Somebody needs to get a memo to Broken Social Scene: It's Kill Your Idols, not Poach Them Eggs.
But for Tortoise percussion master and studio wiz John McEntire, the culinary flair of BSS co-founder Brendan Canning was just one of the band's skills he experienced while producing the Canadian collective's latest full-length, Forgiveness Rock Record. Indeed, what may have begun as just another recording gig for McEntire— albeit one where the band comes in with 45 songs—quickly evolved into more than just liner notes, credits and nascent friendships. The nearly 20-year veteran of Tortoise has become another satellite member of the BSS orbit, playing as many gigs with them over the last year as his busy schedule allowed. He even hints at likely cross-pollination when both bands appear at Hopscotch.
And for the six-person Broken Social Scene core, the sessions with McEntire—stretching from May 2009 to February 2010 and from Chicago to Toronto—were dreams come true.
"Over the years, we've been lucky enough to make music with lots of great people who we all highly regarded," says Canning, citing Pavement, Modest Mouse and Dinosaur Jr. "So working with John was the ultimate feather in our cap. [We] thought that he could help orchestrate our sound and bring something new that maybe we hadn't done already."
Even a cursory listen to the 14-track sprawl of Forgiveness suggests fresh sonic territory for Broken Social Scene. Still, there were some raised eyebrows when McEntire—and not David Newfeld, who'd produced the rest of the BSS catalogue—wound up in the booth this time. But after the tumultuous recording sessions for 2006's Juno Award-winning eponymous record, Broken Social Scene was sort of broken. The expanding and inclusive roster had swollen to 17 members. The logistics of recording and touring—as well as some relationship drama—had eroded the collective goodwill on which the band was built.
The first step, then, was to pare down the core while still embracing the contributions of those cut loose from the inner circle. When the band and McEntire got together for an exploratory get-to-know-each other session after a BSS gig in Chicago, the results were so encouraging that they all jumped in without hesitation.
"The chemistry just seemed real good," McEntire says. "We got along great right off the bat and felt like aesthetically we could do something interesting. We all came from the same backgrounds, more or less, and had been traveling somewhat parallel paths for many years. It was about time for them to intersect."
Those parallel paths lead back to the earliest incarnation of BSS, in the '90s, when various members began their musical education in Toronto's rave scene by playing ambient grooves in chill-out rooms. Those repetitive beats and phrases were assimilated into the BSS sound long ago, but they tended to get buried beneath Newfeld's more-is-better textures. With McEntire's more open approach, though, a song like "Meet Me in the Basement"—a simple four-note melody pounded by two drum kits and a gale of guitars—feels expansive, not claustrophobic. The intersection with Tortoise becomes apparent.
"If you can lasso one of those little melodic repetitive phrases and just hold on for dear life," says Charles Spearin, whose Do Make Say Think instrumental project hews even closer than BSS to the Tortoise aesthetic, "you can come up with something really powerful that can pull you through the weeds and into some glorious places."
That adventurous approach lies at the core of Tortoise's blend of blend of Krautrock, out jazz, minimalism, dub, drum 'n' bass and outright electronica. McEntire learned early that highlighting all those elements meant giving them space to breathe, an approach that made him a wise choice for BSS's equally promiscuous palette.
"As music fans, we know that McEntire sound," Whiteman says of the man who's worked on records by gamut-running acts like Stereolab, Tom Zé, Richard Buckner and The Fiery Furnaces. "It's like listening to the sound of a sound, the texture of a sound, and making room for it so that you can hear what that texture is."
Adds McEntire, "They had been used to hearing themselves record in a certain way for so long. This was just a different version of what they sound like."
McEntire's input went beyond control-room traffic direction and mixing magic, or the time-consuming winnowing of that song bushel to a manageable short list. BSS embraced his instrumental contributions, too, and were still blown away with the results months after the record's release. Whiteman marvels at how McEntire's bossa nova percussion "Brazil-ed up" what had been a country shuffle and morphed "Art House Director" into "some sort of Vegas fantasia." Once Spearin got over being tongue-tied and starstruck, he bonded with McEntire over old analog cassette four-tracks, then crushed the opening drumbeats and hordes of other instruments through one on "Ungrateful Little Father."
For Canning, McEntire's greatest contribution was less tangible—the producer's innate patience and his openness to spur-of-the moment ideas helped the band feel right at home. "We're slightly attention deficit disorder," Canning admits. "'Oh, can we try this? What about that?' So I really liked his thought process."
That's something McEntire says he learned playing in the Tortoise collective. In the liner notes to the band's 2006 box set, A Lazarus Taxon, critic Alan Licht writes, "Tortoise has always been a band about community." That, of course, is the language that Broken Social Scene speaks, too. And if recording with Newfeld—likened to Sun Ra more than once during these interviews—required bonding "on some genetic level," as Whiteman says, collaborating with McEntire was no less elemental. The bonding was just more subtle.
Canning says that's why it was so important to Drew and the others that McEntire come to Toronto—not just for the overdubbing but to see where it was, literally and figuratively, that BSS sprang from.
"Kevin really wanted to introduce him to what was Broken Social Scene at one point," Canning remembers. "We had come [to Soma] with this six-piece band, so to the uninitiated it would just seem like, 'Oh, well, here's a band. They sometimes hire guest players to come in.' But it's really more than that. The community at large is what we're built upon. That was how we grew, and that's our strength—strength in numbers."