Beloved indie rock band Broken Social Scene’s new album, Hug Of Thunder is everything BSS fans love from the Canadian collective and then some, an album overflowing with glorious open chords, multi-voice harmonies, spacious psychedelia-tinted breakdowns, and more. It is a panoramic, expansive album that manages to be both epic and intimate; and like all things BSS, in troubled times, it offers a serotonin rush of positivity.
Since their inception in the early aughts, Broken Social Scene have always pushed sonic boundaries while remaining reverent of a perfect chorus; almost twenty years down the line, Hug Of Thunder sharpens that balance. The record’s twelve songs refract the band’s varying emotions, methods, and techniques in ways that not only reference their other albums, but surpass them. Hug Of Thunder is righteous but warm, angry but loving, melodic but uncompromising. And if you’ve ever fallen in love with Broken Social Scene – as many of us have – it is a perfect return that was truly worth the wait.
In our new interview, BSS member Charles Spearin discusses the making of Hug of Thunder, starting a band in 2017, musical politics, and more!
Hug of Thunder is your first LP since 2010. What was the process like in getting everyone together and recording an album?
It was gradual, it wasn’t like a forced “let’s get the band back together” kind of thing. I was out on the road for a really long time [following the release of Forgiveness Rock Record] and I was completely wiped out. I missed my family and I checked myself into art school. I wasn’t in any hurry to get the band back together, and I don’t really think anybody else was either. I can’t really say if there was any real insistence to get the band back together except everyone’s calendars were a bit more open so we started entertaining the idea of jamming before we jumped back in. The main thing was that we were actually invited to play a couple of shows, like Wayhome, and a few others, and it was really fun, it was great to be with old friends. We kind of agreed that we could at least do some shows but maybe not put out another record. And then we thought, “let’s see what happens”, you know, you get excited when you like the music but when there’s no music it’s all… you don’t know what’s going to happen.
How much of a challenge was it to sit down and write an album with 15-ish individual songwriters?
It’s a challenge. It’s impossible to quantify how much of a challenge it is but at the same time it’s what we are used to. It’s truly healthy for us to take a break from collaborating sometimes. Broken Social Scene’s collaborative nature really compromises a lot of situations in that way. You really need a break for your own sanity once in a while, and you need to grab the steering wheel and do whatever you want. It’s healthy and I really had to do that, but in terms of working as this band usually I don’t know how it works. There’s a lot of compromise, a lot of give and take, a lot of campaigning like you like one idea and maybe I’ll call Justin Peroff up and say “Hey I really like this song idea maybe you can make something of it, it’s amazing,” so it’s this kind of backwoods campaigning that you do. And that’s part of our purpose that’s why it also takes us like a year or so to make a record. There’s this whole political side to putting it together which is exhausting but also satisfying in the end you have something that’s bigger than all the parts.
So it can become very political in the studio?
It’s very political but, I like politics, there’s no real harm that can come from it and where making music so it should be somewhat lighthearted. You know, you put your passion into it, and your heart into it, but in the end we’re not making political decisions to change the world, we’re just making a record and hopefully uplift the world if we can.
The album title Hug of Thunder, what does it mean to you?
It felt appropriate it’s kind of funny, I don’t know there’s a physical quality to it. I imagine being out in the country where the thunder kind of wraps around you as a storms coming in. There’s something visceral about it but at the same time it’s cute because we’re a loving bunch of friends who hug each other whenever we meet. You know, we’re lovely Canadians that way, haha.
When Broken Social Scene started out in the early 2000s, would you ever have guessed the band would still be going 15 years later?
It’s hard to say. I’m sure we all had sorts of different visions of what we were going to be like. But I think not, I think for the most part when we started as a band we really were not imagining success. I really think that’s true. Because you see, the first bunch of shows we did we didn’t even have a name for the band and we’d play different songs every time. We just loved getting together and playing music together. We wrote, I think before we recorded [Hug of Thunder], we had like 70 songs.
Yeah, it’s because that’s what we did when we were together. But I feel like I never imagined a future for the band. And that was easier because then you’re not really working towards something, and instead we’re just trying to enjoy it as much as possible.
But of course, once we started touring and made plans, people began getting successful and having babies and then you have to grow up and become a band. I’m absolutely very happy with the way things turned out, I think it’s just very surprising. Even two years ago, it was kind of a given that we were not going to be making an unlimited amount of music. So, you know it’s kind of what you take on in the beginning when playing music. Not because it’s a great career choice but because you love music. That’s obviously still the case, I have to even more feelings like that. It was impossible to make a living in music then and even more difficult now, but somehow we’ve become successful this time. It’s really been, you know a certain amount of luck and love, hard work and all kinds of stuff. But if I imagine my 25-year-old self looking forward, I would be quite thrilled at the way things turned out.
As you mentioned, it’s a lot more difficult to make a living in music now, and if Broken Social Scene started up in 2017, do you think you would have enjoyed the same success?
It might be more difficult now but I don’t remember it ever being easy. I think so many bands are trying to be successful in the 90’s and there was so much, there was obviously different avenues but there was no way to get your music out to people. There was no internet, it was impossible in other areas like the use word of mouth was insane back then. So there was a certain amount of hopelessness then when starting a band as well. If you were going to be honest with yourself and I think if we were to start a band now… it would be kind of impossible question. Like some bands are still successful now and there are bands being successful in music now. They do it somehow, I still believe that there is some luck involved and certain, when you help each other out. And that’s kind of what Broken Social Scene was about. Everybody kind of supporting each other and really supportive with what music you played and supporting you and it wasn’t for anybody else or for some purpose to become successful. But it was about getting the people in the audience into your shows because you enjoy playing.
It wasn’t about you know, paying rent. You have to have something else to pay rent but, that brings up another point you know, it’s difficult to pay rent now. Even though it was crazy and expensive, but now it’s even crazier and more expensive.
Lyrically, what kind of themes did you focus on this time around?
We didn’t really have an intention at the beginning of what the music was going to be about. It’s not like we said “Hey let’s make a record about society” and comment on that. It was more like everybody wrote all these songs and collected all these notes and put it all together. Then you kind of look back at it and then try to figure out what your saying. What state of mind you’re in and you write to find what they’re thinking. You know, it’s like reading an author, you write to find out what they know something like that. It’s the same thing with music, you let it all come out and you kind of figure out what it’s about.
So, you tried to leave the songs open to interpretation as much as possible?
Yeah! I think there were some songs that didn’t resonate with us and didn’t make the final record. The last song “Mouth Guards of the Apocalypse” on the record. That was one, that really resonated with me. Recording, I liked the lyrics of it, I liked the music of it and everything about it. It really worked for me but it didn’t really work for everybody else in the band. So I had to, you know, get political and start campaigning that this was really good. Get more people involved in it, more people playing on the song and then maybe they’ll like it more. And at the end it’s earned its place and everybody likes it. But it’s a challenge trying to get similar opinions through the crowd essentially.
You know, I really like “Please Take Me With You”, it’s probably like one of my favorite tracks on the record. Just the lyrics and the melody, just everything really fits together really well.
Yeah, that was another one I had to fight for, some people didn’t like that…
Really! Wow, that’s a surprise.
Haha. But I don’t know, I don’t want to get too much into the interpersonal band stuff, but maybe it was hitting to close to home for some band members. It’s not that they didn’t like it but maybe it pressed upon something and too exposed perhaps.
So from your work with Do Make Say Think and from the last record with Broken Social Scene, has your creative process changed at all?
Yeah, it has changed. Me even trying to describe the process or even understand the process is tricky. Process by nature is a certain change like the approach is always similar but, new every time. At this stage, we’ll know very well we need to leave space for each other. In the early days, there’s a bit more arm wrestling for control sometimes. Not always, but sometimes if you have a vision of a song, it ruins the song. You really want the song to go a certain way. When it’s a community, it’s everybody and so you have to be able to lift your fingers off of the steering wheel sometimes and let the song be. We still argue and make passionate suggestions and things like that, about how to shape a song. But, we’re not trying to throw in every corner of ourselves, we’re leaving space for all the players, like we’ll record the bed tracks, guitar, then drums, and the two guitars and bass and drums. And then the impulses to start finding new melodies and keyboard lines and all this kind of stuff. But, at a certain point you really have to step back from yourself, because someone is going to be coming in next week and he’s going to have tons of ideas. So let’s leave some space for him and let him put something in there. Understanding how the calendar works when people are coming in, that’s how we write the songs. You leave certain space, don’t push it, and if you can get creative and you want to add something maybe start a new song. You know, two dozen half-finished songs that we made for this record as well, we might go back to or not. The idea is to keep the idea going but, not to…
Yeah, like you don’t want to smother the song…
Smother, yeah that’s the word.
You don’t want to smother, you want to have a bit of room to breathe so that everyone can input their own ideas.
Exactly, yes. Thank you.
In terms of your side-project, Do Make Say Think, you guys released your first new album since 2009 back in May. How did that album come about?
Well, we’ve been friends forever as well so we have kind of a similar kind of approach only it’s a smaller group. There’s really five of us, at least I think. And really three of us who do most of the composing, like the drummer’s come up with their parts and then myself and Justin Small who gets together and we really hammer out all the rest of the songs. We’ve just known each other for so long that we, we just know how to work together and we know how to pick our battles, it’s like cycles sometimes on who likes what, it is a similar way of making music with Broken Social Scene except it’s a smaller group. And we have less of a spectrum of options in a way. I guess we’re an instrumental band and we really focus on making a landscape of music rather than pop songs.
I really like the album artwork it’s very aquatic. Where did you source that or was it an original work?
It was a commission piece. We worked on the album and had a concept for that record, that, the idea behind that record was that each song was kind of a thought. And we reference this poem which is about a thought being like a crow leaving a ship and flying out over the ocean. And it has nowhere to land so the crow eventually has to come back to the boat which is kind of like your thoughts. You know, you can daydream all you want but, eventually you sort of have to come back to your mundane life. And then you can daydream about something else completely unrelated. But, at the same time you have these different emotions which work their way into your different daydreams. So we worked that in through musical themes and motifs which would recur from song to song. So we called up a friend in Nova Scotia who is an artist and in the call described the story and contrast to her. Then she got back with a handful of different sort of sketches and we really liked them all. Picked our favorite and worked with her on that. She would send rough versions and say ‘this is great, can you flip it around so that the left is the right’.