Interviews

The Eternal Optimism of Broken Social Scene

Returning after seven years with 'Hug of Thunder,' Kevin Drew, Brendan Canning, and Charles Spearin share how they're trying to remain hopeful.

by Sarah MacDonald
Jul 5 2017, 2:29pm

Photo by Norman Wong

Broken Social Scene reminds me of every Toronto summer. The feeling of a memory is deeply embedded into the indie rock band's DNA and summer in Toronto is a lot like that: you're excited for it, yet too soon mourning its departure and thinking about what was. Summer in Toronto is soft, pink clouds at dusk that resemble thick cotton candy. It's the chugging of streetcars on tracks and dinging bells on bicycles and footsteps on hot pavement that soundtrack our hazy, humid days. A Toronto summer is one where you'll have a tall can in the park, hidden from the cyclist police brigade. It is hours spent on a backyard patio opening your heart out to a friend. It is the neon lights of a club or a DIY space or an after-hours bar; sweaty and sticky. It is the search for magic and the preservation of optimism.

Broken Social Scene try to embody optimism, even when individual members struggle to reconcile realities before them. At The Rivoli on Queen Street West, main BSS spokesperson Kevin Drew talks about how he was suffocating. Along with other core members Brendan Canning and Charles Spearin sitting upstairs in The Rivoli's emptied out bar and pool room, Drew gives context for the last song on the band's new record Hug of Thunder called "Mouth Guards of the Apocalypse." Drew says animatedly: "I had a mouth guard this year that helped me breathe again. I was suffocating. I was suffocating in thinking I was having panic attacks in my sleep. I didn't realize that your tongue is what helps you breathe the most. I got to thinking about how our subconscious was being attacked and we don't really see the effects of all that's happening around us." Hug of Thunder, out July 7 via Arts & Crafts, can be characterized as a group of people reconciling with the external world, and trying to remain hopeful. "You're dealing with a lot of people who are older and are holding on. And that's what so many people are doing right now," says Drew.

Their fifth album comes seven years after their last release, Forgiveness Rock Record. The band, sometimes known for teasing a hiatus, says that they needed to make Hug of Thunder and at this time. With Forgiveness Rock Record, Canning says, "it was a band being a band" but this record is something more. Hug of Thunder as a record title (which they say was coined by Leslie Feist, cheekily at first but then seriously) is actually sincere and I almost feel bad for being cynical and asking what it meant. "A hug of thunder is glorious…," Drew says before Spearin chimes in, adding: "Think about being in a canoe, and it's calm and then you hear thunder and it kind of wraps around you and this… you suddenly become so small and humble by the whole world. It makes you feel like you're part of everything, you know? You suddenly aren't thinking about your whole world. You're… like a piece of the entire world." See: eternal optimism amidst an oncoming storm.

But more than anything, Hug of Thunder is a Broken Social Scene record the way we know and remember this band: it is bombastic, not overwhelming; tender and cautious. It has, as Drew says, "hopeful horns" with sweet melodies and piercing, direct lyrics; earnest sounding guitars and jubilant explosions of sound. It's not exactly "Lover's Spit" or "Anthems For A Seventeen-Year Old Girl" but the spirit of those songs, among many, many others, remain. "From "Halfway Home" to "Please Take Me With You" to "Gonna Get Better" to "Towers and Masons," we're all… looking at where we are at. You know, "Vanity Pale Kids" is basically that. Embracing what, as cheesy as it sounds, what our hearts are feeling more than what our minds are feeling because it's very confusing out there for a lot of people who can't obtain too much information in one go," says Drew. Broken Social Scene is a collective comprised of people who wear their sometimes bleeding hearts on their sleeves, asking you to feel it too.

Photo by Norman Wong

Broken Social Scene is representative of one part of Toronto's far more diverse and expansive music scenes, spanning multiple genres and parts of the city. I ask Drew, Spearin, and Canning if the group can be deemed somewhat of a legacy in their genre—having been at this for over 15 years—because both arts media and millennials romanticizing the joys of their youth and prioritizing nostalgia love legacy narratives. "We are very much a product of Toronto," says Spearin, graciously and steadily. "All the bands that we knew back in the day, all the communities, the city produced a lot of great musicians. They are everywhere. There still are. The city is just alive with great talent and we happen to be one spider web of that great talent." A spider web is an accurate analogy: there are 16 people listed as part of Broken Social Scene for Hug of Thunder and those people make up some successful Canadian indie rock groups (ex. Metric, Stars, Do Make Say Think) and solo artists (ex. Feist, Emily Haines and the Soft Skeleton.) Everything and everyone is threaded together.

Toronto is mysterious and yet completely transparent; self-conscious to a fault but absolutely extra when the mood strikes. It is complex; a grid of fluid, lived experiences, artistic innovations, and history. To the rock scene right now, the city seems bleak as vital musical spaces have shuttered their doors because of exorbitant rent costs and seemingly endless condos being built in their place. Hug of Thunder may not be an obvious love letter to Toronto. It, hopefully and likely, goes beyond the city's borders. But it is a testament to the place that raised them. Broken Social Scene is absolutely not the beginning or the end of music in Toronto or what is representative of Toronto. They are limited and lack some of the diversity the city is so full of. But Hug of Thunder and they still sound and feel like something that is ours, something that is the feeling of Toronto: gripped by realism, but striving for some kind of happiness.

Sarah is in love with Toronto. Follow her on Twitter.