The Wanderer: The Searching, Expansive Career Of Dan Boeckner
Dan Boeckner has one of those voices. He speaks, and it’s low and worn and gravelly, the sound of someone who’s been around, who has swallowed all the experiences the world tried to give him and has let them etch their marks into his body on the way down. There’s that trope: the eyes of someone betraying they’ve, you know, seen some things. When Boeckner speaks, it’s a similar effect. You can hear the thousands upon thousands of miles in the grain of each syllable. He’ll speak of how witnessing the “turbo-capitalism” or “Libertarian dream” on the ground in China recalibrated his view of East vs. West, of where power is located in the world. He’ll speak of his first time setting foot in Europe — Norway, 2005, with Wolf Parade; everything was mesmerizing, even the hotel’s sugar packets. He’ll speak of that one time Handsome Furs accidentally got booked at a mafia bar in Lithuania, and some guy got tasered in front of the stage. (“He took his shirt off, and security didn’t like that.”) He’ll speak of realizing a Russian police officer was demanding a bribe. “Do anything you want, but don’t do it here,” the cop had said.
That’s Dan Boeckner’s speaking voice. His singing voice runs counter to it, still the raucous post-punk bark or new wave croon he’s cultivated throughout his career: from Wolf Parade to Handsome Furs to Divine Fits to his newest band, Operators. That voice is almost the opposite. For all the places and characters you can hear in the ever-growing experiential palette of his music, his singing voice is still youthful. The sound of a man who is still hungry, because he won’t allow himself to slow down. Because as many people and places and scenes as he’s collected around the world… well, all that does is let you know how many more there are left for you to find.
Today, we’re sitting on a Lower East Side street — Boeckner, as always, decked out in black and periodically taking drags off an e-cig — and we’re talking about Wolf Parade, the band that brought Boeckner to prominence. Amidst Operators releasing their debut full-length, Blue Wave, back in April, Wolf Parade ended their hiatus, subsequently produced a new EP (titled simply EP 4), and announced a spate of reunion shows. For indie fans of a certain age, it marks the return of one of the more beloved names lingering from the mid-’00s indie era. For Boeckner fans, it’s another turn in a career that never stops surging forward, in whatever vehicle Boeckner finds himself in at that particular moment.
When talk of getting the old band back together first simmered, Boeckner was worried that nobody would give a shit. Despite being one of the groups to ascend off of that mid-’00s blog rock buzz, it’s hard to place exactly where Wolf Parade sits in the history of 21st century indie rock right now. They never got to that stage of headlining festivals, but they are more significant than much of the detritus left behind by the now-forgotten bands that were once their contemporaries. It’s something that’s kept them in an unfair limbo, a middle ground. “[During] the initial reach outs, people were like, ‘That band, oh yeah,'” Boeckner recalls, regarding Wolf Parade booking new 2016 shows. “Then we sold out five nights at [New York’s] Bowery Ballroom.” Boeckner deservedly chafes at the idea of Wold Parade’s legacy being stuck in the past, with the mid-’00s bands he actively rejected, let alone felt anything in common with. Wolf Parade weren’t like the chirpy mid-’00s blog rock stereotype. They were more furious, more haunted. There was more gravity there. And though it’s still a very particular corner of the music world, there is a pocket that’s rightfully fervent about Wolf Parade’s sudden resurrection.
At the end of Wolf Parade Phase 1, the group was touring behind 2010’s Expo 86 — their most difficult, and perhaps their most enduring and rewarding album. But not their most popular. After their “progged out” sophomore LP At Mount Zoomer, the band thought they’d made a simple rock record with Expo 86. Instead, Boeckner now compares it to a building with a ridiculously complicated floorplan that just looks like a basic building from the outside. There’s a convoluted, anxious atmosphere to the album. In spite of that, the crowds grew. The band was still getting better, and bigger. They were selling out multi-night night runs at significantly-sized clubs like Manhattan’s Terminal 5. “Part of it was luck, I think,” he says. “But that’s the thing I’m most proud of with that band, that we could do that well past the first wave of buzz for [Apologies To The Queen Mary.]” Yet they were also fraying.
There was no falling out, per se. To hear Boeckner describe it now, Wolf Parade was something of a runaway train at the time. “There’s always been some kind of fucking huge crisis, and most of it has been our fault,” he says. “It’s always been like the wheels are going to fall off.” (“It doesn’t feel like that now,” he adds.) That can be an inspiring engine for a band, for a time; then the wheels actually do come off. Wolf Parade took a step back before whatever tension or exhaustion had festered totally exploded. “People were at odds with each other… If we had kept going like we were going, something would’ve broken,” Boeckner says. “Some element of our friendship would’ve been irrevocably destroyed. I think it’s only because everyone loves each other and is sensitive to each other that that didn’t happen.”
Immediately after they went on hiatus, there was a small period of time where Boeckner figured that was it for Wolf Parade. He thought of it this way: if Expo 86 marked the final conclusion of Wolf Parade, would he be satisfied with what they’d done together? “I would’ve been unsatisfied,” he decides. “I was grieving unwritten songs, you know?” The onstage version of Wolf Parade during Expo 86 was, in Boeckner’s estimation, its best. “We could be a jam band and be kinda punk and not suck,” he amusingly sums it up, describing how the communication onstage had deepened and yielded surprises each night. He wanted to see where they could take that. He hoped it wasn’t nowhere.
The reunion was organic. They got some offer for a slot at some festival. He’d crossed paths with his co-frontman Spencer Krug — who, though he never lost touch with, he hadn’t seen for a while. Krug had new songs for a new band, so did Boeckner; their initial idea was they’d play in each other’s bands. But of course, that was “just fucking untenable.” Soon, Wolf Parade were on Vancouver Island, jamming and realizing they should work on new music. Boeckner uses that classic analogy: Those days were like riding a bike again.
For Boeckner personally, his work with Operators impacted where he wanted to go with new Wolf Parade material. Far from the constantly unspooling Expo 86, he was into “brevity and trying to compress as much information [as possible].” The music isn’t as dense as what came before — it’s sharp, emphatic, straightforward. To follow EP 4, Wolf Parade are planning to release a new album next year, after this year of touring. As far as Boeckner can say now, the LP is shaping up to be a logical extension of EP 4. Songs that are efficient vessels, compact and filled with energy.
I ask whether Wolf Parade’s reunion is more “OK, let’s give this a shot and see what happens” or more “The gang’s back together and here to stay.” Boeckner asserts it’s the latter. “It was such a big thing psychologically and logistically to put that band back together,” he says. “I think that commitment had to be made immediately… If we were on the fence about it, I don’t think anything would’ve happened.”
I wound up at two of those aforementioned sold-out Bowery Ballroom shows back in May. They were revelatory. The band walked out to the Clash’s “The Magnificent Seven.” They played with the commanding power of veterans and the bottled-up chaos of guys who used to be wild and unpredictable and were tapping into the lasting strains of that youth. At one of the shows, they played “This Heart’s On Fire” into “I’ll Believe In Anything” into “Shine A Light” — an early greatest hits cluster Boeckner says they’d never grouped together before. People lost their shit. It’s good to have them back. It’s exciting to think of the new music they’ll produce.
But even during Wolf Parade’s initial heyday, Boeckner always maintained other lives. There were other things he had to chase, too. There always are.
On some level, it wouldn’t have mattered too much if Wolf Parade had never came back. Boeckner’s built himself a rare career, in which he always has multiple projects overlapping, none of which he considers any less or more important than the others. None of them are side projects. They are outlets of equal footing, allowing him the ability to explore one side of his writing — lyrically, instrumentally, whatever — in one place, and another elsewhere.
During Wolf Parade’s first run, Boeckner also had Handsome Furs, a synth-driven project he’d formed with his then-wife Alexei Perry. Their divorce wound up necessitating the end of Handsome Furs, and for a brief moment there, Boeckner was bandless. As far as anyone knew, that is; he already had a new project in the works. He found himself in Los Angeles, crashing with Britt Daniel of Spoon, working on what would become Divine Fits’ 2012 debut A Thing Called Divine Fits. Then Operators started up as an sonic extension and spiritual replacement of Handsome Furs, then Wolf Parade came back. The balance of Wolf Parade and Handsome Furs was intense enough — Boeckner fondly recalls one time where he finished a Wolf Parade tour in LA, showered at the venue, immediately got on a plane to Hong Kong, and began a Handsome Furs tour in Asia. For the first time, Boeckner is now writing, touring, and recording for three projects at once, none of which could function normally in his absence.
From 2005 to 2016, Boeckner has released eight records via his various projects, not counting a smattering of EPs. That’s an impressive feat, logistically and creatively. His take on it is matter-of-fact: He gets up in the morning and goes to work at the studio. It’s about exertion. “Maybe you’ll work eight hours and you’ll get one good thing,” he says. “You’re flexing your muscles and something will strike.” Once he gets a basic structure down, he loops it and sings over it for hours until he finds his way to the melody he wants. Combined with the grueling nature of small to mid-level touring, it can sound like a draining life. But Boeckner remembers the days before Wolf Parade took off, when all he wanted to do was play music but he had to work those shitty day jobs and never sleep and slot music in whenever he could. Music became full-time for him in a way that isn’t the case for every indie musician out there. There’s an intense professionalism going on here. “With bands, you have these huge gulfs of downtime,” he says. “I figure, I don’t need those. Why don’t I just fill that with more work.”
He’s similarly practical about the stylistic differences between the projects. When he sits down, he puts himself in a mindset, gets the right equipment. There’s a mode for Wolf Parade, a mode for Operators. And as a result, there are borders between these things, allowing Boeckner to act out a different version of himself by placing limits on himself within each. “I get to write or speak in a different musical language for each project,” he says. Operators is more electronic and more political, as was Handsome Furs. Wolf Parade was traditionally where he’d put some of the more overtly personal songs. Divine Fits used a blueprint of “AC/DC and post-punk” for their minimal, tightly-wound songs; in that band, Boeckner likes that he gets to play more of an accomplice role to Daniel half the time.
Across these projects, Boeckner doesn’t really do slow songs. Out of those eight albums, you won’t find many ballads in the mix. His songs tend to work as carefully controlled endorphin bursts, punchy pop with grizzled edges. Even something like “My Love Is Real,” the chilly and brooding opening track to A Thing Called Divine Fits, has too much pulse — you could hear it playing in an early ’80s discotheque. His vocal melodies are like a mixture of Bruce Springsteen and Joe Strummer filtered through his perennial post-punk and new wave references. They have an almost percussive quality to them, with Boeckner’s roughened howl lending them extra emphasis. He builds songs that hit you plainly and don’t let go. Anything he’s involved in is guaranteed to have a few tracks of the sort that will just pop into your head randomly months or years since the last time you heard them, possessing that kind of alchemical catchiness that settles down in your brain and reappears at will.
“I like energy,” he says, explaining his tendency towards mid-tempo or fast songs. On some level, it’s obvious. The man has a punk background; he wants the quick and direct adrenaline hit. Yet despite his interest in extreme genres — his interest in almost any genre, really — there’s a particular archetype that Boeckner returns to again and again, a brand of pugnacious pop song. He cites Sonic Youth and Hüsker Dü, bands that sound dissonant or off but still catchy and beautiful. “That’s my favorite element of music,” he says. “There’s some friction or spark there. There’s gotta be some friction.”
And there often has been. You could look at any of Boeckner’s music as art made by a guy from a place he always wanted to leave: it’s music of movement, the sound of being on the run, catching a glimpse of what the wider world has to offer, and refusing to slow down for threat of losing the keys you waited so long to find to that wider world. You could look at it as music with some degree of political fury, or music rooted in life events like his mother’s death or his divorce. Almost all of his best songs are little fiery exorcisms, catharsis streamlined and packaged into relentless pop delivery formats.
Boeckner spent his youth in an isolated town on Vancouver Island, off the coast of British Columbia. It was “a monoculture and super redneck.” Even getting as far as Vancouver felt like some kind of escape. “I had been there before, but I felt more alive every moment. I was trying to savor it,” he says, describing playing in his first hardcore band back then. If you’re a naturally curious person like Boeckner living in a place like that, everything can become about looking outwards, wondering what else the world has to offer, wondering how you’re going to get out there. And touring in a band is a good way to run out of that, and to keep running. “I think it’s really easy, no matter where you are, to get stuck in a track that’s laid out for you,” he says. Everything becomes about defying that possible route.
But Boeckner in particular is unique, because he’s made it a point to tour where other bands don’t often go. Deep into Eastern Europe, all around Asia. He’s played big venues across America and then to less than a hundred people in Istanbul. But then he goes back. He cultivates fanbases in far-flung corners of the world by sweating it out, grass-roots kinda stuff, booking his own tours. “It’s kept me interested in life, in a lot of ways,” he says of his constant travels. “That totally uncentered my view of the world. It’s given me a window into writing from different perspectives.” It’s the same thing as working dead-end day jobs and finally becoming a musician: You have to keep moving so you don’t have to go backwards. You have to keep that tumbling forward momentum. “The day I landed in Norway in 2005, that was the beginning of me really changing my life, and what I wrote about, and how I treated other people, and what I thought about,” he says. “And it just continues on.”
For a time, he had some more roots. When he and Perry were married, they lived in Montreal, they’d built a life together. When Boeckner alludes to the divorce, he makes it sound like something that was building for a time but felt abrupt and catastrophic in the moment. “I went from living in a $300 a month shithole with rats in it, to looking at purchasing property in the city,” he says, describing the growth that occurred over the time of his career and his relationship. “And that all just disappeared.” Just as his songs for Apologies To The Queen Mary were meditations on death in the wake of losing his mother, he filtered personal strife into his music. Crediting Daniel for his support during the aftermath of the divorce — when Boeckner found himself as a refugee from his own life, in LA with just a suitcase and not much of a plan — he characterizes his portion of A Thing Called Divine Fits as a breakup record. (He does sing “My love is real/ Until it stops” in the opening track, after all.)
“I think the idea that you need to be tortured to be an artist is mostly bullshit,” he says. “It’s a construct.” And it’s true that Boeckner, despite the curveballs, despite his resilience towards becoming satisfied enough to slide into complacency, comes across as contented with the life he’s built. That’s because he’s always had the outlet when things get dark: he’s had the music, and the places it takes him. In the wake of his mother’s early death, or in the wake of his divorce, he threw himself into the work. “Writing, playing in a band, touring, it’s saved me over and over again in my life,” he says. In a life built on constant movement, that’s the through line. It keeps him grounded, even when he never stays in one place for long.
There’s a paradox to Boeckner’s career. Much of his music is well-liked. He has devoted fans, and critics have been kind. But there’s also this sense that this guy is continuously slugging it out off to the side, churning out music year after year but never getting due credit. He is always the anchor of a project, or the co-frontman, but his collaborations lend him a feeling of being a workhorse indie everyman. On some level, that’s accurate: His background is dominated by punk ethics, and he’s often worked without management or agents of any kind. He’s a machine when it comes to writing hooks, and prolific without just vomiting out whatever music happens. There’s a keen ear. There’s control. I’ve never met a musician who functions quite like him. As far as the landscape of 21st century indie rock goes, he’s a semi-hidden treasure.
On another occasion where Boeckner and I cross paths, we’re in Philadelphia for an Operators show at a venue called Boot & Saddle. The front of the venue is a cavernously dark bar built out of heavy wood. Boeckner and I sit near the front door, his back to the window. That window is the only source of light, and it bleeds in and nearly obscures Boeckner into a shadow, the details of his leather jacket barely visible in the glare. For a moment, it feels filmic — like we’re in one of those distant corners of the world Boeckner’s visited, in some strange and storied bar.
The source of the name Operators — aside from it fitting neatly into that post-punk tradition of a single, emptied moniker — is completely in character for Boeckner. He cites a Kraftwerk interview in which they describe themselves as not being musicians, but “music arbeiters.” As Boeckner is wont to do, he provides a long explanation of the roots of these words from different cultures: “arbeit” is a German word meaning a very specific kind of work. “There’s no subtlety to what you’re doing,” Boeckner says. “Mechanical work.” There was a tongue-in-cheek factor there, given Operators’ synth-based sound. But it also recalls Boeckner’s ethos as a whole. It’s about exertion.
The title of Operators’ debut, however, references things that get in the way of that exertion. Sure, Blue Wave is also a winking play on “new wave.” But it’s an unsettled record named for dark feelings Devojka and Boeckner had while making that album. They talked about how depression was a “blue wave that washes over you, this ambient thing that’s powerful and all-encompassing.” For Boeckner specifically — who mostly characterizes himself as a happy person, but says he would become depressed each night before going to sleep during the making of Blue Wave — the title relates to the specifics of the digital era. “I started thinking about… this as-of-yet unnamed psychological condition that comes from living half on my phone,” he says. “I’m constantly in contact with all these people that I love, and they’re sharing their lives and I’m looking at them and communicating with them but there’s something missing, which is obviously being in the same room as them.” He’s quick to point out that he’s far from technophobic. It’s just a question in his mind: balancing this onslaught of information with the feeling that, somehow, it makes you more isolated. “You’re living this life and you’re flipping through things, and you’re absorbing things,” he says. “I want to hear stories and experience things and have my mind changed. I want to be challenged. But we’re also absorbing a negative, ambient, static wall.”
Before the collapse of his marriage, Boeckner had a fourth Handsome Furs record ready to go. Though his ex-wife had opposed this, he’d already been looking to expand the live setup to a four-piece akin to Operators; he wanted it to be like the London Calling moment of exploration for their sound. He canned the album and started anew, picking up loose threads from Handsome Furs and pushing them into different directions. This, on some level, caused plenty of trouble for Boeckner that he wouldn’t have had if he’d continued Handsome Furs without Perry. There, that would’ve been the narrative of “Boeckner moves on with new lineup,” or something — but the name, the following, that would be in place. Instead, he’s had to funnel the growth of this side of his personality as a musician into a new project, to build a new brand around his ever-reliable personal name. There are times where he wonders whether he should’ve released it as Handsome Furs. “It probably would’ve been a lot easier on me,” he says, describing the difficulty of starting a new group. “It was out of respect for that project that I decided not to do that.” Either way, Operators plan to start incorporating more Handsome Furs material into their sets; Boeckner doesn’t want to lose those songs forever.
This is another small portrait as Boeckner the worker as much as Boeckner the musician. Here were are in a semi-removed corner of Philly, and he’s playing the small room in the back of a bar again. “It hasn’t been unpleasant,” he says of the uphill battle of growing yet another new band. “But you’re starting from zero again.” Instead of an evolution — a post-Perry Handsome Furs and what that would look like — he got saddled with a new, not-entirely-correct narrative that Operators was, finally, the closest we’ve gotten to a true Boeckner solo record. (I ask Boeckner briefly about why he’s never just put out a record as “Dan Boeckner.” He jokes that nobody wants to buy a record by a guy with the last name Boeckner, but also talks about the value of building a world that “has aesthetic limitations I can write within and then push further, so that there’s an internal narrative.”) Yet while he mulls over these things, there’s also always the focus on what comes next. By spring/summer next year, he wants Operators to be playing venues twice the size of Boot & Saddle. “I like the idea of achievable growth,” he says. “That’s how I built Handsome Furs up. If you make those goals achievable, something happens where you become untethered from the press cycle or buzz cycle or whatever.”
That focus doesn’t stop there. He’s working on new Operators music in the downtime between their tours and Wolf Parade’s tours this year. There’s a possibility that a second Operators record will follow as early as next year. That’s the same year the new Wolf Parade album is coming out. A Divine Fits record will hopefully happen in 2018. All of that will require touring, and writing sessions, and studio sessions. Boeckner’s essentially booked for two years. The other facets of his life are to-be-determined — nomadic tendencies may take him to a new home base other than Montreal soon. But musically, everything is firing at once, and beginning to inform each other. Renewed work with Wolf Parade re-ignited his interest in guitar, yielding the more rock-oriented tracks on Blue Wave. His new Operators material is more aggressively politicized, meaning his new Wolf Parade material can be more abstract and personal. Performing with Divine Fits honed his attention to detail, made him a better live performer in Wolf Parade and Operators. It’s a fascinating thing to talk to him about: to see a man pushing himself in every direction as much as he can, and becoming better and better as a result rather than burning out.
It’s unconventional, but there’s no other way for him. “I think there’s more than just one narrative for musicians,” he says. “If you get weak and puffy and fuck around and get too comfortable, you’re done.”
And as much as Boeckner’s life is built on searching, on hearing and seeing new things and trying to throw whatever notions he currently holds about whatever topic into upheaval, he’s very sure when he delivers these words. At this point, we’re ambling down a street in Philadelphia and he is as confident and convincing as he is onstage. There, in this venue neither of us have ever been in, on a street corner neither of us have ever stood on, Boeckner looks like he belongs as well as anywhere else. He’s at home, everywhere and nowhere.
Operators tour dates:
10/06 Brno, Czech Republic @ Fleda
10/07 Prague, Czech Republic @ Meet Factory
10/08 Ljubijana, Slovenia @ Kino Siska
10/12 Aarhus, Denmark @ Atlas
10/13 Copenhagen, Denmark @ Loppen
10/14 Berlin, Germany @ Westgermany
10/16 Hasselt, Belgium @ MOD @ Autumns Falls Festival
10/17 Paris, France @ Pop Up Du Label
10/18 London, UK @ The Lexington
10/19 Brussels, Belgium @ Botanique Rotonde @ Autumns Falls Festival
10/20 Luxembourg City, Luxembourg @ Gudde Wellen
10/21 Barcelona, Spain @ Primavera Club
10/22 Lisbon, Portugal @ Musicbox