Q Magazine

Dan Boeckner on His First Ever Solo Release and a Deep-Dive Into His Back Catalog, Including Operators, Handsome Furs and Wolf Parade

'Formerly, if I'd changed gears artistically, I'd just start a new band...and then those bands would inevitably break up. Or go on hiatus. Or just stop releasing music.'

wills q template
Source: Alison Green

Dan Boeckner, waving his arms as if to say, 'Hey! Over here! I have a new solo album!'

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Dan Boeckner has been a working musician since the late 1990s, making his way through a series of bands - including God Shaped Vacuum and Atlas Strategic - before finally making his way to his first real fame with Wolf Parade. To date, the band has released five full-length LPs, but that's hardly the only thing that's kept Boeckner occupied. Indeed, he's been part of several groups and/or musical collaborations, among them such acclaimed acts as Handsome Furs, Divine Fits, and Operators. At long last, however, Boeckner has decided to release something under his own name for a change, and considering how long it's taken him to make this decision, it's perfectly reasonable that he should decide to put an exclamation point after the title and call it Boeckner!

While in the midst of prepping for the release of this self-titled debut, Boeckner was kind enough to hop on a Zoom call with Q, during which he took a few minutes to chat about all of these various musical incarnations, plus a few guest appearances that he's made on other recordings over the years. The end result is a free-flowing history of his career, one that we've more or less bookended with samplings of the aforementioned solo debut.

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wills q template
Source: Alison Green

Dan Boeckner, offering up promo photos that look straight out of "The NBC Mystery Movie."

Let's start with your new album, which is actually your first proper release under your own name. How did you make the decision to finally go completely out on your own like this?

You know, during the pandemic, I started demoing stuff that didn't really fit anywhere - didn't fit with Wolf Parade, wasn't necessarily an Operators song - and it was really Jonathan [Poneman] at Sub Pop who encouraged me to just release an album of songs under my own name. Because formerly, if I'd changed gears artistically, I'd just start a new band...and then those bands would inevitably break up. [Laughs.] Or stop releasing music. Or go on hiatus. So it was really with his encouragement. And the more I thought about it, the more I got into the idea.

How was the process of putting it together? Did you find yourself hesitating at all and wondering, "Is this something I want to release under my own name?"

No, I got excited about it almost immediately, as soon as I started writing songs for it. Usually, when I have a project, I'll have a band, I'll imagine what the band is like aesthetically, and then I'll let it kind of grow within those constraints. With this, I just thought, "I'm going to draw in everything I've done before." All the synth-tweaking from the Handsome Furs... I just felt like there were no rules. And once I started writing, it just revealed itself to me as an amalgamation of everything that I've been working towards. Kind of a refinement of a musical language I'd been trying to develop for myself.

As far as picking the first singles or the gateway drugs into the album, were you the one who decided on them, or did folks at Sub Pop help you decide?

I worked with Jonathan and Stuart [Meyer] to decide which ones. The album itself is aesthetically focused, but there's a pretty broad spectrum of fast songs, more punk songs, and more kind of laid back stuff. We thought "Lose" was a good idea as a first single, because it's kind of a statement of intent. There's some crashing guitars at the end, there's melted synth stuff all the way through it. That was the first song that I really wrote for the album, too, so it just seemed to make sense.

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Okay, let's jump all the way back to the beginning for the secret-origin question: how did you find your way into music in the first place? Was there a family connection, or did you just decide that you loved it?

Well, both of my parents are heavily into music. My mom at one point was playing tambourine with the Guess Who. My dad was in the heavy psych-rock music scene in Vancouver, but he's not musically talented. He can't really sing or play anything. But his job was to write lyrics and move a Hammond organ for a psych-rock band called My Indole Ring. So there was always music in the house growing up. My mom had lived in Quebec as a young woman, so she had been - how do I say this? - prog-pilled? Because Quebec loves prog rock. So we had Yes records, we had Harmonia records, and my dad was more classic '60s: Beatles, Neil Young, the Stones. So that was on constantly. But I think the thing that got me personally into music was just listening to the radio. We lived in a pretty rural, isolated town, and driving... You had to drive to get anything. Gas, food, whatever. And just driving and listening to the radio, that kind of galvanized me.

What was the first instrument that you picked up?

It was guitar. When I was kind of a pre-teen, the brother of the local weed dealer gave me a tape that had Master of Puppets on one side and Gwar's Scumdogs of the Universe on the other side, and...I liked the Gwar album, because I was a child. But Master of Puppets really resonated with me, and I think that was the first thing I ever heard where I was, like, "Oh, this isn't something that's playing on the radio, it's not something that my parents are playing. This is music for me."

So what do you recall about the God-Shaped Vacuum experience?

Oh, man...

Because I found the album on YouTube. Someone has uploaded it track by track.

That is a deep cut. That band was, like, a trial run for Atlas Strategic. I had been playing mostly in post-hardcore bands, so when I was in high school, that was when a lot of the Unwound records were coming out. I don't know if you're familiar with that band, but...I was a big Sonic Youth fan, but Unwound, they always had better songs than the local hardcore bands I listened to, and they seemed to have actual song structure. I'm a sucker for choruses. And they were from just across the border, and they were a little bit older than me and my friends, so I was, like, "Okay, we can do this!" It turns out we, uh, couldn't. [Laughs.] But I played in a lot of bands that were attempting an Unwound type thing. And then around the late '90s and early 2000s, there was a movement in the Victoria hardcore scene to split away from all that and just play rock and roll music. And everybody - well, at least my small peer group - was listening to the Cramps, Tom Waits, old-school country music... Anyway, that's how that band started and then became Atlas Strategic.

Is there anything on that album that stands out in particular?

Uh... [Long pause.] I don't know. I mean... [Starts to laugh.] That is a record made by a young man full of himself. But check it out by all means. I had a lot of fun with that band, because we would get up to onstage shenanigans. Like, I think all of us in the band felt like the hardcore scene was extremely codified. All the bands sounded the same, there was this specific way that you acted and dressed, specific things that you wrote about in songs... And I was listening to, like, post-Big Star Alex Chilton. I took a lot of inspiration from that. I was just, like, "You can do whatever you want onstage!" You can have your drummer dress like Pikachu, you can use trash oilcans and garbage can lids as drums... There's no rules.

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As you said, God-Shaped Vacuum evolved into Atlas Strategic, who released two albums, but one of them is decidedly easier to find than the other. Do you have a preference in terms of one over the other?

I think the second record is much better. And that's the record that kind of... There are a few songs on it, like "National People Scare" and "Smooth Nights," that are approaching what I'd start doing in Wolf Parade with Spencer [Krug]. We even recorded "National People Scare" on one of the early EPs. I took that song and kind of ported it over. That's when we started getting serious: we fired our drummer and got a guy who could play drums. [Laughs.] We went on tour with Modest Mouse, which was really my entry into being a professional musician.

We went on tour twice with them. The first tour was in September of 2001, and we played a show at the Warfield on September 10, 2001...and the next day was 9/11. No one knew what was going on. We had a couple of friend with us acting as roadies - also Canadians - who were really, really freaked out. I don't blame them! Isaac [Brock] insisted that the tour continue, even though there were cancellations already. Like, we were playing in Anaheim, close to Disneyland, and that show immediately got canceled within, like, hours of the second tower going down. And Isaac's response to that was, "You guys should stay on tour, this isn't the only time something's blown up in America."

Which is fair, I guess.

Yeah, but we had a vote, and we decided to go back to Canada. And then a couple of months later Ugly Casanova went on tour, and he brought us out, and we did a full tour with them of the west coast. And that's how I met Megan Jasper and a bunch of people at Sub Pop. They came out to see us do the shows. It was great. I had an amazing trip. It was the first real tour that I ever did. And then coming back from that tour, my mom passed away immediately. She'd been ill for a long while, but after the tour was over, the day I got back, my dad called me and was, like, "You've got to come home." And then the band broke up!

So that triggered a move to Montreal. And then once I got to Montreal, I hooked up with Spencer, because we'd been talking about making music together. And I was in a state of... I don't know, shock and bereavement? when I was out there. And that really fueled a lot of the early Wolf Parade writing sessions. We'd just sit in his shitty apartment in NDG, and he'd play his synthesizer and I'd play my guitar through his computer speakers, and we ended up writing I'd say a good half of the first album that way.

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When you look at the Wolf Parade catalog, is there an album that you prefer amongst all of them? And is there one that you feel like is the most underrated of the bunch?

That's interesting. I think the one that I prefer is also the most underrated, which is the second one, Mount Zoomer. I guess the sort of nascent internet music criticism wave - like, when Pitchfork was supremely important - had kind of set expectations for the second record really high. And the idea is always that your second record is this sort of more refined, globally palatable version of the first one. And we decided not to do that. [Laughs.] We just really leaned into the prog end of Wolf Parade. And it felt good. It felt very honest. That record has a nice kind of haunted quality that I really enjoy.

Sidebar question: what's your favorite prog band? And you can pick an old-school and a new-school artist if necessary.

Old-school, definitely Peter Gabriel-era Genesis. And new school? I'd have to say Guided by Voices, who I think are a prog band.

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Okay, here's an obscure one: what do you remember about being part of the North American Hallowe'en Prevention Initiative?

Oh, yeah! That was the brainchild of Nick Diamonds, who famously fronted the Unicorns before they detonated, and then he started the band Islands. So he put together this UNICEF charity thing, and he just asked me and Spencer to sing on it. That's about it. I mean, it's funny, because for me, Wolf Parade... Spencer and I have always held that Wolf Parade has two holiday settings: it's either Christmas music or Halloween music. But I think we're mainly a Halloween band.

Is that what tied in to you appearing on the Islands debut? Or was that incidental?

I think it was mainly just that we all sort of moved in the same circle in Montreal. There was sort of the greatest Montreal music scene, and then there were these smaller nodes of friends. And I think the Arcade Fire / Wolf Parade / Islands / Unicorns axis was very strong. [Laughs.]

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You worked on a couple of songs with Doseone for his Skeleton Repelent album.

Yeah, so he was engaged to my ex's sister, and we all lived in Vancouver for a brief time, and I met him... I had been a fan of cLOUDDEAD for a long time. I'd read about them in Wire. I used to read Wire Magazine all the time. Fantastic music magazine. But, yeah, we lived down the street from each other, and we immediately started collaborating on this thing. So that was that.

So what led to the decision to do Handsome Furs?

Well, I wanted to continue touring, and Wolf Parade was always... It felt like Wolf Parade was constantly on the verge of breaking up. So every time we'd do a tour, we would get back, and then everyone would be exhausted and crazy from being on the road, and we would just go our separate ways and not talk to each other for months at a time. And I had quit my job, so ostensibly music was supposed to be my only job, and I was just, like, "You know, I need another band. I need to be able to go on tour." And I especially wanted to be able to go on tour in Europe, because when I was growing up, I never had the money to go on a post-high school European trip or anything. Playing music was my entry point into getting to see the rest of the world. Also, I was interested in writing more sequenced electronic music, and I had all these songs that didn't really fit with Wolf Parade, so Handsome Furs seemed like an inevitability. It seemed like a smart move.

Again, is there one of those albums of the three that you prefer over the other?

You know, I really love the last one. I think the last record, Sound Kapital, is the best thing we ever did. But I will say that my favorite is always going to be Face Control, because I feel like that album was kind of a quantum leap from Plague Park, the first record. Because the first record was recorded without much touring and without the sort of benefit of experience. We toured that record, and then during the touring process I wrote pretty much all of Face Control. And it was kind of a reaction to things I was seeing on the road, spending a lot of time in Eastern Europe... We got back and recorded that album very, very quickly. And I was really proud of it. I felt like the band really found its voice on that record. So even though I don't think it's pound for pound as good as the last one, it's really special to me.

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What do you recall about the Divine Fits experience?

Divine Fits came at a time... Well, Britt [Daniel] and I met early on in the Handsome Furs arc, and I'd always been a huge fan of Spoon, going back to the Matador era, sort of pre-Merge Records, pre-Spoon finding its own voice. I think we met up because we both put each other's bands on a year-end list, and the journalist connected us. [Laughs.] So we hung out in Austin, and then we hung out again, and then he came to a Handsome Furs show when we were in Portland, because he was living there briefly. And eventually we were just, like, "We've gotta start a band!"

Pretty much immediately after Sound Kapital came out, Alexei [Perry] basically didn't want to tour anymore. I think it was too much, y'know? Which was frustrating, because I felt that we kind of clawed out a pretty sizable fanbase. We were finally pulling in really good numbers in the US. Europe had always been good for us. Wolf Parade was on hiatus, and I just called up Britt and said, "Let's do it!" He wrote a song, sent it to me, I put some vocals over top of it; I wrote a song, sent it to him. And I started spending weeks at a time, half of a month, in Los Angeles, writing and recording with him.

It was an amazing experience, because... I don't know, I'd always had this intense focus when it came to writing and jamming, and Britt was one of the first people - the first person! - who matched my own. And it was just easy. It was easy to write songs and figure out the aesthetics of the band. We brought Sam Brown in to play drums, it worked immediately. We brought Alex Fischel in to play keyboards, that worked immediately. I did go through a pretty gnarly breakup during that period, which fueled a lot of the songwriting.

That'll happen.

Yeah, in a way, I felt like Divine Fits was a classic rock and roll experience, y'know? [Laughs.] Living in L.A., going through a breakup, working with a real producer, going on tour... I'm glad I experienced that.

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So from there, the next band - such as it was - would've been Operators.

Yeah, Divine Fits stopped touring because Brett was working on the next Spoon record, and I was kind of just without a band, without an outlet. Wolf Parade hadn't reformed yet, we hadn't broken the hiatus, and I just had a ton of songs. That would've been the point to start the solo career. [Laughs.] But I didn't do that.

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You mentioned the connection to Arcade Fire awhile back, but what actually led to you joining the band, at least in a touring capacity?

Well, I was in the band right before the Funeral record came out. I played bass and guitar in the band. Tim [Kingsbury] played guitar and bass in Wolf Parade. Arlen [Thompson] from Wolf Parade played drums in Arcade Fire. So it was kind of an enmeshed group of musicians. And when Funeral came out, and eventually when Apologies [to the Queen Mary] came out, it was sort of impossible to stay in two bands. [Laughs.] Unless you want to tour with each other all the time! Which we did do at the beginning. But, yeah, basically, Will left Arcade Fire, Win [Butler] called me while I was in the initial phases of making the solo album and just basically told me, "You've got to join the band!" And I was, like, "Can I think about it?" He said, "Okay." And then I thought about it for, like, 24 hours, and then I did it. Because of course I did.

Was there a particular favorite moment from the tour? Because I would think that would be a case where you're getting the proper rock star treatment, given the size of the venues you were playing.

Yeah, I mean, it was interesting to learn how to play, how to perform in venues that size, how to entertain people, how to project in venues that size. But I'd say my favorite moments were probably Portugal and Madrid, which... Y'know, the shows were great, and the days off around those shows were magical.

I think we're in the home stretch, but I wanted to ask you about Kiwi, Jr.

I produced the whole record. I played a little bit on it, too, but I mostly just produced it. They had some amazing demos, and they came to me because...they've got two other records that are really, really tight guitar/bass/drums power-pop records, and this record they wanted to kind of expand the sonic palette. "Kiwi Jr. After Dark" was kind of what they were going for with the album. [Laughs.] I'd never actually produced anyone's music other than my own, so it was an amazing and great experience. I loved being in the studio with them, I loved mangling their guitars through a modular synth rack... I loved working on songs with them. I was kind of nervous going into it, but as soon as we started working, I was just, like, "I'd like to do more of this!"

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Lastly, is there anyone you've met over the course of your career where you had to fight to keep from going full fanboy?

Oh, yeah: Robert Smith. [Laughs.] I met Robert Smith twice - once here in New Orleans at the Smoothie King Arena, and once in Mexico City, when we played a festival with them - and both times he was a consummate gentleman, he was incredibly polite, and surprisingly affable and upbeat. Like, I've met people who are a fraction as famous as Robert Smith who've been complete d--kheads. Like, totally self-serving, up-their-own-ass douchebags. And Robert Smith is just an absolute gentleman. Very kind, very nice.

There's nothing better than meeting your heroes and finding out that they're as nice as you'd want them to be.

Yeah. And they've clearly still got it. He's singing better than he's ever sung in his career, he can still shred on guitar... I'd say the Cure are as good as they've ever been. 10 out of 10.

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