Sunday, January 16, 2011
An interview in 4D : Handsome Furs talk new record, Southeast Asia, China's intense music scene...
Dan Boeckner and Alexei Perry were kind enough to sit and talk with me at length before debuting a scathing, shimmering chunk of new material at Lincoln Hall, the day before the dead-of-winter Schubas / Lincoln Hall / and now Metro behemoth "Tommorow Never Knows" 2011 came to a close.
Dan, you mentioned at a SXSW show that Obits turned you around on festivals entirely. how did you get into Rick Froberg's music?
Dan : I was a really big fan of Drive Like Jehu when I was in High School. They were one of the first sort-of post hardcore bands that I really... when I first heard that record I thought it was a little too slick, because the stuff i was listening to was basically like West Coast hardcore like Death Wish Kids and all really shittily recorded super fucking heavy hardcore, then I heard this Drive Like Jehu record, Yank Crime, and I couldn't wrap my head around it because it was like the best hardcore band ever, but really well recorded, and that was my favorite record for a really long time. It was depressing because I wanted to play along with my favorite records, and I couldn't fucking play along with it! it was too complicated. I was just a huge fan of that guys stuff ever since. To be able to play with them is still something that...it blows my mind that I even got to meet that dude.
How would compare the independent scene now as opposed to the mid-nineties?
Dan : I think it's a lot different because in the mid nineties there was this weird window that maybe happened a little bit again in the mid 2000's , with indie rock and bands like Decemberists getting randomly signed to major labels, but in the mid nineties, all major labels were looking for the next Nirvana so you get shit like...I think Drive Like Jehu was on Interscope, which is insane to think of because Black Eyed Peas are on Interscope, and then bands like Royal Trux were like, if the first two Royal Trux records came out now they probably get terrible reviews....they wouldn't even be cool for indie rock kids, but they got signed to Virgin, with a multi-million dollar contract, and that's never gonna happen again. I think it was kind of a period of...the last period of the square over gram, siphoning stuff up from the underground without really paying attention to it. I think it was bad in a way because it screwed a lot of bands over. Spoon almost didn't recover from getting signed to a major label. they were signed and then dropped, but it gave a lot bands a career that they wouldn't have had otherwise.
You're recording right after this show. is the creative process going to be different than with the past records?
Dan : Yeah, I think it is, a little bit!
Alexei : We're going to be doing of writing during the recording. we have a lot of stuff written, but a lot of stuff unwritten.
Dan : The nature of these songs are slightly different than with the last couple of records, some of them are also more electronic and there's no guitar on some of the, so that's going to be the kind of thing where they'll be built in the studio. We're going to do some stuff to enliven it. Pump it out into a room with shitty pa speakers and record the vocals over that. some of it's a lot more aggressive than the last couple records, so I think it'll be a lot of things recorded live.
Is the new record inspired by a certain location?
Alexei : Not one. Definitely from a lot of the traveling in the last year. as we were going through songs yesterday, I was like "is there any one of these songs that isn't about a certain city, or about a certain experience we had in that city?" ... it's very spread out. some of it's, you know, Belgrade, and Singapore, and not about any one specific area.
Dan : There's not a lot of love songs, it's not like personal, sort of "feeling-songs" in the record. I think touring in Asia and China shaped the sound of the record, we ended up using a lot of our keyboards, everythings slightly faster, a lot of sparkly digital sounds..(laughter) ...it sounds ridiculous but it's true, I'm not lying when i say it's sparkly digital sounds, but I mean that was definitely influenced by being in these giant mega-opolis' that never, ever stop. The traffic never stops, there's always people on the street. There's noise coming from every available corner, you now it's just blasting some sort of Cantonese pop music.... Alexei (quickly) : the things that come through are the sparkly bits. Dan : through a busted speaker, you know, or somebodies skipping CD where a guy is selling jewelry on the corner. We did a lot of field recordings, and just listened to them back, so we could say "this should sound like this" ...whether or not people pick up on it....
Alexei : No! People will never know! (laughs)
They might now...
Dan : Well that's kind of how the creative process worked...
How do you get ready for going into the studio
Dan : Work a lot. There's a lot of pre-studio stuff we do where we go through a lot rehearsals that are basically like song writing, playing the same parts over and over again, and mostly if we can't pull it off live then we're not ready to record it. Alexei : well, if we can just pull it off live, then we're to record it (laughs) that's the way this albums gonna go. it's gonna be a lot of shit where we're like "i haven't even played this all the way through yet!"
I noticed you seemed a little nervous about playing "Agony" at Do-Division street fest in 08.
Alexei : We're doing two songs like that where we've never played them.
Dan : We just wrote them a few days ago! I like that, it's a challenge to do that! it's better than coming up on stage and having muscle memory take over your body. That and I think reading and watching movies , I always end up getting a certain specific topic I want to write about or something that's going to put me in a good mood for whatever we're making, so we were watching some documentaries on mass production in Soviet Russia...
Alexei : Have you seen the Pandora's series?
Alexei : It's really good.
Dan : It's awesome.
Alexei : It's fucking awesome. It'll be worth watching
Dan : We were watching that and i got this book today that I'm going to read while we're recording that basically about a model Stalinist town called Magnitogorsk.
Alexei : The books called Magnetic Mountain.
Dan : Yeah, it's called Magnetic Mountain. It's basically about how Stalin built this city in the 30's and brought a bunch of American industrialist over , housed them in an American style suburb, a sham city that he built outside of the real city, and was like "LOOK! socialism works" and they went back to America they said "look, socialism works" but actually the city was a...
Alexei : ...and when they left they put the fence up.
What is it like for you to play for an audience that doesn't necessarily speak English?
Dan : Fun!
Alexei : Something that's really cool about that experience is the few things that you can make relatable mean a lot more and so when people do understand certain things, or if we're trying to say things in whatever language it is, then those exchanges mean a lot. In a lot of places we played, a lot of people don't know what our songs are about so it's sort of like having an audience that gets it for what it's supposed to be. Yes... the lyrics are important, but there's something that's more immediate that I really like.
Dan : You have to try really, really hard to connect with people in a non verbal way, our shows are pretty consistent with what we do on stage..it's not like we go on stage and are like *veils hand down face* and now....the Handsome Furs...that's one of the things I really like. Stare at myself in the mirror before the show and psyche myself out and get really ready to be Dan Boeckner. (laughs)
Alexei : I just sort of punch my face a lot.
Dan : Playing shows for people who don't speak English, you become more aware of what you do with your body, let's face it... nobody really hears lyrics at our shows anyway, but you really become aware of your gesticulation , your body language...especially when your trying to talk to people between sets...we also write down a lot of words....
Alexei : I write a lot of things on my arm, and always just in, like , bi-phonetic, you know...
Dan : I think I know how to say "thank you" and "cheers" in more languages then...
What was the independent scene like in Southeast Asia, was there one?
Alexei : There's one, yeah, it depends on the country. when we were in Miramar which was really unbelievable, I felt like what was happening there... (looks at Dan, what do you think was happening there?)
Dan : There was no independent punk scene there, I mean, there were kids that wanted to listen to music, but there's literally like three bands...
Alexei : ...and to try even get the stuff is impossible.
Dan : There's literally like three or four bands in the capitol that are making music that people can go see, maybe there's more...but we met one, played with another, and heard about another one.
Alexei : ..and they were like "this is it!"
Dan : The people, that's like the capitol...technically it's not the capitol, but it's the heart of the country, but when we played the show, there were so many people who came...they came ready to watch music, so there's music fans, but there's just no bands.
Alexei : Then in Bangkok there's just...tons, it's crazy how much is going on, you throw a stone and there's a new venue being put up because there's so much going on, and in Beijing there's fucking amazing bands...really amazing...people I really respect and want to work with...
Dan : The difference between the music scene in southeast Asia and china is almost night and day, the music scene in China is really, so creative now, so totally insane and unstable...i think it's like New York in the late 70's...
Alexei : That's the only comparison I can imagine..
Dan : These bands aren't playing for tons and tons of people. If you take the entire population of China, there's playing to a small percentage of the population of china, but they are doing something that's never been done there before, and really like something that's never been done anywhere else.
Alexei : ...like new york in the 70's where this movement was made out of all of these very very very different bands, and yet there was camaraderie amongst them because it was trying to do something, trying to make something out....
Dan : A movement.
Alexei : It's more of a movement than even having kinship sonically or whatever, they re just trying to fucking make something happen.
Dan : Yeah, Patti Smith, and the Ramones , and the Talking Heads all kind of get lumped into the same group, but if you take those bands and stack them up to each other just sonically, without any of the historical backgrounds, they all sound completely different from one another, but they share the same, there like this aesthetic , this vibe... and the overriding aesthetic of china...they have a punk scene that developed in the mid to late 90's, and now they're in this sort of post-punk phase where people are writing more melodic music, but it's really not influenced by western indie rock or...
Alexei : It's impossible to even tell....because i don't the history of the music enough to know what the influences are, i just know it's really stuff i don't know... that's amazing.
Dan : It seems like they developed their own kind of post-punk, completely independently from the rest of the world, and it's hyper-modern too.... they're singing about...that's another thing i love about that scene...we had some of the lyrics translated, and a lot of indie rock stuff bums me out..it's a decadent music scene, it's very....the stuff that's popular...it's very either inscrutable, and metaphor-laden, you know...like Animal Collective lyrics...as good as that bands is...they're not singing anything to me...they're not talking about their lives and if they are they're putting it in so much metaphor it becomes meaningless, it's inscrutable, but some of these bands we were getting lyrics translated from China, they were talking about their day to day lives, and their fans go to the shows, they listen to the lyrics and are like "FUCK YEAH"
Alexei : It's like listening to the news for people like us!
Dan : That's exactly what it is!
Alexei : ...which is amazing, that's something I can relate to more than anything
Dan : Imagine going to see this bands PK-14, which is like the Chinese Fugazi basically, they're incredible, I think for Chinese kids to go see this band would be like going to see The Clash as an English kid in 1977 in London. that really impressed me.
Are you happy with the way the CNN documentary came out?
Alexei : I'm happy it came out. There's good parts to it. It was really fun. I wish a lot more footage came out. We did a lot of interviewing of bands that we played with and a lot of that didn't make it in and that was sort of the heart of it for me,...what I wish it had been more about, it's great for me to look at because i know that's us doing that, and that's where we are, and I love that, you know, but there's a lot didn't get shown that I would have loved, a lot of political stuff, and just...artistic discussions that I think were really...maybe it was too difficult to put in because they probably would have had to get rights from the people to say it was OK, so there was a lot of reasons why...it was a short thing. it was really fun and they were really great to us.
Dan : I'm happy with it for what it is. It is what it is. It was made for entertainment, and the whole over-arching theme of the project from the beginning was like "this bands is touring in all of these crazy places" but, for me watching back, it's definitely not my experience of that tour, but there's great parts of it. i'm happy we did it. We actually did another one on the last tour in Asia for this big Chinese website. It's interesting to watch them.
Alexei : ..see what got chosen
It didn't misrepresent anything??
Dan : It didn't misrepresent anything, it just left, because of it's nature, it's a 10 minute webisode, so they couldn't show the political diatribe (laughs)
Dan : Yeah, the guys from P.K.-14...
What do you think of the rapid accessibility of music?
Alexei: Well, for us, mostly it's a great thing, because of the places we want to tour to, if it wasn't that accessible there's no way we could play there....the fact that people can download our album, in Tang-Wei, or wherever, that's a fantastic thing for us because that means we can play a show there. I still miss the days where people went to the record store. Dan and I still do it.
Dan : In the capitalist mode, the two things can't co-exist together, obviously record stores are going to go out of business...they have to offer something that the Internet doesn't like, 180 gram vinyl of fucking....pre-pressings of the first five Jesus Lizard records, for example...that's gonna keep record stores in business, that just the way it works, that' s just commerce, you know...but I dunno...mostly I think that the fact that you can download anything is totally positive, I think if there's any negative like...record sales...it's just a fact...they're down. people don't buy as many records as they used to. The only negative thing that I can see about it is... the way that it happens changed peoples involvement the music that they get.
Alexei : People don't care as much because everything is accessible then you don't follow a band with your whole heart, and you don't have to...and that's stuff I hate. it changes the way you listen to music.
Dan : We're talking about underground music right, like..not underground but like....whatever this is...like, not Black Eyed Peas, right? Not Taylor Swift? It's changed that demographics relationship with the music that they love, because before you could get anything whenever you want, you would treasure these things.
Alexei : Your point of pride would be...
Dan : ...Oh i have the blah blah blah 7", I have the Japanese import 7" of Nirvana's fucking out-take's from Nevermind, where-as now, that's something I downloaded the other day, Nirvana's out-takes and B-sides from Nevermind, that was a Japanese import CD that I fucking ordered when I was in high school, that was my prized possession, and it took me three minutes. I googled it, and I got a mediafire link and just, fucking downloaded the shit out of it. So it doesn't become as precious, and I think if you download albums, and your downloading them in mass quantities, you don't spend as much time with the individual albums, and the way i-tunes is structured, and this isn't anything new...but...it's become very singles oriented, because you don't have to physically get up and hit track skip, or hit fast-forward on a tape player, or lift a needle up, you just .....your so acclimatized to using a computer, that you just make this hand motion that's the same as brushing your hair... and your like 30 seconds into the song, that doesn't sound so good...45 seconds, that's pretty cool,and oh yeah, alright, yeah, and it's over...and it's like what about this new Salem track...I try.... and when I listen to new music.... I try and really...it's hard...I force myself to have a fucking attention span. it's like something I actually work on. I'm just as bad as anybody else, I'll download something and be like (multiple finger points to indicate speed) rah rah rah rah, (laughs) or I'll shelve it in my i-tunes and forget about it for three months...
There's actually some good new record stores that opened here, and a few really good ones that have been open and are doing well.
Alexei : Yeah! there's some good places in Montreal as well that are just opening up or have been open.
Dan : Maybe it has something to with the re-resurgence of vinyl...people going back to vinyl and cassettes, because subconsciously whether you know it or not, it takes that total control you have over the listening experience, it takes it away from you, and you just have to listen to the album, because your lazy ass isn't going to get off the couch and skip the needle forward 30 seconds to decide whether or not you like it...I got a theory actually that the listening habits as influenced by i-tunes has actually in the last 8 years , changed the way people write pop music specifically....a lot of pop songs now, like that new drake, I can't remember what it's called, it's basically like, sonically your compressing everything, so every single instrument is as loud as every other instrument, and they're all taking up the maximum amount of sonic space, which is an old pop music trick, the sounds better on the radio..it's been being done for 25 years. there's a verse that...goes into a chorus, and there's a pre-chorus, and then a chorus, and then a second chorus, and then like...a drop...and a chorus that's even louder than the other chorus. like it's a totally new way of structuring a song. it's not like a,b,a,b,bridge, i'm not saying it's a bad thing, it's just an evolution of music, but it's interesting. i think it has a lot to do with the way people listen to shit. it's to constantly be keeping your attention. So you never turn it off. You never go to the next track in your playlist. yer like "YES!" "YES!"
What was the first song you both learned to play?
Dan : Oh man, i know that. You go first.
Alexei : The first song I learned to play was a Phantom of the Opera song.
Dan : Like from the musical?
Alexei : Yeah, as in piano. It was piano classes
Dan : Was it the theme song from Phantom of the Opera?
Alexei : Yeah, what's that called?
Dan : That's just called Phantom of the Opera. ...like, overture, Andrew Lloyd Webber (piano motions) doo doo, doo doo, doo doo,
Alexei : Yeah, (laughs) I was the first one, and I was like "i'll choose to learn that" (laughs) which is really geeky, but...i was really little.
Dan : I think mine was Silent Night...on guitar...(both laugh) but I think the first cool song was...
Alexei : Yeah yeah.. I was trying to actually think of the first chosen song
Dan : The first cool song I learned how to play was the intro to Sanitarium by Metallica...but only like the first 4 bars before it gets complicated...and then I realized they used that...
Alexei : I did Strawberry Fields, which was another one...
Dan : Oh yeah...they used that Sanitarium intro three times...Fade To Black, Sanitarium, and One are basically all the same, oh and Unforgiven, are all in the same key.
What bands have you been listening to?
Alexei : I dunno.......I've listened to a lot of Crystal Castles recently...i'm trying to think of new shit.
Dan : Salem. I listened to the shit out of that Salem record...I like it.
Alexei : Grinderman
Dan : Grinderman. Salem.
Alexei , what kind of stuff have you been writing lately?
Alexei : Currently i'm working on a parralell perspective erotic thriller fiction, that's taken over my life.
Dan : Your just in a band between writing.
Do you have anything with you?
Alexei : I don't actually, i'll give you stuff, I was selling books but i'm completely sold out!
Have you watched Zeitgeist yet?
Both : No.
Alexei : That's funny someone else asked me that
That's why I asked...
Dan : I watched Pirahna 3d though last night for the third time in however long since it came out in the theatre.
I've been meaning to watch that. Is it awesome?
Alexei : It's fantastic.
Dan : It is! it is the spiritual and cinematic heir to Paul Verhoeven's Starship Troopers.
I loved Starship Troopers.
Dan : Then you'll love Pirahna 3d! That should have been the tagline. If you liked Starship Troopers....
Alexei : We've been coming up with a lot of tag-lines for that.
Dan : I wish they would have filmed it in 4d.
Alexei : So it would be happening right now?
Dan : Yeah. Old you is watching it, 2 million years before it comes out. Think about that...4D...Old you is in the Mezizoic Era...
Alexei : Can we call our next album 4d?
Dan : No.
......anything else you want to add?
Alexei : Handsome furs. 4d. in stores. june. (laughs)
June of 1999?
Dan : June of 5067 BC. They'll be digging the whole of the giant Cistern in Istanbul, that was like the pinnacle of Turkish achievement at that point, and all of the sudden there will be a floating...download code...which people will misinterperet....(both laugh)....4d! It's a great idea to get out of your record contracts....if the territory was like... the universe, but it doesn't specify a time...
Alexei : We'll have to bring that up in our next marketing meeting.
Dan : ...so when the Beetle people are fucking warming themselves on the carbon fires of the cold dead earth in 5 million AD .... there will be the new Handsome Furs record...
Super swell, gracious folks.
I had 3 HD cameras inside Lincoln Hall for this show. Definitely watch this space.