Live: In Conversation – Brendan Canning: Part I

Brendan Canning

Artist, musician and composer 

Every month Byta’s founder, Marc Brown, sits down for an in-depth one-to-one Zoom conversation with someone who provides deep music industry insights and tips. 

#HowWeListen Live: In Conversation is designed to deliver the knowledge to enable tomorrow’s artists and industry leaders to better manoeuvre their way through the music ecosystem. 

This episode’s guest was artist, musician and composer Brendan Canning. Perhaps best known as the co-founder of the Toronto supergroup Broken Social Scene.  Marc and Brendan talk about creativity, the fickle nature of the music business and how to ensure there is always a next ‘gig’ on the horizon.

Riding The Rock & Roll Rollercoaster

#HowWeListen Live: In Conversation with Brendan Canning was held virtually on June 29th, 2021 and presented in partnership with Calgary’s Sled Island Music & Arts Festival, and Broken Social Scene’s record label, Arts & Crafts Productions

Brendan joined us from his apartment in Toronto during the UEFA Euros 2020 (in 2021). 

The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Part I of II

In part I (below), Brendan talks about his early years of hustling his music, his strategy back in the 90s grunge era, was there a formula, and how Broken Social Scene came together and found great success.

The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Marc Brown: Everybody, I want to introduce you to Maud from Sled Island who’s one of our two partners for today; our other partner is Broken Social Scene’s label Arts & Crafts in Toronto.

Maud, can you explain to everyone what Sled Island is? Where you are, and what do you do?

Maud: Sled Island is a music and arts festival that takes place on the third weekend of June every year since 2007- in Calgary, Canada, which is where I am today. 

Because of COVID, we obviously can’t at the moment do what we usually do, so we started talking with artists (local, national and international) during this pandemic and we’ve come up with ways for them to still get involved with Sled. Visit our website to see what we have been working on and our future plans: Sled Island

Marc Brown: OK, the other thing I think we should talk about- are you ready for this segway Brendan?

Brendan Canning: I’m ready!

Marc Brown: One of the unique things about Sled Island is that they have a curator every year. Years ago it was Spiral from Pavement, Brendan did you not play that year?

Brendan Canning: 2008, I definitely played Sled Island.

Marc Brown: But which band?

Brendan Canning: Well it was Broken Social Scene but also with Human Milk- a one night only event that took place at the Legion Hall there. I think we played a 2 am set after The Dodos.

Marc Brown: Who was in Human Milk?

Brendan Canning: That night, I think it was Kevin [Drew], Justin [Peroff], Scott Kannberg of Pavement, Darius Minwalla rest-in-peace-

Marc Brown: – of The Posies.

Brendan Canning: Yeah. Darius of The Posies and Human Milk. As far as a ‘one-night-only’ band it was very fun. 

Marc Brown: Well Brendan, first off, sorry for making you do this whilst watching football. (Interview recorded during the Euro Cup)

Brendan Canning: That’s okay! Music first.

Marc Brown: Well some people would say football first- I have friends who’d give up music for football.

Brendan Canning: Yeah… I go back and forth.

Marc Brown: I thought the reason it would be fun to talk to you is that you’ve been in tonnes of bands, and I want to figure out how you ended up where you are now. Do you think it’s possible to have a formula?

Brendan Canning: I mean, in the early days I had a formula.

Marc Brown: So when were the early days?

Brendan Canning: My first band in 1991 – which was Hhead. We were on our own label and then we won a bunch of money from the local record station and signed a not-so-hot record deal with IRS Records; we didn’t make a record that was good enough to go anywhere else I suppose.

It was a very simple formula – book local gigs, put posters up, get your glue bucket out, try and get the recording done – get your cassettes stamped, pick up (Toronto’s)  ‘Now Magazine’ every Thursday, bug (promoter) Elliott Lefko to get on the opening bill for this gig, and that gig.

Marc Brown: And this was Toronto based?

Brendan Canning: Yeah this was a Toronto based formula. I’m not thinking of anything globally, you’ve got to conquer locally before you can globally.

Marc Brown: Was that on purpose or did you not know anything existed outside of Toronto?

Brendan Canning: No, I think it just made sense. Yeah, it’s basic, you’ve got to open for the cool bands and build your own following. Then you build your own following and all of a sudden you enter a radio station contest… it was back when you could get independent music without a radio plugger on the radio. 

Marc Brown: I thought it would’ve been worse back then?

Brendan Canning:  No, there was a music director at CFNY called John Jones. He would take calls and I’d say I think this could be a single and he’d say “Nah, I think we’ll go with this one”; he’d pick the single. 

Marc Brown: So what happened with Hhead- it just fizzled out?

Brendan Canning: Yeah eventually. We made one independent album. I could equate the ‘Grunge Rock’ era to the ‘BitCoin era’ you know; there was money to be made and it’s insane you could make money with being not that talented; but because you looked a certain way, you wore enough flannel or long underwear under your army shorts, it was possible.

Marc Brown: From your first band… and then Spooky Rubin, and By Divine Right– were they your band?

Brendan Canning: No,  By Divine Right, that was José Contreras’ band.

Marc Brown: So why didn’t you start a new band yourself?

Brendan Canning: Well with Spooky I was still in Hhead at the time so I could do both. Then I accidentally ended up in Len as well…

Marc Brown: Explain Len to people who don’t know who they are.

Brendan Canning: Len is the band who wrote the song: ‘Steal My Sunshine’- if you’re in North America you can hear it in Tropicana ads currently… it’s the biggest song of my career if you’re gonna gauge it in those terms. That was accidental, you know. We had me, Marc Constanzo from Len, Greig Nori from Treble Charger. 

With indie rock, I had to put in the “real work” where you become a better player and really think about your songs. I thought I could help  By Divine Right because they needed help but José didn’t seem that open to outsiders. When it came time to make the new record it was like “here are the demos” which is not how I work; I definitely had a lot more to give, I had my sights set much higher than being a sideman in a band that doesn’t sell that many records.

It was a very brief period, Hhead ended in ‘97 but then by ‘99, Broken Social Scene had started. I also had this other thing, Cookie Duster, which has kept going for years as well. 

Marc Brown: Okay, so I thought Hhead was way earlier. Explain the Broken Social Scene stuff- I don’t even know how it started?

Brendan Canning: I had just heard of the Kevin Drew and Charles Spearin project called KC Accidental and I remember thinking ‘this is my vibe’. I could slide into this and I think I could make this work so I called Kevin up a few times. When Do Make Say Think– that was Charles’ band went on tour he left behind his Tascam 8 track, reel-to-reel tape machine and Kevin and I recorded the album ‘Feel Good Lost’. 

Marc Brown: That’s the record before the record everyone knows quite well, right?

Brendan Canning: Yeah, that was kinda like the blueprint- getting to know each other musically.

Marc Brown: Did you have someone to release it?

Brendan Canning: Kevin was involved with this label called Noise Factory so we released it originally with them. This guy Joe English. We built a band, and then a band that would change into a different version of the band and then when we rehearsed it was a different version of the band again. The fluidity of members coming in and out became a collection of writers. It’s kinda like what some artists do- they do these “songwriter camps” together. I think the thing about our songwriter camps was that we were all like-minded people, all in the same boat, relatively.

Marc Brown: Isn’t that just the dumbest idea ever to start a band with so many people?

Brendan Canning: I would never recommend it. When it comes to touring it’s crazy.

Marc Brown: Tour support… how the hell did you do it?

Brendan Canning: Well in the early days we did tours with Stars or Metric or Feist. You tour with these bands who are the support act but they also comprise Broken Social Scene so you bump up the numbers. When people say “woahhh how many people are in your band,” we say ‘I don’t know… did you do a headcount tonight’? That’s how many there are. 

Marc Brown: Does that work still?

Brendan Canning: It works because that’s just what it was. You get people calling us a “Canadian Supergroup” and it’s like… are we a supergroup or is it just a group? I’ll take it. 

Marc Brown: Did any of you think it was a good angle- or was it more just like, musically this works? 

Brendan Canning: I was very happy with Feel Good Lost, I think it’s a good record. Then with ‘You Forgot It In People’, which was sorta like ‘okay, we’re going for it. These are Pop songs’. We were very focused on just making sure that album was pound-for-pound as good as we could make it. You’re not even thinking ‘how can we sell this’ at that point. 

Marc Brown: Who released that?

Brendan Canning: That originally came out on a label called Paper Bag Records and then moved over to ‘Arts & Crafts’.

Marc Brown: Did it go well from the start?

Brendan Canning: Yeah, relatively. It was getting some good reviews- even though they were reviews from friends. Stuart Berman was one. Pitchfork came along and then we were travelling to SXSW and the US for the first time, showcasing for Rough Trade Records at Northsix in Brooklyn. It just didn’t stop at that point.

Marc Brown: Again comparing it to the other stuff you’d done, what do you think was different?

Brendan Canning: It sounded more like music than anything else prior. Which is ultimately what you’re going for. We had lots of talented people in our ranks- whether it was horns, guitar, drums… everyone is quite talented. 

Marc Brown: Who did you have working with you? Did you have a manager?

Brendan Canning: I had known Jeff Remedios from when Hhead were on IRS as they were distributed by Virgin Records in Canada. He was interning and I had my eye on him early on- maybe around ‘96. It was him and Tyson Parker. We became pals and he worked his way up in the ranks at Virgin, I introduced him to Kevin and then everything with Arts & Crafts was getting built quite fast. As long as you’re answering the phone calls and the offers are coming in… Heidi Krohnert who worked with Jeff did a lot of the ‘real work’.

Marc Brown: How many years did it go like that? Was it make a record and then tour non-stop?

Brendan Canning: You’re touring America, and blowing up in America, but you want to get to Europe. It’s starting to catch a bit of heat in Europe but not in the same way as in North America; but, we’re getting good offers, building a fanbase in the UK and some parts of Germany, and touring a great festival in Sweden in 2004. It was Wilco, Broken Social Scene, Modest Mouse, The Shins, The Hives… 

Marc Brown: Was that Way Out West?

Brendan Canning: No, ACCelerate

Our producer for the first two albums Dave Neufeld would fill in a lot of the blanks. We would go away and record some stuff and then he would play a bunch of shit. To try and make a sophomore record without taking a break- we were also getting into film soundtracks at that time too, and it gets hard to keep track of everything. 

Marc Brown: You used the word ‘we’re getting good offers’. Does that mean you would’ve tracked how you thought things were going based on the offers of gigs and tours? 

Brendan Canning: Yeah. I didn’t come up during this era of ‘how much is your song streaming’. It doesn’t necessarily translate into anything. I can only gauge from what I know- are you getting offers, are the festivals still giving you offers… How big is your name in print on the poster? 

Want to keep reading? Head to part II here!

In part II, Marc and Brendan talk about Brendan’s many side hustles, even when Broken Social Scene was a going concern he was busy with other things. They also discuss how Brendan got into composing music for films and what Brendan might do if he was starting again out today.