Gimme Your Answers: An Interview w/ Brendan Canning

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Brendan Canning
If you could capture the pure essence of a Toronto summer’s day and turn it into music, you might only come close to the magic heard on Brendan Canning’s soon-to-be-released solo record.  The stunning third solo album from the esteemed co-founder of our beloved BSS should arrive just in time for ice cream weather through Arts & Crafts.  We sat down with him at his Toronto home to discuss DJing, “the business”, and deep-dish pizza.

AMBY: What does the “J” in Brendan “J.” Canning stand for?

BC: It’s John.  Didn’t you know that already?

AMBY: I didn’t!  We’ll start out easy.

BC: Great.

AMBY:  You have a new album coming out.  Can you give us the title?

BC: The title is “Home Wrecking Years.”

AMBY:  I think some of your best work might be on your upcoming record.  Are the songs always new for each album you put out? Or do you have old songs kicking around that you hold onto until the time feels right?

BC: Nope, these are all new songs.  For You Gots 2 Chill, I had to go and tour it, or else it wasn’t going to get a physical release, and I felt like that was important.  So, I put a band together, made a lot of changes, and in the process wrote a bunch of new songs.  It’s pretty much that collection of songs, except for a couple, which were written as jams – mostly just here in the living room.

AMBY: Oh really? Nice.

BC: Except for Vibration Walls.  That’s probably the oldest one that started when I had a free day at Revolution [Recording].

AMBY:  Can you ever write on the road?  Or is it not as easy as people think?

BC: I feel like with touring, you go into a very different mode – you’re part circus performer.  It’s hard to get your brain sort of relaxed, because you’ve geared up mentally and emotionally for a certain role.  But, you know, if you’re onstage and the band is playing loose and feeling good, sometimes you can.  You know?

I can remember part of the bass line for Love Is New – jamming that in Austria somewhere, thinking, “Ah, that’s a pretty good jam…” and then it turned into something totally different.  Or Churches Under The Stairs, that one was in a Pitchfork studio thing, and I had this bass line…. so, you know, sometimes you can write on the road.

AMBY: And then the lyrics come later?

BC: Yea, yea.  But the most important thing is that the mood has to be there.

AMBY: When did you start getting into DJing? I think there’s a story to this, but I can’t quite remember…

BC: Around ’97…  Taking some ecstasy and going to hear some house music DJs, and –

AMBY: In Toronto?

BC: Yea, in Toronto.  Sasha & Digweed.  They were some big names… and Matt C, it was a party called Better Days.

AMBY: Better Days?  That’s so good.

BC: And that guy Mantler? Did you read that article?

AMBY: No, I don’t think so.

BC: What’s that Hamilton group… Junior Boys…  there’s a point to this story.  They just listed their Top 5 Unknown Songwriters, and they listed Mantler.  Anyway, he was with me that night, and wrote a couple of songs about it.  We were both on totally different paths, but… something about that night.  And then I thought, “DJing seems real fun!”

AMBY:  And the rest is history.

BC: Then you buy a bunch of house music records for a couple years… and start Broken Social Scene.

AMBY: Best life.

BC: Those were the Len years, when my turntables were out there… that’s where I used to practice – at their place on Roxton Road.

AMBY:  What are some of your favourite record stores in Toronto right now?

BC: Oh, all of them.  It just depends on what you’re looking for. There’s Rotate, and Kops, and Cosmos, and Grasshopper’s, and Vortex… all those ones.

AMBY: All of your solo albums sound very cohesive even if you change moods from record to record.  You Gots 2 Chill is very beautiful, wintery and introverted, whereas on Home Wrecking Years… the snow melts and you’re back to your roots a little more as before.  For someone who has such a love of various styles of music, is that ever difficult for you to decide how you want to approach the sound of your new record?  Because you love house, to classical – everything.

BC:  I think most people are probably like that, too, though.  You can only listen to one type of music for so long before you’re like, “Okay, that’s enough of that.”  But solo records are just my thing that I get to make for myself, ultimately.  My expectations are just to make as good a sounding record as I can.  I had a collection of songs picked, and a guy to work with kind of randomly, and it just all worked out.

AMBY: Do you want to shout him out?

BC: Dave Plowman.

AMBY: How long was your recording process?

BC: I think it was like, eight or nine days in a row.  Like just for tracking?

AMBY: Yea.

BC: Yea, not too long.  You just try not to overthink it.

AMBY: Do you enjoy studio life? Or would you rather be writing and playing?

BC: I like studio life, once you get in the groove.  It’s a real treat to just work on stuff and add parts to your songs – it’s fun.  It’s a really fun thing to do.

AMBY: Can you tell us about Song For Dee?  I have a lot of friends who love that song so much, and they’ve always wanted to know more about it.

BC: My friend Wayne Parent, who owned a couple of restaurants in town… I used to DJ at his place Teatro, and Dee was his dog, and I would always see Dee and just go into this one song, and go, “You’re such a pretty dog, aren’t you Dee…?” and you know, pretty much finish it, and maybe more than a couple of times I would sing it for more than a minute.

AMBY: Haha!  That’s so cute.

BC: So, Wayne, of course, loved the song, and then when we were recording Forgiveness Rock Record, my girlfriend called me and said, “Dee died.”  And I was with Kevin and Charlie at that moment, late at night… and Kevin was just like, “Well, we have to record it!”  And it didn’t take very long to come up with a second verse.  So, that was Song For Dee. To an Australian Shepherd.

AMBY: It’s a beautiful song.

BC: Now Wayne has another Australian Shepherd now named Fran… and Fran is a nice dog, but Fran’s not so bright.  Dee was special.

AMBY: She got her own song.

BC: She got a song.

AMBY: Selfishly, I just wanted to know something.  Snowballs and Icicles, off of your first solo record. Where did you write that, and what is it about? That was one of my favourites for so long.

BC: Oh yea?

AMBY: I listened to it on repeat for nights at a time.  I love it.

BC: Did you ever see the video for it?  I wonder who did that.

AMBY: Yea, it’s beautiful… so pretty. Like a nice animation?

BC: Yea.

AMBY: It’s cool.  Fan vid.

BC: I did that in a day at Ohad [Benchetrit]’s.

AMBY: Was it just a winter inspiration?

BC: It was in February, and he just said, “What do you want to call it?” And we both thought Snowballs and Icicles because we were throwing snowballs trying to get the icicles down.  They’d fall down in sharp shards and give you a concussion if they whacked you in the head.  I think we knocked that one out in a day. I’ve never known how to play that song.

AMBY: Oh really? It’s kind of a dreamy landscape.

BC: I can’t figure out the tuning, or the… it’s not that hard, but…

AMBY: I can see that, though.  It’s one of my favourites.  It’s a sleeper track.

BC: Ah thanks.  Great.

AMBY: Is there anything you wanted to say to the diehard Cookie Duster fans out there? Is there any news or hope for them?

BC: Only what you’ve heard, and… music is not just about music, music is also about the business of music, and sometimes things can get complicated, you know?

AMBY: Do you think it’s gotten harder? Or has it always been this way?

BC: It’s tough for me to answer that because when I was twenty-one, we had a cassette tape, and we just made a couple hundred and got them into a couple of the local record shops and somehow get a little bit of buzz around the city… and then you release another cassette tape, or cassette / CD, and then you have a manager this time, and… I don’t know.  I feel like you can do the same thing now.  Or keep bugging a promoter to get you on shows, or you get one person who says, “Oh hey that’s cool.”  It’s really just finding the key things, and making something that people like, but it depends on so much.  I think with Social Scene, we just had a lot of friends.

AMBY: Yea.

BC: If everyone is really social and has enough credibility in the city, you get lucky.

AMBY: Did anyone ever give you any music-related advice that stuck with you?

BC: My bass playing advice I always remember from two producers – Dave Sardy and Brendan McGuire.  He was like, “Careful of those jumps.  Make sure you hit on the one when you land.”  I would jump up and miss the downbeat.  So those were good tips.

AMBY: Watch the physical performance.

BC: But as far as business advice, though? I don’t know.  I was able to figure out in the mid-90s that I should keep a business guy around in the music business that I thought could help me.  So I think you just have to be very aware of whom you can vibe with, and who’s got some business knowledge.

AMBY: Broken Social Scene just released a date for Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago this year.  Can you tell us something that will be on the rider?

BC: Make sure that there’s a juicer with enough kale and dandelion root and lemons… and four cheese pizzas, deep dish.

AMBY: I love it.

BC: Probably not the pizzas, you know what?  It’s just… you really gotta work on that – not eating too much pizza on the road.

AMBY: That’s good advice right there! Haha.

BC: That is good advice.

***

Thank you Brendan Canning, for giving us your answers!

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Interview by Rosemary Fairweather

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