Broken Social Scene: precariously back together again

‘We’re not going anywhere’: the indie-rock collective returns

Photograph by Jaime Hogge

Inside a midtown Toronto studio on a chilly spring night, Broken Social Scene—tonight a seven-member lineup alongside several guests, plus a horn section and a trio of backup singers who were introduced to the band in the previous 24 hours—is recording a television special that won’t air until August. It is going about as awkwardly as might be predicted. The band is late to the stage, the show’s host is overwhelmed and the band members she is attempting to interview, founding collaborators Kevin Drew and Brendan Canning, aren’t helping much. A producer is telling the audience when to clap, the assorted players are being told where to stand, and Drew is concerned his parents, seated in the audience, are too close to the speakers.

Finally, after a misunderstood cue, Drew, now standing at the front of the stage in a fedora and grey jacket over a white T-shirt, waiting to perform a song from Broken Social Scene’s new record, thrusts his arms out and beseeches the audience: “Is this not us, or what?” Only when the band is finally allowed to play does everything get on track. Maybe it has always been so for a rock collective often defined by precariousness.

The next day, Drew sits at a downtown bar with rheum in his eyes. His band’s fourth album, Forgiveness Rock Record, is a week away from release and he is tired of explaining why it took Broken Social Scene five years to put out another record, tired of discussing whether another record was ever even in doubt (comments from Drew at the taping will later inspire a new report of the band’s demise). “We were just figuring s–t out,” he says. “Other bands break up, we didn’t.

We just kind of said, ‘All right, let’s take some time and we’ll come back when everyone’s ready.’ Everyone was ready . . . it’s that simple.”

Although guided by relatively simple ideas—community, family, honesty, hope—Broken Social Scene has never seemed straightforward. The band emerged in 2002 with You Forgot It In People—a now-seminal indie rock record created amid the decline of the major labels, during the last days of the Mel Lastman era in Toronto and the rise of the city’s independent music scene. Friends, intimates and colleagues came together to create a purpose and project they hadn’t found elsewhere. If that album captured the sound of discovery, subsequent live shows and an eponymous follow-up—full of people and guitar-heavy crescendos—revelled in the accomplishment. Their anthem became It’s All Gonna Break, an epic 10-minute celebration of chaos.

All the while, members of the collective were scattering in various directions—to other bands (Metric, Stars, Do Make Say Think, Apostle of Hustle) and solo efforts (Jason Collett, Feist)— and finding critical acclaim, commercial success and award recognition. The book on Broken Social Scene seemed written—indeed, an oral history, This Book Is Broken, was published in 2009. But concluding the band’s moment had passed gave too much credit to the time in which it was born and not enough to the ideals that created it.

Last year, Broken Social Scene, now a seven-member unit with a generous open-door policy, set off for Chicago to record the new album under the guidance of John McEntire, of post-rock instrumentalists Tortoise. The result is, at times, as emotional as Broken Social Scene has ever been, but never quite as manic. “This is evolution,” Drew says.

“Some people are going to be like, ‘F–k that, we want the chaos and the crazy distorted sound,’ and other people are going to be like, ‘Oh, this is actually quite nice.’ ” The liner notes credit no fewer than 30 performers and the result is at times rollicking. But if it’s still a party, it seems less likely to result in property damage. While perhaps not the sound of a mature Broken Social Scene, it’s at least the sound of a band with a different focus. “We wrote some songs, like Forced to Love,” Drew adds. “When did we ever write a three-minute, 30-second song with verse-chorus-bridge?”

The collective may yet break. But it might be time to think of Broken Social Scene as something more than fleeting.

Drew excitedly muses about the future, about philanthropy and politics and what the band might accomplish. “The goal is to finish this record cycle and somehow turn it into a selfless act,” he says. And so it’s possible to think about some kind of longevity. “At the end of the day,” Drew concludes, “we’re not going anywhere, so we all have to get used to it.”