Interview: Dan Boeckner talks new Operators, Wolf Parade reunion, and stance on Viet Cong’s name

dan-boeckner

Dan Boeckner – a founding member of the seminal Canadian indie band, Wolf Parade – is a hard-working guy. When Wolf Parade went on an indefinite hiatus in 2010, many of us felt an emptiness caused by the void left in the Canadian music landscape after this announcement. Up until the band’s recent announcement that they are getting back together for a string of residency shows in Toronto, NYC, and London (UK), many of us die-hard fans were left with very little hope to hold onto.

Boeckner, being the warhorse musician that he is, kept the tunes coming through various projects. He started the highly successful and Polaris-shortlisted group Handsome Furs with his then-wife Alexei Perry in 2005. This band explored Boeckner’s synth and dance-pop sensibilities, particularly on the acclaimed 2011 album Sound Kapital. After three great records, that band dissolved in 2012 upon their divorce.

Shortly after, Boeckner got back to his sonic roots and formed a new rock band called Divine Fits with a friend that he’d met in 2007 at a Handsome Furs gig. That friend just happened to be Brit Daniels of Spoon, joined by drummer Sam Brown (ex- New Bomb Turks). They somehow managed to find time to write and record their 2012 album, A Thing Called Divine Fits, which is just as great as you’d expect it to be given the calibre of that collaboration.

In 2013, Divine Fits was put on hold and Boeckner returned to Montreal along with Sam Brown and Devojka (of Guests) to form Operators. Although Operators is sonically similar to Handsome Furs, the band and the approach to the music are very different. Describing themselves as “analog post-punk,” the band uses equipment such as analog synths, sampling pads, drum triggers, and yes, his electric guitar. No laptops. No pre-programming.

Along with Brown and Devojka, Boeckner has taken a bold next step in his musical career. They toured with Future Islands following the release of EP1 in 2014, and are now set to release their debut full-length, Blue Wave, on April 1st through Last Gang RecordsBlue Wave can be pre-ordered here.

I spoke to Boeckner Feb. 25 when Operators made a tour stop in Ottawa at Ritual. We spoke about new musical endeavours, his move to LA, revisiting Wolf Parade, and how he has confronted criticism he garnered after a controversial speech relating to Viet Cong’s band name at the Polaris Prize gala last year. Read below.


Interview with Dan Boeckner

by Matías Muñoz

 

MM: Anyone who follows you as a musician knows that you’re a busy guy, often with multiple projects going on simultaneously. What do you do in your spare time that isn’t music-related?

DB: That is a good question. I haven’t really had any off-time in about six months, and if I’m not recording I’m usually writing or playing with synths. I like hiking up the mountain in Montreal, or when I was living in California there was a mountain range I’d like to climb once in a while. Some outdoors stuff, you know? So other than music, reading books and hiking are about it. I can’t really think of anything else, I don’t have many hobbies!

 

MM: In what ways is Operators a new approach to music for you, compared to projects you’ve been part of in the past?

DB: This band is basically an amalgamation of everything I learned in Wolf Parade, Divine Fits, and Handsome Furs. Unlike Handsome Furs, which I think is it’s closest analog sonically and aesthetically, this band isn’t constrained to two people on stage with limited live instrumentation. It’s a lot more organic in a lot of ways.

Basically everything with Handsome Furs was done on a Korg ElecTribe EMX, which is a blue box developed by Korg in the early 2000’s. It’s known as a cheap alternative for vintage synth gear that was becoming more unaffordable if you wanted to make electronic music. If you were a kid in the UK, you probably weren’t going to drop £10k on equipment to make the kind of music you like because you simply couldn’t afford it. But the Korg ElecTribe was relatively cheap and had pre-programmed digital samples of classic drum machines, and virtual synths. You could do everything with it, but it had a limited sound palette and that was basically Handsome Furs. For Operators I have a wall of gear, mostly focusing on analog synthesis and sequencing. It’s the electronic version of the Dave Smith Tempest.

When we started rehearsing, it became sort of a live thing and some songs were written without the sequencing or drum patterns and more like a rock band. So there was some element of late-70’s and early-80’s techno-pop there. I guess the big difference is that it doesn’t really have constraints. I can bring aspects of Wolf Parade or Handsome Furs-style songwriting and incorporate it into what we’re doing with Operators.

 

MM: You mentioned earlier that you moved to LA after some major life changes a few years ago. How did that experience affect you musically, and personally?

DB: Yeah, I was actually out there during all the life changes. I was out in LA working on the Divine Fits record and everything kind of just ended. My marriage ended over the phone while I was there on a two week trip. So that trip got extended to a few years instead.

How did it affect me personally? I mean, in a lot of ways my personal life is non-existent. I have friends scattered all over that I talk to on the internet. But at that point I’d been touring so much that I rarely saw anyone I wasn’t working with. I missed people in Montreal, my home, but at the same time I had to adjust. It was like a frame jump in a film where all of a sudden I’m living in LA and everything has changed. I’m pretty adaptable, pretty comfortable anywhere.

I met Sam out in LA, who I wouldn’t have met if I didn’t go out there. He was a part of Divine Fits and obviously now playing in Operators. Devojka I met years before, and then again in Macedonia when she opened for some Handsome Furs shows. I always thought she was a great musician, and then I found out she was living in California so it was pretty easy to put the band together at that point. And I’ve known our bassist Justin since we played in hardcore bands in Victoria.

But living in California really crystallized a lot of the ideas behind Operators. Especially when I moved to Silicon Valley from LA, which was a very bizarre time of my life. I spent some time in a suburb of San Jose. I’m not snobby about cities, that place was as interesting to me as moving to Berlin would be. The way people communicate and share information is being engineered in a very small part of California. You peel back the layers of any city and there’s fascinating stuff happening under the surface.

 

MM: At the Polaris Gala you made some controversial comments regarding Viet Cong’s band name that were subject to heated debate. But it looks like you and April of Hooded Fang had some constructive conversations since then. Do you empathize with people who were hurt by Viet Cong’s stance on the name?

DB: That was a really painful and unhappy experience for me. The one good thing that came out of it after everything got ugly on Twitter and in real life, I started having these back and forth dialogues with April specifically. She was really gracious in a lot of ways compared to a lot of other people I was interacting on the internet with about that situation. I mean, shit, it was disappointing on a lot of levels.

The speech I gave was a little ham-fisted, and I didn’t have a lot of time to get my point across. The point I wanted to make was that Viet Cong is a dumb fucking name for a band. Especially if it’s making people emotionally distressed over a brutal civil war, which has had effects lasting generations.

I’ve been close to a lot of Balkan people and spent a lot of time in the Balkans, and that’s another place that has had hundreds of years of inter-ethnic and political violence. It’s a place that has been manipulated by foreign powers, not unlike Vietnam. A pawn in great power games. Everything about that war from every side is sensitive. If you bring something up that offends someone affected by that conflict, it doesn’t matter whether you think you’re right or not. You know? My personal opinion on a specific political aspect of that war doesn’t matter if my friend gets hurt by it.

So when the predominantly Vietnamese community in Canada is saying “this name makes us feel terrible,” then your band has to change its name. And when I giving my speech, that was the baseline I was going from. And then when I started reading through walls and walls of internet commentary, and what I saw was this diverse and beautiful underground arts community just going to town on each other. They were saying things to each other online that they would never say face-to-face.

I wasn’t trying to undermine the Vietnamese community in any way, I was speaking to the Polaris audience – people in the music industry. I wasn’t trying to say “OK, everybody can be quiet about this because I’m talking now.” I was trying to comment on the fact that the whole Viet Cong situation turned into online fist-fighting instead of producing meaningful dialogue. I was just so disappointed by that.

It mirrors a lot of really disgusting politics from previous decades, and the kind of politics I went through in the 90’s. Around the same time the  Riot Grrrl movement started,  there was a movement in hardcore to purge it of misogyny and racism, similar to what is happening now. Trying to get people to examine their privilege, and even examine class – which is something that has fallen out of favour these days for some reason.

When I was a young guy I was involved with the anti-APEC rallies in Vancouver. I watched that whole movement absolutely destroy itself over inter-scene fighting, and over things like who is using the right terminology. And then what was born out of that was awful, it was VICE Magazine. When that movement died out, the thing that replaced it was the early-to-mid 2000’s anti-PC movement that basically said “we’re going to do and say whatever the fuck we want.” That to me was a pretty low point in our culture. I saw similar infighting happening with the Viet Cong discourse, and that was the point I was trying to make. This positive movement is destroying itself over issues of name-calling and poor online dialogue where people go at it without looking each other in the face.

I was also shocked that people thought I was talking about Vietnamese people when I referred to the whole “forces of darkness” thing. I mean, come on, that’s absurd. When the quotes right before that are mentioning a diverse arts scene, it just seemed so decontextualized  and out there to think thats what I meant. “Forces of darkness” referred to white conservatives who ran the country at the time. I just meant that if you sit there and tear each other’s throats out and go after each other without meaningful dialogue, then no one will learn anything and examine themselves.

Even if it’s difficult, and you think to yourself “I can’t believe I have to explain this simple concept to this Neanderthal, it’s necessary to the dialogue and to affect change.

 

MM: I found that in our community, the people, particularly WOC that are so brave in facing these issues head-on are getting mentally and physically exhausted, and feeling beat down by it all. They are trying to teach otherwise intelligent white people about concepts such as racism, and there is only so much someone can take. I mean, it’s a conversation that we all need to have, but there needs to be more voices in the community speaking up. It takes a lot to undo what we know. We have had some panels here in Ottawa, similar to the one they had in Toronto, to discuss issues of racism, transmisogyny, and issues of accessibility in our scene. What is the best venue, in your opinion, for these discussions?

DB: Yeah, for sure, and that’s why the whole thing was pretty hard for me. In my career I’ve always tried to make a point to go places that touring bands don’t want to play. One of those places is Vietnam, I’ve played a handful of shows there. Being there and talking to people that live in Ho Chi Minh, Hanoi, and others, it has given me a completely different perspective about Vietnam that I couldn’t learn in a Poli Sci book. Just being there and meeting people, and meeting their grandmothers – that was the thing that was amazing.

We met this guy who was in a band in Hanoi whose grandmother still speaks French, and she’s very proud of that. Her family made us an incredible meal in their home, which was one of the best experiences of my life. Getting to talk to her and the family about her life really erased a lot of the stuff I read that was written by, well, white people. I had a deep interest in the historical minutia of this country and its people, and I felt really invested in it since I had been there and played shows and met people there.

To get back to your question, I think face-to-face discussions are the best way to learn, and to take these issues on. Shooting stuff around on the internet can be really damaging. I know that a lot of this movement is based on social media, on Facebook and Twitter. April really helped me out, and she helped me understand a lot of things. She said “hey, don’t make these people explain their culture to you.” I mean, I grew up in a shitty town. I will never have the experience that POC do, having to go through this kind of thing and explain their culture to white people. My ancestors are from Ireland, and I do recognize that I grew up privileged. But I did grow up in a shitty little town where my friends, like you said, were otherwise good and intelligent white people. We’d go out, they’d come to my shows, and they would start throwing around the word “faggot.” I had to explain to them that they shouldn’t use that kind of word because it is derogatory and hurtful to some people. And it is exhausting. I mean, that’s my small window into what these people have to go through and face every day.

One of the most bummer things that came out of this was a few months before all this happened, I was publicly tweeting about FACTOR. There was this guy Paul who had this blog called Slagging Off. He jumped on this Twitter rant that I was going off on and he supported me. He really identified me and he was one of the only people that has publicly criticized FACTOR in Canada. He was kind of discredited in the mainstream media because he’s not slick or articulate. He’s not polite, I mean, he’s a punk rock dude. We talked and connected, and it was cool. I had read a lot of his stuff when I was struggling with FACTOR.

Then, in the middle of the Polaris debacle, Paul comes out of nowhere and says to the FACTOR people “hey – Dan is shit-talking you online!” This guy that I had connected so well with and had good conversations with jumped on Twitter and shared this shitty, petty Facebook post saying that I was all pissed that I didn’t get the FACTOR money I was expecting. I took a screenshot and called him out, and he back-tracked. I felt gross doing it, and the whole thing was gross. I felt that if everyone were in a room together, and could hash things out in person, then maybe everyone would have their dignity in tact. It just turned me off of social media and the internet for a good while.

There are important things being discussed, but at one point you need to ask how much time you want to invest in everything. It becomes a horrible online echo chamber at some point, you know? It was people like April that really changed things for me, and was a real human being. We talked back and forth on Twitter, and it felt real. I’m really glad those guys are changing their name, they have to.

At the end of the day, I’m glad this whole thing happened because it made me question a lot of personal believes and made me look at things in a new way.

 

MM: Changing gears, how did it feel to hear that Arcade Fire covered Wolf Parade’s “I’ll Believe in Anything” during the final show of their Reflektor Tour in Montreal?

Yeah, I think Tim [Kingsbury] texted me and told me that they were doing that. Operators shares a studio with Tim so I see a lot of that dude, and I see Win [Butler] now and then when he’s in town. I love those guys. I was in the band for about a year, I played bass and guitar for a while. It was like a family really.

 

MM: I have to ask, how excited for you to be back together playing shows and writing new material with Wolf Parade?

DB: I’m pretty excited! Yeah, we’ve been working on this for about a year now, traveling a lot. They all live pretty close to the town that I grew up in, it’s a double-layered nostalgia. At first it was pretty surreal and strange, but I’ve gotten more used to it now [laughs]. It’s a pretty psychedelic trip you know? Like a Phillip K. Dick book or something. I’m stuck in time, 25 kilometers away from where I started my first, crappy-ass metal band in junior high. But it seems fitting. So yeah, pretty excited.


Introduction adapted from article posted on January 31, 2016. Written by Matías Muñoz.

3 Comments

  • […] Ottawa Showbox Live Nation TV Knobs Podcast […]

  • […] to hang with Britt Daniel and record the debut album for Divine Fits when his life took a new path. A phone call ended both his marriage and Handsome Furs, even while still awaiting results on their Polaris prize […]

  • […] The headlining act Operators hit the stage as the crowd packed in tight. I would be remiss to leave out that I am a huge fan of Dan Boeckner – he has the Midas touch and all of his projects rule. I’m one of those old Wolf Parade fans that fell in love with Handsome Furs, and then Divine Fits, and then Operators. I’m sure there are a few curmudgeony Wolf Parade die-hards that don’t like the direction he’s gone in, but I for one am excited to see him playing with new toys and collaborating with great musicians such as Devojka and Sam Brown. I had the chance to chat with Boeckner last year, an interesting piece which you can read here. […]

Leave a Reply