Brendan Canning of Broken Social Scene

Just after touring the 20th anniversary of their seminal 'You Forgot It In People', Brendan Canning of Broken Social Scene talked with QRO....
Brendan Canning of Broken Social Scene : Q&A
Brendan Canning of Broken Social Scene : Q&A

Just after touring the 20th anniversary of their seminal You Forgot It In People, Brendan Canning of Broken Social Scene talked with QRO. In the conversation, Canning discussed getting back out there to tour with the real fans, mixing in some other songs & changing up the play order, the evolution of on-stage bits, figuring out the next record, their celebrity fans, his dogs, and more…

QRO: How have you been holding up, these last two-and-a-half years?

Brendan Canning: Well, if given the choice between staying at home and going slightly insane, versus going out & playing shows, and enjoying myself, meeting new people every night, I’ll take the latter…

QRO: How was the just-finished You Forgot It In People 20th anniversary tour?

BC: It was great. It was really great to see people coming out & supporting the shows.

I’d say we were probably at about 70% sellout ratio, which is really great. We’re incredibly grateful for that, that folks are still coming out after all these years.

And not just politely standing there, but really immersed in the show. They were really good shows we were putting on, and we were getting a lot of good energy back from the audience. That’s kinda the best-case scenario.

QRO: I was at both NYC nights…

BC: We’ve played Webster Hall (QRO venue review) a few times, but I’d be hard-pressed to say that those shows weren’t the best ones we’d ever played.

QRO: They were packed!

BC: Bodes well for us…

Just a nice way to end the tour, you know, when you’ve got that kind of energy coming back at you. Makes you feel like it was all worth it, from the get-go.

QRO: I have to ask: how did you get Tracey Ullman AND Meryl Streep to come on for “Anthems For a Seventeen-Year-Old Girl”?!?

BC: We were friends with Tracey already.

Our friends Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden were doing that show, Mrs. America, the Gloria Steinem, Tracey Ullman was on that. When she was in town, she was introduced, we all went out for a dinner, had a really nice time. She became buds with us. Kev[in Drew – QRO interview] had visited her.

And I don’t know, I guess she was hanging out with Meryl Streep that night.

I didn’t know what was going to happen, you know? Tracey was just trying to get her to come out on stage and do what she did.

I was as surprised as anyone else in the room, I have to say. “Damn, I cannot believe Meryl Streep is on stage with us right now!…”

QRO: But [Streep] didn’t “drop that phone”…

BC: Well, you know, Meryl, she’s O.G., she can do whatever she wants. She’s got more Academy Awards than I’ll ever get…

QRO: No one’s gonna tell her to “sleep on the floor”…

BC: No, no, I think she’s okay.

You know what? She was also very nice. Came backstage, extremely gracious and complimentary.

QRO: Totally outshining Busy Phillips from [the night before]…

BC: We got lots of love for Busy Phillips too. Don’t want this to become a competition…

Meryl’s been at it a little bit longer. We don’t know where Busy’s career is going to continue to take her…

Streep & Ullman

Broken Social Scene playing You Forgot It In People’s “K.C. Accidental” live at Brooklyn Masonic Temple in Brooklyn, NY on October 24th, 2008:

QRO: Why did you decide to tour the 20th anniversary of People?

BC: The album really launched us, and we wanted to get back out on the road.

Releasing this b-sides, air-quote “rarities” compilation [Old Dead YoungQRO review]. Not kind of get overshadowed by the 20th anniversary of a record that was so huge for us.

We wanted to get back out on the road. ‘C’mon, let’s go play some music! Let’s go figure out what the next steps are for the band.’ I think going out and doing a proper tour – the first one we really done in four years – you’re a band, you gotta get out there. You gotta get out there & meet the people.

You gotta see what you’re up against, not just looking at your numbers on Spotify & your Instagram followers. Like, you gotta actually meet the real people, who are the real music fans, that are coming out to your shows, and possibly don’t freakin’ listen to you on Spotify, and possibly don’t look at your Instagram stories. Real people. It’s important.

That’s the whole thing with people. It’s nice to be seen & be heard up close. That’s what I grew up with.

This whole livestreaming concerts during the pandemic. Some people were like, ‘Oh, are you going to do any of this?’ Why? Why subject people to an inferior product. We’re not all set up…

We did one, or two things, and they were okay. It was nice to do something, but is it the same as a proper gig? No, of course not…

Damn, I cannot believe Meryl Streep is on stage with us right now!…

QRO: I saw you do the New Year’s Eve thing. It was a benefit (QRO recap)…

BC: Yeah. I mean, it was okay, but then again, but we were standing meters away, or yards away, from Sam [Goldberg] & Andrew [Whiteman – QRO interview], who were playing guitar over there. Justin & I were on the stage.

It was a funny thing, but that was December of 2020. People were just like, ‘What’s happening? We’re all gonna die!’ Everyone was at a different comfort level during the pandemic – not everyone, but some people are at this level, some people are at that level. You gotta respect everyone’s wishes of how they want to travel through a pandemic, whatever they choose to believe.

So, all those things you’re trying to navigate towards, it’s such a foreign thing, but whatever. You’ve gotta plow through.

QRO: You’ve never done a ‘play a full album on a tour’ before, right?

BC: Yeah, we haven’t done the ‘looking at the career in the rearview mirror’ kind of tour before.

When we did Hug of Thunder (QRO review). that was the last major tour we did, where we were still going to Europe & the U.K.

QRO: While a lot of those songs from People have long been live staples, there were some that you hadn’t played in a very long time, no?

BC: I mean, “I’m Still Your Fag”, that made it out, live. Every now & then, makes it into a set.

Some of the tunes take breaks. There’s been a run where we’ve been like, “We’re gonna leave ‘Almost Crimes’ behind for a bit.” The combination of “Late Night Bedroom Rock For the Missionaries” & “Shampoo Suicide”, we played that a lot for a long time, and then we take a break for six months.

Even “Anthems” – you can’t keep playing the same tunes. You’ve got to give certain songs a break every now & then.

But when you play them all in one night, and then you mix it up with whatever, your ‘greatest hits,’ it makes for a good show. It makes for something that people are still gravitating towards.

In fact, at the New York show, I was like, ‘Damn, what’s with the crowd, in their twenties?’ A lot, in front. That’s very encouraging…

QRO: Yeah. To be fair, the people in their twenties are the ones who are gonna go to the front. The older folks hang in the back…

BC: Yeah…

QRO: Specifically, about “I’m Still Your Fag” – did Kevin do that explanation before it every night on the tour?

BC: The story was kind of changing a little bit. I felt like he wanted to reveal a little more, each time. As a word like “fag” becomes less welcome in today’s world, I think he just wanted it – because you have something where someone goes, ‘Oh, that’s not cool, dude…’ It comes from a very pure and honest place, that song.

And Kev, he likes his microphone time, and he wants to give it up like that…


QRO: I did notice on the setlist, it was “F^G”…

BC: Yeah.

QRO: You also didn’t do the standard ‘play the whole album front-to-back, then add some others in after the encore break,’ but rather shifted some songs, added some others in – why did you decide to do it that way?

BC: It makes for a better flowing show.

Just because you sequence an album twenty years ago, doesn’t mean it was meant to be played in its entirety, note-for-note, twenty years later, without any interruption.

‘There’s your first five tunes kind of thing, now here’s a little break, here’s another couple, here’s another little break.’ Make it a regular show, but know that you’re honoring a twenty-year-old album. And the songs you’re kinda interspersing, you’re trying to put on a show.

We kept it pretty tight. We’d swap out the odd song here or there, but generally that was the kind of show we were coming at.

We had a discussion about that before. In 2018, we did this festival in Santa Cruz I think it was, we did the album from top-to-bottom, and something about it didn’t flow right.

QRO: I saw you at South-by-Southwest in 2019, and one of the nights (QRO recap), it was billed as you were playing that record. I can’t remember if you did it in the exact order…

BC: Did Maggie Rogers come out on that one?

QRO: Yes. You were playing a bunch of shows at that SXSW (QRO recap)…

BC: Yeah, that was eight shows.

That was a fun week, pretty fun week, also.

That was the other time. I forgot about that. Didn’t realize it was a You Forgot It show…

I guess we had to do something, if we were playing eight shows. ‘How is this one show better than the next one, sponsored by Doc Martens?’

I still remember that Doc Martens show. It was like, ‘Okay, they’ll give them to you, but you gotta wear them.’ It’s like, ‘Are you kidding me? How am I supposed to bounce around on stage with these big, clunky fuckin’ shoes?…’

QRO: Playing People in slightly different order on this tour, was the plan always to end with “Anthems”?

BC: It seemed to be a good closer.

And then, if we still had time left over, come back and do “Ibi [Dreams of Pavement (A Better Day)]” – “Meet Me In the Basement” was kind of the closer in the top half of tour, and then near the end, “It’s All Gonna Break”, we worked that one in, because Loel [Campbell, of Wintersleep, drums for People tour] hadn’t played that one before, who was behind the drums.

Broken Social Scene playing “Meet Me In the Basement” live at Williamsburg Waterfront on September 8th, 2011:

As per usual, just trying to make sure the shows are good.

But I think this time around, like, ‘Okay, we’ve had a bunch of time off. We don’t know when we’re gonna be able to tour like this again, and it’s this album that we’re honoring, so let’s just make sure these shows are just as good as we’re gonna make ‘em. Everyone plays some good, heads-up ball, we should be able – at this stage in the game, we should be able to put on a good show, with some good, high octane energy. It should sound good.’

All the things you expect if you’re spending money on concert tickets. That’s the other thing – people are spending like fifty bucks, sixty bunks on a ticket. Or if you’re traveling from out of town, or driving for five or six hours, or whatever – some people are flying in! You’ve really gotta live up to some kind of expectation.

And I think, maybe, there was the expectation of an album like You Forgot It In People, because it resonates with people – at least the fans that were coming out – with their youth, their teen years, or their early twenties, whatever the case may be. You want to honor that as best you can.

It was great to finish off in New York, because we were firing on all cylinders. Just enough of an edge to everyone at that point, too. Your nerves start to get a little bit frayed at the end of the tour. All the things that beckon you to be back home, they all start to get a little bit louder as the days get closer to the end date.

It’s just the inevitability of touring. You’re like, ‘Oh shit, okay, yeah, I gotta get home soon…’

QRO: You said it was your first tour in four years, certainly since COVID.

When you thought before the tour, did you maybe only remember the good bits about touring, and then were like, ‘Oh, yeah, I got to do this…’?

BC: [laughs] Oh, no – the touring life is not that far back in the distance. You remember all the annoying shit.

I always preferred American touring, because you’re not traveling country-to-country. Some of the band used to like European touring more, but I always preferred American touring, because I know there’s going to be reliable coffee.

You’re backstage, you know the clubs. You know what you’re gonna get. Like at The Paramount in Seattle, you’re gonna get a boujeer backstage, but you gotta eat their catering, which is okay. And then, the 9:30 Club, you got their backstage, which is smaller, but you’re playing The 9:30 Club – the greatest rock n’ roll room in America.

Thalia Hall, you pull up, and there’s a marathon going on at 9:30 in the morning, and you haven’t slept, because there’s a mariachi band playing. But it’s hard to be mad when there’s a mariachi band playing. And then you go for three more blocks, and there’s another mariachi band playing…

We got really lucky this run. Visiting some cool cities. Like Denver, Denver was great! Denver was one of the best shows on the tour. We played the Meow Wolf, a small little room in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Walt Disney on acid kind of place…

We even got in a couple of Canadian dates in the beginning. Started out at Vancouver.

QRO: Is it even harder for Canadian acts to tour America since COVID?

BC: As a touring musician, especially as a Canadian in the U.S., that’s just part of life. You gotta have your tax shit in order, and luckily we got a good team that takes care of that stuff. The issues are well taken care of.

Getting into the U.S., as long as you’re selling tickets, you know, you can make it work. As long as someone’s got an eye on the bottom line, then you can make it work.

But if you’re booking rooms that are maybe a little too big, or if you just bit off more than you can chew… I don’t know. We made it work.

I see a lot of bands, it seems almost daily, ‘Oh, another band’s canceling, complaining about the economy of touring.’ Well, yeah. You gotta be prepared.

I don’t mean to sound like, ‘Oh, well, we did it, so…’ It’s like, fuck – we got lucky. Fortunate enough that people still like the band, like the band enough that they want to go out and buy tickets.

Will I lie in bed in Washington, D.C., and calculate the mileage between Asheville and Nashville, try to plot out the next tour, ‘Oh, will we be received as well in Virginia as we are in Illinois?’ I don’t know. That’s a good enough proposition altogether.

QRO: On touring People, I noticed you didn’t do opening instrumental “Capture the Flag” or the closing instrumental “Pitter Patter Goes My Heart”…

BC: We had talked about starting the show with “Capture the Flag”, just playing over the speakers, walk-on, but I don’t know. We never got around to it.

Every night, we’re just sort of relying on whoever is the lighting person at each venue. There’s not enough room in the bus to have a lighting person.

Even that being said, our tour manager was also our sound person. People are doubling up on duties. The guy who’s tuning the guitar is also filming you for a documentary. And also, fifth guitar player now.

So, it’s all hands on deck. Your gal selling merch for you, she’s making sure all the backstage snacks are in order, and bitching out people if they’re not up to snuff, and taking care of the band on another level. It’s an all hands on deck situation.

It’d be great to travel with two buses, but you might as well just tack on an extra sixty grand to your budget. It’s fucking expensive. It’s really expensive. You do your best.

You gotta see what you’re up against, not just looking at your numbers on Spotify & your Instagram followers.

QRO: Did Kevin do that ‘go through the crowd, sneak up the other side on Andrew’ during “Stars and Sons” all tour? He did it in NYC…

BC: That became a bit in the last five or six shows.

In D.C., it was a seated show, so he just sat himself down in the front row, watched the show. That became a bit.

All the bits that were happening, were not at the beginning of the tour. Charles [Spearin – QRO interview] doing three laps around the stage before he picks up his trumpet on “Pacific Theme”, I remember first seeing him first do that, I’m like, ‘Dude, your trumpet’s right there – why don’t you just pick it up?’ And then, you know, I realized, ‘Oh, you’re doing a bit…’

I think all the bits, you’ve been playing the shows night-after-night, you want to keep it fun for yourself. Charles & I get on the floor, do some leg aerobics, get the blood flowing. People can be like, ‘Oh, that’s weird’ – whatever…

QRO: I was taking photos at the Sunday show, and Kevin bumped into me in the pit…

BC: [laughs] I think he was filming himself during “Sweetest Kill”, because someone had their phone out at 9:30 Club in D.C. That only became a bit right at the very end.

QRO: That was a song where he used to, in previous years, go in the crowd…

BC: Oh, yeah – but it’s COVID…

It’s not the best time to get smothered in strangers’ sweat & saliva. But he definitely used to go in the crowd.

I remember even like, that song played at 1st Avenue in Minneapolis. For some reason that night, I was just like, ‘There’s enough people playing this song – I’m gonna take a break.’ There’s a side club to [1st Avenue], 7th Street Entry, where smaller bands play, or bands that can’t fill 1st Avenue. I remember even going there, checking out, I think it was like Moon Duo was playing, just watched a couple minutes of their set while “Sweetest Kill” was playing.

No rules, no rules. As long as there’s enough people keeping the song going.

QRO: And it’s not like there’s not a lot of you all up there…

BC: Yeah. If one guitar drops out, it’s not gonna be the end of the world.

Unless it’s Andrew on “Almost Crimes” – you do need someone playing the chords. If there’s some lead thing that happens not to be there one night, or something different, I don’t think it would be that glaring an omission.

QRO: Are you working on any new material?

BC: We’re not not working on new material – I think that’s as definite an answer as I can give you… [laughs]

We’re not like, ‘Okay, let’s book some studio time, we’re off the road…’ I think it’s like, ‘Okay, let’s figure out what kind of album we could make, or how we could do it. How it would make sense for Broken Social Scene to make one more album.

I think there might be one more album, but I just can’t figure out right now how it would go. I had an idea for Hug of Thunder, but it’s not as clear right now for a new Broken record. But it’s there, it’s there somehow – it’s kind of got to get picked out of the air, somehow…

QRO: How do you go about making records, with so many musicians?

BC: Every song has a different story, you know? Sometimes, someone comes in with a little idea that develops, sometimes that idea gets redeveloped. Honestly, every song has such a different story, sometimes.

And then, you know, the obvious push-and-pull when it comes to pretty headstrong individuals trying to get to the finish line of said song. Lots of battles.

But then, sometimes it’s smooth. Rarely…

I think there might be one more album, but I just can’t figure out right now how it would go.

QRO: Did you make stuff on your own during COVID – both Kevin & Charles released their own records then…

BC: I gotta bunch of songs with a woman I was working with, sending some piano demos, she’d send them back my way.

I’m not chomping at the bit to release something just for the sake of releasing it. I’ve put out lots of music. I’m happy to just kinda take stock right now, figure out what the next, best move is.

QRO: Finally, how is your dog Sandy?

BC: We went to play Stubb’s in 2018, and we flew down to Texas, and my final words to Sandy were, “Okay, don’t anybody die while I’m gone…” And, yeah, he got put down the next day.

But you know what, right now we got Herbie Hancock Jr., a Texas Chihuahua, to carry on the tradition.

Chihuahuas, they live a long-ass time, but they don’t live forever.

But I appreciate the call-back on Sandy. He was a good dog. Maybe not quite as nice as Herbie – he was a bit of a prick. Herbie, he’s a little sugar-and-spice over here…