Indie Music Label Arts & Crafts Celebrates 10 Years

An oral history of the label that put the Canadian independent scene on the global map, on its 10th anniversary

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Members of Broken Social Scene in New York in July 2003. {From left): Kevin Drew, Leslie Feist, Charles Spearin, Andrew Whiteman, Jason Collett, Justin Peroff, Brendan Canning; Photo by Jeffrey Remedios

Members of Broken Social Scene in New York in July 2003. {From left): Kevin Drew, Leslie Feist, Charles Spearin, Andrew Whiteman, Jason Collett, Justin Peroff, Brendan Canning; Photo by Jeffrey Remedios

When Jeffrey Remedios, then a director at Virgin Records, first met charismatic Toronto musician Kevin Drew, they debated the merits of major versus indie labels. That conversation would eventually spawn Arts & Crafts, a record label that combines the best of both worlds. Kick-started by the groundbreaking Broken Social Scene album You Forgot It in People, Arts & Crafts crystallized a historic moment in Canadian music that also included Stars, Jason Collett and Feist. The label celebrates its 10th anniversary this year, marking the occasion with a festival headlined by a reunited Broken Social Scene and new-guard signees such as Trust, Cold Specks and Timber Timbre. Here, the original roster looks back on what Drew calls, “the good, the great, the amazing and the bad times.”

The album that started it all in 2002: Broken Social Scene's You Forgot It in People

The album that started it all in 2002: Broken Social Scene’s You Forgot It in People

James Shaw: There were these two Toronto schools. There were all these kids who went to Oakwood Collegiate, who were all my friends—Torquil Campbell, Evan Cranley and Chris Seligman—and then there was the Etobicoke School of the Arts side, which was Emily Haines, Kevin Drew, Amy Millan.

Amy Millan, Leslie Feist and Emily Haines at Toronto's Harbourfront Centre in 2009; Photo by Jeffrey Remedios

Amy Millan, Leslie Feist and Emily Haines at Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre in 2009; Photo by Jeffrey Remedios

Amy Millan: Emily asked me in the first week of school to come into the practice rooms and sing harmonies with her. I learned to sing from her.

James Shaw: When Emily and I met, we were the first two that anyone had seen from each other’s schools. That’s how I met Kevin. He was on fire back then. Anywhere he went he would bring people into this vision he had of making music. He was the guy who was constantly doing something and had a bigger vision. We were all so young and naive, so we just kind of believed in him.

Jeffrey Remedios: They pulled together all these friends, which ended up being the folks from Stars and Metric, and Do Make Say Think, Apostle of Hustle, Jason Collett. And they’d play these shows and write all these new songs every time they played. And those songs were eventually formed into what became Broken Social Scene’s You Forgot It in People.

James Shaw: They hung a sheet at the front of the sage [for one performance] and played the whole show behind the sheet. I remember there was one moment when Kevin was wailing on a guitar solo and Charlie was saluting him. And right at that moment, someone ran up to the sheet and ripped it down. The first visual of the band at that show was Charlie saluting Kev.

Brendan Canning: Kevin’s basement was the Broken Social Scene rehearsal space. We were able to play at a quiet volume because you can’t blast it too much when you’re in a house. Everyone was close enough that you could really hear what was going on.

Jason Collett: All these labels were amalgamating and dropping thousands of acts. There was a turning inwards that was going on at this time where musicians were going into basements to do stuff for the joy of it because the larger industry was just a mess. This is a time when the industry was imploding and this is why a guy like Jeffrey Remedios was leaving a mainstream label to start his own.

Jeffrey Remedios: I remember staying up overnight to put helium balloons with the Rolling Stones mouth on them on every parking meter in the city; having to announce the free Spice Girls show on Yonge Street wasn’t going to happen because one of them got sick; taking a private jet to Chicago to meet with The Smashing Pumpkins. I was like, God, this is kind of fun! But then there were all those bands where I was like, Why am I here? What am I doing?

Kevin Drew: I took on all the risk with Jeff, and there was a lot of it and there still is. My first instinct was to own the label that my band was on so that I only had to answer to myself. It didn’t really work out that way.

Leslie Feist and Kevin Drew at NYC's Mercury Lounge in 2003; Photo by Jeffrey Remedios

Leslie Feist and Kevin Drew at NYC’s Mercury Lounge in 2003; Photo by Jeffrey Remedios

Brendan Canning: Everything was an off-shoot of Broken Social Scene. Obviously Feist is not, because she clearly has her own career, and a vibrant one.

Jeffrey Remedios: Broken was just a rocket ship that we were going to build around. I’ve said it kind of tongue-in-cheek, but if anyone starts a music company I recommend they do it with Broken Social Scene. Our first 10 releases came in some way, shape or form in relation to them.

Don McKellar: Any big indie label does that. It grabs a smallish scene. That’s what was so exhilarating about Arts & Crafts. It put Toronto in this lineage of great labels. Motown or Stax or Stiff or Sub Pop, all those big scenes have always been associated with a label. It had successfully done that for the first time ever in Toronto. [Arts & Crafts] said this is a scene worth listening to.

Charles Spearin: Every time I went into the Arts & Crafts office they had a new staff member and they had taken down a wall. It seemed to be a thriving success story right away and everybody still seemed to have the same casualness and friendliness.

Jason Collett: There were obviously growing pains. If things didn’t go as you’d expect, I think some of my peers just blamed the label… Often the work you do, you don’t get paid for months down the line—sometimes years down the line. I’ve chosen to have faith in the relationships that I’ve had, partially because they’re friendships.

Jason Collett at a truck stop in 2003; Photo by Jeffrey Remedios

Jason Collett at a truck stop in 2003; Photo by Jeffrey Remedios

Kevin Drew: It put a strain on Brendan and my relationship on and off. Brendan sometimes would be upset that I would be the [band’s] leader and [business] partners with our manager. I did all the business all the way through You Forgot It in People and all the touring. I had my old-school graph sheets with my pencils and my rulers and my calculators out and I paid everybody. My dad retired early and got out of the book business. I said to him, “Look Pops, I need some help.” And to this day he is my business manager. Bringing him on board basically saved Jeffrey and my relationship because there was someone else speaking for the band but speaking for me as an owner.

James Shaw: Kevin was always about the community. The community was always more important to him than he was. That has always been the principle behind that label: to create a community for people to put records out.

I came in to head up the marketing side in 2006, but I quickly took on artist management clients. I remember Kevin’s exact quote: Everyone in the band has had another outlet for either a different sound or working with a different group of people except for him and Brendan. The irony in that was him and Brendan were at the core of Broken Social Scene. So they each made solo records, and we weren’t sure how best to title them or present them. In the end we settled on Broken Social Scene Presents.

When we were starting up, I could only give bands so much time and then I was gone. One of my favourite bands, The Most Serene Republic, I still think about those guys every other day. I first heard their record in [Stars’ singer] Torquil Campbell’s parents’ old home in Montreal. I had gone through a bunch of records that came through Arts & Crafts and said, “Why don’t we listen to them?” So we sat there and drank wine and listened to their debut album Underwater Cinematographer, and I just loved it. I loved everything that was joyous. Those guys came in swinging with that. They were very young. I felt a lot of responsibility to the point where I couldn’t keep up with it. [In 2011, The Most Serene Republic released its first album under its own label. It continues to be distributed by Arts & Crafts.]

I remember when we said, “Look, start putting out records independently, you will do better than being with us.” I still was upset by it. I thought to myself, I should have done a better job of making sure these guys were OK. But I was always on the road and I had all my friends and of course I had my own bullshit, where I had to go off and celebrate my own mirror for awhile, which is inevitable when things are going your way.

We put out a great Gentleman Reg record [2009’s Jet Black]. Things didn’t work out the way they should have. When that record comes on, it’s a bruise. You feel like you let people down. [Gentleman Reg released his most recent album, Leisure Life, on his own label.]

There’s only so much you can contribute. You’ve got your personal life, you’ve got your family, you’ve got to take care of Social Scene; it was a constant taking care of other people, as they take care of you. The way that you want it to work for these people and the way that you have to see them upset with how they’re not working out, their frustrations. You can’t completely explain to them, because their music is so lovely. There is not a record that we’ve put out that we haven’t loved. But there’s been a lot where things don’t work out. That was always a difficult side to me, and one that I would carry into my sleep and carry into my days. I knew it hurt for these people. That’s a tough one to swallow. When I put out my solo record, between 2006 and 2007, those I think were my dark years at the label in terms of attitude and behaviour and just generally…I don’t know, not having the right attitude. There was a childishness that, when I look back on it, I wish [I had] handled a lot of situations differently.

Toronto photographer—and frequent FLARE contributor—Norman Wong shot a series of photos to commemorate A&C's 10th anniversary. Stars bandmates and real-life partners Amy Millan and Evan Cranley; Photo by Norman Wong

Toronto photographer—and frequent FLARE contributor—Norman Wong shot a series of photos to commemorate A&C’s 10th anniversary. Stars bandmates and real-life partners Amy Millan and Evan Cranley; Photo by Norman Wong

Kieran Roy: I came in to head up the marketing side in 2006, but I quickly took on artist management clients. I remember Kevin’s exact quote: Everyone in the band has had another outlet for either a different sound or working with a different group of people except for him and Brendan. The irony in that was him and Brendan were at the core of Broken Social Scene. So they each made solo records, and we weren’t sure how best to title them or present them. In the end we settled on Broken Social Scene Presents.

Jeffrey Remedios: It was a lot of, Is this a Kevin Drew record or is this a Broken Social Scene record? Almost the entire band appears on it. It’s like if The White Album was 100 percent written by John Lennon, do you call it a Beatles record? I don’t know.

Kieran Roy: The band went on to tour and pulled from both of those albums in its live set.

Kevin Drew: I do think [Broken Social Scene] wasted a lot of time with unneeded conversations and unneeded issues, and that is something I will never forget, and never forgive. Well, I forgive everything. I am a forgiving man. I just think there were a few moments there where we turned left where we should have turned right. But everyone was just scattered all over the place.

Amy Millan: Stars was always my husband, and Social Scene was kind of like my side lover. I dedicated my life to Stars, and Social Scene always had people coming in and out of it. Sometimes Emily would go on tour with them, sometimes Leslie Feist would go on tour with them and sometimes I would go on tour with them. It was never permanent because all three of the females in the band had other major things going on, which got irritating for Kevin and Brendan, who were running the show.

Jeffrey Remedios: “1234” was written by Sally Seltmann [New Buffalo], who is an artist that we signed from Australia. Sally was touring with Broken and Feist and one day went to Leslie in the back of the tour bus and said, I wrote this song, but I feel like you should sing it. Leslie loved it and wrote a little bit on top of it and made it her own.

Kieran Roy: The iPod commercial came out of her camp internationally. From getting to know the whole Apple crew because of that, we were on their radar, and they fell in love with the Chilly Gonzales song “Never Stop” for the iPad. Getting a song on Grey’s Anatomy [New Buffalo’s “Cheer Me Up Thank You”], getting songs in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World [several Broken Social Scene tracks, including “Anthems For A Seventeen-Year-Old Girl”], getting a song in an Apple commercial—they’re kind of at the same level as far as what it can do for your career.

Kevin Drew; Photo by Norman Wong

Kevin Drew; Photo by Norman Wong

Don McKellar: I’d talked to [director] Bruce [McDonald] about the idea of doing a concert film that was more than a concert film. Then he said he was talking to Arts & Crafts about doing something. Kevin got involved in various areas. We came to him with the idea of a plot and story about people going to [a Broken Social Scene concert] and then he added his own ideas.

This Movie is Broken (2010), IMDB.com

Plot Summary: Bruno wakes up in bed next to Caroline, his long-time crush. But tomorrow she’s off to school in France, and maybe she only granted this miracle as a parting gift for her longtime friend. So tonight is Bruno’s last chance. And tonight, as it happens, Broken Social Scene, her favourite band, is throwing a big outdoor bash. Maybe if Bruno, with the help of his best pal Blake, can score tickets and give Caroline a night to remember, he can keep this miracle alive.

Don McKellar: I think it’s safe to say Kevin brought the bisexual angle. [In the final act, there is a drunken sexual encounter between Blake and Bruno.] It’s sort of a theme of the band I guess—that sort of “anything goes” idea. It wasn’t supposed to be a big shock. It’s just supposed to be, Oh, I see. Was I referencing the band? No. My God, that band is such a complicated soap opera I could never begin to plumb the depths. In a very loose way that feeling that these people are all very close. I think it’s something that the band gives off, that you are watching a group of close friends. You don’t know exactly what the songs are referring to but you know that there is some sincerity and depth of feeling that you are witnessing. It’s an emotional experience watching the band, partly because of what’s going on between all of them. When Leslie and Kevin sing, you think, Something is going on there.

FLARE: What does Kevin bring to the business?

Amy Millan: [laughs]…Kevin is the mad professor. He has an amazing eye for chemistry and knowing who is going to work well together and throwing people into situations that are sometimes terribly uncomfortable with incredible results.

FLARE: Do you have an example of that?

Amy Millan: Yes, I have an example: Broken Social Scene.

Charles Spearin: A bunch of us thought maybe it was too soon to get together and do a reunion.

Brendan Canning: Jeffrey was pushing for it. We talked about it. It seemed like a perfectly reasonable thing to do. I think— whether everyone admits it fully or not— we all miss it. There are certain aspects we don’t miss about the band. But there are also lots of really special things that we all miss about playing together, and the songs that we created.

Kevin Drew: A lot of people spent a lot of time making sure our lives were taken care of and I think it’s a nice salute to the good, the great, the amazing and the bad times.

Amy Millan: A lot of the time people get involved in the music industry, they do it mostly for money, they do it mostly for the party. I really believe in Jeffrey’s love for his bands and the music that he signs. He’s just a beautiful, emotional person and a great friend. We went through a lot. It’s hard to be in a business with your friend. Friendships are so intense. Sometimes that’s not easy in business. There’s that line, don’t shit where you eat. We are just constantly shitting and eating everywhere—we are!

Brendan Canning: Seriously, they’ve done a good job. A lot of the people working there I consider good friends.

Charles Spearin: They’re family. It’s hard to say nice things to your family sometimes.

Arts & Crafts’ 10th Anniversary Celebration concert, Field Trip, is June 8th in Toronto. Visit fieldtriplife.com for ticket information.

Glossary:

Brendan Canning: Solo artist, Broken Social Scene, Cookie Duster

Jason Collett: Solo artist, Broken Social Scene

Kevin Drew: Co-founder of Arts & Crafts, Solo artist, Broken Social Scene

Don McKellar: Actor, director, writer; Co-writer for Broken Social Scene film This Movie is Broken

Amy Millan: Solo artist, Stars, occasional gigs with Broken Social Scene

Jeffrey Remedios: Co-founder of Arts & Crafts

Kieran Roy: Co-owner of Arts & Crafts

James Shaw: Metric, Broken Social Scene

Charles Spearin: Solo artist, Do Make Say Think, Broken Social Scene, multi-instrumentalist for Feist

See the custom T-shirts designed by Jeremy Laing for the 10th anniversary

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