Unless you’ve been living under a particularly hefty rock recently, you will know that Canadian indie rock collective par excellence Broken Social Scene are back with their first studio album in seven long years, ‘Hug Of Thunder’. And what a return. Having already been met with a squall of critical acclaim and giddy approval from their ever-faithful, the record finds the Toronto heroes once again hitting the sweet spot between impossibly joyous and politically conscious – as well as sonically ambitious and perfectly efficient – songwriting.
With all fifteen original members including Leslie Feist and John Crossingham back on board – and guest vocalist Ariel Engel making an impression – ‘Hug Of Thunder’ is a rejuvenated masterstroke that carries on from 2010’s ‘Forgiveness Rock Record’ in remarkable, typically vital fashion. Bounding with songs that rival their very best material of yore it’s an album that will surely see Broken Social Scene top myriad end-of-year lists come December.
Ahead of a busy second-half of the year, we talk to founding member and songwriter Brendan Canning about impetus, metamorphosis, political undertones and getting back at it.
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You’ve recently played a few dates in Europe, which included a show in Manchester featuring a guest appearance from Johnny Marr. Considering the mood in the city at that time, was that something of a moment?
Yeah, for sure. Although he has come out on stage with us before that was certainly a moment. How could it not be, after what happened to those poor kids at the Ariana Grande concert? Not just for the kids, but also the whole city and all the families affected. Johnny said he would come out and play with us but later said, “Oh, I don’t know if I can…”
At the last minute he decided to. I think that was really important. It was really nice to be on stage with him, and aligned with him, considering the occasion and how we have all loved so much music coming out of Manchester – music that we have all grown up with – over the years.
Not to create a theme as such here but, is it true that the genesis of ‘Hug Of Thunder’ stemmed from you guys basically getting together following the Paris attacks in 2015?
Well, I guess Kevin (Drew) remembers a conversation he had with Charles (Spearin) right after that happened. But I don’t want to have it seem like that was the impetus to say, “Ok, that’s it – we’ve got to pick up our rifles” sort of thing. I have always felt like this band had more to say, but when something like that happens you feel like you want to do something.
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I have always felt like this band had more to say...
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It’s just a kind of bizarre feeling that you’ve played a festival or a couple of dates with those guys in years past and then something like that happens, which is pretty shocking, obviously.
So it was an impetus but just one part of the bigger picture?
Yeah, for sure.
Going back to that time – late 2015 – were you, Kevin or anyone else in the band writing songs that eventually ended up on ‘Hug Of Thunder’, or was it more of a clean slate?
We started around Autumn of that year. We did a couple of festival dates in the summer – real eleventh hour calls that came in – and slowly but surely it all came together. I really feel like it was a question hanging around us, kind of, “Okay, when are we going to get back at it again?” Over time, and after a lot of coffee dates with our producer Joe Chiccarelli just urging us to get going, eventually we did. We’re a slow-moving train.
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I know it’s something of a truism that usually gets regurgitated around album release, but I really think this is one of your strongest efforts to date, and an extremely imaginative and hopeful record. Did it feel like a cathartic experience getting it out?
I’m not sure if cathartic is the right word but it certainly felt like we worked hard to make sure that this record was as good as it could possibly be. I mean, that should really go without saying but when you’re away and you really just don’t know what marketplace you’re coming back into – for lack of a better word.
I happen to be one who still goes to the record shops and buys records and you somehow question how it’s all going to be received and whatnot, and whether what you’re doing is on the right path. But at the same time, I think there were enough signs musically that we all felt strong enough as to know what was going on at the time.
Having listened to the album quite a bit, it’s feels quite accessible is pop-orientated without compromising what makes you such a rewarding band to listen to. Was that the aim and – whether you care for it or not – does it feel like you could potentially get a hit or two out of this?
It’s hard to predict that kind of thing but sure, I think we were making conscious efforts to be as economical as possible with some of the ideas that were getting laid down or the arrangements that were happening, and that at every corner it was an exciting moment to be in. I listened to ‘Stay Happy’ at my friend’s house last night on his Bose speakers and, you know, I really enjoyed the listen just for the fact that, sure, there is a lot of shit going on but it keeps you guessing and doesn’t stray you away from the essential parts of the song.
And that’s what we really tried to focus on – just making sure the song is served and it’s a satisfying listen from beginning to end. Whether there’s a bunch of would-be singles or even one, who knows? The initial reaction has been really great, and that’s been reward enough.
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We worked hard to make sure that this record was as good as it could possibly be...
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You’ve mentioned ‘Stay Happy’. That, ‘Gonna Get Better’ and the title track are - for me - instant highlights. There’s a real instantaneous quality, and as you say, a clear economical quality and concision that will likely translate to a new audience.
That’s we’re hoping for. That’s ultimately the endgame: trying to find a new audience and seeing what’s out there compared to when we first came out back in 2001 and 2002.
Touching on the themes threaded throughout the release – politics are deftly dealt with but the hope and the joyousness that has always been there in your music takes precedence. Did you have a conversation at any point about whether you would be addressing the zeitgeist explicitly, or would it be more the humanity beneath it?
When you give the record a listen from top to bottom, it’s not an overtly political record, but like you say, we’re speaking on humanity’s behalf about the things we’re all dealing with, on one level or another. No matter how you’re going to take it, it’s somewhat politically-minded as it’s a take on how to live life, which is ultimately what we’re aiming or striving to do, to give stories about the human condition and to be empathetic in that way. If that helps spark some political change in any way, shape or form, that’s ultimately one of the goals as well.
I like that. It’s almost infiltration in a way. I have a soft spot for ‘Protest Song’, and how it basically presents the idea that “we’ve been through this shit before, we’re going through it again”. It gives some perspective.
Those are Emily (Haines') lyrics and we all stand behind her. There’s no lyric that gets spat out on this record that we can’t all get behind. But yeah, it’s true. I’m reminded of touring down SXSW for the first time, where we weren’t ordering French fries any more, but Freedom Fries because France wouldn’t join in on the Iraq invasion.
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It’s somewhat politically-minded as it’s a take on how to live life...
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Nowadays, it’s just a different set of political problems. The world is going to be rife with problems at all times, but if you speak with Charles, he’ll just insist that the world is improving – no matter what is happening– we’re still improving as a society and a civilisation. I guess you just have to believe in that, in that positive aspect…
As you mentioned, Joe Chiccarelli produced the new record. Do you think he played a significant role in the economy of the record and just how openly accessible it is?
He really wanted to hone in and pull out the pop-writing nature that this band possesses. I don’t think it went far enough for him in some ways, in that regard. I sort of had to remind him that, you know, this is a hard band to manage, as far as what people are going to be interested in making. I mean, you would need to ask him but I don’t think any record Broken Social Scene sets out to make is going to be what you think it will be. It’s always a very curious thing when you get to the end and see, “Oh, look what we have here”.
Not only with Joe but we had Niall Spencer, who was working alongside Joe as he’s the engineer and main guy who runs the studio in Bath, Ontario, which is a couple of hours outside of Toronto. Between the two of them, I guess when you hear songs like ‘Stay Happy’, ‘Skyline’ or ‘Halfway Home’, they wanted to steer the band into something like a left-turn sort of pop sound. But I know he had his difficulties trying to figure out how this band works and how it works differently on different days.
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All fifteen original members contributed to the album, as well as Ariel Engel on guest vocals. Was it as important getting people together as friends as it was musicians?
That’s kind of one and the same because the friendships have remained intact over all these years. Maybe we don’t see some people as much as we’d like, but you look at someone like John Crossingham, who was a really late addition to this record. Maybe he’s not as much as a household name as Leslie Feist, but he still had a really big part in the songs in the early days – like ‘Pacific Theme’, ‘Shampoo Suicide’, even ‘KC Accidental’, and he did a banjo part on ‘Anthems For A Seventeen Year Old Girl’.
He came back and Leslie came back. She really wanted to be a part of a song from the ground on up versus how she would often come in and nail this hook that would all of a sudden just stick. Of course, it would be the first thing she’d sing because it doesn’t take her any time to figure out what the right thing to do is. She’s just got such a good instinct. But I think it was really important for everyone to be involved.
If anyone wasn’t a part of the record I think they would have been disappointed. We all started this thing together, we’re all involved in different ways but we all did it together and it helped launch the likes of Feist, Metric, Stars, Jason Collett and Do Make Say Think – it all helped push the idea along that something was happening here in Toronto and surrounding areas.
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We all started this thing together, we’re all involved in different ways...
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‘Forgiveness Rock Record’ was released seven years ago and remains one of your defining statements. Do you recognise that Broken Social Scene in comparison to how you currently sound and operate as a band?
I think we came together stronger on this record and maybe a little more unified. It feels that way to me. As for ‘Forgiveness Rock Record’, I can really stand behind a lot of the songs on that album. I haven’t listened to it recently but we did before going off on tour in order to learn songs like ‘Sentimental X’s’, because Emily was out on tour with us and we wanted to showcase some of the songs that we haven’t got to play in some years. Personally, I think we’ve stepped it up since then but all the albums just mark such different times and places.
You’re quite busy with shows and promo for the rest of the year. What has it been like getting out there and presenting this new material? Is that where the real reward lies?
Yeah, even those shows recently – starting in Manchester, ending in a show at Primavera in Barcelona and then playing a show two days later in our hometown – felt really rewarding. It’s funny, you come back after a long time away and you’re not sure what’s out there. And you’re testing these songs and they’re still finding their legs insofar as the live set-up goes. But we all feel quite blessed to be in the position that we’re in. We’re just gunning it out and still hopefully adding songs to the conversation.
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'Hug Of Thunder' is out now.
Words: Brian Coney