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Though its name conjures up thoughts of isolation, the reality of Canadian indie-rock juggernaut Broken Social Scene is anything but. Instead, the Scene is more of a loose umbrella moniker for members who come, go, return, and couple on the side in a Tolstoy-worthy web. The band's earliest incarnation began at the turn of the millennium and, in the nearly 12 years since then, has featured at least 25 different occasional members.
As hard as it is to pin down a head count, there are a few anchor members. The founders and constants include frontman Kevin Drew and Brendan Canning, most often its backing vocalist and bassist but possibly almost anything else, depending on the band's mood that evening. At the moment, the troupe also prominently features drummer Justin Peroff, multi-instrumentalist Charles Spearin, guitarist Andrew Whiteman, and now singer Lisa Lobsinger, who's been with the band steadily for the past five years.
The sprawling act is technically a band with four proper studio albums under its belt, the latest being last year's Forgiveness Rock Record. All of them, however, have side projects — and side projects of side projects. So while, technically, it seems that Broken Social Scene was quiet for six years, between its 2005 self-titled album and its most recent one, the collective was anything but.
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"In 2008, we did a lot of touring, and then before that, in 2007, we were touring Kevin's solo record, and then there were a couple of movie soundtracks we've done," the red-haired, red-bearded Canning says by phone on a recent rare moment at home in Toronto. "So even though it may seem on paper that there was all this time off, both Kevin and I did the Broken Social Scene Presents records, and Andrew had the Apostle of Hustle record, and Charles had the Happiness Project and Do Make Say Think."
The band shuns the "supergroup" tag, but Broken Social Scene has, at some point, also notably featured all four members of Stars, two of Metric (including its singer, Emily Haines), and Leslie "Feist" Feist. Somehow, almost all of them reconnected briefly for Forgiveness Rock Record. Wherever its erstwhile members may roam, they all manage to eventually make it home.
"On any record, the core will definitely be there," says Canning. "Then as far as everyone else, I mean, we try to get everyone who's been there from the beginning, whether it's Jimmy Shaw or Jason Collett or Leslie Feist or Evan Cranley. We try to make sure everyone at least has a little piece on the record."
As the member count has grown, each Broken Social Scene album has sounded more huge than the last. The band's first disc, 2001's Feel Good Lost, was largely instrumental, a continuation of Drew and Canning's previous project, the ambient KC Accidental. As indie legend has it, though, when the meandering tracks didn't hold up live, they invited their friends to help beef them up onstage.
Thus was born the band's revolving cast and the baroque sound that would come to define it by the 2002 follow-up, You Forgot It in People. Gone was the headphones-worthy bedroom tinkering, and in its place came a sweeping approach to songs that often exploded into orchestral climaxes after minutes of shambling.
Forgiveness Rock Record sounds even broader and more dense at the same time, unsurprising given its producer — John McEntire of the left-field post-rock act Tortoise — and its multi-author provenance. "If we get together and are rehearsing or get together as a band and write, we all write together, on certain tunes anyways," Canning says. "Certain songs start off with a smaller idea and sort of get developed by everyone else. So every song has its different story to tell."
The closest thing to a pop song on the album is probably its third track, "Texico Bitches." Despite its inscrutable, fragmented lyrics, its gently repeating guitar lines build up to drum crashes and joyous whoops that demand hands in the air.
Most of the other songs' intricacies demand a closer listen. "Ungrateful Little Father," for instance, starts with a similar seemingly million layers and syncopated vocals before abandoning the whole project three minutes in in favor of atmospheric, piano-driven ambiance. Just a track after, "Meet Me in the Basement," creates nearly four minutes of excitement from a philharmonic's worth of strings and percussion and absolutely no vocals.
These rapid shifts in tone and dynamics all make more sense in the band's loud but rousing live shows, which use the songs' looseness to their advantage. Onstage, the parameters of each composition are given new life as musicians enter and leave the stage casually with each song. About eight members currently tour as Broken Social Scene, but rarely do they all play together at once — or perform any song the same way twice.
All the while, frontman Drew takes a revival-tent-style approach, demanding audience participation and shouting words of general encouragement. In fact, Canning described Drew to the London Free Press last month as a "Tony Robbins via John Tesh" act, and he laughs at the mention of it again. "I guess it's just his onstage antics, the sort of stuff like, 'Let it all out, folks, scream for yourselves!' Those are definitely along the self-help lines," he says. "When you're going to see a rock concert or hip-hop concert or whatever, it's about a kind of communion, a church of a different kind."
This effusive, taxing concert behavior seems to be the only place many of the otherwise private group members open up. In 2009, the band starred in This Movie Is Broken, a low-budget indie rom-com set against the backdrop of a real-life Broken Social Scene show. Some returning members, uninformed by Drew about the nature of the filming, felt ambushed. "I think enough time has passed that we can all kind of — if you choose to watch it, we can all say, 'Yeah, it's not so bad,' " Canning says.
Thus, the lag between proper Broken Social Scene projects may ultimately preserve the band's longevity. "In 2010, I think we went quite full-on, which, you know, was strenuous," Canning says. "For a band like us, we're not meant to be on the road for that long a stretch. It's nice to explore other avenues and do other things."
At the moment, Canning says, some new material is already in the works, although its final destination — EP, studio album, or some other kind of release — is still undecided. While he's been songwriting in his precious downtime, Drew and Charles Spearin have also been working in Chicago to reexamine old bits and pieces of songs. "It's pretty much an ongoing thing. We just sort of go in and work, and maybe we have a whole body of work after two months or maybe it's four months," Canning says.
As far as the constellation of Broken Social Scene may shine, it's hard for anyone to stay away for too long. "At this point," Canning says, "we're all family."