This Heart's on Fire: A Career-Spanning Interview with Dan Boeckner
By Corey Beasley | 15 October 2014
In the decade or so he’s been releasing music, Dan Boeckner has been responsible—or co-responsible—for more modern classics than any single dude has a right to claim. Yes, he co-chaired Wolf Parade’s Apologies to the Queen Mary (2005), which would be well and good enough on its own, but then he played guitar hero on that band’s fantastic later records, At Mount Zoomer (2008) and Expo 86 (2010), all while producing the electro-rock adrenaline rush of three phenomenally underrated Handsome Furs records, Plague Park (2007), Face Control (2009), and Sound Kapital (2011). Most recently, Boeckner teamed up with fellow indie rock torchbearer Britt Daniel, of Spoon, to write and record as Divine Fits, dropping the deftly nuanced A Thing Called Divine Fits in 2012. Now, he’s back with a new project, Operators, which moves his sound in a new, dance-oriented direction. In other words, Boeckner has proven himself to be one of the past decade’s most consistent, singularly thrilling artists, with a body of work to rival any of his contemporaries. Corey Beasley caught up with him for a long, wide-ranging interview to talk about his new band, discuss some favorite tracks from all of his previous releases, and to get a sense of where Boeckner’s coming from ten years after he burned a place into our collective memories.
CMG: How’s it going? You just back from touring?
Dan Boeckner (DB): Yeah! Three days ago.
CMG: You were road-testing a lot of the Operators stuff—I know that when I saw you guys for the first time with Future Islands in New York a few months ago, you didn’t have a bassist yet, for instance. And when I saw you in Central Park with Spoon, you’d added another dude.
DB: Oh yeah, we have dual bass players, basically. That’s our jam lately. When we’re on the west coast, if we have friends of ours who play bass, we’ll pick them up and play a couple songs. If we’re on the East Coast, Dustin from Hot Hot Heat plays bass with us whenever he can. When we played in Montreal, it was the most members of Operators we’d ever had onstage, I think. [Laughs]. We had Dustin, and we had Meredith from Perfect Pussy play with us. She played guitar and sang—she sang on our record.
CMG: Oh, she did? I had no idea.
DB: Yeah, on a bunch of other songs we recorded—picked her up in Rochester on the way to Montreal, so we had the Operators Big Band that night, which was fun.
CMG: How’d you team up with the other players in Operators? Were you actively looking for a certain aesthetic and sound?
DB: I was basically looking for ringers, you know? I needed people who were really, really good at what they do. After Handsome Furs fell apart—what—three years ago now, the trajectory of that band had gotten to the point where I’d been doing a bit of deeper programming, which ended up in the sound of Sound Kapital, our final record—just a more dance-influenced, rhythm-oriented music. I’d written a bunch of stuff for a fourth Handsome Furs record. Handsome Furs was always this one unit I worked with, the brains or core of the band, this Korg Electribe EMX unit. There’s been a resurgence in popularity with that thing recently. It’s an affordable, really powerful digital sequencer, but when they first came out, no one really wanted them, especially in a rock format, you know? So, I had spent three records programming on this thing, learning how to use it, learning how to write with it. When the band broke up, the fourth Handsome Furs record was scheduled to get recorded in those next couple of weeks. But I had the equipment, and I had the songs. I decided to deep six the songs. I had six, maybe seven songs I thought I could work up into the fourth album. But I flushed them. They were so specifically related to that band in my mind, that I didn’t want to—not to be flaky, but I felt like they were infused with the energy that existed in that band. I threw myself into Divine Fits record, and once that record was done and we were touring, any time I had off, I was at home programming and writing. And I started coming up with this stuff that would eventually become the Operators material. I felt like one thing that was lacking with the last Furs record was live drums—I really wanted to an analog electronic setup with no laptop and a live drummer, and that’s where Sam came in. He was just right under my nose; we were playing in Divine Fits together. Devojka actually joined before Sam did. I was in Northern California, and she lives up there, and she played some shows with Handsome Furs before. I knew I needed someone who was good at running sequencers and arranging and coming up with pads, and playing all this stuff live. So she joined up, and we started rehearsing, and that was it.
CMG: One of the interesting things about your career, to me, is that you really have transitioned not only into different textures but different instrumentation entirely. Do you feel like that challenges you to produce songwriting in a different way, or motivates you to push yourself a bit?
DB: Yeah, absolutely. I guess you can draw a line right back to the first Wolf Parade EP for my love for those drum machines and analog synths. The original version of “Modern World” is basically a Casio keyboard drum pre-set, synth, and direct-input electric guitar. That was kind of a staple of the early Wolf Parade stuff, this gnarly sounding analog synth. I’ve always been a big fan of that. And when Handsome Furs started, that was kind of my first foray into actual programming. So when I bought that Electribe, I sat down and I had no idea what I was doing. Plague Park—it’s kind of a miracle Plague Park exists. I’d bought this sequencer, and I was like, “All right, I have these songs I wrote on guitar, and I need to create some accompaniment for them.” Didn’t read the manual, just trial and error, figured out how to sequence a song. Then when it came time to record, I was a total novice at that stuff, so we basically—Arlen from Wolf Parade engineered that record, and then slowly I started figuring out how to, like, compress a bass drum, or move a filter around on a bass patch and accompaniment to it. It’s been a seven-year learning process, basically.
CMG: Going back a bit, then, I think a lot of people had this idea about Wolf Parade, where you’re occupying the rock’n’roll, Springsteen side of the band, and Spencer’s the guy bringing a synth-oriented, electronically-textured element to the works. But you’re saying that’s reductive.
DB: Yeah, and I think that sort of shows through in the back catalog. Furs records were always—“Repatriated” was my attempt at writing an early Chicago house track with guitars. It’s got that 909 kick sound with the super bright claps on it. But, yeah, working that format definitely changed the way I write songs. I’d say by about 2008 or 2009, I’d stopped writing songs on guitar. With the exception of a few things—like [Divine Fits’s] “Civilian Stripes” is written on an acoustic guitar, and I wrote it in about as long as it took me to figure out the chords—but 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. Up until that time, ever since I was a teenager I’d written everything on a guitar. And that’s good, but you develop a writing style, and then I think to really push yourself outside of that, you need to work on different instrumentation or use a different writing tool. That was very liberating for me.
CMG: I think looking back to that first Wolf Parade EP and onward, you do have a very instantly recognizable guitar styling. I remember when I got into Handsome Furs around the time the first record came out, I remember thinking, “Oh, this is not what I thought it would be.” And it took me a minute to adjust to it—you were doing some different, but there was still this kind of ineffable quality about your songwriting—maybe the way you write a melody, or the emotive structure of a song—that is still very much your own. It didn’t have to go that way, you know? It’s pretty brave of a musician, I think, to strike out into new territory and somehow maintain his or her voice.
DB: We kind of did it without a net, you know? But I didn’t want to be repeating myself, and I knew that I wanted to continue writing music. I guess between Face Control and Expo 86, the last Wolf Parade record, I was like, “Okay, I need to change my approach to the way I’m writing songs and the way I’m being creative.” Because I had no intention of stopping or pleasing anyone else. It was just necessary.
CMG: I spoke with Spencer for an interview about a year ago, and he mentioned something similar—with the Moonface project, he felt like re-learning piano had pushed his songwriting to a different place. And if we can go back to Wolf Parade for a bit, he also said that band was the most fun he’d ever had in a band, just, in his words, a bunch of dudes playing rock music in the garage and having a good time. At the same time, he felt like a lot of Wolf Parade’s material seemed remote to him or distanced, emotionally. Do you feel that way about that band’s material?
DB: I do feel connected to it—when I hear, like, “It’s a Curse” or “Modern World,” I don’t instantly go back to the emotional state I was in when I was writing it. I wrote it, so that’s still my connection to it, right? But I get what he’s saying about feeling slightly remote from it. Maybe it’s not remote in a bad way or in an emotional way—but just remote in the sense that time has passed, and the song is never as dear to you as when you first learn how to play it and you go into the practice space and you can play it all the way through without screwing up, and the song kind of reveals itself to you. That, to me, is when you’re most connected to it. And then you feed the song some line and let it float off like a balloon, and it gets further and further away from you, you know? It’s still the same thing you made, but after hitting the road and playing it, twenty or thirty times, or a hundred times, the meaning and your relationship to the song changes, I think.
CMG: Do you mind if I ask about a few tracks from your records, like we’d talked about earlier? Let’s start with “We Built Another World.”
DB: Whenever anybody calls it that name, which of course is the name of the song, I’m always confused for a second, because that song was always referred to in Wolf Parade as “Costello,” because at some point someone thought it sounded like Elvis Costello, which it absolutely does not, at all. [Laughs] Maybe the vocal delivery in the first demo we recorded for it? That was a feature of Wolf Parade, where people at shows would call out for songs, and I’d be like, “What is that song? Oh, it’s ‘New Fast Spencer.’” [Laughs] Anyway, that was basically like—I’d moved to Montreal in the summer of 2002 after my mom passed away. I took a bus out to Montreal, and I was living there at the time with my girlfriend, who frankly was not happy I’d decided to make the move out. She was going to university at Concordia, and I think she was sort of hoping I’d stay on the West Coast and our relationship would just die on the vine. But I showed up! With no money and moved in with her. And for a brief period, things got a bit better, we were in this new city and the winters were crazy…I think I wrote that song on Halloween in 2003, because it snowed on Halloween, and I remember being blown away that it had snowed that early. We were taking a cab back to our apartment, and I’d been thrown out of a party we were at, and I just started writing lyrics, and it evolved from there. That was one of the first things I brought to Wolf Parade.
CMG: “Shine a Light”?
DB: At that point, we’d written an EP and practiced at Spencer’s apartment for a long time. And the apartment was above this really gnarly bar called Barfly—just super skuzzy rock bar, small place, and we recorded the EP half there and half at Arlen’s place. We’d played a show with a really early version of Arcade Fire and became friends with them, and Win and Regine had this apartment off Saint Lawrence, and they were like, “Yeah, you can come and practice here.” And that apartment eventually turned into the Wolf Parade/Handsome Furs headquarters, Mount Zoomer. But at the time, they were living there, so Arcade Fire was practicing there, and Wolf Parade was practicing there, and they had a piano there. “Shine a Light” got written the same day as “Sons and Daughters of Hungry Ghosts.” Songs kind of came in twos at that point. Like, “Dinner Bells” and “This Heart’s on Fire” came about at the same time, and “Shine a Light” and “Sons and Daughters,” and I remember being really, really excited about both of those songs. “Shine a Light” was an attempt to write a Guided By Voices song, basically. [Laughs] We put it together. I was going through something that still bothers me like ten years later—I get insomnia pretty bad, and it’s horrible, you know? And Spencer was getting sleep paralysis, where he’d be dreaming but also be awake, and I was having basically the same thing, where you’re trapped in bed and your mind is unspooling into sensory overbleed, but at the same time there’s a part of your brain that’s absolutely conscious of everything that’s happening to you. So “Shine a Light” was completely based on those experiences, and the feeling that, when I wrote it in Montreal, that there was no exit from this circuit of shitty jobs I was working. Just stuck in the city, and I wasn’t sleeping, so I’d rehearse with the band, go home, lie in bed awake, not be able to shut my brain off, get up at 7:30, go downstairs, eat a granola bar from the corner store, and get on the bus to go to work. And that was my life. That song is really the purest expression of that time that I could think of, you know?
CMG: Definitely. When the record came out, I was working that summer a series of really stultifying jobs, and I’d listen to that song in the car on the way home and think, “Yeah. This is it.” And I know your mom passed away around the time of Apologies, and “This Heart’s on Fire” is a very emotionally rich evocation of that feeling when a family member passes away, which I’ve experienced, too, where you’re thinking—okay, what do I do? And there’s an absurdity to that sadness, too, and I’ve always related to that in that song. Am I off base with that?
DB: That song was always—there was a twin thing, my mom dying and also a manifesto for myself about, for lack of a better word…it’s the Bruce Lee thing! [Laughs] Emotional content. Life needs emotional content. That was my mandate, was to provide my own life with emotional content, to make sure I felt everything to the fullest. That I was mindful of that. And I think that’s the meaning of the song. But I wrote that in a shitty little apartment. I had the place to myself for a weekend, and I had an acoustic guitar and a cassette four-track, and I remember it was snowing out, I sat in a room and I just came up with the basic chord structure and the refrain and most of the lyrics in one night. And before we played out first show, I brought it to Spencer, and he came up with that melody line over the top. I think that song set a precedent musically for the band, at least for a lot of my songwriting—I’ve always loved songs where there’s a strong melody line, and you can change the root note underneath it without changing the melody line itself, and it gives it a different pull. New Order does that all the time, they’ve got this bass line or great melody line, and they’ll change the fundamental root note of the song or maybe change it to a minor, and there’s something really wonderful to that.
CMG: Yeah, which makes an emotional shift but the energy stays the same.
DB: Yeah, exactly.
CMG: After Apologies came out, you guys recorded an album and then scrapped it. Can I ask about one of those songs? Spencer sings lead on it, and of course I don’t know what it’s called—I caught it when you were touring, and I remember hearing it for only that single time, and it would still cycle through my head. The internet either calls it “Things I Don’t Know” or “String Me Along.”
DB: Oh, yeah, that was the best one out of the aborted Wolf Parade 1.5 record. We had seven songs put together, and a few scraps or fragments of ideas made their way to Zoomer. That song “Soldier’s Grin” existed in a very rudimentary form with a different middle section and different ending. But “Things I Don’t Know,” that was the best of that writing period—that’s really when we kind of turned into a prog rock band. [Laughs]
CMG: Yeah, it does provide an interesting bridge between the first two records.
DB: I was always really proud of that song, because I felt like it had a dynamic space that with a lot of the early Wolf Parade song, we just weren’t there yet. With the exception of maybe “Dinner Bells,” we were still kind of committed to a flat dynamic, where it was like loud, louder, loudest.
CMG: You talked about “Soldier’s Grin”—so that’s a song you recorded in that early phase and then tinkered around with a bit more?
DB: Yeah, some of the lyrics and arrangements were there, but it never really came off. But we never really recorded that stuff, we just played it live. Maybe there’s like a jambox recording somewhere from the practice space, but. “Soldier’s Grin,” when we went in to do Zoomer, I’d always loved the chorus to that song. So, Spencer, Arlen, and I worked out this kind of light arrangement, that riff—it’s almost like anti-rock, the melody [hums the opening riff] in 3[/4], if you took that out of the context of pounding drums and guitar, it’s pretty, um—it’s pretty fruity, for lack of a better word. [Laughs] It’s almost this sea-shanty thing, and that was something we were really into when we were making Zoomer, trying to make stuff that didn’t sound aggressive but still had some weight to it without being traditional, pummel-you-over-the-head rock music.
CMG: Along those lines, what about “Language City”?
DB: That’s one of my favorite Wolf Parade songs. It could be shorter—that’s one thing about Wolf Parade stuff, we were never really good about editing for length, you know? I think part of that comes down to the fact that we were all just so excited to play music together, and every song everybody gets his moment in the sun. So, you know, Dante gets his bass part in the beginning, we’re like “Okay, we’ll let Dante do that eight times instead of four.” [Laughs] The smart move would be, thinking in terms of economic metrics, would be, “Okay, let Dante do that four times and then get to the fucking chorus.” But no! [Laughs] That song, I wrote it in a different key than I was used to writing in, and that’s how that song started. I wrote it in D-sharp, basically, E-flat, and I started messing around with chords, and I had this paranoid drug narrative—I was living back in Vancouver at the time, and I just wanted to really capture the feeling of staying up for two days at a time and pulling the blinds shut. It has that sort of claustrophobic feeling at the beginning, and then it blows up again when you open up the door, and you’re walking out. But yeah, one of those things I love about that song is that playing it live, it completely transformed itself from the recorded version, so that by the time we get to the “we are not at home” part at the end, Arlen would be playing at warp speed and I’d be playing the guitar as fast I possibly could, just screaming into the microphone. That’s one thing I wish we could’ve gone back and re-recorded. To be totally honest, Zoomer was just a fucking catastrophe in terms of recording. It’s a miracle that record even came out.
CMG: Why’s that?
DB: We had all those songs between Apologies and Zoomer, and when we got off tour, we felt, “These are fine, but we need to just start from zero.” And it was the whole second album thing, you know? We’d gotten a lot of critical acclaim for Apologies, and I think we had an option at that point, which was we could’ve engaged a bigger producer, tightened up arrangements, analyzed what was popular off of Apologies and create a more palatable version of that. Or, we could just follow our hearts. So, we went for B, you know. But we invested some money that we made into this recording format called Radar, which is a digital proprietary format with its own monitor and keyboard. It sounds pretty close to analog tape, and at the time it was about as close as you could get to tape using a digital format. It doesn’t have as much fine-tuning capability as ProTools. But we took the Radar machine to—Arcade Fire has just bought this big church in Burnham, outside of Montreal, set up, and just started writing and recording. We spent two and a half weeks up there and walked out with what was basically At Mount Zoomer…and then a year later we finished it. We had these basic bed tracks, and we moved into the studio in Montreal, our headquarters, and without a producer to reign us in, we were just like, “Okay, we’re going to re-record the vocals on this. We’ll re-record the guitars.” And basically what happened that winter is that we decided the original stuff was the best, so we spent a long time just fucking around until we realized none of the over-dubs captured the energy of the original recordings. I think I re-recorded the vocals for most of that record in one day, just went in and did everything, one after the other. I know Spencer really did the same. And then we went to mix it, and mixing it was another nightmare. Self-producing—for other bands who are focused and have a background in recording engineering, maybe a good idea. For Wolf Parade, not a good idea.
CMG: You didn’t consider going back to work with Isaac Brock again, you wanted something different?
DB: Yeah, I felt like we’d done that, and we wanted to make the record sound different. We wanted a darker sound.
CMG: Was he instructive at all during the sessions for Apologies, or did he sort of sit back and record?
DB: He was very instructive. That was the first job he’d ever recorded, I think?
CMG It was, yeah.
DB: So, we were all kind of in uncharted territory, and Isaac’s contributions were instrumentation and arrangement. And he is really good at that. That song, “I Am My Father’s Son,” I don’t know if that would’ve necessarily been on the record or even gotten finished without Isaac. The original version of that was just us fucking around in the studio, and there’s a twenty-minute take of us just playing the riff over and over again, and we condensed it.
CMG: I think a lot of fans of Wolf Parade almost resented the band for just not making Apologies over and over again. People have such a strong affinity for that record, and I’m one of them for sure—but I think a lot of people wanted you to keep going in that vein. And because of that, Expo 86 is an album I think doesn’t get the attention it deserves. And I find myself lately going back to it more than I go back to the other Wolf Parade material. With a song like “Pobody’s Nerfect,” it seems like you guys were capturing a spirit where it was loose and fun, but also you’d gained this depth of texture and range after having been a band for so long at that point. Was that an easier album to record? Did it come more naturally?
DB: Yeah, Expo, for me at least—I’m not sure what Spencer’s experience with Expo was, I think that record might have been more difficult for him to make than it was for me and Arlen and Dante. I do remember him being at the studio for hours and hours redoing vocals and scrubbing verses and melody lines and singing over and over again. I think the process was a little more difficult for him. But I think that record reflects how good we became as a Iive band. We started as a three-piece—me, Arlen, Spencer. And then we added Hadji, and then Dante. Hadji left at the end of the Zoomer tour and went to finish his academic career. He remember he kind of announced he wasn’t going to Europe with us while we were playing in New Jersey. Bowery Presents had just opened up that venue in New Jersey, you know that theater they have? [writer’s note: Montclair’s Wellmont Theater] We were the second show of that venue’s existence. The first show I believe was Counting Crows. [Dan laughs. Corey laughs. Somewhere, Adam Duritz laughs.] And the second show was Wolf Parade.
Totally bizarre show—a chunk of plaster, about four-feet-by-three-feet fell from the ceiling directly onto Spencer’s keyboard. I remember looking over and just seeing this soggy wet comet fucking shooting down from the rafters, and I was in the middle of singing, so I was like, “Well, there’s literally nothing I can do.” I was singing back-up vocals, and I was like, “Well, this is either going to hit Spencer in the head, or.” And then after the show, Hadji was like, “Hey, I’m not coming to Europe,” and we were flying out the next day. He’d told us something about a few days earlier, but we were so wrecked from being on tour that I don’t think anybody really processed it. But when we got to the airport, we were like, “Oh, fuck. What are we going to do?”
We flew to Helsinki, and at that point I’d been to Helsinki many, many times, and I had a lot of friends there, so immediately after I got off the plane I got completely, hopelessly shitfaced with my friends. In my mind, to try and beat jetlag, but it was a very sloppy evening, and when I WOKE up the next day, we had to play—and I think that’s when it hit everybody, “Oh shit, Hadji’s not here. What are we going to do?” The first show was what it was, but then as the tour went on, we realized we became a pretty tight unit. And it wasn’t because Hadji wasn’t in the band, we had sort of gotten there already, but I think everyone was really listening to each other and trying to compensate for the lack of Hadji. By the time we finished that tour and were talking about making Expo, the band was exceptionally tight. And that was something I’d never expected to happen with Wolf Parade. You know, someone gave a review in the L.A. Times early on in our career that was like, “This band is like the Replacements, either the best band you’ve ever seen or just a god-awful pile of shit.” And there was really nothing in between. But somewhere around Expo, we got pretty consistently tight live, and we were expanding the arrangements of the song. And in the studio for Expo, a lot of that stuff was tracked live, and it came from that musical communication we’d developed with each other.
CMG: I think it comes across—it seems like a professional rock band’s record, in a way.
DB: I do think the songs are still a little long on that record. The problem we had with Expo—it’s weird, man. Every time we made a record, no matter what the critical reception for the last record had been or what the sales figures were, every time we hit the road, we played for more people. There wasn’t a tour that we did where less people showed up. Which is bizarre, right? Especially in the secondary markets, what I think happened was we got a reputation for being a live band. And people would listen to all the records, they wouldn’t just have Expo as an entry point—we never had any radio play or any pop hits. So, what was weird about Expo was we put it out, and we’d had a choice to make either a really polished pop record or make something totally abrasively weird. And we didn’t do either of those things, we just made another Wolf Parade record. [Laughs] And I think the music press and the machine, for lack of a better word, it needs a narrative to kick start it. The narrative is the gas in the tank. That’s why people love drug rehab stories, where artists have been fucked up, they love a redemption story. Or conversely, they love a hitting rock bottom story, where you put out a totally weird abrasive record that’s not going to get played on the radio—you’d better have a story to back it up, to give it that frame to live in. Otherwise, it’s just a challenging listen, right?
CMG: Yeah. It makes a rock critic’s job easier to be able to try to make these parallels between a band’s lives or a songwriter’s struggle and the material on the record. The problem is, that’s sort of nonsense, right? I always get upset when I read a critic trying to diagnose a band or a songwriter’s motivation in writing a song unless it’s right there, literally.
DB: Right. And a lot of it’s imposed after the fact. You make the thing, and then you write a narrative to go along with the thing. And that’s disingenuous, I think. I mean it’s definitely part of playing the game, but I also think it’s disingenuous. And one of the tenets of Wolf Parade was just abject, embarrassing honesty, so when it came time to write a bio for Expo and put said record out, the narrative that we presented was, “Hey, we’ve been playing music for three records, and this is our new record. We really like it. Here it is.” We literally couldn’t think of a lie to sell that record, and we wouldn’t have done that, anyway. There’s no talking point attached to it. I think one thing that happened was that someone said there wouldn’t be any singles on the record, and that was something that got talked about every time we did an interview. And you know what happens: someone from a weekly gets the bio, the first paragraph is a re-wording of the bio—and of course the public doesn’t really have access to that, unless they dig for it—and then the questions are all questions led from statements in the bio. So we fucked up and gave as little information in the Expo 86 one-sheet. We were just like, “Band makes record.” Maybe that was stupid.
CMG: I hear you. Right now there’s a weird dichotomy happening, where there’s more rock criticism being written than ever before or that anyone could ever possibly read, because it’s the internet and everyone can write and that’s fine, and on the other hand, rock critics increasingly don’t know how or don’t want to engage with music on a more abstract or artistic level. They want to write because they want to exercise their own voices or their own stories. It’s a lost artform.
DB: The Quietus does a good job, and John Dolan—John Doran?—the dude that runs the Quietus, I love the writing there. The writing is thoughtful, they don’t give number scores. I heard this crazy rumor, and it might be false or it might be true. For the last four or five years, four years maybe, I’ve always been baffled—I stopped reading Pitchfork a while ago, because I just had to. The site was making me crazy. After that dude from that DIIV band got arrested for heroin possession and they bailed him out, yeah. Not because I think Pitchfork is terrible or because they’re a bad news outlet, I think they’ve basically just become the NME of North American music scene. I notice this discrepancy between the words in the review and the actual number score?
CMG: Oh, of course.
DB Somebody told me the number score is basically decided on by a group of people, and the review is written by whoever it’s attributed to. I don’t know if that’s true, but it seems to be the case. It’s just baffling to me. The body of the text can be, “Oh, this record is great,” but the number is, like, a 6.
CMG: As a writer with CMG, my thing is—I think they produce a ton of great writing. Of course they do. They also produce a ton of shit writing.
DB: Yeah, there’s both—great articles, great interviews.
CMG Right. But they’re also a business. That means they have a stake in needing to sell themselves as such and to sell a narrative that favors the business. So the numerical ratings, which of course readers are going to look at more than the actual text, that’s a different brand than the actual criticism they publish. Those two things are in conflict—criticism as a practice has absolutely no role in selling a record, or concert festival tickets, or any piece of capital.
DB: Yeah. Not to keep shitting on Pitchfork, but we were talking about the role of narrative in music crit, and you’re either on the narrative wheel or you’re off of it. That’s why I love the Quietus, for instance. I went back in the archives the other day. At Pitchfork I’d read this obnoxious—and of course it’s obnoxious, because that’s the dude’s whole shtick, contrarianism—this obnoxious fucking interview with Ariel Pink. And at the Quietus I read this whole article on, like, Ariel Pink and beta-male sexuality, and I was like, “This is probably some of the best contemporary pop culture journalism.”
CMG: I wanted to get into some of the Furs’s material, too. This was a very personal project for you—of course you were touring with your wife at the time, and I remember reading an interview where you said the band started as a way to really do that.
DB: That’s true, and the other side of it was that I wanted to write with electronic equipment in a band that wasn’t Wolf Parade. When I started the Furs and we signed with Sub Pop, Spencer was doing the same thing with Sunset Rubdown, and I felt like it could only benefit Wolf Parade in terms of songwriting, to help us not get bogged down in the four dudes, one band thing. But yeah, it was also a way to travel with Alexei and be able to travel and be creative together.
CMG It seems like the places you visited ended up having a serious impact on the material itself. With Face Control, there’s a lot of that Eastern European, brittle, tinny electro sound, for example.
DB: Yeah, it’s a very digital, EDX sound. Filter open on the bass all the time so all the frequencies were coming through.
CMG: Could you talk about “Radio Kaliningrad” as an example of that aesthetic?
DB: Yeah, with that record, I’d worked on the programming and the Electribe enough—I’d really gotten my head around the machines by the time we were writing Face Control. So the drum programming became a little more complex, and the sound design, I could get the sounds I wanted in my head, you know? Before, I was sort of at the whim of, “Oh, maybe this will work, maybe it won’t.” It was rudimentary. But Face Control, all the abrasive stuff on that record, that was what I heard in my head, and I was able to dial it up on the Electribe pretty quickly. “Radio Kaliningrad” we wrote—we were on tour in the Balkans in between those two records, and we drove up through Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia. And I was reading this book called Black Earth [by Andrew Meier], about what happened when Russia slipped from socialism to capitalism. Basically, you had an army—an unarmed army—of idiots from America who tend to fail upwards. You’ve got a guy whose parents had enough capital to send him to a good school, maybe not an Ivy League school, he studies economics, he doesn’t do that well, not going to break the mold of economic theory, not going to get tenure at a university. But hey! Someone knows somebody at the State Department and the next thing they know, they’re sent to Moscow, and they’re basically telling the Yeltsin administration, “Hey, here’s what you need to fix your country. The invisible hand. Unleash the invisible hand of capitalism!” [Laughs]
And this fascinating thing happened, where the Russians were like, “Okay. All right.” They listened to everything, and then they enacted the most literal interpretation of Ayn Rand, Objectivist capitalism I think the world has ever seen, in the early ‘90s. And these charlatans, these guys who got postings because they speak English and have an MBA or something like that, and who have dollar signs in their eyes, looked on in horror, as the Russians just basically privatized all industries and set up one of the world’s biggest wealth discrepancies. And of course there were shootings on the Arbat, the walking street in Moscow, most every day. People were getting their faces blown off. There was a guy who invested in hotels in Moscow, who was a huge supporter of these unregulated capitalist shift, and he was eventually gunned down in the lobby of one of his hotels. So, it was a literal interpretation of what the Russians were told. Even Milton Friedman has gone on record and basically said, “There is no unrestricted capitalism without the rule of law.” Which is completely hypocritical to this libertarian idea of government staying out of the transfer of money. So basically, the Americans were like, “Hey, when we said privatize everything and go completely ape-shit with Objectivist capitalism? We were kind of winking at you.” [Laughs]
All that to say: I was absorbing all this information and was in Moscow talking to people who lived through it, just filling up notebooks with this stuff, and when I was in the Baltic states, that’s where I wrote “Radio Kaliningrad.” Which isn’t directly about that, but is informed by it. That weird noise at the start of it, we were in this small town in Lithuania, and we drove out to where the Baltic fleet had stationed their nuclear submarines. This town is a ghost town now, it’s like half seaside resort, half rusty former barracks. Somebody told me that the Russians, when they’d left, had stripped all the submarines and then sunk the hulls in the harbor to make the harbor un-useable for the Lithuanians, who had just gotten independence. And I was sitting in the hotel, and I imagined a radio transmitter just sitting at the bottom of the harbor, in this shell of a submarine, and that’s where that sort of beeping, grating, distorted shortwave noise at the start of the song came from. I came up with that first, and that established the key of the song, and I just wrote a song, you know? There’s no chord changes in it, it’s just the same series of chords over and over again. That’s how that song happened.
CMG: I feel like something similar was happening with Sound Kapital, with you guys going through Southeast Asia, right? You played where, in Burma?
DB: Yeah, we played in Burma. In ’09, we went through China and Vietnam, and then we went back and played in Burma, which was insane. I guess we were the first international band to play a public show in Yangon, except for bands that played at embassies, there was a French DJ that played in the embassy there, but I don’t think that really counts. [Laughs] Private shows for embassy staff. But I have a friend who was living in Burma at the time and helped us organize the thing, and we became friends with this Burmese punk band, Side Effect. It was this thing, setting the show up, that was like half spy novel, half Indiana Jones—running around in a pickup truck, getting electrocuted. [Laughs] That really informed the record.
CMG: There’s a sense of a real respect you have for people who are living their lives in a country where playing music or making an artistic expression can be dangerous—it has to be urgent in a way that may not exist so much in the West.
DB: Yeah, that’s where a song like “Cheap Music” comes from. People making brave music with not a lot of resources and no hope to ever monetize their art in a way that would provide them with a living.
CMG: Yeah, and when I hear a song like that or “Repatriated,” it makes me wonder if that experience abroad makes it harder for you to come back to a country like Canada or the US—if it makes you feel disconnected, in a way?
DB: Yeah, during that period I was spending more time abroad than at home. And when I’d come home, one of the main feelings I got coming back was a feeling of overall stagnation. To go from Beijing—which is obviously a bigger city than Montreal, but there seemed to be this electric current running through the city, there was a show every night, people running around and starting new projects in the middle of—I’d argue that Beijing has more of an influence globally than any other city in the world, where what happens in that city in a twenty-four hour period is going to have more of a global impact than even what happens in Washington. So to go from that and to go back to Montreal, where people were working on the language debate—and not that that political issue is not worth exploring or talking about, but I felt like the politics and the general vibe back in Montreal just seemed so slow, rehashing the same issues over and over again.
CMG: There’s a luxury in being able to have those discussions. Which doesn’t negate the issues at hand, but you have to acknowledge it’s different.
CMG: I wanted to touch on Divine Fits for a bit—was that collaboration of a different spirit than collaborating with Spencer and Wolf Parade, or with Alexei in the Furs?
DB: Yeah, it was definitely different. With Wolf Parade it was always, you sit down in a room, you have a few ideas, and the band bashes the ideas out. With Divine Fits, it was more—I’ve never worked with somebody like Britt before. Britt’s like a scientist when it comes to music. He works in ProTools a lot, and he’ll record, like, a bass line, and record eight or nine things that are totally great. Each one of the ideas is fantastic. We’d been friends four or five years before we started writing together, and when we got together at his house for the first writing session, everything just clicked. We had the same love of economy and space in songs, and efficiency, so it was just a no-brainer. Being at his house was like living in a song factory. A piano upstairs, a Prophet ’08 downstairs, a guitar waiting for me on the top floor, and some sequencers I brought. Everything came together easily.
CMG: Will you do it again and make another record?
DB Oh, definitely. Divine Fits will make another album, for sure. No question.
CMG: Just to finish by bringing it back around to Operators—you’d already touched on how this material is a bit more dance-oriented than your material in the past. I think of Furs tracks like “What About Us” or “When I Get Back” as being dance-influenced for sure, and this material takes that four-on-the-floor, house influence straighter through to real dance music. And seeing it live, it’s such moveable, gripping music in a live setting. Does that reflect a shift you’re making away from chord-based, rock music more toward just wanting people to move, to have a physical reaction to the sounds?
DB: With this band, yeah, the equipment we’re using was specifically chosen for the fact that you can really work the sounds live, you can twist them into sort of unrecognizable forms. And every time we play the song, it’ll be slightly different—we can extend the arrangements. Compared to Handsome Furs, there’s a lot more finesse going on with the electronics in Operators. And a lot of that’s because of Devojka running that table, that Frankenstein set of electronics—she has these ideas of like, psychedelic, warped electronic sounds, with odd frequencies to make things propulsive but heavily tricked out.
CMG: Do you have plans for a full release?
DB Yeah, we wrote fifteen songs in Montreal. We’re going to do another EP within the next few months, and the plan is to go in over Christmas to do a full-length for early next year. I’m very, very, very happy with this band. It’s the most fun I’ve had performing in a live format—this is the band I’ve always wanted to be in.
CMG It comes across onstage—there’s a real joy in the performance, which is nice to see.
DB: Yeah, it’s great to be there with everyone, and especially this kind of music—onstage, loud, there’s something really satisfying about a huge 909 kick coming through the monitor with sub-bass and Sam doing hi-hat work. I could listen to that all day.
CMG: The EP seems to built around love songs—it’s kind of a romantic sensibility. Do you feel like you’re writing these loving, romantic tracks that are also about moving and feeling liberated musically, too?
DB: I think it’s a romantic record, you know? The Divine Fits record was a classic break-up record. I managed to work through all that stuff in the process. That’s one good thing about being a musician: anything that’s happened in my life that’s been traumatic, my job affords me the ability to work it out on a stage. I don’t have to go to a fucking therapist, you know? [Laughs] I can share it with everybody. And there’s almost this alchemy to it when it works, this alchemy of transmuting something that’s painful and hopefully relatable to a large group of people, and transmuting that into joy and kinetic energy. That’s what happened with Wolf Parade, at least the first record was a way of working through things, and Divine Fits was a way for me of working through the divorce. In a way where, halfway through the tour, I was playing those songs and I didn’t feel bad anymore singing the lyrics. And Operators, there’s a sense of dislocation in some of the songs, but there’s a joyfulness in being able to play them.