Interview: Kevin Drew of Broken Social Scene
Although the Toronto band Broken Social Scene famously bills itself as a “collective” and is made up of a volatile roster of a dozen musicians, the band’s de facto frontman is the irrepressible, baby-faced Kevin Drew. A sweet and tender hooligan, the 28 year-old Drew is a gregarious and charismatic young man, prone to pronouncements like “All my life, I’ve had discussions with my friends about making music honest.” and more likely to hug you than shake your hand. Like everyone else in the band, Drew plays multiple instruments while also contributing his almost plaintive drawl to a number of BSS tracks.
Drew co-founded BSS in 1999 with bassist Brendan Canning, an older veteran of many lesser-known Toronto bands such as hHead and By Divine Right. Canning had also sung on Len’s ubiquitous summer hit “Steal My Sunshine” and the money he made off that cloying single bankrolled the first BSS record, Feel Good Lost, which he and Drew recorded on an eight-track in Drew’s basement.
Other musicians (including Feist, Metric’s Emily Haines and James Shaw, Stars’ Evan Cranley and Amy Millan) quickly coalesced around the Dynamic Duo, forming a supergroup of sorts—call it the Justice League of Indie Rock—that went on to record their breakout disc, 2001’s You Forgot it in People. That record— an incredibly melodic and densely layered blend of space-rock, swoony surf anthems and atmospheric lullabies—has since sold 150,000 copies. Pitchfork gave it an extraordinary 9.2 (out of 10) rating, describing it as “exactly the kind of pop record that stands the test of time.” The record was the also the first release by the now-legendary boutique label, Arts & Crafts, which Drew co-owns.
On their third album, the eponymous Broken Social Scene, BSS’s expansive, complex sound still reigns, but many of the songs have more foregrounded hooks, even more pop punch. (BSS had so much material that an additional seven-song EP was included with the first 50,000 copies of the main album, itself over an hour long.) Among many other things, Drew does his best Malkmus impersonation on “Ibi Dreams of Pavement” and screams his guts out on “Superconnected.” We spoke in Toronto a couple of days before he was to go on a European vacation, the first real break he’s had since the band’s rapid ascent. Broken Social Scene comes out on October 4.
FANZINE: Your parents were both British citizens?
KEVIN DREW: Yeah, they’re Canadian now, but they’re from the county of Essex. My mom came from a family of six, their house was as big as our table, that classic story. My dad was a fucking full-on Mod.
Was he in publishing then?
Yeah, he was. He befriended Tolkien. He was the young guy at this publishing firm and Tolkien, for some reason, took a liking to him. Before Tolkien died, he left my father a note, but his boss took it from him so he never got to read this. Throughout the years, I started to think he wrote my father, “You will have a son who will go on to great things.” [laughs]
When did you start playing music?
Well, like all suburban children, when you move to the suburbs, you have to take piano lessons. Or if you have English parents, you have to take piano lessons. So that’s how I started. And it wasn’t fun. Anything you have to do. You know I didn’t like doing anything except hanging out. Ever since I was a little kid, all I wanted to do was hang out. I didn’t want to go to swimming class, I didn’t want to play hockey, I didn’t want to take piano. I just wanted to hang out. Watch movies. When I was a kid, I could do that—watch one movie six times in one day.
What was your favorite movie when you were a kid?
I liked Cloak & Dagger and stuff like that. Remember that, with Henry Thomas and Dabney Coleman? See, that shit I would watch. And Goonies. You’d watch Goonies and go play in the ravine for six days, you know what I’m saying? And then I started getting into romance films. I saw my first porn when I was like nine.
What was it?
He was a television producer and she was an intern. It’s happening right now as we speak. That changed the way I looked at the world, definitely. I was too young to take in that information. I remember wanting to have sex by the time I was 11.
I waited a few years. It was nice. I wasn’t the greatest, but I tried. That’s the only thing I kind of regret in my life. I rushed into sex. And I remember seeing that film, Kids, and kind of squirming because I remember having that conversation: “C’mon, let’s just try it.”
You were like the Virgin Surgeon?
I wasn’t the Virgin Surgeon—that’d be a terrible thing to write. Whoever I was with I liked to be with. People get their lives rushed too much. Rushing someone’s life, I don’t think that’s a great quality. I think people should take their time, do it the way they want to do it. People are easy to manipulate. Some people can be talked into anything—that’s something I figured out at a young age too.
How did you hear about Brian Eno at such a young age?
I was always into music. When I was in grade four, I was buying Jesus and Mary Chain records. My brother got into Zeppelin and Neil Young and Hendrix—he covered that whole area so I got to go and figure out Joy Division and New Order at a really young age. And music is one of the greatest ways of finding something of your own. You can own that. This is my band. This is what I like. You can really distinguish yourself by what you listen to. You know that. Everyone knows that. That’s how you find people.
Where did you find Brendan?
Everyone kind of knew who Brendan Canning was from his first band. I certainly did. Though I wasn’t a fan. This is hHead. Brendan heard the KC Accidental record [Drew’s first project, with Charles Spearin] and just called me up. I didn’t call him back. And then he called me again, and started courting me. I believe his quote was, “I like this kid Kevin, I can make him a star.”
He was older too.
Yes, much older. He was turning 30 and I was turning 23. When I met Brendan, it was one of those things when you’re excited to see someone.
He was such a sweet, soft man, and I didn’t know what to expect. He was so gentle. So welcome. He basically moved into our place, although he had his own place, and cooked and we made a record, Feel Good Lost, together. All the time we were doing that, I was just so taken by his generosity. Just his overall nature, how soft he was, he moved so sweetly. I fell in love with him immediately. I knew that between Charles and him, probably the two most creative people I know, that something was gonna happen. I knew it, I could feel it. I felt I was working with two of the highest-quality human beings. Not just musicians, but humans. I love human beings, that’s one of my main obsessions. When I say I just want to hang out, I want to hang out. I was into real-life people. Into Mr. Newton, my history teacher, not the history that he was teaching. I was more into his life. I liked facts, I liked reality, that’s what I love. Geography, fuck it, why don’t I just go, why do I gotta read about it? Meeting Brendan and Charles—I really felt that they were going to make me a better man.
I guess there was no real model for a band like Broken Social Scene? Of that size or texture?
There was absolutely no model. But it was fun cause there were so many people you were constantly getting to know someone new [laughs]. At every show, you’d get to know somebody a little bit better—“You were incredible. No, you were incredible.” It had nothing to do with nothing except the music. When Evan and James came and played the horns, it was one of those moments where you’ve had like a blood transfusion, you know? And suddenly you have Emily Haines and Amy Millan, your friends from high school, and they’re singing their guts out, that’s why we said fuck it, we gotta do a record.
And you’d just jam and the sound would just emerge out of that?
Writing a song is easy. Liking that song two weeks later is where you have to really make a commitment. We didn’t have a problem making music at all. We never do. Everything’s been done before so all you can do is present it in a way that’s a little different…You want to talk about this record [Broken Social Scene], it goes like this: it was a very different time when we did this record than the first time. We started it a long time ago, and we had a lot of life come in and we had to put it on hold. A lot of personal things happened with a lot of people in the band, a lot of bands took off. Since that last record, Stars put out two records, Jason Collett’s put out two records, Apostle of Hustle put out a record, Metric put out a record. Metric’s new record lands a week before ours. Point is, this record wasn’t easy. I know that we lost a lot of focus. If we were a little more focused, we could have got it out. But this is the way it happened. The last time we put something out we had no idea what people were going to think. This time, it’s the same thing. Because we didn’t keep with our sound. We wanted to do whatever we wanted to do. We’re not rock n’ rollers. There’s rules to follow when you’re a rock n’ roller. We’re a different band.
So, say this was the last record––
It could be.
But you’ve already recorded another one. [While Broken Social Scene was being recorded with Dave Newfeld, the band took breaks to simultaneously record another album with latest BSS member, Ohad Bencherit.]
Oh, yeah [laughs]. You’re right. Okay, that could be the last record.
Okay, but what would you do then? Soundtracks?
We already are. We did one for Bruce McDonald. We’ve got another one in the wings. We’re doing soundtracks now. I’m going to direct films. But the good thing about Social Scene, once it’s there, as long as we’re all still cool, it’ll always be there. We’ll never really break up, but we’ll definitely take time off.
Do solo stuff?
Yeah, yeah. Everyone wants to do solo records. I’d love to. Do whatever I want.
Is there much restriction on what you do within BSS? What would you want to do on a solo record that you can’t do now?
Play a lot of stuff. Just play a lot of lines. Mix my album. I miss mixing. I used to love mixing.
What kind of movies would you want to make?
I’d like to make films that everybody loves. I’d like to make a kind of Midnight Cowboy–Jaws kind of movie. A suburban Midnight Cowboy Jaws. Stuff like that. I love heroes, I was always obsessed with heroes. I would daydream as a kid that I would get to save people from a burning building. That’s what I wanted to be.
Yeah. And I wanted to be in love when I was young. People wanted to be astronauts, I wanted to be attending orgies and constantly in love. Those were my aspirations.