By Philip Runco
Dan Boeckner doesn’t stay in one place for very long these days.
When I reach him on a Wednesday in the middle of March, the singer-songwriter has just crossed from one side of Canada to other – from Vancouver Island to Montreal, to be specific. The Quebec city is where he’s lived for the past year after almost a half decade of calling California home. But “the Island,” as he calls it, is where he’s been rehearsing with Wolf Parade, the beloved rock quartet that this winter made public that it would be ending an “indefinite hiatus” with a series of residency shows in Toronto, New York City, and London.
Soon after we speak, Boeckner will put both territories in his rear view mirror to embark on a month-long North American tour with his other band, Operators. That trip will close with a concert in Havana, Cuba, from whence he will fly directly to British Columbia for more Wolf Parade rehearsals.
“Yep, pretty nuts,” Boeckner says to punctuate this roll call of travel. “But for now, it’s all Operators, all the time.”
Operators – the trio of Boeckner, keyboardist Devojka, and drummer Sam Brown – is hitting the road in support of Blue Wave, a ten-song blast of hard-charging, anthemic rock and new wave. The recently released record marks its full-length debut, though the story of how the three got there is a little more complicated than is usually the case.
In early 2014, Operators entered Montreal’s Hotel2Tango Studio with Howard Bilerman, the producer who engineered both the earliest and last released recordings of Wolf Parade, in addition to the final Handsome Furs album. They would record 16 songs, but only six of them would see the light of day via that year’s EP1 and the subsequent “Ecstasy in My House” single.
“When we did those sessions, we had a basic idea of what the band was supposed to be, but we were still kind of green,” Boeckner recalls. “Then we went on a really extended North American tour and everything changed for the band. We became the band that I felt like we were supposed to be.”
The early Operators songs foregrounded synth and drum machine, often relegating the guitar to an occasional accent or texture. As the band played more live shows, though, that balance would shift.
“The guitar definitely worked it’s way back into the process, to the point where there’s a bunch of songs on the new record that are guitar-bass-drums,” Boeckner shares.
According to the frontman, it was just a matter of what the material called for.
“I had this pretty big burst of creativity, and the songs that I was coming out with needed a widescreen arrangement,” Boeckner says. “They needed to be more aggressive. They needed, like, saxophone. They didn’t necessarily need drum machine all the way through. They didn’t need to be transposed to sequencers. We had the tools and the ability to play and arrange this stuff live. It felt really good to erase any of the boundaries that we had imposed on how this stuff was going to be presented. We just wanted to get it nice and loud and big-sounding.”
“In retrospect, it might have been cool for us to just release a full-length album back in 2014, and then release this as our second album,” he continues. “I kind of feel like Handsome Furs did that: There’s a big jump between Plague Park and Face Control. There’s a pretty similar distance between the first stuff that Operators recorded and what is essentially our debut record.”
Operators plays Washington’s DC9 on Tuesday and Brooklyn’s Baby’s All Right Thursday. Blue Wave is out now on Last Gang Records. Wolf Parade’s Apologies to the Queen Mary will be reissued by Sub Pop Records on May 13.
You once said that you can’t write fiction. Songs are a reflection of what’s going on in your life, whether it’s being stuck in a small town or traveling Europe or going through a break-up. What is Blue Wave a reflection of?
I think it’s a reflection of me living in the States, in a suburb in Silicon Valley, and feeling completely plugged into the zeitgeist. That is the space where human communication and the way that people talk and relate to each other is being engineered on a daily basis. It’s this horrible fucking laboratory for some of the worst elements of capitalism that the world has ever seen. [Laughs] And it’s also produced some things that are potentially liberating for a lot of people. That was the backdrop.
And then there was depression – not just my own depression, but that of other people around me, too. I think part of the record is meditation on depression – not in a negative, navel-gazing way, but in a full-staff cathartic way. I got the title of the record from Dev. She was talking about certain types of depression being an all-encompassing wave of blue, and I sort of conflated it with idea of looking at a .WAV form. The original title was actually Blue .WAV, but I was like, “Maybe that’s a little precious.”
I took those things, and certain aspects of my own life, and kind of pulled a Philip K. Dick. I read a ton of science fiction – both contemporary and from the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. One thing I really love about that genre from then and now is that it’s such an amazing way for people to present autobiographical information in a super-real way. Like, the VALIS novels are an amazing meditation on schizophrenia, but rather than have him sit down and talk about the derangement of his own reality, he builds this incredible sci-fi framework to tell that story. That’s kind of what I started doing with these songs: I’d take a theme or a feeling that I had and superimpose some sort of hyper-real sci-fi stuff on it, both sonically and lyrically.
The record closes with a somewhat conflicted goodbye letter to California. What was it like going back to Canada?
It felt wonderful at first. And it wasn’t just that it was Canada – it was Montreal, specifically. Canada has its fair share of ideological garbage whirlpools, geographically speaking. [Laughs] A lot of Alberta and the north is racist and fearful and willfully ignorant. But Vancouver, Toronto, Montreal – the big metropolitan areas – are different.
It felt good being back in this space. And then the winter hit. [Laughs] I was just like, “Here comes the deep freeze. I’m just going to be stuck inside for a while.” But I think that’s good for creativity, personally.
There was a real oppressive feeling in California, and I know it’s not localized to that part of the state, but it’s maybe acutely more felt there. There was an oppressive feeling of dread the last six months that I spent there. The Santa Barbara shootings happened, and the tone of political dialogue on the Internet became palpably ugly –uglier than it had been before. I felt like it was utterly disconnected from reality. And then it became it pretty apparent that this presidential election was going to be a fucking shit-show. I was just like, “I need to get out.” [Laughs]
Most of my friends this point are Americans, and I love them. Most of the people that I work with are Americans, and I love artists that are Americans. It wasn’t about Americans. It’s about the overwhelming dread that’s happening there. It’s not just me – like, it’s not that because I’m a Canadian and a foreigner that I can feel it. But I just needed to go back to Canada. Also, there’s the free health care.
Do you feel as if you’ve been able to avoid the toxicity of the U.S. political cycle in Montreal? To some degree, does it not pervade as world news?
It definitely does, and I don’t want to avoid it, but I would rather process it and deal with it on a real level as world news than: “Oh shit, this gubernatorial election is actually going to effect me.” I’d rather experience it as world news.
Of course, whoever gets elected, whatever the minute shifts in power, they’re going to affect my life here in Canada, absolutely. The U.S. is our biggest trading partner, and we share a giant border, and I’m personally down there all the time. Being back here just offers a false sense of security.
In a sense, Blue Wave is the culmination of almost three years of work. And now, at the same time, you have Wolf Parade coming back. Is there any sense of frustration over how much people will focus on Wolf Parade? Or does a rising tide lift all boats?
I’ve changed my mind back and forth on this over the last six or eight months.
It became pretty clear, even when we were recording the album, that at some point the return of Wolf Parade was going to intersect with this Operators album, and there would be a meshing of timelines. The marketing for albums – at least online – is so heavily obsessed with a narrative. There always has to be a story to tell. You hear it a lot: “Is this the story that we want to tell?” And this story is confusing. [Laughs]
But the way that I like to see it, it’s just a different way of working. It’s organic. I’ve kind of done before: I had Handsome Furs albums that were released in the middle of a Wolf Parade tour, and vice versa. It’s all me, right? [Laughs]
Some people are going to love that Wolf Parade is back and go see those shows. Some people don’t give a shit about Wolf Parade but will go see Operators. And there’s a crossover in both. I don’t see it in a negative way. I don’t see the Wolf Parade thing as overwhelming the release of the Operators record. I just feel like it exists in a continuum of its own.
When Wolf Parade decided to play music together again, what was the energy in the room like?
The first time we hung out, I don’t think we played music. We played music one out of five days that we spent together. It was really us just spending time together on Vancouver Island, where all of those guys live now. We had dinner and goofed off.
For about a year, I would fly up and we’d do rehearsals, but we were just working on new stuff. We didn’t really touch any of the old or existing material until very recently. We knew we were going to play shows and stuff, but we were like, “It’s time to get together and write.” That’s what we did. We wrote a bunch of stuff, and then we developed the stuff that was good into songs and recorded. It’s not a whole album, but we recorded a decent amount of songs.
That was the only way that it was really going to work. It would have been awful if we had booked shows first, and then got together and been like, “Let’s listen to all of EXPO 86 and learn to play these songs again.” No one wanted to do that. It started with writing tunes, which is the thing that we like to do best.
What do these songs sound like? Since the hiatus, you and Spencer Krug have gone on to do things very different from what existed in the Wolf Parade universe.
It’s true. Those Moonface piano records are amazing. I think there are two Moonface records coming out this year: There’s him with Siinai, the Finish krautrock band, and then there’s a more solo album. He was here mixing in Montreal at Breakglass [Studios], and the stuff that I heard at the mix session was awesome.
Spencer has essentially developed his own language of music, which is cool – not a lot of people have the confidence to develop something like that. I think I’ve managed to do that, too, with Operators being a mix of every band that I’ve worked in before. For both of us to have been able to do that, and then to come back together and write songs, I think it gave us more confidence. But at the same time, all of the stuff that gets developed independently goes out the window when we get in a room and start writing together. Whatever comes out ends up sounding like Wolf Parade. [Laughs]
So the Wolf Parade songs sound like Wolf Parade?
It sounds like Wolf Parade. That’s the short answer. [Laughs]
Other than that, the only thing I can say is that the songs are considerably shorter than the ones on EXPO. They’re more like the earlier stuff in that they have just as many ideas but they’re crammed into a shorter amount of space.
Are you in a position to discuss release plans?
I don’t even know what’s happening with it. I just know that there will be new music for people to hear some time around the residency shows. I don’t know if it’ll be exactly on the day or a little before, but there will be new Wolf Parade songs for people to listen to in the next few months.
Was the Philip K. Dick, sci-fi influence something you were hoping to capture with the artwork for Blue Wave?
It was certainly influenced by that. I worked with my friend Liam Maloney, who doesn’t do music photography very often. The only things he’s ever really done is most of Handsome Furs’ propaganda material, for lack of a better word. [Laughs] He’s a war photographer; that’s what he does. He goes to Syria and Lebanon, and he’s been doing that since before the civil war started in Syria.
I got in touch with him and I was like, “We need an album cover, and we need some photos to go along with it.” I told him about that Philip K. Dick idea of a dystopian retro-future – like, a crappy version of “Blade Runner”. I was picturing any of those futures that could have happened, like the ‘90s cyberpunk version of the future that kind of fizzled out and then became reality, but in a way that nobody expected because no one predicted cell phone technology. We were kind of riffing on that.
He was obsessed with the film quality of these Turkish soap operas that people in camps were watching, and broadcast feeds in hotels where he was staying – that pixelated, bad satellite imagery. We started doing set pieces like that. We got some plastic sheeting, and we were sort of referencing the early replicant scenes in “Blade Runner”, where Deckard assassinates one of the first replicants, and by the end of the scene, he’s covered in plastic and looks like an object and not a person.
We started taking those photos, and then processing them as if it was surveillance video or bad satellite feed. That created the world that the cover lived in. We put a pomegranate on the cover, because we liked the way it looked. There was some implied violence in the pomegranate being smashed open.
For the internal sleeve of the record, I worked with this guy Matt Borrett. He’s a visual artist in Toronto who does these imagined landscapes that he builds in 3D environments. He prints them as art prints, but they’re incredibly complex, self-replicating, almost organic cityscapes that have a huge scale. That’s the inner sleeve.
We just wanted everything kind of dirty and futuristic.