Thursday, December 20, 2007

Handsome Furs

Dan Boeckner and Alexei Perry have had a wonderful 2007: not only did they debut as Handsome Furs and tour, with opening slots for Arcade Fire and trips to Moscow, but they got married (and toured to Fargo as a honeymoon) while Boeckner also worked on the much-anticipated second Wolf Parade album.

Handsome Furs play Lee's Palace in Toronto tonight; Call the Office in London tomorrow, and a free show in Guelph--near Perry's hometown of Elora, ON--on Saturday at Jimmy Jazz.

Their album Plague Park was underwhelming at first, but its Springsteen-meets-Suicide vibe gets better every time I return to it. The strength of Boeckner's melodies and Perry's drum machine programming adds much more to their synth-y, slightly goth-y vibe than the skeletal arrangements first suggest.

I woke Boeckner up to interview him for the K-W Record (article here); this is the full conversation (re-ordered somewhat) where he talks about their shitty sound, border troubles on either side of the Cold Warriors, urban alienation, Vancouver, rural BC, a Wolf Parade update, and why the next Handsome Furs album will be called Face Control.

P.S. Following up the slice-and-dice story, the Secret Mommy article will run after Christmas.

Dan Boeckner, Handsome Furs
December 12, 2007
Locale: phone call, minutes after waking up at his home in Montreal

I’ve read you talking about this record and saying that you’re surprised that people find it dark or with a paranoid sound to it, when you thought you were writing pop songs. How do you react when people tell you they hear those elements in it?

It’s been out for a while now, so I do see that it’s a dark record. But honestly, when we were writing it, I thought we were writing these quaint little folk songs, even if they were in a minor key. I thought it was the most accessible thing I’ve ever done! But it really isn’t.

I think melodically, it may well be, and part of that is the simplicity of the chord structure. The songs all hang on melody. For myself and others, I think the first time we heard it, it seemed very bare. But it really grew on me. And the drum programming really works for me too, because they’re not cliché, cheap beats. Someone isn’t just pressing play on a drum machine as a backing track.

When we were writing it, Alexei and I were listening to a lot of electronic music. I really like The Knife record. One thing that puts me off about electronic music is that if you’re using the most up-to-date equipment—because a lot of people who make this music are gearheads—your record had this weird lifespan window where it will sound totally ahead of its time for six months. Then you have ten years of waiting around before people throw it on again for a retro vibe. Right down to the individual drum sounds, we wanted them to be the most basic, unaffected sounds. We projected a lot of them into a room and recorded them, so they sounded a little more box-y.

Don’t take this the wrong way, but I love the way your guitar sounds like shit.

Oh, thanks! (laughs) That’s totally on purpose.

Having seen Wolf Parade from very early days, all of your equipment was always glued together. But it really works here because the drum machines sound thick and fat, and there’s a contrast with the tinny guitar.

When we were recording it, we didn’t want the guitar to take up much of the frequency range. We tinkered with different chains of effects and amps. Then we thought, what if we just use Boss pedals? Just standard-issue pedals, like I used when Wolf Parade started, and chain as many of them together as possible, and that would give it a crappy enough sound that would cut through.

I know this comes up all the time, but I am curious about division of duties—especially lyrically. Does Alexei write all or most of the lyrics?

She will come up with a drum pattern, I’ll come up with chords for one segment of the song—either a chorus or verse. We play that over and over again, write a few more parts, pare it down, and start writing lyrics. I might start, she’ll edit them, I take them back, she edits again.

There are distinct themes running through the record, and I wasn’t sure if that was one person writing or if you were just on the same page thematically.

We were both on the same page. We had written a bunch of the songs, but the lyrics hadn’t coalesced. Which is the same thing that happens with Wolf Parade. There will be a chorus, and then everything else—when we’re touring the songs for the first time—will just be off the top of the head. Then when we record, we solidify them. So there was a point when we decided what the theme of the record would be, and that it would be sonically and lyrically linked.

How would you articulate that theme? I know what I think it is, but what do you think it is?

We really wanted the record to sound icy and isolated. We were also moving around a lot in the year leading up to when we recorded the record. We were in Vancouver and touring a lot in Finland and Eastern Europe. We both saw a lot of parallels between those isolated countries in the EU and the small towns that we both grew up in. The theme we hit on was culture shock, moving between urban and rural environments.

“We hate this city” is a recurring theme throughout the whole record. “We hate this place here/ it is our home…” “We’re burning it to the ground…” It sounds rather restless. Where is the ideal home? Have you found a city you enjoy enough to live there? Is all your loathing directed towards Vancouver?

No, I have problems with Montreal too! But I really like living in Montreal. I think our enjoyment of Montreal is primarily the neighbourhood we live in. The neighbourhood itself becomes a small town, and then has the same small town problems. Everyone is in each other’s shit.

But you’re not chased around Mile End by people in pickup trucks.

No, no. That problem doesn’t exist here. Where did you grow up?

Scarborough, Ontario. So I had the suburban isolation.

My grandparents lived in Scarborough from the time I was born until they passed away. I remember going there as a kid. Coming from Cowichan Lake, we had a library downtown that I spent a lot of time at. When I visited my grandmother, she was living in a tower block somewhere—I don’t really know the geography of Scarborough.

Well, that is much of the geography of Scarborough.

One day she took me to the library there, and it was in a fucking shopping mall, which really blew my mind. But Scarborough seems to have changed since then. The last time I drove through there it seems to have decayed a bit.

It’s getting more isolated, I think. There was an article in a Toronto magazine recently about how it was ideally--though unintentionally, of course--set up to be a ghetto, with a lot of tower blocks that were constructed quickly and are now falling apart. The middle class is leaving and parts of it are really scary—though nowhere near as scary as it’s made out to be. But there are certainly tensions there.

That’s one thing that I never had as a kid, which was the isolation of suburbia. There was certainly no suburbia in Cowichan Lake.

Where is that exactly?

It’s northwest of Victoria, about 45 minutes west of Duncan. There’s one thing I notice about Scarborough which I fucking can’t stand about Vancouver. I mean, other than the fact that Vancouver is such a health-conscious city, quite obnoxiously so, and many people have a chip on their shoulder about living in that city. But the people who don’t have IT jobs and live in condos, they live in places like the Kingsway. When I first started seeing Alexei she was living on Broadway, which was where I lived when I first moved there. That part of the city has this feeling that it’s not built for humans or pedestrian traffic. That really effects the psychology of the people there.

It’s part of the bubble: I will leave the bubble that is my apartment with its satellite television; I will get into the bubble of my car; I will drive to work in my bubble of a cubicle.

And I drive to the IGA for my groceries. There’s a lot of opportunity for some totally sketchy shit to happen.

That’s also where most new immigrants end up, and trying to adjust to a new culture and a new community when everyone lives in those bubbles is really difficult, which leads to all kinds of tensions because people don’t mix or bother to understand each other. Everyone sticks to their own.

You look at a place in Vancouver like Richmond. I used to drive out there because there’s a Hong Kong style mall there, which has this great Japanese dollar store and some great restaurants and a night market. I lived in Taiwan for a while, and it was exactly like the one there. It was totally great. But driving through that community, it seemed totally antithetical to the idea of a melting pot in Canada, that gets pushed a lot in popular media, that Canada is this ethnically diverse country. Meanwhile, we have these satellite communities where people don’t speak English. And for all its leftist leanings, Vancouver has this really mean streak of anti-Asian racism. Especially from the lower middle class, who are not living in the same city they may have grown up in.

That happens everywhere in the country.

True. But Vancouver is definitely the catalyst for the “We Hate This City” song. Not because of that, but because of the rampant, disgusting poverty on the east side and the ignorance of people living there.

I thought it was interesting that the record is named after a park in Helsinki where there is a mass grave under the park. Is that correct?


People have festivals and parties in this park. Whereas Vancouver to me is very much a city of the living dead, where I’ve had terrifying experiences with walking ghosts coming up and shaking me. I’ve never seen that anywhere else: not in New York City, not in San Francisco.

Funny you should mention San Francisco, which has one of the most saturated crackhead and lunatic populations of all the American cities.

And it’s a port city, like Vancouver, so that attracts a lot of homeless.

They can live outside for most of the year. One thing that really exemplifies this blind eye attitude in Vancouver—and also liberal guilt at the same time—is this project that the Olympic committee put together. Have you seen these Spirit Bears?

I think so. Mascot things?

Yeah, they’re all over the place. These statues keep springing up every week. The people on the committee decided that it would be the mascot as a nod to indigenous culture on the West Coast. Each Spirit Bear is tailored to fit whatever store paid to build one. So in front of HMV there’s a Darth Vader Spirit Bear. It’s a native, totem-pole style anthropomorphic bear dressed as Darth Vader, urging you to come inside and buy CDs. It’s disgusting.

Come to the dark side!

It’s really unpleasant. That sums up Vancouver for me.

Toronto did this weird thing about ten years ago with moose. It was supposed to increase tourism, if we just put up moose statues around the city and painted them. This was from the same mayor [Mel Lastman] who wrote to the Spice Girls, begging them not to break up when Ginger Spice left. It was an international embarrassment. Vancouver has its strange city politics too—I keep meaning to see that NFB documentary [Citizen Sam] about the current mayor.

Vancouver has become really bizarre. I’m friends with a lot of the people in Black Mountain, and they worked with Wolf Parade’s tour manager downtown in the east side at this hotel called the Portland, which is a men’s shelter and recovery centre for addicts. Talking to these guys, they told me that a lot of people are hiring private security.

Businesses? Homes?

Block associations. Because the VPD and the RCMP don’t take care of their shit down there. It’s ridiculous. Of course, the private security are people who couldn’t become police officers…

Is this going to be the Blackwater of Vancouver?

Basically, yeah.

Where is the Wolf Parade album at?

We have two more days of tracking overdubs, and then we’re done. We mix in January and it should be out in March or April.

You did this all yourself at Mt. Zoomer?

Half of it we did at the Arcade Fire church, which was pretty great. We went there for a week. Nobody was there except for us. We did an east coast tour and decided we needed to re-record some stuff, so we did it at Mixart in Montreal. Then we did all the overdubs at Mt. Zoomer.

Is Sixtoo involved?

Completely. He sleeps 50 feet away from where we track the vocals. It’s a studio and his living quarters.

Is this the old Arcade Fire apartment, where Win and Regine lived?

Yeah. We completely remodeled it, by building another room and an isolation booth.

What can you tell people they can expect?

It’s a lot different. There is no “Sons and Daughters of Hungry Ghosts.” There’s a ten-minute song on it.

Is that the Holy Fuck tribute song?

What’s that?

When I saw you at Wolfe Island this summer, there was this crazy long song with this Kraut keyboard passage in the middle.

That’s the one. That’s evolved into a total psych free-for-all. It’s scary putting this record out. With the first one, Spencer and I were writing stuff really separately compared to how we’re doing it now. This is a more collaborative effort. We sing on each other’s songs, though we still split the lead vocals. Which, (sighs), I’m sure will re-ignite the internet debate about who’s better at what.

Haven’t you shut your computer off by now?

I don’t look at anything anymore. I don’t even look at Pitchfork. Spencer and I were talking about this on the last tour. That is singularly the most depressing thing that’s come out of Wolf Parade. It bums both of us out. It’s really sad.

The competitive questions?

There’s a very specific demographic: the forum nerds. They really want to quantify who likes who better, and get into the minutia of it.

What possible minutia is there?

Spencer’s songs have more chords—that was one pro in his favour. My songs have less chords—that was a pro in my favour. Shit like that! I’m more punk rock; he’s more intellectual. It gets reinforced by press, too. But hopefully less so with this record, because I think our songs are closer to each other aesthetically. There was also a lot more input from Hadji and Arlen at the songwriting stage on this record.

Because I know Wolf Parade were writing and recording this year as well, how often did you get to tour with Handsome Furs?

We did a pretty good job. The first tour was an aborted East Coast tour to Philadelphia, Boston and New York. We got busted at the border. Sub Pop had told us that we could travel on my Wolf Parade visa. I have a P1 visa for Wolf Parade, and their immigration lawyer told us that there was a 99 per cent chance that nothing would happen and that we should travel down separately to play some shows. I crossed in a vehicle and they let me in, which I guess was a mistake on their part. Because you’re not allowed to play shows with anyone but the band that the visa specifies.

So even if you played solo, as Dan from Wolf Parade, that wouldn’t be kosher?

Yeah. It’s the same coming into Canada, too. I know Jeff Tweedy of Wilco had trouble coming into the country to play solo shows. Anyway, I was supposed to meet Alexei in Plattsburgh, NY, where she was getting off a train. But she never showed up, and the station agent told me that a girl had been pulled off the train, and suggested that I go back to the Canadian side because they were about to send border patrol down. So I had to go back into Canada and loop around back into the States to pick Alexei up. I was with two friends of mine, one of whom is a filmmaker that works for Al Jazeera’s English channel.

There you go!

But this guy, Brendan, he made a film called In Fallujah and he had a Syrian visa in his passport. They didn’t bat an eye at him when we got to the American side. Meanwhile, they interrogated Alexei for three hours. After they had let me through, they realized their accident by Googling my name. Handsome Furs’ tour dates came up on Pitchfork, and then they found our Myspace page and saw Alexei’s name there.

I’m so glad they’re so vigilant about the most important security issues of the day.

Yes. We’re taking away money from hard-working American bands.

Not only that, but you’re taking away valuable border processing time from hard-working terrorists.

Exactly. It was a total debacle. They threatened me with a ten-year ban from going down there on any visa. They were also threatening to charge Alexei.

Any lasting ramifications?

No, but we had to pay an enormous amount of money to get our visas.

What a shakedown!

When we got back, we found out that the Bush administration had recently—two or three days later—had a press conference where, to deflect news about bodies piling up in Iraq, said that what they needed to do was to crack down on illegal workers in the States because they were sucking the economy dry. So they sent a memo to Homeland Security—which is taking over for Customs and Border Control—and said, ‘This is what you’re watching for right now: terrorists and people working in the States.’ And apparently there’s no distinction between terrorists and musicians. But to answer your initial question, we did a tour out to Fargo, North Dakota, after we got married—which was kind of our honeymoon. And we did a long West Coast tour and Wolf Parade finished some dates out there. We went to Europe twice this year. The last one was 32 shows, ending in Moscow.

How was Moscow?

It was fantastic—one of the strangest experiences I’ve ever had.

Why is that? Had Wolf Parade been there?

Wolf Parade had an offer to go there, but that band has a hard time getting our shit together to take people up on these one-off show offers. I was really intent on going to Moscow. We ended the first leg of the European tour in Finland, and we had to bribe Russian customs to let us into the country. But compared to the amount of shit we got at the U.S. border, all we had to do was go to the Russian consulate in Helsinki and repeat the words “expediated rates” over and over again. Then they came out with a slip of paper that said: if you want the visa in three days, it’s this much; if you want it in six hours, it’s this much.

I’m assuming there’s no official document for the six-hour process.

No, they didn’t even give us a receipt. We paid them cash, and they held our passports until the morning. I keep up on Russian politics, and I found out that Putin had changed the visa laws. If you were from North America, you were not allowed to apply for a Russian visa outside of your home country. But they let us do it anyway, because we paid them to.

How was the actual show?

Great. I didn’t think there would be anybody there, because we don’t have any distribution in Russia—mainly because of bootlegging issues there. It’s the same reason record companies don’t put out records in mainland China. It was the weirdest crowd I’ve ever played for in my life.

How so?

We were playing a fancy fashion district in Moscow, so there was a table of fashion models, with all their bodyguards at the next table. They were all sons and daughters of oligarchs—extremely rich people.

What’s the appeal of Handsome Furs to that crowd, do you think?

The appeal would be that we are one of a handful of indie rock bands that have ever played there. Prior to this, to play a show in Moscow, you were either playing a small punk show or a 5,000-10,000 capacity rock show. Western acts don’t usually go there. It’s a cliché to say, but the internet really opens things up.

Speaking of clichés, there are musical properties of Handsome Furs that remind me of Eastern Europe: something about the antiquated drum machines, the minor key melodies, the guitar sound—I could see it going over big there.

It really, really went over well. It helps that the two most popular forms of music for young people there are trance—but really, really bad mid-90s trance—and industrial music is really huge. I was worried, because Russian audiences are nothing like European audiences. When we started, everyone was sitting down at their tables, and it took two or three songs for people to get up.

Ever since I first heard Handsome Furs, I’ve wanted to ask you if the band Suicide were an influence at all.

Oh yeah, definitely. I love that band. I’ll take that as a total compliment. We’re actually working on a new record right now—the writing stage, anyway. When Alexei and I got back from Russia we were going to do an EP, but we’re also going to do a full album of new songs because we have so many. It’s going to be different than the last record. You know that band No Age? It’s kind of like that meets Spank Rock. (laughs) Maybe not, but it is different. The last one was so intense and heavy in one direction that we wanted to do something different. We found out about this thing called Face Control in Russia.

What is that?

If you want to reserve a table at a bar in Moscow, it’s $5000—and that’s at a normal bar. You do it through PayPal or you can do it by cash. Then when you go to the bar, there’s no guarantee you’ll get in because there’s this thing called Face Control. You line up and if they don’t like the way you look. We became obsessed with this idea. Being in Russia for a couple of days—I’ve always been fascinated by Russian politics. We wrote three songs on the train back, and that’s turned into a whole album. I’m really happy with it.

So all those supermodel daughters of oligarchs pass Face Control every time, I’m assuming.
Some of them do. We were told by Greg, the promoter—who also just did a show with Frog Eyes there and it went over great—that the most notorious Face Control bouncer in Russia works at a club around the corner from that one that Greg runs, and is famous for denying Russia’s most famous supermodel no less than three times. This is a place where it costs $15,000 to reserve a table. There is so much money there. We were walking by an advertisement for Toshiba, and it’s the most expensive advertising I’ve ever heard of in my life. Apparently that billboard costs $2 billion US a year to rent this one space near Red Square.

Who has money there other than gangsters to buy the products?

There’s an emerging upper middle class there. But there’s also Ukranian teenagers living in portable toilets. We were walking down one of the only pedestrian streets in Moscow, Arbat Street, and there was a 20-year-old Ukranian woman with all of her belongings living in a portable toilet.

Is it true you were in an early Jerk With the Bomb film?

I’ve never heard that.

I was told that when you were a teenager, you were in a film shot in Duncan, BC that was projected behind Jerk With a Bomb on their 2000 tour.

That’s entirely possible, but I’ve never seen it. I’d like to see that.

I’m trying to remember who told me that. Maybe Colin Stewart. Or Josh Wells.

If it was Josh Wells it could be true.

It could have been Warren Hill.

If it was Warren Hill, it’s definitely true.

So you’re confirming my sources, but not the story.

I have no idea.



Anonymous said...

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Anonymous said...

this is a brilliant interview i really enjoyed reading it.
Wonderful post.