Jason Collett unleashes the creative power of ambivalence
Cover | by Craig Silliphant
With Kalle Mattson
I’ve never seen anyone as seemingly ambivalent to the release of their own album as Jason Collett. The Broken Social Scene guitarist has a new record called Song and Dance Man containing songs Collett seemingly disparages — telling me he “doesn’t value them that much.”
“Yeah, I’ll get into trouble if I let you get away with calling it disparaging,” Collett laughs over the phone from Toronto. “My label has frowned at me enough for saying, you know, the best way I can sum up this record is ambivalence.”
At first I don’t know if he’s just one of those guys who can’t help being honest or if he’s perpetrating a media mindfuck. Who promotes their record using words like “ambivalence”?
He’s mostly referring to the songs that producer Afie Jurvanen (a.k.a. Bahamas) chose for the album, which Collett considers “toss-offs.” Collett gave Jurvanen about 30 songs, and the producer chose several for the album.
He’s also talking about his band for this record, an all-star team of Jurvanen on bass, Christine Bougie on guitar and Zeus’ Neil Quin on backing vocals (in fact, the members of Zeus will back Collett on this tour).
But while the songs may not have been Collett’s own first picks, he values collaboration over his own ego and opinion.
“I’m a big fan of giving it up,” Collett says. “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,” says Collett. “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’s what gets exciting,” he says.
“This is why I like to collaborate with people. It brings a whole kind of new life and energy to my work.”
Most of the album is light and breezy, even tropical-sounding in places. But there’s tension between the upbeat music and some sadder or more sardonic tones in the lyrics.
A lot of the themes focus around the record industry and our ever-withering culture, where we create mythologies about rich rock stars who actually have no money because the industry has crashed, and the streaming systems that replaced it rip off the artists tenfold.
“So we have parts of our culture that are dying, and it’s sad to see,” says Collett. “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,” Collett says. “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.”
Collett also pokes at marketing and social media. “If you can tweet something brilliant, you got a marketing plan.”
He also tells me some of his peers are crossing certain lines of dignity — promising $250 dinner dates when they come to a fan’s town, or taking commissions to write a song for a fan’s 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,” says Collett. “Once again, we’re losing out here — [as] people, as a culture. We’re going to lose the good stuff. We’re going to be left with just the shtick.”
Why Do This?
Collett’s last record was 2012’s Reckon, so it’s taken him a few years to release new solo material. (He hasn’t let moss grow on him though; he’s been active with things like the Jason Collett Basement Revue shows in Toronto — showcases that feature musicians and literary figures.) But he obviously wasn’t in a hurry to release new material.
I ask him straight up: if the record industry sucks, streaming services are making it a financial joke, and you’re ambivalent towards your own album — why still do this?
“This was the question I was wrestling with before even making another record,” Collett admits. “Do I really want to contribute what is really just considered free content for the gaping maw of Google? And Amazon? And whatever the fuck else?
“I do feel reluctant to do that.”
I need to point out that Collett really doesn’t come off like a guy with a mouth full of sour grapes. Quite the opposite, actually. He’s funny and thoughtful, and his honesty about how he wrestles with the contradictions in the industry is as refreshing as it is thought-provoking.
I figured out pretty quick into our chat that he wasn’t just fucking with some dumb journalist. It’s not shtick. He’s the genuine article.
In fact, it’s shtick that’s breaking Collett’s heart. He’s a man who has seen the before and the after. Now he’s just fighting to figure out what his place in all this is.
Before we hang up, I ask — for the fans— if there’s anything happening with Broken Social Scene.
“Yeah, there is!” he says. “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.”
A little good news in withered times, at least.