Leave it to the rock trivia geeks to determine the average life expectancy of a rock band with an 18-member roster, but smart money says it’s a lot shorter than Broken Social Scene’s current 7-year run. Bands much smaller and less talented than this Canadian indie-rock super group splinter apart beneath the crush of warring egos, but BSS seems immune to the band-wrecking curse of artistic differences.
Ever since its 1999 inception, the Toronto collective has functioned more like a musical kibbutz, with contributors expected to participate when and if they’re able. Rock musicians being generally averse to strict guidelines, BSS thrives on its laissez-faire attitude and pool of diverse talent.
But the idyll may be ending, as BSS falls victim to its own success. It would be premature to call their current American stand a farewell tour, but there are indications that the next time we see or hear from them, BSS will be a different band.
“It’s time to revamp the program,” says Brendan Canning, who co-founded BSS along with Kevin Drew. “It’s hard to grow as a unit when the unit is not consistent. It can be exciting, but I think it’s reached its limitation in that regard.”
In recent years, BSS has been at the epicenter of a Canadian indie-rock explosion that includes the Constantines, Arcade Fire, the New Pornographers, the Sadies, Wolf Parade, and a host of impressive BSS offshoots. You can find its members creating indie pop in Stars, Euro-tinged art-rock for Feist, jazzy meter-shifts as Apostle of Hustle and psychedelic instrumentals for Do Make Say Think. Vets Amy Millan and Jason Collett have gone solo with country-and-folk-inflected projects.
The fluid nature of BSS shapes its extraordinary sound, as do the varied musical interests of its members. Toronto’s vibrant scene functions much like a successful minor league team feeding a major league franchise, with top-notch talent at every position: Whoever steps up, delivers. The band’s eponymous 2005 release, winner of the year’s Juno Award (the Canadian equivalent of a Grammy) for Best Alternative Album, was created in typical hit-and-run fashion with band members contributing as touring and other commitments allowed.
With so many members and musical variables, BSS records probably shouldn’t work. And the music does veer drunkenly all over the rock map, but somehow maintains a rich, textured coherence throughout. Put a BSS disc on and it sounds like an iPod set to random: Pavement-like indie rock one moment, driving Cure-flavored post-punk the next, Tortoise augmented by Stax horn-blasts, late-night falsetto soul a la Prince, or the Replacements run through Stereolab’s computerized playground.
The diversity that fuels its records often makes BSS live shows transcendent. But therein lie the seeds of the current incarnation’s destruction. BSS has functioned as a side project for many members — an increasingly difficult distinction as the band heaps up awards, sales, and touring commitments. Canning says that the collective won’t turn its back on any member, but “for it to make sense to everyone there really needs to be some tightening of screws here and there.”
“It’s not like we’re abandoning what we’ve done or don’t feel proud of it,” he adds, “but there are just so many variables that we can deal with on a day-to-day basis.”
Touring has been especially difficult to coordinate, with members hopping on and off itineraries and stages with revolving-door frequency — that’s one reason it’s often said no two Broken Social Scenes are ever alike. This tour mostly features nine BSS members (depending on the date) with horn players from Do Make Say Think chipping in when logistics allow.
Canning concedes there’s no telling what sort of band will emerge in the aftermath, but changes have already begun. The Toronto studio where BSS’s last three records were made — producer David Newfeld’s Stars & Sons — has already been shuttered, the cramped, windowless quarters too claustrophobic and mania-inducing. Newfeld purchased property east of Toronto near the sandbanks of Lake Ontario and hopes to build a new studio there.
“It was a really great oasis for a little while,” says Canning, “but it was just time to get out of that environment because it was destructive, especially for David, who lived there and would work over every sound on the records for days. There was no way that another record was going to be made in that little hovel.”
Canning sees these coming alterations as part of the band’s natural progression. With Drew writing songs for a non-BSS project, another Apostle of Hustle release set to drop, and the band’s 3-year-old label, Arts & Crafts, picking up steam (and U.S. acts like American Analog Set), change is practically another member of the BSS universe.
“The world sort of works in 7-year cycles anyway,” Canning says. “We’ve had four releases and done the soundtracks to a few films, and basically everything we’ve set out to do we’ve accomplished. We’re very proud of it all, and now we just need to take a slight turn here at the fork in the road.”
[John Schacht lives like a king by writing freelance music stories]
Broken Social Scene plays the Orange Peel on Saturday, Nov. 4 with Do Make Say Think. 9 p.m. $20/$22. 225-5851.