Broken Social Scene’s ‘Hug of Thunder’ brings 18 artists together for sonic harmony

“Vinyl came back because there’s a quality to it that’s really satisfying. People are listening to more records because something’s missing from the endless catalog of MP3s.”

I happen to think Broken Social Scene has one of the most ironic names in modern rock. If anything, the perennially supercool Canadian collective is a harmonious family that reconvenes every few years to make beautiful music together — and the more of them who join in on the process, the merrier.

Take the band’s first new album in seven years: the oh-so-aptly named Hug of Thunder, out now on Arts & Crafts in various formats. No fewer than 18 players — including mainstays Kevin Drew and Brendan Canning, along with alt-rock icon Leslie Feist, who last performed on a BSS record more than a decade ago — contributed to Hug’s rich sonic tapestry. This fact not lost on BSS multi-instrumentalist Charles Spearin.

“As a band, we’re used to leaving space for other musicians,” Spearin told Digital Trends. “When we’re writing a song, we try not to crowd it with our own ideas. We keep it in the back of our minds where we say, ‘OK, [trombonist and occasional guitarist] Evan Cranley is going to come in and record on this one, so we need to leave some space in there so he can pour his own ideas into it.’”

That said, the BSS creative team has to be mindful of coming up with too many parts for too many cooks, so to speak. “Often, we end up having too many ideas, even when we’re holding back,” Spearin admitted. “We’re piling more and more ideas into the songs, and then we have to go in and selectively remove certain things to make more space. It’s like gardening, in a way. You have to start pulling it back a little bit.”

Digital Trends called Spearin in his native Canada not long before BSS headed out on tour to discuss how having many instrumental options around you in the studio leads to inspiration, how Feist got the honor of naming the album, and why format shifts always breed nostalgia.

Digital Trends: I like how you used the phrase “leaving space” to refer to the sound of BSS mixes, many of which you helped engineer for this album. A good example is the vocal blend on a song like Victim Lover, where it makes me feel like I’m right there with you all in the studio while it was being recorded.

Charles Spearin: I have to remember that song title, because we had working titles for the songs while we were working on them, and then we had to come up with proper titles at the end of it (laughs). So Victim Lover is the one with Amy [Millan] and Kevin [Drew] singing together, right?

Yeah, that’s the one.

Well, it is a bit of a challenge to get to all of the ideas into songs like that. The biggest problem we have is having too many ideas — which I think is a nice problem to have.

Yeah, I agree. I have to ask you about something in the credits for the title track. Not only do you play electric guitar on Hug of Thunder, you’re also listed as playing “air spray percussion.” Uh, what is that, exactly?

I guess I have to read the credits myself! The air spray thing (makes spraying noise) — it’s something that actually sounded like an ’80s drum-machine snare-drum sound, so we had to record it.

Gotcha. Is it instinct for you in terms of what instrument you’ll play for any given song? Do you get a vibe like, “OK, I’m going to pick up the nyckelharpa for this one”?

It is instinct, but it’s also a sense of exploration. The nyckelharpa [used on Mouth Guards of the Apocalypse] is a Swedish instrument I’d never heard of before. It’s kind of like a hurdy gurdy, but it doesn’t have a crank. You bow it like a violin and it has buttons that you play, so it’s almost like a violin with frets.

It also has all these “sympathetic” strings. It has 16 strings and you only play four of them, and all the other ones resonate underneath. If you whack it in the right way, you can create a dulcimer kind of sound.

So that wasn’t as much, “Hey, let’s put a nyckelharpa on here” as it was, “Hey, what does this thing sound like?” And then you set up a microphone, go nuts on it, find the best moments, and keep them.

You also have a number of different people singing harmonies together on each track. Do you feel you have to manage a certain vocal balance as you’re working through the mixes?

Yeah, we do. We take care to make sure everyone gets represented properly. Sometimes we’ll be in the studio where people have more and more ideas for harmonies, and we’ll have to put on the brakes and say, “OK, wait; we need to leave more space for her.” We really do take great care to make sure everybody is represented on the album, and nobody feels too left out.

I think I’ve actually lost track of how many instruments you play on this album.

“The biggest problem we have is having too many ideas — which I think is a nice problem to have.”

Just to be in the studio and have lots of instruments around is kind of the idea — to allow inspiration to hit you. Sometimes you’re working on a song and somebody will be noodling on an instrument in another room, and then they’ll wander in. So Brendan [Canning] will come in and say, “Hey, I’ve got this guitar part,” because he happened to have an acoustic guitar with him. That’s the way it works.

We’ll record the skeleton of the song at my garage rehearsal space [near Toronto], and then we’ll go in the studio and record the bed tracks. And we’re fully aware things are going to change completely — things are going to get added, and things are going to get taken away. But it’s great just to have this open-minded attitude where anybody can come up with an idea, use a new instrument, and sprinkle it into the stew, so to speak.

How do you know when a track is done? Is that the hardest part of the process to decide — to know when you’ve got it nailed?

It is the hardest part, absolutely, because you can keep working on things forever! Basically, a track is done when we run out of time (both laugh). Sometimes, we set arbitrary deadlines for ourselves to encourage that, but then we break them. Basically, you just have to trust yourself and say, “OK, this is it. This is done.”

What ended up happening with us this time is we had between 40 and 50 songs that could have been finished for the album. The ones that brought the most enthusiasm out of the group were the ones we kept working on.

Is there one track out of the 12 songs that made the final cut on Hug of Thunder that surprised you to the point of, “Wow, this one actually came together faster than we expected”?

Protest Song was like that. Kevin and Emily [Haines] got together and wrote the basics for the song, and then we came into my rehearsal space, and we rewrote it. We had it in the same key and same tempo as another song we almost had finished, so we ended up blending the two songs together.

And since we liked it as a rock song, we decided not to do any ridiculous overdubs. It’s essentially guitar, bass, drums, and vocals. It felt great playing it as a five-piece, so we restrained ourselves to keep it as simple as it is. The song is really successful as it is. It doesn’t need anything else.

Protest Song has a wide stereo soundfield, with the guitar tracks panned far out on each side.

Yeah, there’s a nice interplay between my guitar and Kevin’s guitar with those hard-pans. Your attention can bounce back and forth between them, and then there’s the vocals right there. If we had any more instruments on it, we would have lost that ping-ponging effect.

Agreed. To me, sequencing is still a key thing when listening to albums in the order they’re presented to me. And I feel these 12 songs are presented in a very specific order to the listener.

“I still think of creating an album in a certain arc, with a beginning, a middle, and an end.”

Yep! That’s another one of the big discussions we have — picking the songs, and picking the order. There were six other songs we had finished. They may have been great songs, but they didn’t fit in with the over-arc of the album.

In this band, when we’re making music, we always think, “albums.” And I still think instinctively of creating an album in a certain arc, with a beginning, a middle, and an end. Obviously, people don’t listen to albums from beginning to end like they used to, but there’s something built into us that we have to sculpt it that way.

Perhaps the new generation that’s getting into vinyl is learning how to listen to albums in order, because they also have to physically interact with the medium differently too. Is vinyl still important to you?

Oh yeah, I love listening to records on vinyl. You put it on and then you walk away from it, and it kind of sets the mood. And I still think each side should have a certain mood to it as well.

I think vinyl is coming back because there’s a quality to it that’s really satisfying, you know? People are listening to more records because something’s missing from the endless catalog of MP3s. And I tend to hear a lot of the weird aliasing in the top end of the MP3s. It’s distracting for me, sometimes.

Broken Social Scene silhouettes on stage
Debbie Hickey/Getty Images

I remember I used to get annoyed by the crackling and pops on records, and then I got annoyed by the hiss on cassette players. Every medium is going to have its pitfalls and acoustic failings, like skipping CDs. Part of it becomes endearing after time. Now, I love the sound of record crackles, and tape hiss seems to warm up a mix for me!

Isn’t that something? If you grew up listening to a record that had a skip on it, you still hear it that way, no matter how you listen to it now.

(chuckles) Yes! I still remember on my copy of [internal-link post_id="1188450"]The Beatles’[/internal-link] The White Album (1968), where on I’m So Tired, there was a skip in one spot. I can’t listen to the song without hearing that skip in my head. So I think people growing up listening to MP3s as their first listening experiences are going to look back and have a fondness for that weird aliasing we both hate! (both laugh)

I know a lot of new bands are putting cassettes out at their merch tables, but that’s where I draw the line for listening. The only reason we had cassettes was they were portable. As soon as we upgraded to the next portable medium, like CDs or digital files, it was a different story.

Also, you could record your own. You could make your own mixtapes. And that was important. That was a huge part of my high school life — making mixtapes for friends, and getting mixtapes from friends. That was how we shared our music. There is a nostalgia built into the tape hiss, and the portability.

And when you’re making playlists these days, it almost seems too easy, right? There was a certain art to doing the segues between tracks on a mixtape. You went through a lot of trial and error getting the fade-outs and fade-ins just right.

Yeah! You’d spend hours and hours making mixtapes for friends. Maybe that’s why people are making tapes again, and selling them now. There’s some sort of charm in the limitations.

Could be, yeah! Finally, I have to say when I first saw the song title Hug of Thunder, I felt there also couldn’t be a more perfect title for the record. Did you know right away that it encapsulated the entire feeling of the album?

Well, it was funny. Leslie [Feist] came up with that line when she was writing lyrics. Right after she did that, she looked at us and said, “Album title, right there!” And we were all like, “Yeahhh — maybe!” (chuckles)

As the weeks and the months went on, nothing else got suggested. There was no Plan B, so it was, “Alright, I guess that’s going to be the title track.” It did seem appropriate for this group of people to present an album that’s sort of thunderous and, at the same time, warm. At the time, it fit, and we knew it fit. So we stuck with it.