Kevin Drew, far from broken
After a hiatus fraught with tragedy and hardship, Broken Social Scene have made a roaring return with the new record Hug of Thunder. Ben Kaplan reports on how founding member Kevin Drew pieced an indie-rock cornerstone back together
One night in May, on the west side of Toronto, Kevin Drew is reminded of a feeling his band had back in 2002. There he is, sitting in the park with his friends, including musicians Leslie Feist, James Shaw and Emily Haines, drinking wine. "I'm sitting there with all the kids, and no one knows who we are, no one cares, and I'm thinking: 'This is what we do,'" Drew says. "Everyone has their own OCD ways of how they need to be treated, but these are the moments that get us together onstage."
The band, Broken Social Scene, hasn't been together onstage with new music in seven years and there's a double-album worth of reasons why. BSS is like a frozen-in-time Saturday Night Live, its most popular members having departed to make their own solo stabs at fame. But it's even more fraught. Because all of the BSS members make their own music – often together – and while some break out and some falter, the band is less like SNL and more like NBC, the network umbrella they all live under.
In 2014, when Vogue magazine calls Toronto's West Queen West the world's second-coolest neighbourhood, some of that is because it's where Broken Social Scene partied in 1994. It's the group that made Toronto sexy while Drake was still a student at Degrassi: The Next Generation.
Walking around the area with Drew in April, he laments not investing in real estate. "I don't buy neighbourhoods, I build them," says the BSS member, but also the co-founder of Arts & Crafts, the band's label. "It's my curse."
Drew – who sports a beard, has a herniated disc in his back and is 40 – is also temperamental, depressive, funny and at the centre of attention. "When Kevin is at his best, there's nothing like him," says Charles Spearin, Drew's longest-serving bandmate. "He brings out the best in people, he makes you feel loved and there's nothing artificial about it. He has a darker side, of course, but when he's at his best …"
It takes Drew at his best to make Hug of Thunder, BSS's rich, absorbing new album, and it takes a too-familiar occurrence to get him to that point. The band is in the fourth year of its hiatus when a terrorist attack at the Bataclan concert hall in Paris at the Eagles of Death Metal show kills 89 people. Drew has been in that nightclub. The two bands have played the same bills. It could have been BSS that night, or its audience.
"I didn't feel like we could sit on the sideline," he says.
Brendan Canning, the band's 47-year-old bassist, is ready. "There still seemed to be some unfinished business as far as some meaningful tracks," says Canning, who's made three solo albums, written film scores and DJs vinyl when he's not on tour, ideally getting paid that same night. "We all got our wants and our desires and our pride."
From a financial and logistical perspective, running a band with (at least) 10 artists, two married, three with children, is a challenge. "We're a middle-class band with upper-class needs and a lower-class bank account," Drew says. "We have new management getting paid banana peels because we can't afford bananas."
And yet, despite knowing the limitations of a rock band in 2017, the peak time of digital downloads, an era when audiences aren't getting behind even their most beloved performers making intimate, accessible records – Feist sold 37,000 units in Canada in the first six weeks of her previous album, Metals; Pleasure, her latest, sells 5,600 units in that same time – a compulsion drives the band back together. Social media, pornography, Donald Trump, terror: For himself and for his audience, Drew wants to provide something else.
"Friendship, ladies and gentlemen, friendship," he says, when the band performs Halfway Home, Hug of Thunder's first missive on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert on March 30. It's an exclamation mark of a performance, with Haines, Shaw, Stars' Amy Millan and Evan Cranley, although Drew later says he's chagrined Feist couldn't be there, stuck rehearsing her Leonard Cohen tribute for the Juno Awards. Still, the opening salvo is sounded: Broken Social Scene is back and reunited, ready to embrace the world with a hug.
BSS starts in west-side Toronto in 2000, when Drew and Spearin's band, KC Accidental, merge with Canning, who had ties to Feist, and they'd get together with Drew's friends from high school, Haines and Millan, to perform on College Street with Shaw and Cranley at Ted's Wrecking Yard. Drew had dated Haines; Haines had dated Shaw; Feist had dated Canning, and the band's first album, 2001's Feel Good Lost, is a mostly instrumental ambient rock disc. It's on its follow-up album, 2002's You Forgot It in People, featuring all of them, plus hooks and singing, that the band jumps to indie-rock fame, and the nascent music website Pitchfork gives it a 9.2 out of 10. ("Explodes with endlessly replayable perfect pop.")
A long article appears in The New York Times magazine in 2006, with a reporter following Drew from the Communist's Daughter to the Horseshoe Tavern, gushing over the cheap drinks, camaraderie and the magic of Feist ("like Dido made over by François Truffaut.") Somehow – even before Feist becomes iconic, thanks to 1234 – the BSS spell fades, the band can't maintain its high.
"What our success was built on is, first of all, we support each other, and second is the idea that we support each other – that idea resonates with people and people respond to that," Spearin says. "It becomes difficult to maintain though when that's your brand."
There are BSS records in 2005 and 2010, but the light moves on to Arcade Fire, a brilliant Montreal-based rock collective led by a married couple – Win Butler and Régine Chassagne – and Butler's brother, William. In 2011, Arcade Fire wins a Grammy for Album of the Year. Over coffee, Drew talks about those years.
"Leslie and I had just broken up and that was a confusing time because of the love and trying to make something work and 1234 was blowing up and I was going, 'What happened here?'" he says. "I knew I was going to party for a while. It was a four-year sort of disaster."
Canning makes sense of the disaster with a survivor's steely eye. It's the middle of June and he is DJing a party for a cannabis company owned in part by the Tragically Hip. Outside, on the balcony, he gives his version of events.
"Everyone had different aspirations outside of Broken Social Scene. 'I have an idea and I want to do these ideas,' so you go do them, but at a certain point – it might be sooner than later – you're faced with the reality that just because you play in a popular band, everyone's musical career's not going to go in a glorious route," he says.
Feist and Canning were members of By Divine Right and, when the Tragically Hip performs the first concert at the Air Canada Centre in 1999, By Divine Right opens the show. Canning has no illusions about what helps a band succeed.
"I discovered [Jeffrey Remedios, Drew's co-founder of Arts & Crafts, now president of Universal Music Canada] in '96. 'We need a guy in the music business, a young buck, an up-and-comer, who's going to help.' Him and Tyson Parker, and Tyson went on to become second-in-command at Bell Media. Those were my picks."
The conversation is candid and mellow, Canning's second-to-last solo album is the acoustic You Gots 2 Chill, but he hasn't prearranged with event staff to bring a reporter, and suddenly two men approach, wearing suits.
"Who are these jokers?" Canning says.
"You can interview the DJ," we're informed. "But then I'm going to have to ask you to leave."
On the Tragically Hip's tour promoting Now For Plan A in 2013, Canning DJs before the band comes onstage. Afterward, Gord Downie asks Canning to work on his solo disc.
"I was just on the road with you guys, you're entering my dreams," Canning replies, to which he adds now: "It's a family affair, but I'm DJing your weed launch, I have enough Tragically Hip on my plate."
Hug of Thunder is completed, in part, thanks to Canning's equilibrium (at the party, the man in the suit apologized, the reporter didn't leave and Canning was handed a cheque). The tracks had been mastered and remastered, too much money is spent and still a stalemate occurs over the catchy (too catchy?) Vanity Pail Kids, championed by management and Drew – he'd made a video – while vetoed by the rest of the band. Canning swings the team for Drew; Feel Good Lost is conceived by Drew as a Canning solo disc.
"Brendan mesmerized me," Drew says. "Every day I woke up and was happy because I was going to be in the studio with him."
It's easy to be mesmerized at 20 and Drew's self-aware enough to see himself in a lyric from Canadian singer-songwriter Hayden, his hero: "Your life's a sweet sixteen, at thirty-three." But BSS benefits – beyond musicianship – from each member and Andrew Whiteman, who records as Apostle of Hustle and AroarA, with his wife, Ariel Engle, the newest member of BSS. Making this record, the 50-year-old Whiteman lost his father at the same time Engle lost her dad – then their daughter got sick. His approach to life is to become invisible and survive over time.
"I could go to the grave fighting over a bass line, but being a dad, I'm like, 'I'll let that go,' I'm in for the bigger fight," Whiteman says. "You become a parent to escape the never-ending teen/young adult-ness and do the job or something terrible has to happen to make you stop thinking about yourself and get along in the world."
BSS is the first act to play Manchester after the terrorist attack at the Ariana Grande concert kills 23 people, 10 of the victims younger than 20, one just eight years old. The first song on the first night of its first tour in almost a decade opens with Haines singing Anthems for a Seventeen Year Old Girl: "Now you're all gone/got your makeup on/and you're not coming back," she sings, with Manchester local and ex-Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr on the stage. Getting Marr to perform isn't easy. He's slated to play, but after the attack, pulls out. Drew wouldn't let it lie.
"He said he couldn't do it, and I said, 'I understand, just please listen to the song,'" says Drew, who'd changed the song from Cause=Time to Anthems, a young girl's punk lullaby. Throughout the day, Drew texts Marr: "I don't want us to be kept apart by this," attaching a clip he filmed at the vigil. "This is your city."
He doesn't hear back from Marr until an hour before showtime: Marr is ready to perform.
"I knew it," Drew says, "I know him – the real of who he is."
Every notice of the show mentions Marr and the performance is praised on the BBC, Rolling Stone and The Guardian, which calls the set, "an emotional celebration of the power of music."
"I didn't walk around crying. I walked around feeling like life was precious and the more I make music, the more I think it's about trying to create catharsis, on and off the stage," says Engle, who sings lead on the band's third single, the sublime Stay Happy. "I couldn't go on social media or watch the news, it was too big and too scary and too sad – not as a performer, but as a mother of a child who will one day want to go to an Ariana Grande concert."
Spearin's daughters are 13 and 11. He wasn't certain he wanted to get back into BSS, while making music with Do Make Say Think and taking pottery classes. It's Spearin who tells Drew – while recording the song Hug of Thunder, when Feist didn't want him in the studio while she recorded – that he needs to get his drinking under control. Three years earlier, Spearin's wife calls Drew when he succumbs to a post-tour malaise after 18 months on the road with Feist. He says Manchester brought the group back to where it began.
"We realized that we're friends and we love each other and we care for each other," he says. "We realized that what we're really doing is sharing that love."
After Manchester, Win Butler sends Drew a text to invite BSS to open Arcade Fire's November stadium dates in Toronto. After Manchester, the band welcomes 16,000 people to Field Trip, a two-day festival put on by Arts & Crafts.
"You're onstage looking around and you're grateful," Drew says. "That's all you feel."
Three weeks ago, the day before BSS leaves for Sacramento to play a festival with Tom Petty, Drew spends the day in studio with Downie. Between BSS records, Drew checks himself into the Hoffman Institute, which he says is a place for emotional recovery. He can laugh at himself, but he smashed his phone and drove to his grandmother's grave after a review in Exclaim! called him out at Field Trip. ("Six out of 10 I can take, but don't call me 'cheap.' I put you on the guest list – you cost me $40!")
At the Hoffman Institute, counsellors advise him to stop working with the Tragically Hip – a band that lubricates recording with Coors Light, Guinness and wine, referred to as "goof juice." This is before the CBC cut away from the Olympics to play the band's final show. This was 2013, when Drew was finishing his second solo record, Darlings, at the Bathouse Recording Studio, owned by Downie and the Tragically Hip, in Bath, Ont.
"We had Snowblink and Feist up there, Jimmy Shaw and Gord came by and we were playing basketball and swimming until 5 in the morning and he said, 'Is this how you guys do it?' It was the happiest time of my life and Les [Feist] fully came back and that's when Gord came in and said, 'Whatever you're drinking, I want some of that.'"
Drew proposes a solo album. Downie is cautious, but finds an old poem that becomes Secret Path. They'd practise at Shaw's studio on Ossington, with Spearin on guitar.
Those sessions take a backseat to Downie and Drew working with the Hip on Man Machine Poem, recorded at the Bathouse. Drew co-produces with his friend Dave Hamelin; however, the experience hurts.
"I could feel this darkness and this booze and felt really uncomfortable, and it was like I'd put on the scuba gear and Dave would lower me in and I'd shotgun a Coors Light and Gord was so intense – it was so different than us working together on Secret Path."
It's after the Hip record is finished in December, 2015, that Drew learns Downie has glioblastoma, a form of brain cancer for which there's no cure.
Drew says, "Get ready for uncomfortable confusion about change."
Of the many dominoes to fall – none more than the reality of Downie's children growing up without a father – one affects Hug of Thunder. The band is set to record at the Bathouse when Downie suddenly needs his studio to rehearse with his band before its last tour. Five days before its producer is set to arrive from Los Angeles, BSS has nowhere to record.
"Two hours later, Andrew called me and said, 'My father died.' 'That's it,' I said, 'We're coming to Montreal.'"
Life doesn't always line up like children at daycare, but when BSS decamps from Toronto to Montreal, where Whiteman and Engle were suffering, Hug of Thunder coalesces. "It wasn't about the record, it was, 'This is what we do' – we show up for each other," Drew says. "This is why we're here – not for the record, but to make a record with all of us."
Drew has a play, a comedy about suicide, that will premiere in Toronto in the fall. He also has another record of BSS tunes. But tonight, he wants to talk about Downie. Christmas, 2015, Drew is having dinner at his brother's house when he leaves abruptly. The news about Downie is fresh. That night, he e-mails Downie a track he'd recorded on piano. The next morning, Downie returns the track with words.
On Jan. 4, 2016, Drew and Downie return to the studio to record 17 songs in four days. On the night I arrive at Drew's place, he's spent the day with Downie, whom Drew describes as "present and hilarious."
"We didn't take too much time to do it when we started because we didn't know how much time we had," he says.
The recovery of Downie was never assured – it still isn't, the opposite in fact – but before leaving for Sacramento, Drew and Downie work on those songs, Downie singing letters he wrote to his loved ones. The songs evoke k.d. lang singing Leonard Cohen; it's the record all of us need.
"I'm finishing a record with him that, when we made it, we didn't know he was going to be here. You know how amazing that makes me feel? To turn around and see him on the couch and say, 'Should we eat sushi tonight, babe?' My heart is bigger than the building."
Drew has a bottle of wine open at his loft in west-side Toronto, framed BSS posters on the walls, and he lays out a pack of cigarettes. BSS talks about this record marking its return, that there won't be another layoff before its next album, even though there are no guarantees. The European tour lost money and recouping Hug of Thunder will be hard. Drew went with Andy Kim to the Socan awards and they watched the Chainsmokers win.
"That kid's up there celebrating and he should be, that song got two billion plays on Spotify, but Andy asks me, 'What's two billion plays on Spotify, $720?' The entertainment industry's getting squeezed."
"Things are gonna get better, because they can't get worse," Engle sings toward the end of Hug of Thunder. The line arrived as a studio improvisation, something she sang to Drew. He knows his parents are getting older, his girlfriend may want children, that he needs to stop learning the same lessons again and again, keep finding ways to bring his friends to the park. He pours a glass of wine, exhales and says, "Life's about the company you keep."
Broken Social Scene's Hug of Thunder was released July 7. For tour dates, see brokensocialscene.ca.