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Friday, July 21, 2006

Putting pop back together

Broken Social Scene call Canada to arms

Special to The Japan Times

"I'd say Canada's music scene is very healthy at the moment," says Brendan Canning, founding member of Toronto's swollen indie supergroup Broken Social Scene. And he's not wrong. Dozens of diverse Canadian bands are becoming worldwide exports: Montreal's Arcade Fire have swept the globe, selling over 500,000 albums and even finding fans in U2, who have come on stage to their song "Wake Up" every night on their "Vertigo" tour. And other smaller bands are hitting the radar in the wake of Broken Social Scene and Arcade Fire.

News photo
Soon to play Fuji Rock Festival '06, Toronto's Broken Social Scene (Brendan Canning third from right) operate a revolving door policy that has welcomed a variety of musicians into their fold.

Canning's chuffed that his country is back on the music map -- not least because it means more recognition for his own band. "We've seen a lot of bands get popular in Canada and not anywhere else, but for us, our music is stamped in Canada and it's also stamped in the U.S., Europe and the U.K. But I don't want to be obnoxious about it. We're not like Arctic Monkeys or anything, but we're doing OK, and I feel proud to be a part of it."

Since BSS formed in Toronto in 1999, they've become one of Canada's most celebrated bands. With a floating lineup based around bassist Canning and Kevin Drew, the band's extended membership goes well into double figures, sharing musicians with Stars, Feist, Metric and others.

Following the release of their eponymously titled third studio album late in 2005, the band have been busy touring, playing a show as the backing band of grunge icon J. Mascis (of Dinosaur Jr fame), and organizing their own festival -- so busy, in fact, that Drew has announced a hiatus later on this year, sparking fears among fans that the band is in crisis.

It isn't, insists Canning. "Since Kevin said that, people think the band is breaking up or something. It's just, after we've finished the next few months of touring, we're gonna take a little break: as simple as that."

The band have earned a rest. After releasing their breakthrough album "You Forgot It In People" in 2002 and touring in its wake, they went on to work on the followup, a process that took years, and much honing. This, as well as working with their various side-projects, has left the band a little weary.

"There wasn't any break in between those records," says Canning. "At least, not long enough of a break to do what bands should be doing -- taking a couple of months out to get together and see where everyone's head's at. We haven't really had time to revamp the program."

With such a mammoth roster of band members, it's no surprise that BSS are a mite frayed. "The membership as it stands is a fluctuating thing, and as a result, people become attached to it and less attached to it for different reasons. If this were more like a military operation we'd either be wildly successful or it would have died three years ago," Canning laughs. "If you throw too much of a regiment at musicians you don't know what you could be getting yourself in for. With all the people in different bands, they have to schedule their lives around us. So we make sure it's a fun time for everyone to keep them coming back."

Canning's not a fan of huge festivals, but he's looking forward to his first Fuji Rock experience, when the band play there next weekend. But he seems bewildered when told that Happy Mondays are also playing.

"Happy Mondays?!" he sputters. "Jesus Murphy, that's amazing. I saw them in '91 at the Concert Hall in Toronto. I can't believe they're still gigging. Basically, you flash some money in front of any band and there will be a reunion happening before you know it."

Broken Social Scene's own festival takes place every year on Toronto's Olympic Island and this year saw the likes of Feist, Bloc Party and J. Mascis, with BSS headlining the event themselves.

"I prefer the smaller festivals that don't seem too overwhelming," says Canning. "Smaller mom-and-pop festivals with 5,000-10,000 people -- that's my speed. But at the big festivals, we get to play to thousands of people, which is always a good time."

Canning and Drew are currently trying to figure out which band members will be joining them on stage at Fuji Rock. "There'll be eight or nine of us," he says. "If we can find a trombone player we'll take one too. Spread the word! What about Happy Mondays, don't they have a horn section we could borrow? They must do. Or Madness! But they're on two days before us, they'll be gone."

You see, for Canning, the idea of pinching members from other bands doesn't seem so unusual: this approach has seen BSS playing with members from just about every recent noteworthy alternative band in Canada.

"Yeah, just about," agrees Canning. "We don't have many from the West Coast. We don't have The New Pornographers yet. We did have Owen Pallett from Arcade Fire for a couple of shows, but we're generally more Toronto-centric."

With Canada's music scene going through a renaissance, Broken Social Scene's efforts have not gone unnoticed. September 2006 sees the inaugural Polaris Music Prize, an award for Canada's best album of the year as voted for by the industry's elite. The band's self-titled album has been nominated and Canning is thrilled.

"There are no terrible bands on the Polaris shortlist. Awards are a funny thing, but if we were fortunate enough to receive the prize I'd gladly march up to the podium and give a two-minute speech. I could cry like Halle Berry did at the Oscars, but I'd need to practice. . ."

With their anything-goes mentality and lush, textured sound, Broken Social Scene are an important part of the blossoming Canadian music scene. Canning asserts that no band can predict its future, but seems confident that he and his gang will come out of their hiatus very much as band mates. And in the meantime, there are a few months of touring to get through.

His challenge to Japan? Find him a trombone-player, and get the beers in.

"I think our band could drink the Japanese fans under the table," he considers. "I'm pretty certain of that. Let's see who gets really drunk, and who can hold their own."

Broken Social Scene play the White Stage at Fuji Rock Festival '06 on July 30 at 3:50 p.m.

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