Broken Social Scene’s Funny Little Crew
Seven years after their last record and around 17 members strong at this point, Broken Social Scene is in quite the fighting form. Releasing their new record Hug Of Thunder earlier this year with old members like Kevin Drew, Brendan Canning, Leslie Feist, Emily Haines and new members like Ariel Engle coming into the fold, they've made one their strongest records yet. Their return to the fold also found them opening their tour in Manchester, helping the city heal after the tragic bombings that happened at an Ariana Grande show. We caught up with member Brendan Canning to talk about managing so many band members in the studio, playing Manchester as well as taking a peak at how the band brought this album to the stage at Cityfolk.
With so many members, many with their own solo projects floating in and out of the group at any given time, how do you even get everyone in the studio?
Brendan Canning: Because there's a core band, I'm sure we're not to dissimilar to The New Pornographers, although I don't know how they run their operation. You just have conversations, you make a band meeting, you say "Let's jam, and write those songs," you see how many ideas are happening, and then you book your producer Joe Chiccarelli who's been checking in on you for ten months. You tell Joe it's not going as fast as you'd think. Then Kevin says he wants to do it in Banff because he's been out there working with Niles Spencer, and I'd worked with him out there before, he's kind of a genius as a recording engineer. So you just book the dates and let people know, it's never a "We'll find someone else," and everyone loves the band. We've been afforded a lot of nice things in this band, it's opened up other doors too, because you get props for being in Broken Social Scene.
Is it ever hard to strike a balance between voices and instruments on a recording when you have such a large band and so many singers?
It's finding what you can add, without stepping on anyone else. Are you there from the starting point of an idea and what sort of voice are you adding? How necessary is what you're adding versus another thing? It's all that striking a balance so the song isn't too dense or just sounding muttered, or the idea doesn't get across. They're not the easiest tunes to write sometimes. Sometimes they can take a long-ass time and sometimes they just take a quick amount of time. When it comes to mixing, there's so many different captains in this crew that want things to be heard a certain way. We like to keep things democratic, majority rules at the end of the day. If four people say they like the way things are going and three say no, the four wins. It's a song-by-song basis, someone's got an idea for this, and each song has a different beginning and ending.
Looking at the band play live now, their sense of snowballing energy seems to be even stronger than before with these new songs behind them. Seeing Kevin, Emily, Jimmy and Brendan all hop around the stage while ecstatically building harmonies on "Halfway Home" is a sight to behold, and watching Haines return for "Anthems For A Seventeen Year Old Girl" is a heartwarming moment. Something else that may have been a bit surprising was hearing "Hug Of Thunder" live, as member Ariel Engle took to the mic, perfectly emulating Feist's vocals without losing her own touches as a performer.
Did you guys have any idea how accurately Ariel Engle sung Leslie Feist's vocal when she came on board?
Timbre-wise, she's really close. I've had friends asking me, oh Leslie did a really good job on "Gonna Get Better" and I'll tell them it's Ariel. They're both strong vocalists, and in very similar ballparks timbre-wise, it's lucky for us. Not only will Leslie come in and pen "Hug Of Thunder" with us, but have songs like "Stay Happy" and "Gonna Get Better," or chime in on "Vanity Pail Kids." We're in a pretty good position now.
I understand Johnny Marr also helped you guys when you played in Manchester the day after the tragedy happened, what was the mood that day?
For me personally, I'm in my hotel room and then you're thrown into this situation where you're not just watching the speeches about the bombings, but you're in the town square. They're talking about coming together, and singing "Don't Look Back in Anger," it's very emotional stuff. As a band you come out, and keep yourself in tune with what's being said. Johnny Marr has been pals with Kevin, and he's been a fan of us since the early days. It was a really auspicious moment when he came to play with us, especially as a Manchester legend. Kevin said he remembered talking with Charles about what happened with in Paris at the Bataclan with Eagles of Death Metal. Kevin claims Charles said he wanted to go back and add positivity to the world. We don't have family in Manchester or any connection to Ariana Grande, but you're connected by that moment because you're there.
What's the biggest difference you guys notice playing now almost 20 years down the road?
You get more familiar with each other after being in a band for so long. It's been relatively the same size since the beginning, besides some changing of roles. Everyone changes a little bit, no one's going to be the same in 2016 as they were in 2001. Your friendships have strengthened and loosened in different ways but you still enjoy the process of making music.
How do you think the open door policy you had with the recording of the record influenced the tone overall?
We did some demoing at my place and Charles place too. We rented some equipment and turned my room into a makeshift studio. There was a particular way we operated, it wasn't just "Hey come in and jam." We had organized it so the broad strokes were there. I think the exercise of just getting together, making music and breaking bread at the end of every session, those were all just healthy and necessary exercises. We've chipped away at a concept, you don't want to get to conceptual about it. It's a band and it's a family, so it has interesting ways that it functions. It's a funny little crew, but one that has deep roots at this stage. We all respect each other and want to make it worth well.