At the turn of the 21st century, few predicted the overwhelming influence that Canadians would have on music in the coming years. With apologies to the Arcade Fire, indie-rock supergroup Broken Social Scene is the leader of that movement. Composed of a revolving cast of some 19 (or so) members of Toronto's boundary-pushing music community, the collective combines the varied and distinct talents of its members to create epic, otherworldly sounds.
The band didn't just change Canadian music from a punch line to a global trendsetting phenomenon; it also changed the idea of what it means to be in a band. But strangely enough, when BSS co-founder Brendan Canning is reached at his Toronto home, he seems most excited to talk about soccer.
"Yeah, I've got semifinals on Sunday," he says. "Maybe I don't have quite the speed I once had, but I think I'm becoming a stronger player. I actually busted some guy's nose this year, which was a strange experience. It's a really competitive league."
Competitive isn't a word usually associated with Broken Social Scene. Formed in 1999 by Canning and Kevin Drew, the band's beginnings were sparse in terms of personnel and sonics. Its first album, 2001's Feel Good Lost, was a spacey, atmospheric and mostly instrumental effort put together by the pair with the help of drummer Justin Peroff and a few other friends.
To infuse the live show with more action and personality, they often invited other Toronto-area musicians and friends to contribute. This list now reads like a who's who of indie rockers: Metric's Emily Haines, Jason Collett, Apostle of Hustle's Andrew Whiteman, Leslie Feist, and Stars' Torquil Campbell and Amy Millan, among others. These live collaborations eventually became more permanent and collaborative, defining the music that BSS would make over the course of its next two albums, 2003's You Forgot It In People and 2005's Broken Social Scene.
Broken Social Scene's music calls to mind a kind of idealized personal freedom — like the feeling of rushing down a deserted highway with the windows down — even as it harnesses the power of intense and focused collaboration. In fact, it's as though the collective nature of the band allows Drew and Canning to access another dimension of pop music that is still from this planet but existing on a plane that has been hidden from view.
Standout In People cuts "Capture the Flag" and "KC Accidental" are energetic, gyrating pop numbers, while the quiet emotional power and sparse, deliberate arrangement of "Anthems for a Seventeen-Year-Old Girl" (along with the sleepy nostalgia of Emily Haines' effects-laden vocals) shows that the band can evoke feelings of dreamy solitude as well. On Broken Social Scene, the bouncing frenzy of "7/4 Shoreline" proves that you can actually dance to a song in 7/4 time, while "Fire Eye'd Boy" is propelled by hyperactive drumming and infectious falsetto vocal hooks.
Ultimately, Broken Social Scene's music amalgamates pop sensibilities with raw emotions and a collaborative spirit that feel honest and inviting.
"We just usually wait and see what happens when we get down to business and start recording, and see what sort of sound we've got happening for us," Canning says. "Everybody brings something different to the table."
This team spirit continues on the collective's latest endeavor, the Broken Social Scene Presents series, which so far includes Kevin Drew's first solo album, 2007's Spirit If... , and Brendan Canning's effort, this year's Something for All of Us. Both albums feature contributions from such BSS regulars as Charles Spearin, Feist and Millan. Canning's record is a smooth, danceable album, packed with catchy melodic motifs, atmospheric production, and constantly morphing bass lines and dissonant guitar riffs.
Something also features a new voice, Land of Talk's Elizabeth Powell. On this current BSS tour, she's doing double duty: Land of Talk opens, and then Powell joins the band onstage, covering some of the vocal parts originated by Haines, Feist and Millan.
The BSS Presents series is simply the next step for this collective — musicians who never seem interested in staying in one place creatively for too long. "I think it was just kind of the necessary evolution that was happening in this band," Canning says. "It was a chance to worry less about schedules of other people and focus on a more selfish kind of project, but at the same time sort of sticking with the Broken Social Scene ethos of just inviting your friends to come play music with you."
Though fans might be anxious for the next proper BSS record, it's clear that the group doesn't want to overthink where it's going. "We've never been that calculated as far as what's coming next," Canning says. "It might improve the longevity of the band if we keep ourselves guessing a little bit."
"Churches Under the Stairs," by Brendan Canning, from Broken Social Scene Presents Brendan Canning (Arts & Crafts):