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Good sports
Broken Social Scene are team players
Related Links

Broken Social Scene's Web site

Camille Dodero chows and chats with Brendan Canning from BSS.

Elisabeth Donnelly reviews the Stars' (a side project of members of Broken Social Scene) Set Yourself on Fire.

Sports similes are the Swiss army knives of a motivational speaker’s tool set, so it’s amusing to hear a soft-spoken Canadian indie-rocker trotting one out to describe his band’s internal dynamic. Especially when that languid talker is Brendan Canning, the sweetly slouching Broken Social Scene linchpin who resembles Kyle MacLachlan trying to play Trey Anastasio with Gumby’s body. "It’s like all these guys on the screen here," Canning says when we meet at the Fenway’s Boston BeerWorks, referring to a college-football huddle glowing on an overhead television. "Their one common goal is to score touchdowns. Our common thing is to make music that we like, enjoy each other’s company, try not to fuck up, try not to fuck anyone over. And there’s plenty of high-fives going on, lots of ass slapping."

For the record, there isn’t any gang spanking earlier inside the BSS tour bus, where the band’s other figurehead, bearded and Dutchboyed Kevin Drew, is being groggily hypnotized by the Denis Leary flick The Secret Lives of Dentists. Otherwise, Canning’s pigskin analogy fits. In practice, the malleable bazillion-piece mob who are about to headline a sold-out Avalon function like a team, more fluid musical roster than rigid character-driven line-up. "It’s not like if the Edge quit U2 and they’d have a harder time continuing as a band. We’re not really about that," explains Canning, a Toronto bass/guitar player who’s seated in a wall booth beside the newest Scenester, vocalist Lisa Lobsinger. "We’re the open-door-policy band. Well, not totally." That as it occurs to him that a horde of hack musicians might show up on his doorstep. "We wouldn’t have anyone in our group who we didn’t like and respect. Otherwise, it would be 10 people talking about that one person, saying, ‘Why the fuck is she still around?’ " As it is, he’s already trying to institute No Talking Thursdays. "It’s not that utopian, like, ‘Hey, everyone! Join the party!’ Otherwise, we’d be a stinky band."

Over the last couple of years, Canning and Drew have recruited a string of fellow musicians/mutual friends to make up Broken Social Scene who mostly have primary allegiances to other projects. Like Peaches pal Leslie Feist (a/k/a Feist), an indie-styled jazzy chanteuse who is also tonight’s opening act, or Jason Collett, a rootsy solo singer-songwriter who couldn’t make the trip to Boston because he’s a brand-new father. ("Give it up for birth!" is how Drew will later rally the Avalon crowd, explaining Collett’s absenteeism.) Or Emily Haines from electro-bubblegum quartet Metric. Or the trio from Stars (Evan Cranley, Amy Millan, and Torquil Campbell), an indie-pop four-piece just kicking off a warm-up-slot jaunt with Death Cab for Cutie. Or the rest of them, two members from Do Make Say Think and many more, whose names fall by the wayside more often than the other 87 words in Fiona Apple’s second-album title.

As it is, even Canning has trouble remembering who makes up this particular tour’s north-of-the-border rotation. "We have 12, right?" he asks Lobsinger, a vocalist for moody-pop fivesome Reverie Sound Revue who’s been enlisted to cover Emily Haines’s parts for this stretch. He counts off 11 names and then realizes he’s forgotten somebody. "If we were counting on the bus, I’d be, ‘Okay, let’s go!’ I’d have left somebody for dead."

So far, this ethic of inclusion has served Broken Social Scene well. Their Juno Award–winning You Forget It in People (Arts & Crafts) established the orchestral collective as the sort of independent outfit who could not only play Central Park SummerStage (producer Dave Newfeld made bloglines for getting beaten down by the cops after buying pot in Washington Square Park) but also open for the Pixies at Hammerstein Ballroom. So their latest, Broken Social Scene (Arts & Crafts), debuted at #2 on Billboard’s Top Heatseekers chart. Now they’re selling out headlining shows in Chicago and Boston.

In a sense, the band’s splintering line-up is a victim of its own success. "The more known you are, the more records you start selling, the more your friends start selling their records and it gets more complicated," admits Canning, whose æsthetic contribution to Broken Social Scene’s artwork was coloring outside the lines of other people’s drawings. "We can’t rely on the members of Metric or Stars or Jason Collett. And Feist we have on this tour, but not always." Touring’s one thing, though; recording’s another. "When we need people to make records, I hope everyone will be there. If they’re not there, then it’ll be something else."

Broken Social Scene is definitely something else. You Forgot It in People was a deftly woven bag of self-contained singles, from melting indie-pop balladry to Dinosaur Jr alt-guitar noise; nothing on Broken Social Scene stands out like the wistful, journal-keeping banjo trot of "Anthems for a Seventeen-Year-Old Girl" or the sunny-day-highway state of "Cause = Time." One of People’s triumphs was the way the band settled into a quiet space, all woozy love and contemplative isolation and keening strings. But there the violins cried; here they mumble. One-liners like "I swore I drank your piss to see if I could live" have been replaced by discomforting declarations like "When I was in a kid/You fucked me in the ass." This isn’t necessarily bad, just different.

People was the aural equivalent of a Polaroid picture album; Broken Social Scene is more like a neatly framed photo collage. The sound is slicker and fatter — which could simply be the stretch marks of the band’s mushrooming membership. In "Ibi Dreams of Pavement (A Better Half)," after a Yoshimi-styled Flaming Lips crescendo, Drew sings as if he were riding the Scrambler, his voice kick-spinning in and out of the mix. "Major Label Debut" is a gliding, ruminative joy ride; the snare-slithering "Fire Eye’d Boy" gets you a speeding ticket. "Hotels" is sorta like a buzzed Four Tet burping up Prince. And "Handjobs for the Holidays," which isn’t really a dirty carol but still belongs beside Tom Waits’s "Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis" on this year’s Yuletide mix, is a Beach Boys-swooning, bass-thrumming, tambourine-shimmying exhalation. The big finale is "It’s All Going To Break," a guitar-and-trumpet anthem with Drew squawking as if he’d just stepped on a nail and complaining about that nasty childhood back-door assault. Strange way to end a record, but it seems to work.

"It’s a very respectful thing we have going on: everyone knows when it’s time to lay back and everyone gets their time to shine in this band," Canning insists, explaining what to expect tonight. And that’s true: live, Broken Social Scene are the indie-rock Funkadelic, interchanging players on almost every song, people appearing from the shadows whom you’ve never seen before, performing their parts, and then disappearing back into the darkness.

But Drew and Canning are the stars of the show. A sleepy-eyed Drew rolls into the bus with guitarist Andrew Whiteman (who’s also in Apostle of Hustle) and soundman/honorary BSS member Martin Davis Kinack. Lobsinger leaves to get prettied up for the performance. Canning asks how the movie was. "Disappointing," yawns Drew. Then the subject of Death Cab for Cutie comes up and a challenge is put forth. Could these four Broken Social Scenesters beat up Ben Gibbard and his indie posse?

"The four of us?" asks Whiteman. "Yeah, we could definitely kick their asses." Maybe Broken Social Scene are a tough team after all.

Issue Date: November 25 - December 1, 2005
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