SMELLS LIKE TEAM SPIRIT

Canadian indie scene keeps it together

by Jason Jenkins

When the Canadian music collective known as Broken Social Scene arrives in Tokyo next month, they’ll be bringing a few members of their family tree along. Found on the group’s Web site, the “tree” is actually 40-plus band and artist names scrawled on a paper bag and connected by the squiggly white lines.

Most of the family members are relatively unknown outside of their native country, but that’s changing quickly. In the past three years, Broken Social Scene and fellow countrymen such as The Arcade Fire, New Pornographers and Peaches have drawn ever-larger spotlights to the underground music of Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal.

BSS’s scribbled genealogy offers a good-sized window onto the Canadian scene, and serves as an example of the communal trend now affecting indie music. The idea of one musician, one band is fading. Like the Elephant 6 group in Athens, Ga., the Saddle Creek Label in Omaha, Neb., and to a lesser extent, Glasgow’s Chemikal Underground Records, artists are increasingly forming collectives, where they can play, write and record with several different bands under the same umbrella. These collectives also support each other on tour and provide backing vocals and instruments for recording sessions.

Broken Social Scene’s five permanent and numerous periphery members look to each other for inspiration and live support — that is, when schedules can be coordinated. Because everyone plays a different role, their North American set lists are known to vary, depending on who can show up. No single style sums up Broken Social Scene’s music, but the array of genres represented within their ranks (brooding post-rock, raunchy electro, art-folk, twee pop) is a good indication of eclectic tastes — and promising permutations.

Their 2002 LP, “You Forgot it in People,” draws out the best of this revolving cast. Written collectively, the songs shift through seemingly disparate ideas: warm ambient drone gives way to soaring guitars, with banjo riffs, Herb Albert horn lines and other odd embellishments emerging in the most spectacular places. For many BSS members, this marks their first stab at creating pop music after years exploring the avant-garde. The outcome is impressive. The album became a critical favorite, transforming what was then considered fun among friends into a world tour.

When that tour arrives in Japan, it will feature some of their country’s finest independent artists, including The Dears and Death From Above 1979, as well a two of BSS’s collaborative siblings, Stars and Metric.

From Stars’ ebullient, sophisticated pop to DFA79′s caustic, blues-metal sludge, the lineup underlines BSS’s pluralistic outlook.

Speaking from his home in Toronto, Brendan Canning, one of Broken Social Scene’s founding members, tells me that the group’s rabidly democratic dynamic is vital to the final product (this works with royalties, too) but with so many cooks in the kitchen, tempers are bound to flare up. “There’s a lot of volatility throughout [the recording process]. . . . It’s like you’re making a painting and someone comes along and throws a blue splotch in the corner and you’re like, ‘Why the f**k did you put that blue splotch there?’ But we all believe in each other,” he says, adding, “and we believe in the results.”

Torquil Campbell, frontman of Stars, agrees. His group is a separate artistic entity, but shares members; Campbell’s duet partner in Stars, vocalist Amy Milan, is an influential member of both bands. “That’s going to be quite a sound-check,” Campbell says of the upcoming shows, his voice grave with mock drama, “Only Japan would be worth such an undertaking.” The chuckle that follows betrays his clear enjoyment of the more-the-merrier approach.

Campbell says, in a phone interview from his Vancouver home, that while not a core member of BBS, he joins the band in the studio or onstage whenever possible, even if that means dancing through an entire set onstage as they perform. “I’m their cheerleader,” Campbell enthuses, “and I get very excited when they play. I just happen to be onstage with a trumpet in my hand. My zone of irresponsibility, I guess.”

What Canning and Campbell’s bands have been partly responsible for is the attention Canada’s indie scene has recently enjoyed. A lack of financial muscle to market themselves internationally meant most groups welcomed fans who spread the word through the Web, even if it meant some people downloading their music illegally. “I don’t see how it hurt us,” says Canning, referring to MP3 music files swapped through chat rooms. “And how are you going to stop it, anyway? You could say it hurts [independent artists], but how else are you going to hear them? Radio isn’t going to play them.”

“I think [the Internet] has probably made indie-rock bands more self-obsessive than they used to be,” Campbell adds, “because now you can constantly check up on what people think of you [laughs]. That’s a very addictive and terrible aspect of it.”

While Canning admits only to clipping the occasional BSS article for Mom, Campbell says he enjoys following his band in the music press. “I’ve always been a pop music fan and kept up with the latest thing. The fact that I’m the latest thing hasn’t stopped me from doing that.”

With their melodic hooks, lush instrumentation and the clever wordplay between Campbell and Milan, Stars’ bouncy, unflinchingly romantic pop probably has the broadest appeal of any band on the BBS tour roster. But every artist on the bill has an interesting and accessible take on pop music, in fact. The Dear’s gothic drama sounds like Morrissey before he moved to L.A., while Metric’s catchy synth-rock bears the shadow of early-’80s radio. Even the bad boys in DFA79 reprocess R&B and thrash metal with pop sensibilities.

Canning is dismissive when I ask him where — or if — he sees Broken Social Scene in the pop spectrum. “Well,” he sighs, “we’re not making 20-minute instrumental opuses right now,” then falls silent.

Campbell tackles the question from a different angle. Because Stars songs often make sudden tempo or melodic shifts, does he think they deviate from pop? “I don’t think you can deviate from pop,” he answers. “That’s the great thing about popular music, is that it encompasses so much. If it’s got a hook, it’s pop. ‘Round Midnight’ by Miles Davis is a pop record to me because people like to listen to it and can sing it back to you. And Mozart and Cole Porter. I think that music that focuses on melody and has a certain kind of . . . ” he searches for the right word, “. . . emotional directness is attempting to be popular, and is attempting to communicate with a wide array of people.”

In a previous interview, Campbell bemoaned how pop had become “a dirty word.” Does he still feel that way? “I have always loved pop music and certainly have no qualms about being categorized with Beyonce — I think she’s fantastic. Eleven-year-old girls need something to listen to, as well.”

Unlike many artists in the indie community, Campbell holds no contempt for today’s pre-fab pop. “I don’t know what the big threat is, really. It’s better to have bad music than none at all,” he says with a laugh. “The great thing about music is that even if it sounds like turgid nonsense to you, someone is in their bedroom having an incredible experience listening to it.”

Whether in bedrooms, street corners or center stage, pop music’s hold on people is not lost on Campbell. “When people come to a show and they cheer, it’s not really the song that they’re responding to,” he says. “Pop music operates on a pretty simple template: there’s only a certain number of chords and rhythms. What they’re really reacting to is that moment in their lives that is triggered by that song – the memory of that moment. The songs act like a signpost for people to map out the moments in their lives that are important to them. They’re really celebrating themselves and their own personal history than celebrating you and the song you’ve written. That’s a great description of what pop music does.”

Branches from a growing tree

Broken Social Scene: The diverse, melting-pot origins of this dozen-strong rock troupe make it the most cerebral band on the ticket, but no less catchy. Horns, strings, electronica and ringing washes of feedback from a three-guitar assault work together with a rotating lineup of vocalists and it all shimmers with intensity.

Stars: Don’t confuse this six-piece’s lovesick pop as bubblegum. It’s more like espresso loaded with enough sugar to make bitterness more palatable. Subdued brass and jangly guitar decorate a latticework of percussion — both live and programmed — with clever lyrics on the complications of love.

Metric: Frontwoman Emily Haines contributed one of the most surreal and delicate vocals to BSS’s last album (“Ballad of a Seventeen-Year-Old Girl”), but her new-wave-informed band is anything but. Wiry synth lines snake around clipped guitar hooks and a rhythm section that snaps taut at a moment’s notice.

Death From Above 1979: Ear-splitting blues-punk you can dance to. If Stars’ sweetness gives you a cavity, this garage-metal duo will be happy to drill it out. On record, drummer/vocalist Sebastien Graingier’s voice is a buzz saw, but when they performed here in February, he barely cut through the din. The mosh pit didn’t seem to notice.

The Dears: Comparisons to The Smiths, and their sad-sack legacy abound, but Murray Lightburn’s orchestral compositions move beyond heartbreak and alienation into tragedy of near-operatic proportions. He isn’t afraid to lose his cool for dramatic effect, either, and he has the pipes to back it up.