Operators' Dan Boeckner The Exclaim! Questionnaire
Published Jun 12, 2019Before my interview, Operators' publicist tells me that I have 20 minutes with frontman Dan Boeckner. We end up talking for over an hour; the musician answers questions with long tangents about topics like Eastern European politics or the rise of the far-right in North America.
Boeckner has been spending a lot of time thinking about the state of the world in 2019. It's all over Operators' newly released sophomore album, Radiant Dawn, which is equal parts dystopian and euphoric. The lyrics are frequently post-apocalyptic, while the pulsing electro-rock arrangements tap into the same urgent catharsis that Boeckner perfected with his bands Wolf Parade and Handsome Furs.
The dichotomy between sci-fi paranoia and melodic sweetness is captured by the album's title. "Radiant Dawn refers to a transformative event," explains Boeckner. "It could be the sunrise, or it could be the radiant dawn of a nuclear strike."
What are you up to?
I'm getting ready to go on tour with Operators, so we've basically been doing about a week's worth of rehearsals, trying to get the stuff that we wrote for Radiant Dawn whipped into shape for tour. We're also rehearsing a bunch of Handsome Furs stuff, because I think we'll be rolling in those songs on this upcoming tour.
I'm mixing the new Wolf Parade record. I think it should probably be ready tomorrow or the next day — at least the final mixes, then it's got to get mastered.
I'm doing a bunch of stuff right now. There's a second sort of addendum to Radiant Dawn that's mostly instrumental that I'm working on finishing up with Andrew from Napster Vertigo. What else? I've got a top-secret project related to a film that's going to be finished in the summer and should be coming out in 2020. Oh, and Frankfurt Boys, my industrial acid aid house project with Arlen from Wolf Parade. We've got a mixtape thing going up on SoundCloud in the next month or so.
What are your current fixations?
I've really been into Suzanne Ciani. She was an ambient inspiration to a lot of the sound and melody generation that happened on Radiant Dawn. The approach to generative music. She had a really interesting way of approaching psychedelic music, even though she never really uses the word "psychedelic" when she's describing the type of music she makes.
I found a grant application that she submitted to the American government in 1975. I found it online, and it's an incredible piece of writing. It lays out her whole philosophy: how she makes music, the systems that she uses, and almost like a political philosophy to creating art that just blew me away. I've been digging into her back catalogue a lot, and I don't really think she gets the credit she deserves for inventing a lot of artistic processes in electronic music that we all just take for granted now, that have worked their way into pop music. People know who she is, but I don't think they understand how much she directed this art form.
Why do you live where you do?
Because it's cheap. I live in Montreal. I moved back to Canada about four years ago. I was living in San Jose — Devojka basically started Operators in San Jose. We had a rehearsal space there, we wrote maybe half of the first album there. We played our first show there. But living in America became almost totally untenable. We lived there before the presidential election, and you could feel the psychosis of American politics bubbling up to the surface. It didn't really matter who won that election, things were already super-divided and had became untethered from logic.
So we thought, "Where can we live?" We looked at Vancouver, but Vancouver is prohibitively expensive for musicians. Especially if you're gone 50 percent of the year, it's hard to justify paying two-to-three times as much rent as anyone else in North America pays, just for the privilege of living in fucking Vancouver. So we moved to Montreal, and I love it here. For better or for worse, it's still an affordable city for artists. I think it's one of the last population centres in North America that has a diverse arts community, and is also affordable for people who are making non-commercial art. So that's why I live here.
What has been your most memorable or inspirational gig and why?
Operators playing Primavera two years ago. That felt really good. We'd had kind of a hard year. Our label had merged with a larger label, and the release of Blue Wave was troubled. We were kind of grinding it out in Europe, and to be able to go play Primavera, and play right after Swans, was incredible. It was one of the most exciting experiences I think I've had on stage.
Prior to that, I'd say Handsome Furs playing in Yengan [Burma] before they held democratic elections. That was a really meaningful gig to me. The power went out, and everyone was really worried that the police were going to come and start arresting people. It was a transformative experience. I actually made a bunch of friends at that show. That was ten years ago, and we're all still friends. It's nice.
What have been your career highs and lows?
I very much remember the day that I quit my job in Montreal, when Wolf Parade was starting out. I was working at a pharmaceutical company that made surveys for doctors. It was just a soul-crushing job. And I was working at a bar for a terrible boss, just a classic cokehead boss. Two shitty jobs. I was sleeping on a couch for almost a year at my friend's house, and I remember walking into my job at the pharmaceutical place and just being like, "I'm out, I'm done, I quit." It felt so good, and I was terrified for about six months after that, because there wasn't really any money coming in. But I was confident that I was going to be able to start making money as a musician. It was something that I had been working towards for like eight years. It's funny, we weren't even playing big shows at that point, but that felt like the start of my real life.
The low point — when I got divorced from my partner in Handsome Furs, I was sort of stranded in L.A., and there were some months in and around then, when I was making the Divine Fits record, where things got really, really bleak. But I don't think it was a career low point — it was maybe a personal low point.
And then, to be totally candid, I have to say, when we started talking about putting Wolf Parade back together, the months leading up to our first round of shows, when we did five nights at Bowery Ballroom. We had been getting festival offers since the band went on hiatus. We thought that, when we announced we were getting back together — quietly, within the industry, and started reaching out to find out who wanted us to play where — we thought the response was going to be a lot better. When we announced it through our booking agent, nobody who was brokering festival shows believed that there was a demand for this band to come back. It was depressing. I had this moment where I was like, "Okay, is that it? I guess no one cares."
But then we decided to do this residency in New York, and it sold out almost immediately. Toronto as well. And then everything did a 180. I think we just had to prove ourselves again, before relaunching the band.
What's the meanest thing ever said to you before, during or after a gig?
When people come up to you and they're like, "Nice show, man, great energy," or, "It looked like you were having a lot of fun up there" — that's code for "They fucking hate your band and they think you're an idiot and your music is terrible." And, "How did you guys feel about the show?" That's minor shade.
What traits do you most like and most dislike about yourself?
I think it's probably the same thing. If I had to say I like something about myself, it would be my ability to focus on making music and keep single-mindedly pursuing this. Which is also the thing that I don't really like about myself, because it's at the expense of having normal human relationships or a circle of friends that I'm constantly in touch with, or interpersonal relationships, or family relationships. I don't really have a lot of time for that stuff. My attention is constantly on making art, and then the labour aspect of it, which is getting ready to go on tour, touring and that part of the job.
What's your idea of a perfect Sunday?
Get up late, make a large breakfast for my loved ones, go for a walk in the park, come to my apartment and just sit on the couch and read until it gets dark.
What advice should you have taken, but did not?
"Wait before taking any more of that stuff, it takes a while to kick in."
What do you think of when you think of Canada?
Well, I think of home. But it's hard for me to conceive of Canada as an actual nation. It seems very much a patchwork of different opposing interests. There are some things that I love about living in this country and being from here — it's like winning a birth lottery, having a Canadian passport. Increasingly, as social programs and the idea of a post-war democratic socialist state is eroded from the rest of what we consider to be the West.
I feel lucky to be Canadian, but at the same time, it's stolen land. We have a long history of genocide and theft and blood. A lot of Canada's existence owes to straight resource extraction. In a lot of ways we've evolved, but if you look at something like just how corrupt the entire SNC-Lavalin case is, or how hollowed out and craven most of our media is — including whatever passes for centre-left media — it's hard to see how far we're come since essentially being under the purview of the Hudson's Bay Company.
So I'm very conflicted about the idea of Canada right now. I know that, at the bottom of it, I like being from this country. I believe that there are core values in Canada that are objectively good. I just think that we could do a lot better. And I'm worried about the upcoming election, because I feel that the government we have in power is not interested in any kind of meaningful political change. And the government coming up behind them that is interested in meaningful political change, is interested in change that absolutely fucking terrifies me.
I feel like now is a good time for anyone even remotely on the left to band together and start communicating with each other about what they want Canada to look like. And people in a position of privilege on the left should listen and hear what some of the more disenfranchised members of this political community want and need out of the country, and how to make this place better. Because we have the power to make this a wonderful place to live.
What was the first LP/CD/cassette you ever bought with your own money?
I think that would be the Lost Boys soundtrack, which is a formative piece of art in my life. It's definitely goth-light, but I think it set me on a path of being a goth for the rest of my life. So that and Metallica's …And Justice for All, which I bought well after it was released, but that was big. I bought it at the local video store in the small town I grew up in, because they had a small selection of cassettes.
What was your most memorable day job?
It definitely would have to be the telemarketing jobs. I worked a ton of them, because they're real fly-by-night operations. Back in the early 2000s, if you were an Anglophone and moved to Montreal, like so many people did, telemarketers would hire literally anyone. As long as you could speak coherently and read a script and leave the moral part of your brain behind for six to eight hours a day, you had a job.
A lot of these companies would go through these huge booms and busts, where they would be making hundreds of thousands of dollars a month, and then you would go to work one morning and there would be nothing but a soda machine and wires hanging out of the wall. They would just pick up shop and leave.
I guess the best-slash-worst one I had was that I worked for a company called Pi Global Com Dot Com. It was the project of this Montreal failed son. He came from a fairly wealthy family, and his parents were clearly like, "You need to do something with your life, start a business." So he started this bullshit scam operation where he had a floor of telemarketers and they would call small businesses in the United States — like a mom and pop gas station in Bowling Green, Ohio — and be like, "You need to be on the internet. We can help you get on the internet." But really what it was is, they would pay out a yearly fee of like $600 to have a book sent to them that had a list of other businesses that had been scammed by this guy. It was the Pi Global Com Dot Com Internet Directory book.
So I worked for this dude in the accounts department, to find out whether people had actually paid for this wonderful service or not, and they gave me a private office with internet access. I never did any of the work for them. The company was so disorganized that they only caught on like eight months later that I wasn't doing anything. I was mostly just promoting Wolf Parade online. I just kind of used it as my office.
How do you spoil yourself?
By taking a day off, generally. That's my big thing. I'll take a day off and cook a meal or just play Final Fantasy VII.
What has been your strangest celebrity encounter?
Josh Hartnett came to a Handsome Furs show in Minneapolis, because he's a Midwest guy. We played this great show, and after the show we walked over with some fans to the bar and sat down, and Hartnett came over and was talking about how much he liked the show. We ended up hanging out with him all night.
One thing that really struck me was that he grew up there, and he was there with a buddy of his from high school, just a regular-ass Minneapolis guy with a regular-ass job. His friend got absolutely annihilated, just stumble drunk, and Hartnett completely took care of him. At one point he was like, "Okay, my friend is really drunk, I apologize, I gotta go." He kind of carried him out of the bar and made sure he got home. He was just a stand-up dude.
Years later, I ended up meeting up with him in Salt Lake City because he was there shooting a movie and we were both at he same Beck show. Again, he came out to the bar with a bunch of people, and was just a wonderful presence. He's a really great dude. I don't know why I was so surprised he was so nice and down-to-Earth. I think I've met people who were potentially more famous or notable than Josh Hartnett, but I've never met anyone who's famous who is as nice.
If I wasn't playing music I would be…
I think I would be either a journalist or I'd be working in academia in history or political science. I went to school for political science for a couple years, and I used to think that was something I wanted to do. But the more I've travelled to places that I had only read about academically, or been introduced to through my very neo-liberal education in Canada — the more friends I've made in the ex-Eastern Bloc and the Balkans — the more I've realized I wouldn't have been able to hack it in diplomacy. Just because that world is so incredible greasy. I would maybe work more on the advocacy side, or the preservation of historical memory, because that's something I'm really interested in.
Who would be your ideal dinner guest, living or dead, and what would you serve them?
Former Yugoslav president Josip Broz Tito. But it would be conditional — he would have to bring his guerrilla partisan partner Milovan Đilas. They would have to come together. I would serve a big Balkan spread, and then I'd have them tell me about how they liberated Yugoslavia from the fascists.
What should everyone shut up about?
I think anybody who uses the phrase "cultural Marxism" should shut the fuck up. None of them knows what it means, and it doesn't actually mean anything. It's basically a weird evolution of an extremely racist ideology that twins Judaism and communism. So "cultural Marxism" is really just a dog-whistle for this quote-unquote Judaeo-Bolshevik conspiracy. I think it's been so engrained in the centre-right that the meaning is still there, it's just been communicated like a virus.
When Jordan Peterson rambles on and on about cultural Marxism, he doesn't really know what he's talking about. I think what he means is a fear of an authoritarian left that's going to tell him he can't do whatever he wants to do whenever he wants to do it. Jason Kenney has never read Adorno in his life. He doesn't know what cultural Marxism is, but he uses it as a cudgel to frighten people. That their children are being brainwashed at college campuses. As if higher education isn't just a way to produce people that will reinforce capitalism, which is kind of ironic.
I see it a lot in Canada, and I kind of blame Jason Kenney for a lot of it. But this whole conversation about cultural Marxism, and it being a creeping threat, and it being a weapon used by quote-unquote "SJWs," that whole conversation needs to die.
It wasn't perfect, but watching Peterson debate Žižek in Toronto — I felt like Žižek went kind of light on him, but it was great to watch the myth of this guy who is a paragon of the new right just have his entire argument and ideology annihilated by the fact that he clearly doesn't know what he's talking about and hasn't read anything. Not that it's important to read things to have opinions, I guess, but when you're talking about the creeping threat of this nebulous ideology, you should probably have a good idea of what it is.
What song would you like to have played at your funeral?
"Fade to Black" by Metallica.