Kate: On Saturday, January 11th, Emma and I had the pleasure of sitting down with Brendan Canning before his show at The Grad Club. We were incredibly grateful for this opportunity, as we’d long admired both his musical prowess and his overall contribution to the Canadian music scene.
Emma: As a founding member of Broken Social Scene it might be an understatement to say that Kate and I had high expectations for our chat with Brendan. One of the most immediate impressions upon me was the stark contrast between his relaxed demeanor and our unrestrained enthusiasm. There is a small chance we did not play it as cool as I had imagined we would. We were talking about music with one of our favourite musicians.
Kate: We were able to pick his brain on his approach to music, his collaborative projects, and his experience with the Internet and music. Hearing him talk about his recording process, as well as last-minute tour rehearsals reaffirmed what we expected of his genius. I’d have to say his mellow attitude blew my expectations of the level of chill I thought a human could reach.
Emma: That being said, it was on the subject of Canadian music that we were most surprised by his answers.
Kate: But of course, that is the point of an interview, to gain perspective. And we were incredibly lucky to gain perspective from Brendan Canning, who was thoughtful and engaged in his answers.
Emma: We definitely learned a lot, for instance we found out we’ve been shaking hands with the wrong hand. [Brendan shook both of our hands with his left hand, which is pretty rock and roll].
The recording of You Gots 2 Chill intrigued me, so I was thrilled to hear him talk about that. I also learned more about his experience recording with BSS. He described the process on a smaller scale than I had expected.
Emma: First I’d like to talk about your new album You Gots 2 Chill. I know that the piece is very laid back. I even read somewhere that you recorded some of it over your answering machine –
Brendan Canning: A couple little bits.
Emma: – Yeah, I thought that was interesting. I’m just wondering what the motivation for taking on a project like this was and what the process was like.
Brendan: My motivation? That’s just what I do- sit around my house and I play a lot of guitar.
Emma: Right but why make a project that is so stripped down?
Brendan: It’s stripped down, we tried adding drums but that didn’t seem to work with what was going on. I do a lot of acoustic guitar playing so this was sort of a chance to investigate that world a little more. I have so many little licks saved on my answering machine or on my voice memo. A lot of alternate tuning stuff. You know your E becomes a C, lots of that kind of stuff.
Emma: So, in what ways, if at all, was recording this album different from recording an album in a larger studio?
Brendan: Well I worked on a lot of this with Steve [Singh]… Broken Social Scene recorded in very small studios, basically home studios. I don’t know what you think but its not like what you might imagine with a large studio. There’s no checking in at a front desk like, Brendan for studio A, or anything. The only time Social Scene has done bigger studio stuff was the Forgiveness Rock Record – that was a little bit big- but even that wasn’t at a big studio or anything. So I’ve been doing homespun stuff since 99.
Kate: As we find our young selves growing up in the midst of exponential internet growth, it was cool to hear Brendan talk about his own observations on music in the age of the internet.
Kate: I’d like to ask you about music in the context of the Internet. Obviously, the Internet is important for us in terms of our blogging careers, but I’m curious to hear how your music career has been benefited and challenged by it.
Brendan: At this point people don’t really buy your albums anymore. I think bands at a really high level still sell records but not as many as they would have say ten or fifteen years ago. Even my sort of less than average band from the 90s we sold like 15000 records. If I could imagine selling that 15000 albums on this one now which in all theories should be better music but it’s just not going to happen. Not unless I try to turn out a couple of pop hits, but I didn’t really make a record full of pop hits. I made a bedroom-y kind of vibe-y record. But at the same time Social Scene’s rise really benefited- from the internet- but would we have gotten that way without it? It’s hard to say. I think if you’re a good band then things will happen for you or if you just happen to have a good gimmick going then things will happen for you. It just means there is not as much money going to anyone making music.
Kate: While Brendan Canning is the name behind many collaborative projects, he’s also recently released a solo album, You Gots To Chill, that found itself on The Vault’s ‘Favourite Albums of 2013’ list (as well as our unofficial ‘Worst Album Titles of 2013’ list). I was interested in the thought process behind the choice to tackle a project alone or with a group.
Kate: Hmm, that’s interesting. Obviously you have been very successful in your collaborative music endeavours–
Kate: – And also a lot of success on your solo projects as well. When you think of a piece how do you decide whether you are going to tackle it on your own or with a group?
Brendan: I don’t really put that much thought in it to be honest. For my next body of work whether it’s an album or- well I can’t really get past albums because I’m a vinyl guy. I do like singles, I wish more bands would make singles. The only time I’m a digital music guy is when I’m at parties and I’ll YouTube like Lupe Fiasco or another really great dance track.
Emma: It’s easy to digress when you get on the topic of music but eventually we got back to the question Kate had asked.
Brendan: Oh I don’t know a couple of summers ago I just got a call from Steve and he was like why don’t you come over, I just got all of this good gear, and we’ve known each other a long time.
Emma: Since high school right?
Brendan: Maybe even before high school. So I was like yeah, fuck it, I’ve got nothing to do today. So that’s kind of how it started. You know, I just sit around so much – me and my dog- and play guitar and I just generate a lot of licks and some of them will maybe be a little similar but you save them and then go back to them. There are a couple of tunes I haven’t relearned or learned for the first time because I just can’t remember where my fingers where or where the guitar was tuned too. I’m amazed that I was able to learn as many songs on this album, I was kind of like fuck it I’ll just write some new ones. It’s a good exercise to learn.
Kate: So making the record before learning the songs.
Brendan: Yeah, I guess. I’m not the singer/songwriter guy that makes songs and goes and sings them for people. That’s not me. The vocals usually come after the fact. I’m trying to write songs now where the vocals and the guitar come at the same time. Which is a new thing for me but probably something that most people do. I just go about it in a slightly backwards way.
Emma: Musical collaborations are something that Kate and I have both been fascinated by for a while, especially within Canadian music. Collaboration projects allow musicians to explore their talents to new depths as they get to experiment with new sounds that might not feel right in their own band or other solo work. It’s a great tool for music consumers as well because it leads you to other musicians. I discovered BSS in high school a few weeks into my ongoing obsession with Stars and through that I was lead to Apostle of The Hustle, Feist, AroarA and of course, Brendan Canning’s solo work. What I love the most about collaboration projects however is the sense of camaraderie you get from it. Friendship can be a driving force in creative endeavours – which is something I think we both, and all eight of us here at The Vault, can attest to. Anyway, that’s why I regard him so highly, he’s the king of collaboration. I had a difficult time articulating these feelings to him. So, flustered I managed to spit out some form of a question asking what collaboration meant to him and his music.
Brendan: That’s what music is supposed to be. To be shared. I enjoy sharing. It’s just more fun. I’ve never had the vision of being a solo artist. Even though I’m sort of out touring as a solo artist I’m not really. There is should be a band name, we just don’t have one.
Emma: I think that there sometimes is a correlation between music and the geographical space or city that it comes from. How does living in Toronto influence your sound?
Brendan: There’s a lot going on in Toronto. There is just so much music and so many different types of people in Toronto. As far as a multi-ethnicity kind of town it’s got it all. You get to digest all of that. If you’re living in a major center like that you get be exposed to more because it’s all in your neighbourhood….Yeah, I like a colourful neighbourhood.
Kate: The conversation on geography was directed towards music in Canada, which is one of Emma’s and my favourite topics to engage in. Personally, I was surprised to hear his apparent neutrality towards identifying as a Canadian. As we ourselves feel strongly about sharing Canadian music, and are constantly striving to learn more about the Canadian identity, I think I expected him to share our enthusiasm.
Emma: Especially considering that, in our minds at least, he is regarded as one of the most influential and involved Canadian musicians of our time.
Kate: Do you think it is important to identify as a Canadian musician?
Brendan: I don’t know. I mean, I like living in Canada. I don’t have tons of albums in my collection that are Canadians- there are lots of great Canadian groups- I probably have way more American records because there are just more bands. Or English, I suppose. Well reggae there’s not a lot of Canadian records.
Kate: Well Bedouin Soundclash.
Brendan: I played soccer with Eon (Sinclair). I don’t know are they reggae?
Emma: Kind of yeah. I’d say so.
Brendan: Well that first single of theirs? When The Night…
Kate: When The Night Feels My Song?
Brendan: Yeah. It is very similar to the melody from the song “Pressure Drop.” Have you heard of it?
Brendan: You should check it out. The Clash covered Pressure Drop too. You should know that song. That song is a serious classic.
Kate: We hadn’t at the time, so we added Pressure Drop to our lists (and added Volcano Choir to his). After trading homework, we directed the conversation back to Canadian music.
Brendan: You can definitely hear certain bands, as they approach that Canadiana sound. I generally do try to avoid that personally. Just to throw out The Hip- they write songs about Canada, with lots of beautiful lyrics referencing Toronto, about hockey and the CBC. There is something that definitely ties it to Canadian.
There is a lot of sort of middle ground for Canadian music. Like the CBC, the drive home show, there is a certain kind of soft sound. I’m not really crazy about it. It just sort of sounds like, oh yeah there’s the CBC sound on the drive home hour. And when you hear it, it’s like yeah sounds Canadian. Yeah I don’t know what it is. I think my favourite Canadian bands, though, are ones that don’t sound too Canadian.
Emma: How do you think you would describe that Canadian sound? It’s something that both (Kate and I) have been trying to put our fingers on for quite a while now.
Brendan: I don’t know it’s just a thing. Like when you cross the border from America there’s a certain feeling or a certain sense you can’t tell someone. It’s like when people ask what’s the difference between Canadians and Americans, I don’t know but there’s something.
Emma: Our last question is my favourite to ask. What do you hope an audience member will get from going to see your live performance?
Brendan: An enjoyable evening. Last night someone made a strange comment to me- we had a little psychedelic jam session- and someone was like “it’s like your forcing us to feel emotion”…. Well yeah, I hope so. That’s what music is for… So yeah I’m up there to force emotion out of people.
Kate: I could feel some emotion tonight.
Brendan: Well you never know, on shitty ass days –
[It was cold, rainy and treacherous outside]
Brendan: –Sometimes it can get cozy.
Kate: We continued to chat about music, favourite venues (most of his were in the states), and the trouble that ensues when you are friends with doctors. Following the interview, Brendan Canning played an incredible show at The Grad Club, accompanied by a 5-piece band, including his friend and producer Steve Singh as well as a lovely new discovery of ours, Julia Crawford. Emotions were definitely felt.
Emma: Definitely. That show was everything I wanted it to be. Possibly more. There were no gimmicks; no light show, no dance number, no costumes- just music. But it hit me pretty hard. I kept moving through different states with the music. Sometimes dancing and other times standing still, eyes wide with my jaw on the floor. Confession, I started to cry at one point but before it got embarrassing they played a cover of Drake’s “Hold On We’re Going Home” and I was brought back to dancing.
Kate: That was pretty surreal. Especially when you take the time to consider that the band was only decided upon on the Tuesday before with their first rehearsal on Wednesday. That whole set was thrown together in a couple of days. I don’t know if he will ever play that set with the same band again. Good thing a few gals up front snagged a recording of the entire show on their iPhones… the next best thing to actually being there! Anyways, it was a special night. There is a unique feeling added to the memory of a show when you understand that the band was only together for that one tour.
Emma: At times I couldn’t help but feel like I was intruding on an intimate moment between musicians and their instruments. Everyone up there had a serious case of ‘bass face’. Love is contagious though, when you see a band who genuinely and expressively loves to play you feel it too. Hey Kate should we start a band?
Kate: I told you I’m taking piano lessons right? Let’s ask Brendan to join?
Emma: Do you think he likes us?
Kate: I think he tolerates us.