Coming Full Circle (Accidentally): An Interview with Kevin Drew & Charles Spearin
What is currently one of the most sprawling, dynamic indie-rock bands out there once started as a series of small bedroom recordings between Broken Social Scene members Kevin Drew and Charles Spearin. PopMatters talks to both of them about their beginnings ...
There are a lot of people in Broken Social Scene -- anywhere from two to 20 depending on the day or album, so there's certainly no shortage of BSS-related material. From the 2001 debut Feel Good Lost, which was largely written and recorded by principal members Kevin Drew and Brendan Canning, to their most recent, critically-acclaimed, collaborative opus, Forgiveness Rock Record, BSS never skimp on a good layer of electric guitars, barrage of sound effects, or post-rock groove. And their trademark, indie-rock defining sounds are scattered across various solo projects and collaborations. This is the closest thing our generation has to a supergroup, featuring talented artists who are huge all on their own merits (Feist, Jimmy Shaw and Emily Haines of Metric, and Amy Millan of Stars, just to scratch the surface).
Basically, even though Broken Social Scene only has four official full-lengths to their name, it feels like they've put out about 40.
On October 26th of this year, Arts & Crafts reissued two extremely-difficult-or-near-impossible-to-find LPs from ... well ... another Broken Social Scene-related project. This one, however, is seminal. K.C. Accidental is where it all started -- BSS Mach One -- basically a joint collaboration between Kevin Drew and Charles Spearin, who, along with Canning, basically form the Broken Social nucleus. Captured Anthems for an Empty Bathtub and Anthems for the Could've Bin Pills are, for many fans, the Holy Grail of indie, a pair of releases nearly mystical in their invisibility (they have been long out-of-print and have never been released outside of their native Canada). For all the hype, the releases are actually worth the wait, proving themselves arguably as potent and magical as early Broken Social Scene material.
Drew and Spearin took some time out of their busy Broken Social Scene touring schedule to talk with PopMatters about their excitement for the new K.C. Accidental reissues, the surprising influence of early rave music, recording music over the phone, and what it's like going from such humble, intimate beginnings to playing in one of the most gigantic (and ... well ... numerically gigantic) bands in rock music.
PopMatters: Where are you guys right now, and what's going on?
Kevin Drew: We're on tour; we're in Ithaca. New York right now.
How's the tour been going?
It's been good! It's been joyous, fun -- the crowds have been great! Can't ask for anything more, really!
Why did you wait so long to re-release these K.C. Accidental records? If you ask me, they are of as high quality as Feel Good Lost [Broken Social Scene's debut album].
What happened was when we first put it out, we just kind of burned 100 CDs and put them in our local record shop, I think in 1998. And that was Captured Anthems for an Empty Bathtub. And then we hooked up with a label called Noise Factory that was a label I knew beforehand, and he really wanted to put the stuff out. So we put out a couple records with him, and they just didn't really go everywhere, and it sort of happened before Social Scene. So they were always sort of available, but they were never really available as they will be now, so we thought this would be just a good time to re-issue them.
These albums are definitely "ambient" in the general sense, but there is definitely a different vibe happening here than even on Feel Good Lost, which is still a textural, "ambient" album in its own right. What do you think separates the KC albums from Feel Good Lost, musically speaking?
Well, it's Charles and Brendan that separates it, and that's basically it. Both were made the same way, except Feel Good was actually all eight-track, whereas KC was hooked up with a D-88, so we had 15 tracks to work with. So Feel Good was an eight-track record, except that, at the end, we went and mixed it at a studio – Ohad [Benchitrit] and Charlie mixed it at a studio that Ohad was a part of back in the day, so we were able to "supe it up", stack other tracks, have a good time while mixing. But the key point is the music Brendan has inside of him and the music Charlie has inside of him and the way they went about approaching melodies and songs. You have to understand that with Feel Good Lost, I started off thinking I was going to make a solo record for Brendan Canning, but then I just kept playing more and more, and then after awhile, it was just inevitable. There was a bunch of us, so I went and grabbed all the people I knew from playing on the K.C. records, and Canning brought in Feist, and it was kind of the first time I ever really met her. I met her a couple times before, but it was the first time I ever worked with her. For "Passport Radio", we just kind of sat around and chose some words to the beat, so you can see how the cross-collaboration exists, and there is a real truth to the idea of while we were making You Forgot it in People, we weren't too sure what it was going to be called even, whether it was K.C. or Broken at one point because, musically, we felt like it lent more toward the K.C. Accidental records than Feel Good Lost.
Musically, these K.C. Accidental songs are very drum-oriented, very rhythmic and repetitive. Was this something that you were aiming for, or was it something that just happened?
The great thing about this is that with most of the tracks, I'm drumming on them. Justin Peroff is on "Silverfish Eyelashes" and "The Instrumental Died in the Bathtub", the first one of the second record. I was pretty obsessed with sped-up drums and triple drum tracks, and so was Charlie because, at that time, we were listening to a lot of what was going on in the day, which was DJ Shadow and Tortoise and rhythmic stuff -- drums were [the] go-to instrument at the time. We had a lot of fun with the drums on this album, just trying to figure out tones, speeds, just trying to experiment as much as we possibly could.
A lot of the tracks do have multi-layered percussion, which creates this nice rhythmic atmosphere. That's something that's toned down a lot on Feel Good Lost. Were you trying to purposely go in a different direction, or is it really, like you said, just the difference between working with Charlie and working with Brendan?
I think with Feel Good Lost, we just kind of came at it rhythmically at a place where, we were making this record at night, so we could never really "PLAY LOUD DRUMS", and the constant them of what we were doing kept coming up very mellow. Obviously, there's a song like "Love and Mathematics" where Justin's on there doing a couple drum beats as well as "Cranley's Gonna Make It", but besides that, we enjoyed just using drum machines and cymbals and snares, and we kind of looped and played some toms, taking a boomerang and playing it through an amp. We really treated the drums, because we were also working in eight-track, we treated them just as much as atmosphere as the other instruments were making.
Legend has it you guys formed your first song from a keyboard track recorded on an answering machine message. Tell me more ...
Well, I had a job where I'd be up at 9AM, and I'd always call Charlie pretty much by 10:30, pretty much to the dislike of his roommates, the Do Make (Say Think) boys, and we had a band before that we were in together, and we played a couple shows -- Jimmy Shaw from Metric was in that band, and we had a friend Stephen Crowhurst, and Derek Stephens was also in it. We only did a couple gigs, but we played a lot together, and one day, one of the members -- Charlie wasn't playing with us because he was away, and I said, "Oh, I just wish Charlie was here; I don't know why we're doing a show without him." One of the guys said, "If you love Charlie so much, why don't you just go make a record with him." That stayed in my mind, and one day, I called him. We all did this back in the day -- answering machines were your own personal four-tracks for people, so you leave messages for people, play them keyboard tunes, acoustic songs, leave other songs on there, hold the phone up to the speaker ... it was just something we did! So I did that one day, and then I got a cassette in my hallway a few days later, and I put it on. No one had ever really done anything like that where they sent back -- I just thought it was one of the sweetest things I've ever been involved in. It was at that moment that I said to Charlie, "Let's go make a record. Let's just do stuff like this -- let's do instrumental jams", and he was into it.
What was the first song you completed where you guys just knew you were onto something special, or at least, something that had the potential to be special?
I think it was with our band the Jula, that was from before. When we were playing together, we thought that we had something good. I was on drums, Charlie was on keys, Jimmy was on horn, our friend Derek was on bass, and Stephen was on guitar. There were some times where we really connected. And then, when we went into the studio, the first track we laid down was "Nancy and the Girdle Boy", and it was so fun and so joyous. I had sort of mastered the four-track by this time, and Charlie had this eight-track that he had mastered, so I kinda came in with this four-track mentality, and he sort of brought it into the eight-track world, and that was our first day of recording. We only had five days for the first record, and then we mixed for two, so we did it in a week in my parents' basement. And the first one was "Nancy and the Girdle Boy". I loved it, and I thought, "This is going to be great."
We know that the seeds of BSS were already being planted, especially when you consider how many future members contributed to the recordings. Despite the already growing line-up, who was playing what instruments on these songs? Was it a case of "Pick up something and start playing?" or did you guys iron out the instrumental boundaries early on?
What we did was -- we basically did everything, and then we had guests. You can see, in every song, we lay it out, do everything we need to do -- Justin Peroff would come in and lay down a drum track, and we'd write a song over it. We'd jam a song out with Justin, and he'd play the drums. We were recording inside a house where Charlie was at, where some of the Do Make guys played. So then it was like, "Let's do a simple drum track." It was very casual, very easy. Emily and Jimmy came in because they were living in New York and England. So they came in one day, and we just said, "You do your thing over it." It's the same sort of thing as Feel Good Lost -- basically just Charlie and I playing everything together. It was just tons of fun, tons of fun.