Dan Boeckner on combatting the blue wave, taking 'emotional polaroids' and performing Handsome Furs songs for the first time in years
Though the title of Operators' debut album, Blue Wave, may bring to mind a sunny day at the beach, frontman Dan Boeckner depicts a more dystopian scene on the record's synth-laden, sax-punctuated title track.
“I felt a blue wave coming on,” Boeckner sings, but instead of welcoming the tide, he seeks refuge from ever-present digital screens. “Something release me from in this glow,” he implores.
“I started writing [‘Blue Wave'] when I was still living in San Jose, in Silicon Valley, in the lead-up to the presidential election,” Boeckner said by phone recently, calling from the road in Ontario. “I could feel this impending breakage in the American political system, and a lot of it was centered around how people interacted with each other politically online, with really divisive, partisan politics. … At the same time, I was trying to write about this ambient depression you feel when 60 to 70 percent of your personal interactions are lived out online.”
That tech-induced sense of dread also made its way into a song on the new EP from Wolf Parade, a band Boeckner co-founded with Spencer Krug in 2003 and helped to revive last year after previously being on hiatus since 2011. On “Automatic,” the lead-off track on Wolf Parade's EP 4, Boeckner sings about being “wrapped up in blue” as he yearns for something real: “I sing from a nowhere room / I call out for some connection.”
Boeckner wrote “Automatic” in Singapore while on a brief respite from a tour with Divine Fits, a band he formed in 2012 with Britt Daniel of Spoon and beloved Columbus drummer Sam Brown, who also sits behind the kit in Operators and is a veteran of marquee local acts like New Bomb Turks, Gaunt, the Sun and V-3, plus touring stints with RJD2 (not to mention Brown's own band, You're So Bossy).
“One of my favorite things about playing shows with Sam is, halfway through a song like ‘Ecstasy in My House,' I'll be kind of zoning out on the synth or finishing up a vocal part, and I'll look at the audience, and most of the crowd is turned to stage right where Sam is just wailing on the drums,” Boeckner said. “I've never been in a band where the audience is focused on the drummer like that. It's like he's playing lead drums.”
Though Boeckner tries to combat the ubiquitous blue wave by staying off Facebook and taking periodic technology breaks (“Every time I turn my phone on and look at my news feed, I have to steel myself against getting angry or depressed,” he said), his phone does come in handy for songwriting. Boeckner will often mumble song ideas into the voice memos app, and then later will try to decode them for Brown and multi-instrumentalist Devojka, who rounds out the lineup of Operators, which will visit Ace of Cups for a performance on Saturday, April 8.
Boeckner also uses his phone to take notes that sometimes make their way into songs. “I'll go through those [notes] once a month and the ones that catch my eye or still resonate, I'll write them down in the lyric book,” he said. “I'll write these things down when I'm feeling them or experiencing them, and it will have a deep emotional resonance. And if it continues to hold it once it makes it to the notebook, that means when I'm at home and I have free time to sit down and write songs, I can tap back into that. It's almost like taking an emotional Polaroid.”
For the first time, Boeckner has also begun mining material from yet another band, Handsome Furs, the Montreal-based duo he once fronted with his then-wife, Alexei Perry. The band called it quits in 2012.
“The last two nights, for the first time in five or six years, Operators started playing a Handsome Furs song,” Boeckner said, referencing the Sound Kapital track “Damage.” “I feel like Operators has kind of established its identity, and I wanna start playing those [Handsome Furs] songs again. It feels wrong to me for three records' worth of back catalog to never get performed again just because the band doesn't exist.
“Devojka and Sam were both really positive about learning [‘Damage'] and performing it. It was an odd feeling for me to rehearse it, but once we got onstage and played it, it felt great. We played it last night in Ottawa and people went nuts. It felt very redemptive. It's nice to play it with a full arrangement, too. To me, this is a better live version than I've ever pulled off of the tune. I think I had to just break the seal on it to get back into it.”