Matson on Music
Interview: Dan Boeckner of Handsome Furs
Posted by Andrew Matson
I love Dan Boeckner.
Yes, for his involvement with Wolf Parade, but more what he's done lately. With his wife Alexei Perry, Boeckner's turned Handsome Furs from a cool idea -- 2007 album Plague Park was like, "Hey, what if we mixed drum machines with comforting, somewhat depressing guitar?" -- to a high-energy pop powerhouse: recent album Face Control was like, "Here, enjoy the world's catchiest song before we break your face on the 909 clap."
The band plays Friday at Neumo's.
I love the artistry in Handsome Furs, the fact Boeckner's got taste enough to serve his wounded, rock-warrior heart on the rocks (the rocks in question being the boom and crack of digital dancehall and modern hiphop, and guitars that sound like they were steamrolled, then somehow built themselves back from salvaged parts into mean, warped versions of their former selves, not unlike "evil" Johnny 5, and also the band's economy. "Have guitar/keyboard: will travel." The whole enterprise is a rare example of smart thinking that works perfectly in real life.
Boeckner and I got deep into Face Control on the phone the other day. He was on the beach in Vancouver with Perry. I was at Fairview and Denny in a cubicle. He was friendly. I was nervous. But I got off the questions I wanted to ask most, and he gave thorough responses about his songwriting formula and why Face Control sounds like it does.
Yeah, I'm here.
Great. So where are you at the beach?
I'm at English Bay in Vancouver. Just sitting, looking at the ocean. It's nice. Alexei and I used to live around here. We got into town last night from Chicago and we were planning on spending the whole day at the beach.
I have prepared questions so I'll let you get back to your beachgoing pretty soon.
First of all, I listened to Face Control until I totally played it out and had to loan it to one of my friends just to get it out of my car for a while. So, it's a pretty big deal to me to be talking to you, personally. Just wanted to declare that.
That's f_ckin' sweet, man. Thank you.
So what inspired the change in drum sounds from Plague Park to Face Control? There's some real deep bass and pretty crackin' claps...says a lot about hiphop to me, but I don't know...where do you think it came from?
I think it came from a couple of things. The main thing is, when we started touring Plague Park, we had a drum machine stolen, and we re-programmed all the songs for that tour, and we kind of ramped the tempos up. We both realized if we played the songs live, we wanted less that navel-gazing, you know, like precious sound and more a high-energy thing, and that just worked itself into the songwriting.
And we were also listening to a lot of dancehall in the year leading up to Face Control. Alexei's dad lives in the Caribbean, and she's got a pretty good background in dancehall music, like early digital dancehall, with that clap sound. It's like that classic 909 dancehall claps. Also that got worked in. And really shitty Eastern European techno, too. That was another big influence.
Interesting. So what's that weird squawking sound that accompanies the bass hit on "Legal Tender"?
Oh, the weird squawking sound? That's Alexei's keyboard.
A pre-programmed sound?
It's a really mangled patch on the microKorg. And I know a lot of people kind of deride the microKorg as the standard-issue indie-rock keyboard, but if you go into those things and kind of take them apart, you can get some really interesting sounds. We built this self-oscillating organ sound that's just really obnoxious, and that's the squawk.
I have a microKorg in my possession. I can't get that sound.
It was some deep programming. It was like almost accidental.
You were in deep programming concentration?
Exactly. Man, this is great. Nobody ever asks about stuff like this. It's very nice. Thank you.
Sure. "Hotel Arbat Blues" really reminds me of something, but I'm not sure what. Especially the structure of the verse. The guitar blast, then stop, then the drum blast, and then stop. Is that from something? Or does it just remind me of something?
Um, it probably reminds you of "Bad Reputation" slowed down? By Joan Jett?
That's kind of what it reminds me of. And "Summertime Blues"?
That song started out as a crazy-ass hardcore song, that had no bass on it, and was just like kind of a wall of noise, and then we chopped it up in the studio. Just practiced it over and over again. That guitar break, we just wanted to add the loudest, most obnoxious thing we could.
Is that song an instance of that dancehall clap sound coming into play like you were talking about?
That's about as hard as a clap gets.
That stuff's all pretty much direct off the drum machine. We wanted to not really have a lush, organic sounding record. We wanted to preserve the stiffness of the drum machines. The guy who produced the record, Arlen, Arlen from Wolf Parade, he really helped out with that, too. It was basically just the three of us tracking in the studio for a couple of weeks and that's what we got.
What kind of conversations do you have with him when you're going for that kind of stylistic nuance, away from something that's easy to listen to, toward something that's more grating...does he necessarily have to be on the same page as you?
He generally is on the same page as us, pretty much the whole way through the recording process. They way we structured the recording process, is we had written the songs on the road, and then we came into the studio, this studio that we own, it's sort of the Wolf Parade/Handsome Furs headquarters, and he would set the recording machines up, we would go in and start rehearsing the song until we could play it all the way through, and we'd get there really early in the morning and take a break for lunch.
And then we'd track it and try and do it in two takes. That was kind of our rule. If we couldn't get a working version in two takes, we'd put it away for a few days.
In order to preserve the je nais se quoi?
Yeah. The spontaneity. A lotta records coming out in the indie-rock genre, and maybe it's drifting away from that with Deerhunter and No Age, but a lot of them sound really labored over. Like meticulously arranged and labored over, you know? And I like that in some music, but the thing that originally got me into music was that spontaneous thing, maybe verging on sloppiness. I think that's an exciting part of rock music.
It's great for me to hear you say that because I think you nailed that. The whole record is hot and fast.
Yeah, we wanted it to sound like it was about to go off the rails. Which is hard to do with a drum machine. Especially an older drum machine. They're locked into a tempo. So we had to make the guitars and the keyboards sound a little more nuts and difficult to control while we were playing them.
How did you do that?
Well, I have a couple hot-wired guitar pedals that I kinda just tore apart and put back together again, that just destroy the signal of the guitar, and that harsh programming stuff with the microKorg. Forcing ourselves to use those sounds and trying to control them into something musical.
One of the things I used on this record is basically a bit reducer, sampling the guitar coming in and then lowering the bit rate, spitting it back out. It makes these weird overtones and controlled feedback. And I gotta say, Boss pedals. Boss pedals are a touring musician's friend. They never break down.
And they're cheap.
And they're cheap. So if you ever lose your Boss orange distortion, you can go to whatever pawn shop and get another.
I understand the significance, based on reading from the internet, of the Face Control title, but is there any special significance to the line that references it from "Hotel Arbat Blues"?
Yeah, it's kinda dorky, but, we were in Moscow and we had been face controlled at a buffet.
You were not handsome enough to eat at a buffet?
No. And it was in the middle of the day. And I just thought, 'This is a culture where the capitalism has gone haywire. Totally out of control. This is hypercapitalism, the idea that there's a status involved in being able to scoop some greasy perogis out of a steam table.'
But the 'there was a guy who came in from the cold' line, is because, before we went over, we watched this movie The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, which is kind of about Russia and the Eastern Bloc, and we thought it was funny.
"Legal tender," "Hotel Arbat," "I'm Confused," "Thy Will Be Done," "Radio Kaliningrad": Are these the pop-iest songs Handsome Furs has written?
Probably, except for the new one that we just wrote that doesn't have a title, which I think is pop-ier than those.
So you are making new songs?
Yeah. We have about four songs left over from the album, and then an extended version of that song "White City" that snippet that's on the record, that interlude thing, there's a full version of that and the four that didn't make it onto the record and then I guess we've written three or four new songs.
And they're also in the same uptempo vein?
Yes, definitely. We're playing two new ones in the set, so I'm excited to see what US audiences think. We just got back from Europe, we were there for two months, just got back like five days ago, and we were playing some new stuff over there and it went over really well, so hopefully it works out.
I guess European audiences, a lot of them speak English well enough to get by, but even if they don't, your band is so much sound, the lyrics are important, but so much SOUND, you think that helps you go over better in Europe?
Oh, definitely. If it was just me on acoustic guitar and Alexei on piano, and like really verse-based, I think it wouldn't go over as well as it does. Especially in Eastern Europe, they seem to really respond to, uh, punishing beats.
Do you think as not-pretty as you go, it'll be inversely proportionate to your Eastern European popularity?
I don't know, man,. There's gotta be a tipping point, right? We've been listening to a lot of Skinny Puppy in the last couple a weeks. Great Canadian band, early '80s Skinny Puppy and I think if we went that far we might ...
...reach critical noise mass?
Crticial noise mass, yeah.
So, in just being a Handsome Furs and Wolf Parade listener, I definitely see a Boeckner style, to me, which is catchy verses with neat chord resolutions, usually a coda that answers back a major fifth, which to me is a really comforting thing. Am I way off base with that analysis?
No. When I started playing music, I was in post-hardcore bands. That's the first sort of thing I started writing. You know, like Drive Like Jehu or that great Washington State band, Unwound? You know that band?
I am aware.
Yeah, I loved that band. And my first few bands, they sounded exactly like a shitty version of Unwound.
And then I kinda like, there was a point, I think it was around the time I moved to Montreal, I just kinda realized I really liked THAT particular chord progression. That classic R&B progression. There's just something nice about that.
That kind of music, those chord progressions, it's almost like a language in rock. And I think you can still stories in that language and not be boring. Like Jay Reatard for instance. His songs sound like a lot of other songs, but there's something fresh about them.
I've always appreciated that about you. There is something idiomatic about that particular progresssion.
It's almost like a power pop thing, like an American '70s power pop thing, like Cheap Trick. All the best Cheap Trick songs...they're pop songs, but they also have this weird, sad minor-key tension in them, too, which makes them great. At least for me. That's the kind of music that I like.
I hear you loud and clear.
Is it something unusual about your marriage that you're able to not only travel but work with your wife constantly?
Yeah. If that thing that lets us travel together without screaming at each other wasn't there, then I don't think we would've gotten married in the first place. It's an integral part of our relationship that we can both go hang out somewhere we've never been and still be nice to each other and have fun.
How did you know you'd be able to withstand that? Just chance?
I don't know. As soon as we started seriously dating, I just knew it. I think she knew it, too. We booked our first tour, this Scandinavian tour, and I wasn't worried about it at all. And after that, it just kina cemented the fact that that's what we wanted to do. We both like hotel rooms. I don't get homesick that much.
I just became aware of the video of "I'm Confused," and when you start dripping your fake, black blood into Alexei's mouth at the end of it, I just started laughing so hard. Is that an appropriate reaction?
Yeah, absolutely. That was a surprise. She didn't know that was going to happen.
She just went with it?
She went with it. And the stuff we were using was this awful mix of food coloring, toothpaste, and baking soda that the director had invented, and you could only keep it in your mouth for about thirty seconds before it started eating the enamel off your teeth.
Before it actually turned you into a zombie?
Exactly. it was impossible to get out of your mouth, too. I had black teeth for a couple days after that. That was a good time, though.
Photo: Liam Maloney
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