Will We Dry Up Before We Bleed?: An Interview with Broken Social Scene's Kevin Drew
Kevin Drew is emotionally unflinching, both on his songs and even during one-on-one discussions. A lot of people think his new album, Darlings, is about sex, but as our intimate chat proves, it goes deeper than that.
The best song on Lorde's debut album is called "Ribs", and the opening line to this late-night houseparty tune is a mood-setting stunner: "That drink you spilled all over me / 'Lover's Spit' left on repeat."
Yes, Lorde is referring to Broken Social Scene's "Lover's Spit" right there, and by singling out such an iconic indie rock ballad, she evokes a very specific kind of atmosphere and a very specific kind of party: one where Broken Social Scene serves as the soundtrack to all sorts of beautiful young romances, the room filled with kids that are sometimes too smart to understand their own emotions.
This, of course, speaks to the power of Broken Social Scene, the Canadian collective who have been putting out beautiful art-damaged indie-rock for decades, all swirling around the band's ringleader and label co-founder Kevin Drew, who has spent the better part of a decade making songs that are as arty as they are funky, as confessional as they are celebratory. Through four Broken Social Scene albums and one excellent solo effort, Drew has ascended into a rarefied elder statesman status, as numerous members of BSS have gone off to find success on their own, with acts ranging from Feist to Metric to Stars to far too many solo efforts to keep track of. Thus, it shouldn't surprise anyone that Lorde would write a song that name checks "Lover's Spit" so deliberately -- it probably soundtracked an important moment for her as well.
"I liked it!" Kevin Drew tells me about the Lorde song, "I heard it [but] I didn't know who she was, so I took it at face value of the song and I enjoyed the song. And then people started to tell me that this girl was blowing up, but I just heard this song by 'Lord-y'. I didn't know if this was some kid in St. Louis or what -- I had no idea. I liked it. I thought 'this is a good vibe -- this is nice.' Then like a month later, it was 'Oh, OK, she's taking over.' On a popularity aspect it was a compliment but it was compliment whether she was taking over or not. It was a good song -- it was a good line.
"I'll tell you something," he continues, "I played it for Feist. I said 'Check it out, listen to this.' I said 'Obviously she's talking about the version you sang on.'" Drew chuckles as he says this. I ask him what Feist's reaction was. "She laughed," he notes.
In late 2011, it was announced that Broken Social Scene was on a dreaded "indefinite hiatus," but Drew has certainly been keeping busy, churning out one-off solo tracks for various label samplers & the famous Dark Was the Night compilation, celebrating the 10 year anniversary of Arts & Crafts, and, now, releasing his second solo album, simply titled Darlings. With songs titled "Body Butter" and "Good Sex" serving as the album's first two tracks, some have been lead to believe this is an album that's all about sex. However, anyone who thinks Drew is simply unleashing a bevy of dirty soundtracks obviously doesn't know Drew's work as a songwriter: there is always (always) more than meets the eye.
I point out that there is a sense of longing behind these songs, and how although he mentioned in a recent Stereogum interview that he was more interested in the emotional side of sex than the physical, I point out to that Dark Was the Night track he did ("Love vs. Porn", which has the line "the softness they stole was never about the love") indicates something deeper: that Darlings is more about the fear of losing the emotional side of sex, of getting lost in nothing but the physical and ignoring everything else.
"I don't disagree at all," he starts, "I think you're exactly right. I think 'Love vs. Porn' was the most raw thing I ever wrote, where I'm basically admitting that I lost it. That I got lost and I couldn't find the connection anymore. I worry that I sound like an older Christian as I do these things, but I just think -- I find there's an intimacy that's just missing. I don't promote it by experience so much as I take a look around and I watch and I look and I observe and I see and I look at the accessibility to everything that has to do with the bedroom and I look at how I see people moving and shaking and I watch the rise and fall of people's relationships and I see the weight that this action holds in this day and age and I just feel as if -- it does terrify me."
Drew, as always, is nothing short of completely forthcoming when talking about his own life. He is sometimes honest to a fault, never once flinching over personal details that some might perceive as landing somewhere between "too honest" and TMI. However, this is what I find so compelling about Drew as an artist and a person: he trusts easily, confides often, but does so in a way where you don't just see his statements as an artist as much as you see the darker corners of his very soul. All this, of course, coming from a man who just finished writing a song called "Mexican Aftershow Party".
"'Mexican Aftershow Party' is the ultimate song about denial," he explains, "the ultimate song about just wanting to forget who you are and what you've done just for a moment and to pretend that it's gonna be OK and you can be in love and you can do these things, 'cos whatever you've done in your past or whatever has happened or whatever has pushed upon you -- it's very easy to be misguided and to see that there's a lack of courage going around in most humans 'cos there's a lot of hiding and a lot of self-protection in their fingertips. And that's how people have decided to express their opinions and how they want to connect and how they have their judgments. That's what they want to do. And with their hearts, everyone wants to be loved; it's a goal and it's a franchise, and I think that it just gets confusing 'cos it's just all about in today's day and age having whatever you want, looking for whatever you want, and putting your expectations into whatever you want."
This discussion, about how everyone wants to be loved but some subsets of people themselves are losing the emotional aspect of the very nature of love, leads me to ask if he has seen the Joseph Gordon-Levitt film Don Jon, which is about this exact issue. "I didn't," he notes, "I don't really watch relationship films. I don't find that they really do anything for me. I've had a few of them. I remember when Blue Valentine came out, everyone said 'You must see Blue Valentine!' I just don't need to see 'This worked out and then it didn't' or 'They were both madly in love and of course it all fell apart' -- I was just like, 'That's a job for me. I don't need to watch Jaws and go swimming in an ocean.' It's not the way I wanna live my life."
Photo: Norman Wong
Of course, while he has his own hardships of which to draw inspiration from, whether it be writing a more party-ready song like "Mexican Aftershow Party" or writing something a bit more critical like "Bullshit Ballad", I can't help but focus on the album's title: Darlings, itself a phrase that is both a bit formal as well as a bit antiquated. I ask Drew about what lead to the album's title, and Drew, who's voice is both warm and raw, inviting and confiding at the same time, just let's it all pour out:
"I wanted something comforting. I wanted something to match the notion of 'It's OK, it's alright, we can be here, we can have all these achievements and we can have all these things that worked and all these things that didn't work and we can be OK with them and we can keep calling and we can start again and we can look back and can honor it. We don't have to fight it, we don't have to hold a horrible opinion of where things were. We have to recognize it, we have to learn from it.' In a way, I'm just talking about the nature of the ones in your life who have shaped you, formed you, helped you become who you are for better or for worse. And I'm approaching it an aspect of [how] this is a moment to put aside all the fucked shit you have to hear about, listen about, constantly talk about, constantly be involved in.
"You have to take a breath. You have to. Today more than ever, you have to take a breath. I've always come at things with some sort of message or reach out to the people. I always wanted to get into their bedrooms -- you know this about me. I always wanted to take this from the aspect of 'It's hard,' and I'm a divorcee, so already -- just in that -- I have that inside of me, I've gotten lost in the 'what ifs'. I try not to say the word 'should' -- I look around and I see people coming and going and 'This is it! This is the one! No wait, it's over. I found this! No, I can't do this!' I don't need a definition within that. I don't need a definition of that to represent who I am. I'm trying to just figure out why. And in doing so, it's become my own self little revolution of attacking all the fucking bullshit that I've succumbed to in many ways. The 17,000 choices, the opinions I gotta see on a daily basis, the lack of eye contact, the people who don't have courage to be fucking nice anymore. It's too much all the time.
"You never really know what you're doing 'til it's done, then you can look at it and go over it and put it together. 'cos when you're doing it, you're just doing it. And I never sat down and wrote lyrics before because if I did that means I didn't know what I was doing. So if I went in and sang and came up with some things and said 'I'll just change this line here and this line here' -- I could believe in the honesty of the impulses. That honesty, that impulse -- I take that and put it into my daily life and it confuses the fuck out of me. And it's all about getting some kind of balance.
"I just, I dunno. I love [to] talk about the idea of continuing. I love it. I'm obsessed with it. I'm obsessed with the idea that you can continue and you can keep going. Life is for you to live. Andy Kim, my dear friend, said 'You are the director. It's your film. You are your own director. Do it. Go out there. Get it. Be the best. Will it lead it to your worst? Fine. That will lead you to your best.' I know this, you know what you're supposed to do. We all lose sight of that and people make millions of dollars on it and we only question what we're doing and what's this and what's that.
"I have a lot of love in my life and a lot of people I'd kill for. And it's intense and it's an emotional thing. It's a hard life to live when you just wanna be completely raw and walk around and feel everything. It lead me to the drinking table which now as I get older I realize I am battling with. I realizing like 'Shit, OK, I'm really locked into the 'have one more 21 once more!' way of living.' There's a kid the other night that I ran into, wasted in a basement. [laughs] It was a great dance party going on up top, and I went downstairs, and I was leaning against the wall, lookin' at him with one eye as he was lookin' at me. He said 'You taught me how to love' -- and I gave him a kiss and I left. 'cos I thought 'What the fuck am I doing here? Go home. Get some sleep. There's stuff to do. There's things to do.' You can't partake in being a coward and I don't want anyone who's in front of me to partake in that as well."
He half-jokingly concludes this by saying "I don't know if that answered your question or not."
As you can see, Drew is nothing short of unflinching when it comes to topics of this nature. These raw nerve confessionals are all over Darlings, perhaps no more evident than on "Bullshit Ballad", the disc's poppiest cut, where he mercilessly dissects a song he's hearing on the radio. As I note, though, it's not so much about "Wow, this song sucks!" as it is "I get what you're trying to say but you could just do it so much better!" Drew intervenes, yelling at the song's unnamed subject: "'You're lying! You're fucking lying and we all have to listen to it!' I can't get down with that. I can't. The whole notion of all those things -- the dishonesty of all those things, it doesn't do anything for us but it's in our face all the time. It's not helping. It's faking. It's distracting."
Throughout our discussion, Drew touches on numerous subjects: how after eight yours of touring, time off didn't suit him very well so he went back to his old standby of being able to "regurgitate and vomit out emotions into C-chords" (forming the basis of this album), how he inherited a standup piano from his friend Jimmy's grandmother which lead to him writing a lot more songs on piano (and Darlings is, for the first time in a long while for Drew, a record that isn't guitar-based), to even how he doesn't fully understand how it's possible to have a one night stand with someone ("I don't really know what it's like to fuck someone and not see them again; I've tired -- it's lasted for months," he says with a laugh).
Yet one doesn't need to speak with Drew to feel the weight of his life and experience: he does all he can to capture those awkward, joyous, and painful moments of his life on record, and Darlings is another prime example of how it's totally OK to have rock music that's completely self-aware even as it bleeds in front of you.
On a personal level, I'm amazed by Drew's ability to so readily confide in others, and I decide to trot out the same question I asked him when I first spoke to him back in 2007: looking back on your career, what is your biggest regret, and -- conversely -- what is your proudest accomplishment. Just as with that last time, he takes a pause to honestly think about how to respond, then gives an answer that's very different from last time:
"I've made peace with my regrets, and there’s a couple more that I'm working on. But I believe that regrets can be some of the most inspiring things in your life. They really can. So I don't have a regret that I could talk to you about when it comes to my career. I could say 'Maybe I could've done this' or 'Maybe I could've done that' but I don't have time for that any more. I don't feel that that's of any use to me anymore.
"My greatest accomplishment, I'd say, is that I like who I am. I struggle with the things I do sometimes, and I question my motives, and I'm constantly working, but I got great people in my life. I've had amazing people, people I don't see any more. I remember at one point with Darlings, I thought, 'Why don't I thank every single fucking person who helped me in my life?' I remember starting it -- it was massive! It started with all these teachers, it started with friends that played me records or showed me things or camp -- I actually had a fun time sitting there, going over it. I thought 'What incredible people I have attracted into my life.'
"I think that's my greatest accomplishment. If you even want to direct it towards the relationships I've been in, I've been with incredible ladies. It's sad, sure, that it didn't work or there were issues at hand, but these women are incredible and I can't not honor them. I can't look at it in some negative light or anything. They took me into their lives and they shaped the man that I am becoming. Within that, I just turned to my family and I look around the room and I look at the people in my life, and I'm proud. I'm proud to have friends that -- it goes deep. I don't take it lightly. I've known people for 25 years and I've known people for 4 years. If you come into my life, and we have a connection, that's good for the both of us. That's the best thing you can experience. And I've always said to the kids growing up: it's who you hang with. I would've been dead now if I was hanging out with the wrong people, with the wrong stuff. It's the company you keep that shapes the life you want to live."
Of course, in typical Kevin Drew fashion, he adds a coda to all of this: "I [may] sound like a hippie but that's what I fucking AM!" He adds a genuine laugh at the end. Drew says that he's all about free love and peace between everyone, but as his work (and especially Darlings) proves, hippies aren't often this emotionally articulate. Whatever he may or may not be, his art has made the lives of those around him all the richer, whether they be that kid still living in his parents basement in Ohio or someone who just so happens to go by the name Lorde.