Wild At Heart: Broken Social Scene’s revolving door of musicians make emotional studio decisions

With seven full-time members, 11 alumni, and eight guests, Broken Social Scene’s latest album, Forgiveness Rock Record, is truly a collective effort. The Canadian group—from which former members such as Leslie Feist and Emily Haines (Metric) sprouted—has been carefully crafting music with many cooks in the kitchen for the last 10 years.
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With seven full-time members, 11 alumni, and eight guests, Broken Social Scene’s latest album, Forgiveness Rock Record, is truly a collective effort. The Canadian group—from which former members such as Leslie Feist and Emily Haines (Metric) sprouted—has been carefully crafting music with many cooks in the kitchen for the last 10 years.

For Forgiveness Rock Record, on their own Arts & Crafts label, they were extra-mindful to leave space for one another while building up each song. It’s not always easy, considering that the band has two drummers, two bass players, five guitar players, and sometimes as many as 17 musicians/ vocalists on a song.

“We try not to overplay it and leave space knowing that there are going to be other ideas,” says guitarist Charles Spearin. “We don’t know what they are, but there’s room for other ideas to go in there, so nobody walks all over everything.”

But accommodating lots of layers is something producer John McEntire is used to with his own band, Tortoise, so it wasn’t a stretch working with BSS in his Chicago-based Soma Studios. (Sessions also went down at Giant Studio and The Schvitz Studio in Toronto.)

McEntire and the band recorded live in his 12x20-foot studio room, with five people playing basic tracks. But the first tracking session wasn’t an ideal setup. “We had a hard time getting the drum sound that we wanted [on “Forced to Love”], and that was one of the most important things in that track in setting the overall tone,” McEntire says. “Our first tracking session we had the drums in the iso booth, so we were kind of stuck with these deader drum sounds.”

In an effort to combat the issue, McEntire re-amped the drums. “He sent the drums through a Genelec speaker, miked a couple of steel drums, and then blasted it at the steel drums,” Spearin says. “Every time the sound from the speaker hit the steel drums, they would ring a little bit, so that added this cool overtone-reverb sound to the drums instead of just adding reverb.”

Second-kit drum passes were overdubbed in the big room. “We had one really tight, up-close drum kit in the iso booth, with everything miked individually,” Spearin says. “And the second drum kit was set up in the big room with one [AKG] C 414 microphone eight feet away to get the whole sound.” The drums were also often routed through an Empirical Labs Distressor “because it has a nice saturation, compression, and distortion,” Spearin says.

Sometimes there would be two amps/mics for one guitar part, as with the epic “Meet Me in the Basement,” which featured four guitars—some of them doubled or harmonized (for a total of 12 guitar tracks)— double drums, and strings. The band used Victoria, Fender Princeton, Sears Silvertone, and other boutique amps.

“We had to find suitable tones for everybody that were also distinctive enough that there would be places for everything, and then we had to make sure that, either through spatial positioning or EQ, everything was part of the overall soundstage,” McEntire says.

Other key gear included an Elka Synthex synth, Neumann M 269 c mic, handmade LA-2A clone, DigiTech Whammy pedal, Pro Tools, and a Trident A Range console.

But not so much influenced by tones and gear, the songs that made it to the Forgiveness Rock Record track listing were sometimes surprises. “There were things that we let go of for this sequence that we were sure that were going to be on the record,” McEntire says. “And then there were other things that, literally in the last two weeks of mixing, came back into the picture.”

One song that was originally destined to be an instrumental, “Sentimental X’s,” became a frontrunner after Haines recorded a lead vocal in New York, backed up with harmonies from Feist and Amy Millan (Stars) in Toronto.

The loping, sweetly sad song “Sweetest Kill” started out as a live song, and Spearin wasn’t sure that it would translate to the studio. But the band stripped it down. “Two basses, drums, and vocals are what hold the song together,” Spearin says. “It has this warm mud feel to it to me. I think [the basses are] hard-panned, so they’re a little bit disorienting that way.”

And he experimented with the vocal effects on that song. “I took the vocal send through the headphones, held the headphones up to the pickup of my guitar, ran the guitar through this old spring reverb, ran it out through a distortion pedal to just give it a little bit more dirt, and then sent it out through two different amplifiers,” Spearin says. “And I played with the tone knob as we did it, so it has this sense of coming in and out of focus.” Meanwhile, McEntire used a Marshall Time Modulator to add short 5 to 15ms delays and panned parts around “to create a sense of space,” he says.

For a crunchy, less-than-slick vibe on “Ungrateful Little Father,” Spearin and McEntire used a Yamaha MT100 II four-track recorder. “We set up three 57s in front of the drums, bass amp, and keyboard amp going straight into the four-track, wrote the tune on the spot, and then a lot of stuff was overdubbed on it,” McEntire says. “The idea was to do it as sort of stupidly as possible and not try for any particular results, but just to get it down.

Every experiment they did was driven by feeling rather than technical know-how. “You really have to listen with your emotions instead of your ears because sometimes you can get everything sounding good individually, but you put it together, and it has no emotional impact whatsoever,” Spearin says. “You can do anything as long as it resonates with you emotionally.”