"They Can't Write You and Me": An Intimate Chat with Kevin Drew
The Broken Social Scene founder has made his own bed, but just because he's lying in it doesn't mean he can sleep.
Kevin Drew would make a great rapper.
This is what I think as I listen to his answering machine message, which consists of Drew saying "Yo yo, yo yo, yo yo, yo yo, yo yo" to some imaginary beat in his head. Then came the beep, followed by me hanging up the phone. Kevin Drew wasn't around.
I called back two minutes later and suddenly the Broken Social Scene vocalist picks up, dripping with enthusiasm. He apologizes and tells me he was just finishing up "some weird interview", to which I replied with a promise that this one won't be weird at all. Of course, by the time I hang up later, I couldn't help but feeling that this was a weird interview. Why? Because in the realm of interviewing rock stars, it's a weird occurrence for a musician to answer your questions with enthusiasm, honesty, and without a drop of self-serving ego. In fact, Kevin Drew not only talked about Spirit If... -- his forthcoming solo album -- but he even opened up about some of the demons that he got out in the process of recording. Such candidness is remarkable, rare, and, yes, even weird.
Such adjectives could also be used to describe Spirit If..., an album that ranges from hushed, near-confessional folk ("Safety Bricks"), to rollicking, J. Mascis-assisted guitar rockers (single "Backed Out On The..."). Along the way, he experiments with Oval-like electronic textures ("Big Love") to an in-studio sing-along that turns into an instrumental that would make Neutral Milk Hotel proud ("When It Begins"). A large part of these new changes stems from his change of producers, this time working alongside Ohad Benchetrit and Charles Spearin instead of Social Scene ringmaster Dave Newfeld, though Newfeld does pop up on the record, alongside fellow BSS buddy Brendan Canning (whose own solo joint arrives in early '08), Feist, Tom Cochrane, Jason Collett, Spiral Stairs (of Pavement), and Andrew Kenny (of American Analog Set). Basically, it's an indie-lover's dream come true. It's an album that doesn't hit you over the head with radio hooks, but instead slowly grows on you with its irresistible melodies and gorgeous melodic progression. Yet, as I soon found out, this wasn't the album that Drew set out to make.
When I first received this disc, my editor said that "it's kind of a grower -- you gotta let it sit for a bit" and so I listened to it and it was like, "Yeah, you know, it's pretty good. Pretty solid, strong." And the other day, I just put it on randomly while I was half-awake/half-asleep, and suddenly there was something that just clicked about it. Suddenly I'm absolutely in love with this record.
Well I really wanted to make a record that you just put on and it's just like bam, bam, bam, bam, bam. No contest, there it is, slams you over your head, you love it right from the beginning. Something like The Boxer by the National. You know what I mean? And then once [my record] was done and mastered, I realized I didn't make that record. [Laughs.] Fuck! I fucking made a grower again! Why do I always make these fucking grower albums?"
Well, give yourself some credit, man. If you listen to a song like "Backed Out On The...", I mean it's still pretty fuckin' bangin' right there. I mean, that's an obvious single. There's a part of you that can understand that feeling; if you look back at your older songs, then yeah, you got that "grower" aspect, but "KC Accidental"? That thing hits you over the head right away.
Yeah. You know, it took me a while to make peace with it, because once again -- as always -- we recorded so much stuff and we never really know what to choose at the end of it. You also don't want to repeat yourself so much, so I was very much talking about the same themes again and again, but ... in the end we made our decisions, Ohad and I, and Charlie ... we decided what songs and ... here we are.
Well, with the last Broken Social album, I remember you guys in an interview stated that you cut off all the commercial songs and then slapped them onto that bonus EP [that ran with the initial run of the LP].
Well that's not ... not so true. I mean, I remember saying that and ... I just think we kind of freaked them out a little more, you know? There's this song -- "Major Label Debut" -- that everyone going into the studio, all the powers that be that worked for us/around us were saying "Make that one the hit. Let's do this, let's record it, let's go." And I remember thinking "I'm not putting that on the record!" [Laughs.] 'Cos I don't want to sing that song for the rest of my life, if -- by chance -- anything like that was to happen, you know? It wasn't me being presumptuous, but I just didn't want it to go another route. And then we did at times listen to songs that were really great and straight-up and poppy and then ... thought about the music listeners, you know? And then thought, "Alright we gotta freak this out, make it a little more fun."
Is that what happened with "Cocaine Skin"? [The b-side that's streaming from Drew's MySpace]
Uh, "Cocaine Skin" ... there's a bunch more from this record. There's about seven or eight more that are all gonna come out ... I mean, I'm not in that world of singles and radio and all that stuff. It doesn't exist for me. We're an independent label even though we work on a major-label basis. We work hard at radio and pushing at radio, but you see that we don't have money. We don't have money that can get us in to marketing; we don't have relationships [with radio]. Also, the songs -- from my perspective -- besides maybe that "Lucky Ones" tune, there's not really many ... well I think radio is, I guess, if you hear it a lot then you're suddenly "OK", 'cos that's what radio sorta does: it just keeps slamming you over the head. You take any band and get slammed over the head, you have a hit single if it gets played a lot, but you need to have a lot of relationships to have that happen. I know with us, when I think about this record I'd love it to be played on radio but it's ... there's all these other means now for things with the satellite radios and all that stuff. It's funny: I have satellite radio in my car and I listen to certain stations and it's just great to hear what they pick. I'm hearing [the band] Battles a lot! I'm hearing the National a lot! I'm hearing all these bands [that] you don't hear on the mainstream radios, but they're kinda ...
Yeah! It's in this alternative world that I love now 'cos you start hearing new bands again and I start hearing people that I never would've heard because a lot of times in Toronto with college radio it's just mainly two stations and you gotta be there in the specific hour; it's not 24/7. That's the great thing about these satellite radio stations: it's 24/7.
Next thing we know, we're talking about another Satellite Radio-worthy band, the Most Serene Republic. They were the first band signed to Drew's Arts & Crafts label that had no connection to Broken Social Scene, but their debut -- 2005's Underwater Cinematographer -- was a great piece of keyboard-washed pop songs in non-conventional structures. I loved the record, but Kevin seemed to love it even more. He even joked that, for a while there, he thought that he accidentally signed Yes to the label. In talking with Kevin, you get the feeling that he absolutely loves the music that he surrounds himself with. His enthusiasm for the Most Serene Republic is nothing short of infectious, but I get the feeling he'd be just as excited talking about Jason Collett, Stars, the Dears, or Los Campesinos. This mutual artistic respect is a topic he hits upon again and again, much as if this is his family now -- a family he loves very much. Yet, sometimes when you're with your family for awhile, you eventually have to branch out on your own, which is something that Drew finally has come to accept. When BSS stops for awhile, Feist can release Feist records, Emily Haines can keep touring with Mectric, but Kevin Drew has no other outlet, which is largely how Spirit If... was born. As he soon revealed, he had a lot to let out....
This is just one for the clarification purposes: is this a Broken Social Scene album, or is this a solo album?
[Laughs.] It's not [really] a Broken Social Scene record. It's a ... it's just ... the reason why all this happened was [that] I couldn't be that singer, that lead singer guy who then takes the band and morphs it into his own.
You couldn't pull a Gwen Stefani.
[Pause.] No. [Laughs.] But, I mean, not so much like that. More like [how] there's other bands out there that they started as bands and then suddenly the lead guy's starting to write all the music and starting to say, "This is what I want: I don't [to be] singing five songs on the next record, I want to sing eight!" you know? I had a lot of shit I needed to get out of me. I had a lot a lot a lot of shit that I needed to just get out of my system, and the musicians that I play with are the reason that I'm on the phone with you today. You know, the people that are in my life ... they brought me to this point here, and I didn't want to disrespect that ideology and go and make a Broken Social Scene record. With Charles & Ohad -- on my own -- and have Brendan not be a big part of it and have all the guests but really they just came in for a couple hours, in a day, and did their stuff. Besides J. Peroff who came in and gave us like a week of drums. So Brendan went off and started recording [at] the same time because he ... you know, I stuck around. I was the only one who was floatin' around.
Everyone else had bands and Canning was very much working on his house and touring with Social Scene and I was the one that started planting myself over at Ohad's, and we did this at the beginning when we took a break from making a Broken Social Scene record at a ... [Pause.] we did this at the time of making the Social Scene record. Songs that came from those sessions back in '05, like February '05 to that spring were "Fucked Up Kid" and "Big Love" and "Bodhi Sappy Weekend". Now "Bodhi Sappy Weekend" is very much a Social Scene song. "Big Love" is very much, you know, it's a Charles and Ohad song. They did the song together and the reason we put it on my record is because I sang over the top of it, and these songs are kind of floating around, not going anywhere, and I was a very big fan [of them]. I really like the idea of [using] the producer's songs, and I always like doing that. I love writing my own tunes but I also love having people have their own songs, but the little bit of a difference was [that] this was a Kevin Drew record, so it's kind of strange to take one of Ohad's songs that I think he started years before ... and it was just sittin' around, but inevitably you can see it's the same effort that still applies as it does to Social Scene. The same things are still going on.
But that's why we did the "Social Scene Presents". And, you know, people are like "This is confusing. Is this a marketing thing?" and it's just "Whatever. Just shut the fuck up." Basically, we're staying with our fans! We're staying with the work that we've done, and Brendan and I are putting out records underneath that title, just like Buena Vista Social Club, you know? Since we record so much music and we can't fit it in [to] the stereotypical way of how you're supposed to release records, we can't really follow the quota of how you're supposed to do things. So we thought we'd just start something else where we could at least put things out and not have to say "It's Broken Social Scene" so that all eyes [would be] on the 17-person collective where it talks about Feist and Metric and Do Make [Say Think] and Stars, you know? We could just say, "No, man. It's a Broken Social Scene Presents! This was just Dave Newfeld in his house for two weeks fooling around with reverbs. Check it out." You know? We're able to put out a reggae record, an ambient album, anything like that, you know?
You did put out an ambient album [with Feel Good Lost].
Yeah, we did. We can do another one, you know what I'm saying? But what we built up now with Social Scene is a huge joyous anthem of handclappers unite, twenty people, horns, strings, you know? That's what Social Scene is, then that's what Social Scene will stay.
As I talk to Drew, there's a certain musicality to his voice. As you see, he doesn't always think in complete sentences, but he never really needs to: his passions are the most articulate thing about him, and he's very passionate about his Arts & Crafts label. I started to ask him about the lyrics to the album (which -- as the press release correctly states -- are about his favourite topics: fucking, fighting, fearing, and hope). Yet, something changed in his voice as we talked -- he became more solemn, a bit more serious. There were longer pauses in between thoughts, perhaps because he was drawing from a deeper place. Kevin Drew was coming clean, and though he didn't spill every single detail, it was obvious that he was being honest not only with me, but with himself. When I look back on his interview with PopMatters from 2006, it's obvious that Kevin Drew is a changed man.
In listening to this album, though, lyrically this is a different move for you. You know I listen back to songs like "Lover's Spit", "Major Label Debut", "Fire Eye'd Boy", and it's not the same. I listen to the chorus of "Safety Bricks" and it sounds almost like a plea for domestic stability; and "TBTF" is pretty self-explanatory. What exactly did you have to get out on this one, 'cos this seems like a lot more of a personal record for you?
Well that's what it was, and that's the other thing, too: I always wanted Social Scene to be an Us vs. Them or Them vs. Us album, and this was clearly becoming a You and I record. This was becoming "Oops, I Became a Singer-Songwriter and Need to Sing About All the Things That Other People Are Singing About." Basically, I didn't put any thought into my lyrics, really. I just went up and sang. Basically, most of the songs are just first takes without any lyrics written in. Even in that idea, I thought [that] this was becoming a solo record because we didn't know; we weren't thinking about anything. I was just going there to re-center myself musically because I got so lost in all the scheduling and the two records we made with Newfeld. They were a crazy, fun, amazing, annoying process, but at the same time I didn't have much control over how the mixes were going and the sounds ... I mean, Newfeld is such an exceptional producer that he has his way of working and I have my own as well, and I wanted to get back to that.
You know, I made those two KC Accidental records with Charles, I made that Feel Good Lost record with Brendan, and there's something about just making a record with one other person that allows you to have so much freedom and so much ... there's not 18 opinions flying around and you don't have to always say, "Oh wait wait wait I won't play that because I gotta get somebody else to come in and play that or they won't be on the song." So the intentions that went around all these tunes, there was no thought process behind it except the actual doing it. You know just the actual ... doing whatever you wanted.
You mentioned "Cocaine Skin" earlier. I was sending that to somebody. I recorded that in three hours. It was like someone's shitty day so I wrote them this song. [Pause.] We did that so fast, and a lot of these songs we did so fast, and basically when we would go back and say, "OK, let's start to mix some of this stuff," we would take chunks of those tunes and go get lost for four hours trying to make some sort of sound from that and then realizing, "Oh my god, we're making another song" and then just start a whole new session. I have to say, I didn't think about much. I wasn't thinking about ... I've been saying in every interview that the worst thing that happened with this whole process was having to inevitably figure out how we were going to put it out, what we were going to put it out under, what songs were going to get put out, etc. I had a lot of anxiety -- once it was done -- about the mastering and the sounds and "Is it too much? Is it too personal?" I'm not a quiet guy; I'm actually the loud one in the band. My mouth is bigger than my head a lot of the times, and I don't mind being the clown at times and clearly, sometimes I felt like I got through this for me, I was just doing a me, just to get this shit out of my lungs.
But in listening to this, though, (and especially looking at the lyrics), there is a certain unity to it at the same time. The one thing I saw the most in your lyrics was that you mentioned "the bed" a lot, and not just for the casual fucking references (though there are those). There's some line about how you can't live inside a war without our bed, you can't go to someone else's bed that's filled with lies, and also how you decided that God isn't in your bed anymore. So I was wondering: is there any place where that came from, specifically, or is that something that you didn't even notice during the recording process?
Well ... that was a major theme for me: finding peace when you go to sleep, and finding peace when you wake up. I started to form a real problem of being angry a lot when I was awake or when I go to sleep, and I lost a lot of sleep with too much brain, too much anxiety. While you're doing that and not editing yourself -- and I really, really have a problem not doing that -- and it used to be cute in my early 20s, it got a little irritating in my late 20s, and now that I'm starting my 30s, I'm finding that it's not working anymore. I've lost a couple people very, very close to me because of my mouth, because of my way of thinking and because of my anxieties.
I generally with Social Scene kind of wash that spirit … and that's why I stopped the band because I couldn't quite figure out how to handle all the repetition, and then anytime someone told me, I mean, anytime someone asks me a question on the spot, I don't know the answer. But if I'm just allowed to ask the question myself or tell the person what an answer is to a question not asked, I know it. And I felt too under-the-gun in the end of the process and I really felt like I was not being what I started out to be. I got friends who've captured a lot of footage and I go back and watch things and ... [Pause.] I wasn't too proud in the end. I made decisions ... I couldn't keep them ... couldn't keep one decision. I was very scattered, I really didn't quite know what was going on and quite frankly ... it's a story that you hear from so many, I mean there's so many stories that you hear that are the same ... I really wanted to make sure that people understood that with this record, it took me a while to figure out what I could kind of make it about because when you go and do these interviews, you gotta have a little bit of protection to figure out what you're talking about: Why was it called Spirit If...? Why is there, you know, all these things? Etc.
And you need to have something to help you get through it, in case you go too personal with it, and I just kind of realized I was living in the "What if?" world for the last three years. What if, what if, what if, what if ... and it really assaulted me and it really changed the type of person I was turning into and I kinda just referenced the bed as my station, as my grounding, as my place. The fact that that got so ... I didn't have a bed for a while. I was all over the place for a while. I didn't have [my] feet on the ground, I didn't have these things that you need as a human that you need to sort of get up and do your day and ... it formed a confusion and anger inside that I think a lot of people feel and ... I've kinda been pushing this thing that this record's about the middle: something that I didn't quite understand until now, because all we get pushed upon us are beginnings and endings and they're really marketed really, really well to us all. As a society, we sort of always want to know not just what's in Door #2 now, but what's in Door #3? What's in Door #4? What's in Door #5? It's so much information going on that we get so many decisions, so many choices, and there's so many ways that we can be found -- in terms of e-mails, texting, Blackberries -- there's no peace anymore!
It's everything happening right now.
It's everything happening now! Exactly!
That's a big fault with YouTube: if you're some celebrity, somewhere, and you make a comment, everyone will know.
You have an amazing show, and the next day it's up [online] and you're listening [to it] ... you don't get to keep a moment to yourself anymore, and I felt [that] I'm a very huge victim of that. I was never was able to live in the moment anymore, 'cos I was always thinking about what was happening next or what happened before it, and in my surroundings I couldn't really find a place to grab a hold of because it seemed like everybody was doing the same thing. Especially when you're in a band because I can't take this stuff too seriously because it just makes me feel like a fool because I feel like all the rest all of a sudden. And I know that all these songs I wrote have been written before -- they're just presented in a different way. I don't by any means feel [like] an accomplished singer-songwriter. I'm just doing what's happening in my surroundings right now.
Sometimes that's all you need.
Yeah. My friend Eric ... he was really good to me in the end process because I was freakin' out a lot because I was really nervous about putting this album out, and he said, "Kevin, you just gotta put this record out. You do your work around it, and then you go and make another one, and then you do that again. You wanna make another one? You go make another one." And it's true. I've been referencing a lot to the Sonic Youth way of life with Broken Social Scene, but that's what I want to do. If you grab the Sonic Youth catalog, you got like 17 albums. Some are amazing, some are good, none of them are bad, you know?
You have something to look back on. Back in high school, I had a friend who was going through a crisis -- not really sure of what he was doing with his life, and he wanted to go into filmmaking and he wasn't sure why. So this professor told him, "Well, you have to do it. You have to make films. You know why? Because when you put something that you made out there, then that's a piece of you that you can examine and look back on."
Exactly! And yesterday I was saying, "I can't have this record define me -- I don't want to be defined by this record." But then a good person close to me said, "Well, it's just finding you now. That's all it's doing: it's just showing where you're at." And I get so scared because I just love so much, I just love so many things that I don't wanna be thought of as just these songs. But if I look back at my catalog, it sort of shows that all I've ever done was just try to bring really wonderful melodies that I was inspired by [from] all these other bands, and all these other people that I love. You know, I fucking love music. I love it. I never stop listening to it, you know? I know lots of people who ... as they get into their world, they just don't listen to anything except their own stuff, and quite frankly I listen to all my recordings probably about 200 times before I put 'em out. I'm not saying I'm not trying to connect my ego to my heart here, but, fuck, I just love fucking listening to bands and old music and new music and finding new things. I've been walking around and meeting younger bands and the way that they speak about things and the way that they talk about those things are so fucking respectful that I feel like "Well, that's an accomplishment in itself."
Even as I look at the lyric sheet [for Spirit If...] here, I'm looking at one of the lines on the bridge of "Backed Out On The...": "Everyone can write this song but they can't write you and me". It just seems to sum up a lot of what you're saying right now.
Exactly. That's ... exactly it, right there. And when I sang that -- 'cos I just made it up on the spot, and stuff -- I just remember stopping and going. "Ahhhh … thank God." [Laughs.] Thank God, 'cos it's so true.
Kevin Drew is walking around New York City while he's talking to me on his cell phone. We talk about the MySpace Secret Show he did to promote this album ("It was incredible!"), the ego-boosting joys of MySpace profiles (where everyone says they love you), and also how he's grateful for all the listeners who've embraced Social Scene and how he just wants to keep handing the fans nothing but good things. When talking about how some of the other A&C bands have actually drawn bigger crowds and made more mainstream inroads, he said, "I have no money." I thought this was a blunt financial overlook statement, but then it was obvious he was talking to some store employee at wherever he was walking, soon promising he'd back with money ("I'm so fucking thirsty!" he exclaims). He eventually hooks up with some of his friends and is about to go. I say I only got one more question left, and he obliges. I ask the question that I end all my interviews with: so far in your career, what's your biggest regret, and -- conversely -- what's your proudest accomplishment? There's a long pause on the other end, as if Kevin turned away from his friends, and in a hushed voice, says the following:
"I think the greatest accomplishment is that we were able to do this as friends and we were able to put all of ourselves on the map together. My biggest regret is ... that I got lazy, and I got tired, and I haven't woken up from that yet, and it's not doing anything positive for me. I just need to start being respectful to my surroundings and actually remember that the only reason we did it was because of the respect we had for each other.
I'm still stunned by how forthcoming he is. I thank him, and he says it was great talking. He jokes a bit and laughs the serious vibes off, soon to depart to what is no doubt another possibly-weird interview. I don't know where he gets the energy to keep talking to the press for these long increments of time, but he finds someplace inside to keep going: to keep talking to interviewers, to keep making great albums, and to keep touring for long periods of time. Maybe some day he'll find some peace and calm, but for now he's found something even better: he's found himself.