Draper Street in downtown Toronto runs for just a short block, but it’s loaded with history: The majority of the street is made up of beautifully preserved Victorian row houses that date back to the 1880s. Brendan Canning has been living in one of them for the past 22 years, the lone constant resident in an abode he cheekily describes as “The House That Rock Built.”
His list of former roommates and regular couch surfers could fill up a JUNO Awards telecast. Members of Sum41, Esthero, Danko Jones, and a pre-Land of Talk Liz Powell are among the many musicians who’ve enjoyed Canning’s concierge services. And in his living room – where a piano abuts his sizable vinyl collection, and where there’s always an acoustic guitar at the ready on the sofa – he’s etched out the rough song sketches that get blown up into indie-rock epics with his band, Broken Social Scene.
But these days, when Canning walks his two dogs around the block, he sees a neighbourhood that’s changed dramatically since he and BSS co-founder Kevin Drew first joined forces in 1999. Where Draper Street was once a quaint sign of life in an otherwise desolate area dominated by warehouses and manufacturers, today the street feels like a fortress warding off the relentless influx of condo towers and charcuterie restaurants.
“Look at all the shit that’s happening around here,” says Canning as his dogs do their business. “Everything is getting torn down and built up. Ah, the sweet sound of cranes,” he adds, with sarcasm. It’s almost enough to make Canning feel like a stranger in his own town – which is sort of how his band feels re-entering the game after a six-year layoff.
“For this new album, we needed to have a fresh launch, see how we can make things a little different.” – Brendan Canning of Broken Social Scene
When Broken Social Scene first broke out with their second album, 2002’s You Forgot It in People, its success provided a signal boost to its numerous affiliated acts, which include synth-rockers Metric, art-pop chanteuse Feist, and psych-jazz ensemble Do Make Say Think. These days, when homegrown artists like BADBADNOTGOOD can swiftly parlay YouTube buzz into worldwide festival bookings and celebrity collaborations, it’s hard to remember how disconnected Canada’s independent music scenes were from the global music apparatus at the dawn of the 2000s.
Alongside peers like The New Pornographers and Arcade Fire, Broken Social Scene helped smash the barriers that once prevented Canadian bands from crossing over to international audiences, while – through the formation of their Arts & Crafts imprint – carving out a space in the domestic music industry for artists operating in between DIY self-sufficiency and major-label beneficiary. It’s hard to imagine institutions like the Polaris Music Prize or Toronto radio station Indie88 existing without that surge.
But where Broken Social Scene were once touted as Toronto’s musical ambassadors, today the phrase “Toronto sound” has come to mean something very different – the austere hip-hop and R&B of Drake and The Weeknd, and after-hours future-soul of Majid Jordan and Charlotte Day Wilson.
Likewise, indie rock in general has drifted away from the collectivist orchestral chaos that BSS patented, toward more minimalist, synth-driven sounds attuned to contemporary Top 40 trends. In some respects, BSS helped lay the shifting groundwork for this evolution on tracks like “Pacific Theme” and “Hotel,” which loosened up indie rock to absorb dub, soul, and R&B influences. Still, Canning admits to some trepidation over where his band fits into the current musical landscape.
“We’re definitely a pre-Drake era band,” he muses. “And we haven’t released any new music in so long. Your friends say, ‘You guys, will be fine!’ Well, how the fuck do you know we’ll be fine?! For this new album, we needed to have a fresh launch, see how we can make things a little different.”
Having seen friends like The National and The War on Drugs rise to the top of indie-rock A-list over the past half-decade, Broken Social Scene have, for the first time, signed on with management – New York-based Red Light – outside the Arts & Crafts umbrella. And while the new Hug of Thunder re-unites all the key players that made You Forgot It in People a classic, it also re-formulates their chemistry with some new blood.
The album was recorded with veteran, Grammy-winning producer Joe Chiccarelli, whose credits include everyone from Frank Zappa and Journey to The White Stripes and The Strokes. And after filling in for the absent Feist and Emily Haines on tour after 2010, Ariel Engle – the wife of guitarist Andrew Whiteman – makes her proper BSS vocal debut with two of the album’s standout tracks: the stirring, celestial ballad “Gonna Get Better” and the delirious, tropical funk of “Stay Happy,” about which Canning is particularly enthused.
“Ariel grew up on ‘90s R&B,” he says, “and she just brings so much power and passion. She and Andrew brought ‘Stay Happy,’ but it definitely grew into something much more. Everyone added something really interesting, whether it’s as subtle as Kev’s [Kevin Drew’s] piano line, or Charles’ [Charles Spearin’s] guitar line, which got turned into a flute line. There’s reggae bass, there’s horns, and Ariel delivers a really great vocal. It’s a real nice leap for the band, because it sounds like Social Scene, but there’s just no fat to be trimmed.”
That concision is ultimately what distinguishes Hug of Thunder from its predecessors. On earlier BSS records, you could hear the sound-sculpting happen in real time – that process of seemingly random ambient motifs gradually coalescing into melodies and grooves. The songs on Hug of Thunder are as overstuffed as ever – “Vanity Pail Kids” manages to pack in an industrial drum groove, soul-revue brass stabs, dissonant guitar fuzz, a disco chorus, chopped-up house-diva vocal refrains, and background chatter – but they’re confined to tighter spaces, less a jumble of sounds than an orderly Tetris board of interlocking elements.
Take the lead single “Halfway Home,” for example. “That song got laboured over an awful lot,” Canning says. “The chorus goes into a first verse that doesn’t repeat, which goes into a refrain that doesn’t repeat, and another verse that’s based on a different idea than the first verse… The song sounds ‘single-ish,’ though I think Broken Social Scene’s idea of a single is different than a lot of radio programmers’ ideas of singles.”
But if BSS seem genetically incapable of ever conforming to the sounds of the times, they have a preternatural ability to tap into their emotional tenor. Their music doesn’t so much directly address the politics of the day as reflect our personal responses to them: anxiety and fear, yes, but also the fragile hope that we’ll make it through to better days. Certainly, a big reason why You Forgot It in People connected so deeply with fans was the environment into which it was released: a post-9/11 landscape fraught with looming threats, both local (SARS) and global (the Iraq war). The ensuing years have only further entrenched their belief that music is the only social media you need.
It’s that therapeutic quality that inspired Kevin Drew to corral BSS back into the studio following the November 2015 terrorist attack at the Bataclan in Paris. And their purpose became even more evident on May 23, 2017, when the band performed an emotionally-charged show in Manchester the night after Ariana Grande’s concert was bombed just a few blocks away. Whether the changes they’ve made, both musically and behind the scenes, lead to next-level success remains to be seen. For now, Canning is grateful that Broken Social Scene can still provide sanctuary for unsettled souls.
“It’s nice that we can still be relevant in some way, without being overly political about the hardened times we’re living in,” he says. “We can be the call-to-arms band you turn to for inspiration and joy… but doing our best to not pander to an anthemic, feel-good, Coca-Cola-ad vibe.”
Words & Music contributor Stuart Berman wrote the book on Broken Social Scene. Literally. You can buy it by clicking on the book cover below.