A Beautiful Mess

Once a simple indie rock duo, Broken Social Scene added 13 band members and ended up with a complex, precious sound.

It's a brisk and sunny day and New York City is in the throes of the CMJ Music Marathon, a four-day extravaganza where indie bands from all over converge to share their wares. Brendan Canning, one of Broken Social Scene's principal songwriters, is leaning against the wall of the venue where the band will be playing later that night. He is trying to thread new shoelaces into his sneakers. It takes him a while to do this, and he keeps starting over when he realizes he hasn't laced them to perfection.

Thirty-three-year-old Canning often looks frazzled. He sometimes squints and cocks his head slightly to the side like a mad scientist in the midst of a tedious equation. But his heady demeanor never prevents him from regarding you with a generous warmth. It's as if he's spent enough hours in the laboratory to know that life in a vacu-um, devoid of human contact, is bleak and unnatural. Earlier that day he had purchased a batch of vinyl from a local shop. It's no surprise that the discs' genres were strikingly diverse -- some obscure jazz, Public Enemy, Sonic Youth, and 808 State to be exact -- because anyone familiar with the band's latest LP, You Forgot It in People, knows of its penchant for drawing from a wide variety of influences.

Twenty minutes later, the band's primary singer and other main songwriter, Kevin Drew, approaches. In contrast to Canning, he is aglow with an intense serenity and carefully wielded, almost diabolical, charisma. Drew's got missions on his mind, and states what must happen: He needs to buy AC adapters (the band has just returned from a brief European tour, where the current is different) and he needs to eat.

Paula Wilson


Stars and Jason Collett open

Wednesday, Nov. 19, and Thursday, Nov. 20, at 8:30 p.m.

Tickets are $15


www. musichallsf.com

Great American Music Hall, 859 O'Farrell (at Polk), S.F.

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The diner we end up in is filled with a nice cross section of people: proper yuppies with immaculate posture; snooty, spectacled artist/intellectuals; and wide-eyed tourist families. Loud chatter and the clank of silverware and kitchen dishes score our entrance. Ordinarily, this locale would be too chaotic to conduct an interview. But, as evidenced by their success in sorting concordance out of a rambunctious 15-member rock band, Drew and Canning are at home in such bedlam. You Forgot It in People -- an expansive, intricately orchestrated indie pop achievement -- proves it: These two have a knack for drawing poignancy out of chaos, taking in all the bustle of their company and spitting out something bold, coherent, and beautiful.

The duo that leads Broken Social Scene met through the tangled vines of the Toronto indie scene. Canning, six years Drew's elder, had been playing in a number of local bands. After mutual friends played him K.C. Accidental, the band Drew was fronting at the time, Canning tracked Drew down to propose a collaboration. "He ended up moving into our house and drinking all our beer," Drew says, half in jest. The two of them retreated to the solitude of Drew's basement and recorded what would become the first BSS record.

The album they emerged with was Feel Good Lost, a primarily instrumental endeavor that sketched slow-blooming indie motifs with reserved guitar and the occasional odd instrumentation. The record's mood was warm and slumbering, certainly more mature than most bands are capable of, but nowhere near as elaborate as what would come with their sophomore LP.

You Forgot It in People is grand and diverse, combining the flail of frilly electric guitars with a spacious and majestic drift of banjos, strings, horns, and synths. It draws on everything from punk to R&B and often folds in unexpected styles, such as prog, lounge, and straightforward pop. But the real beauty lies in the arrangements: Rarely does any instrument settle into the support role. Instead, many melodic elements are bellowed simultaneously. While much of its indie contemporaries thrive on minimalism, Broken Social Scene offers intricate webs of sound your brain shouldn't translate into pop music, although that's indeed what happens.So how did Canning and Drew make the leap from sleepy intimacy to elaborate illumination? Well, by adding 13 members to the band. "We were gonna play live but we didn't want to make anyone learn anything [from Feel Good] because we had all this respect for all these musicians," Drew says, speaking of his proficient Toronto peers, people like Emily Haines (Metric), Andrew Whiteman (Apostle of Hustle), Charles Spearin (Do Make Say Think), Leslie Feist (Feist), Evan Cranley (Stars), and Justin Peroff (K.C. Accidental), among others. "So we did a bunch of improv shows."

While it may have seemed like an experiment that would never work, when it came time to make the next record the duo basically threw all these players into a studio and rolled tape. "It was chaos and there was lots of tension," Drew says. "Fallouts, gear everywhere, go-go-go, people breaking your heart."

"We felt terrible," Canning chimes in. He continues to talk about how, despite the collective enthusiasm, it was exhausting trying to get everything sorted into some kind of structure. At some point, the explosions of energy needed to be tamed. "I was like, 'Fuck, man, we gotta make a record here. It's not all fun and games and at some point we've gotta put all the chaos together.'"

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