At the turn of the 21st century, few predicted the overwhelming influence that Canadian music would have on music in the coming years. With apologies to the Arcade Fire, indie-rock supergroup Broken Social Scene is arguably the leader of that movement. Comprised of a revolving cast of nineteen (or so) members of Toronto's elite, boundary-pushing indie 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, though — it also managed to write a new chapter in pop music at a time when many thought that everything had already been done. But strangely enough, when BSS cofounder Brendan Canning is reached by phone 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."
"Competition" isn't usually a word 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.
In order to infuse the live show with more action and personality, they would often invite other Toronto-area musicians and friends to contribute. This group now reads like a who's who of A-list indie rockers: among others, Metric's Emily Haines; Jason Collett; Apostle of Hustle's Andrew Whiteman; Leslie Feist and Stars' Torquil Campbell and Amy Millan. These live additions eventually became more permanent and collaborative — and defined the music BSS would make over the course of its next two albums, 2002's You Forgot It in People and 2005's self-titled effort.
People is one the best albums of the decade, an experimental pop masterpiece that manages to feel warm and familiar, yet completely original, challenging and groundbreaking. The massive success of the album in Canada caught Broken Social Scene off guard, but Canning is very happy for the opportunities People opened up for the band.
"I named a song 'Been At It So Long' on [2008 solo effort Something For All of Us...]," he says. "I kind of thought it was a funny title since I've been doing the music thing for so long. Not overtly funny, but kind of dry funny. I feel like I've gotten to do a lot of cool things: travel the world, make records, embark on being a vocalist [and] score films. It's been really amazing."
Like the feeling of rushing down a deserted highway with the windows down, Broken Social Scene's music calls to mind idealized personal freedom and the best parts of being an individual, even as it simultaneously 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 — still from this planet, but existing on a plane that to this point has been hidden from view.
"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) showed that the band could evoke feelings of dreamy solitude as well. The bouncing frenzy of "7/4 Shoreline" proves that one can actually dance to a song in seven, while hyperactive drumming and infectious falsetto vocal hooks propel "Fire Eye'd Boy."
In essence, that's what really makes Broken Social Scene's music work: It's full of undeniable pop sensibilities but also challenges the ears, while being chock-full of raw emotion and in possession of a seemingly selfless, collaborative spirit that feels 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 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 Canning's Something For All of Us.... Both albums feature the familiar production style of David Newfeld and contributions from BSS regulars like Charles Spearin, Feist and Millan. Us... is a smooth, danceable album packed with catchy melodic motifs that float along on clouds of atmospheric production and constantly morphing bass lines and dissonant guitar riffs. "Possible Grenade" takes on a darker shadowy eeriness that has never been part of the BSS sound but works perfectly.
Us... also features a new voice, Land of Talk's Elizabeth Powell. On this current BSS tour, she's doing double duty: Land of Talk is opening, and then Powell will also be joining the band onstage, covering some of the vocal parts usually performed by Haines, Feist and Millan.
After seeing the latter singer's commanding performance with BSS at this year's Lollapalooza (not to mention her work on the amazing new Stars EP, Sad Robots), it's easy to imagine Powell might feel some pressure at the thought of trying to step up to the mic on the upcoming tour. When asked whether filling in for such big musical personalities was intimidating, she says, "Of course it is! Well, it was. But the band members did an incredible job at never entertaining my insecurities and so, like anything that doesn't get fed, they starved and eventually perished."
Land of Talk's new album, Some Are Lakes — which was produced by Justin Vernon, a.k.a. Bon Iver — definitely owes a lot to the collective nature of bands such as Broken Social Scene. (Especially because Powell is Land of Talk's only constant member, and she counts on collaborations with people like Vernon to help her realize its vision.) This is perhaps one of Broken Social Scene's greatest contributions to the indie music scene in general: It's changed the idea of what it means to be in a "band" and opened artists' minds to the idea of a constantly revolving door of musical contributions.
The BSS Presents series is simply the next step in the creative evolution of this collective of 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 project, but at the same time sticking with the Broken Social Scene ethos of just inviting your friends to come play music with you."
Indeed, even though fans might be anxious for the next proper BSS record, it's clear the group has no interest in overthinking where it's going in the future — perhaps because it's not sure either. "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."
9 p.m. Saturday, October 18. The Gargoyle, 6465 Forsythe Boulevard, on the campus of Washington University in Mallinckrodt Center. $5 for students, $20 for the general public.