Live: In Conversation – Brendan Canning: Part II

Brendan Canning

Artist, musician and composer 

#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 Euro Cup.

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.

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Part II of II

In part II (below), 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.

Miss Part I? Find it here.

The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity. 

Marc Brown: So Broken Social Scene starts late ‘90s, do you think you, as a band, could do the same thing now? Knowing what the loose framework is now. I think it feels very difficult to get things done.

Brendan Canning: If you’re putting out quality music I think anything’s possible. The first time I saw King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard was at a 500/600 cap club but the next time I saw them, they were doing two nights at a 1200 cap club in a different city. It works for bands like that. I don’t know what their record sales are like- some artists are maybe more ‘licenseable’…

Marc Brown: Tell me about the film thing- I forgot about that. You do some soundtrack stuff on the side now right? But how did that come on the radar with Broken Social Scene?

Brendan Canning: Kevin was talking to the Canadian director Bruce McDonald a lot. Kevin demoed something for a film which became a debacle, but then that led us to working on Bruce’s next film which starred Phil Collins’ daughter Joely called ‘The Love Crimes of Gillian Guess’. After that we did a film called ‘Snow Cake’- I think we got that because the actress Emily Hampshire really liked ‘Anthems For A Seventeen Year Old Girl’. 

We went to the UK to work on this film soundtrack but the night before that, I got this VHS tape of ‘Half Nelson’ done by our friends Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden in Brooklyn. That was our next film project. It was already scored defacto as they’d used so many of our songs in the film soundtrack- when Ryan is in the bathroom smoking crack after the basketball game, one of our songs acts as the score. The song was written with score in mind so it was kinda like ‘hey here is this score we wrote four years ago’.

Marc Brown: Did you all know that your music would lend itself to being used in that way? Or was it like, ‘we like film and want to work in that medium’?

Brendan Canning: Kevin is a big film guy- he wants to make his own films. I’ve executive produced a film, I don’t want anything to do with it. I’m great at cameos! I could cameo for ya. Kev was really into long drawn out things with the idea that it’s going to be for a film score. With him and I working in that way, it was just a natural avenue for me to go down because we like so much similar music. I like long, languid pieces that don’t necessarily move too much, but give you a certain feeling. It’s just one of those things. You make music because it sounds good to your ears- it’s just an honest thing.

Marc Brown: Back then, were a lot of people doing film music? Someone in the chat asks: ‘what’s the key in the modern age to get noticed?’ A lot of people are talking about Synch right? Synch in ads… 25 years ago it would be suicide to do an ad but so much has changed now.

Brendan Canning: I think Volkswagen changed the game back in the ‘90s. Stereolab were in an ad! You wouldn’t necessarily hear music that you liked- you’d definitely hear Bob Seger ‘Like A Rock’, but as far as music and commercials… yeah there was a certain amount of ‘ahh you’ve sold out’ kind of attitude. 

Even Hhead had a chance to be in an American Express ad in 1993. It was only gonna pay us $1000 each which would’ve been fine… but there would’ve been a close up of the band and I just remember saying, ‘we don’t want to look stupid’. I guess I was being a little smug but it just seemed like, ‘What? Are we going to appear in an American Express ad’? That goes back to Soul Asylum going on tour and being sponsored by Mastercard. 

Marc Brown: All this film stuff, it seems like a big legitimate way in, that didn’t exist before? You probably don’t make as much money to get in an ad but it’s a vehicle for starting?

Brendan Canning: Yeah I’d say whatever way you can get in, take it. We recently appeared in a Netflix show and two people so far have said ‘hey, we saw Broken Social Scene in this show’; but I don’t think i’ll get a third phone call because there’s so much media out there. I sang on a Molson Canadian ad but no-one ever said anything. You can slip through the cracks so easily. 

It seems to me next to impossible these days.

Marc Brown: To get going?

Brendan Canning: Yeah. I think the thing with us was there were 15/16 people all pushing that little rock up the hill, some people on the label side too, and then maybe you’ve got 20 people- you need an army. Unless you’ve written the best songs in the world.

I sacrificed everything. If you want to sacrifice everything in your life and put everything on the line- do whatever it takes. Then maybe you have a chance.

Marc Brown: What do you mean by that?

Brendan Canning: I only thought about one thing, and that was a career in music. I also had the benefit of living at home for a long time, doing a lot of couch surfing and not spending a lot of money. 

It was also the 90’s where you could get work on music videos which had big budgets. I’ve worked on videos with a $20,000 or $500,000 budget but the fact is, it was a job where I didn’t have to do Monday to Friday. I could do 10 days a month and cruise that way. I stumbled into a bit of jingle writing as well via my Cookie Duster project.

Marc Brown: How do you ‘stumble’ into a little jingle work?

Brendan Canning: Well, I released an album with this project Cookie Duster which had a few people who liked it. This one woman called Elle who’s been a friend for a long time said ‘hey, can you edit this 8 second piece and make it a 30 second piece’? So we did that. Then I just said it would be way easier if I wrote an original piece because I really don’t like editing and I could come up with this in no time flat. 

All of a sudden, one summer, I’ve got a job for me and my partner Bernard Maiezza [Cookie Duster] from Corus Entertainment. It takes you a couple of hours, you make $2500 and it all stemmed from not wanting to work on videos anymore, Broken Social Scene taking off, i’m djing on the side and i’ve also got this jungle hussle- i’ve got my fingers in four different pies. You’ve got to be nimble. 

The Jingle world has changed quite significantly. I’ve been very fortunate, but again… I’ve dedicated my life to any way I can make it work. 

Marc Brown: This might be an obvious question but, do you think it was not equally hard back then? Before, even releasing a record was difficult… there’s more competition, there’s more media like you’re saying. But back then, who the hell knew how to do anything? There were very few places to get noticed.

Brendan Canning: Yeah… but, I did mention earlier that I had a radio programmer at the local alternative radio station who’d take my phone calls, and pick me a single. It didn’t seem that hard because it was just like, make a cassette, get your first interview on (college radio) CIUT, try to get some local gigs… 

Marc Brown: I did radio promotion for years. I think what’s fascinating is that people think they need a middle man to get them these things. People forget that people naturally like to have a relationship with musicians and people who make music. Certainly early on, having someone do everything for you, in a lot of ways is very counterproductive. It’s better for everyone to do it themselves.

Brendan Canning: Just so you get an understanding of what goes into what you’re trying to do. You’ve just got to be so persistent. You can’t get knocked for not getting results within your first month, or first year. It depends on how bent you are on getting to whatever you’re trying to get to.

Marc Brown: I wonder this myself, do you have to just wait until the time is right?

Brendan Canning: Timing is everything- I’m pretty sure I’m not the first person to say that. Even then, you could feel when you’re ‘in’ something; and if you’re being honest with yourself, you’ve got to find ways of going up, or in a different direction. I mean fuck, I thought I was going to be a deep house DJ at one point. Doing that was also really helpful as it taught me about tempo, and pace and drums. All of a sudden I’m listening to music in a totally different way. 

Marc Brown: When was the last time Broken Social Scene made a record?

Brendan Canning: We had these EPs which were sort of left-overs from ‘Hug & Thunder’. That was recorded on the Howard Bilerman bus and then we finished recording at Revolution Recording here in Toronto.

Marc Brown: When you look at other projects- how old is Broken Social Scene now is it 15?

Brendan Canning: No, we’re 20!

Marc Brown: Wow okay. So when you look around now, if you were a new band, do you know what you’d do to get it going?

Brendan Canning: Because it’s a very unique experience I’ve been through, I don’t know. It wouldn’t be the same but I like the ability to be inclusive for other people. If you look at say- a Joni Mitchell record from the ‘70s, different people are coming in and playing those albums. There’s a lot of people on a lot of records- no one’s calling their albums collectives. 

There was no Spotify, but I don’t know if that’s necessarily a good or bad thing. I don’t subscribe to it because I’m quite happy listening to my local college radio station and I like a variety of programmes.

Marc Brown: Did you go everywhere you wanted to go? 

Brendan Canning: I’ve definitely travelled the globe. Didn’t get to go to Iceland, but other than that I saw lots of places where our albums were sold. We could sell close to 2000 tickets in Singapore, another 1500 in Taipei…

Marc Brown: Wow really?

Brendan Canning: Yeah Taipei was great for us- we had a label there called White Rabbit which was a record store / label. Singapore had a jazz festival… you’re playing the Massey Hall in Singapore and people are flying in from Kuala Lumpur to come see you play. We’ve been very fortunate. The music travelled without Spotify. 

Marc Brown: That’s the key point. There’s always such a dim view of where music was previously, but I think it’s fascinating that things still travelled without the internet. 

Brendan Canning: As long as there’s a scene, people will travel. 

Marc Brown:  Well, I think we should stop there, because I think that’s a great point. 

Well, look, thanks a lot. Have you missed your game? 

Brendan Canning: Oh, no, it’s on in the background. I can hear it. 

Marc Brown:  Maybe we should let you go. Thanks a lot. I really appreciate it, and sorry for taking up your time during football.

Brendan Canning: Yea, OK, Bye.