The Politics of Dancing - The Handsome Furs take it from Kansas to Kalingrad
Nika Vee / photo Maxyme G. Delisle
It was in early 2007 that I first met with Dan Boeckner and Alexei Perry to discuss their upcoming debut album, Plague Park; a post-punk departure from Boeckner’s full-time project (Wolf Parade) and a musical first for short story writer Perry. Nearly two years later, I met with the engaging husband/wife duo again and we huddled together over coffee and cigarettes on one of this city’s coldest days, to talk about their anticipated sophomore album, Face Control. The interview questions quickly evolved into a conversation about their experiences on tour in Russia, the state of indie rock and the newly elected American president.
Did you guys watch the Obama inauguration?
Dan: We were actually at the Sub Pop office in Seattle when it happened.
Alexei: It was great. Some of the people at Sub Pop were crying.
I can’t help but recall what I had read about the 1960 Kennedy election, how everyone was walking around smiling at each other on the street.
Dan: That’s what it was like!
Alexei: People were walking by, giving each other nods and smiling.
Dan: We were down there for the election, too. I was also down when Bush got re-elected. I played the worst show I ever played that night. We were playing with Wolf Parade, in Seattle. The election results came in and a quarter of the audience left just totally fucking dejected. When we got up on stage, we were like: “We’re from Canada.”
Alexei: It was almost like saying “sorry!”
Dan: It’s interesting to have been there for both. It was a really different vibe.
So what’s your take on the future of the Obama-nation?
Alexei: You never know how much hope to have exactly. But it doesn’t feel bad and that’s good.
Dan: I like him, Obama seems forward-thinking and charismatic enough to charm people into doing what they’re told and what they’re being told to do is good. That was my favourite thing about his speech, this aspect of social responsibility, which is totally antithetical to the Bush years where you didn’t have any social responsibility. A lot of the Republican psychological campaign was based on this fallacy that the American Dream is possible for every man, woman and child. That even if you live in Butt-fuck, Kansas you can still be a millionaire!
Alexei: Bush looked like a frat boy, like he was grinning about the things he was keeping secret from us. It just felt like he was lying to me.
Dan: I’m mostly excited about Obama’s foreign policy. While traveling, especially with our band, to the non-EU Eastern European states, we saw how they hate Americans, and they hate Canadians, too! You take a place like Serbia, where it wasn’t that long ago that the NATO bombings happened. So you’re complicit in that and they’re justified in hating you. I know that a lot of people we spoke to in Serbia or Russia are bitter about it and, hopefully, Obama’s policies will ease a lot of it.
Alexei: There’s a lot of finger-crossing, absolutely.
The title Face Control comes from the practice of “face control” in Russia, where nightclub patrons pay sometimes thousands to reserve a table, yet are still subject to bouncers who can refuse them based solely on their appearance. How did this inspire the new album?
Alexei: We wanted to make an album for all those people that couldn’t get into those clubs.
Dan: That sort of policy represents this psychological place these post-communist countries are in, where everything is permitted for a price. The whole reason why face control exists is not to protect the clubs, it’s to make them more exclusive so that those who do get in feel more special. It’s basically like the opposite of communism; it’s like taking free market capitalism to its extreme. It’s the pure, cold, capitalist aesthetic.
Do you think it’s the way society naturally formed itself after the fall of communism or is it their version of capitalism?
Alexei: It’s partly a retaliation and partly the same principals, just applied to capitalism.
Dan: Exactly. In Russia, you have a group of people basically being fucked up the ass since the Romanoffs, and then by Stalin. Things cooled out with Brezhnev and Gorbachev, but there was no food in the stores. They’re used to this brutal way of life, so when capitalism was instituted, it was instituted in a way that was equally brutal. If you have money, you can get anything you want. If you don’t have money, you’re fucked. It’s the same aesthetic of brutality, but applied to capitalism.
So what is the look that gets in, past Russian face control?
Alexei: It’s hard to really know. We heard hilarious stories about Russia’s top super model getting refused twice.
Dan: I’m sure there are a lot of ways you can pay your way in. It’s a total kleptocracy. We had to bribe a woman at the Russian Consulate in Helsinki 700 Euros to process our visas.
Alexei: They took our passports on the train for 4 hours because they were confused by my name, which is actually a Russian boy’s name. They thought it was a total fake. I thought I was getting yanked off the train.
Dan: That was freaky and totally unpleasant.
Alexei: But it’s kind of the way you want to do it. We got to bribe our way into Russia, like you’re supposed to!
Did you guys get face controlled?
Alexei: We did when we went out for lunch, mid-day.
Dan: At a three-level steam buffet bar.
Alexei: We were actually with this woman who had to explain to the bouncer that we were from North America and this is how we look over here.
Dan: It was just ridiculous to stand there. It’s noon and this 20 year old, probably an ex-army guy, with no neck and a Bluetooth headset, is standing next to a metal detector, and he doesn’t think that we look good enough to eat in a Moscow-type Bonanza. I don’t know, maybe that says something about us!
Plague Park was Scandinavian inspired and Face Control was Russian and East European inspired, why are you both so inspired by the North East?
Dan: I’ve always been fascinated by that area of the world.
Alexei: You go to places that have similar climes to yours and yet their cultures are so wildly different. It’s easier to have a kinship there and easier to be able to expound on the differences.
Dan: When we were touring in Poland and Serbia, it was this frontier where not a lot of bands had gone. In the case of Serbia, they got out of communism and descended into a Dante’s Inferno-style nightmare. Now they’re waking up from that, so it’s really interesting to go there. It helps me write music. When I go to those places it just recharges my mental batteries.
Alexei: It’s your way of being a journalist.
Dan: It just jars you out of yourself, especially in the places where it’s really hard to do anything, where the alphabet is not in Roman characters, nobody speaks English and maybe there’s no hot water in your hotel room. Those experiences just jar you out of the little rails you run around in.
Face Control was recorded and mixed by Arlen Thompson [Wolf Parade drummer]. What did Arlen bring to the recording?
Dan: He has exactly the same crap aesthetic as we do and he’s really willing to do crazy shit with the recording. I have this tiny guitar amp and we cranked the guitar up to 10, ran it through 8 or 9 Boss pedals and recorded it from halfway across the room. It’s about random experimentation and also about the vibe of first take being usually the best.
Alexei: You lose so much when you get into all that tweakery, I think people often kill the initial first thing they had going on.
Dan: I’d rather have a slightly sloppy guitar take or a vocal take that has some character, than watering it down with 14 takes.
Face Control is a little more aggressive than Plague Park, more self-assured. Was this progression consciously planned?
Alexei: To be totally honest, the changes stem from what we wanted to do when playing live shows. We wanted things to be more aggressive, more fast-paced on this album because that’s the kind of shows we were playing.
Dan: That Energy of Loud comes naturally to us. After recording the first record and going on the road, we’d play a song like Sing! Captain, which is fairly chilled on Plague Park, but then we’d play it live and it was jet-engine guitars and no acoustics. It was just a natural progression from playing live. I think it’s just a way of playing that comes more naturally than sitting down and getting mellow.
Your stripped-down genre of synth/guitar rock is wholly your own. Is it a reaction to what’s going on in the indie music scene?
Dan: It totally is.
Alexei: It has to be because that’s what we’re surrounded with. In general, I hate 90% of music, whatever genre it is, but I can’t help but respect our peers. Some of what they’re doing is great, but I think it’s important to not always be saying the same thing.
Dan: I have a few bands that I like in the indie genre but I think a lot of it’s totally fucking self-indulgent. I don’t necessarily mean people from here, I mean bigger acts. It boggles my mind that the most popular form of non-mainstream music is just this completely self-indulgent bullshit. Everything is just wrapped in these fanciful metaphors.
Alexei: And quite meaningless lyrics…
Dan: This music doesn’t say anything to me, it speaks nothing to me, it doesn’t make me feel anything. I don’t know who this music is for, maybe it’s for college kids who are going to drift into music at some point of their life and then they’re going to drift out of it. Maybe in it’s inoffensiveness it reaches a larger audience. I can’t explain the popularity of a band like Death Cab for Cutie, but if I look at it from a dollars and cents point of view, it makes sense.
So then, indie music used to be edgy and now has become a sort of musical pap?
Dan: That happens with all genres. At one time indie music may have been kind of edgy, but now it’s spawning lesser potent replicas of itself that are equally accepted by the media and by the people who basically don’t give a shit about what they listen to. I hope that there will be a shift to something more like Jay Reatard.
Alexei: I hope there’s a backlash so that people start talking about the things they feel again, or at least comment on the society they live in. So much of what is being put out now has nothing to do with anyone’s lives, it’s corny.
Dan: Me, personally, I like to bludgeon people with the volume!
March 12th | Mavericks (Ottawa)
March 13th | Horseshoe Tavern (Toronto)
April 10th | TBC (Montreal)
Face Control: out March 10th on SubPop Records
Stylisme: Marilis Cardinal
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