Kevin Drew is a Canadian musician and songwriter who, together with Brendan Canning, founded the expansive Toronto baroque-pop collective Broken Social Scene. He was also part of the lesser-known KC Accidental, which consisted of Drew and Charles Spearin, another current member of Broken Social Scene. He is currently dating fellow Broken Social Scene member and solo artist Leslie Feist.
Kevin attended the Etobicoke School of the Arts, along with Metric’s Emily Haines and Stars’s Amy Millan, where he studied drama.
Kevin Drew is not a “definitive statement” kind of guy. He is, however, a master of the sprawling, hilarious, and unerringly charming conversation. Drew’s passionate and mercurial style is manifest in his music, which is both anthemic and magnificently tentative. The day after a thoroughly crowd-pleasing performance opening for Feist at McCarren Park Pool, we sat down with Drew to discuss Broken Social Scene, Dinosaur Jr’s J. Mascis, and Drew’s solo debut Spirit If….
Pitchfork: At the McCarren Park show, you referred to Spirit If as an “emotional mixtape.”
Kevin Drew: If you look at it, [Broken] Social Scene never really made records. I think Feel Good Lost was a record. But You Forgot It In People and the last one, and this record, they are mixtapes. They’re not one sound start to finish.
And I think that’s because we just do whatever we want. The worst thing about this thing was putting it out, because it wasn’t made to be a record. I went over to Ohad Benchetrit [of Do Make Say Think]’s house, his family took me in, and…and just started recording songs. And over the last couple years, that’s just what I did, and that’s where a lot of these recordings came from. And then the last year of that, I started steering towards “let’s make this a solo record,” I started singing and playing lots of stuff. And it was great to record again, and to mix stuff, and to watch the boys mix stuff. Ohad gave me nothing but freedom, he was just like “do whatever you want.” And his family was so beautiful. One of the great things about the Canadian grant system is that I got one, so I was able to pay him and keep going back there.
I’ve made records with Charles for 11 years. I made two records with Charlie as KC Accidental, two boys making an album. Then I made Feel Good Lost with Brendan, two boys making an album. Then I went to You Forgot It In People, which was like, three boys, seven boys, eight boys, two boys, one guy, two insane boys, seven months of “what the fuck?” And then we went off and played and then made another record with Dave Newfeld and Canning that was like, three boys, two boys, eight boys, five boys… So it was great just to get back to that quality of hanging out and pressing records.
Pitchfork: I’m interested in the fact that you used the word “emotional” to describe it– one of my fears is that as everything becomes background music, we’re getting less inclined towards close, emotional listening.
KD: If you have a connection to something, you’re always going to listen to it. As we’re sitting here right now, the Gipsy Kings are playing, and this is background music to you and me, but this man is pouring his heart and soul into something. But I think that music will always be background to a certain degree. When I said it was an “emotional mixtape,” I meant that I am closing my eyes and singing some ballads and being irresponsible to the moment of later– I was only thinking of that moment then. It wasn’t like I wanted to be defined as a crooner singing about what didn’t work out or what did. I always found that a little silly in my world, and I am kind of a silly man at times. Think about what songs are used for now. Most of them are in commercials, or in films, and they’re not even used in an emotional way.
Pitchfork: But in that context, even when they are used in an “emotional” way, their presence is usually heightening an emotion that’s being expressed elsewhere, or simply telling you that something emotional is happening. It’s like emotional MSG, enhancing a pre-existing flavor.
KD: We just did this Book Eaters thing the other day. And the Village Voice wrote about it. And what I took from it was just saying, “a bunch of people singing in emotional falsetto to try to portray themselves as something more than they are, really.” It didn’t really focus on the charity at hand or anything like that. And I liked that! I just suddenly thought about being backstage, and I think it always shocks you to meet the people you shared your bedrooms with. You know, they’re real people, they fart. And a lot of them either take themselves too seriously or don’t know how to take themselves at all. And I’ve always had trouble with that. I wanted to be aware in a very sarcastic way that every song I’ve written has probably been written about 12-16 times before. And doing that makes it very hard for me to accept serious singer-songwriters in the world, the up-and-comers, the ones who are out there who let that define their every move, who live and die and breathe for it. It’s a bit of a tragedy, I think.
Pitchfork: It does seem weird to me how interested people are in finding what sounds “new.”
KD: What would that even be now?
Pitchfork: Well, I think that different canonical bands are sort of in everybody’s minds at different times. So if you draw from an older band that isn’t in fashion, you sound “new.”
KD: We’ve also lived through the rise and the fall times. Over the last five years we’ve had a lot of “whoa these guys are incredible!” and then “waaaaait a second…”
Pitchfork: It’s funny, I think that when you guys were just starting to get some recognition, people weren’t really paying attention to Dinosaur Jr. and J Mascis.
KD: Right– they stopped at the Pixies.
Pitchfork: It’s interesting to me because now, you’re working with J, which makes so much sense, but when you were coming up, if Dinosaur Jr. had been more fashionable, you might have been written off with, “whatever, these guys just sound like Dinosaur Jr.”
KD: I always thought Dinosaur Jr. was a club. It was always fun to find Dinosaur Jr. fans, because you immediately had an understanding of something. Especially with girls– they seemed like such a boy band and then when you found girls who were really into Dinosaur Jr., it was like, “whoa, wow, let’s go hang out.” I mean, that’s been one of my favorite things. You have to understand, I was fourteen years old– just imagine me at fourteen years old with a canoe panel rocking out to Bug on repeat. Go outside, smoke a couple cigarettes, go back in and do the show again because I can do it better– just lube up the canoe paddle and go for it. And then having those guys come to our video shoot, just having the whole band there… it’s an irreplaceable thing, you know? Sixteen years later, you’re high on tequila jumping around with your favorite band when you were a kid.
Pitchfork: J is so interesting to me… musicians are expected to be so much more public now, and that kind of grumbly and private persona doesn’t really seem be taken very well any more.
KD: I don’t think he’s one for the cameras too much. J is a hilarious man. We’ve all spent time and become friends with him over this slow period. The last hang we all had with him, he came to Toronto, we played a charity show, and he was cracking jokes after jokes– he’s a very sweet man. A lot of people don’t understand, it takes him about 30 or 40 seconds to answer you. So if you ask him a question and he doesn’t answer you in the time period you’re used to, that’s just J. He teases us a lot, I tease him a lot. It’s a good teasing relationship. Lots of shots at each other, out of love. I like that whole crew, I like Murph and Lou and their managers and wives and stuff.
Pitchfork: That makes sense– I don’t know J Mascis, and most people don’t, but the idea that somebody would be different when you get to know him seems so obvious, but also so outrageous in the information age.
KD: That’s one of the battles you have when you start out, like “you don’t fucking know me! How dare you write that!” Some 16-year-old kid blog is ruining your day, calling you every name he needs to so that he can validate himself. I told [Justin] Peroff the other day I’m not Cole Trickle, I don’t want anyone to have that opinion of me.
Pitchfork: On the new record, your vocals come off as more expressive than they have in the past.
KD: We turned ’em up, much to people’s dismay!
Pitchfork: Did you feel like your vocals had to carry the songs more, without the whole band in tow?
KD: We didn’t think about much, we were just having lots of fun. And when we did think about things, we got super-detailed, and we did get super-detailed about vocals. But I just went and sang in the mic, and after a while of listening to it, it’s like, “ah, forget it.” You want to change some of the lyrics but it’s like trying to repeat a conversation– you can, but the vibe was there and you can’t go back and change it around. Charlie got really nervous because I kept turning up the vocals, and he was like, “what are you doing?”– and they’re still buried!
Pitchfork: Yeah, it’s definitely not backbeat-and-vocals pop music
KD: Yeah, that’s just not the music I like.
Pitchfork: It’s funny, I think people have this idea of how Broken Social Scene as a group must function… Once you reach a certain degree of visibility, people assume that things must be more interesting than they actually are. “He put ‘Broken Social Scene’ on the album title to sell records, but this is just Kevin Drew’s big-ego solo project”
KD: But then you hear the record, and does it sound like that?
Pitchfork: It sounds like a Broken Social Scene record.
KD: A ha! Well, then, maybe rather than calling it Broken Social Scene and doing my big ego solo project where I totally take the record away from everybody, I thought I’d make this album and put it under “Broken social scene presents” because we have a lot of stuff in the wings that we don’t necessarily want to put it out as Broken Social Scene. We didn’t want to cash in on all the work that all of us did together. But because everyone was on the record, it seemed like the right thing to do. It is a huge, fast world and we wanted to make sure that people knew what it was. Everyone else has a band, but Justin, Brendan and I didn’t. We sort of wanted to stay in the realm of what Broken Social Scene was.
Pitchfork: Was it a little easier to work knowing that you had the final say?
KD: I always have a hard time finishing shit. I had a hard time finishing this one. I don’t like to accept that things are over a lot of the time, like many people.
Pitchfork: Starting a record is more fun than finishing a record.
KD: Oh yeah, being in the middle of a record is still as much fun. Like I said earlier, I didn’t really put much thought into it, I didn’t have much purpose, I just made sure that the time and the quality were good. Ohad and Charles were really sweet and we just had a lot of fun. And all the players who came in were friends, and I went out and got all these crazy guests because I thought, “let’s make this as fun and outrageous as possible,” within the context of it still being me just puking out the moments that I need to get out of me. We slowed things down with Social Scene because it was just getting pushed too much in the direction of “you need more, you need to achieve more.” And it was sucking away at us while we were doing it. The questions were starting to get fucking ridiculous. And the opportunities were starting to get kinda silly. And we can be silly or serious, or ego-less or filled with ego, or self-destructive or sweet, but we had a responsibility to that spirit we had from the beginning. And I didn’t want to be one of those bands that started chasing something. I don’t need to huff glue and stare in a mirror to feel good about myself. I need to make sure the surroundings for us are good.
Pitchfork: The last time I interviewed you, the people from Mercury Records were sitting at the table next to us… has your experience with the music industry changed the way you feel about this stuff?
KD: I know now that we’re in the grateful stage. I know now I’m very thankful for all that’s happened. I think we’ve had an incredible time, and I think a lot of people were responsible for the success of this band, and I think that now because we did achieve what we wanted, it’s up to us to see where we want to go next. And I think we’re going to try to go the route of just continuing. I talked to [Broken Social Scene guitarist Andrew] Whitey the other day, and I put my eyes down to the floor, and I said, “we’re just gonna,” and he said, “we’re just gonna keep going.” We had a little movie moment. And that’s what I want to do. There’s a lot of things I want to do in my life. I have a very hard time with taking a lot of this stuff seriously. I’ve been watching a lot of my friends’ careers in the last little while and I fell victim to being pompous about a lot of things. I took some stuff for granted, just normal shit that you do. I can’t read any more articles about bands. It’s the same fucking story: good times, bad times, this was hard, that was hard– it’s belittling now. What’s belittling is the story, not what happened. Writing about it, reading it, it’s the same fucking story.
Pitchfork: It’s the difference between a story and an experience…
KD: And it’s just silly. I’m very careful when I do interviews. I realized, who really gives a fuck? I needed some sort of story, you need some kind of protection when you’re doing this stuff. And I was just like, “Spirit If is my ‘what if?'” It’s questioning the “what if” generation that lives within all of us. You’re 23 years old– it wasn’t like this when I was 13 and you were 5. I really do think that there’s been a fucking overload of the “what if?” What’s behind door number two? What’s behind door number three? And within that, too, there’s this extreme pressure. It is unbelievable! And that is not how you’re supposed to be maneuvering.
Pitchfork: I think that’s part of the reason that people in my generation misread bands’ motives. A lot of the best music happens in the absence of those “what ifs” when you’re focusing on the experience. And when it becomes successful, people assume that was the goal all along.
KD: That’s why I said that the worst thing about it is that I knew I had to put it out. It depressed me because working on the album was so fun for me. Not going to Ohad’s today depresses me. As soon as I stopped going over there, I just got so sad. It falls into the be careful what you wish for category. There is a process, and being judged is part of it, and getting your work judged is a huge part of it, and that’s the one that really questions your emotional maturity. Because like I said earlier, someone can send me an email like, “listen to this dick who hates you!” And my day’s gone, that’s it! Some dude with a calculator and a porn collection has just ruined my day, you know?
Pitchfork: I’m always kind of amused when I read an article like “KEVIN DREW SAYS THAT THIS RECORD IS ABOUT THIS”
KD: They don’t know how I talk! I just talk. Do you know how many times I’ve screwed myself just being like, “I think it’s like this,” and then the headline is: “Drew says this about the fate of Social Scene.” I said, “I don’t know!” What’s wrong with “I don’t know?”
Pitchfork: Isn’t everyone always uncertain to some extent?
KD: I know! People are putting rings on other people’s fingers, in the back of their mind they’re like, “meh– I hope this works!” But fuck, this whole institution is telling you, “it will, it will, get the right chairs for the wedding, GET THE RIGHT CHAIRS.”
Pitchfork: It will work, and it has to work.
KD: Right, “it has to work.” And then you meet the old school who are like, “yeah, we didn’t talk to each other for five years because she got sick and I had to do this and that, but look at us now!” Our school can’t stick around. It’s like, “this isn’t working, I’m in a bad mood, I’m not happy, I’ve gotta go. I’ll go find it again.” The older generation, most of them stuck together. And they stuck together through tough times. We just carry our shit as humans from next thing to next thing to next thing. I mean, look at the state of your country. It hasn’t changed, dude! But now, it’s almost as if every day is worse. We don’t really do much any more, we don’t really talk about it. It’s just, more and more comes down on you and you wonder why you have anxiety attacks and shit.
Pitchfork: The self-titled Social Scene album seemed to address a lot of this stuff, too. It took me a while to get into it.
KD: It takes a while. But you know what I love about it? It didn’t put us where people thought we were going.
Pitchfork: Even from the way the songs were sounding live, it seemed like you were going somewhere else.
KD: “We’re going Coldplay! We’re going Coldplay! Are you guys ready?”
Pitchfork: You could hear that tension in the music itself, you could hear it starting to go in one direction and then fucking that up.
KD: The problem is, Newfeld didn’t know who Coldplay was! He was still listening to the Hair soundtrack. The last U2 record he heard was Unforgettable Fire. Do you think that everything sounds like U2 now? I was saying that a couple years ago, and now it seems like everything sounds like U2.
Pitchfork: I think that there’s a crisis over sincerity now– nobody believes that art is sincere unless somebody tells them so. So music has to be SO sincere and so BIG in its sincerity.
KD: And sincerity is not honesty.
Pitchfork: And sounding sincere isn’t the same as being sincere.
KD: I’ve got to say that a lot of my bands put out stinkers this year– there were some fucking stinkers from people who should not have been making shitty records.
Pitchfork: Well, I think everybody’s looking over their shoulders a little bit these days.
KD: You know, I didn’t overthink any process until the end. The worst part of it was when you had to think about it. That’s irritating. And for me, I haven’t been making great decisions for the last two years anyhow. I let the band down– I was a great leader for a while there, the kid just cheering everybody on, and I just got fucking exhausted. I got exhausted at the end of the show figuring how to get to the hotel every night. And now there’s a book coming, and someone’s making a documentary. These are good friends working on them, but it all revolves around you and it’s exhausting.
Pitchfork: It’s been weird seeing things change from those first Mercury Lounge shows, where you had to load in and set up your own gear, to these big club shows with a whole team of bouncers and security guards, who sometimes seem pretty antagonistic…
KD: If I’m around and someone in our camp is gonna get threatened, it’s not gonna happen.
Pitchfork: But your principles are at odds with the scale you’re working on– there’s only so much you can do.
KD: We arrived at our hotel and our rooms were a mess, and Canning turned to me and said, “I miss Park Slope, I miss sleeping on Chris Brown’s floor.” To do anything now, you have to go through six channels just to make sure everything’s in sync. Even just to take a day off, to hold a beautiful hand or stare at a tree, it takes 18 emails to achieve that. It’s ridiculous. We played TT the Bear’s [In Cabridge, MA] Tuesday night, and I said to Canning, “I want to reevaluate our whole American tour.” Especially for Spirit If, it’s smaller. It was so great just staring at poeple in a small club, it’s like a fucking group hug.
Pitchfork: It seems like you’ve been working on music more or less constantly for the last five years…
KD: Canning’s doing a solo record, which he started in the wintertime. I said, “so what’s up, I hear you’re in the studio?” And he looked at me like, “well, what else am I gonna do? You know, it’s winter, we’re not on the road.” Brendan’s already made seventeen answering machine records. He’s probably recorded on my answering machine something like 47 songs in the last two years. So I’m really excited for that. You’ve seen this group of people, everybody’s playing music all the time. It’s what they do. But it makes me uncomfortable when that defines who you are. That’s horrible. And some people need that– to be artists. And I respect that, but I don’t respect all of them. I think some of them are raging fools that put really bad energy into our world. But nonetheless, I want to be defined by me. That’s what I want to be defined by.
Pitchfork: But can you?
KD: Not when you’re doing this stuff. But you can in your life. You know, I’ve screwed up a bunch of stuff with people that I love. You’ve gotta call your moments and know when it’s time to evaluate, time to change. If anything wrong happened with all this, it was all the booze. It’s not even drugs, it’s just booze– tons and tons of booze. I really became lazy with that, and I just watched my friends drink all this booze all the time. I love just talking to the audience and screaming and saying, “you gotta do this,” ordering positivity upon them. And when the crowds got bigger, my mouth got bigger, you know? But, I think that there’s this middle that I’m pushing with this record. Because, as I said earlier, it’s endings and beginnings, you know, those are the addictions. That’s all that people can see or hear or want to read about or see in films. And the middle is where the responsibility lies. It’s something I’ve really been thinking about, and something I’m learning. You know, I think we don’t deal with things as much as we should, as much as older generations did. There’s so much information and so much access to other ways of dealing with things. If you’re a musician and you’re really on top of your game, the last thing you’re doing is playing music. You’re doing all the other shit, you’re making decisions, you’re emailing, you’re texting, you’re on your Blackberry, you’re working hard to get your stuff heard. And then your music is 5th on the list. “Oh yeah, and I gotta play music too.” I can’t do that, and I don’t know many who can.
Pitchfork: It’s a terrible feeling, changing gears like that when a record’s done.
KD: And it does get everyone in the end. They truly see it in the end. They all have their moment when they say, “look, fuck that.”
Pitchfork: It is really hard to get your music out to a culture with such a short attention span.
KD: There’s no attention span any more. Short attention span was a while ago. For fuck’s sakes, we’ve been reading about Brad & Angelina every time we’ve gone to take a piss or buy some toothpaste. And that stuff didn’t really exist ten years ago. There wasn’t a lot of it, there was the Inquirer. Now I can’t find a magazine without Brad and Angelina! Or Lohan! Like, get some fucking friends! It’s okay that you’re doing coke, sweetie, it’s alright, you don’t have to say you’re an addict at 21! You’re saying you’re an addict at 21 because you’re in the public eye. And then what? Then we have to read about Owen, our sweet dear, lovely Owen, Owen who we look to and love, Owen please make us laugh, Owen you damned cutie! What the fuck, Owen? Get some fucking friends, man.
Pitchfork: It’s the same with politics– I don’t think people are interested in things that get more complicated the more you look at them.
KD: They need an answer immediately, they need a feeling immediately, they need a connection immediately.
Pitchfork: And that’s why everything sounds like U2!
KD: That is why everything sounds like U2! They need an immediate connection, it’s familiar, there you go.
Pitchfork: Indie bands are functioning on a larger scale, too.
KD: Modest Mouse debuted at fucking number one on the Billboard charts! At least their story was a fucking good one.
Pitchfork: And their story was right there in their art. Whereas now the story often seems to justify the music, or make it seem more interesting or different from what it actually is. So what do you do with that?
KD: I say, “don’t look at me like that! What are you looking at me like that for?”
Pitchfork: But then that becomes part of the story, too.
KD: You’ve got a mirror, and you’ve got a window. You have to look in both, and make sure you know exactly what you’re looking at in both of them. I don’t think you have to put too much thought into many things. I really don’t. You have a connection to something, you like it, fine. I think people should take a little more fucking time, put a little more effort into themselves, into their surroundings, and into the idea of what makes people get out of bed. I think there should be less avoidance.
You can’t tell people how to listen to music. You just fucking listen to it. You don’t put your iPods on shuffle, you don’t even go to record stores any more. It’s great, people are finding more and more bands because of these great internet sites. But I fucking loved going down to the record stores and going to the listening stations and albums home and listening to them. I still hope people load their iPods with shit, and go driving for hours. People are listening to music! Good bands are selling records, good bands are getting noticed. We are in a vibrant place. Satellite radio? That shit is coming on strong, and that shit is saving radio. And all the bands writing commercials? There used to be a holy textbook about how you’re not allowed to do that, and it doesn’t exist anymore. Someone’s buried that. Commercials are becoming the new radio– it depends how much effort you want to spend. But people are listening to music. I’ve seen people find great bands through commercials and not give two shits.
Pitchfork: But I do think people are also interested in how to listen to music, and look to the artists for clues and hints– the “story,” as you put it.
KD: I hope to god that the kids aren’t looking! You’re supposed to make your own story out of it! You’re supposed to make the story into your life! When I listened to Dinosaur Jr., I wasn’t thinking of J’s girl problems, I was thinking of mine. I made a record where it’s like, “do you really want to know the story behind this record? You’ve got your own!” This story is supposed to evoke that, it’s supposed to bring it out and make you think about it.
Pitchfork: The nature of introspection has changed, like you said. People are interested in escaping the parts of their own lives that don’t appeal to them, moving on to the next thing.
KD: That’s the only way we fix things now! Or, you stay right there and you figure it out, and you try to save it at that moment. It just depends on how much value you have and what you’re walking away from.
Pitchfork: You write lyrics in the cryptic-romantic indie rock mold, but you talk about sex in much more explicit terms than most.
KD: I am a pervert! I am a sweet pervert. Actually, Torquil [Campbell, of Stars] called me a pervert the other day. I did grow up on porn, I grew up on these things that were almost wrong, in a way. And I always was determined to always write about that, to find the beauty within what some people find ugly, what you’re not allowed to talk to about. I find it very beautiful, always have. And there is disgusting stuff out there, and some of it is really degrading to women. But some of it is really beautiful, too. I am singing about closed doors. And two. And how to keep that alive.
Pitchfork: I think a parallel could be drawn between that approach and your band’s music, which is vividly messy in its own right.
KD: I like the idea of carpet burns and shower curtains and cum towels, you know? I like to find the beauty in all that, the poetry in all that. That’s what I like to write about, the fights, the humanity, the breath, the sound of the breath. I find something glorious about that. Those are my love songs– the only way I can distinctly know they’re mine is if I’m honest. There are thousands upon billions of love songs written. If I can fit “you fucked me in the ass” or “cum dribbles” into my ballads, I feel better about myself.
[tags]kevin drew, bss, broken social scene, montreal, music scene, arts and crafts, spirit if, lyrics, music videos, interview, pitchfork, kevin drew interviews[/tags]