Published on May 3rd, 2016 | by Craig Silliphant0
Interview: Jason Collett (Broken Social Scene)
Craig Silliphant has a phone chat with Jason Collett from Broken Social Scene about his new album, the music industry, and balancing family and art.
I sat down for a phone chat with Jason Collett, who many people would know from Toronto collective Broken Social Scene, as he rolls out his new solo album, Song and Dance Man. Collett was smart, funny, and engaging to chat with, even while displaying a pretty cynical attitude about not only things like the music industry and social media, but also his own music. I’ve never seen anyone as ambivalent to the release of their own album, which was oddly refreshing. At first I wasn’t sure if it was a schtick, but it’s not. In fact, it’s the schtick of it all that’s causing him concern.
The Feedback Society: The songs on the new record, they don’t feel rushed at all, but they all clock in at three minutes or less. Even the lamest buddy comedy movies increasingly have bloated runtime over two hours, which made me think about the idea of entertainment and being a real ‘song and dance man.’ It feels like a call to returning to the idea of entertaining an audience, as opposed to wanking just to entertain one’s self.
Jason Collett: Sure, yeah, sure. I’ve been trying to exercise a certain economy for some time now. It’s often how I end up writing, because I’m not much of a musician. I don’t think to leave a lot of space for instrumentals, for guitar solos and stuff. But I am proud that the record as a whole comes in at under 37 minutes. To me that’s a challenge — to see if you can have something to say in very little time getting it out. You know? Cut some verses.
TFS: Totally. It’s a skill that quite a few people, in creative situations beyond music, need to work on. Like, editing.
JC: (laughs). Yeah. Yeah.
TFS: The feelings of the songs are light and breezy, but still contain your trademark wit, and even some sadness sometimes. I always kind of like the juxtaposition of a happy sounding song with sadder lyrics.
JC: Me too.
TFS: In fact, some of the songs sound downright tropical. This must have been by design? Or am I reading too much into this?
JC: No, I like the juxtaposition as well. I think some of the songs that you might be referring to, like the sadder, relationship tunes, I kind of think of them personally as toss offs. I don’t…I don’t think of them…maybe I don’t value them that much. Typically what I do, I think a lot of people do this when they work with a producer, I think I culled it down to about 30 songs that I fed [producer Afie Jurvanen, aka Bahamas]. And he made picks that I would not have picked. He chose a few songs that I would never have put on my record because I don’t value them. But he does, and that was good for me. That’s why I like working with producers — perspective. Typically, when you write a bunch of songs, you get lost in them after awhile and you lose perspective. I think some of that is there just because he made those choices, not me.
(The sound of kids in the background).
TFS: Which is interesting to me. Most musicians would want a high degree of control of things like that, what’s going on the record under their name. It’s funny that you’re even kind of disparaging of some of the songs, it sounds like.
JC: Yeah, I’ll get into trouble if I let you get away with calling it disparaging (laughs). My label has frowned at me enough for saying, you know, the best way I can sum up this record is ambivalence. But I’m a big fan of giving it up. One of the things I got into making the record, and now with performing this record, is not playing. There’s a freedom to letting go of it. Part of this is going back to me feeling like a bit of a hack as a musician. My chops are only good enough to write the songs, more or less. But the problem with playing a song to a bunch of other musicians in a studio who are hearing it for the first time is that they’re following you. So, the way we did this was just, I would play it through once, maybe twice, and then stop playing. And then let the band play it. Naturally, with their chemistry, they go somewhere together, and then I would follow that. That, to me, is way more interesting than them trying to follow me. I know what that direction is, but what I don’t know, is what they would do with it. That’s what gets exciting. So the same with choosing songs. You know, this is why I like to collaborate with people. It brings a whole kind of new life an energy to my work.
And now, for the first time, I’m performing half the time without a guitar. I pick the microphone up off the mic stand and held it in my hand for the very first time in my career, as a 48-year old. (Laughs). I feel like a kid suddenly. It’s liberating and really exciting, you know? You can teach an old dog new tricks.
TFS: Speaking of age, I guess, and I could hear your kids in the background a few minutes ago there. To give you some context, I have a young son now, so I’ve had to balance out where I can write and be creative with domesticity. It’s hard to go to a fuckin’ show until three in the morning on a Tuesday now, because I’ve gotta work in the morning.
JC: For sure.
TFS: How is that growth in your own life, your family, changed your work and your career?
JC: Well, for me, I’ve been raising kids since I was 21-years old. It’s always been this way. And I think I kind of got lucky. When I was younger, I was just too stupid to know better. When I was younger, it wasn’t a time where the culture of parenting had shifted yet. It’s become kind of more professional and way more precious. I think it’s easier when you’re younger, physically too; you can get by with less sleep. So I would stay up and night, writing. And just too stupid to know better. I developed habits, you know, where I wouldn’t need a lot of space to write. I could write on the fly. And I still have those habits to this day.
But what has changed in regards to my career, is that I’m more reluctant now, with this second wave of kids that I have. To push the limits of touring. I don’t want to ask my family to continue to make the sacrifices they’ve had to make in the past. And it’s lost some of its romance to me too. I’ve done it. So I don’t feel the need to do that as much. That’s in regards to touring. The thing that I have the most passionate drive to do is to write, create songs, and make records. If I can have the luxury of a modicum of domesticity to do that, then all the better.
TFS: That probably answers my next question. To paraphrase a quote I read from you, “the record industry is in the toilet, streaming may have curbed piracy, but it doesn’t pay the artists properly, and the touring circuit is oversaturated.” My question was gonna be — why do you still do it in the face of all this?
JC: This was the question I was wrestling with before even making another record. Do I really want to contribute what is really just considered content for free to the gaping maw of Google, you know? And Amazon and whatever the fuck else it is. I do feel reluctant to do that. I’m very satisfied with labels now that are choosing not to. Not to let their records get streamed. I’m finding I’m reading reviews now of a new artist I want to check out and I reach for my Spotify app and they’re not there. I’m at once frustrated, but also excited that they’re not there. It’s an interesting time, you know?
The streaming thing, it bothers me. It bothers me that the labels and the streaming services, the larger labels, have made a pact where they’ve ripped off artists and ripped off writers, in a big way. This was supposed to be the thing that was supposed to be a little bit democratizing for us. It’s very shortsighted in regards to culture.
And the thing is, it’s the same for you, as a journalist. I’ve been polling friends that are journalists and asking what they’re getting paid these days for a piece. I was talking to a friend a few weeks ago, congratulating him at the coffee shop, saying, “Hey man, I saw that piece you did in The Atlantic and that other one you did in The New Yorker. By the way, what do you get paid for that?” 250 bucks for a piece in The Atlantic, man. 250 bucks for a major article in New York Times Magazine?
You had mentioned editing earlier, and it’s a dying art. So we have parts of our culture that are dying, and it’s sad to see. I’m not asking people to run out into the streets and protest about it or anything, I’m just trying to be a little more honest about it. You know, ‘cause, I find that a lot of my peers, inadvertently contribute to the mythology. Fans want to believe you’re successful and you don’t want to let your fans down. You might not be able to afford rent, but you’re all about making your fans think you’re rich and famous because you’re on the radio or the cover of a magazine. Like that story about Grizzly Bear a few years ago. They’re on billboards, they’re on the cover of Rolling Stone and they can’t afford health insurance. You know? Something’s wrong with this equation. Writing Song and Dance Man was by and large a light-hearted jab at that.
TFS: Are you also, on the album, poking a bit at the marketing side of things? There’s the lyric, “If you can tweet something brilliant, you got a marketing plan.” It made me think of artists that I know that are more concerned with tweeting or starting a fucking Kickstarter page than they are with making sure the music is where it needs to be. They want to start a Kickstarter page, but they don’t even have a following.
JC: Yeah, there’s a bit of that. I find it rather undignified, but maybe I’m just a throwback. I don’t want to knock it too much, because for a lot of people, it’s the only way they can move forward.
TFS: Right, and I’m sure there’s an argument for a ‘by any means’ ethos to it too. The way you would have made your own records or made a ‘zine as a punk band in DC in the 80s or something.
JC: Yeah, for sure. I’m just noticing that some of my peers are taking it one step beyond the line. Where they’re promising a dinner date when they come to town for 250 dollars or personalized postcards, or I’ll write a song for your wedding. Who the fuck has the time? My problem with it ultimately is when we tip the scales where more energy is put into the artifice than the art, once again, we’re losing out here, people, as a culture. We’re going to lose the good stuff. We’re going to be left with just the schtick.
TFS: Yes, exactly, for sure. Well said. So…is it worth asking if there’s anything going on with Broken Social Scene at the moment?
JC: Yeah, there is! The band’s rehearsing. There’s some shows coming up at some festivals this summer. And the band is writing and getting ready to go into the studio. The reunion is gonna be launched, sometime in the next year.
TFS: Nice! Anything else I’ve missed that’s really important on this tour or album?
JC: Uh…other than the fact that I’m a very lucky man to have Zeus as my backing band, it’s gonna be fun. They’re one of the best bands in my mind. The show should be smokin’.
TFS: Cool! I think that’s about it then. Good luck with the album and the tour and everything. Thanks for taking the time, man.
JC: Great! Appreciate it, thanks so much. Take care.