June 17, 2009
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Music biographies either focus exclusively on gossip or are too filled with adulation to hold my attention. Stuart Berman's This Book Is Broken: A Broken Social Scene Story is happily neither. Constructed through extensive research and interviews with all 18 members of the band, Berman presents a truly intimate portrait of Broken Social Scene through not only the text but also never before published photographs.
Broken Social Scene were arguably one of the first indie-rock bands who were made by the internet, breaking out of an unforgiving Canadian cultural landscape through a combination of Pitchfork praise and a filesharing-savvy fanbase. But in my oral-history account of the band's formation, This Book Is Broken: A Broken Social Scene Story, the various band members are quick to credit the unsung Toronto indie heroes who helped blaze the trail for them back in the late '80s and '90s, many of whom were stonewalled at the border in search of US success or were left to die on the major-label vine. So for this Book Notes playlist, I wanted to chart those long-forgotten or never-remembered Toronto artists whose histories mostly predate any kind of formal internet documentation, and who facilitated my own entry into Toronto indie-rock culture, eventually leading me to a front-row seat for the formation of Broken Social Scene.
Or, as most people know it, the opening theme to The Kids in the Hall. "Having an Average Weekend" wasn't just the opening theme to my favourite TV show, it was the opening theme to my future life. Hearing it overtop those black-and-white images of the Kids running around downtown Toronto like it was their own private playground, the song opened my 13-year-old eyes to the concept of a downtown art/music scene. The Rivoli — the Queen Street club that hosted early gigs by the Kids, and musical peers like Blue Rodeo and the Cowboy Junkies — became a mythical destination for me, and as such, would be the first club I tried to get into with a fake ID.
Change of Heart, "Pat's Decline" (1989)
It's a law: if you have even a passing affection for Toronto indie-rock, you have to give it up for Change of Heart. They were the band that earned the respect of everyone — the Barenaked Ladies wore their t-shirts, the Tragically Hip took them on tour, but they were noisy and weird enough to keep the punks and indie-rockers on side. They were a bit of an enigma to me — I'd see their name in the weeklies, but I was still too young and timid to go to shows downtown, so my first exposure came via this uncharacteristically tender single, which received occasional play on MuchMusic back when the station actually played videos by local indie artists. On top of producing practically every Canadian indie-rock album released in the past 15 years, frontman Ian Blurton has since grown his hair out and sprouted a massive beard and formed a boogie-metal band called C'Mon with his lady (who used to play in Nashville Pussy), but I'll always think of him as the singer of Toronto's first great indie-rock ballad.
Phleg Camp, "Rockets Red Glare"
Toronto is blessed with three campus radio stations — CIUT, CKLN and CHRY — and when I started tuning into them regularly around 1991-92, Phleg Camp were the band on every overnight DJ's lips. While they came of out a suburban Thornhill scene that would spawn future Toronto indie-pop favorites like Hayden and By Divine Right, Phleg Camp were much closer in spirit to the noise-rock miscreants infesting Chicago's Touch & Go Records roster (The Jesus Lizard, Slint). Alas, I never got the see them live; the band imploded in '92 before I was legally able to do so, leaving behind one imcomparable album (Ya'red Fair Scratch) and some grainy YouTube performance footage. But their three members are still very active in the Toronto music scene, albeit in the unlikeliest of ways: guitarist Eric Chenaux makes beautiful avant-folk albums for Constellation Records; bassist Sean Dean plays in roots-rock road warriors The Sadies; and drummer Gavin Brown is a sought-after big-budget producer who's helmed records for Billy Talent, Three Days Grace and Metric.
Hayden, "Take" (1992)
Paul Hayden Desser is my second cousin. I'd only see him about once or twice a year, usually at our annual family Rosh Hashana dinners, after which we would go into the basement and he would show me the projects he was working on for his film program at Ryerson University. Among these were videos for his friends' band hHead (which featured future Broken Social Scene bassist Brendan Canning), as a well as a stark black and white short film of a man furiously cleaving a piece of meat. "Take" was the accompanying song — it was written by Paul but sung by Noah Mintz of hHead. Paul gave me a cassette demo of some other songs he was working on. Admittedly, I only listened to it once — it was mostly acoustic, and at that point all I wanted to hear was Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr. The next time I would encounter "Take" was about a year later on local alt-rock station CFNY, whose heavy rotation of Hayden's music would help make his album, Everything I Long For, one of the top selling Canadian indie-rock albums of the decade. My relation to Hayden would impress the ladies for many years to come.
Sloan, "500 Up" (1992)
Technically, Sloan wouldn't become a Toronto band till around 1996, at which point all four members of the Halifax power-pop heroes had relocated here. But as the first Canadian band to join Sonic Youth and Nirvana on the DGC roster, we desperately wanted to claim them as our own, and they had certainly spent enough time hanging out around Rotate This and the MuchMusic studios to qualify as locals. With that close-up shot of all four members' Chuck Taylors, the video for "500 Up" was the first time I had ever seen anyone on TV wearing the same shoes as me.
Treble Charger, "Red" (1995)
The flagship act of Hamilton, Ontario indie-rock imprint Sonic Unyon, Treble Charger were a typical fuzz-pop band in the Dinosaur Jr./Teenage Fanclub vein who peaked with this lighter-waving slow-dance candidate, which saw singer Bill Priddle reinforcing the Neil Young/grunge connection that music critics loved to talk about back then. Despite penning their most enduring song, Priddle's presence in the band was gradually overshadowed by songwriting partner Greig Nori, who by 2000 was managing Sum 41 and effectively reshaping Treble Charger to fit a similar post-punk mold. As a form of escape, Priddle would sit in on improvised post-rock jams with the likes of Kevin Drew, Brendan Canning and Charles Spearin in the earliest incarnations of Broken Social Scene.
King Cobb Steelie, "Triple Oceanic Experience" (1994)
If nostalgia works in 20 year cycles, then King Cobb Steelie were either 10 years too early or 10 years too late. Their polyrhythmic post-punk had clear antecedent in early-'80s innovators like Liquid Liquid and Pigbag, and it anticipated the early-2000s punk-funk insurgence of bands like !!! and The Rapture. But coming out of the nearby town of Guelph, Ontario in the early '90s, they had to settle for just being one of the best live bands working the college circuit. Their emergence coincided with my newly acquired ability to attend club shows legally, and they were the first local band I followed with Deadhead-like devotion. Like many of their peers, they would eventually sign a major-label deal that would halt their momentum, but I credit them with broadening my perception of what indie-rock can be, deemphasizing noise and distortion in favour of texture and rhythm.
By Divine Right, "Double Album" (1997)
Like Change of Heart, Jose Contreras' power trio were Toronto-scene mainstays who had a reputation for going through bassists like Spinal Tap went through drummers, but in 1997, their bottom end was greatly fortified with the arrival of ex-hHead bassist Brendan Canning. That year, the band released their anthem-stacked album All Hail Discordia, which got picked up for distribution by Nettwerk Records and struck a major chord with a young guitarist named Leslie Feist, who subsequently joined the band. After basking in the irresistible "na na na" chorus of "Double Album," hell, I wanted to join the band too.
Danko Jones, "Sugar Chocolate" (1997)
While most indie-rockers in the mid-'90s wore band t-shirts and ripped jeans, Danko Jones — a former roommate of Brendan Canning's — wore suits. While most bands sported wool toques, Danko wore fedoras. And while most lackadaisically strummed through their sets staring at their shoes, Danko and his eponymous trio unleashed his sweat-soaked, jugular-bulging blues-punk with an eye on your girlfriend. Over just a few short months in 1996-97, Danko Jones' performances had achieved such mythic status that MuchMusic's national news program, The New Music, did a profile on him without even being granted an interview by the man. But while Danko Jones had made inroads in the US garage-punk scene — sharing bills with the likes of the Make-Up and New Bomb Turks — in Toronto, they had reached a state of purgatory: too flamboyant for the indie-rock set, too raw to be major-label property. (Fun fact: Danko Jones are the only band that has toured with both Blonde Redhead and Nickelback.) So they did what any rational thinking but underappreciated Canadian indie artist would've done at the time: they went about becoming rock stars in Sweden instead.
Do Make Say Think, "Disco + Haze" (1998)
From 1995-97, my two favourite bands were Tortoise and Spiritualized, and in Do Make Say Think, I had found a Toronto band that could hit the stoner-rock sweet spot between the two of them. The quiet-to-loud psychedelic wash of "Disco + Haze" now sounds almost remedial compared to the dense, rhythmically intricate instrumentals the Do Makes would fashion on later albums, but whenever guitarist Justin Small played the riff onstage he would smile, and to this day I can't help but smile too when I hear it. When I went to buy the Do Makes' debut album at Rotate This, Pierre (the store's co-owner) suggested that if I liked this, then I should really check out Do Makes bassist Charles Spearin's side project, which was called…
K.C. Accidental, "Kev's Message for Charlie" (1998)
…which I actually didn't buy at the time, because I was low on cash. A year later, I had moved into an apartment with my friend Judy, who happened to be Brendan Canning's best mate. Brendan would call our apartment quite often and, on occasion, would play us pieces of music he was working on into our voicemail. He would also talk a lot about this kid Kevin Drew he was starting to hang out with. Through Brendan, I would meet Kevin, but it was only in our fourth or fifth conversation that I realized he was the "K" in the K.C. Accidental equation, at which point I tracked down K.C.'s album, Captured Anthems for an Empty Baththub. "Kev's Message for Charlie" begins as just that: a voicemail in which Kevin lays down a melancholic keyboard melody over the phone, before a crisp guitar line and slumberous drum track are layered over top — a tack that, in retrospect, feels symbolic of indie-rock's pre-millennial aesthetic shift away from lo-fi toward the epic. The principals involved would, of course, go on to make more elaborate, everlasting music together in Broken Social Scene, but this song will always evoke that moment of new relationships forming, and of creative idea exchange in the pre-YouSendIt era.
Stuart Berman and This Book is Broken: A Broken Social Scene Story links:
Calgary Herald interview with the author
CBC Radio 3 interview with the author
Eye Weekly interview with the author
National Post Broken Social Scene setlist by the author
National Post profile of the author
YouTube interview with the author
also at Largehearted Boy: