Concert preview: Hello, Operators: Dan Boeckner and Sam Brown of Divine Fits return with a new, groove-oriented project

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From the May 8, 2014 edition

For a brief time in late April Sam Brown’s Clintonville home doubled as a rock flophouse of sorts.

Dan Boeckner (Divine Fits, Wolf Parade), who joins the drummer in newborn electro-rock trio Operators, was in town for a week of band rehearsals prior to kicking off a brief tour, which stops by Double Happiness on Tuesday, May 13, and following Arcade Fire’s concert at the Schottenstein Center the house’s kitchen acted as the site of what Boeckner jokingly dubbed a “Canadian music symposium” when Kid Koala and members of Arcade Fire and Japandroids popped by for an evening visit.

It was a much calmer scene when Boeckner and Brown, a Columbus mainstay who has manned the kit for the likes of New Bomb Turks, Divine Fits and RJD2, gathered on the patio of the drummer’s home for an early afternoon interview on a chilly day in early May. “We just woke up,” said Brown, as Boeckner retreated upstairs to put in his contacts. A few minutes later, aided by strong espresso Brown brewed on a vintage machine he recently had refurbished in Montreal, where Operators decamped to record its debut album during a pair of sessions in February and March, the two musicians were fully alert, engaged in conversation that swung comfortably between jovial asides and more serious turns (Boeckner, in particular, was stung by troubling developments emanating out of the Ukraine, including news pro-Russian forces had gunned down a pair of helicopters).

Fittingly, Operators’ debut album, which the band hopes to release sometime later this year (the musicians are currently weighing label offers), walks a similar line, pairing party-friendly dance cuts inspired by artists like James Holden and the glitchy singles released on the underground music label Long Island Electrical Systems with more politically charged, ripped-from-the-headlines turns.

“There’s stuff about surveillance on the record, and there's a certain clamped-down, paranoid feel to a couple of the tunes,” Boeckner said. “I definitely absorbed that living [in Silicon Valley] during the NSA thing and watching the future being built in this totally fucking mundane way right in front of my eyes.”

Brown and Boeckner, who are joined in Operators by keyboardist Devojka, first met in Los Angeles in the fall of 2011, where the musicians gathered with Spoon frontman Britt Daniel to begin work on Divine Fits’ 2012 debut, A Thing Called Divine Fits. The two hit it off immediately, and though they have only known one another for a few years, it feels like much longer, “but in a good way,” Brown insisted.

It’s not surprising, considering both appear to be fueled by a similar sense of musical discovery. While Brown cut his teeth drumming with garage-punks like Gaunt and New Bomb Turks, in more recent years he’s been drawn to comparatively minimalist, groove-oriented drummers like Alan Myers of Devo and Afrobeat pioneer Tony Allen — influences that bled into his work with RJD2. Boeckner, in turn, has adopted reinvention as something of a personal creed, flitting from Wolf Parade’s ambitious rock to the electro-pop of Handsome Furs to the comparatively restrained indie-rock stylings of Divine Fits, which will likely regroup to begin work on its sophomore album sometime next year (“That band is too much fun not to do it,” the singer said).

“If you've been playing music for a while … the tendency is to keep going back to these things you're good at or you're comfortable with,” Boeckner said. “And if you push yourself out of that you can have that feeling of discovery you had when you started your first band, where it's like, ‘Oh shit! My fingers are doing this!’”

Boeckner, however, doesn’t view Operators as a musical departure, instead describing the trio as a synthesis of everything he’s done musically up to this point in his career.

“I don't feel like I'm bored of rock music and this is just some kind of diversion,” he said. “Operators includes all of the elements I've always liked: analog synths, live drums, a little bit of guitar and some singing. I was trying to mash everything all up together … and see what we come up with.”

Though the roots of the band stretch back to early 2012 — in an interview at that time Boeckner mentioned launching a then-under-wraps, dance-influenced project that was “less EDM and more [Italian electronic musician] Giorgio Moroder” — the trio didn’t begin work on its debut until last December, gathering for recording sessions in the basement of Brown’s home. Initially, the songs recorded during these sessions were intended to make up a separate EP, but a combination of timing and the quality of the work led the musicians to hold the material for the still-untitled full-length.

“There's a lot of midnights with a bottle of wine and Dan in front of a SM7 [microphone] that ended up on the album,” Brown said. “We couldn't beat [those recordings]. There's something about what you do when you think nobody is going to be listening and there are no stakes to it that lets you relax.”

Even so, both musicians are fully aware Operators might have something of a built-in audience, in spite of its relatively shallow roots.

“We might be starting over, but we're not clawing our way from the bottom,” Brown said. “We have resources based on the time we've spent [in other bands], and that’s something we definitely don’t take for granted.”