Wednesday, October 28, 2009
Stuart Berman: Broken Social Scene
The problem with writing a book about recent musical history is that someone—often even the artists themselves—will argue that it is “too soon.” Others will argue that until an artist leaves a sizable legacy behind, their story isn’t worthy of canonization.
So while Broken Social Scene remains an ongoing concern—they’re recording a new album this fall—it can be argued that the most fascinating part of this band’s career is already over, a point in history that’s tied up in a Torontonian musical renaissance that started around the turn of the century and has flourished ever since.
They were a band that weren’t really a band; they were an odd bunch of arty post-rock explorers and rock music refugees who created a hybrid outside of both worlds; they were everything and nothing at once, a blank slate onto which you could write the narrative of a new music industry, the soap opera about creative high school friends who made the big city seem that much smaller, and the document of how a ragtag collective of locals blew up internationally by forging their own sound from the salvageable detritus of the ’90s underground.
Stuart Berman has written all of these stories in his 2009 book This Book Is Broken: A Broken Social Scene Story, an oral and visual history of the band and the scene that spawned them. It’s a worthy time capsule even if you’re not a fan of the band; if you lived through this period of time in Toronto—or wish you did—it’s as intimate as a signed yearbook, but with all the macro implications and ripples of that time on full view.
Berman has done an excellent job of weaving a narrative from his source material, and I have only two minor complaints.
One: you can definitely sense that there are stories that the band did not want told; Berman is very cosy with the band, and this book was made with their full participation. Anyone who knows anyone in the band has heard of greater dramas than the ones relayed here. That doesn’t make this a kiss-ass, boring book—far from it—but there is certainly more to be said.
Two: Berman is far too modest, and should be far more present in his own book, even if this is an oral history. He’s one of my favourite music writers to read, in Canada or otherwise (Eye Weekly, Pitchfork), whose descriptive powers, brevity, wit and contextual precision are all impeccable. And because he knows this particular subject so well, I really wanted him to fill in some blanks that some readers will no doubt require.
Yet oral histories seem to be the way rock books are going: witness Our Noise, the oral history of Merge Records (to be discussed here soon) or Liz Worth’s new book about Toronto punk, Treat Me Like Dirt (also hopefully discussed here soon).
Here is an oral history of my conversation with Berman last month. He’ll be interviewed by his old friend Ben Rayner, and interrupted by his friends in Broken Social Scene, this Friday, Oct. 30 at the International Festival of Authors at Toronto’s Harbourfront. Info on that event is here.
September 4, 2009
Locale: Lakeview Lunch
Some people were somewhat surprised that this band got a book to themselves.
And part of why it works is that they represent many satellite bands—although you don’t discuss those as much as I thought you might.
It was important to keep the narrative on a straight line. A lot of those bands have their own stories that predate BSS, so to get into the full nitty gritty of those would take the narrative into 20 directions at once. And those satellite bands appeal to different audiences—Jason Collett and Metric have very different audiences—and they all have different trajectories. From the start, in discussions with Kevin [Drew], he didn’t want this to be just a BSS book, but about the community as a whole. And I recognize that the story actually starts in the ’90s, in that if [Brendan Canning's first band] hHead had become a multiplatinum international band, BSS wouldn’t exist. You have to document the early failures to show how these people ended up together at the same spot at the same time.
Was that actually viable, that hHead would be a huge international act?
I remember being 17 or 18 when they started breaking, and they seemed like the first Toronto band to sound like all the American bands I liked, and they were doing the best at it. There was a lot of hype around them signing to IRS.
So You Forgot It In People—which for many people was their introduction to this band—is seven chapters into the book. I would even say that the early chapters of the book are slower moving, because that’s the way their lives were then: figuring out what they were going to do, thinking about giving up, etc.
I would argue they aren’t slow-moving at all; those are my favourite parts of the book. Once the band takes off, the story continues to be interesting because the dynamic of the band is so odd: how can they maintain this and keep going? But at some point, it does become the story of every other successful band. So to me, the story of how this came to be is more interesting than four random guys in a room.
I’ve always said that the ascent is more interesting than when you hit cruising altitude. I wanted to get back to the time when Scott Kannberg of Pavement was at one of their shows and that was a really big deal, that one of their idols was paying attention to them. Whereas now, if Kevin told me he was collaborating with Thom Yorke, I’d think, (shrugs), yeah, okay. That’s his life now.
With the early stuff, there’s a difference between American and Canadian perceptions of the book. And Canadians are really interested in this period of time because they didn’t know the roots of the band. For Americans who aren’t really plugged into that community at all, it’s pedantic and slow and they’re waiting for the juicy post-success stories.
Their career isn’t over, but I feel that the story is over. From here on in, their success story is like any other.
This is the end of a certain phase in the band. A lot of these people will still be involved in the band, but not to the same extent. In order for the band to go forward at this point, they need to streamline, and it is about the core of Kevin, Brendan, Justin [Peroff], Charlie [Spearin], Andrew [Whiteman]. You might not have the same kind of representation from the satellite players, and you might have new ones come in as well. The first three records were the culmination of a certain narrative, and now it’s a blank canvas.
The other thing about the “too soon” argument, is that we’ve probably consumed more music in the last 10 years than we have in our whole lives before that, in terms of access to music being so easy now. Your iTunes playlist fills up with 80 new bands every week. I’m already thinking: “Wow, the Pains of Being Pure At Heart—was that only last February? It seems like five years ago.” I’ve consumed so many different bands between then and now, and they get pushed to the back of the queue. So the distance between now and You Forgot It in People is vast.
Even how much music has come out of this camp.
Exactly. People think BSS is in this inactive period, but they put out two solo records in the past two years, and that’s a good two hours of music.
This band is very much a microcosm for many stories: the Toronto community of the time, the way the industry changed and the way this band broke. Their narrative is very much one of the new industry model, the last 20 years of Toronto music history, and also international recognition of Canada, which was concurrent with their success.
I didn’t get a chance to go into some of those things. But I was trying to present this band as a new model of how things can get done. You could say that this was one of the first bands that the Internet broke, both in the sense of the Pitchfork review in the U.S. and the fact that there was this six-month gap between the Canadian release and the international release where people were reading about them online and going out and downloading it. And then the people who downloaded it came out to shows, and that becomes the new revenue model for bands, not based on selling records.
They were one of the first bands where right after the album came out and was distributed by EMI, they got caught up in DRM issues that the band was not happy about. This was the first time I had heard an artist openly say that they didn’t want that technology on their discs at all.
Another aspect of the band is the changing definition of indie rock, from being this dogmatic and anti-corporate stance to a band that is navigating and playing both sides of the field. They are self-sufficient: they make their own decisions and don’t answer to anybody. At the same time, they realize distribution is a valuable thing to have, and there are certain services that major labels provide that are still useful, like manufacturing and distribution. Now we’re getting into an era where TV licensing isn’t as heretical an idea as it used to be. Bands can still determine their own destiny without taking a hardcore, dogmatic stance against the man.
Part of what I enjoy about the early chapters is setting up the climate of the ’90s to explain how much the game was about to change. There was the false promise of the ’90s: a lot of excitement, but now not only does a lot of the music not hold up, but neither do the business models—from both sides of the corporate fence. How do you remember the ’90s?
From what I remember, it was the classic Canadian complex where you have a Canadian version of something that’s popular in the States. Which isn’t to say that there weren’t truly unique songwriters coming out of Toronto—there were people like the Rheostatics and Ian Blurton who had their own aesthetic. But when it got to a certain level of popularity, the videos you’d see on MuchMusic next to the new Nirvana video, it all seemed to be meshed into one thing. There seemed to be this mass of post-grunge bands who were getting picked up by major labels and getting big-budget videos.
There was a sense that Canadian bands were competing on the same level, but the reality of it was that no one in the U.S. cared. I remember going to CMJ and meeting American rock critics and they’d be making jokes about Canadian bands. I remember meeting a guy who worked at Atlantic when the Hip’s Day for Night album came out , and they got on Saturday Night Live. He was saying, “There was no sales spike on Monday morning—and you always get a sales spike on Monday morning! No one cares about Canada down here!”
I remember having a conversation with you at Royal City’s Alone at the Microphone release, with the Hidden Cameras, in December ’01, and it was an incredibly exciting night of music.
At Lee’s Palace?
Yes. And I remember you telling me: just watch, Toronto is about to happen—everywhere. And I said, that never happens! Nobody gives a shit about Canada and Canada doesn’t know how to market itself anywhere. I remember being impressed with your optimism and yet extremely suspicious. And lo and behold, you were totally correct and I—normally Captain Canada—was a defeatist.
I think Dave Bookman and John Crossingham make this point in the book. This was the first time you remember friends talking to each other about Canadian bands that they really liked. But you realized that the U.S. had 10 years on Canada in developing a network of clubs, college radio, alternative media…
Really? I don’t buy that, because that was during the '80s, and we had that infrastructure here, too.
Maybe I’m referring more to a condensed network, the fact that in the U.S. there’s a college town every two hours down the road with some kind of club and media. Whereas in Canada you have maybe 10 markets that are 10 hours apart.
And yet oddly enough, Canadian bands felt intimidated or they were worried about the border; people wouldn’t make those north-south connections and would haul themselves across the Prairies instead. By the time of BSS, things could happen everywhere at once; it was less about traditional ways of reaching fans.
The barriers to the U.S. were so much more formidable 10 years ago, even bands that signed to major labels like Thrush Hermit. They became one of 100 new major label acquisitions. It really was the era of throwing everything against the wall and seeing what sticks.
So the glut worked against us more than anything.
Reading this and Jason Schneider’s book Whispering Pines at the same time, it struck me that all these artists you talk about had the same “urge for going” that Joni Mitchell, Neil Young and everyone else had in the late ’50s, early ’60s, when there literally was no industry in Canada at all. There was no choice but to leave: there weren’t even recording studios here. And of course eventually we had all that, but then again by the late ’90s, people had abandoned all hope and moved to Berlin or wherever else to try and make it work.
There was a glass ceiling in Toronto, where you reach a level of headlining the Opera House.
And Metric are interesting because they were aggressively trying to work in that old model.
A lot of people in this band pursued those routes. Amy Millan [of Stars] had a lot of interest from people. But there really wasn’t a successful alternate model to look to.
I remember talking to Kevin Lynn about King Cobb Steelie years ago, and he said that in retrospect he had no idea why they tried to make it work with a Canadian major label, EMI, that didn’t know what to do with them. Had they signed to an independent American or British label and been among their musical peers, they would have been perceived much differently—and by the time they did, with Ryko, it was arguably too late.
I remember when [King Cobb Steelie's] Junior Relaxer came out [in 1998], and the bio from EMI read: “If you like Chemical Brothers and Prodigy, check this out!” I think with any major corporation you have people at the street level who knew what bands to go after and were fans of music, but then you have to answer to upper level management who are more entrenched in an old way of thinking. Dave Bookman says that that the fat cats would see these sloppy alternative rock bands and say, "What the hell?" So they signed Moist and Our Lady Peace and got the more “pro” version of this alternative thing.
One thing that surprised me about Broken Social Scene was how quickly it happened on a mainstream level. They were the guys you see around all the time, the guys you know from other bands, you know the band is good and that your group of friends is talking about it.
But it seemed to go mainstream really fast—I don’t know if that the fact that there was always something middle class Toronto about this band, and I don’t know if people related to them on some subconscious level there, but they attracted an audience very early that didn’t necessarily listen to a lot of other so-called indie rock.
I think the live shows they were putting on in 2003 were really electrifying. I remember being at a show, I think at the Junos in Ottawa, there was a big benefit show at Barrymore’s with Sam Roberts, Gord Downie, a Canadian all-star concert. BSS had already played at Zaphod’s earlier that night [also in Ottawa], so they got in the van, drove over for a 1.30 a.m. 20-minute set, and played four songs. Feist was in the band at the time. I remember K-os was there, just eyes open, jaw dropping. They toured their ass off between 2003-2005, and it’s a classic word-of-mouth thing. Overall, in a post-Strokes/White Stripes world, there was more attention being paid to indie rock by music supervisors and talent bookers on Letterman or whoever. Any band that had some buzz got on that mainstream radar more quickly.
But these new fans were people who didn’t go to clubs regularly, who didn’t follow stuff, and yet they were early adopters of BSS.
They moved beyond the geek market very quickly. I think Soundscapes was a symbolic change in Toronto indie rock. Rotate This was the classic indie rock store, whereas Soundscapes was more like Mojo magazine; it was in an upscale neighbourhood, the presentation was clean and more like an art gallery. I imagine they got more curious passers-by. And in this age of downloading, it’s the 30- and 40-year-olds who are still buying records.
The first time I felt like “Wow, this is happening on a bigger scale” was when they played the Phoenix for the Eye Weekly CMW showcase. That was the first time I saw a lot of people I didn’t recognize, and the band would play one note from a song and the whole room erupted because they knew the whole song note-for-note.
And that was five months after the record came out with mostly a soft, local launch; maybe the Pitchfork review had just run by then.
In the U.S. I think it was a lot of touring and story of this crazy, unwieldly collective. And having Feist, [Metric's] Emily [Haines] and Amy really helped present them as more than just a bunch of bearded guys playing indie rock. It gave them a certain sex appeal that drew in more people. I find this band also has a lot of female teenage fans who are inspired by this band. Being at the Harbourfront show this past summer, there were a lot of 15- and 16-year-olds who would have been eight when You Forgot It in People came out. So they seem to be regenerating the fan base. They’re a band that’s being passed down to younger brothers and sisters.
Yet I know people who see the band as a boys’ club, and the story in the book about Kevin not letting Leslie play guitar is shocking to me.
(laughs) Boys will be boys.
As important as the ladies are to at least that one record, in some sense they’re still decorative. They’re not as part of the creative process, it seems to me, and it’s as brazen as them saying: Emily, Amy and Leslie are busy, and we need to find a new girl. [On reflection, however, this isn't that different from recruiting a new guitarist when Charles Spearin or Andrew Whiteman were unavailable.]
The flip side of that, I think, is that they realize how important it is to have a female voice to break up the boys’ club. I’d say the females are as involved as writing the songs they sing on as much as anyone else on there. “Anthems for a 17-year-old Girl,” Brendan came up with the melody but Emily wrote the words and the cadence. That’s a song that, every time I see them do it live, it’s a rapturous moment with the crowd singing along. So if she’s only on stage for 10 minutes of the show, they are the biggest 10 minutes of the show.
You make a point that Kevin and Brendan realized at one point that a two-man drone project wouldn’t cut it in the new participatory culture of Toronto around 2002, with bands like the Hidden Cameras and the Three Gut crowd having captured everyone's attention. I find it funny that part of what I didn’t like about Toronto in the 1990s was the amount of math rock and a lot of no-fun music, and some of what people in this band were involved with was a big part of that—including, in my minority opinion, Do Make Say Think. Which is why I think BSS became a joyous release for fans of those other projects, and for the players themselves, obviously.
The other thing about math rock is that no one went to those shows. If you want to talk about guy music, that scene was very dude-centric. Certainly, people in this band were doing things they hadn’t done before: whether that was coming from a more mainstream-oriented past who were allowed to do something more experimental, or people like Charlie being immersed in post-rock or electronic music being allowed to rock out again. I think the band was feeding something different to everybody. I think it transformed people like Andrew Whiteman: Apostle of Hustle pre-BSS is very different than post-BSS. It’s this nexus that transforms people. Even Jason Collett’s records started to get more experimental in their production.
I enjoy that you call Kevin a “fiercely passionate indie rock idealist,” which to me seems like an understatement. Then people like Brendan, Jason or Andrew—all of whom had every reason to by cynical around the turn of the decade—one of the interesting things about this book is seeing what he draws out of people around him.
And Bill Priddle [of Treble Charger] is another example. Those guys are all drawn to Kevin’s magnetism and enthusiasm. Kevin was part of this younger generation who grew up looking not at a major label model to aspire to, but an independent one, whether it was bands like Dirty Three, Thrill Jockey bands, Constellation bands. He grew up watching those bands be successful in an alternate system. That gave him the inspiration.
Godspeed You Black Emperor was very much a turning point in Canadian indie ideology. Not only did they reject the major label system outright, but the music they were making was non-commercial but so huge and it struck an emotional chord.
They rejected every part of the music industry, really, except for the necessities of touring.
Even then they were careful to pick certain venues.
One thing that comes up in the book but isn’t really explored is the connection some of these players have to Toronto’s Latin music community. That’s not written about anywhere at all; Evan Cranley and Dean Stone come out of that, and obviously Whiteman is heavily influenced by it.
In indie or alt-rock circles, musicianship is seen as a liability to your authenticity. Whereas in those communities it’s highly valued. People like Cranley and Whiteman are obviously well-trained musicians, and those scenes gave them the opportunity to develop their chops.
My understanding is that Latin music is huge here in Toronto, but very insular, and those local bands don’t see a point in trying to cross over because there’s no money; they do perfectly well playing to their own communities who are willing to pay a high cover price to see a hot live band with 20 players in it.
There’s a way of looking at music where it’s not just a career that facilitates celebrity—it’s a job, just like an office job. It’s an idea that’s totally now divorced from the North American or Western notion of an arts career, which is somehow is supposed to launch you into a stratosphere beyond mere mortals. In Latin communities and others, music is such an ingrained part of daily lives. When you think of music in those terms, you’re not seeing dollar signs.
I’m curious about your voice in this book.
Which originally wasn’t going to be in it.
I wanted a lot more. What’s your word count here?
No, your word count, with your voice—excluding the oral history.
Probably 15-20 per cent of the words. Originally I wanted this to be pure oral history, because I was looking at books like Please Kill Me and a book about L.A. punk, We’ve Got the Neutron Bomb, and there was the backstage SNL book. When I submitted my first draft, it was all oral history. My editor is not a BSS fan, and she said, “Um, I’m gonna need a little help here, navigating this network of people.” I agreed; I didn’t want it to be just a fan book; I wanted to engage people who weren’t necessarily fans. Hence the scene-setting intros setting up each chapter. So I think we reached a middle ground.
There could also be the concept of a guiding voice. Reading the new book about Merge Records (Our Noise), there are often tiny, two-sentence intros to a next series of quotes; all the exposition isn’t front-loaded at the beginning of a chapter.
Some of my earlier versions had that, but it felt kind of out of nowhere. Hopefully people aren’t too confused.
You do have a cast of characters, which the Merge book does not.
Yes, it’s everyone who’s quoted. Word count was a consideration. It was always going to be a very visual book. Certain narratives were unfortunately not explored, and there were certain people I probably should have interviewed.
How do you think it would have gone had you done straight narrative?
I was toying with this idea. I went on tour with them in 2005 and took a bunch of notes. I didn’t know what I was doing it for. I was hoping to pitch it to somebody. It turned out to be the trip where [producer and sonic architect] Dave Newfeld was attacked by cops in Washington Square. This was around the time the self-titled album was being mastered, and they were listening to mixes, and there was a lot of tension. I was thinking of doing a flashback, flash-forward piece based on this trip where all the dynamics were playing themselves out. Kevin was totally stressed, and felt like he had to carry the weight of the band on his shoulders. At the same time they were opening for Dinosaur Jr., who were their heroes, and MTV was out to interview them, so all these parts of their career were playing out on this one tour.
Then there was this other idea that was going to be completely visual, profiling each important person in their lives and giving them a scrapbook sheet of personal ephemera…
That seems like a bad idea.
Uh, yeah. It was the total teenage fan magazine approach. Then I realized that there was a lot of fodder here for a good oral history of the scene, which has always been my favourite way to think about a scene. Magazines like Magnet and Spin do that, for the 25th anniversary of Purple Rain or whatever.
I rarely read rock books anymore, unless they’re written by someone I know. I feel like all the big topics have been covered—births of genres, etc.—and a lot of more recent topics aren’t as deserving of contexts or conjectures. Plus, the way people consume music information now is so much more about a quick glance of facts on the web. So is oral history the way to go?
When I was younger and reading press religiously, I was always bummed out when the writer’s voice was more prevalent in a profile piece than the subject’s. “I don’t want to read about this guy!” Oral histories feed that impulse: “Just tell me what Feist has to say!” At the same time, there’s a lot of editorializing in piecing the transcript together.
Wait until you see what I do with this.
The writer is always leaving stuff on the floor and deciding how you feed the narrative. I think there are still great books to be written. I just read an excellent one called Appetite for Self-Destruction by Steve Knopper, about the downfall of the music industry. But it doesn’t start in 1999; it goes back to 1979 and how disco was a cash cow that the industry pulled the plug on because they were worried about backlash and “disco sucks” rallies. That was one of the stupidest decisions they ever made, was to stop promoting disco when it was huge. Then there was a slump until the mid-'80s with MTV and Thriller, and then the CD. It’s a great picture of that time in 1999 when it was a perfect storm, with Napster emerging. The labels were not paying any attention to the Internet because they were making record profits from Backstreet Boys etc., who were selling stupid amounts of records. I did 40 interviews for this book; this guy interviewed 300 people, everyone from artists to all the bigwigs through the years, and the guy who actually invented CD technology. And he frames it all in characters, not facts and figures.
I do find I’m more interested in reading about the business than I am about some indie band’s story. In a way, this book was a closing chapter of that part of my life, chasing the next big thing as a writer.
It’s very exciting to be at ground level and watch something like this.
In a funny way, this band still has a capacity to get bigger. Arcade Fire sold more records and have been more welcomed into the establishment, in terms of the Bowie/Bono/Byrne/Springsteen endorsements. BSS never broke through on that level. They’ve done Letterman and Coachella and those markers of success, but I’d hesitate to call them a mainstream band—even though some people in Toronto are sick of them.
What radio station plays them, other than CFNY, and even then certainly not in high rotation?
Exactly. That’s the funny thing about a lot of indie stuff that people think is overexposed: no one plays these bands! It’s not like media is stuffing them down your throat. We’ve all gone to see bands that have a lot of hype and there’s 20 people at the show. Maybe it’s to BSS’s benefit that they’ve never had the hit single that became the one song at a show that people respond to. They became big by engaging their fans and turning them on to their way of thinking.
I remember seeing a big CMJ show they played at the Bowery, I'm guessing in 2004, where they opened with a 10-minute dub song. I remember thinking: “This is their moment, and they’re going to do whatever they want with it.”
At the same time, they’re not doing this to play squats and basements. They want to be a big band, but they don’t want to conform to any expectations.
Spiral Stairs talks about how they may be the last band with mystery, now that we know everything about every new band within a week of an MP3 going viral. I now find that if there’s a record with any kind of mystique to the sound, I don’t want to know anything about them. I really like the Bat for Lashes record, but I don’t want to read anything about her.
I feel that way about The XX record. It exists in its own world. I know they’re 20 years old, but that’s about it.
Ultimately, people will always be confused by this band. Who’s there? Who’s playing? Why are they playing a 10-minute dub jam? Why is “Major Label Debut” so fast and catchy live but slow and weird on the album? Every time I expect this band to go more conventional, they pleasantly surprise me. In a way they bridge mainstream and underground: Feist races up the charts, and Charlie does the weirdest record of his career.
Historically, my tastes have been very similar between the two extremes. Simon Reynolds says in Bring the Noise that he loves it when something underground breaks into the mainstream because it forces people to question their own assumptions. That’s how art moves forward; if something stays underground, its legacy will be protracted.
This book busts all the mystique then.
Ehhhhh. Yeah, you probably know more about their personal lives than you did before. But in terms of how they operate and what the future holds, that’s just as much a question mark as it was 10 years ago.