Broken Social Scene’s Brendan Canning on 20 Years of You Forgot It in People and the Gratitude of ConnectionImages courtesy of Richard Lam, the artist Music Features Broken Social Scene
Ask any devotee what they love about Broken Social Scene, and it’s almost certain they’ll bring up the band’s capacity for connection. It’s baked into the core of the group, with Kevin Drew and Brendan Canning as its main songwriters, and Andrew Whiteman, Charles Spearin and Justin Peroff as the other consistent core members, while Metric’s Emily Haines and James Shaw, Leslie Feist, Stars’ Amy Millan and Evan Cranley, Sam Goldberg, and many more have come together in endless permutations over the years. And even as their breakthrough record You Forgot It In People celebrates its 20th anniversary this weekend, the earnest sincerity of the Toronto-based supergroup still resonates in listeners, transforming the band’s live shows into something akin to a communal balm for everyone involved.
Fittingly, as the album that put Broken Social Scene on the map turns 20, the band are celebrating with an anniversary tour that also marks their first time touring since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. When we caught up with Canning—often the band’s guitarist/bassist, as well as occasional singer—by phone in the midst of this tour, the chat was just as affable and lively as the group are onstage. As Canning talked over margaritas about the current touring crew (emphasizing the importance of a good tour bus driver) and his experiences in various cities (such as biking through Chicago, where Forgiveness Rock Record was recorded), the conversation often came back to his overwhelming gratitude at getting to look back on this pivotal record and celebrate through performance. “Getting to relive all that,” he says, “is a win-win.”
Below, condensed and edited for clarity, read Paste’s chat with Canning about the stories behind You Forgot It In People, and what the album means to him and others 20 years later.
Paste: At the show I saw you guys on this tour, Kevin started the set by saying that You Forgot It In People’s title is “more relevant now than it was back then.” What does the title mean for you now, 20 years later? Has its meaning evolved for you at all?
Brendan Canning: I don’t want to dwell too much on “What’s my philosophy on life?,” but as we slowly crawl out of a pandemic state of mind, it’s been a myriad of feelings. It’s been a very disconnecting kind of experience these past couple years. I was delivering Gatorade and sleeping bags—doing what I could in Toronto with my time off, because I’m a musician and I had no job. It’s a lot to contend with. You’re just contending with so much stuff. The question of “What have you forgot in people?” at this stage is too tough of a question to answer. The answer evolves in your brain. I’m just thankful that we’re out here and getting to play shows and talk to people who have enjoyed our music over the years. I’ve been granted another gift by getting to go on the road with my band.
Paste: In a lot of ways, the band’s ability to get to tour again lining up with You Forgot It In People’s 20th anniversary almost feels like an opportunity to reestablish what the band is all about, in that sense.
Canning: Yeah, we’ve always had a family ethos to the group, and it’s been a very positive tour for the band—more than a lot of tours in recent memory. It’s a slightly different lineup we’re going out with: a different drummer, a different lead female vocalist [Jill Harris]. There’s a certain freshness to that, but at the same time, we’re playing these songs we’ve been playing for 20 years now. But it feels good that people are coming out to the gig. We’re delighted by all that.
Paste: In the context of the overall arc of Broken Social Scene, this album was clearly a departure from your debut Feel Good Lost, but the footprints of that record’s ambient post-rock instrumentals can definitely still be felt in some of You Forgot It In People. How do you think Feel Good Lost primed you for this record?
Canning: Feel Good Lost was very much, firstly, Kevin and I getting to know one another. I initially wanted to do stuff with Kev because I heard the record him and Charlie [Spearin] did as KC Accidental. One night, I said to my friend, “Maybe I’ll make this kid a star.” [Kevin] always liked that story. [laughs]
We eased into it—8-track quarter-inch tape, very innocent. I didn’t have a knowledge of all the bands Kevin loved—I never really listened to Papa M or Modest Mouse; I only had a partial interest in bands like that. I was a little more into house music at that point. But we came together with bands like Dinosaur Jr., Pavement, and Boards of Canada. So Feel Good Lost was kind of a little bit of a blueprint—not a full blueprint, because it became such a greater thing when you added in different songwriters, whether Leslie [Feist] or Emily [Haines] or Andrew [Whiteman] or Charlie. All of a sudden, you’re drawing on all these different songwriters, which was a really fortunate position to be in. So Feel Good Lost is like your intro record. People still like it, I’m still proud of it. I don’t go back home and listen to it all the time. But I still like it.
Paste: In a lot of ways, Feel Good Lost’s intimate sound does remind me how refreshingly small-scale some of You Forgot It In People feels for a record of this legacy. I think about your vocals in “Stars And Sons,” which are right at the front of the mix and sound like you’re whispering right against the microphone. Was that kind of warmth in sound something the band and [producer] Dave Newfeld were aiming to capture?
Canning: That song in particular, the instrumental went down first. We were just starting to get the record done. It was late in the night when I just said, “I feel like it should have a vocal like this.” And Dave and Kevin were like, “Why don’t you go in and lay that down?” I’d never sung a song on an album before, and I did that in one take. It’s hard not to be inspired by that bassline and that rhythm section. Dave had a very unique way of capturing things. It was a perfect symbiotic relationship where you’re working with the right people.
Paste: Very similarly, something I’ve always found endearing is Andrew’s little off-the-cuff asides that are kept in on “Looks Just Like The Sun,” almost like a demo recording.
Canning: Same thing again! First take vocals! I don’t even know if he tried doing them again. We were just like, “Nah, we like them the way they are, even if he’s telling Kevin, ‘The change is coming up here.’” We just didn’t hear anything wrong with that.
Paste: In a way, it captures the dynamics between you all as friends, which has been such a crucial factor in establishing Broken Social Scene as a tight-knit family.
Canning: That’s it, basically. We still hang out when it’s not tour time. I’ll visit Andrew and his wife Ariel [Engle]. I’ll go to see Feist play near Montreal, and then visit Evan [Cranley] and Amy [Millan]. Even in the time off, we still do see one another. It’s not like, “I’ll see you when we’re booking rehearsals for tour.” The familial aspect of the band is still intact.
Paste: Exactly, you’re finding family in bringing people you have a kindred connection with together.
Canning: And you’ve just spent an unhealthy amount of time with one another. [laughs] In the early days, especially. You’re just all on a bus together, then you’re at the airport, then you’re at the studio working on music. Then you’re doing it all over again. And then—when your album is popping and you’re a new band and you’ve got the zeitgeist behind you—you have to do radio [interviews]. It’s very demanding. It’s hard to see outside that bubble. At this point, we’re still in a bubble, but we have the benefit of perspective. And with that benefit of perspective is the gratitude that comes with playing shows almost 20 years in and still selling 1200 tickets a night.
Paste: Everything you’re talking about really shines through in how egalitarian this band is, especially on You Forgot It In People. Everyone’s contributions feel equally vital, and there are these frequent trade-offs in who takes vocal lead. From reading into how these songs were formed, it sounds like the live shows and rehearsal jams that came after Feel Good Lost was released morphed into what’s on this album. How did you seek to capture and refine the collective energy of those shows and sessions with the album?
Canning: We would just book a show, and not everyone was going to be in town at the same time. What’s been very popular in the past number of years is these songwriter camps, where the publishers are like, “We want to put this person and this person and this person in a room,” and you’ve got a day or a week to work on a song. And you form these quick relationships in a day or two at the songwriter camps. We were doing a very similar thing years prior. We’d have a show and we’d go, “Who’s here? Oh, Emily and Jimmy [Shaw] are here. But Leslie’s not here and Charlie’s not here and Andy’s not here. Oh, that doesn’t really matter, because we got Jason Collett and John Crossingham here. Business as usual. Let’s just get together and write some songs. We got a show coming up.” It’s such an innocent part of the career: you’re unhinged and you’re free to do whatever you want to do.
For me, personally, I was in a number of bands before Broken Social Scene. I had a record deal with my first band in the early ‘90s. Then I joined another group that had another record deal, and then was part of another group that had another record deal. I had loads of time when people were telling me, “This is your shot.” And after a bunch of those experiences, you’re like, “Fuck that. Why don’t we just work on some songs that we like?” [Broken Social Scene] was the first time where I felt like we weren’t chasing anything. With so many of the group’s previous bands, you’d feel hemmed in, like the ceiling was closing in. That was the beauty of Broken Social Scene—it never felt like the ceiling was closing in. We were just gonna do our thing because it feels good, and I was gonna believe in my gut. If I got chills up my spine during a show, I was going to pay attention to that and give it its due credence as something that’s good and something I can hang my hat on after a while.
Then there’s the self-fulfilling prophecy kind of thing. I would just say, “It’s great, guys. Don’t worry. We’re going to be traveling all around the world soon enough playing these songs.” I saw an Anthony Hopkins quote where he’s like, [imitating Anthony Hopkins] “You just have to believe! Even if you don’t believe! Believe, believe, believe! Just believe that you can do it!” [normal voice] There’s a lot of truth to that. There was a lot of positivity in the early days.
Paste: Dipping back into one of the songs on the album, the overlapping tracks and soundscape of “Shampoo Suicide” almost sounds like the antithesis of what something like “Looks Just Like The Sun.” What’s the story behind that song?
Canning: When we first started playing that and “Late Night Bedroom Rock for the Missionaries,” they weren’t two songs. It was one song—when you look at the Broken Social Scene setlists, it just says “Fuzz Song” or “Fuzz.” When we took it into the studio and finished off “Late Night Bedroom Rock,” it was one of those happy accidents. The computer jumped ahead to one part and we were like, “Oh damn, what was that? Let’s keep that!” And “Shampoo Suicide” always does well live for us. It’s got all the things you want in a song—it’s got the hypnotic feel, it’s got the pretty tidy groove. Nothing too flashy about it, but there’s got enough ear candy going on and there’s enough vibe in the track. We just hit a real sweet spot. Those two songs together are some of the most original material we have as a band. When we play that, we don’t really sound like any other band than Broken Social Scene.
Paste: It seems like there’s always new people discovering You Forgot It In People and finding resonance in it. Even I came to it several years after the fact. What’s it been like to see the ways news listeners are still responding to the album?
Canning: It’s just nice. No offense to people who are 40 years or older—because I’m one of them—but it’s nice to have younger people in the audience who are like, “I got this album 4 years ago.” There’s no time limit on when you’re supposed to get into a band. It’s not like I discovered The Velvet Underground when I was 15, which would have been 20 years after The Velvet Underground even came out. Half the records I buy are all older records—I’m just now getting into Bobbi Humphrey’s Satin Doll, which came out in 1974, and German techno that came out in the early 2000s. I’m just happy for anyone who discovers any of our music at any point. They can keep us chugging along and going out. It’s such a treat.
Paste: As you’ve talked with folks who come out to these anniversary shows, what kinds of sentiments about what the album means to people stand out to you? And what does it mean to you to be able to celebrate this album’s anniversary in such a communal way?
Canning: There was a part of me that was like, “I don’t know if I want to be looking at the career in the rearview mirror like this.” But when you’re celebrating an album that meant a lot to a lot of people at a certain point… There was one kid at the show in Chicago who said, “Coming out as a trans kid, this band meant so much to me.” All the moments like that make it all worthwhile. You’re getting to hear stories from people about where they were when they heard the album and what it meant to them. It helps remind you that everyone went through their own shit during the pandemic.
Paste: To close by turning the question back to you: So much of You Forgot It In People has been kept in live rotation for years, and even before then, it developed from much looser performances. But performing it in full like this is a new experience for Broken Social Scene. How does that affect how you approach these songs in a live setting?
Canning: If we didn’t have all that time off, I might have a different answer. But because we had all that time off and are now coming back to touring, it’s been very interesting together. But like I mentioned before, there’s a certain gratitude. You want to play these songs, you want to dig in, you want to represent these tunes as best you can. You want to make sure your guitar is sounding exactly the way you want to hear it, you want to make sure there’s not too much bass so you’re not fucking everyone up. You want to give some merit to the songs that keep people coming back. Even still, [on this tour] Sam Goldberg rips a little solo after the second chorus of “Looks Just Like The Sun” and I’m like, “Oh damn, I’ve never heard that before!” The songs still evolve—Andrew’s guitar solos [might go a little longer] if he’s feeling it. We’ve gotta get out there and give the people the most energetic, lively and meaningful performance that you can. Maybe my high kicks aren’t as high as they were 15 years ago, but I still want to get a few high kicks in there.
Natalie Marlin is a freelance music and film writer based in Minneapolis who has contributed to sites such as Stereogum, Little White Lies and Bitch Media, and previously wrote as a staff writer at Allston Pudding. She also regularly appears on the Indieheads Podcast. Follow her on Twitter at @NataliesNotInIt.