BYT Interviews: Dan Boeckner (2015)
phil runco | Jan 5, 2015 | 10:00AM |

“Modern world, I’m not pleased to meet you / You just bring me down” – “Modern World” (Wolf Parade)

The first time that most people heard Dan Boeckner’s voice – all throat and bulging neck veins – it was maligning the spoils of modernity.

This was only two songs into Wolf Parade’s monumental 2005 debut, Apologies to the Queen Mary, but that unease has continued to inhabit some of his best work, from Wolf Parade to Handsome Furs to Divine Fits. It’s a certain distaste for urban hubs and incessantly buzzing devices.

As it turns out, the feeling may be mutual: Though Boeckner resides in the heart of Silicon Valley, he somehow can’t get a clear cell signal in his house.

“I live in a place that’s the epicenter of research and development for modern technology,” he says, putting on his shoes to go for a walk. “It’s ostensibly the vanguard of interconnectivity. And yet I can’t talk on the phone in my own place.”

The British Columbia native has lived in California since relocating to Los Angeles four years ago to work with Britt Daniel on Divine Fits. The latter two years of this residency have been spent in San Jose – in that aforementioned “250 square-foot Bermuda Triangle of coverage,” a”fucking dimensional cortex of no service.”

Boeckner plans to move back to Canada soon – at least for the warmer months of the calendar.

“I won the nationality birth lottery in North America,” he explains in half jest. “Ideally, I’d like to split time between Montreal and California. That’s my plan right now.”

“I’ll be the operator / I’ll be the spy / I’m taking pictures until they turn out right”“Baby Get Worse” (Divine Fits)

The irony of Boeckner’s uneasy relationship with technology is that he hasn’t written much on acoustic instrumentation since 2009.

“With the exception of a few things… most of the stuff I write now is written either on analog step sequences, where I come up with a bass pattern and sing over it, or on keyboards,” he told Cokemachineglow earlier this year.

That shift occurred alongside the dissolution Wolf Parade but its evolution reaches back to Handsome Furs, a project rooted in synthesizer and drum machines. When that duo called it quits following the divorce of Boekcner and bandmate Alexei Perry, the approach carried into Divine Fits, where his contributions were often heavy on synths and a physical sensibility.

Divine Fits always seemed like a band-aid of sorts for Boeckner, though. It filled the void left by Wolf Parade and Handsome Furs, but given Daniel’s involvement with Spoon, there was bound to be something else for Boeckner down the road.

“I’m writing songs right now that don’t fit in with Divine Fits,” he told me in late 2012. “I expect that in the next year or so, I’ll probably start another band and put out an EP or something.”

And that’s exactly what happened with Boeckner’s latest effort: Operators.

“Is it possible people that you know / They’re not there? / You better start again” – “Start Again” (Operators)

With Operators, Boeckner takes the dance-oriented aesthetic of Handsome Furs and bends it closer to his will.

With his former band, it could sound like Boeckner was swimming upstream, fighting against a blitzkrieg of synths and clattering drum patterns. The tension worked, because Boeckner’s ear for an anthemic chorus is indomitable, but the chemistry found on Operators’ first offering, EP1, is an easier fit. This music moves in unison.

Unlike with Handsome Furs, Operators is anchored by live drums. That percussion comes courtesy of Sam Brown – a reserved presence but an absolutely punishing drummer – with whom Boeckner played in Divine Fits. In fact, listen to that band’s “For Your Heart” or its live version of “My Love Real”, and you get a pretty good idea of where Operators are coming from. Though the guitar may appear in the back third of a song, it’s more of an accent than its foundation. (The trio is rounded out by keyboardist and backing vocalist Devojka.)

For the man who once bemoaned, “All this working, just to tear it down,” Operators means going back to square one.

In August, the band opted to self-release EP1 in the U.S. rather than wait for a deal and have its music fall into a label’s queue. (It’s signed to Last Gang [Records] in Canada.) The release coincided with summer dates with Future Islands, a band it will support again later this week. In February, the band will link up with another power pop juggernaut, the New Pornographers.

I spoke with Boeckner a week before Christmas, and then traded e-mails with him two days after New Year’s Eve, in the wake of “a pretty wild show in Columbus” that left him nursing a multi-day hangover.

Operators plays Brooklyn’s Baby’s All Right tonight, and opens for Future Islands at Terminal 5 on Thursday and Friday. Next Monday, January 12, it headlines Washington’s DC9 . EP1 is out now.

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You’ve discussed not wanting to repeat what you’ve already done, and working with new instrumentation as a means of challenging yourself, but what’s driven you specifically towards electronic music ? How long has it been an interest?

I started listening to electronic music and ostensibly dance music in the late ‘90s, when I was in high school. It was this golden age. It’s somewhat analogous to what’s happening with the rise of EDM right now. There was a thing called “electronica,” which was super popular. [Laughs] All of a sudden, all of these bands with guitars had 303 bass lines running underneath them. It was a thing.

There was some great music produced at that time. I remember buying Selected Ambient Works Volume 2, and that coinciding with discovery of psychedelic drugs. [Laughs] It was really, really mind-expanding for me. I had been into the weirder end of guitar-based music, like Sonic Youth and Swans, so the fact that people were doing this stuff on synthesizers was revelatory. And they were pushing things further. You could get even more evocative sounds out of synthesizers than guitars. But I had no access to anything cool in terms of equipment. I had, like, a Yamaha sampling keyboard.

That was the first electronic stuff that I heard: Aphex Twin and, sadly, the Orb. [Laughs] And then there were the drum and bass artists, like Tricky and Roni Size and Reprazent. I was immersed in the ‘90s West Coast punk rock world – like, Kill Rock Stars and self-released cassettes – but I always listened to dance music and IDM, or whatever you want to call it.

Handsome Furs started the same year that the Knife’s Silent Shout came out. I was listening that album and just thought, “God, I wish that I could make music on synthesizers that was this good.”  Plague Park was my failed attempt to do some tricky programming. But I just kept at it. That was seven years ago. And I kept listening to new music. This year, Logos’ Cold Mission was a big influence. I’m still getting better at programming and honing synth sounds.

I think what comes out in the end is completely different than the electronic music that I listen to, respect, and love. Logos and the Bug are coming from a club or dance music background, where the end point is not verse-chorus-bridge-chorus. They’re not writing songs around melodic vocalists. When I apply this stuff to songwriting, I’m writing in a different format. I’m writing a pop song. I want to have verses. I want to have a vocal hook somewhere in there. What comes out would probably be different if I had grown up just being into DJ stuff.

Sometimes, it’s frustrating for me. I would love to make a six-minute club banger, but it’s not going to happen, because Operators is a band, and not a production tool.

There was a review of EP1 that made the assertion that in contrast with Wolf Parade, Handsome Furs, and Divine Fits, Operators was the first project where you are “alone at the front.” What’s your reaction to that characterization?

There are elements of truth in it. I’m not sharing songwriting duties with anybody else. With Wolf Parade, even though we worked up each others’ material together, it was Spencer writing and singing his songs, and me writing and singing mine. When we wrote together, whoever sang on a song first was who we decided would be the lead vocalist. It was the same with Divine Fits. Those are very obvious collaborations.

With Handsome Furs, I wrote all of that stuff. Handsome Furs was very, very much me. Even though the band was Alexi and I onstage performing together, it was, in retrospect, very much a personal project. I did the lion’s share of writing and arranging and coming up with sounds and writing the lyrics. Weirdly, Operators feels more collaborative than that.

But I guess there’s an element of truth [to the review] with regard to me being upfront live. Sam’s behind a drum kit, and Dev is behind a giant table of electronics, so I’m the only one who gets to really roam around the stage and, you know, throw shapes. [Laughs]  Someone might have thought that Handsome Furs was a major collaboration because of our stage presence. There were two people on stage, and we were both big personalities.

From a lyrical perspective, are your records always a reflection of where you are personally at the point and time that they’re made?

If there’s one unifying theme across all of these projects, it’s that I can’t write fiction. I can’t sit there and be like, “OK, I’m going to write a story about this guy and this girl, and they’re in this place, and then they do this thing, and then something else happens.” I can’t even do it in an abstract way. I’m not built like that. I need current input, and then I’ll turn into a song.

My songs on the first Wolf Parade record are basically about growing up in a shitty small town, moving to a city, the death of family members, and dealing with all of that. The first Handsome Furs record has elements of that also – I wasn’t finished talking about it. [Laughs] But while Plague Park has “Sing! Captain”, on the whole, it’s maybe a little more hopeful.

The second and third Furs records are very specific. Face Control is about traveling in Eastern Europe and meeting these people, and this sci-fi alternate history of the Eastern Bloc – like, an alternate pop music that was made there during the Cold War era. That sounds like fiction, but it was all taken from experiences that I had. Sound Kapital was influenced by being in China, and I think it was probably the most hopeful record that I had made at that point.

The Divine Fits record is clearly a break-up record – at least, my songs are. That was me working through a divorce and heartbreak, which is a classic theme. [Laughs] Getting laid and breaking up with someone – that shit does not get old. That’s at the core of a lot of male songwriting tropes.

This Operators record is very influenced by my living in Silicon Valley.

Physical geography has always seemed to play a big part in your songwriting. “The city” is almost a recurring character.

That’s true. It’s just something that speaks to me. It’s something that I like to write about: observing the place that I’m inhabiting.

To be honest, maybe it’s a Pacific Northwest thing. When I was first starting to play music in clubs, I got introduced to Isaac [Brock] from Modest Mouse, and I just fell in love Lonesome Crowded West and Long Drive. Those records are so rooted in the geography of the place that I grew up in. Listening to those records was like learning a new language to write songs in.

Those were big influences, and I ran with that in Wolf Parade.  It works for me, you know?

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Operators is the fourth band that you’ve rolled out. Do you ever get tired of starting over – or, at least, having to start from a position behind where you were before? Or are there parts of it that you enjoy?

It’s more exciting than a bummer. It keeps you humble, for one thing. It grounds you in reality.

With Wolf Parade, I always think about how we sold out two Terminal 5 shows in New York on our last tour. And we had no radio play on Expo 86, because the songs were super long and not pop songs by any sense of the imagination – they’re these fucking proggy workouts. But we managed to sell out this big venue two nights in a row.

After a year of touring like that, you get used to the physical geography of the venues. It’s not like you’re on the floor and there are two hundred people in your face. You’re up high and can only see the first ten rows, usually. You get used to that. That year, I was doing those Wolf Parade tours, and then switching gears and playing with Handsome Furs in, like, the Philippines for 75 people at some club in Manila. And with Operators, I’m playing venues now that I played six or seven years ago with Handsome Furs to three hundred people.

Those small and mid-size clubs are the lifeblood of the touring musician. You can’t be complacent. There’s no backstage. There’s no comforts. You fail or succeed purely on the basis of how good the show is and how well you can connect with audience. You can’t hide behind the fact that you’re playing this big venue or that you have a lightshow. You just have to telepath the song properly to the audience and make sure that you put on the show. To me, that’s a good thing. I like that element of starting over again. I like writing, and getting in the van, and handling merch. That keeps me happy.

The negative aspect of it is that at a certain point in you career, things are expected of you, so when you’re starting a new project, you have to plow a bunch of capital into it, and the returns are going to be smaller, because you’re playing smaller venues. You have to work harder to make back the money that you invested in getting this thing off the ground. That’s the only negative part of it.

Arcade Fire was a band that Wolf Parade associated with early on – a band you played and shared a space with. What’s it like to watch it become a band that plays arenas and wins Record of the Year at the Grammys?

It just fucking amazing. It makes me very, very, very happy. I still get to see those guys three or four times a year.

We had this great hang this year when Dev and I were in Columbus, Ohio, writing and rehearsing with Sam, who lives there. We have a little studio in the basement of his house. And Arcade Fire were coming to Columbus to play the arena. The day before the show, we took the band out for Sichuan food, and ended up having a house party at Sam’s place. We were just all in the kitchen, drinking tequila, being jackasses, and having a good time. Kid Koala was opening for them, so Eric San was there.  I know him from Montreal – he’s a sweet dude. It was great. And then we got to see them play in front of thousands of people.

It’s not weird for me. It makes me happy. Those guys deserve it. They mean it.

Why put out EP1 yourself?

The decision to self-release EP1 in the U.S. was really motivated by expedience.  We wanted to have some music to share with people that wasn’t beholden to an album cycle – or anything, really.  I’m used to having a fairly long lead time with physical releases, but for Operators, speed was the key.  We kept getting show offers, and we had an album’s worth of material recorded, so we just thought, “Why not?”

We had a lot of help from Last Gang [Records] in Canada. Most of my previous bands have been locked into contracts with American labels that license the albums to Canadian distributors.  When Operators got off the ground, we decided that splitting territorial rights was a better move.

Is the plan still to put EP2 out soon and to start working on the full-length early next year? Or is that album already in progress? I saw you mention that [Perfect Pussy’s] Meredith Graves sang on a record.

We’re going to release another short EP in January.  Back in February, we recorded an album’s worth of material in Montreal.  We’re going to record some more in March and have an LP out this year, which is pretty exciting.

Meredith was at the same studio, and we all hit it off immediately.  She sang on a few songs that we haven’t released yet. I’m pretty excited about that too.

Having worked with songwriters like Britt [Daniel] and Spencer [Krug], are there things that you’ve taken with you? Or has your approach to making music stayed constant?

My approach to writing has completely evolved over the last five years or so.  The one constant has always been – and this is going to sound ridiculous, but it’s true – putting myself in something that I can only describe as a trance. [Laughs]

Basically, I come up with a piece of music – a chord structure or a melody – and then I loop it or play it over and over again.  Then I sing – for a few hours.  It’s almost embarrassing. It’s part of the process that I like to do in private, if I can. I sing either scraps of text and a few lines I’ve put together, or I just make sounds that approximate syllables and words.  That’s the embarrassing part.  I try to put myself in space to emotionally telegraph the sentiment that I want.  Eventually, something emerges that I like.  I record it or write it down, and then I repeat, tweaking it until I like it, and then I move on to the next part.

There’s always a “breakthrough” moment, where the song and the emotional content of the song is revealed.  That’s my favorite part of the process.  It’s basically collaborating with the ether, and it’s the closest that I get to any kind of spirituality.  It sounds flaky, but it’s true.  I like the mix of surrendering my consciousness to music and the practical side of the process being satisfying work.

Once that part is done, it’s just hours of refinement. The song never really comes alive until it’s preformed in front of an audience. I really believe that to be true. The Frankenstein doesn’t walk until it gets some juice.  Once it’s performed in front of living, breathing people, and it’s out of Protools, and out of the rehearsal space, it’s alive.  And then it doesn’t really belong to me anymore. And that’s good.

The kernel of the song is usually a scrap of text, a title, a photograph, a memory, impressions of geography – all things that I’ve experienced.  As I’ve said, I’m not great at writing little fictions.  I just can’t really work that way.

In the last few years, I’ve really enjoyed working with drum machines and sequencers first. It allows me to loop infinitely and pull out vocal melodies quickly.  That’s something that I picked up from Britt.  You attack an idea like a block of ice and chip away the unnecessary. Even if you come back to the first idea you had, the process of it allows you sharpen that idea.

Working with Wolf Parade is a completely different process.  It’s pulling music out of the air and physically playing it over and over until it “works.”  Working with Spencer always let me push ideas I had into more bizarre shapes – kind of twisting the original into an unrecognizable form.

I’ve been really lucky to be able to get these different creative environments to mess around in.

What do live drums bring to the equation with Operators?

Live drums are the heart of the band. Sam’s drumming – and the way Dev plays with, over and around it – let’s the arrangements breath.

There’s a physicality there too.  A lot of modern electronic music – the good stuff, at least – is moving to an unquantized or half-quantized space. You painstakingly go into clip view and move those hi-hats off the grid one note at a time – for feeling.

I think that it’s a direct reaction against the “magic” quantize effects in Ableton that are the stock and trade of EDM.  And it’s a good thing.  We eliminate elements, and then Sam plays them instead of the machines.  We swing it.  And we can draw out arrangements live if we’re really cooking.

You mentioned wanting to split time between San Jose and Montreal. What would be keeping you partially in California?

I have a studio space here that I really like. There’s something about the blankness of the area that I really love – it’s really conducive to writing. I have friends here now, too. And the weather is nice. It’s nice to be able to get out of the arctic hellscape in Montreal between November and March. It would be nice to have an exit.

I have a lot of friends that are American. Most of my close friends are American – the people that I see all of the time. So, I don’t want to disparage America, but the older I get, the more that I value, like, the social medicine system in Canada. Obviously, it’s not a perfect system, but after living in California for three years, I’ve realized that I pay the same amount of taxes as I do in Canada, but I get literally nothing in return. Not anything. No health care. None of the benefits that you get being a Canadian citizen. It’s frustrating.

I can’t vote, either. I’m a resident, but I’m not a citizen. I can’t affect any kind of change. I can get upset about it, but I can’t do anything.

You’ve been well indoctrinated in civic responsibility and the power of the vote.

I was an anarchist growing up. For a while, I thought anarchism was a pretty good solution to exit from political gridlock. But then I lived in a crust punk house for a couple of years, and I realized that anarchy doesn’t work, because eventually somebody’s turn to do the dishes comes up, and he’s super high and forgets about it. [Laughs] So, voting, sure.

You’ve mentioned that you suffer from insomnia, and that you have for a long time. What’s your history with the condition? Is there any relationship between it and your patterns of making music?

I’ve always struggled with insomnia.  My mom was very ill for a lot of my childhood, and I think my insomnia goes back to this bizarre vigilance/watchman thing that I developed. I needed to be the last person awake in the house – keeping guard, as a six year old. [Laughs]

As I got older, it got progressively worse. It’s better these days, but once a month, I’ll be trapped in this half-awake trance state, fully conscious but unable to really sleep.  My mind is dreaming, but my body is frozen. I’ve tried to take inspiration where I can out of it, and make it a positive thing – as if it were a gift instead of this shitty thing that happens every now and then.

The ironic thing is that I usually write my best stuff when I’m extremely tired and on the verge of dreaming or immediately in the morning.  The half-conscious state really blasts out a lot of the cross-chatter going on upstairs.

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A little over eight hours after Boeckner sent me a round of answers, I got another e-mail from him. It came in at 3:43 a.m with the subject line “One more thing…” The message had an attachment: A screen shot of Lake Cowichan, British Columbia, where Boeckner was raised. The text below is what accompanied the image.

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My writing process has always been and will always be informed by this.  It’s where I grew up and learned that playing music was something I wanted to. It was something that I had to do.  It was an exit strategy.

I grew up surrounded by nature – primeval forest.  As a teenager, it was a claustrophobic and stifling environment that, paradoxically, had the illusion of absolute freedoms and openness.  It was a kind of limitless expanse, but like a “Twilight Zone” episode.  You felt you could walk into the forest and it would never ever end.  The next town over wasn’t much better. It was cloudy all the time, so you felt slightly deadened which let you feel it less acutely.

Hippies loved my town in the summer – for camping.  Because it was “untouched.” But they didn’t have to live there. They didn’t have to deal with the low grade, constant Lovecraftian feeling of cosmic horror and insignificance that comes with standing at the edge of encroaching, idiot nature that has to be constantly kept at bay.  It’s the small, rural town thing.  It doesn’t matter if it’s Pacific Northwest old growth or an endless sea of grain in the Midwest.  It’s the same.

The exit was playing strange noisy music in moldy basements for no one, to no one. That was a good way to travel out – outside the physical space you inhabited, and outside your day to day.

And that’s why when I write, I need to play the same figure over and over: To transport and get free.  I think it’s a good thing to learn.

When I go back now, I see my hometown as an idyllic place; the place my parents decided would be good to raise kids. But I still connect to the feeling that I had when I was 15 and realized I wanted to play guitar, sing, and get the fuck out.

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