“It’s not like I’m making Pink Floyd’s The Wall or let’s say Yeezus — we’ll give Kanye a little drop there,” says Brendan Canning, speaking from his home in Toronto on a mid-August afternoon. He’s talking about the lyrical connections found across his latest solo effort, Home Wrecking Years, noting that there are threads one can find while listening, even if some of the lines and verses don’t reveal their meanings all that easily. Or at all. Still, the record stands as probably Canning’s strongest solo work to date.
The foundation for Home Wrecking Years was laid around the time that its predecessor, You Gots 2 Chill, began filling record bins. Canning’s label insisted that he take to the road to support the quirky, acoustic-minded LP. It didn’t make sense to assemble a band to play that material but Canning knew he wanted to bring friends on the road. As he configured and reconfigured his band he also began writing songs and didn’t stop until sometime in 2015.
“It’s never been my sole job in any band to write all the songs”, he says. “For the first time in 25 years there’s a record where all the songs are coming from me. Hope you like ‘em.”
Whereas some musicians might claim a sense of relief at being left to their own devices or others might wring their hands and hope they’re up to the task of being the sole composer in a project for the first time, Canning notes that he didn’t feel either way. Rather, he says, there was a task at hand and he was up for it.
“When you’re in a band like Social Scene you have to compromise. There’s a lot of voices but you’re working together to create something grand”, he says. “With this is wasn’t like I was saying, ‘Great! I don’t have a lippy guitar player chiming in on whether I should go to a B minor or an F#.’ I’d just turn to the band and say, ‘Hey, do you guys like this?’ It was real easy because most of the jams were in my living room because I just can’t bear to be in rehearsal spaces sometimes. You don’t want to run into some other band down the hall and have to talk about your work all the time.”
He may have worked outside of Broken Social Scene for the record but BSS members Sam Goldberg and Justin Peroff chimed in on the sessions as did Kings of Leon’s Liam O’Neil. Many of the songs feature Kevin Kane of The Grapes of Wrath on lead guitar. The relaxed nature of the writing and the sessions resulted in a record that Canning views as “very homespun.” The same vibe carries over into material such as the raucous “Vibration Walls” and its partner in loudness “Book It to Fresno”.
The ten tracks fit nicely as a cohesive album. “That’s the goal”, he says, “to have something that’s cohesive from top to bottom. You keep in mind what the sequence should be. I think I nailed the sequence alright. It comes out with more of the single-type songs and then there’s the second five songs that, hopefully, are the answer to the first five.”
Although he has obsessed about running orders before and made the obligatory mix for the car or the home stereo in order to gauge how an album might sound in a particular setting, that wasn’t part of his process for Home Wrecking Years. “We did that in the studio,” he offers. “You ask what I think would be obvious questions: ‘Take a breath. How long of a breath do you want between each song?’ You figure out what feels comfortable to you and how to make ten songs in a row that really flow together well.”
There are traces of Latin music and exotica that find their way into the mix on several of the pieces. Others, including “Work It Out in the Wash”, retain a certain flavor of the ’70s. It’s a track that in certain moments recalls the semi-obscure hit “Moonlight Feels Right” by Starbuck. Canning isn’t immediately familiar with that song but admits his own piece does evoke music from the “Me” decade. With a twist.
“It’s got those Major 7 chords, a very ’70s FM soft rocker”, he says. “Then, if I’m going to lift from any band, the middle parts are maybe a little Tortoise-y. I had this Ibanez Firebird that I was going to sell. But then as soon as I picked it up, I started playing those chords and the song came out. Then I thought, ‘Maybe I shouldn’t sell this guitar.’”
The previously mentioned “Book It to Fresno” emerged as an obvious opener for a variety of reasons, one of the them being that Canning had at that time assembled what he calls an ideal version of the group. Drummer Graham Jones of Yukon Blond had a special role in helping shape the track. “He started playing this beat and I started playing guitar and it felt great”, Canning recalls, “It was, like, ‘Don’t anybody say anything. Just keep it going. I know we’re just jamming on A right now but there’s something here.’” He quickly knew that he wanted the vocals to follow the guitar melody. “That just seemed like the most punctuating thing to do. Again, I hadn’t really been the guy in any band to step up to the mic and start singing but this time I had to because that’s how songs get written.”
He continues, “It all came together in my living room in an easy, breezy kind of way. The door was open, the neighbors could hear me. That was perfectly fine because I put up with a year-and-a-half of home renovation sounds.” Canning describes his neighborhood as “very idyllic”, a small block of homes built in the 1880s and suggests that his house is central to the finished Home Wrecking Years. “I’ve got this good vibe here with tall ceilings,” he says, “I think it helps with the whole creation process, just being comfortable where you are. This house has seen me through my three main bands. Four if you include my solo band. I’ve lived a lot of lives in this house. Everyone from Dave Sardy to Sum 41 have slept at this house. It’s definitely the house that rock built.”
Canning remains enthusiastic about Toronto as a whole. He says that despite being Canada’s most populous city it retains elements of a small town, especially among local musicians. He recalls in particular the early ’90s when the music scene was much smaller.
“I used to liken it to a quadrant. You’re not really going to go too far east of University Avenue — or Beverley Street, really — to play gig unless you’re going up to the opera house or a couple venues east of what is now the Don Valley Parkway. You wouldn’t really go farther west than Dufferin to play gigs and you wouldn’t really go north of College to play gigs unless you were going up to Bloor to play Lee’s Palace. You’re in this quadrant that has this small town feel to it”, he says. “Me and Jimmy [James Shaw] of Metric used to joke that there were really only 3,000 people living in Toronto. It’s very community based and I think if you stick in long enough you’ll make friends with just about everyone.”
These friendships, he says, extend to younger bands as well. “I’m in my forties but I like being in a band with people in their twenties. They haven’t toured themselves to death already”, he says. “So there’s a real freshness to it.”
Canning also regularly performs as a DJ, even doing some opening slots for the Tragically Hip in 2015. Those dates came before Tragically Hip vocalist Gord Downie was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. Asked if he’s seen the band on its summer road trip, likely to be the last time the stalwart outfit will perform together, Canning admits that he hasn’t. “I have seen an awful lot of their shows,” he adds. “I toured with them in my first band hHead, I toured with them for three months in By Divine Right on the Phantom Power tour. Social Scene has done shows with them in addition to all the stuff I did last year.”
He’s also reluctant to say much about the Hip’s future. “I don’t really know if this is a send-off,” he says, “I don’t know what the world holds. Maybe there are miracle cures for brain cancer. I sort of live in an idyllic world in that way. I’m not going to eulogize anyone while they’re still living and breathing and rocking out in front of 18,000 people a night.”
It’s likely that Canning will be doing his own rocking out in front of crowds by the time 2017 rolls around. The band has returned to the studio to work on new material that will likely be released somewhere in the twilight of 2016. “The plan was never to not get back together. Now just happened to be the right time”, he says. “We played some last-minute gigs last summer and that was probably the real spark. I’ll probably have more to report on that in a few months.”
In the meantime, Home Wrecking Years will have its chance to connect with fans old and new and, maybe, set something of a template for future Canning solo works.