Thursday 22 February 2018

Northern lights: it's Canada calling

Brendan Canning, founder of Toronto collective Broken Social Scene, tells our reporter why he's not yet convinced by PM Justin Trudeau but thinks his country's music scene is once again definitely worth sitting up and taking notice of

Irish roots: Brendan Canning's father is from Leitrim
Irish roots: Brendan Canning's father is from Leitrim
John Meagher

John Meagher

In the middle part of the last decade, every music critic worth their salt was espousing the greatness of Canadian music. And there was so much of it. Arcade Fire had delivered the incendiary, glorious Funeral, Feist were capturing hearts with a beautifully realised pair of albums and Stars were working admirers into a lather thanks to their spirited torch songs.

At the centre of it all was the Toronto-based collective Broken Social Scene, whose members were culled from a myriad of local bands including Metric and the aforementioned Stars. Their huge sound was giddy and life-affirming and perfectly calibrated for the festival circuit.

Today, Brendan Canning - one of the band's co-founders (along with Kevin Drew) - thinks back nostalgically to that time, and to a seminal gig in a field in Co Laois.

"Electric Picnic in 2006 was a really important show for us," he says. "We look back on it as one of the best we ever did and the atmosphere that day was so special. It's a performance that many of us hold very dear."

The previous year's Picnic saw one of my most enduring festival memories - Arcade Fire delivering an extraordinary set in which they played virtually everything from Funeral. It was their Irish debut and it was thrilling.

"It's been so heartening for Irish people to embrace our music like they have," Canning says. "My father is Irish and Kevin's mother's family come from Cork." Canning's dad hails from Leitrim and was on holiday there to see Irish relatives when 9/11 happened.

This month, both these great Canadian bands return to the albums fray. Yesterday, Broken Social Scene released their first album in seven years - the curiously titled Hug of Thunder.

And, at the end of the month, Arcade Fire will unveil their eagerly awaited fifth album, Everything Now. They already gave Irish audiences a taste of what's in store at their rip-roaring show at Malahide Castle, Dublin last month.

Canning believes the time is ripe for bands from his homeland to capture the public's attention once again.

"It feels like there's a lot of exciting music being made here right now. Sometimes, there's a sense that certain places have their moment when the stars are in alignment, and there are lots of musicians that are inspired by each other and keen to up their game." Broken Social Scene have certainly upped theirs. Their new album is a pulsating, shape-shifting beast that could only have been made by a collective. Much like Canada and its people, it's huge, sprawling and optimistic, even if some of the lyrical preoccupations are dark and troubled.

"Well, it would be impossible to be a fully-functioning adult in 2017 and not be concerned for the world we live in," Canning quips, "especially when you consider who's in charge south of the border."

While there's nothing new about a musician happy to bash Trump and his acolytes, Canning doesn't appear to be overly enamoured with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who was on a state visit to Ireland this week.

"I don't know about Trudeau," he says, his voice trailing off. "I've yet to be convinced. He gets great press around the world, but I think he's surrounded by a really good PR team."

But you don't need to be a PR guru to make the case for the second coming of some of Canada's finest musicians. In April, Leslie Feist released a glowingly received album, the subdued, introspective Pleasure after a lengthy hiatus. It was Feist -who is among several female singers to appear on the new BSS album - who suggested its title. Canning says it refers to the feeling you get when safe inside when there's a storm brewing, an analogy about taking solace where you can find it in a time of such global uncertainty.

Such sombre thoughts aren't central to what Tegan and Sara do but the Quin sisters are just as important when appraising all that's special about Canadian music today. Their Love You to Death album was one of last year's finest pure-pop releases, and a show at Dublin's Vicar Street in February offered a reminder that unashamedly pop-oriented music can be sophisticated and pack a significant emotional punch, too.

"I think one of the nice things about music from Canada is how varied it is," Canning says. "It can't be neatly slotted into any one category."

A case in point is the Montreal duo AroarA, whose new single '#4' might just be the most visceral song you'll hear this summer. One half, Andrew Whiteman, has already been associated with BSS, but now bandmate Ariel Engle has joined the band's roll call of singers. Her contribution excites Canning.

"It's not as easy to keep a collective like this together when you get older, and people have families and relations die, and stuff happens and things get in the way," he says, "so it makes sense to keep new blood coming through."

Canadian music aficionados will hardly need an introduction to Engle. She was a member of the Montreal collective Land of Kush - whose sheer number make BSS look small. At one point, more than 30 members were involved. Thus far, Broken Social Scene numbers 17 full or part-time members. That said, it takes considerable skill for Canning - and co-conspirator Drew - to marshal all those talents.

"The important thing for this band is that the music sounds fresh and vital," Canning insists. "We don't dredge up ideas that were knocking around in the past, we come together and we try to make new music like any band would.

"A lot of people have contributed to this album and they've all put their stamp on it. Sometimes, it's not easy to get them all together, but it's very rewarding when everyone who's been part of our story is involved."

Broken Social Scene's Hug of Thunder is out this weekend and Arcade Fire's Everything Now is released on July 28

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