Brendan Canning – Broken Social Scene Presents

There are so many people in Broken Social Scene, you could be forgiven for not knowing them all by name.  By any measure, the most famous of the group’s 17-and-counting members is Feist, who left the band to do that iPod commercial along with the commercial success of her two albums.  However, the Toronto collective has never been about personal achievement, as BSS seems to foster a communal environment where each member’s input is equally necessary.  The result is two critically acclaimed albums – You Forgot it in People and Broken Social Scene – that mix chaotic noise with moments of melodic brilliance into work that is impossible to pin down. 

Recently, the group began the Broken Social Scene Presents series of albums, where one member takes the reins, starting with front man Kevin Drew’s Spirit If. . .  And more recently, bass player Brendan Canning released the next album in the series, Something for All of Us. . .   The album has all the telltale marks of BSS – the multi-layered sound, the unbridled genre-hopping, the rough edges and spontaneous moments – but also lets Canning step into the spotlight.

Recently, Canning talked to Glide about making Something for All of Us. . . and the logistics of taking a dozen people on tour.

Your album has been out for awhile now.  How has the response been?

My mug gets to appear in more local weekly rags.  I don’t think about it too much.  I’m happy that it’s out there in the world and I don’t have to think about finishing it anymore.  I suppose that’s the greatest thing about it.  Lots of people are saying very positive things about the record and my friends and family seem to like it, I like it, that’s all you can ask for.

There are so many people in Broken Social Scene that it’s hard to tell what each person brings to the band.  The interesting thing about the Broken Social Scene Presents series is that the records still sound like the band, but your input is highlighted.  Do you think that’s accurate?

I was given the reign on the album to have the last say on things, so ultimately there are maybe going to be a couple of things I get to indulge in more that I would not normally get as much time or freedom to do.

I wanted to ask about a few tracks on the album.  Where did “Chameleon” come from?

Yeah, that took a long time to finish, actually.  It started out as, just basically, the beginning guitar feedback loop that starts it.  It was all written around that to start with, and we kind of build it into this nice little ambient piece and then slowly you say, “Well, maybe we can do a vocal here.”  And then Jimmy Shaw comes in and we write a horn arrangement for it, and then Kevin (Drew) comes in and adds some keyboard to it, and we sort of mapped out the drums and Justin (Peroff) came in and did them.  So, it was just bit by bit, a real piecemeal song.  Finally, the ending crescendo vocals came after the mellow vocals.  They weren’t all recorded the same day.  That was sort of a four-month song.

You were talking about the ambient noise that starts the song – I noticed that that part is almost three minutes long, which could be a whole song in itself.  It seemed like an interesting choice to have that as the beginning of a song.  Do you think about that sort of stuff?

Whatever makes a piece of music that we all can agree on.  I try not to think about how long things are, as long as it keeps you captivated somehow.

What about “Hit the Wall?”

That was all based around this one little keyboard loop and I started adding a lot of bass parts around it and a dozen guitar tracks, probably.  There are three different people playing electric guitar on that song.  And the same thing again, it took a while to get the ideas going for it.  We wrote in the studio at the same time, so it’s basically like writing/recording.

Is that a normal way to work for you?

Yeah, I do come up with ideas at home, but generally, as long as I have a studio to write in and can capture things as I go, that’s how I’ve always preferred to do it, at least in the past few years.

What about “Love is New?”  That reminds me of The Rolling Stones’ “Miss You,” a little bit, but more intense.

Yeah, it’s got a little Rolling Stones.  I was thinking more “Emotional Rescue” maybe.  By the end of it, I was hoping for a little bit of Talking Heads and hopefully the horns helped bring a kind of African tinge to it, but once again, it takes a while for all these songs to come together before they really sound like something.  I like the way that one sounds live.  It’s been a real good one for us live.  It sort of broke up the set and all of a sudden turns it more into a little disco party for four and a half minutes.  And we’ve got a great saxophone player with us now, this guy named Leon Kingstone.

The last one I wanted to ask about is the instrumental, “All the Best Wooden Toys Come from Germany.”  You guys have always done instrumental songs on the Broken Social Scene records, and I wonder how you decide when a song should just be an instrumental?

I think it just sounded like it didn’t really need any vocals.  There was enough going on with the strings and the horn arrangements.  It sounded like a piece of music.  I don’t know what sort of sentimentality you’d want to attach to it lyrically or vocally.  It already seems to say enough, and it’s a cute little frolicking piece.  It kind of sounds like little elves in the workshop.

Something I noticed on this album that has always struck me about the band albums too is that there’s a sense of chaos in a lot of the music and a lot of rough edges.  For instance, the way “Something for All of Us” starts, it sounds like you’re just plugging in your guitars, screwing around a little bit, and then all of a sudden a song comes out of it.  It seems too random to be planned, but is that stuff planned? 

It’s not planned, that’s for sure.  If it was planned, it would take me a lot less time to record a record, I think.  On the opening track, there’s actually four and a half minutes before that, there was another tune written.  And on the outro of “Something For All of Us,” that was mainly just the outro of the song, but I just kept playing because I kind of liked the sound of it.  There are lots of different electric guitars going on.  You’re fucking around and you take a few things away and it starts sounding good.

Another example is in “Looks Just Like the Sun” from You Forgot it in People how there are random studio directions for the singer that are left in the final mix.  Are those things where you decide that you want the music to have those sorts of rough edges beforehand, or do they just happen?

It’s really just a matter of recording a bunch of shit and editing it down and seeing what makes good music for our ears.

There are many types of bands, obviously, but so many bands follow the model of four or five people getting together and then if there’s a member change, the fans get angry.  But, you guys seem to be a whole different model.  Do you feel like that constantly revolving cast of musicians playing with you is necessary to make the kind of music you make?

It’s just been necessary to keep the band alive.  It’s just, “Well, this person and this person have made time in their life available for us.”  We’re out on tour right now with the original lineup, basically, which has always been me, Kevin, Justin, Charlie (Spearin) and Andrew (Whiteman).  And now, with Sam (Goldberg) joining us a year ago, he’s definitely a solid member at this point, and Leon now on saxophone and with Liz (Powell) from Land of Talk doing vocals, we all want her to be as involved as possible.  But there will be shows, I’m sure, where she won’t be able to do a couple of gigs with us, but far be it from us to stop playing shows.

Do you ever wish you were in a more normal band – just a few people and that’s it?

All the years with this band, it hasn’t really made me yearn to start up something new and hit the road with another ensemble.  With any band, there’s always going to be a headache, one way or another.  I’ve been in lots of other bands and there’s always something to bitch about.  Nothing will be perfect and this isn’t perfect, but we get by all right. 

One of my first impressions of Broken Social Scene, which I also felt about Something for All of Us . . ., is that you seem to encompass so many styles that you don’t really have a style.  At the same time, there seems to be a very clear artistic direction even though there is no real specific genre.  How did that happen?

It’s just music, that’s all.  That’s what we’ve all been working at for a long time.  It’s going to come out in different ways on different days.  That’s about how I would wrap it up, you know?  Certain days, you’re going to feel like playing something, and certain days, the mood will strike you in another direction and you express yourself in whatever way you see fit.

Now, I met you earlier this year because I performed right before you at Bonnaroo, and I wanted to ask a question about your performance there.  You did a song called “Put Down the Bong and Vote for Obama,” which was pretty hilarious.  Where did that come from?

That was just kind of a spur of the moment CNN jam we did.  There was like a tent at Bonnaroo.  That was Kevin’s brainchild of the moment. 

It seemed like it was made up off the top of his head.

It was.  He didn’t sit at home and write that song (laughs).

Yeah, obviously he wasn’t slaving over it with a music ledger.

Yeah, should it be, “Put down the bong?  Put down the pipe?  No, I like bong.”  Yeah . . .  very funny.

Churches Under The Stairs – Brendan Canning

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