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Dan Boeckner: You Better Start Again

on August 26, 2014, 1:30pm

“There’s a shirtless man riding a horse next to us on the highway right now,” Dan Boeckner says at the start of our phone call. Even in a semi-sidetracked state, it’s apparent that he possesses a healthy streak of curiosity and candor. He’s riding shotgun somewhere in the middle of South Dakota with his new synthpop three-piece band, Operators, and they’re on their way to open for Future Islands again. There’s a kind of suspicion when chatting with a band while they drive across the country between shows. You’re always wondering if they’re just tired and bullshitting you. Well, Boeckner is not. He has an energy and earnestness to his words. His demeanor is masculine, but never macho. While it may be hard for anyone to fathom this indie rock veteran, best known for records about heartbreak, being anything other than severe, it’s quite clear he is exploring a new start. He is a musician learning how to tweak the mechanics of self and preset new modalities of thought, exorcising demons with an all-star team helping him out. Operators are the bulwark against his past heartbreak, and Boeckner is as upbeat as his band’s new beat.

When it comes to expectations for his own success, Boeckner has long operated under a high ceiling, playing his part in four different bands over the last decade. If he ever wanted to portal back to a particular point in his life and self-reflect, he need only play one of his records from Wolf Parade, Atlas Strategic, Handsome Furs, or Divine Fits. If you haven’t heard of Operators yet — as robotic as the name might sound — it’s probably because Boeckner decided not to debut the band “through a link or a reduced bit rate sound file,” but IRL, in the flesh, before the sweat and cheers of a live audience during a month-long series of shows. It makes sense because Boeckner’s entire career has been fulfilling in its unpredictability. And on Operators’ first self-released EP, the suitably titled EP1, he gets to step up and take the sole lead as vocalist for the first time.

Below Operators’ glittering burst-and-bloom fantasias, there exists a phenomenal amount of emotional charge. We go beyond those synth squiggles and delve deep into the brilliant mind of Boeckner. In our conversation, we chatted about the influence of science fiction on Operators, public restroom etiquette, and Boeckner finally making music he can dance to.

Operators EP1

Can I just tell you that I’ve been binging on EP1 badly, and it strikes me as an unusually positive record for you?

No, you’re totally right. I think it is probably the most positive thing I’ve ever done.

I mean, you end the EP singing the line, “You better start again.” It sounds triumphant and significant.

It’s funny you bring that up because that one is a personal manifesto. I’ve had a strange life, you know, and I realized it’s okay to start again. You build something up and change it and keep building. I think that’s important instead of hammering at the same thing over and over again.

In hindsight, you’ve released an album every year for the past 14 years, so in terms of your career trajectory, you’re constantly starting again.

You’re right, and I like being able to pull in all these elements from all these bands that I’ve been in, like Wolf Parade, and the techno elements of Handsome Furs, and the pop elements of Divine Fits. This is kind of my new mandate.

I’m always fascinated by how you juggle all these projects, which I assume tap into the different portals of your mind. I got a little bit of insight on your work ethic when I chatted with Britt [Daniel] from Spoon. Does it ever get difficult to multitask?

You know, if I ever get stressed out with the amount of work I put on myself, I just think about all the terrible jobs I had before I started making music for a living. Like, Lior, I worked at a pharmaceutical company in Montreal. It was awful!

What the heck were you doing there?

I was designing surveys for Phizer, the drug company. If they ever had a problem with a drug, they could run these surveys that would spit out the right data, and they would be able to contest FDA findings with it.

I mean, that sounds … I’ll try looking at the positive support to this … someone else would love that job?

Yeah, don’t even try! There’s no positivity in there. It straight-up sucked, and I know that’s the reality for most people. It’s not a burden to have more than one band. I’m so grateful. I think for some people, when they play music, it’s easy to get caught up in the, “Oh, this is uncomfortable” mindset. All of a sudden, your threshold for inconvenience becomes super small, whereas if you’re living in the real world it has to be enormous just to stay sane.

Yeah, because your life is cubicle’d into a 9-to-5. Isn’t it great to have that perspective?

But then you get people who play and get upset if the venue didn’t put bananas backstage for them. You do have to have perspective all the time. You could be going into a windowless room from 9-to-5, staring at a computer screen, and then shuffling home to your bed.

Don’t you think it’s quite serendipitous that you’re opening for Future Islands on this tour as well? Look at their progression. They’ve kept their heads cool, done shitty jobs, and suddenly their career erupted.

Yeah, you know this is the first tour they’ve done with a tour manager? It’s crazy! The bass player is driving in a van just like us. I like that.

So, now you’re touring and there’s been barely any information about Operators. Was that a conscious decision to seem a little more mysterious?

I wanted people to experience the songs, at least in the beginning, in that way, instead of through a link or a reduced bit rate sound file. We didn’t want a long lead time for the record. When we started playing, we realised these shows are the one thing you can’t completely copy, paste, and control, the only thing that won’t be catalogued in the big data warehouse that’s the Internet.

operators shervin Dan Boeckner: You Better Start Again

What does it feel like to play music to crowds that have never heard it before?

It feels so good. You have to deliver those songs with as much conviction and guts as possible. They don’t know the songs, and you have to make that impression immediately on them. I like that it’s the closest I get to, well, I’m not a sports guy, but the closest I imagine when you get to play a really good basketball or football game. Like, you have a team, an objective, and you go out trying to win the audience, right?

Score the goals and get the crowds to cheer … ooh, good metaphor! EP1 is bursting with easily accessible songs, too, great and hooky, so it’s not that someone needs to sit and labor over them before.

Yeah, the process of writing has been so different for this band. I didn’t feel like I needed to shape or edit it. I think we live in a post-genre time, so I think it’s perfectly acceptable to just lay down some acid bass or a four-on-the-floor house kick and make a song out of that. I wanted to make music that I wanted to listen to, that I would like to dance to, and that was actually fun to play.

Was there anything you’ve written in the past that you haven’t wanted to play live?

Oh yeah, definitely! It was the stuff that I got out on the Divine Fits record. For lack of a better word, it really was like an epic breakup record. When I first started playing those songs live, there was a catharsis of playing them. I had a forum every night to talk about this stuff. Then something happened in October last year, and suddenly I could play those songs and still tap into those emotions, but it wasn’t psychologically draining for me. It became this joyful expression of these sad feelings. As soon as Operators started, I didn’t feel the need to write something incredibly heavy.

In the past, you’ve had this almost romantic dichotomy with your band names: Handsome Furs, Divine Fits, Wolf Parade. Tell me a little bit about the name Operators.

I like Operators and its Germanic tone, like we’re operators operating machines. I’m a big Kraftwerk fan, and they refer to themselves as “musik arbeiters,” which are music workers. It sounds tough, like you’re gonna get the job done.

Definitely, and how did you meet Devojka?

I met her in Eastern Europe, and it made sense to work with her. You can’t just let somebody that talented slip through your fingers. Sam Brown is a no-brainer, the guy is a great drummer. I don’t know if you know this, but Alex [Fischel], who was in Divine Fits, has now joined Spoon, so Divine Fits is like an amoeba that’s gonna split into two. I think we’ll record a new Divine Fits as soon as Spoon has finished their cycle. Oh god, did I just say that? And, we’ve done our cycle…

divine fits

You will both sync up.

And we will start writing when our cycles are combined [laughs]. We work really well as a band together, and I know that playing with Alex, Sam, and I makes him a very happy Britt Daniel.

Similar to some of your songs with Divine Fits, a song on this record, “Ancient”, seems based on such a basic premise of past relationships, but it also seems more complex than that?

To be totally honest, I read a lot of science fiction novels, and I’ve always loved Philip K. Dick. A lot of his stuff is about alternate timelines, and when I was growing up in a small town in the middle of nowhere, I did acid and had this unstuck-in-time feeling [the first lyric of the song], and I had this epiphany of my life. I will always be a 16-year-old kid wandering around town in the middle of the night listening to Sonic Youth, and then also the Dan right now in South Dakota.

VonnegutI pretty much only read science fiction and fantasy, and I always thought if they had to soundtrack something like Vonnegut’s “The Big Space Fuck”, they’d do it with high-tempo, soul-melting synth.

Oh, yeah! I always think about this. Science fiction completely influenced this band and this album of songs. I read Samuel Delany when we were making it. I’d be reading the books late at night and go write something, always thinking about how a band, in this time and in this book, would sound.

I think genres like science fiction open up another realm of your mind where you can let your imagination go.

You know, all the great science fiction allows you to take a big idea and apply it to the human condition. I found reading and mainlining it really allowed me to take risks with my music.

The dynamic between the three of you in Operators seems natural, too. What’s the appeal of a three-piece lineup versus a four-piece, like in Wolf Parade?

Oh, good point. It comes down to democratic process really. With three people you’re always guaranteed a swing vote.

You sneaky bugger.

Damn straight! It totally expedites the writing process because you have two people who say, “Hey, this chorus sucks,” or “The middle part is super bloated,” or “That keyboard sound is really abrasive,” and there will be two people who agree on that and one person who doesn’t. The key is to not overthink things and dwell on them too long.

Do you find you’ve done that in the past?

If I’m gonna be totally honest, I think the second Wolf Parade record would have been better if we’d taken a third of the amount of time we put into making it.

But that’s a real issue for any artist, no matter if they’re a musician or a painter. How do you really ever know when you’re done?

That’s so true. With music, I think you do have this incredible thing that you don’t get with film, books, writing, or painting, where you record a song but it’s never done assuming you’re going to play it live. You get a 2nd, 3rd, 100th chance to improve on your tracks. That song you mentioned earlier, “Start Again”, we’re playing it slightly differently than it was on the EP, and I like it better now. Who knows if we will re-record it for a full-length, but I think it’s a blessing that you get to do that.

I always think about this kind of stuff. It’s not finished when you play it live either, because it gets translated to your listener, then passed along to the next person, and it becomes an ever-evolving piece of art.

And it’s gonna mean something different to every person that hears it. I’ve had this experience where I’ve talked to people after the show, and they’ll talk about how they interpret the song, and it would be completely different to what I had intended when I wrote it, but it’s no less valid.

I do wonder if it ever gets weird having someone else self-reflecting on your life.

You know, it’s a social contract that you have as an artist. There are some songs on the first Wolf Parade record that are directly about my mother passing away, and that’s an event in a person’s life that’s going to stick with you. It’s a tumultuous personal event. You can’t get precious about your writing, because once it leaves your head and you record it, it doesn’t belong to you anymore. It’s not only yours, it’s everybody else’s.

Does it frustrate you that we’re living in an era where work doesn’t have the proper time to breathe before it’s analyzed?

Yes, I am frustrated with that, and it’s a pointillist approach to looking at output. There’s no long-term perspective. It’s interesting to me because it’s taken the power away from music critics, and I think it’s both positive and negative. It’s positive in that you don’t have one 45-year-old man sitting in his office in New York, chain smoking and dictating what is good. Now you get the focus group effect, like when Hollywood movies screen the movie for a focus group and people respond with like, “More explosions!” I think where it gets dangerous is when you start tailoring art to suit this imagined blob of opinions.

operators 3Have you ever been affected by that avalanche of opinions?

I try not to be, but I’ve googled myself. I’m googling my own name every day. Fuck yeah, I do it! It’s like you’re at a party and there’s a bunch of people talking about you in the next room, and all you have to do is put your ear to the door. I know people say they don’t read the Internet. I’ve even said it, but I lied. I totally read reviews. Occasionally, someone will say something that’s really nasty, and instead of remembering good feedback, I’ll remember the guy who said I can’t sing and I should die.

They never stop there: “This band’s eyeballs should be gouged out with forks, eaten by a pack of coyotes, and then vomited back out onto another corpse.”

“You should fall into an ocean of illness and drown because you suck at guitar!” Like, fuck you! I think we’re living in a time that’s high stress, with misdirected sadness, where you can just barf up your worst feelings on someone you don’t know.

I just wrote this article about a woman taking a phone call in the restroom cubicle next to me. I just wanted to slide a note underneath saying this is really unhygienic. Communication has become unhygienic.

That’s something I’ve actually talked about with a couple of the bands I’ve been on tour with recently. In America especially, you go to these truck stops that have huge restrooms and a lot of stalls, and I’ve literally listened to a guy taking a shit talking to his significant other. Literally shitting and talking to his wife on the phone, which is, in a way, kind of sweet. The worst is a business shit, the dude who’s taking a shit at work after lying and saying he needs to go pick up the forms for Larry, but he’s just shitting.

Larry is such an employee name. Poor Larry! He could be shitting and tweeting to you right now, Dan, and you’d never know.

Larry could be masturbating. There is literally no way to tell.