On Saturday, September 23, MidPoint Music Festival welcomes Toronto baroque-pop supergroup Broken Social Scene for their first ever performance in the Queen City. Formed in the late 90’s by songwriters Kevin Drew and Brendan Canning*, the collective-style band is recognizable for its eclectic blend of rock, jazz and electronics, stream-of-consciousness lyrics, and frankly its sheer size - often with a dozen or so musicians crowded on stage at a time. The band, and the label it spawned, Arts & Crafts, features notable songwriters Emily Haines and Amy Millan, of Metric and Stars respectively, and the unmistakeable Leslie Feist. BSS’s fifth full-band effort Hug of Thunder, released in July of this year, and the accompanying tour, continue their tradition of collaboration and expansion with the introduction of new vocalist Ariel Engle (heard on “Stay Happy”).
* fun fact: Canning produced “Steal My Sunshine”
Amid a particularly dire case of fanboy urgency I reached out to Courtney at CincyMusic, who put me in touch with another life-long BSS member: multi-instrumentalist and producer Charles Spearin (also of Do Make Say Think). Aside from dropping some choice insider band trivia, he schooled me on the Toronto music scene of the ‘90s, and what led to the cultivation of a successful band from so many different creative voices:
“There was this amazing period in Toronto in the late nineties where everyone got so sick of bands that half the clubs closed and everyone who was left was blissfully trying to out-weird each other. Success was impossible and stupid anyway so we settled for unmitigated delight. Peaches was leading the charge and Do Make Say Think was welcomed with open arms… This was the rich manure that sprouted Broken Social Scene and others.”
He also has some poignant advice for success-driven musicians caught in a small but promising scene like Cincinnati’s: “I would suggest not to be so goal-oriented. Honestly, if you're trying to 'make-it' you're likely not having as much fun. And support each other. Especially support those who you don't quite understand.”
Check out the full back-and-forth below - he’s got some very insightful things to say. Also have a listen to Spearin’s solo album: The Happiness Project - he takes recorded interviews and turns them into jazzy melodic experimental compositions and it’s quite lovely.
What in the world gives us the honor of hosting you here in Cincinnati?
The word Cincinnati sounds like a drum fill. Possibly the greatest city name in the world. Especially when combined with Ohio. Cincinnati Ohio. Say it a few times and pay close attention to your tongue and lips. It's a soft-shoe dance for your mouth. We're so excited to say it for real.
I saw Feist in Bloomington in 2008, but I'm used to only seeing BSS on big-city festival bills. (What, did you get word my band did a BSS cover night at The Comet this past winter?) My first thought was that you've got to be bringing a smaller band, but from what I've heard you're making a whole thing out of it. Did the planets align?
Yes, precisely. We heard you did a cover of Song For Dee and then the tea leaves spelled out a big "C" and the wind was from the south and there were birds on the roof. So, it was obvious. Plus Dave Burton our tour manager had a dream that Gordon Jump was shrieking like a Caspian Tern which we took as being an auspicious sign.
What's your favorite song to play live?
Feist did a cover of Whole Lotta Love once when I was in her band and I finally got to rip the solo. Learned it when I was 17.
How long, on average, does it take for Kevin to write the lyrics to a song?
As far as I can tell his mouth writes the lyrics as soon as his ears hear the music. Occasionally he'll labour over a scrap of paper for 15 minutes or so. Sometimes even longer.
Who's the best guitar player in the band?
Did I mention I played the solo from Whole Lotta Love? But Andrew is pretty tight with his bizzaro chord inversions. And Justin the drummer shines like a little boy when he picks up someone's guitar at soundcheck and sneaks in a chord or two.
Is Canada better than America?
Absolutely, Canada starts with a hard consonant and has all those As. America is too slippery sounding, and with the emphasis on -mer- it's really not that good. Sorry. Maybe if you put the emphasis on the Amand take out the 'e' and made it sound more like amorous it could work. Just a thought. Croatia has a nice ring to it but Indonesia has got to be my favorite. What a word!
Much like Toronto in the 90s, Cincinnati is a big-small-town where everyone knows each other so everyone is in on everyone's dirt. Do you have any good stories about navigating cliques and drama (and/or double-booking) as you came up in the Toronto scene?
There was this amazing period in Toronto in the late nineties where everyone got so sick of bands that half the clubs closed and everyone who was left was blissfully trying to out-weird each other. Success was impossible and stupid anyway so we settled for unmitigated delight. Peaches was leading the charge and Do Make Say Think was welcomed with open arms. Double-bookings were not a problem because nobody came to the shows anyway.
This was the rich manure that sprouted Broken Social Scene and others.
And do you have advice for how to build a more collaborative atmosphere in the creative community here in Cincy?
Get weird. In all directions at once. And ffs enjoy yourselves as much as humanly possible.
You're coming up on 10 years out from having a book written about you, though perhaps it was a little premature for a retrospective. Still it's a great insight into how much work and time it takes to start a successful band. The albums you've recorded since, Forgiveness & Hugs, seem to me to be a different evolution of the band compared to the self-titled and earlier albums. Did your songwriting process change after airing out the band history?
I don't think anyone thinks about the book much. We all love Stuart but it's actually kind of unpleasant to read. I don't really know what to say about our evolution. We still work the same way, I think, but everything changes anyway. We always kind of make it up as we go along and we have lousy memories so nobody really knows how we fit into our creative arc. It's called: The Mo(living)ment.
How did the process change after recording Brendan and Kevin's BSS presents albums?
The "presents” albums were necessary because it's difficult to forever be compromising. Healthy, but difficult. I put out the Happiness Project at the same time and I can tell you that it's a glorious thing to always get your own way. Even if only for a little while. But we all know that we're good for each other so we always go back to the 10-way tug-of-war eventually.
Arts & Crafts offered hope for a solution to the musician brain-drain problem in Toronto. Similarly, here in the Midwest everyone assumes you can't "make it" unless you take your band to "get discovered" in NYC or LA. How repeatable is the collective-to-label business model?
It takes the right personality types. If you have people who are seriously excited about every aspect of getting music out to the people, from creating to selling and promoting, then it can work. But if not, you can still win. Music is just as rewarding if it's not your job. It's great to play music all by yourself, it's great to play with friends, it's great to play in front of a few people, it's great to play in front of lots of people. It all works. Success is a state of mind.
I don't know Elephant 6 as well, but it seems they had the same idea. Would you suggest sticking it out and building up the local scene like BSS did, or would you counsel talented musicians with the resources to make the big-city move?
I would suggest not to be so goal-oriented. Honestly, if you're trying to 'make-it' you're likely not having as much fun. And support each other. Especially support those who you don't quite understand. Peaches had to move to Berlin to be successful but there were those of us that loved her from the start.
Further, A&C was a counterpoint to what you saw as a toxic major-label-driven industry. Now we're seeing individual artists like Chance the Rapper break out despite, or maybe due to, more independence from Big Music. Now that we have the internet are music labels irrelevant?
*hums quietly to himself, then suddenly shrinks, turns into a sparrow, flies about the room two or three times, crashes into a windowpane, falls to the floor, turns back into a person, lies there naked mumbling something about the inescapability of death and priorities, quietly stands up, dresses and returns to chair*
"Skyline". It's a great song... Have you tried Cincinnati chili?
Sorry, what were you saying?