Thinking About Forgiveness: Broken Social Scene

Five years may not mean much to glaciers and sequoias, but in music, pop culture and politics, it’s huge. Consider 2005, a simpler time: Barack Obama was a freshman US senator, twitter was a sound a bird made, and the names “Lady Gaga” and “Vampire Weekend” were privy only to a select few. It was also the last time we had an album from the sprawling Toronto collective Broken Social Scene. That self-titled release received no shortage of critical love and even commercial traction, but it revealed an increasingly scattered Scene. Different members played and sang on different tracks, and the live lineup changed from one show to the next, depending on members’ availability.

BSS had become a victim of its own success, as what were once side projects–Metric, Stars, Apostle of Hustle, Jason Collett, Do Make Say Think and 2007 It Girl Feist–took off on their own, in some cases supplanting the mother ship in terms of pop attention. By mid-decade another Broken Social Scene album seemed an uncertain prospect.

That is, until 2008, a year in which new members signed on, and a rejuvenated BSS developed and spent months on the road. After aligning with a fresh set of ears, producer John McEntire (Tortoise, The Sea and Cake), a new full-length was finally in sight. And I do mean full-length. Recorded in Chicago and Toronto throughout much of 2009, Forgiveness Rock Record is absolutely epic, a 14-track odyssey that careens from fuzzy and frantic (“Chase Scene”), to bouncy and politically pointed (“Texico Bitches”) to swelling and dramatic (opener “World Sick”). In “Forced To Love” and “Art House Director,”  there’s some of the hookiest pop radio-friendly fare BSS have ever mustered, there’s a driving, immediate instrumental, “Meet Me in the Basement,” and the delicate, danceable “All In All,” which gives Lisa Lobsinger at  last a song to call her own. As for those other gals–Emily Haines, Amy Millan, and Leslie Feist–they turn in guest spots too, aptly enough on “Sentimental X’s.” When the band came through New York last week, I sat down with two of the men who have helped steady the good ship BSS for a decade (even when she was taking on water!), Kevin Drew and Charles Spearin of Broken Social Scene.

JOHN NORRIS: So, in say, 2006, it was it anybody’s guess whether there would be another Broken Social Scene album?  

CHARLES SPEARIN: Yeah, I think we were fed up with the process at that time. Everybody needed to go their own direction, make a decision, and have their own time. And then when everybody got back together, we wanted to be together again. It was a fresh start.

NORRIS: As you’ve said Kevin, as BSS members have moved on to other full-time projects, there’s no way that you can sort of pick up the phone and expect them to drop everything and show up when you say, “Hey, we’re doing a new record.”

KEVIN DREW: It gets harder and harder to ask the guys because they’re so busy and doing so well on their own. When we started, there weren’t all these managers and different labels. It can be difficult to get on the same page, but rewarding when it does happen.

NORRIS: You’ve also made the point that, by finally getting those old school members  to come back and guest on the new album, you avoid answering questions about why they weren’t included!

DREW: I was hoping that they would come around, if only for the basic idea of the history: “Why leave now?” What torture it would be to have to answer those questions again and again! But the main thing, of course, was the talent they put into it.

SPEARIN: And it was really nice that they all wanted to, participate. It’s not like anybody left the band with any bad feelings. There’s love and friendship and everybody understands that and wants to come back when they can.

DREW: And having Johnny McEntire on board and going outside of our city and being able to just purely focus and have fun and experiment and mess around with sounds. And we grew to love working in Chicago.

SPEARIN: There were so many songs, so many possibilities. It was really a delightful experience and the only hard part was deciding which ones to finish. We have a million three-quarter finished songs. That’s a nice problem to have.  

NORRIS: You played a show last year at North by Northwest that coincided with the release of an oral history of the band, This Book Is Broken. There the author Stuart Berman said he anticipated people wondering if it wasn’t a little too soon to be doing a retrospective book on this band. Did you guys ever have those kinds of reservations about it?

DREW: We had reservations from the get-go.

SPEARIN: I think it’s a good book but, in a way, I think it’s unfortunate because the interviews were done during a low point. I think it come across as a bit cynical.

DREW: I didn’t really do any interviews for it. He finally caught me in a hotel at like 2:30 in the morning eating grilled cheese, drunk. If you look at the interviews, they’re all starred because he’s taken the quotes from throughout the years of interviewing me. But he did a wonderful, wonderful job. In the same way we were torn over this film that we did [This Movie Is Broken]. Bruce McDonald did the film around last year’s Toronto Harbourfront show and made a little love story around it. And this is why I stopped asking people to do things, because Brendan and I, we really messed that up. We didn’t tell the band that it was happening. It was last minute. We were thinking it was gonna be this low budget thing, and it escalated and got out of hand. The next thing you know, we had played this amazing show, but the next day all it was about was this film coming out and half the people didn’t know anything about this film, and they got their backs up big time and there were phone calls from managers.

SPEARIN: It was not fun because it had been such a special personal experience for us to be on stage with all our friends. It was amazing, the “family”again. And all of a sudden the next day, there was this sort of accidental sense of exploitation and that was not at all the intention but suddenly it was all about the movie.

DREW: Back in the day, all this attention would have been welcome tenfold. But now everyone has their own way… We do things differently from Metric and Stars and Feist and they do things differently from us, and you have to respect that. If you don’t respect that it’s quite a tidal wave of apology letters.

SPEARIN: Of… forgiveness?

NORRIS: Well, speaking of that word, when a lot of people hear that title, Forgiveness Rock Record, the first place they go to that it refers to intra-band forgiveness, the reconciling of friendships, relationships, “X’s” as the song says. How and when did the album title come about? 

SPEARIN: During the process it came up then we kind of put it away for a while, but it kept coming back.
DREW: We couldn’t escape it. Sam Prekop [The Sea and Cake], God bless him, we went out to dinner with him and he said, “How’s the record going, what’s it sound like’? And I said, “It sounds like a forgiveness rock record.” He just looked at me and said, “That’s the title of your album.”

NORRIS:  I read Brendan or Andrew who recently putting “forgiveness” in more of a global political, social context.

DREW: That’s definitely what we were commenting on too. Because we saw the  Canadian music scene explode during the Bush years. And we were in America, down in Chicago only months after Obama was elected, and we were sensing everything that was going around. And there was a serious sense of limbo. We want our shows to have a church gathering feel, a gospel sort of affair.

SPEARIN:  There’s a fear of socialism in America. But we’re Canadian, and we don’t have that same fear. That’s sort of the essence of what we’re trying to do. And forgiveness is a way of sort of starting fresh and not blaming and pointing fingers.

NORRIS: Finally Kevin, you made some comments recently after a taping of a TV show in Canada that a writer ran with. He said you implied that this might be the last Broken Social Scene record, saying that you had said you thought it would be “silly” to still be in a rock band in your 30s?
DREW: This is what happened. He wanted a comment from me and, before I know it, we’re sitting on a park bench and he says, “Why’d you say it would be the last Broken Social Scene record”? And I said, “That’s not what I said, go and look at the show and you’ll see that is not what I said.” It’s not our last record. I just told you we’ve got 46 songs. And as for my line about being silly being in a band in your 30s, I was trying to insinuate that we are hoping that once we are done with this record cycle and touring that we can put our efforts toward something charitable. I know a lot of bands talk about this, but I was really inspired by what The National did with Dark Was the Night. I thought that was pretty incredible and I want to do things like that. I was really just saying that for us, if we’re gonna go out and say the things that we’re saying, and talk about forgiveness then there has to be something behind it.