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Interviews, Music

Interview: Dan Boeckner (Operators/Wolf Parade) on “Blue Wave”, the perils of Spotify, and rocking Cuba

By: Daniel Gerichter (@ZenDonut) –

Operators.

Operators.

D an Boeckner is a busy guy. In 16 years of recording and touring with bands Atlas Strategic, Handsome Furs, Wolf Parade, Divine Fits and (most recently) with Operators, he’s put out over 14 albums and toured the world extensively with bands like Future Islands and the New Pornographers. Most recently, life does not seem to be getting any less busy for him, as he prepares to release Operators’ new album Blue Wave, while at the same time preparing for a series of residency shows (and some new potential releases) with Wolf Parade. We chatted with Dan about Blue Wave, how the reformation of Wolf Parade came about, and the tougher parts of music’s new economy.

Blue Wave has a more distinctly guitar/punk sound. What drove you in that direction?

I think it was touring – playing live. When I started Operators, it was almost exclusively synth. There was no guitar; no instruments in anything. Just synths and drums. When we went on the road with Future Islands, guitar just started creeping back in. I liken it to the first Handsome Furs album. It was finished before we did any kind of touring, so it was very skeletal and minimalist. But by the time we started touring it, the stuff I was writing was more abrasive, more guitar infused, and that’s the kind of sound that set the tone for Operators. So with Blue Wave, it’s just getting back to that.

Are guitar and synth in two different buckets for you? Like ego and id?

I can’t get too philosophical about it, but think the two sounds come from very different places sonically. One of my favourite things about making music is this dichotomy between an unpredictable, raw live sound and a very rigid, programmed sound. A drum machine with no swing on it, and then a melty sort of guitar sound over top. The push and pull between the cold, machine world and an overlay of analog instruments.

You also spent some time on the road with the New Pornographers. How was that different from the Future Islands tour? How was it similar?

The only similarities between those two bands is that they’re both made up of exceedingly nice people. The Future Islands tour was epic. It started on one coast and ended on the other. So much of it was just new experiences – towns and venues we’d never been to before – whereas the New Pornographers tour was more geographically limited. We only joined them for the Ontario leg of the tour, so in that case every town we visited felt like old stomping grounds for me. Everything felt cozy and comfortable, whereas the Future Islands tour felt like reenacting Homer’s Odyssey.

The album was recorded in a very old barn – in the middle of nowhere. How else did you change up your process? How is it similar to EP1?

The writing process for both Blue Wave and EP1 was very similar across the board. I’d write the skeleton for the song and I’d give it to the band as bits and pieces of iPhone recordings. It was like digital sticky notes. From there we’d spend hours bringing it all together; obsessively going over every riff and trying to give this stuff form. For the song “Control”, I have one iPhone recording where you can hear the whole song being written. We started with the bassline and everything else – including the chorus – was improvised. After that we glued the best parts together, and that was the song.

How did Graham Walsh (producer) contribute to the sound and the feel of Blue Wave?

I reached out to Graham originally because I was obsessed with the band formerly known as Viet Cong.

I think they’re STILL known as Viet Cong.

Well that’s unfortunate. Regardless of the controversy, I love that band and I love that album of theirs. It’s so compressed and intense. I asked around and it turns out it was produced by Graham. Now, Graham and I have known each other for a decade – he helped out with Holy Fuck (they would tour with Wolf Parade in 2006) – so I was excited to find out he was on it. I wrote him and he jumped on the idea right away. Graham asked me what sound I was going for, and when I played him EP1, I told him it didn’t quite have the sonic impact I was looking for. Graham got what I meant, and I felt like he helped me achieve that sound for Blue Wave. The guy is totally fearless. If you want to run an entire drum kit through a tiny amplifier and then process that through some shitty chorus pedal, Graham will do that. He’ll make it work and he’ll make it sound amazing. He also brought a lot of his own weird and wonderful gear to the studio. That profound understanding of what we were going for plus the guy’s work ethic makes me always want to work with him.

Operators recorded their debut album, Blue Wave, in a middle of nowhere 1850s-vintage barn in southern Ontario.

Operators recorded their debut album, Blue Wave, in a middle of nowhere 1850s-vintage barn in southern Ontario.

“Cold Light” is on the Spotify US top 50 Viral Chart. How have streaming services reframed the concept of success in the music industry?

Before yesterday, I did not know that chart was a thing. But apparently it’s a thing. Last week we cracked over half a million plays for “Cold Light”. When you see numbers like that, you’re kind of blown away, and it gets everyone involved excited. Now, on the flipside of that, I ran the math on how much income the band takes from that kind of number. And the answer is $748. Which I guess is not bad, but if everyone who listened to that song had paid a dollar to buy it and have it forever, you’re looking at tens of thousands of dollars.

I know it’s kind of gauche to talk about money in music, but I’ve been doing this as my primary form of income for about a decade now. I’m in a good position because I have about seven records on those services generating income and/or online sales. But at the same time, I feel like the economic landscape has changed, and that streaming services have done a lot of damage to the value of artists’ work. As though you should almost be grateful for this 0.007 per cent rate that artists get. That sort of environment has iced out the possibility for a younger band to make it in this business.

At this point, if you don’t live in a country like Canada, where there are art grants and a support system like that, you have to be very privileged to play music. And the weirder and less commercial your music is, the less chance you have of making any headway. I guess that part’s a story as old as time, but it’s acutely felt right now.

Here’s the question everyone’s asking: How and why did Wolf Parade get back together?

We first got to talking about this a couple of years ago when I was still living in California. Spencer (Krug) and Dante (DeCaro) came to visit and this slow, multi-part conversation transpired. When we stopped playing together in 2010, we had never intended for it to be permanent. It was truly a hiatus. We kept talking about it and one day we ended up at Spencer’s place in Vancouver and we started talking about what us getting back together would look like. We all agreed that it would start with us making new music, so the next time I came up we started jamming and writing together, and we got that old feel back. But that creative process; that feeling like something new and exciting is on the horizon – I think that’s what we missed and knowing we could do it again made us willing to book all those residency shows.

What can we expect from Wolf Parade moving forward? What can we expect afterward?

Well, for now all I can say is that you can expect to hear some new music really soon. It won’t be a full album just yet, but I can say there will be a full album in the future.

Operators are playing Cuba at the end of April. What kind of effect does a band like the Rolling Stones will have Cuban culture?

I don’t think that the Rolling Stones playing Cuba will affect Cuban culture at all. Like, I feel like most people in Cuba have heard the fucking Stones by now. I think it’d be better if Grimes played a set there, or Orca played a DJ set there. It’d do more to show the people there a side of music they probably have never heard about. I kind of think of the Rolling Stones like McDonalds. In the last few years of the USSR, everyone made a big deal about a McDonalds opening close to Red Square. Like that kind of food was going to BLOW THEIR MINDS or something, and I think it’s the same thing with the Stones. It’s nothing they haven’t heard before

How do you hope Cuban culture will affect you?

I kind of wish we’d been able to go there before this couple of dates. I wish I had the chance to meet people from the music scene there, and learn about this coming transition and about their experiences within it. In my lifetime I’ve seen countries like Myanmar and some of the Baltic countries changing and buying into the Western capitalist system, and thinking it’s some kind of promised land, and very quickly learning it’s anything but. I hope it’ll be a really smooth transition with Cuba. They’re not a hermit country. They’re not terribly isolationist. They know what’s going on outside their shores. I think they’ll be able to keep most of the elements of their culture and not just become amalgamated into the American system. What I’m most excited about is meeting young Cuban artists. We’re working with Moog in Montreal to bring down some basic gear: some synth parts, sound cards, cables, a working copy of Ableton live, stuff like that. We’re going to bring in as much stuff as we can and I’m really excited to see the kind of music they’re making down there. I’m hoping to collect as much content from down there as I can and just populate our Soundcloud page with it.

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