“A strange thing happened to me when I became a dad: I stopped caring about other people’s stories, musically.”
It’s late August when I finally reach Andrew Whiteman over the phone at his studio in Montreal, after several calls, texts, and voicemails. He calls me back and greets me with a burst of dramatic energy, finally certain that my story checks out. It’s no surprise that Whiteman did his due diligence before connecting with me. It’s also no surprise that his voicemail recording is equal parts suspicious and (perhaps) accidentally funny – reminiscent of something your quirky neighbor who is convinced he was once abducted by aliens would say.
Whiteman, bassist and guitarist for Broken Social Scene, Apostle of Hustle, and AroarA (his project with his BSS collaborator/wife Ariel Engle) has been putting long days and hours in. In between recording Engle’s new album, the couple becoming new parents, and both preparing for a fall tour with Broken Social Scene – out with their first new album in seven years – it’s not like there’s much time or energy to spare. And Whiteman’s pretty clear on where his priorities lie.
After enthusiastically listing all of the things he’s juggling, Whiteman takes a deep sigh and laughs a full, rich laugh. “I kind of want my head back.”
Broken Social Scene plays the Meadows Music Festival in Queens this Sunday, September 17. They play Washington DC’s 9:30 Club on September 19 [sold out] and September 20. Hug of Thunder is out now on Arts & Crafts.
Brightest Young Things: There were a lot of people who were really excited to see Broken Social Scene come back as a band and as a collective. I think it was particularly surprising to find out that everyone made it back onto the record – and contributed, and was into it.
Do you think this long of a hiatus ever put it in doubt that we would have another Broken Social Scene record?
Hmm – for me no, not really. I figured you just need a break. There’s nothing fundamentally broken about Broken other than Broken. [Laughs] We’re fundamentally broken. A hiatus is simply that. We spent so much time – you know, ten years – grinding it out and it was time to take a break. But our friendships didn’t take a break. I moved to Montreal in that time, so I’m not quite in the same neighborhood as those cats anymore, but yeah, the friendships didn’t take a break. It was a matter of timing being right and feeling good for everybody. But there was never a real question for me.
BYT: How’s it feel being back with the band? I know you guys have been playing together again for over a year, and released Hug of Thunder earlier this year – but how do yo feel about it?
You know, it’s good. We did Pitchfork festival last summer (2016) and that was sparked through doing a fun thing, but we really didn’t have a sense of what we were doing bigger picture. Over the last year things fell into place a little more. I’m definitely happy to be doing this and it’s fun to play with the group again. It’s fun to have a purpose.
We’ve dug into the catalog a bit recently. We had a gig in Winnipeg last weekend; our set time sort of extended so we played some stuff from deeper in the catalog. It’s a nice feeling when you have four records and a bunch of a songs that never got released to draw on. Before we do our fall tour we’ll have a few more days to rehearse, and I hope we get into some deep, deep cuts. [Laughs]
BYT: Are there any deep cuts that you are particularly looking forward to playing? I know the way that you guys compose music is pretty collaborative and quite democratic – does the set list selection also happen in a similar fashion?
There’s a particular song I love that’s called…what the fuck is it called? Is it “Guilty Little Motherfuckers”? It’s on Forgiveness Rock Record. Something little motherfucker, and I really love that song. You’ll have to check out Forgiveness [Whiteman was referring to “Ungrateful Little Father”]. Anyways, that’s a great jam and I hope we do that.
There’s also a song that didn’t make it onto Hug of Thunder – and I’m not sure why it didn’t make it into the mix – called “Boyfriends”. I’m gonna push the band to learn it and play it; I don’t know if they’ll say yes. Which I think goes into your next question, about the “democracy” of the band, or the “democracy” of our concert performances? It’s somewhat democratic, for sure – in some ways it’s more democratic now than it was at the beginning.
You know, in terms of the writing of the tunes we really sketched a bunch of things out, the core of us – the five of us – sketched a lot of things out. We kind of put them down in rough form and then did a real sort of work set on it. What do you call that in painting, when you just pile so much stuff on top that you then start pulling away? That’s our standard mode – all of our tunes are like that. So at least 60% or more of the tunes work like that.
The other 35% of the tunes or so are spontaneous combustion-type things that happen when we’re in the studio and jamming, or bored out of our minds. Or, someone comes in – you know, when Leslie (Feist) came in; we spent a couple of hours working on this one thing and it wasn’t going anywhere. The mood was calling for something a little more focused, and we sort of banged out “Hug of Thunder” in its essence in about an hour, and the track was done. If you’re lucky enough, you get that sort too.
BYT: Kevin (Drew) recently told Pitchfork, “The core of who you are comes from the people you spend your time with.” Would you agree with that statement?
Well, I’d say the core of who you are actually comes from the first five years of your life – that’s the core of who you are. I’m more of a nurture than a nature person, though I guess it’s a split. I’m a relatively new father, and when you have your kid and they’re that young you kind of relive your own childhood, or you remember forgotten things from your infancy. I go with Gertrude Stein: your core nature – or your bottom nature, as I think she called it – you get it from your parents.
But I agree with Kevin that what shapes you is the company you keep. Absolutely. The clay is the clay, but what happens with who you’re around and how you affect them. We’re all super emphatic and emotional. Charlie [Spearin’s] dad once called us “night-oriented stage people” and that’s what we are. We’re really open. We’re porous and we’re open to what other people are like, and we are definitely a spongy bunch. Kevy Drew and the Spongy Bunch! [Laughs heartily]
BYT: I was reading an old interview of yours where you were discussing the Apostle of Hustle album Eats Darkness, and you touched upon something I’ve been giving a lot of thought to as a writer, of taking from influences all around you. You sampled a fair amount of poetry and sound clips from the web.
I’m curious, are you still in the mentality where you’re constantly absorbing? And if so, what’s your favorite present medium for learning for learning’s sake?
That’s a cool question. I guess I just drizzled out – I don’t listen to music that has words in it anymore, just jazz and electronic music basically. I don’t want to hear it anymore, though there are a few exceptions – some bands I still play. I love U.S. Girls and Wildbirds & Peacedrums, from Sweden.
That’s one thing that happened to me. I’m like a dad that thirty years ago would have just gone into his garage and played some CCR covers. A couple of dad friends of mine we just plug in our MIDI cables into our computers and turn on our synths and we jam to Aphex Twin. That’s what I do now. [Laughs] Just listen to that, and Four Tet. I haven’t gotten into the modular synthesis thing because I don’t have enough money to do it, but that’s what’s working for me these days.
BYT: Do you feel that the stories that you’re living now or narrating for yourself are your child’s stories, or your own stories? What is filling in that blank space?
I guess it’s…to tie it into Hug of Thunder, I brought a couple of songs. I did a lot of writing on this record. I’m like the George Harrison of this group – there’s usually a couple of songs that I sing on, and Kevy does most of it. There was one song we were fooling around with that I sang lead on, but it didn’t fit the rest of the tunes. And for some reason – which I can’t examine fully – I didn’t feel the need to tell my story or point of view to anyone. And I don’t exactly know why. But that’s where it’s at – maybe I’m just sick of my own stories.
I think that five years from now or somewhere along the line I’ll want to start writing songs with lyrics again, but right now the movements of harmony and counterpoint and syncopation and texture – these things are more foregrounded for me. That’s enough. I think Kevy knocked out some great lyrics, and I helped Ariel write some great lyrics for “Stay Happy”. I do contribute, but I don’t know.
I wrote a few songs for the new AroarA record but now that it has shifted to being Ariel [Engle’s] solo record, I don’t know if they’ll stay or not; and if they don’t, maybe they’ll come across. It’s going to be Ariel’s sort of “coming out” record, so I am moving myself into the background. We’ve recorded lots of songs this year and I just need a few more, and we’ll see what happens. It’s going to be a fabulous record, and I don’t say that just because she’s my wife. [Laughs] She’s amazing.
Now that I look back, Ariel had to really push me to write some songs for our record because I wasn’t even doing that. I was just interested in music without words. [Laughs] I always like the new songs more than the old ones.