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A Beautiful Mess 

Once a simple indie rock duo, Broken Social Scene added 13 band members and ended up with a complex, precious sound.

Wednesday, Nov 19 2003
It's a brisk and sunny day and New York City is in the throes of the CMJ Music Marathon, a four-day extravaganza where indie bands from all over converge to share their wares. Brendan Canning, one of Broken Social Scene's principal songwriters, is leaning against the wall of the venue where the band will be playing later that night. He is trying to thread new shoelaces into his sneakers. It takes him a while to do this, and he keeps starting over when he realizes he hasn't laced them to perfection.

Thirty-three-year-old Canning often looks frazzled. He sometimes squints and cocks his head slightly to the side like a mad scientist in the midst of a tedious equation. But his heady demeanor never prevents him from regarding you with a generous warmth. It's as if he's spent enough hours in the laboratory to know that life in a vacu-um, devoid of human contact, is bleak and unnatural. Earlier that day he had purchased a batch of vinyl from a local shop. It's no surprise that the discs' genres were strikingly diverse -- some obscure jazz, Public Enemy, Sonic Youth, and 808 State to be exact -- because anyone familiar with the band's latest LP, You Forgot It in People, knows of its penchant for drawing from a wide variety of influences.

Twenty minutes later, the band's primary singer and other main songwriter, Kevin Drew, approaches. In contrast to Canning, he is aglow with an intense serenity and carefully wielded, almost diabolical, charisma. Drew's got missions on his mind, and states what must happen: He needs to buy AC adapters (the band has just returned from a brief European tour, where the current is different) and he needs to eat.

The diner we end up in is filled with a nice cross section of people: proper yuppies with immaculate posture; snooty, spectacled artist/intellectuals; and wide-eyed tourist families. Loud chatter and the clank of silverware and kitchen dishes score our entrance. Ordinarily, this locale would be too chaotic to conduct an interview. But, as evidenced by their success in sorting concordance out of a rambunctious 15-member rock band, Drew and Canning are at home in such bedlam. You Forgot It in People -- an expansive, intricately orchestrated indie pop achievement -- proves it: These two have a knack for drawing poignancy out of chaos, taking in all the bustle of their company and spitting out something bold, coherent, and beautiful.

The duo that leads Broken Social Scene met through the tangled vines of the Toronto indie scene. Canning, six years Drew's elder, had been playing in a number of local bands. After mutual friends played him K.C. Accidental, the band Drew was fronting at the time, Canning tracked Drew down to propose a collaboration. "He ended up moving into our house and drinking all our beer," Drew says, half in jest. The two of them retreated to the solitude of Drew's basement and recorded what would become the first BSS record.

The album they emerged with was Feel Good Lost, a primarily instrumental endeavor that sketched slow-blooming indie motifs with reserved guitar and the occasional odd instrumentation. The record's mood was warm and slumbering, certainly more mature than most bands are capable of, but nowhere near as elaborate as what would come with their sophomore LP.

You Forgot It in People is grand and diverse, combining the flail of frilly electric guitars with a spacious and majestic drift of banjos, strings, horns, and synths. It draws on everything from punk to R&B and often folds in unexpected styles, such as prog, lounge, and straightforward pop. But the real beauty lies in the arrangements: Rarely does any instrument settle into the support role. Instead, many melodic elements are bellowed simultaneously. While much of its indie contemporaries thrive on minimalism, Broken Social Scene offers intricate webs of sound your brain shouldn't translate into pop music, although that's indeed what happens.So how did Canning and Drew make the leap from sleepy intimacy to elaborate illumination? Well, by adding 13 members to the band. "We were gonna play live but we didn't want to make anyone learn anything [from Feel Good] because we had all this respect for all these musicians," Drew says, speaking of his proficient Toronto peers, people like Emily Haines (Metric), Andrew Whiteman (Apostle of Hustle), Charles Spearin (Do Make Say Think), Leslie Feist (Feist), Evan Cranley (Stars), and Justin Peroff (K.C. Accidental), among others. "So we did a bunch of improv shows."

While it may have seemed like an experiment that would never work, when it came time to make the next record the duo basically threw all these players into a studio and rolled tape. "It was chaos and there was lots of tension," Drew says. "Fallouts, gear everywhere, go-go-go, people breaking your heart."

"We felt terrible," Canning chimes in. He continues to talk about how, despite the collective enthusiasm, it was exhausting trying to get everything sorted into some kind of structure. At some point, the explosions of energy needed to be tamed. "I was like, 'Fuck, man, we gotta make a record here. It's not all fun and games and at some point we've gotta put all the chaos together.'"

What should have resulted in an ego-ridden, tumultuous mess became a near-perfect collection of 13 songs. Drew and Canning insist that the muddle inherent in the sheer number of people involved was and is crucial to everything the band stands for, that what's possible in a room of individuals feeding off each other's energy is far greater than what can come out of two indie boys in the vacuum of a lonely basement. "It's all vampires in our band," Drew says. "People love people."

Drew explains that the band is interested in embracing what individuals have in common and reminding them of what that actually is. The symbol for conveying this mix that he's most fond of is bodily fluids. On "Cause = Time," he sings, "We've gotta menstruate in disguise," over a straightforward beat and both electric and acoustic guitars that build to a distorted, cymbal-ridden rock freak-out before imploding into some half-time noise-jazz.

"I'm a body man," he says, regarding the inclusion of so many fluids (piss and spit make frequent appearances as well). "I grew up on porn. My baby-sitter came over and said 'Check this out.' He could have done a lot of other things but all he did was show me porn, so that's been a theme in my life for quite some time. I'm trying to show that a lot of people fear the body, but skin, piss, and love are what we all have in common and are things that can save you from this world that is so fucked up right now, with so much fear and apathy and confusion."

Drew's adoration of sharing fluids is illustrated by "Lover's Spit," perhaps the record's most striking track. Here, a vintage keyboard sings a shiny background vamp, guitars arpeggiate and burst in controlled feedback, and a quiet bass line pushes the beat while sporadic piano chords gently tinkle inspiration. "All these people drinking lover's spit/ They sit around and clean their face with it," he sings, the gist being that sharing saliva is a crucial form of intimacy and intimacy is a crucial part of existence.

But lyrics are hardly the only thing BSS is concerned with. Musically, the record runs the gamut from '70s-influenced British punk-pop ("Almost Crimes") and U2-style major chord repetition ("Anthems for a Seventeen-Year-Old Girl) to Hawaiian-tinged electro-lounge-pop ("Pacific Theme") and Led Zeppelin quasi-gloom grandeur ("K.C. Accidental"). It is a record that sounds like a lot of people with a lot of influences were involved. But while there are always a number of things going on at once, there is never a lack of cohesion, a fact that's best explained by the band members' mutual respect for one another.

At BSS's illustrious, audience-inclusive live shows, no one musician ever upstages another, and roles and spotlights are consistently shared: Instruments are swapped throughout the night; lead vocals are handled by at least four different people. And while you never really know which players will be part of the performance, it's usually a good bet that Canning, Drew, drummer Justin Peroff, guitarist/singer Andrew Whiteman, and at least six or seven others will be involved.

Though it's hard to keep up with its membership, it's clear that Broken Social Scene could not subsist the way it does without all the people involved. The band welcomes the entropy that comes with its loose nature and does its best to harmonize the results. The collective has developed to some extent because of Canning and Drew's direction, but mostly because it wholeheartedly embraces what its members have to offer. You might even call the musicians broken socialists, in the sense that they're interested in how the individual contributes to the greater good, while remaining wary of dictating what that greater good is. Ultimately, they're just trying to remind us to trust the "it" we all have in common, the one we've forgotten exists in people.

About The Author

Abigail Clouseau


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