Personal Playlist: Brendan Canning Gives The Stories Behind Five Broken Social Scene Songs

On March 5th 2019 » By Josh Terry

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Welcome to “Personal Playlist,” a recurring interview series at Vinyl Me, Please, where one artist picks one song from each of their albums to talk about (or one song from every band that they’ve been in). Here are the five Broken Social Scene songs founder Brendan Canning chose, from “Passport Radio” to “Stay Happy.”

This year marks the 20th anniversary of Broken Social Scene, the pioneering Toronto collective responsible for the most influential indie rock albums of the last couple decades. Formed by Kevin Drew and Brendan Canning in 1999, the two wrote and recorded the band’s post-rock inspired debut in Drew’s basement. The experimental and lovely album featured their friends, like singer Leslie Feist, drummer Justin Speroff, and multi-instrumentalist Charles Spearin, who mixed the effort.

While mostly instrumental, the LP foreshadowed the wildly collaborative spirit the band would embody with their masterwork, 2002’s You Forgot It In People. It was Broken Social Scene’s breakthrough, not just highlighting the group’s transition from basement project to full-fledged music collective with an expanding and constantly evolving roster, but also winning Canada’s Juno Award for Alternative Album of the Year. After the rise, Broken Social Scene returned with their self-titled LP in 2005. While it was a rough period for the band compared to their honeymoon genesis, it featured some of the most defining tracks of their catalog like “7/4 (Shoreline),” “Superconnected” and “Major Label Debut.”

Following solo albums under the Broken Social Scene Presents moniker and several “last shows ever” as a touring apparatus, the band returned with the excellent 2010 Forgiveness Rock Record. The LP found the collective for the first time, spending time away from Toronto, mostly tracking the effort in Chicago with Tortoise’s John McEntire. Seven years later, the band released Hug of Thunder, cementing a five-album streak as solid as any of their peers. And this month, the band is back with another offering: the first of two EPs out this year called Let’s Try The After Vol. 1.

Often affectionately dubbed as a “mothership,” Broken Social Scene is the home base for a countless number of Toronto musicians. The band’s family tree extends out like a labyrinth with limbs holding acts like Feist, Stars, Metric, Apostle of Hustle, Do Make Say Think, and so many more. Founder and bassist Brendan Canning has been at the band’s core throughout and has given Vinyl Me, Please the stories behind five of the band’s most important tracks. Read on for Canning’s takes on songs ranging from Feel Good Lost to Hug of Thunder.

“Passport Radio,” off Feel Good Lost (2001)

VMP: This is the album where you and Kevin Drew were first getting to know each other. What were your first impressions of the collaboration?

Brendan Canning: It was just a very intimate experience because we were in Kevin’s basement and we would often work really late hours. We’d go out for drinks and have fun, come back around midnight and work until 7 or 8 in the morning. During that time, I had never recorded on an eight-track machine: It was a pretty primitive recording. Any sampling that was done on the record was all done through this pedal that was made in Texas called a Boomerang Pedal. It was really analog. Right off the bat, Kevin had some really interesting and experimental ideas on how to make some drum loops. The entire time, we were like, “Well, this isn’t supposed to be working but it’s working.” We had something that didn’t sound exactly like anything else I could think of off the top of my head.

I paged through my old copy of Stuart Berman’s oral history of Broken Social Scene, and I saw a quote from Kevin Drew where he said that during Feel Good Lost you had taught him how to end songs. He said that if he were left to his own devices, every song would end up being 10 minutes long. Were you sort of the moderating force bringing four-minute pop songs to the band?

I mean, yeah. Some of those jams definitely went on for a while. I can be as guilty of that too, especially in going like, “Oh, yeah, we’re going to jam out this part for a while.”

For this list, you chose “Guilty Cubicles” for the Feel Good Lost song you want to talk about.

Actually, I was hoping if we could change it to “Passport Radio” because that song was the first time Kevin and Leslie [Feist] met. I just realized that I don’t have Feist featured in any of the songs I picked for this.

That works for me.

So, Leslie and I were in a band called By Divine Right, which you obviously know already since you read This Book Is Broken. Leslie and I had our ups and downs in that band and Kevin had never met her. Kevin and I had this instrumental track going on and I said, why don’t we go over to Leslie’s place? She lived at this now-famous spot on Queen Street where Chilly Gonzales and Peaches also lived. We brought her back to the basement to record and she instantly started singing the melody, which at that point was the line “Kraków Radio 105.” Kevin and her then worked on lyrics, which later became “Passport Radio coming to you live,” and that was that. Whatever Leslie’s first instinct is, she’s just one of those individuals that really gets it the first time. The same thing happened on “7/4 Shoreline” and “Almost Crimes,” where the hooks were actually the first things she spat out. She has the gift. She can come in and nail the part in one take.

“Anthems For A Seventeen-Year Old Girl,” off You Forgot It In People (2002)

Where the last song you picked was a collaboration with Feist, this track was one with Emily Haines. How did it come together?

We were rehearsing for a Broken Social Scene show at the Horseshoe Tavern in Toronto. The band lineup, which was still constantly changing, but at the point was me, John Crossingham, Jimmy Shaw, Emily Haines, Jason Collett, Justin Peroff and Kevin Drew. Kevin was upstairs doing something but when he came downstairs, he said that we sounded like a fucking bar band so we decided to come up with something better. “Anthems” was getting thought out slowly. I remember whispering the motif of the song to Emily: “Used to be one of the rotten ones and I liked you for that.” I was mumbling it while we were playing and then she interpreted it and made it her own. We spent another week amassing lyrical ideas and getting the song where it needed to be but it was a very “on the moment” kind of writing.

This is probably one of Broken Social Scene’s most well-known songs. Did it feel like you had lightning in a bottle then?

No, I don’t think anyone could’ve predicted it but it sounded good, though, which was exciting at the time. For me, if you get the feeling of hairs rising on the back of your neck, you trust that and just go with it. If you have that feeling, you won’t ever throw it in the scrap heap. It felt very good from the get-go. That writing session was very close to when we started recording You Forgot It In People. That gig at the Horseshoe was maybe a week before we went in the studio.

Speaking of the studio, did working with David Newfeld at Stars and Sons feel more collaborative than making Feel Good Lost with Kevin in the basement?

Well, Feel Good Lost was still collaborative. We had our friends like Leslie come in for songs, and Kevin’s grandmother, for god sakes, is on a track, and Charles Spearin had mixed it. But you’re right as far as You Forgot It In People showing us being a full-fledged band, going into the studio, and working with a producer. It was still honeymoon times for us because we were all excited about this record we were making and, for me, Broken Social Scene was like my fifth or sixth band at this point. I wanted to get it right, Kevin wanted to get it right. There was lots of magical stuff going on in the studio. A song like “Stars and Sons” was written on the spot: That kind of thing. We never hit any major lows during the making of this record. I’m just glad “Anthems For A Seventeen-Year Old Girl” got written when it did. It’s been a really great song for us as a band and it’s still relatable: “Park that car, drop that phone.” It’s 2019 and we’re still talking about it.

“Ibi Dreams of Pavement (A Better Day),” Broken Social Scene (2005)

You mentioned the honeymoon period for the band. From You Forgot It In People to this album, it seemed like the band never really slowed down. How was this time period for you?

We probably spent too much time, like in Spain for instance, doing these shows where it’s like, “Well, we don’t need to play half a dozen shows in Spain.” No offense to the Spanish people, of course. We probably spent too much time touring. I think when you’re a young band and all these things are happening and realizing people are excited about your record, you want to play catch up and tour the world while also trying to make a new record. We’d record and then when we were gone, [producer] Dave Newfeld filled in a lot of the gaps on the songs. We’d get back and be confused that Dave has colored in the lines for us thinking, “Is this the kind of band we are now?” It may have been the sophomore jinx for us in some ways but at the same time, it’s an album that yielded some really big tunes for us.

Out of all those songs, what sticks out about “Ibi Dreams of Pavement (A Better Day)?”

Kevin had this song that was for our friend, Ibi Kaslik, who was about to have her book launch. At the time, the lineup was Kevin, myself, Andrew Whiteman, Justin Peroff, and Evan Cranley. The track was originally just supposed to be for the book launch but the first time they played it, it just sounded good. I think Kevin needed maybe a bit of convincing at the time to go for it and make it a Broken Social Scene song. We didn’t need to overthink it. It sounded great from the first time we played it. It’s one of the big tunes. For many of the nights we played in 2017-2018, we’d close with it.

“World Sick,” off Forgiveness Rock Record (2010)

This is a song that’s largely about political dissatisfaction. How is it looking back at this song, considering everything that’s happened in the world since it was written?

I mean, the world’s always going to have toxicity. It’s definitely not getting necessarily better but in lots of ways, all the vile output that you’re forced to deal with is relative. We’re not in Yemen or refugees, we’re looking at things from our ivory tower here in Canada. But it gives you, I suppose, many moments to reflect on the fucked up nature of humankind and what we do to one another. All you can do is try and write songs that will hopefully inspire. We’re musicians, we’re not Doctors Without Borders and we’re not in the military on the frontlines. We’re writing songs and trying to affect change and feelings.

We had a guy who was running for office in Missouri named Damon Haymer who is a U.S. Army vet, I think with the 82nd Airborne Division, who told me he’d go on parachuting missions and he’d listen to Feel Good Lost on his headphones. It’s such a strange thing to think about: We’d be soundtracking this guy’s life-threatening missions. You never know where your music is going to travel.

That is crazy to think about. What do you remember about writing this song?

I remember that Kevin had the song and Charles [Spearin] added this really snaky bassline, and I gave it some guitar licks. Everyone just sort of added their own thing to it. While I’m sure Kevin had a vision for his song, everyone had something so original on the track. It’s a song that only Broken Social Scene could throw together in that way. I remember that there were certain lyrics that Kevin wrestled with that didn’t make the album but he really wanted to say something and say it in his unique voice that only he could do. We all got behind the notion of “World Sick” with him.

I’m calling from Chicago and obviously this record was produced by Tortoise’s John McEntire at Soma Studios, which used to be not far from my apartment. How was getting out of Toronto?

I loved it. We lived in a couple parts of the city. It’s a great place to bike in. I rode to the studio almost every day. We spent a lot of time at Reckless Records and Dusty Groove. We ate some nice meals around town.

“Stay Happy,” off Hug of Thunder (2017)

We were either going to talk about the title track or “Stay Happy,” but the latter is my favorite song off Hug of Thunder so I hope you’re cool with just focusing on this one.

Yeah, that’s great. We already talked about a Leslie song already so I’m happy to focus on one Ariel sings.

How was bringing Ariel Engle into the fold?

She was added before we started recording this album. It was sort of baby steps for us coming into [it] but this was [a] “comeback album,” and it was the first time we could feature Ariel as the lead singer on certain songs. Andrew Whiteman and Ariel are married, and they had brought in this track. On my end, I encouraged them to change a vocal line and sing a different melody. It was one of those [that] started in one place and then everyone jumped in and added their own thing. Whether it’s Kevin’s piano line or Charles lending a guitar part that turned into a flute line, it was all very collaborative. The base of the song was all Andrew’s chords though. But once you get everyone involved and sitting with it, it becomes a uniquely Broken Social Scene experience. It’s a perfect example of the BSS collaboration where everyone has something to offer and Ariel’s vocals just carry it pretty magnificently.

Broken Social Scene has been a band for 20 years this year and collaboration has been one constant. With that said, how has the band evolved?

We’re an evolving band. It’s always changing. But when you’re in a jam space, which we haven’t been in a while, but when we are, it’s always, “I got this idea. Want to jam it out?” Then we do and sometimes it yields something great and sometimes it doesn’t, but we always keep going.

Josh Terry

Josh Terry

Chicago-based music journalist Josh Terry has been covered music and culture for a number of publications since 2012. His writing has been featured in Noisey, Rolling Stone, Complex, Vice, Chicago Magazine, The A.V. Club and others. At Vinyl Me, Please, he interviews artists for his monthly Personal Playlist series.

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