BROKEN SOCIAL SCENE with JIM GUTHRIE as part of the Gobsmacked! Festival, Friday (August 27) at Harbourfront Centre’s CIBC stage (235 Queens Quay West). Free. 416-973-4000.
Although our hearts might have swelled with nationalistic pride when Broken Social Scene was named the sole Canadian act on the Lollapalooza tour, BSS’s Kevin Drew claims the cancellation of Perry Farrell’s rockstravaganza was the best thing that could have happened.
“We never would’ve made it through that tour,” he insists. “I gave a heads-up to our American agent, and I sent him a great e-mail after the fact saying, ‘Thank you, Frank. I knew you were powerful, but I can’t believe you cancelled the whole tour for me.’ He was very sweet.”
The Scene had reached their tipping point.
In scientific terms, the tipping point refers to the instant some bug – a disease, a virus, a plague – stops being a self-contained epidemic and hits critical mass. It’s not just for science nerds. Social philosopher Malcolm Gladwell got jiggy with the idea on a cultural studies level in his 2002 book The Tipping Point, subtitled How Little Things Can Make A Big Difference the Roots stole the concept for the title of their newest disc.
Toronto’s Broken Social Scene have taken the tipping point to a whole new level.
If you’ve ever been to one of their shows, you know what I mean. It’s there in the sweat pouring off Andrew Whiteman’s neck while he shreds spiralling waves of guitar during the bridge of Cause = Time. It’s there when Emily Haines gasps faster and faster through the climactic build of slow burner Anthems For A 17-Year-Old Girl. It’s there when the dozen-plus members trip over each other’s effects pedals and patch cords onstage. Barely controlled chaos is a defining characteristic of the band, both aesthetically and pragmatically.
But according to founding member Drew, the Scene may have finally tipped over the edge.
“We’re a mess as a band,” he sighs, shooting a look at co-founder Brendan Canning, who’s sitting beside him in this park in Little Italy on an appropriately gloomy, humid day. “If you see our name at the door, if we’re on a guest list, if we go to a restaurant, if we show up at a bar, if we go as a group or a collective anywhere, we’re a big mess. The stereotypes of musicians are true.
“We have a song called It’s All Gonna Break, and it finally happened. We got lost in the ‘Yeah, it’s so fucking great,’ and now we have to maintain something. Sure, we built it all on friends and family, but when that gets fucked up, then what? It all slowly starts to crumble.”
What they have to maintain is a juggernaut of hype. About two years ago, BSS was a loose-knit collective of “friends and lovers” with a lineup that changed depending on who showed up for their local shows. After releasing Feel Good Lost, a well-received collection of arty instrumental tracks, in 2001, Canning and Drew recruited all the pals they could – members of Stars, Do Make Say Think and Metric – along with producer Dave Newfeld (who played a huge part in defining the Social Scene sound) to create an album called You Forgot It In People.
When the disc dropped that December on Paper Bag Records, the Toronto press went nuts. Soon, the boys started a label-cum-art-collective called Arts & Crafts with Jeffrey Remedios and Daniel Cutler (two record biz-savvy friends who were sick of the machinations of the majors), released You Forgot It In People stateside and started getting raves from the likes of oh-so-jaded indie tastemakers Pitchforkmedia.com.
All of a sudden, the dudes who’d been playing weekly gigs at Bar Code and hauling sandbags on the sets of Big Wreck videos were being heralded as Toronto’s ambassadors to the world. An unassuming music scribe wearing an Arts & Crafts T-shirt during Austin’s annual South By Southwest festival was liable to be accosted by rabid indie fans jonesing for insider BSS info.
Back when their dysfunctional family was squeezed into Newfeld’s studio, nobody guessed they’d be playing those songs for massive festival crowds across Europe. Nor, says Drew, did they anticipate the effect touring would have on the band.
“We were put on these wicked guaranteed bills of 8,000, 10,000 people and nobody really knew who we were,” he recalls. “It was so much fun, touring with the biggest band we’ve ever toured with. It was too much fun, actually. It sort of destroyed a few things. You lost track of what you’re really supposed to be living.”
While there were dazzling highlights on tour – guitarist John Crossingham (Raising the Fawn) proposing to his girlfriend onstage at Coachella, Pavement-obsessed Drew singing with Scott “Spiral Stairs” Kannberg, hanging backstage with Jeff Tweedy while he spilled about rehab to his band members – the act of, as Drew puts it, “re-pumping the heart every day” started to wear away at the inner workings of the Scene.
The posters for this Friday’s Harbourfront gig bill it as the band’s final show ever, and Drew claims they’re gonna play their hearts and guts out like they’ve never done before. Canning says they’re focusing on film soundtracks (currently Bruce McDonald’s upcoming flick, The Love Crimes Of Gillian Guess). A new album is sort of in the works, although all they’ll say is that it’s a “glider.”
While both Drew and Canning dreamily imagine life as a studio band (“or maybe touring for, like, two months a year,” muses Canning), you feel like they’d have a hard time giving up the intense rush of playing for crowds.
“A lot of people want to tell you how they’ve wept at your shows,” explains Canning. “Of course, people weep at Sting concerts, too, but they’re a different crowd. I was just going through the motions in Athens, Georgia, and I looked down to see this one sorta sport-o looking guy up front. The poor kid’s eyes were filled with tears. By the end of the tune, when it’d reached its emotional peak, he was bawling. I reached out and put my hand on his head, and after the big release, the kid was just cold. You could feel the bliss seeping out of him.”
“It’s addictive, almost like heroin,” adds Drew. “You gotta be careful of that, of getting really close to the people who love your music. It’s strange. I don’t have enough maturity on that one yet, but I’m working on it.”
Drew may be the volatile drama queen, the raw red heart to Canning’s coolly mature mind, but it can’t be easy dealing with so many personalities – in a tour bus or onstage. While they’ve threatened the final show card in the past (at last year’s Pop Montreal fest, among others), you get the sense that they really could fall apart at any point. Therein lies the thrill of watching Broken Social Scene – knowing something’s gotta blow.
Drew says their manifesto has always been to be an honest band – nothing more, nothing less.
“The other night Emily (Haines) said, ‘Our hell is a good life.’ And that’s the basis right now. I didn’t think I’d have the understanding that I do now of all the stereotypes we used to mock and tease people about in this lifestyle of entertainment.
“If you’re smart and want to live a life,” Drew continues, “if you want to live something healthy and something that is gonna be around and fulfilling till you’re completely full, this wouldn’t be it.”
“Maybe being a lawyer wouldn’t be the right decision either,” argues Canning.
“If you have the power to just do something and walk away, it’s really phenomenal, and I’m really looking forward to walking away at some point. I don’t need it. Though right now it’s all I have, and if I don’t have it, I crumble and curl up into a ball.”
Making the scene
Tracing the intricate web that connects the members of Broken Social Scene is a task best suited to a full-time genealogist. Keeners can consult the Arts & Crafts Web site (www.arts-crafts.ca) for a comprehensive family tree, but here’s a brief overview of the past and future expanse of the Broken Social universe:
KC ACCIDENTAL Art-rock outfit formed by Kevin Drew and Do Make Say Think ‘s Charles Spearin , released an album called Anthems For The Could’ve Bin Pills (Noise Factory) in 2000, which included many of the same characters who later appeared on You Forgot It In People.
BY DIVINE RIGHT Jose Contreras ‘s rotating cast of karmic rockers spit out BSS founder Brendan Canning (also of 90s Canrock power trio hHead ) and femme fatale Leslie Feist (who cut her teeth in Prairie grrrl garage band Placebo ).
RAISING THE FAWN BSS guitarist and Soundscapes fixture John Crossingham flexes his falsetto muscles in this emotion-packed anti-emo indie attack force.
STARS Beautifully undone Montreal-based romantic pop posse which includes trombonist Evan Cranley (namesake for the track Cranley’s Gonna Make It) and Amy Millan , one-third of the Broken babe factor, along with occasional BSS members Chris Seligman (who grew up with Spearin and James Shaw ) and Torquil Campbell .
METRIC Formerly L.A.-based band founded by Broken souls Emily Haines and James Shaw that exploded last year with the sultry hyperliterate keyboard rock of Old World Underground, Where Are You Now? Whip-smart and icy-cool frontwoman Haines contributed Anthems For A 17-Year-Old Girl to You Forgot It In People, a track that’s become an emotional apex of the Broken live shows.
FEIST Former T.O. scene queen Leslie Feist decamped for France, hung out with Peaches and collaborated with producer Chilly Gonzales to produce one of this year’s most stunning albums.
JASON COLLETT Collett brings the rootsy rock basics to BSS, having done time in Andrew Cash ‘s Ursula and Bird .
HONEY FROM THE TOMBS A reference to a Tom Waits quote, and the name under which Amy Millan performed solo at a Broken Social family gig at Lee’s a year ago.
APOSTLE OF HUSTLE BSS guitar threat Andrew Whiteman kept the self-described “Latin sleaze” of his former band Que Vida in check for his weekly Tuesday night sessions at Bar Code, where he served up bossa- and jazz-tinged shuffle-pop as the Apostle Of Hustle .
Apostle Of Hustle plays an in-store performance at Soundscapes (572 College) Sunday (August 29).