It’s a sunny, breezy afternoon in downtown Toronto, but hanging with Broken Social Scene’s core trio of singer-guitarist Kevin Drew and bassists Brendan Canning and Charles Spearin, you’d hardly know it. Standing around a table in a vacant upstairs pool hall, the Social Scensters play out a constant power-dynamic, intermediately switching between waxing effervescent and tiptoeing around one another’s world view—Drew caustically pessimistic, Spearin cautiously optimistic, Canning somewhere in between. There is, however, one moment in recent memory the three agree was truly life-changing.
Back in May, Broken Social Scene were in England for the first stop on a comeback trail leading up to Friday’s release of their fifth album, Hug of Thunder. The show, at the Albert Hall in Manchester, was intended as a celebration of, and introduction to, the group’s first new material in seven years. Drew and Canning had improbably gathered the majority of the group’s 15 members (pretty much everyone save breakout singer Leslie Feist, who was promoting her own album), even wooing Smiths guitarist and longtime friend Johnny Marr as a surprise guest. Then, 24 hours before they were due onstage, terrorists attacked an Ariana Grande concert at the nearby Manchester Arena, killing 22 people.
The following afternoon, the group contemplated whether they could go on. Marr, a Manchester native, called saying he was too distraught to perform. Recalling their qualms about playing that night, Drew said the group concluded that “everyone else went to work that day. So we did, too.”
Read Paste’s review of Broken Social Scene’s Hug of Thunder
Video footage of that night shows the group—Drew, Canning, Jimmy Shaw and Emily Haines (also of Metric), the husband-and-wife duo of Ariel Engle and Andrew Whiteman (also of AroarA), Spearin and drummer Justin Peroff—busying themselves uneasily as the show begins.
“Thank you for showing up. Thank you for coming out tonight. What’s most important is tonight we’re here together, all of us.” Drew ambled, hands tucked into his body, before introducing Marr (“He is your city; he is your legend”), who had changed his mind at the 23rd hour, to perform the aptly titled “Anthems for a Seventeen Year-Old Girl.”
“We were there that night and we happened to be able to play,” Drew says. “We happened to be a band who [doesn’t play] speed metal; we are a band about loss, life-living and coming together. Johnny came out; Emily, who wrote the song, was there to sing it. We had everything for them. You see a city, there was incredible sadness, but you also see it talking about love and hope and rising above. It was something that I’ll never forget.”
For Canning, the evening had a sort of strange symmetry: a right-band, right-place scenario which has been almost a trademark of Broken Social Scene and their emotional connection with their fans since they started out in the late 1990s. But Drew saw it as an affirmation of purpose. It answered a question he’d been asking since the November 2015 terror attack at the Bataclan rock club in Paris: In a world where anxiety and hate are the lingua franca, was there still a place for an aging rock band that preaches euphoric, if weary, love?
“I was not in a place where I felt like a bandleader,” Drew recalls of the period leading up to the recording of Hug of Thunder. “I had knapsacks of doubt around the time this was trying to come together.”
Broken Social Scene is, as several members describe it, “a constellation,” and getting those stars to align in orbit requires a messianic devotion to the cause. Reuniting any band is difficult, never mind a huge one that features members of other current, successful bands. And it’s nearly impossible when the central figure is having a crisis of faith.
Compounding his misgivings, it appeared many people close to Drew were falling ill (three band members would lose their fathers during the recording of the album), and he was producing what, unbeknownst to him, would likely be the Tragically Hip’s final album following the diagnoses of singer Gord Downie’s inoperable brain tumors. Then there was the simpler matter of whether his audience was still there. It’s been seven years since the last Broken Social Scene album (2010’s Forgiveness Rock Record) and 15 since their second album, 2003’s You Forgot It in People, nabbed a near-perfect Pitchfork score and put the band, its many subsidiaries, and its hometown of Toronto on the hipster map.
“You start to collect new stuff that holds you back from yourself, from what you’re supposed to do, and you get confused.”
“I walk through this world with my arms wide open,” says Drew, who turned 40 in 2016. “I can’t blame anybody but myself, but you spend times with the hip…” he trails off. “You start to collect new stuff that holds you back from yourself, from what you’re supposed to do, and you get confused.”
He worked harder to let go of his ego and clean up, knowing that “I was going to be no help to anyone the way that I was coming in.” “That was my contribution,” he says. “I’m here to host, I’m hear to be argumentative…it was beautiful.”
Along with a clear-eyed Drew, Canning and Spearin decided the only way for Broken Social Scene to exist in 2017 was to embrace the parts rather than the sum. Instead of forcing an album to come together, they asked the individual members to contribute songs that would later be jammed out during late nights in Spearin’s basement studio.
As a result, Hug of Thunder is a more somber, varied and self-assured affair than its obstreperous predecessors. Putting empathy over protest, it’s a snapshot of a midlevel band secure enough to admit, and even highlight, its insecurities. Most notably, while Drew’s voice dominates the opening and closing of the album, it’s the other members—Canning and Spearin’s guiding bass lines, Peroff’s adaptive, swing-time drumming and the welcome addition Engle’s buttery vocals—who really shine, particularly on standout track “Stay Happy” and the Feist-sung title song, with the telling line, “All along we’re gonna feel some numbness / oxymoron of our lives.”
“It’s a band album,” Drew (left) boasts. “They are a fucking force.”
For her part, Engle credits Canning, Drew and Spearin’s “very inclusive” songwriting approach for her smooth transition into the group.
“We wrote together from the germ,” she says over the phone from the Montreal home she shares with Whiteman and their new baby. Engles points to the bossa nova inflections of “Stay Happy.” “My palate is diverse, not necessarily Western,” she explains. “I rarely listen to English-language music. You can definitely hear that in the song.”
As the core members settle into their forties and fifties, Drew says Broken Social Scene are “making music for the sake of music, much to the dismay of people who say, ‘Just give us a radio hit.’”
And if that’s not good enough for a world where their beloved city is referred to as ‘the 6ix’ thanks to Drake and onetime openers Arcade Fire are the biggest indie band in the world, that’s okay, too.
“In a way it feels like the old days because we’re not close to where half our peers are, and it takes a group of people to get us out there,” Drew says, starting in on a rant. “If Drake wanted to come too, it’d be like, let’s go!
“At this stage in the game, we’re grateful,” he continues. “Don’t fucking come at us. Don’t, please. I’ve got no time for that. Give us the respect that we’re owed because we earned it, but at the same time, we’re grateful. We want to be there for the people but it’s about getting together with your friends—looking across the stage and fucking cracking up that you’re playing these songs that mean something. Anthems!”
“There’s a responsibility to show people that the world is actually beautiful,” Spearin jumps in.
“That’s how it is out there,” Drew concludes. “We’re a group of friends still standing, a family that’s still here.”