of the word. In addition to a seemingly endless supply of credited members, the damaged socialites constantly invite touring partners and musicians who just happen to be in the area to join them live. At the Joy, Canning and company recruited a local trombonist who they’d reportedly met earlier that day at The Spotted Cat, in addition to members of opening act The Belle Game. It’s implausible that a group already so saturated with musicians, each of whom occupies a specific space within the band’s sonic landscape, would want to take on more talent. Clearly, the Broken Social Scene is not an exclusive one. Canning confirmed that there are, however, theoretical limits to the types of artists with whom BSS will collaborate.
“You either vibe with someone or you don’t,” he says. “The last interview I did, a guy from Long Island asked me So I noticed you Tweeted something about Joe Satriani, because I made some joke on Twitter like My neighbor just offered me Joe Satriani tickets. I never thought that would happen. And [the Long Island journalist] said, Oh, did you end up going to the show? And I said, No, I thought I’d made that pretty clear with the remark. Point being, Joe Satriani is probably not gonna come in on a session with us. But who knows? Maybe he will.
“We know who our kin is,” he says. “If the guys from Grizzly Bear wanted to do something, it’d be like Uh, yeah. Love to work with those guys. Great band.”
When it comes to classifying BSS’s music within the tarp-sized umbrella of indie rock, most of the blogosphere has settled on the “Baroque pop” designation. It makes sense, considering the layering of tracks and complexity of arrangements that comes with the territory of recording as an 18-piece. But nothing about the band’s sound is especially ornate or overwrought, and those characteristics are generally implied when a "Baroque" label is tossed around.
“It’s kind of silly, considering the Baroque period is a couple centuries gone by,” Canning says. “But it’s unavoidable. When I listen to something, I’m always like Who do they sound like? You always need a frame of reference. I’m a record guy, so I’ve got my collection of records here. And there’s a hip-hop section, there’s a jazz section, there’s world music, there’s the African records, there’s the Latin records, and there’s the rock ones and there’s the blues and there’s the country. And there’s party jams, where Bananarama lives.”
As arbitrary as genre labeling is, Baroque pop still seems to be the wrong classifier where BSS is concerned. They’ve managed to hone the power of a many-headed monster to create powerful, straightahead indie pop, and the snark and snobbism of the Baroque pop soundbite undercuts that achievement. Still, Canning claims it wasn’t some singular vision that unified the band to create this sound, but something less defined.
“You’ve got frames of reference that you use as a group,” Canning says. “So generally, you can all listen to a tune and go Oh yeah, that’s a great tune. And maybe I’m a little more into the disco or the rare groove thing, and maybe Justin [Peroff] is a little more into the neo-soul R&B movement. And maybe he thinks Daniel Caesar is a little better than I think he is. And then there’s just your basic indie pals who are always around. And you can all argue: Whose better—Django Django or Dirty Projectors? Or Who’s better—Flaming Lips or Future Islands? Solange or Santigold?” Probably Solange.
Creative differences aside, BSS has managed to overcome its growing pains and rebuild stronger than ever. “It’s a difficult band to wrangle some days,” Canning admits. “But other days, we play these gigs and it’s a celebratory feeling, and we all can go to bed at night—or in the wee hours of the morning—and feel good about what we do.”