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Broken Social Scene makes its Aspen debut

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
Dave GillespieCanada's Broken Social Scene makes its Aspen debut Friday, performing a free show in downtown Aspen.
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ASPEN – Broken Social Scene can seem to be going in many different directions at once, emphasizing minimalist instrumental music on one album, then seemingly aiming for mainstream radio with catchy, expertly produced pop-rock on another.

In fact, Broken Social Scene is more fragmented than you might even guess. The Toronto-based group is flexible by design, with singers and instrumentalists shuttling in for an album and a tour, sitting out for awhile as other members come aboard, then returning when the time seems right.

“We’re very disorganized,” confessed Andrew Whiteman, who is one of the core members of the group, having missed just one tour since Broken Social Scene formed, in 1999. (Whiteman, a bassist and guitarist, says his leave of absence was due to the death of his cat, an ulcer, an “exhaustion situation,” and his duties leading another band, Apostle of Hustle, which he describes as having “more minor chords and more frenetic” than Broken Social Scene.) “People always have their heads thinking about other things at times.”

Over 12 years, some 25 musicians have called themselves members of the collective, with five – Brendan Canning, Kevin Drew, Justin Peroff, Charles Spearin and Whiteman – forming the foundation.

The question is, is this any way to run a band? There seem to be potential downsides. Broken Social Scene – which makes its area debut Friday with a free concert in the Aspen Skiing Co.’s Spring Jam Core Party in downtown Aspen – has hardly been prolific, with just four albums in 10 years. What if a concertgoer gets attached to a certain member – say Leslie Feist, a singer who has jumped in and out of the collective, and has earned acclaim as a solo act, under the name Feist – then finds out that member is skipping the next tour? Aren’t issues of band identity and ego bound to emerge from this set-up?

Whiteman acknowledges that there are valid questions regarding the wisdom of the arrangement. He sees the possibility of arguments over the smallest of artistic matters because the Broken Social Scene pecking order isn’t firmly established.

But in reality, he said, it’s working. The band has won two June Awards for album of the year, and to my ears, “Forgiveness Rock Record,” from last year, is their best work yet. And perhaps the most vital ingredient in the band’s mix – its diversity – stems directly from the approach they take to being a loose-knit ensemble. Each album, each tour, is a genuinely fresh experience because of the new people involved.

“Having this band, making this band, being in it and breathing it, is never a preconceived thing,” Whiteman said from his home in Montreal. “It’s a blending of a lot of different people. And John McEntire” – the American producer behind “Forgiveness Rock Record” – “is able to leave a lot of room and is able to get everyone’s personalities in there. Whether it’s good for us, or good for the band … I guess yes is the answer. It works.”

The band’s beginning are traced to the partnership between Canning and Drew, who began making music together in 1999. Around the same time, Whiteman, Peroff and Feist decided to do battle against the depressing Toronto winter by writing tunes and presenting a show at a club, Ted’s Wrecking Yard. Feist knew Canning and Drew, and brought the two factions together.

Whiteman sidesteps the issue of how Broken Social Scene is meant to evolve by dismissing the value of evolution altogether. “Someone asked me how has the music evolved. I don’t know that it has,” he said. “People peg evolution as something you must do, or that evolution is good. And I’m not sure. When I first played this music, it felt good right away. There are songs I’ve been playing every show for 10 years, and that still feel good. And that says something, because I’m a pretty restless guy.”

I floated my theory on Broken Social Scene by Whiteman: that the band reflects a distinctively Canadian way of doing things. To my mind, it all seems very polite, pleasant and agreeable: Yes, you go off and do your side project, and we’ll be happy to have you back when the time is right, eh?

Whiteman was unoffended by the stereotype, and actually liked the characterization of Canadians as easy-going types who could handle communal projects like Broken Social Scene.

“If you scratch any of us hard enough, you’ll find a hoser down there somewhere. It’s called tolerance. It’s called not freaking out when things don’t go exactly your way,” he said. “That’s a good stereotype, a good quality. I think I’m going to start promoting that.”

stewart@aspentimes.com


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