The Church of Broken Social Scene

When Broken Social Scene played the Fox Theatre in Boulder, Colorado in November of 2007, the last breath of autumn was drifting from the front range of the Rocky Mountains. My friends and I had piled into a Toyota Camry and left Salt Lake City the morning of the show. None of us had seen Broken Social Scene play before, but Feist was on the radio and BSS was a darling of the indie rock scene. “Almost Crimes” had been playing in house parties on repeat for a few years — the image of Kevin Drew and Leslie Feist’s sepia tone silhouettes dancing like indie rock sugar plum fairies in our minds. Like too many tours, Broken Social Scene had skipped Utah, so we made the eight-hour drive over the icy roads of Wyoming to see them play in front of a crowd of five hundred.

The Fox Theatre is one of those can’t miss spots in the pantheon of music venues. A place everyone has played — from unknown locals to Willie Nelson and the Wu-Tang Clan. An icon of “the hill,” the Fox lies just to the west of the University of Colorado campus among a collection of small shops and cheap restaurants where red-eyed college students meander through the evenings trying to distract themselves. Nearly a century of memories and dust have piled up in the rafters of the Fox Theatre. A fire in 1960 destroyed the original building. Before then, it had been a vaudeville and movie theater, a penny arcade, an upscale restaurant, and a cheap bar. Through the decades it has been rebuilt and reimagined. It was converted to its modern iteration in the early 90s, a large hall flanked on each side by terraced platforms that offer elevated views of whoever is playing. Near the center, a sound stage gives engineers and a few lucky concert-goers a front and center view of the show. A near-perfect perch, and the place I stood as Broken Social Scene made me a believer.

With upwards of nineteen members and a revolving door of active participants, Broken Social Scene is a collective, not a band. Kevin Drew was knighted with the reigns of leadership, but perhaps only because he scheduled rehearsals. He and Brendan Canning formed the group in 1999 in a Toronto basement apartment. As a collective, they have helped guide it into one of the preeminent indie rock groups of the last two decades. But no one fronts Broken Social Scene. It is an organism unto itself. Some kind of Canadian movement with an output that reflects the many layers of the human condition and the number of people who freely move in and out of it.

At the heart is drummer Justin Peroff, his presence felt in every vein and note that is played to the jogging beat of his snare and bass drum. The hidden muscle and key to all that moves. Drummers are sneaky that way. Nowhere is Peroff’s presence more apparent than in the 2002 release of You Forgot It In People. Broken Social Scene’s breakthrough second album, Peroff’s genius flows throughout, simultaneously layered and simple, keeping the album on time and on pace. In “KC Accidental,” one of the album’s opening tracks, Peroff and guitarist Charles Spearin dance between a tug of war, each allowing room for the other to drive the song for a measure and setting the tone for the group itself. Peroff gives space for Spearin’s sweeping guitar notes, showing the patience of a point guard waiting for a play to develop. When his time comes, he puts the song in drive, speeding along a highway of sound at breakneck speed, only slowing when Spearin’s guitar notes come back around again.

The eye is tempted by the frontline of musicians that make up Broken Social Scene. We are distracted by the antics of Kevin Drew, by the leg kicks of Brendan Canning, imaginary beach balls flying from his feet into the atmosphere; we are distracted by Leslie Feist, Emily Haines, Spearin, and the star power that comes from this group, standing at the front of the stage, dancing and shaking fists in the air, a gang of musicians doing their part to move the whole of the body. In the song “Stars and Sons,” the group guides us along a mesmerizing path of sounds, our heads bobbing from side to side as the song grows increasingly layered over the solid footing of Peroff’s drums until everything comes to a climax and we all exhale. This is the church of Broken Social Scene.

My friends and I drove straight to the venue. We arrived well before the doors would open. Dave, Marty, and Nate set out to find a liquor store. I headed in the other direction to meet a girl. Hope.

I had been living in Boulder the summer before, sleeping on couches and in open rooms, rarely staying in any one place for more than a few weeks. Friends had graciously taken me in, allowed my intrusion and at times invited me into their homes sight unseen. At the time, I viewed it as a hiatus from life. But in hindsight, it was an embarrassing display of adolescence. In search of some spiritual voice, I thought God might live on the coffee tables and in the spare bedrooms of the Colorado suburbs.

There was a church. A small building, probably built in the 1970s, where white college students searching for a God commingled with others who thought they’d found one. Like most churches, this place offered more in connections between those searching than the piety of anyone offering answers. I remember a sermon given by a gray-haired man who had known Ted Haggard. Haggard was an evangelical leader from Colorado Springs and well known for his loud and holier than thou opposition to same-sex marriage. In a national news story, a male masseuse revealed that he and Haggard had been in a sexual relationship. It was only a few weeks after the story had broken, and the gray-haired man gave his sermon on sexual purity to a largely college-aged congregation of white Boulderites. I remember the content being largely meaningless, though he seemed to think it progressive — packaged in a way that sounded like the moderate fringes of liberal Boulder. Afterward, he asked me what I thought. It was uncomfortably direct and I wish I had known how to tell him I disagreed.

But I had met Hope at this church. She’d moved to Boulder that summer as well, searching for something in the mountains that central Texas didn’t offer. She was someone who shouldn’t have paid much attention to me, and someone who didn’t until I’d moved back to Salt Lake and started chatting her up online. She was going to the concert, and we had decided to meet up. She hoped Leslie Feist would make a surprise appearance, but she knew better. I hoped to convince her to pay a little more attention to me. We met at a coffee shop down the street from the Fox where I used the restroom and she offered to hold my drink. I declined and balanced it on the paper towel dispenser inside the men’s room. She looked incredulous.

No one is irreplaceable in Broken Social Scene because it is not about the individual. The group is in service to a larger effort. They’re giving to the music not just for their pleasure, but for the art (despite songs like “Me and My Hand”). Kevin Drew said as much in a 2017 Billboard interview, “with Social Scene it’s not about you. It’s about serving the music and serving the song, but also serving each other — and making sure no one feels slighted.”

In Stuart Berman’s oral history of the band, This Book Is Broken, singer Emily Haines explained that it works because the group is not constructed like a typical band, “…you can’t break something that’s already broken. It’s broken, it’s permanently broken. The only way you could destroy it would be to actually fix it!”

I have been in bands that are broken. Not in the way Haines describes, but in the way most bands break. More often than not, I have been the one breaking them. Before moving to Boulder that summer, I told my bandmates that I was leaving. That I felt led to go. It was the sort of thing someone says when they’re searching for something but ill-equipped to explain it, or even know it.

Dave was our drummer. The two of us had spent years together in basements and divey practice spaces, writing songs and throwing them away. We had worked to achieve that rare understanding of another human in collaboration. To know the habits and inclinations of another. To know where to go with a song and exactly when to go there.

Dave disagreed with my leaving, as did everyone else in the band. But I left anyway.

In the end, we were a broken band because I was a broken band member. Music and art are supposed to be made for the sake of the art — both the act and the outcome. That truth has been lost on me many times. I have wanted to be known. I have wanted the music scene to see me, to think me irreplaceable. The bands I’ve been in were broken because we were a classic band with all the classic pieces — we failed because we were fixed from the start.

At the Fox, after the doors opened, Hope and I found our spot in front of the sound booth. We stood against a banister, our heads two feet above the rest of the crowd, waiting with anticipation for whatever iteration of Broken Social Scene was about to emerge. Soon after, Dave turned up with a beer in hand, warning the room that representatives from Salt Lake City had arrived. I did my best to introduce them and keep them separate at the same time.

Broken Social Scene played through a set of mostly Kevin Drew songs — a common critique of the tour. But it was more than enough. We pressed our bodies against the banister, our shoulders touching and heads dancing with the beat of Peroff’s legs and feet. My friends stood back, meeting Coloradoans who were intrigued, for whatever reason, by the idea of an intoxicated trio from Salt Lake City. We shared our breath. We added our life and warmth to the rest of the room. Hundreds of bodies moving together and mixing something into the atmosphere — a hundred and twenty decibels buzzing through microscopic beads of body fluid.

I remember they played “Lucky Ones,” a bright and layered song held together by a strong two and four that builds into an anthemic crescendo. In the song, guitarist Ohad Benchetrit leads a call and response between his hook and a choir of voices simply singing “yeah!” ahead of a chorus that repeats “I know we’re gonna need a lucky one.” It’s the sort of thing that brings a crowd together. The sort of song built into the DNA of Broken Social Scene. The sort of song that moves bodies whether they’ve heard it before or not. As they played, the air in the room became heat rising with each turn of the guitar and our voices. The breath of the band, the breath of the crowd, the breath of our bodies sifting through our clothes and into the rafters.

Sometimes I wonder what parts of the air inside a venue stay in our bodies. The sweat and saliva, the heat and scent of bodies in constant contact — dust and hair and drifting skin cells. Everyone shares in it — the band, the roadie, the bartender, the fan. We stand together, unconscious in our breathing. Unaware of the breath of those around us, our bodies removed from the tempo of our own heartbeat, and we commune in exhalation with the hope of seeing something that feeds us. To share in something that lives outside of us.

A few years ago I gave Hope a custom bracelet with a message in Morse Code represented by straight and circular beads on a sterling silver chain. The message reads TBTF, an inside joke between the two of us that comes from a Kevin Drew song by the same name. A wispy and stripped down vocal, Drew croons over blanketed acoustic instruments “you are too beautiful to fuck / you’re too beautiful.” They played it at the Fox that night. TBTF has been our song, tongue in cheek, for years.

The thing about Broken Social Scene is that they don’t stay together. As a group they’ve gone on hiatus many times in the last two decades, often reforming and regrouping in varying iterations. The other thing about Broken Social Scene is that they never leave. They always return, and have done so with a sound that reflects their community time and time again. Despite changes in age and life and personnel, Broken Social Scene hasn’t produced a single record that doesn’t sound like them. I believe this to be a product of the group’s commitment to each other and something bigger than the individual. In a Rolling Stone interview given in 2019 for Broken Social Scene’s most recent effort, Let’s Try the After Vol. 1 and Vol. 2, Drew noted many of the missing members: “There’s a lot of people not there — Amy’s not there, Feist’s not there, Emily’s not there. But that’s the great thing about Social Scene. Even if you’re not in the room, or you didn’t participate on it, you’re part of it.”

Drew’s perspective on community is more reflective of a body than a group of individuals. It is evidence of the sense they’re a community, giving of their value for something larger than individual personalities. Beyond that, it’s evidence that the individual gains something more meaningful than the reward of personal accolades. In a 2017 Billboard interview, Drew talked about the reward of being a part of Broken Social Scene, “I knew this was something that was going to get me to a better place, because I was going to be around people I love, doing something I love and, eventually, in front of people that I love — the audience.”

There’s another word for this type of community, outside of electric guitars and twenty thousand dollar soundboards. It’s church. Not in the sense of a congregation, or a denomination, or any kind of written dogma, but in the sense of a group of people who care for each other, serve each other, and live together for something that exists outside their ego.

I’ve been lucky enough to catch a flash of this type of church. Sometimes in bars, with a guitar in hand; sometimes between the walls of a house of worship. I’ve locked eyes with another human playing to the same heartbeat, playing in the same key of humanity, silencing the voice we all have that is constantly arguing “me.” At times, I’ve wondered if every church isn’t designed to capture these moments. To bring people together and live outside ourselves in service to each other.

The problem is that when it works it feels too good, and it’s too easy to convince yourself that you’re the reason. That even though you’re giving to something bigger, you’re still giving. You’re integral to the outcome. You’re the frontman, the songwriter, the preacher. That whatever is broken, you have the goods to fix it. That’s the drug. And the truth is that the drug is draining not to consume.

People like Ted Haggard become who they are, in part, because they crave the drug. A gray-haired man giving a sermon on sexual purity only a few weeks after the news of Haggard’s relationship is searching for the drug. A man who planted that college church for white kids and took advantage of women in the congregation is addicted to the drug. Bands become bands with personalities and individuals who crave their own shit because they’re immersed in the drug. The ones who get through it are the ones, like Broken Social Scene, who end up giving themselves to the art, to the congregation, to the air inside the venue, and not to the drug. Their song “Cause = Time,” says it best — “They all want to love the cause / Because they all need to be the cause / They all want to fuck the cause.”

That doesn’t mean it’s ever perfect. In This Book Is Broken, Emily Haines described her relationship with Broken Social Scene as sometimes difficult, “I have the same relationship with Toronto as a city as I do with everyone in Broken Social Scene. It’s definitely the foundation of my life, but if I’m too close to it, I can’t see it. I need a certain distance to actually connect properly with all those people while writing together in the studio and playing shows together. I need that distance in order to maintain my own character and not become interchangeable with Amy and Leslie…” I get that. I have belonged to a community that I have been too close to, a community where I have lost myself and become intellectually interchangeable. I have needed space to understand what I believe.

In 2014, Hope and I moved from Salt Lake City to a small and isolated town in the desert of Southeastern Utah. It wasn’t a chosen hiatus for us. At the time we didn’t want the space from our community, or even know we needed it. We were sad to leave our city, sad to leave our home.

After nearly two years of searching and hundreds of applications, I had taken a job at a museum that moved us away from everything. I thought it was the thing that would fix us. I had fallen into a depression and our relationship was strained. Moving away allowed us to dig in. We spent every night together — with our toddling daughter, and later our son, and I gained a new perspective on what it means to live for something bigger than yourself. To find joy not in your own accomplishments, which will fall short of your ego, but in the knowledge of being a part of something you could never create alone. In the middle of the desert, I learned where the magic of humanity lies. In community, art, music, design, family, food, construction, you name it — being with others and outside of yourself — church.

Even still, we are selfish and forgetful and those of us with time to think and write about Canadian rock bands live with a privilege that the majority of the world does not. So I’m grateful for artists like Broken Social Scene who are honest about their brokenness. Bands who take their hiatuses and need their space, because we all become the frontman at some point. Bands who come back together and give themselves to a project and a community that collectively offers something that no one person could make on their own.

I guess what I’m talking about is love. The kind of love that keeps you in the pact. The kind of love that ties you to a city and a group. The kind of love that keeps you alive and giving. The kind of love that saves you even when it feels like you’re letting go of everything you’ve ever wanted for yourself.

A Broken Social Scene concert exudes optimism. It tends to bleed from the speakers and spill from the stage. It hits you like a wall of sound. If you’re lucky, that optimism seeps into the air and into your lungs and you take it with you until it cycles through your body and you release it in a form of carbon that the trees are aching for.

In a 2017 interview with Pitchfork, Drew responded to a question that asked if the group was opening themselves to cynics with an album title like Hug of Thunder. “Good!” he’d said. “Because hatred only fuels fucking positivity.” If giving yourself to the art is the ideology of Broken Social Scene, eternal optimism is the ethos. In describing how the album title came to be, Drew says “When Leslie [Feist] came up with that title, it was undeniable to all of us. Because that’s exactly who we are. That is our show. We’re trying to create that hug of thunder. That sound. That embrace amongst the chaos. Touch is as fucking connected as you can get… At the end of the day, you want to embrace people.”

That optimism and that driving need to connect with other humans, it is what makes this group of artists so special. And look, they’re not perfect. Indie rock Gods never are. Everyone wants to take a hit on the drug. We all need a moment from time to time to step away from the world and see it for what it is. But what makes this group special is they keep coming back to the same idea and making something beautiful out of it.

At the Fox, with the concert coming to an end, each musician carrying on in a celebration of climax, Kevin Drew stood from the stage and shouted messages of positivity that bordered on insanity. At one point he locked eyes with Hope and me. Enormous smiles on our faces, we were drunk with the feeling that buzzed inside the room. He pointed at us from the stage and shouted “you two, hug!” I don’t know if it was nerves or fear or maybe the way I had taken my coffee into a dirty restroom a few hours before, but we didn’t. I regretted it for the rest of the night and months afterward. Thank God it wasn’t our only chance.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s