I confess to knowing not much about Broken Social Scene. A living, breathing, fluid line-up that can be anything from a 6 to a 19-piece would suggest that they’re more of a collective than a band, with members coming and going, dropping in/dropping out, releasing and touring their own solo material then rejoining again. You might know the quirky, always excellent Feist. Or Canadian crooners Stars and their brand of melodic crooning. Both acts have found themselves part of the ‘Scene at some point or other.
When they started, Broken Social Scene strived to make swirling, ambient, mainly instrumental indie rock; experimental, peerless and lo-fi in execution but high-fi in ambition. For reference, think of a slightly turned-down, slightly more polite Yo La Tengo. By their second album, You Forgot It In People, they’d started to employ vocals and a more straightforward approach to song-writing. The fuzzed-up ethereal electric guitars and close-mic’d acoustics are still there, but so too are brass sections, keys, banjos even, along with grand ambitions on a widescreen scale. A chance conversation with Nile Marr turned me on to the album – “I think you’d really like it,” he said presciently – and, in something of a recurring theme, I fell for a ‘new’ album that was a couple of months shy of turning twenty years old.
Like all the best albums, it’s an album that takes a handful of plays before it fully reveals itself. You’re never far from a slowly unravelling melody or a wonky Beatlish backwards bit or the sort of slow-burning, vapour-trailed outro that fellow Canadian Neil Young might accede to should he be forced to consider his other 15 band members. “You gotta turn the Les Paul down a notch, Neil. And make way for the strings ‘n trumpets now and again!” Slow burning, yes, but soft rocking too. Broken Social Scene don’t blow the doors in, they politely chap until they’re living in your head.
There are a few standouts, not least the hynotic, repetitive, melting earworm that is Anthems For A Seventeen Year-Old Girl
Broken Social Scene – Anthems For A Seventeen Year-Old Girl
Atop a slowly building backing of back porch banjo, random thumps and long-bowed violin, singer Emily Haines has been pitch-shifted up a notch, giving her vocal the effect of a sing-songy young girl, perfect for the song’s subject matter.
Used to be one of the rotten ones and I liked you for that…
Now you’re all gone, got your make up on and you’re not comin’ back.
Bleaching your teeth, smiling flash, talking trash, under your breath, under my window
It’s a scene that’s easy to picture. It’s teen angst and country girl heartbreak set to music. It would make for the perfect soundtrack to a suitable scene in a low-budget indie film, Scarlett Johansson or Charlize Theron or whoever the teenage equivalent is these days swinging on the porch, faded jeans and checked shirt covered in oil from helping her single father fix the pick-up truck, staring into a middle distance of dancing, swaying cornfields and puffy white clouded blue skies.
The contstant, never-ending repetition of the last line – Park that car, drop that phone, sleep on the floor, dream about me – combined with the swirling, sawing almost Venus In Furs drone and the steady plonkety-plonk of the banjo is, by the end of the track, totally headswimmingly hypnotic. Circular and head-spinning, you don’t want it to end, but when it does, on a dizzy refrain of the first line and an incredibly eked out violin note, you stop. Take a breath. And play it again. It’s a great wee song from a great wee album. I think you’d like it…
Six Of The Best is a semi-regular feature that pokes, prods and persuades your favourite bands, bards and barometers of hip opinion to tell us six of the best tracks they’ve ever heard. The tracks could be mainstream million-sellers or they could be obfuscatingly obscure, it doesn’t matter. The only criteria set is that, aye, they must be Six of the Best. Think of it like a mini, groovier version of Desert Island Discs…
Nile Marr is the guitar player and vocalist in Man Made, one of the UK’s more interesting and most-likely to up-and-coming guitar bands. Arty, skewed and wonky riffs drive insistent, nagging songs about life and living in 2016. Theirs is a considered noise, with a real sense that although the guitars might occasionally veer left of centre, the melody is king. You’re never too far from a ‘woo-oooh‘ or a hookline or a repeating chorus. I think you’d like them.
Man Made – Carsick Cars
Man Made are currently on tour, promoting the imminent release of ‘TV Broke My Brain‘, their eagerly anticipated debut LP.
“The record is like the menu….here’s what we do. But live, that’s where the connection is. These songs have been recorded and re-recorded so many times. Every time we play live, the songs take new twists and turns so we book a studio and go back to re-do them. The album is absolutely us at our best….but come and see us live and you’ll get the real thing.“
The tour takes in many of the unfashionable corners of the UK (folk with a decent knowledge of lower league football will recognise most of the destinations) before it winds up in Irvine’s tiny but perfect Harbour Arts Centre on the last Tuesday of April. The HAC is a terrific place to catch a band. It’s whites-of-the-eyes small, the ‘stage’ is a space on the floor where local am-dram groups usually do their thang and, despite this, has hosted some of the best-known acts in the country. You should probably go…
*A wee aside. When I was younger, I remember my dad getting a pair of Adidas Kick and being really annoyed about it as he made mine instantly unwearable, even though I had to wear them as I had no other option. I spent my teens denying my parents’ record collection and being constantly red faced by the fact they’d been a working, gigging folk duo who had somehow famously shared the stage with Billy Connolly. In later years their Bob Dylan LPs would find their way into my record collection (they found them and took them back), and nowadays I’m quite proud of the Billy Connolly connection, but everybody needs to go through the ’embarrassing parents’ stage first, do they not?
Not Nile though. Nile, as you are no doubt aware, has supreme indie rock genes. He learned to play guitar with the help of his dad Johnny, was constantly exposed to decent music as a child, was encouraged to discuss what was being played and grew up with the total support of his cooler-than-cool parents. He lived first in Manchester then moved to Portland when his dad got the call asking him to work with Modest Mouse.
“Well, I still see him doing uncool stuff now and again, but can you imagine your dad joining your favourite band?!? I loved Modest Mouse. My dad said that he’d been asked to join them but wasn’t too aware of them. I was like, ‘Are you serious? You’ve gotta go!’. Growing up in the Pacific North West, in Portland, was fantastic. I was transplanted to a whole different music scene populated by musical heavyweights.
I call my time in Portland my ‘Sponge Years’ – y’know that stage in your life when you’re trying to work out your identity and who you are, soaking up all those influences and deciding which ones fit you the best? Portland and its music scene really made me who I am today.
I developed my work ethic from bands like Fugazi and Modest Mouse. They were based an entire continent away from the music capitals and spent their whole existence booking their own shows, getting in their van and driving thousands of miles, sleeping on floors, taking things into their own hands. Keeping it D.I.Y. and lo-fi is what Man Made is all about.”
Nile goes about his business in Man Made with admirable stubbornness. They follow the Fugazi touring model. They’re vegan. They don’t drink. Theirs is a totally immersed-in-the-band way of life. “It would be nice now and again to maybe spend a night in a Travelodge or wherever, but doing that probably takes us away from places we’d otherwise play. It’s pretty great being on tour.“
His one concession to glitz is his famous gold jacket. “It belonged to a fashion student friend of mine, and she was going to cut it up. I wore it to the support show I was playing that night, just myself and my acoustic guitar, and every single person that came into the venue noticed me before anything else. People now identify with it. I played a show recently in my ‘civilian clothes’ but it didn’t feel right. I need to dress up for the stage. I always said I’d wear the gold jacket until I’d made my point. I’ve retired it now. I have something else…“
Growing up in such interesting circumstances has certainly helped shape Nile’s musical influences. “I’ve seen photos of myself when I was very young, interacting with vinyl, holding it, looking at the sleeve or whatever, but the 1st record I truly owned was Bob Dylan’s ‘Desire’. I played it constantly. There’s such a richness of story telling there. My dad’s music and the records he played certainly gave me a framework of musical references. But I also like the fact I turn my Dad on to certain things – Modest Mouse, for example – and he’d never played a Fender Mustang guitar until he’d seen mine…. (Johnny playing Nile’s Mustangs led him on to the Jaguar, now of course his guitar of choice.)
Most of my favourite bands are from the USA. It’s a really difficult choice to pick just 6 records, but if forced to, these are the six that I identify with the most…“
As Nile runs through a very considered list, it strikes me that while I’m familiar with all the bands on here, there are only 2 tracks I’ve actually heard. “Well, you’re in for a right treat this afternoon,” he replies. And so are you…
Modest Mouse – Dramamine
For the first song on your first album, you’re putting yourself out there with a real statement of intent – “This is us and this is where we come from.” I miss being in America; the culture, the people, the scenery when you’re on those long drives. Hearing someone sing about that part of the world makes me feel like I’m there.
Interestingly, the album in question is called ‘This Is A Long Drive For Someone With Nothing To Think About‘. But you probably knew that already.
Broken Social Scene – Anthems For A Seventeen Year Old Girl
Broken Social Scene mean so much to me. Talk about records that change your life?!? Wow! I’d never heard anything like Broken Social Scene. Musically and melodically I’m just trying my best to do what they do. Making art in your head and have it come out the way you intended it to – everything I ever wanted to do melodically is in this song. One day…one day, I’ll write a song as good as this.
Bikini Kill – In Accordance To Natural Law
This song is 30 seconds long but it’s one of the best songs ever. You can say everything you need to say, do everything you need to do in 30 seconds. Anything shorter is just silly. What’s amazing is that this is a fully-formed song. It’s so bad badass – girls are way harder than the boys. They do this stuff waaaaaay better than boys ever could. The first time I heard this song, it made me cry. I just couldn’t believe what I’d heard.
B52s – 52 Girls
This is on their first album, the one with the yellow cover. ’52 Girls’ is punk rock, but weird punk rock. Art rock. That’s what I want to do. I’m not an angry punk. I like weird. As a guitar record, this is fantastic.
Fugazi – Slo Crostic
This is an instrumental. It’s all about the guitars. It came out of a live jam. It says so much musically about where I want to go; the weaving guitars, politically how they conduct themselves, no alcohol. There can be a real pressure to conform to that lad-sh, drinking culture. The band who don’t drink but are better than anyone else who does. Fugazi are the kings!
Yeah Yeah Yeahs – 10 x 10
Nick Zinner is the best example of a modern guitar player. There’s no flash.There are no cliches. No rock poses. He’s the most unrockist guitar player around, yet Yeah Yeah Yeahs totally rock. The whole EP this track is from (Is Is) is so guitar heavy. They’re a real important band.
So there you have it – 6 tracks of modern American punk that shaped Nile Marr into the musician he is today. Listen to Man Made’s album (out at the end of April to avoid the Record Store Day “consumer-fest“around its originally-planned release), and you’ll spot all these references plus, with the occasional chiming guitar and lightly fuzzed two string riff, the odd tip of the hat to the old man.
You can catch Man Made (and check out Nile’s new stage wear) on April 26th when they wind up their tour with the only west of Scotland date at the excellent Harbour Arts Centre in Irvine. Tickets can be purchased here. I’ll see you down the front.