Synthesizing Reality With Operators’ Dan Boeckner
Dan Boeckner is a frenzied maniac punching at his guitar and mashing a hand on his synth as sweat drips all over everything. That's the typical scenario when you see him performing with one of his many bands, and that was the scene for his latest band, Operators, during their recent opening set supporting Future Islands in Brooklyn. Their debut, the five-song EP 1, was released a few days prior, so the crowd barely knows that material, not to mention the unreleased songs that they're trotting out. But that doesn't matter. The energy level is high, specifically for one of those non-album tracks, a charging dance punk song laced with spiky guitars, harried and locked-in and liable to go back to 2003 and eat that whole Rapture-led movement for fucking lunch.
Skip back seven hours, and Boeckner, the jittery multitasker, is cooped up in a car as the band drives through the vast green empty of Pennsylvania on the way to NYC. That's when I called him up to talk about what's on the horizon for Operators, but like the dilapidated highways of Pennsyltucky, the conversation was winding, so we ended up discussing our dystopian reality, Perfect Pussy, and the fury of synthesizer message board trolls. And yes, I asked him about the status of Wolf Parade.
Operators seems like the spiritual successor to Handsome Furs, is that accurate?
Handsome Furs was just me sitting in my apartment with one crappy '90s digital drum machine/sequencer trying to figure out how to write dance music with guitars in it. With Operators, it's kinda the same thing. I'll go home and write tunes, and instead of just using this one box, I have a huge table of electronics and start sculpting a verse or what will turn into a chorus or a beat, and sing over top of it for hours until I come up with something that I think is cool. Then I bring it to the band and we arrange it... Devojka and Sam [Brown] contribute to this band very heavily, so I can't take all the credit. But the genesis of the songs is usually me sitting there tapping something out.
There's more of an '80s bent it seems. Like, "Book of Love" has a real "When Doves Cry" feel to it.
Ah, thanks man. Yeah the hollow percussion, and I really love the bass tone on that song. It has this all-devouring chorus effect that I associate with FM radio in the '80s from when I was a kid. There were all these really emotive songs from that era, but the technology being used was just ice cold. So there's this weird juxtaposition between these (mostly) men pouring their hearts out and underneath it there's this cold, cocaine-laser bass line going on. You just imagine somebody writing it with their shirt off, with a condo overlooking 1980s Gordon Gekko-era Manhattan just fucking blazed on cocaine. There's something really great about that vibe for electronic music.
That scenario you just laid out, was it in any way similar to your process for the EP?
No, it's more like, sitting in a windowless warehouse room in San Jose, with my shirt off 'cause it's super hot, blazed on Mexican Coke. Coca-Cola, not, ya know, Mexican cocaine. And Camel Crush. And occasionally the dog would stop by. Not quite as epic.
Continuing the '80s discussion, your material often has a New Wave bent to it, but this release skews toward a minimal wave sort of looping. Was that an influence?
Yeah, I have this great compilation, it's called Red Waves, and it's all this Eastern European minimal wave stuff. I like the sounds on it. The lyrical content is a little dated, like Cold War-era, Gary Numan "I am a mechanical man."
Yeah and with that stuff usually half of it is in French or German so I don't know what they're saying anyway.
Exactly. But for the English stuff, it turns out we're living in a future that's so much more dystopian than what they predicted, that J.G. Ballard, Throbbing Gristle future. That Skinny Puppy future seems kinda quaint now! The actual future we live in is so much more psychologically and topographically complex than Concrete Island that it seems almost cute now to look back. Oh, they thought everyone would be under surveillance and it wouldn't be their choice, but no! Everyone is under surveillance and we completely allow it to happen, 24/7. In fact we embrace it because we want faster stuff.
So that was kind of an influence on the record, living in Silicon Valley, listening to minimal wave stuff and new dance music or experimental dance music that's sort of a rejection of modern pop or the EDM standard. There's this great movement right now of cutting edge dance music using analog synthesizers. The Long Island Electrical Systems label, the Laurel Halo releases, that is modern music that seems really futuristic to me.
For people who aren't synth geeks, what does the analog approach bring to the table?
Digital technology is so good now that emulation is good enough that I can't tell the difference between someone playing an Oberheim SEM on an iPad app or the real thing, unless I'm actually staring at it. If you're physically playing on a keyboard, that changes the dynamic. In terms of the songwriting, there's a flexibility, too. We can run a sequence, or have an arpeggiator going, and it's maybe a little bit off of the click, the timing isn't entirely quantized, and it allows us to stretch the arrangement of the song 'cause we're not pressing spacebar or launching clips exactly synced to the beat.
Kinda like New Order's "Blue Monday," how the sequencer came in a half-step late or something, but they ended up keeping it.
Yeah and that's something that's become really popular in the more underground dance scene right now, unquantized recording — stuff that isn't perfectly locked into the grid, on time. Newer analog-based dance music, everything's a little off, a little wonky.
Factory Floor comes to mind.
Exactly, there's a little bit of grit in there that you wouldn't get otherwise. It's akin to a perfectly tuned guitar versus one that's detuned, it gives it a little bit of friction.
Do you see yourself going deeper into the electronic dance world? What's next?
I'm really enjoying this stuff right now. I love a good pop song, so I'm just trying to use these tools in Operators to write a song that has a melody and vocals. It's hard to explain, but I see myself going further into that. But that doesn't mean it won't involve live instrumentation.
As for Operators, you guys did a very throwback rollout in that you introduced new material in a live setting. Now that the record is out, has it caused you to purposely stray from the recorded versions and improvise more during shows?
It really has, it didn't take very long for that to happen. You need to read the audience and see what parts connect with them and listen to them and watch their responses. We just played a show in Seattle, one of the best we've played so far. We were playing "Ancient," nobody had heard it, it was the day before the EP came out. And at the end it kind of melts down into acid house, and people started flippin' out! So we just hung on the last two chords and extended it and melted the synth parts down. It felt great, and by the end of the set, we played a song that hasn't been released yet, and a bunch of the audience was up on stage jumping up and down. It was great! We mashed that song into the red. So as we continue the tour the stuff will evolve.
So it sounds like you have more Operators tracks in the pipeline.
We recorded 15 or 16 songs in Montreal between February and March of this year.
Is there a full-length on the way?
I think there'll be an EP and LP. We're playing it by ear, but ideally what I'd like to do is roll out an EP every couple of months and let the material breathe... Things have changed. Because record sales aren't the lynchpin in the life of a band, you're able to untether from these record cycles, for lack of a better word. You make something, you wait months, there's strategy involved, it's released, you do a shit-ton of press, then you do headlining shows, and you have a finite window to squeeze all the amount of bucks out of that record and then you don't do any more shows. Then you start work on record two.
If you could, would you skip the whole recorded part altogether and just do live stuff?
I dunno. I love the fact that people have something to listen to at home. That was a big part of my life growing up. The recorded album is equally important, but the live show is where you connect with people now. The way people consume now is in shorter bursts, smaller chunks. So the idea of making a long album, this grand artistic statement, it's not really happening now. That model props up old institutions that review stuff, and there's this desire from people who comment on music to have that coherent expression of artistry, something like a novel. But a lot of bands, like Factory Floor, they put out an album, but their singles are paramount.
Right and those were out, what, back in 2011?
Yeah like two or three years before the album.
What's your stance on live albums?
They're great but your mind has to fill in the blanks, especially if you're getting a warts-and-all board recording. That great David Bowie triple album, Stage. You could argue, and you'd be totally right, that the version of "Heroes" on that record is not anywhere near as good as the one on the album, but there's something about it that feels more alive. I'm pro-live album. I'd love to do something where you record every show and have it catalogued and available for people with a couple of photographs from each show.
Didn't Pearl Jam do something like that years ago, where they released a live album from every show on their tour?
On CDs, right? And I guess it might be the territory of jam bands? You get to hear the rippin' solo from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, in '97. But that's kinda cool.
Yeah the jam banders love that. You're more with the synth nerds I take it.
Aw man, synth nerds. Last two years I've been deeply immersed in the synth nerd world. You go on these forums and these guys are just so fucking protective. It reminds me of when I played Dungeons and Dragons and there's the kid who had all the manuals and knew all the esoteric rules to fuck you out of winning — or whatever the equivalent of winning was, gaining experience points. So you go to the forum and you're like "Hey I'm new here, I need to know how to download presets for the Poly-800, do I need this file?" And they're like "Fuck you newbie, go fuck yourself!"
I never would've guessed that!
Oh believe it. "What, you're using a Casio CZ-1000, you're an idiot! The filter on that is terrible. Go die!"
Before you die, any interest in ever doing a solo album?
I don't think so. I'd feel weird putting out a record that was just Dan Boeckner. I can't even imagine what it would be. Me with an acoustic guitar and some backing musicians? That's kind of depressing. I'd rather be in a band.
When you're done and you retire, who will have been in more bands, you or Jack White?
Me, probably [laughs]. I have like two other projects in the pipeline. The nice thing about Operators is, when we started it I felt like "This is it. This is my band, the band that I get to make as many records as I want with." The band that won't be subject to the pressures of touring. I feel like I can do anything with this, I could come out and put out a record with no synthesizers on it and it would still be Operators.
Any details about those other two bands?
It's too soon. Well, Meredith Graves of Perfect Pussy sings on a couple Operators tracks, and she and I and a couple Montreal usual suspects are talking about putting together some songs up there at Hotel 2 Tango. Once they get back from Europe we're supposed to do some collaborations, which is exciting because I like that band and I like her, she's rad.
And I have to ask: What's the status with Wolf Parade? Do you ever revisit that stuff? Do you think about joining up with Spencer again?
Oh yeah, definitely. The band never broke up. We just kinda stopped touring and writing music, but we never flipped each other the bird and vowed to never speak to each other again. We're still in touch and hang out. I love playing music with those guys, and I'm sure there'll be a time when we make more music.