The Hours, the Minutes, the Seconds: Broken Social Scene's Kevin Drew on 'Hug of Thunder'
After working with notable albums by Andy Kim and Gord Downie, Broken Social Scene's Kevin Drew walks us through how the band got together and made their latest, Hug of Thunder.
For a time there, Kevin Drew wanted to get away from himself.
Shortly after the Canadian collective released their 2010 alternative-pop stunner Forgiveness Rock Record, the band went on the dreaded "indefinite hiatus", a phrase often associated with a group calling it quits. Of course, for a band whose membership ranks can swell to nearly 15 at any given time, and with each of those members engaged in solo projects of their own (and nearly all of them associated with founder Kevin Drew's record label Arts & Crafts in some capacity or another), the group never truly felt gone. Just busy. Just ... different.
While Arts & Crafts-associated artists continued winning Juno Awards and getting nominated for Polaris Music Prizes since that 2011 break, Drew kept himself busy, dropping a more libido-driven solo album in 2014, but most crucially finding his home producing other artists. While he had produced other artists before (see the gone-but-not-forgotten Still Life Still), 2015 saw him stepping up his collaborations, working on an acclaimed solo set for "Sugar Sugar"/ "Rock Me Gently" songwriter Andy Kim in 2015.
Like most of Drew's production work, guitars and pianos are laced with echo and reverb, giving an emotional setting for a song to build off of, and it's this aesthetic that fans have come to know from all of Drew's musical endeavors, which is why these crucial collaborations would eventually set Drew on the path back to getting the band back together for at least one more show, this time in the form of new album Hug of Thunder. Some have called it a comeback, but others just view it as another stellar set of songs in a discography that has already produced more than one landmark indie rock LP.
"Well, to be honest I really loved spending time with Andy," Drew recalls of working on the Kim record It's Decided, "and when I got off the road, I said to him, 'Let's just make a record since we're hanging out all the time.' His philosophies on life, his looking-back speeches, and his friendship was so dear to me that -- [as] I always say: 'If you're in love someone, you got to work with them.' And when Gord [Downie of The Tragically Hip] started to come into my life on a regular basis back in 2013, it was sort of the same feeling. I got such a rush out of spending time with him because of who he was in my life and how much I had listened to all his music and his lyrics."
It was during this time that Drew and another BSS collaborator, The Stills' Dave Hamelin, started working with Downie on a solo album that ended up being released after the Hip's Man Machine Poem, a record that while recorded prior to Downie's terminal cancer diagnosis, nonetheless was imbued with a great sense of gravity after its release.
"I also did a record called Secret Path with Gord Downie," Drew elaborates. "That's how I got in with The Hip: 'cos he wanted to bring my producer partner and I, Dave Hamelin, in with the Hip. So it kind of went like Darlings and Andy were worked on at the same time, and then Gord came in and we did that record really quickly, so I had these three records that were surrounding that whole moment. Then, in the summer of 2014, Gord said 'I really want you to work on the Hip record.'"
"...It was so educating being with him," Drew beams, "and these are guys who pick you up and give you pep talks that people spend thousands of dollars hoping that they can hear. To be around that energy, I said to Gord 'We gotta do something.' And for so long, he wanted to get into the studio with myself and with Dave because he would come and visit us when were mixing my solo record 'cos we went up to the Hip studios to do it. So that's how that came about.
"And with the Hip, we were just making a record. There was no 'last record' -- it was just a record. I saw them when I was 13 and got a high five from the bass player Gord Sinclair as he approached stage one time. There's also much history of their music that I knew -- it was just an opportunity that I really was excited about. I felt we really made a great record together and both sides were really open and really on board to come up and mess around and jam.
"There were a few things there with the band that were just classic," he continues. "Being up 'til 5AM singing J.J. Cale covers. I loved it. Of course, when you got that crazy dynamic of over 30 years it was a wild ride at times, but musically I had so much admiration for all of them that Dave and I really put that into the record, into something that was really them, this band. We were coming in as board guys, but really, when we're done, there was this moment where it sounded like a record made by a band -- and it felt really good."
However, the connection with the rest of the Broken Social collective was never too far out of reach. Drew indicated to the press that the 2015 terror attacks in Paris were the impetus for bringing the band back together, Drew indicating that at the time "Everyone sort of got on the phone within the small tribe of us and said, I want to play some shows."
"Yeah, well we were in the midst of talking about it and I know that that became kind of the press point, but -- well, we wanted to get back to the usual, and there are lots of things in this world happening that made us want to return, and that was definitely one of them for me," Drew tells PopMatters. "I think that there's a unity that we can find amongst old friends and that's what we are. In a time of trying to not get swallowed up by all that's consuming us, we made Hug of Thunder. For those who have been around us for the last 17 years and for those who are our peers and our friends and ourselves -- all the people who want to listen and want to get in and want to take it into their lives and their house and their home and their cars. "
As sessions began for Hug of Thunder, band members old and new were invited into the studio. Metric's Emily Haines and Feist both stopped by to help with songwriting and vocals, while new member (and wife of Apostle of Hustle's Andrew Whiteman) Ariel Engle blends into the BSS aesthetic perfectly, her voice clear and pronounced on album highlights "Stay Happy" and "Gonna Get Better". If those two song titles (to say nothing of calling an album Hug of Thunder) give the idea that this is a boppy, optimistic record, you'd only be half-right. It's an album less of blind hope as it is reassurance that we can all get along, even the number "Protest Song" being less of a protest song and more self-referential note of being another in a long line of protest songs. In short, no, this is not an overly political album.
"No, I'd say that's fair," Drew notes when presented with that assessment. "I think people's take on an album is for them. That's for them to embrace and that's the beauty of music: you make it your own. You make what a record means to you and your life, and I would never argue anyone's opinion of what they felt Hug of Thunder was to them, as that's one of the joys of loving a record. I think in the aspect of 'We were just in unison, growing up, getting older, observing the people, seeing the world, watching how we're getting sold a whole pile of shit of disconnection through some marketing campaign that says we're all connected.'
"It's hard for a lot of people out there," Drew continues. "It's hard for a lot of people to figure out where to get their memories from, their moments from, their dopamines are going through the roof, and the ones who search are the ones who sort of are lost, and there's this whole aspect of 'Are we not united in the quest for trying to calm the noise?' Or are we oblivious to what really makes us human? And what really makes us human ... dot dot dot?" He laughs at that last part.
The open-ended nature of the band allowed a lot of experimentation within the studio, with the group adding and subtracting songs to the tracklist with careful re-evaluation. "We had so many [songs] going up on the board," he notes. "I think that 'Vanity Pail Kids' is one that happened really fast and then just sort of stayed in some sort of neutral territory: 'Is this ever gonna see the light of day?' And that happened with 'Victim Lover' as well. I think we were very quick with 'Mouth Guards of the Apocalypse'; we were very quick with 'Please Take Me With You'. Emily came in during rehearsal and 'Protest Song' just sort of happened. We'd get together in Charlie [Spearin]'s little studio. He turned his garage into a little rehearsal studio, and things like 'Halfway Home' -- since you have such a connection to these people musically and you played for so long together and you know each other so well, it just folds into place.
"I think what took longest was to decide what the record, what the songs would be," he recalls. "There are some songs that aren't on there that we worked on for ages and we just sort of abandoned to fulfill what we thought would be a solid effort. A lot of the music that is made in my surroundings and by the people that I see is impulse: it's the first notions of that aspect that's on. Then you can go down the road, 'cos there's so many involved, into dissecting and opinionizing what is personal to you and what you feel you need to have happen, but the great thing about unison is [that] everyone felt -- you never know until it comes out, but everyone felt that there was something that they loved on it. So we really approached the idea of the A-side/B-side, and I think you can hear that when you listen to it."
Even after spending over a decade and a half in the spotlight, Drew remains nothing if not an open book, up for speaking to what's in his heart no matter the consequences. Love and connection remain motivating factors in his life, speaking about the need to establish genuine one-on-one interactions instead of those done through social networking time and time again. Yet now, more than ever, he relishes being in the position of no longer having to "front" the band. Certainly, at a recent stop on a Chicago date of the band's tour where Frightened Rabbit and the excellent Drew-approved act Belle Game opened, he stopped at a few points to address the audience and preach his gospel of love and togetherness.
In short, even though he speaks on the mic the most during a show, he loves stepping into the background and letting his longtime friends like Whiteman and Brandan Canning take over. "The wonderful thing about this album and how it's constructed is that I do get to be a player, that I get to be 'in the band.'" he notes. "Because we're so blessed with the ladies in our band, and as you can see it's very heavy on the female vocalists because these are the women that we've sort of grown up with, and these are the ladies that I've always aspired to: they've kept me on my toes all these years and I've played as good as I can 'cos they're incredible to be around and to be a part of. Emily and Amy and Ariel who's come into the band, and the fact that we even got Leslie [Feist] singing on there. I do my best to sort of try and keep up with them. The wonderful thing about having them when they're here for the show is to be on stage and close your eyes and listen. It lets you have that moment where you look for that little 36 seconds, I always say, of transcendence. There's no pill, no type, no keyboard that can compare to that original feeling that is yours."
So how does Drew feel now, looking back on the 15th anniversary of You Forgot It In People, the album that launched them into the stratosphere? "Honestly, there's a huge relationship to You Forgot It In People 'cos it changed our lives. No, you can't forget that. That album gave us all such a life and became a platform for so many of us, and to this day, it's still a part of our lives. I think that in that same way you never really forget your first love, even though Feel Good Lost was our first album, that was still Brendan and I coming together as to what this thing can be. At the time, as I age, I look back at it and am thankful that we were able to crack through and we had that record landing. We were able to open some doors to give us a career, and you can't take that lightly. You just can't.
"I find that it's so hard to be heard these days," he continues, "'cos you've lost so much to what is now sort of becoming the death of art, which is that everybody is a part of their own fascination as to what others and themselves are doing. Art always had that beauty, that mystery, and it relied so heavily on the attention of others to become more than what it is. To become more to sort of a greater good to whatever community is embracing that people's work, and it scares me that that notion is dying to the selfie, and it scares me that I see a lot of my artist friends out there struggling, trying to figure out where their narcissism fits within all this work.
"I know that you always have to embrace these new mediums with how to get out there, but the beauty and the mystery of it have been taken away, and there's a careful line that we all have to be a part of it, but so much value has been lost. The tricky thing to think about is that everyone deserves to be loved and everyone deserves to be liked, and everyone deserves to have a rush when they see all the people looking at them, they gather all their thousands of friends and followers, but it doesn't promote a depth to what makes other people's art a definition of who you are."