Interview: Brendan Canning of Broken Social Scene

Drew Fortune :: Wednesday, March 24th, 2010 5:59 pm

Broken Social Scene’s Brendan Canning is an odd Canuck. Last week, I sat down with him at The Driskill Hotel in Austin, TX amidst the surrounding chaos of SXSW. You probably know him best as the bearded and bespectacled multi-instrumentalist, with wild, unruly hair. When I sat down to meet him, I hardly recognized Canning without his iconic facial hair. It struck me as strange that beneath all that growth, Canning is actually baby-faced, with an impish sense of humor and very Dude (or El Duderino-like train of thought, if you’re not into the whole brevity thing). After a long hiatus, and Broken Social Scene Presents solo releases from Canning (Something For All Of Us) and BSS frontman Kevin Drew (Spirit If…), the BSS gang is once again back with a new release (Forgiveness Rock Record out May 4th on Arts and Crafts). After a string of SXSW shows debuting new material, Canning is excited to be putting the band back together. He’s also excited about his new bike, working in Chicago, and having an I-Phone.

It’s hard to believe it’s been four and a half years since the last Broken Social Scene record. Was the time off primarily inspired by Kevin and yourself wanting to record solo albums?

Brendan Canning: That’s part of it, but the time off just kind of happened naturally. Kevin had a bunch of songs that really seemed like “Kevin” songs and my next door neighbors in Toronto had been calling me and saying, “Hey, you gotta come up to the studio sometime.” I actually started working with my neighbors on the record because they were doing the music for Project Runway, and they said, “Hey man, we really need some help with this T.V. show.”

I’ve never seen the show. Is it all bad house music?

BC: No, no. Well, on the Canadian version, there’s rock tunes. The Canadian version is way better than the American because we have Iman hosting. She’s a proper, classy and very determined host. So, we basically laid down guitar licks or little keyboard things for the show. I ended up liking these dudes, my next door neighbors, and it was kind of one of those deals where I’d open up my back door and I’d see them, we’d smoke a joint, and the next thing you know we’re making a record together. At the same time, during the break, everyone was doing different things. Charles (Spearin) was doing Do Make Say Think, Andrew (Whiteman) was doing Apostle of Hustle, and Charles and I scored a movie called The Tracey Fragments.

That was an interesting flick…

BC: You saw that movie?! Hell yeah. Well, there ya go.

Was the break spiritually and creatively rejuvenating for the band and yourself?

BC: It was good to have a little time apart for sure. All the things you just mentioned really. Everyone wants to not hear my opinion of what I think of their piece of music, and I don’t always want to hear other people’s opinion on my piece of music.

BSS seems like a really supportive unit though…

BC: Oh yeah, it definitely is. It’s not like everyone wasn’t a part of my record, and not like I wasn’t a part of Kevin’s record. I almost made the cut on Charles’ Happiness Project record, and I probably gave Andrew some A & R notes and wrote some guitar licks on his stuff, so it’s all sort of family-oriented.

What brought you to Chicago for the new Broken Social Scene record. Was it primarily the chance to work with John McEntire (Tortoise, Sea and Cake)?

BC: Yeah, pretty much.

What does he bring to the table in terms of recording?

BC: I think people will just have to check out the record, you know? It’s not so much that I can really say what John brought, but I think you’d have to hear these new songs live and listen to the recording. You can slice it any way you want. It still sounds like a Broken Social Scene record, but this is a chance to hear what John McEntire brought to the party for a Broken Social Scene record, steering the ship in a boat that already has so many captains.

Did some of that Tortoise jazz vibe creep in at all?

BC: I can remember being in my band in 1996 and I’d be playing some bass licks and my friend would say “God, that’s really Tortoise-y.” And I can go back to those recordings and think that I was probably in the same mindset that Tortoise was in. I didn’t have the same freedom or benefit of having players as skilled as Tortoise at the time, but McEntire and BSS like a lot of the same kinds of music. We both read Wax Poetics, and recording the new album was a great learning experience. He’d play a piece of music from Serge Gainsbourg or something and we’d both be like, “That is such a dope string arrangement.”

As you guys gain a wider audience and get more fame…

(Canning interrupts, holding an advertisement for the Pitchfork Music Festival) Except, look at how fucking small our name is on the bill here! What’s that all about? LCD Soundsystem…dammit, I’m pretty sure more people could sing a Broken Social song than an LCD song.

No argument here.

BC: Yeah, whatever.

As you get a wider fan base, how important is social media to you for keeping in touch with fans?

BC: Uh, I pretty much keep in touch after a show. I’m not so interactive in the social media thing. Some days I feel like I really should be. I’ve got 700 photos on my phone here that I’m just waiting to put up on some site. I guess it would be good to sorta throw your thoughts up on Twitter or whatever.

I think I read somewhere that you didn’t have a cell phone until a year or two ago.

BC: Yeah, I’m only about a year in on my cell phone here. I don’t know what I was afraid of really. Maybe being too reachable? I really like having the I-Phone though. It’s great for taking pictures. In my line of work, you can’t really survive without a cell phone now.

Going back to Chicago, is Broken Social Scene inspired by the environment of the recording? Did Chicago play a part in the inspiration process of the new record?

BC: Yeah, Chicago is a great city. Beyond it being a great rock and roll town, and beyond it having my favorite club The Metro…I actually just did a 300 word blog about why I think The Metro is the best club in the world. We played Metro the day after the White Sox won the World Series. We stayed in Orchard Park, we recorded in Wicker Park and spent a lot of time in…oh man, what’s that street? Whichwood?


BC: Yeah, Wrightwood. Were we actually on Wrightwood? Anyway, we ran into a lot of cool people. Folks found it strange that we were recording in Chicago. We rented bikes. I bought a bike, but it’s still at Soma Studios. Chicago is very flat…isn’t it? Wanna check out a picture of my bike? (Canning proudly shows a picture of his dog and a picture of a bike that reminds me of Pee-Wee’s sweet ride in Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure). Oh, look at that! A text from my girlfriend. Now I know where to be in a half an hour. The joys of having a cell phone. Here’s some more pictures. Here’s some random soccer tournament, here’s my dog again, there’s my old bandmate, my dog again.

What kind of dog is that?

BC: I got a little Chihuahua. Well, he’s not that little. He’s a little motherfucker though. Anyway, we were lucky that we got to work and record in Chicago. We’ve done some recording in London as well, so I think any opportunity you get to live, breathe, and make music in a different city is always good. It’s important to plant your seeds, not literally for all you ladies out there, but um, yeah. I love Chicago. I spent a lot of time and money at Reckless Records and Dusty Grooves.

Do you think you’ll release another solo record? Did you feel vulnerable to criticism going solo?

BC: It was really a good growth experience for me as a vocalist, or a lead vocalist, on a lot of tracks. It was kind of exhilarating to take the melodies and not pass them off to someone else like I’ve done in the past. When I went out and did the solo stuff, we were touring as Broken Social Scene, so it was a situation where we’d throw in 4 or 5 of my tunes into the set, but I had no ambition towards going out and forming a new band that wasn’t Broken Social Scene. I thought about it long enough to think, “Well, who the fuck would be in the band?” It really would have been a manner of tracking down the same guys that did the Spirit If…tour, so what’s the point? It was great, because we already had a built-in audience to showcase my new material if we were touring as Broken Social Scene, so it just made sense. I’ve got a bunch of other tunes kicking around that aren’t Broken Social Scene songs, but for now, it’s Broken Social Scene time. There are a few times when I sit around and think, “Well fuck. I gotta branch out. I’m bogged down by this.” And other times when I think, “We all give to this one cause, which is Broken Social Scene.” That’s really the way I feel. We’re all better for it in the end. There’ll always be time to form another band and go out on tour. This is Broken Social Scene’s time.

I interviewed Emily Haines not too long ago, and I asked what keeps the Broken Social Scene unit together, and she said you guys are closer than family.

BC: Yeah, that’s pretty much the case. I see the band more than I do my family. Family isn’t necessarily your blood, but your heart connection.

What’s your motto for happiness?

BC: Motto for happiness? Oh man.

You seem like kind of a spiritual seeker.

BC: Oh man. Well, I guess my motto is take it easy on yourself. Take it easy on yourself and others. Be forgiving.