How Broken Social Scene Became Whole Again: 'The Friction Has Been Ironed Out'
Toronto baroque-pop ensemble Broken Social Scene is not typically in one place at the same time. Since its 1999 formation by Toronto singer-songwriters Kevin Drew and Brendan Canning, the BSS rotating cast of Canadian troubadours has included Feist, Metric’s Emily Haines and Stars’ Amy Millan, and has stretched to 19 members at a time. With 2002 breakthrough You Forgot It in People, the group became a staple on the festival circuit prior to going on hiatus in 2010.
For new album Hug of Thunder -- a title coined by Feist, who contributed to the group’s latest project -- Broken Social Scene regrouped in Bath, a small village east of Toronto, and re-established its sense of community. "With Social Scene, it’s not about you," says the 40-year-old Drew, who attended high school with multiple BSS members. "It’s about serving the music and serving the song, but also serving each other -- and making sure no one feels slighted."
The de facto leader of Broken Social Scene, Drew says he was cautious about getting back in the studio with the collective while coping with anxiety issues. "It wasn’t the greatest time when this thing needed to re-form, but it needed to re-form," says Drew, who has released two solo LPs and co-produced The Tragically Hip’s 2016 album, Man Machine Poem. "I knew this was something that was going to get me to a better place, because I was going to be around people I love, doing something I love and, eventually, in front of people that I love -- the audience."
The 43-year-old singer, who has released six studio albums as the leader of synth-rock group Metric, says that the mood within the current iteration of Broken Social Scene reminds her of the troupe’s early days. "It feels like we’ve come back to You Forgot It in People," she asserts. As the singer of a quartet with three male members, Haines also appreciates the sisterhood within BSS. "I love singing with other women," she says, nodding to mainstays like Feist and Millan. "Some magical complementary tones emerge when we unify. It’s a rare and beautiful thing."
The group’s newest addition is vocalist Engle, who also performs with her husband, BSS guitarist Andrew Whiteman, as the rock duo AroarA. She joined Broken Social Scene’s 2010 tour to spend time with Whiteman, and says, "I’d hop [onstage] for a song or two. I’m sure I didn’t go up uninvited, but it’s fairly informal." For Hug of Thunder, Engle was asked to participate in the writing process, and has grown to understand the connections -- and minor tensions -- within the group. "Friction has been ironed out with time and age," she says. "The drama remains contained in the songs."
Band co-founder Canning, who scored Paul Schrader’s 2013 erotic thriller The Canyons during the hiatus, points to the creation of the sprawling track "Stay Happy" as emblematic of the new album’s adventurousness. "There was an endless dialogue about the arrangement," says the 47-year-old, "but once our producer, Joe Chiccarelli, encouraged me to try a reggae feel on the bass, the song turned around." The result: a pileup of guitars, horns, piano, beats, a flute line and pop vocals that coalesces beautifully. "It still sounds like Broken Social Scene," he says, "but a new version -- nothing but fresh potential."