It's been a decade and a half since Broken Social Scene first drew attention to Toronto's burgeoning underground, rising the tide for countless other bands and artists in their wake, including Metric, Feist and Apostle of Hustle. In late 2011, the band announced it was taking a hiatus.
But the wait is over. The band has announced it is working on a new album – their first since 2010's Forgiveness Rock Record. The intervening six years have not been quiet ones, especially for ostensible front man Kevin Drew. He put out a solo album, Darlings, and has made records with Canadian music legends. His work on It's Decided, the latest album by Sugar Sugar-songwriter Andy Kim, taught him how to grapple with life after success. And he put a stamp on the Tragically Hip's career, finding lyrical inspiration in vocalist Gord Downie just as the Hip front man encountered unfathomable tragedy: the band announced he had terminal brain cancer last spring, just before the Drew-co-produced album Man Machine Poem was released.
Drew has learned a lot about himself and the world around him since Broken Social Scene stopped playing regularly. The Globe spoke with him by phone a few days after new album plans were revealed.
Why is now the time to get back together?
After the Paris attacks [at the Bataclan concert hall last November], a lot of us got on the phone and said we wanted to play. That really ripped close to home: the Eagles of Death Metal merch guy getting killed, and knowing that club, having friends play there, being inside of there. We wanted to be with the audience.
I really wanted to shut it down. But right now, we thought, let's put the family back together and go out on the road. We are a success because of all those who helped us – even outside of the band, we had a village behind us. We lost people along the way – maybe we took things for granted, all the stereotypes of Rocky III. But in a world that's dying for connection while thinking it has strong connections, there's nothing like being in front of an audience, and being there together. And I think that's a nice sentiment to have when you leave your house in these times.
Even though you wanted to shut it down, you played a few shows after announcing that hiatus.
I was kind of forced back into doing that first show [at the inaugural Field Trip festival, in 2013] because there was this anniversary for Arts & Crafts. There's absurdness in saying, "Okay, it's done," and then four months later, going, "Uh, we actually have to play." I'm glad we did it. It was special. And then the following year, we did it because I wanted to keep Field Trip and Social Scene together.
But the friendships are still here, are still strong. There wasn't any real war within the band that ended it. It was, "Okay, we're tired." We weren't respecting it as much as we used to. The light that guided us was out. And we really needed to break through to another level, to be straight up – in terms of crew, and having the touring and the road be easier on everyone. It was a good time to stop and take a moment to see what we had.
When we spoke last year about Andy Kim's record, you said you were "at a point where people were becoming either achievements of what they had done, or victims of what they had done," and working with Andy helped you through that. Have the lessons you learned then shaped your music?
Oh yeah. And you gotta remember, I spent the last three years with Gord [Downie]. These guys are pillars to me. And I watched where they were at in their lives and how they handled things. I've gotten two different great educators, of different ages, in different points in their career. And I didn't take it lightly. I absorbed so much from them. To be able to come back and feel like a leader again, or build yourself up to be one, it's a full-time job. Having these guys in my life, Downie and Kim, they're two of the greatest educators I could have had in this job.
Do you think that's going to shape your new record?
It's already shaping it. When you hang out with a lyricist like Downie, you're learning. And when you're going through the philosophies of life with Andy, you're learning. And I took notes.
It seems like you have a new sense of gratitude.
I know what it's like to be in a depression – I never thought I would. I know what it's like to be on top of things, where you think you're untouchable. It's the balance in life. I'm here now, I'm here with my crew, with these people that I trust as friends and as musicians.
When you played at Pitchfork Fest, you brought in a new vocalist, Ariel Engle. What does she bring to the band dynamic?
She brings an incredible voice. I said to her after these first shows, it's very difficult to escape our history with ladies: So many people are always asking for Emily [Haines], Feist and Amy [Millan]. And we saw it with Loby [Lisa Lobsinger] for six years – it's a difficult position, but you do get embraced, just like Loby did because of her voice. And Ariel's there because of the voice.
Founding BSS member Brendan Canning has a new solo record coming out, and Stars is playing shows. Has Broken Social Scene's dynamic changed in terms of managing time?
The greatest achievement we ever had with this band was scheduling. You roll the dice and hope whoever wants to be there will show up. So I just put out the invites and see who RSVPs.
How is the recording going for the new record – is it finished?
There's a producer, Joe Chiccarelli, who wouldn't leave us alone. He just kept saying, "We gotta get back together, let's make a record." And after a year and a half, we found ourselves in the studio. We're in the process of making it.
I take it there's no release date yet?
No. These summer-festival shows are to get us back out there. Everything's new with us right now – new management, a new producer, new attitudes. We need to put out the fires that always come with this large group trying to get moving. It takes time to realize, well, we're here. And we've gotta get over there. But it's gonna take time, and you need a lot of patience. It takes a lot of work to put a band back together.
This interview has been edited and condensed.