Dan Boeckner kept his latest band, a three-piece analog dance project called Operators, pretty secret. Well, as secret as you can be when you've fronted or played with some of indie rock's most famous bands, which is to say, not very secret at all. Boeckner (formerly of Handsome Furs, Atlas Strategic, Wolf Parade, currently of Divine Fits) had fans ravenous for new output as soon. But he wanted to hit the stage first, wanted to create something real for the audience, something not "copy-paste-able." Boeckner, at his most electronic musically, wants this project to feel as organic as possible — whatever that means (more on that below). So the first Operators shows, which came in fits and spurts earlier this year, were also the first times anyone heard output from the new project. That is, until this week, when Boeckner & co. dropped a five-song EP called EP1.
NUVO: Outline the timeline of this band for me. It's very, very new.
Boeckner: I guess it was maybe 18 months ago that I started working on songs for this. I didn't really know where it was going to go, exactly. Actually, I did an interview at Coachella not last year, but the year before when Divine Fits played. I was talking about channeling some of this stuff that I listened to when I was younger, like Fugazi and Unwound, which I think got taken out of context to the point where it was like, “This band is going to sound like Fugazi and Unwound,” which was never really the case.
But, it was just electronic. I got all these synths and stuff over the last three or four years. When Handsome Furs finished touring Sound Kapital, I was working on stuff for a fourth album. And obviously that never happened, but some of the equipment that I bought became centerpiece for Operators. And Operators really quickly became its own thing, its own animal. I don't think any of the original stuff that I was working on got kept; we [bandmates Sam Brown and Devojka] just started writing new stuff. It came really fast.
I was living in Silicon Valley, working at this practice space that we'd rented that I think was an old fruit cannery. It's an old brick building from the pre-tech boom agriculture there. So there's no windows and it's cold in the winter and really hot in the summer inside. Just brick. So that was kind of the incubator for Operators. Then, we started going out to Columbus, Ohio and working with Sam in his basement. Things just kind of went from there.
NUVO: I know that the live component of this band was really important to you – you didn't release anything online before you got onstage.
Boeckner: Yeah, yeah, we didn't put anything up on the Internet, nothing at all, really. We just wanted to go play shows.
NUVO: What was the thought behind that?
Boeckner: Every band, even electronic projects, just have these long-ass rollouts. I think selling records as a business model is dying, literally dying, and these long roll-outs with a big marketing campaign and teaser trailer videos and billboards that are mysterious, yet enticing, are a way for people to build anticipation and then have a blowout first week of record sales. But we had written all these songs, and I don't feel like anybody in the band felt like that was something we wanted to wait around for. … A focused aesthetic of rolling this out and enticing the public to purchase it wasn't top of our list. Top of our list was going to play shows. And when you go play a show, it's really like the last thing that's not copy-pastable. You can videotape the show, take pictures, put it up on Instagram, talk about it on Twitter, make a Vine video, but it doesn't even compare to the experience of actually, physically being there in your corporeal body watching it happen.
I like the idea of people who are interested in the project finding out more and experiencing this in the moment, this fleeting moment. They hear the songs, maybe they record it on their phone, maybe not, but the best they're going to get after the show is either their memory of the show or a fuzzy, blown out, audio YouTube clip. I think that's good. It's so hard to do anything that isn't catalogued and shoved into the great fucking data suck library of the world right now. It's impossible. I knew that after a certain point we'd have to release something. Of course, and then it starts. You're shelved and searchable and trade-able and stuff like that. But there was this great moment before we put anything out where it just existed in the real world and no where else. And people's perceptions of it were the only things that existed on the Internet, because we weren't providing any content except just the pure experience of playing songs that we'd written for people in a room, in front of them physically. Can't do that forever, though.
NUVO: Something that came to mind when you were explaining that is the backlash when the Yeah Yeah Yeahs put up signs like, “Please don't record, don't have your phone up, etc.” People were so mad! People get absolutely furious when you tell them you can't do that.
Boeckner: Yeah! Or, I remember Savages, when they were touring was like, “Put your phone away, don't take fucking pictures of us.” I respect that, but at the same time, I think … you know, I totally respect that. I think it's great. But it's just not going to happen. People are going to take pictures. The phone is just an extension of the human mind at this point. Your memories are on there, that's how you communicate with people. It's a sensory organ. You can't roll back the clock. You can't go straight Amish on it. But you can try and control the way the information is disseminated. I never really cared if people were recording the show or not, because it's never going to be the same as actually being there.
And people get mad when you tell them not to use your phones at shows, too. But it makes sense to me, because they're literally like the sixth sensory organ. It's like telling people to wear a blindfold.
NUVO: I think the capacity for outrage is just shockingly small for most people.
Boeckner: And I think the capacity for outrage is just misappropriated for most people, too. But, that's actually things that aren't overtly stated on the record as much as on Sound Kapital or Face Control, but it's in there, on the Operators stuff. The idea of living in Silicon Valley, that it's just this pleasant hell of surveillance, pleasant purgatory.
NUVO: Why were you in Silicon Valley?
Boeckner: Why not? It's beautiful, the weather is beautiful.
NUVO: That's as good of a reason as any to be somewhere. Last time I talked to you, you were coming with Divine Fits, and we actually talked quite a bit about Burma, and how much you liked touring there and how you wanted to get back there. Is that coming about? Or did it come about?
Boeckner: It's funny – we played in Seattle a couple of days ago and had one of our best shows. It's been our best indoor show. It was bananas, people were jumping up and down on the stage at the end of the show. And one of the people jumping up and down was my friend Dan, who brought Handsome Furs to Burma. He lived in the country for seven and a half years, and got to know all the ins and outs of the political system there, and is very highly connected, and is just a sweet, sweet dude. So, he was at the show in Seattle and we talked a lot about Burma and how it's changing. But I did go back! I went back in 2013 and played a show at Dan's house with a Burmese punk band that's friends of mine.
Even in the time between when I'd been there with the Furs, the country had changed in a big way. The first time I went, there was no car on the street that was built after 1984 or '85, and they were all weird Russian imports or Japanese vans that had been sold for ties back in the '80s and shipped off to Burma because they were crappy. Now, you go back, and there's brand new cars on the street, and the city is just not built for that volume of traffic, so there's just constant traffic jams.
And carpet baggers. Tons and tons of rich, white American carpet baggers. Some of them have really altruistic clout in their heads, these great ideas. Like, they're going to go to Burma and fix the agriculture problem by giving farmers cell phones. And they're going to design an app, so some guy can find out the price of potatoes at a certain market and then pick which market he goes to, sell those potatoes, and make a profit. Sort of unclench this fist of capitalism there, and … it's real Silicon Valley libertarian stuff.
And there's some other sinister, classic dudes who couldn't make it in economics in America just sliming their way into the country. It's such a small place, and they're unused to foreigners, so I think you can show up with a bunch of bunk credentials and the next thing you know, you're having lunch with somebody who used to work for a general, or somebody who's pretty high up in the ex-military junta, and you can be talking about mineral rights with them, or deregulating the banking system. Which is exactly what happened in Russia in the '90s and what collapsed the post-Soviet economy.
So, I worry a lot about that country, and I worry a lot about the influence of somebody like Pierre Omidyar. He's the guy who owns eBay. He set up a micro-lending loan thing in Northern India that directly resulted in a bunch of Indian women consuming pesticide and killing themselves because they couldn't pay back their loans. He also was pretty instrumental in destabilizing the Ukraine recently through US aid and donating money to a “pro-democracy” program there. He apparently, or his organization, has its sights set on Burma. Which is bad news for everyone. And I feel bad when I think about it, because I would love to go back there and play shows. And I will. But I have friends there, and people I deeply care about, and I don't want them to suffer. Sorry, that was a total tangent. Yes, we'll be touring internationally!
NUVO: No, glad we could revisit that conversation. Indianapolis has a large Burmese population.
Boeckner: Actually, since we've talked last, my friends in that band that I played with in Burma, Side Effect, they came to South by Southwest. They raised enough money through Kickstarter. They were invited to play SXSW – first Burmese band to play in Texas, I think. They loved it. I got to talk to them on the phone. My friend was standing outside of a Walmart in, I think, Temple, Texas, and was like, “It's so beautiful here.” I was like, “Where are you?” And he said, “I'm outside of the Walmart.” I'm like, oh, buddy. Because when I go visit him, it's so beautiful there. It's just palm trees and 2,000 year old pagodas, people cooking food on the street, gorgeous sunsets and jungle. And he's standing in front of a Walmart going, “I love it here, I love America, I want to play rock and roll in America.” So, there you go.
NUVO: How does your setlist work for these shows? You've got a five-song EP, and then you have unreleased songs that you may release later. How long are these sets running?
Boeckner: We actually recorded about 15 songs in Montreal [at Hotel2Tango]. And those are 15 keepers, ones that we were like, all right, this is going to be the recorded output, whether it's album or EPs. We wanted to move quickly, so we didn't really want to wait around to put together an entire album and deal with [all that]. We're signed to Last Gang! in Canada and we're unsigned in the US. That gives us a flexibility to basically release this material any way we see fit and keep about 100 percent of the profit. Which is … nice. It's really nice!
When you think about it, we self-finance the record. A middle-level record deal from one of the top-level labels is going to cap out around $25,000. They're not really eager to be dropping huge chunks of change on bands, considering it's very difficult to move physical copies right now, unless it's something special like the Jack White super special vinyl. Which is cool, that's the kind of thing I'd like to be doing with physical releases, since nobody wants to buy a fucking CD anymore. And why would they? It's hard enough to get people to even purchase downloads when you can get the whole thing on Spotify for free, right? So we're thinking, take this money, pay back for the recording, then pay that money back to the label, at 13.5 percent per record sold after cost. And EPs are not a thing most record labels are into. They're more a promotional tool. So Last Gang! is being really nice and generous to us, because we told them, “Hey, we're going to put out this EP, and maybe another one, and maybe another one, and then compile stuff into an album.” And they were like, “We're fine with that.” So that makes me happy. And it also allows us to do stuff like, go out and have a recorded product, and have something to release in the next couple months as well, almost like an issue of a magazine. And we're able to tour, and touring is where it's at.
NUVO: I read the interview you gave to Noisey. You were talking about your live setup, and mentioned Perfect Pussy, saying, “I think it’s no coincidence that people want to go see a band like Perfect Pussy because it’s quote-unquote 'real.' And it is real, it’s all real, but it’s a different kind of real that people want right now; that people are hungry for.” Can you expand on that thought? What do you think the type of appetite people have for live performance right now is like?
Boeckner: I think it's totally split by demographic. This is just a theory of mine, but I think there's two opposing camps, and they're both of the same generation. I'm not talking about older people and younger people; I'm talking about current, purchasing, concert-going generation. One wants authenticity, and the other thinks the idea of authenticity is dead. And I think they're both right, to a certain extent. For example, there's that band Jungle, a house electronic project. And those guys have gone to great lengths using the European Google Commons thing, the EU laws about the “right to be forgotten.” These guys both came from very wealthy families and gave a pretty stinking interview in the Guardian a few years ago, just the most noxious, privileged, right-wing politics. They also use this imagery that's kind of questionable; it's not them on the cover of the album and there's this whole race thing as well. They want to use this “right to be forgotten” to eliminate their past. To scrub away the Guardian interview, to get rid of Wikipedia entries, whatever they can do. I don't think, even if the law is passed, that that's actually going to happen. I think people are so adamant about keeping data free to the public and having a record, that I think that stuff is going to stick around no matter how much you try and scrub it. And those guys are a good example of that “authenticity is dead,” argument. What does it matter? Does it matter that they're rich kids from upper-middle class lordship families in England? No, it doesn't really matter, right? Does the race thing matter? Maybe a little bit more. And the fact that they're trying to actively erase their past, that matters. But as an art product, I think some people just don't care. They want to see artifice, they want to be entertained, they want a show. And I think that's totally reasonable. I think that goes right down to the way certain music is performed. Like, a lot of EDM is Ableton-based triggers and the show is the light show, the moving pictures on screen, the staging of it.
On the other hand, you have this kind of return to the '90s. Like, Waxahatchee. Perfect Pussy I think is doing a little bit more of a futuristic version. Speedy Ortiz, Swearin'. Perfect Pussy is a different thing because they're doing this early-to mid-'90s post-hardcore, updated. All the bands are updating it in their own style. But the idea that a lot of bass drums guitar acts are really popular with the Pitchfork crowd is a movement away from what's perceived as artificial, which is a guy onstage with a laptop.
NUVO: And you're laptop-less.
Boeckner: Yeah! So I think we're kind of straddling a line between artifice – and it's an antiquated notion that synthesizers are artificial, but artifice meaning direct input instruments – and physical, people playing the notes. Live drums and vocals. No vocal backing tracks, stuff like that. Even in the dance community, you can see this argument. There's an argument between artificial and real. The people that are making quote-unquote real music are like James Holden, who put out a great recorded call The Inheritors. He just uses two synthesizers, a modular patch, another modular patch, and a live drummer who triggers. And everybody like it's because it's quote-unquote real, he's really playing it. And then on the other hand, you have people like Laurel Halo, who are doing this weird micro-sampling stuff, really just abusing laptop technology. And that's quote-unquote artificial, but also real. Post-genre!