Safety in Numbers
It seems that whenever the subject of so-called "musical collectives" comes up, the notion of novelty is not far behind. It's just too easy to throw a bunch of people onstage, call it a collective and go about your business without ever paying much attention to whether or not you really need 12 horn players, a vocal chorus and some dude in the back fiddling with a Theremin.
Broken Social Scene stalwart Charles Spearin laughs when asked about the necessity of his group's considerable membership, which easily swells into double digits.
"As far as BSS is concerned, yes," it is necessary, he says. "As far as [we] individually are concerned, not all the time, certainly, but it's maybe kind of the defining characteristic of the band."
There is a certain amount of notoriety that seems to hover over bands whose numbers exceed the typical count of three, four or maybe five members; certainly, when you fill a stage with 19 people, somebody's going to notice. Of course, for Broken Social Scene, the numbers are noticeable not just in the band's composition but in the music that arises as a result.
Broken Social Scene crafts dense, complex and highly stylized pop music with a sense of majesty and expansiveness. The group's songs are frequently so multilayered that there could easily be a dozen different ideas simmering in the mix.
Imagine a series of half-completed trains of thought swirled around one another into a sound that fixates on the whole but leaves plenty of room for the other parts to come through. That sort of prismatic sound is, both literally and figuratively, a result of the multifaceted nature of the group itself, which formed in Toronto around the turn of the millennium.
"You want to go one way, and they say let's go this way, and the next thing you know, you come to a brand-new place, which is actually a band place," Spearin explains. "It's not so much by design; it's not one person's vision. That's really kind of exciting. It sort of defines the music as a bit more of its own thing, I suppose, rather than one person's ideas."
It's certainly possible to create dense, multilayered music without having a dozen musicians hanging around, but Broken Social Scene is structured around that very notion. The way they write and record music is, by design and necessity, dictated by the number of players involved.
"Well, we rarely, maybe never, get together and rehearse as a full band. We mostly write the songs in the studio," says Spearin, who plays just about anything with strings or keys. "We sketch out a lot of the songs beforehand; six of us got together and sketched out the songs for [2010's] Forgiveness Rock Record, and then we went into the studio, and we didn't really stick too close to the original ideas, and we wrote a bunch of new songs as well.
"We know that when we're recording, there's going to be a lot of other people involved, and so we leave space for other ideas," he continues. "Even if we have ideas, we put it down, but we understand that it's going to get buried or lost, because other ideas are going to come along as well. In a way, it's sort of like we pile on all kinds of ideas and then scrape some away."
That process of building frames for songs, then constructing, breaking down and rebuilding the interior, creates something like an archaeological dig. While the original structure might be invisible to the naked eye once the song is finished, the many layers of the song are built on it, each adding something. Listening to Broken Social Scene is like excavating the songwriting process itself, with bits and pieces of every member's personality and style adding up like sedimentary strata.
Rock history is littered with groups splitting up because they couldn't agree on what to do, and that's often just two or three people. Exponentially expanding the number of opinions that need to be weighed seems like it would hasten a band's demise, turning the decision of what kind of band to be into a muddled mess of conflicting notions and fractured egos. For Broken Social Scene, that dynamic shift is an essential part of how the band moves forward.
"For one thing, the sense of community is really important to the band. The definitions of what's 'band' and what's 'not band' are kind of intentionally blurred, because it's easier to think of the music first rather than the identity," Spearin says. "When somebody comes in who's an occasional member — it's kind of fresh air. It really adds an excitement when people come in who aren't with the band all the time."
However, "It makes it easier and more difficult," he adds. "It's easier because there are a lot of ideas; it's more difficult because you have to choose one, and people are attached to their own ideas. Everybody's human, and everybody has ego. We all pretty much know that."
Despite its organic development, Forgiveness is actually a tighter, more meticulous and structured affair. While much of Broken Social Scene's work has a decidedly freewheeling feel to it — as if the entire band is just winging it, and almost by happenstance heads in the same direction — this outing feels much more planned-out. Spearin attributes it to a combination of natural development and circumstance rather than any sort of intent.
"It's not really by design," he says. "I guess this is just kind of where we are now. We're maybe a little less cluttered? I don't know. There's also other minds involved. John McEntire [of Tortoise] produced the record; we're huge fans of his and have been for a long time."
So Broken Social Scene is still evolving, as any good band should, moving generally from a slightly ramshackle group of musical friends with a loose idea of what they wanted to be, toward a ramshackle group of musical friends with a loose idea of what they wanted to be, but a better idea of how to get to wherever that is.
"In the beginning, we didn't really have a direction, we didn't have a trajectory. We really tried to be ourselves, and play music, and forget about the rest of the world, and it was kind of a sincere beginning," says Spearin. "We weren't really trying to become successful or famous, in that sort of sense.
"Then, as you become a touring band, you have a lot more focus, and a lot more people involved to try and keep the train rolling. I think the band may be putting on the brakes a bit after this. We've been working hard on this, and we might get another chance to get out a bit and do our solo projects.
"There are some other things coming up, but I think that the band has to constantly reinvent itself," he concludes. "The future is wide open."
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