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Don't Call It a Side Project: Dan Boeckner Talks Juggling Roles in Operators and Wolf Parade

Boeckner tells us about his conflicted feelings living in the U.S. and hints on what to expect with new Wolf Parade.

Photo courtesy of Kelly Castro

Dan Boeckner isn’t making life easy for himself. And yet, he wouldn’t want it any other way. Two weeks before his current band Operators announced their debut album’s release date, his old band Wolf Parade announced that they were dusting off their gear and reuniting after a five-year hiatus. It’s not the first time Boeckner has juggled two bands at once: he was writing, recording and performing in Wolf Parade almost the entire time he was doing Handsome Furs with his ex-wife Alexei Perry. And just as both of those bands fizzled out, he formed a bit of an indie super-group with Spoon’s Britt Daniel and New Bomb Turks’ Sam Brown called Divine Fits, which is still very much alive. Boeckner says he needs this constant “solid work” in his life at all times, and 2016 is going to provide an endless supply of it.


A lot of the focus for fans right now might be on Wolf Parade, a band that emerged in the mid-00s just as Canadian music was undergoing a momentous renaissance. They had remarkable international success—both critical and commercial—with their three albums, so it’s understandable that Wolf Parade might earn more headlines. But Operators (which also includes multi-instrumentalist Devojka and Brown on drums) should in no way play second fiddle. With Operators' debut Blue Wave, Boeckner has given his fans another side to his songwriting—one that differs slightly from Wolf Parade and Divine Fits, and feels more like an extension of what he began with Handsome Furs. Unlike 2014’s EP1, the album isn’t as fixated on programming electronic sounds as it is using icy synths to conduct what are very much the muscular pop song structures Boeckner has always teased in every one of his bands. In this process, he also hasn’t forgotten about the guitar, which plays more of a role than it did in the band’s earlier days. Oh, and if you’re hoping he truly indulges in the 80s worship with some skronking sax, well, you’ll be happy to know it appears in all the right places. During a wintry road trip across Southern Ontario, Boeckner explained how he’s balancing his responsibilities in his old and new bands, his conflicted feelings about living in the US, and what it’s like to tour with a fur ball named Archie.


Noisey: I noticed that recently you had an “acutely Canadian moment. On the 401. Snow and ice. Headed to Waterloo. Tragically Hip on the radio.” I imagine you didn’t get many moments like that living in San Jose.
Dan Boeckner: No. I had a couple of cute San Jose moments. That was definitely a distilled Canadian time pocket. [I came back to Montreal] because I just didn’t want to live in the United States anymore. It’s ramping up to the election. I have a conflicted relationship with that country; most of the people I’m in the van with right now are American. And a lot of my best friends who I have wonderful relationships with are American. But as a country it just felt wrong for me to live there and pay my taxes there. And also San Jose was great for a couple years. It was a hot house for the creative ideas that became Operators. But in that time period it became one of the most expensive places to live in North America. Because it’s essentially a commuter suburb of San Francisco, and there is a corridor of high-tech industry hubs. Unlike San Francisco, San Jose doesn’t have a reason to recommend it for the price. The best I felt living there was in the suburbs because there is a kind of blankness there that allows you to superimpose anything you want onto it.

I see you’ve taken a dog on the road with you. How well does he travel?
[laughs] How do you know that?

You tweeted a photo of him.
Oh yeah, we did. That’s Archie, he’s our tour manager. He’s pretty chill. What is he doing?
He’s just licking his paws right now to pass the time. He’s great on tour. Any time he gets near the van he wags his tail and jumps right in. He licks his paws, and then he sleeps. He’s Devojka’s dog. He’s an American dog.


I found it interesting that Blue Wave was announced just after the announcement that Wolf Parade was ending its hiatus. How has it been juggling those two things at the same time?
So far it’s been okay because Wolf Parade and Operators have the same booking agent, which is pretty helpful for a scheduling conflict. We wrapped up the Operators record in the fall, and I knew the Wolf Parade thing was on the horizon, so it was kind of like driving two trucks towards each other. It was like chicken: who is gonna announce it first. But I think the way that it played out was good.

So after this tour you’ll go do some Wolf Parade shows. Is the plan to then go back to Operators once those shows are done?
Yes, after this tour I think I have four or five weeks off, and I’ll rehearse in BC with Wolf Parade, and then it’s a full North American tour with Operators. And then I’m flying back to BC to rehearse for the Wolf Parade residency shows. So I’m gonna be busy for the next few years. Probably until 2018, maybe.

Was Blue Wave recorded before you made the decision to restart Wolf Parade?
No, it was recorded during, almost to the end of it. [Wolf Parade] started getting together almost a year ago, and just wrote and played music together. Didn’t play any old songs, just started writing some new songs and it continued on for about a year. Slowly we put together a plan. We had our first rehearsal and it sounded really good, so we kept doing it. And the second rehearsal was great, so we decided to play some shows.


That was a well-kept secret.
Yeah, I felt like anyone was going to find out at any minute. I was really excited about it. And the writing process with Operators at the time was pretty intense. I was bouncing back and forth between the two. It all feels really positive right now. Having work makes you feel like you have a purpose. I like that. I like feeling like I have a reason to exist. When you’re an artist there are these huge gulfs of time where you can feel like inessential to life. Like, what are you doing? You may tell yourself, “I’m doing research. I’m just living and I will convert it into art.” But I think it’s good to actually have solid work all of the time. You’re writing, you’re rehearsing, you’re travelling for work, you’re putting together album art… that makes me feel like I have a purpose [laughs]. This is my purpose: to make records and play shows. And I don’t mean it in a pretentious way. It’s just the truth.

I know you had songs written for a fourth Handsome Furs album that obviously never saw a release. Did any of those become Operators songs?
No, one of them almost became a Divine Fits song, but I just deep-sixed the whole thing. Almost for superstitious reasons. I’m not a superstitious person by nature, but I felt like to sort of transpose those songs out of the very specific world Handsome Furs were in to a new project would maybe bringing along some phantasmagorical or psychic taint to it. I didn’t want to cross-contaminate.


What does Operators offer you that you weren’t able to achieve in your other projects?
In a lot of ways I feel like it is an extension of what I was working on in Handsome Furs, but just expanded with much broader songwriting and sound palette. Handsome Furs by nature was a box you had to colour in and the box was very small but you could draw whatever you wanted inside of it. But the limitations were there. Operators is a bigger field. There are more colours in the crayon box, y’know? There is really no way I could’ve done with Handsome Furs what I’m doing in Operators. So I feel like it’s a natural outgrowth. And it also allows me to flex my programming and sequencing skills [laughs] that I’ve been working on since 2006, when Handsome Furs started.

At first Operators was a very synth-minded project, but there are guitars on songs like “Nobody,” “Evil” and “Shape Of Things.” Why did you feel the need to return to that instrument?
I think it came when we started playing live when we did some touring with Future Islands, and we were doing headlining shows and festivals. We had written a huge batch of songs that were synth-based and the guitar just naturally found its way back in. And that really influenced the writing of the LP, which is a solid balance of aggressive guitar, post-punk stuff and electronics. I guess the jump between the EP and this record is the jump that was between Plague Park and Face Control. Face Control was the record where that band figured out what they sounded like. And I feel that Blue Wave is the same for Operators. Mood-wise the album is darker. The EP is definitely a little lighter but I think this record is definitely, sonically and lyrically a lot more aggressive. I’ve noticed that with every band I’ve been in that it takes one recording session and a bunch of touring to figure out what the true nature of the band is.


The title of the album sounds like you’re winking an eye at the band’s new wave influences. Am I right?
Right. Devojka and I were having a conversation about chronic depression [laughs] and she described it like a blue wave. Almost beautiful, but all-encompassing. It also works with the metaphor, the pun. I feel like that was a thing in the ’80s. A lot of the new wave stuff was imbued with some kind of melancholy. It was in a lot of the lyrics of artists like Gary Numan and Wire, but also icy in the sound palette, this kind of early digital reverb, which I really like. It speaks to me. I grew up on that stuff and it’s kind of like funk music to me.

I heard that Meredith Graves sang on some of your recordings while she was playing shows with the band. Did any of those make Blue Wave?
They didn’t make the album because they were part of this early recording session we did that resulted in some EP tracks. But we ended up re-recording two of the songs that she sang on with us when we did the sessions with Howard Bilerman in Montreal. One of those songs is coming out on a benefit show. We played some shows with her and they were a blast. She is an amazing person. She’s the Übermensch of social media.

Did recording the album at Barn Window Studio in such a secluded area like Caistor Centre, Ontario have any impact on the sound of the record?
It did. I think that being in such a flat, blank environment has almost a psychedelic effect on the mind. It’s like being in a desert–your brain just unspools. But it also allows you to focus. There are no distractions. We’re driving into London, Ontario right now and there is a really specifically bleak and punishing aspect to Southern Ontario. The German side of my family were these pacifists, very religious people in a Protestant way, and they settled around here. You can just imagine these uber Protestants, Orangemen, Dutch Calvinists, Amish, whatever, settling here where every morning they wake up and know they’re being tested by God, and that life is really just a veil before the afterlife. Like it’s almost like an agricultural purgatory. It’s really suiting to the type of people that settled here, my family included. I thought about that a lot, actually. That and science fiction.

Cam Lindsay is a writer from Toronto. Follow him on Twitter.