Published Jan 01, 2006Last year it was Montreal's electronic community. The year before that it was Vancouver's pop community. This year, Toronto rocks. And this band wants the key to the city.
Kevin Drew of Broken Social Scene has spent the better part of 2003 on the road, away from his Toronto home yet reminded of it daily. "Everywhere we go, people are always asking what kind of city it is and do we know this band or that band," he says, on the last leg of their tour somewhere between Kamloops and Vancouver. "It feels wonderful to know that the 32 block radius that you live in is being analysed in Berlin and Louisville, Kentucky. Some people were wondering if all the hype is true, but it's not about us it's also the Constantines, the Fembots, Hidden Cameras it's about this town, and there are enough records to back up everyone's opinion."
Broken Social Scene's You Forgot It In People is only one of many recent Toronto triumphs. While Drew and I discuss our favourite albums of the past year, not only are most of them Canadian, but many hail from Hogtown. And then there's the even bigger picture: add a few more names to his illustrious list, including Jim Guthrie, Great Lake Swimmers, Nathan Lawr, Deadly Snakes and Do Make Say Think. Now take the extended family who share members with all of the above, spread across Winnipeg, Montreal, and expatriates in Paris, L.A. and New York. This discussion would then include: the Weakerthans, Stars, Metric, Feist, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Jason Collett, the Dears, Russian Futurists, Royal City, Two-Minute Miracles, Polmo Polpo, Barcelona Pavilion, Gentleman Reg, Matthew Barber, the New Deal, Barzin, Rockets Red Glare and Raising the Fawn. Throw in Ottawan Jim Bryson for good measure, for his excellent single "Sleeping in Toronto" alone. What, you want a flowchart?
For once, Torontonian tunnel vision seems perfectly justified. What's more, half of that list has signed to labels either outside of Canada or with excellent presence abroad, often retaining Canadian indie links. So what happened?
"I believe things started changing with home studios, when a new generation in this town grew up with new influences," Drew theorises. "People just started taking risks, including engineers, because there was nothing to lose. There was no major label bullshit. All you had to do was make records. Even though you can't hear shit on the radio, it didn't matter anymore. At stores like Rotate This and Soundscapes, CDs just started flying out the door. People wouldn't have that hometown bias anymore: Oh, its just a hometown band, I don't know if I need to buy it.' Go to the local indie section in any store, and it's so vibrant and eclectic, there's everything you could ever want."
Broken Social Scene has been the band whose tide has lifted all boats. It started when they released the album last October to five-star critical consensus from every Toronto paper. Both that and their subsequent Juno win could be cynically attributed to the fact that everyone in the Toronto scene knows someone in BSS personally, but that still doesn't explain why they sold thousands of copies in local record stores on word of mouth alone, well before they signed a distribution deal with EMI Canada. Or why they got a 9.9/10 review on Pitchforkmedia.com, the influential American website whose vocal support of the band may be single-handedly responsible for their international momentum. Or why they're selling out shows in New York City and elsewhere. Or why they signed a major label deal in the UK, while their own indie Arts and Crafts continues to build its own clout.
What is it about this record? It's not necessarily the songs, which with a few exceptions favour sonics over songwriting. It's not the lyrics; vocals are treated texturally, not the dominant instrument in the mix. It's not the musicianship, even though the authoritative finesse of Justin Peroff's drumming, Andrew Whiteman's fiery guitar playing, the textural tactics of Kevin Drew and Charles Spearin, and Brendan Canning's melodic bass lines are all exemplary. It's not the production because when has great production alone kept you coming back to listen? even though Dave Neufeld deserves more credit than anyone for the way this record falls into place.
The "it" is the Social Scene itself. The variety that comes with surrendering ego to a musical potlatch. The beauty of community. The belief that we should never settle for a compromised existence when it comes to the things we truly love. The knowledge that the status quo isn't good enough. The ability to carve truths from ambiguous parameters. "It" is textbook Canadian identity politics, really: the expression of individual creative will through the power of a collective.
Amazingly, BSS convey all of this through sonics and sound, not through setting John Ralston Saul essays to music. They'll leave the sloganeering to the Dears' Murray Lightburn and Godspeed's projectionist. Instead, Drew says the band's message is defined by their social fabric. "I'm a forever child, as many are in this car," Drew begins with his predictable passion. "I'm married. I'm in love. And our band has children, so there are a lot of forever' issues here. For a lot of the band members, their hearts are constantly outside of them. It doesn't have to be so [lyrically] obvious that we're trying to escalate hope in people. Hope is a word that is used in so many rock'n'roll references, but I don't think hope can ever be an overused word. Especially now, when we're living in a world where everything's going backwards. That's why we called the album You Forgot It In People, because people have to remember it in themselves, that it's up to them.
"They figure the biggest disease in the next five years will be depression, so we're not into staring at our shoes," he continues. "We want to celebrate every time we play. We're into making fools of ourselves and trying to make great music. In Calgary the other night, we stood at the door and greeted everybody as they came in. If you can get inside of them and let them know that you really appreciate them, then they get into it more."
As for their next move, Drew says they have every intention of killing the hype and starting again. "We're going to put out this little b-side album, which will help people cut us down a few notches, cool down a bit, and then we'll try to make another opus," he says, only half-joking. "No one's going to take the music away. Maybe they'll take the people away. Maybe people will leave. But in terms of why we did all this in the first place, that will never leave.
"But I'm proud." He's on a roll. "Tell all the papers that we're fucking proud to be a part of all these incredible bands. I've tried very hard to get those bands out there and talk them up. We're preachers of where we live. Toronto is the only reason we're here, and that's the truth."
Are you an official ambassador yet, Mr. Drew? Have you talked to your fellow hope peddler and new mayor David Miller yet? "Well, I might get the key, now that it's him," Drew laughs. "I heard they gave it to Nickelback, and I was so fucking pissed. What the fuck has Nickelback done for the Toronto music scene?! I'd love the key to the city!"