Broken Social Scene is so much more than a band. With a fluctuating number and rotating cast of incredibly talented musicians, all of which are also involved in other successful projects, the Canadian outfit is better described as the ultimate indie rock music collective. Featuring a wide range of instruments, many of them orchestral, Broken Social Scene delivers grandiose melodies, lofty vocals, and oftentimes unconventional yet captivating song arrangements. With so many artistically brilliant minds contributing to a single project, the group’s sound is bound to be unique, ingenious, and unforgettable- and it is. With a gig on the mainstage at Coachella this year, the various artists that makeup Broken Social Scene’s current lineup were very busy, but I was lucky enough to grab a few minutes with one of the band’s principal musicians, Charles Spearin. His contagious smile and fantastic sense of humor put me right at ease as he talked to me about the Toronto music scene, writing music, and who his ultimate Coachella headliner would be.
Residing in Toronto, a city I hear great things about but have yet to visit, Broken Social Scene has been involved in the local and national music scene there for many, many years. So what is like for bands up there? “How much time do we have?” Spearin asks with a smile. “This could take a while. Where do I start? Well, first of all, something happened in the late 90’s which was an excellent thing for Toronto. Suddenly on the scene, so to speak, were a whole slew of good writers and good promoters, then good venues started opening up. There was a whole kind of community that happened together. It really sort of worked into a very healthy, somewhat autonomous music community. It worked really well.”
Things were musically different prior to this late 90’s insurgence. “Before that, in the earlier part of the 90’s, there was a lot of DJ culture and a lot of raves,” Spearin explains. “There’s always been a lot of venues and a lot of bands, but something healthy started happened in the late 90’s and that’s where most of the band came together and met and started working together and started thinking more about playing music and not giving a f*** about the music industry- just loving to play music. We got a lot of inspiration from what was happening in Chicago at the time, there was Thrill Jockey Records and so many musicians playing in each other’s bands and putting out some really genuine, experimental, beautiful music which had no place in radio. We took a lot of inspiration from that.”
It was during this time that Broken Social Scene was born. “Kevin [Drew] and I had a band called KC Accidental, which was before Broken Social Scene; and Kevin and Brendan [Canning] did Feel Good Lost [debut BSS album]. Those are instrumental records primarily. There was a sense of just playing music for the love of it. Then we started playing regularly, we didn’t even have a name at first, we had a whole bunch of different songs every time we played.” He pauses to make sure this is what I want to hear- I assure him, it is precisely what I am looking for. “I’m giving you the whole story here,” Spearin laughs. “When You Forgot It In People came out, which is the first real collective record that we did, it got a lot of critical success and we started getting invitations to tour. So we had to become more of a band, rather than this amorphous collective, so we could go on the road. I think we did that in a unique way- we didn’t close the doors.”
With a group like Broken Social Scene, where all the members are also involved in other projects, it can be difficult to tour, make music, and just generally stay together. Not so for these musicians, however, as they have found a way to not only stick it out, but to become one of the most relevant bands of their time. “I ducked out of a few tours because I had a baby and because I play in another band,” Spearin shares. “Emily [Haines] and James [Shaw] from Metric also played in the band and Leslie Feist played in the band and everybody had their musical projects. Instead of making everybody decide, we just kept the same spirit of community and tried to keep that going. What’s been exciting is that all the same bands we used to play all over Toronto with, we see their posters everywhere we go in the world. This little community blossomed into a traveling…” he trails off as he searches for the perfect noun. “There’s a great word for it but I’m not a writer,” he continues and we both chuckle. “When you write this, find a really good word to describe what I’m trying to say,” he adds. How about coterie? Their little community blossomed into a traveling coterie.
Coming from so many different musical backgrounds and taking part in various other band projects does affect the way that Broken Social Scene writes songs. “It can be difficult because the essence of a band like this is compromise,” Spearin admits. “Not in a bad way, but in the sense of working together and not being bullheaded and forcing your ideas through. When you’re in a band that’s based around collaboration, it can be very frustrating because you have a vision of the way a song is going to go, and you really want it to go this way, but other people in the band- whom you love and respect- want to take it in a different direction. What ends up happening is we start campaigning with other band members saying, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if we did this?’ It’s exhausting sometimes.”
But the musicians of Broken Social Scene hurdle this obstacle by keeping open minds and taking time to express themselves through individual projects. “It was really healthy of us to take a break,” Spearin reveals. “Kevin did the Spirit If record for the Broken Social Scene Presents series, so he got to steer the ship fully for that record with Ohad [Benchetrit] and I producing. Brendan made his record with the help of us, but he was the one who had the final say. I made a record at the same time and Andrew [Whiteman] put out a record with the Apostle of Hustle. So we all had our chance to see our visions through and then when we came back to do the Forgiveness Rock record, we were ready. We were ready to start getting other people’s ideas in and it was exciting again. Then to do it in Chicago was fantastic because, like I said, we got a lot of influence from the Chicago music scene in the 90’s so to go and work with John Macintyre was a dream of particularly mine and Kevin’s and Justin Peroff’s, the drummer. So it was very exciting to do. And here we are now.” Spearin laughs.
It’s been a little over one year since Forgiveness Rock was released to critical acclaim. I have so much that I wish to know about the creation of the album, I string together a slew of questions into one breath- what was the goal in making the record, was it achieved, and what’s next? “The answer is sixty-three,” Spearin answers with a smile. We both laugh at that. “No, I’m just being cheeky,” he continues. He attempts to answer all my questions in an orderly fashion. “The goal…the goal kind of….no, there wasn’t a specific goal. There wasn’t a lot of pressure when we came back together. We weren’t trying to write #1 hit songs. Again, we were writing for ourselves. There was a lot of playing around in the studio, we wrote tons and tons of songs. We had to pick the ones sounded the most complete, or sounded the most realized. Then the record just kind of came from that. I suppose the theme of forgiveness, because we put that in the title, was a sense that came through the process. Not so much of an ending forgiveness like, ‘Ok, it’s all over I forgive you,’ but a sense of starting again. In order to move on in your life you have to let things go. Forgiveness is not holding on to things, it’s just forgetting about it basically. It felt like kind of a fresh start for the band.”
If Broken Social Scene was in charge of picking the headlining lineup for Coachella 2010, what bands would they select? “Oh dear,” Spearin sighs. “You know what? I’m not good at that kind of thing.” I assure him that he doesn’t have to be good at it, just tell me who he would like to see closing out the hot desert nights on the mainstage. “Here We Go Magic,” he answers finally. “They should be headlining this whole thing. I don’t know why not. We toured with them in the fall and I love them, as people and as musicians and for the music that they make, I just love them. I’m not an expert in pop culture, you have to talk to Kevin or Brendan about that. They know all the bands. I don’t have a memory for people’s names or band names and that sort of thing so, Here We Go Magic. Although I’m thrilled that Arcade Fire is headlining tonight because they’re Canadian and we’ve been fans of theirs for a long time. I saw them at the Rivoli in Toronto in front of 150 people and now they’re headlining festivals. I just love it. They’re great people and if there’s a band out there that deserves to be admired it’s them. They’re good role models, they’re doing good s***, they’re trying to improve the world.”