“I don’t know anybody who had a great 2018. Maybe one or two people, but they’re extremely privileged and completely disconnected from reality.”
Last month, Canadian three-piece Operators –formed by Dan Boeckner of Wolf Parade, Handsome Furs and Divine Fits–put out their sophomore effort Radiant Dawn, an album that’s so danceable that you might not notice that its lyrics are relentlessly bleak and filled with impenetrable dread over the state of the world. The band is on tour for the album and I got the chance to talk to Dan over the phone while he was on a ferryboat ride. We discussed the creative process behind the new album, the workings of analog synths, his newfound love of “Diva of the Diode” Suzanne Ciani and the effects of the internet on our lives.
Was a second Operators album ever part of the plan?
Oh yeah, totally. It’s always been planned as a long-term project. Basically, it’s my way of being able to work on more synth and psych-heavy music outside of the aesthetic spectrum of Wolf Parade.
What does it look like to write an Operators album? Was it a completely different process than it was with Blue Wave?
I think it’s different every time – it feels different every time! I think every record has its own weird birthing process. Blue Wave was written in a lot more pressurized environment, whereas [with] Radiant Dawn, I just kinda immersed myself in what I felt like the world that the record would be, even before I started writing songs. I had a pretty clear vision aesthetically of what I wanted it to feel like, sound like and look like. I just sorta siloed myself in that world and it was an interesting process. I’ve never made a record like that, maybe the last Handsome Furs record. For me, it’s a good way for writing, ‘cause the new Operators album and the last Handsome Furs record are, I think, the two records I’m most proud of.
Where and when did the process start – what did it look like?
It started, I think, in late 2017, We got together in Montreal, and we just set up every piece of equipment we had at our studio. Andy – Napster Vertigo, who mixed the album, basically just recorded us doing live improvisations for three days straight. We ended up with 90 minutes’ worth of the building blocks for the world that Radiant Dawn lives in: the sounds, the general vibe. None of the music really made it into the record, except for a few pieces between songs. And we just worked in our studio, out there almost every day, nine-to-five, writing and writing and writing. And then at night, I would immerse myself in all of the things that would influence the record, stuff that felt like it fit in the world, books and films and such.
What were you reading and watching?
I was watching a lot of ‘70s sci-fi, like Phase IV, which is a really great Saul Bass movie. [It was made in] that era of American filmmaking where you could get away with being extremely confrontational visually, there’s a stoned-out quality to everything. Even something like Dune falls into that category. I was watching a lot of that and old Eastern European films. For reading, it was a mix of political non-fiction and science-fiction from the late ‘60s/early ‘70s.
That’s not shocking – it seems like every line made me think, “Wow, this is a darkly political record.”
I don’t know anybody who had a great 2018. Maybe one or two people, but they’re extremely privileged and completely disconnected from reality.
I think the last two or three years have been a pretty big shitshow.
Before I started playing music, I majored in political science and history – that was my main bag. In the last four years, there’s been a real normalizing of things that shouldn’t be normalized. I think it’s lead to a breaking down of reality in the political sphere
It’s a post-empathy landscape that none of us signed up for.
Yeah, and we’re all expected to participate in this public sphere that has extended beyond the physical, beyond sitting in a room and having a discussion with somebody, or going to buy groceries. This empathy-less world exists in our physical plane; so much of communication is online, and it’s very surreal. It feels like there’s a feedback loop and a disconnect between our [physical] lives and our lives online, and they’re becoming increasingly inseparable.
When I was younger, I thought it would be a really good thing to be able to connect with people so easily – and it is nice, but it turns out, there’s a lot of people that you don’t want to connect with. It just makes people’s lives worse in the process.
That’s absolutely true. I don’t think anybody knew what we’d signed up for. There were warning signs along the way – like the fact that the entire project of the internet was started by DARPA as an essentially military intelligence project back in the ‘60s. That’s never good. That’s something that a lot of pro-open democracy, pro-internet utopian democracy people don’t like to talk about, but this entire networking of humanity is all built with dark government money, and was originally designed as a surveillance tool and a tool to store data, to take advantage over whatever our perceived Cold War enemies were. I know that it’s moved on well past that in a lot of ways, but I think that specter kinda haunts our lives online.
I also think one thing the record helps us grapple with is that there are three big hyper-objects that I was thinking about when I was making this record: a thing that is so massive and incomprehensible that you can’t see the outline or shape of it, we can only see the effects that it has on our lives. But you can’t get a grasp of it, you can’t zoom out and see it its totality. For me, the two big ones are climate change and the network systems that run the world. The internet and everything else that goes along with it. It does have a reality-warping effect on the human mind.
It is hard to grapple with, and it’s something that we’re always going to be in the shadow of – we’re never going to be in a post-internet world, unless everything breaks down.
It’s weird that those two things are intrinsically linked. To use that word “systems” – they have physical infrastructures. There are cables running underneath thousands of miles of the Atlantic ocean, and as climate change advances, all of those coastal network infrastructures will be in peril. It’ll be interesting to see what happens with a post-structural internet. The only way out of it is to turn it off – and that might not even be a good idea. We’d be back to a second dark age.
That’s the stuff that real post-apocalyptic thought is built on – “What happens when you make people dependent on a very specific infrastructure, and then completely remove it?”
Absolutely, and having evolved past having basic skills to grapple with the lack of that. On the other hand, I will say, though, that one thing that got me through 2018 was the internet, being online! I have a group of friends that are scattered all over the world and we get together in group chats and share photos, and whatever. That is a kind of anchor in this chaotic environment. There are benefits to it, there is that human connection. I tried to work through that with this record, and there’s no concrete answers to any of that.
How does the album look live? How did you decide what would be played live, and what would be triggered?
All the drums are live, because we’ve got Sam onstage – even some songs that don’t have live drums on the album, we’ve got Sam adding percussion. Devojka is using an Octatrack, which is a very complex flexible sampler, and then playing a lot of bass and leads live along with it, running it through effects pedals, playing a synth. I’d say almost everything you’re hearing is live, which is very different every night. It’s fun – it’s challenging, and it’s fun, and we’ve got a lot of visuals to go along with it, which I think really helps.
I’ve seen a couple of artists work with analog synths completely live, like The Blow, and what they do is magical – but as someone who barely understands how it works, what they’re doing seems like magic. Is it worth it to go through all of that struggle, even if it’s fun?
I think it is! One thing that’s great about making music like this in 2019 is that, for a long time – I’d say from the early ‘00s to now – making a record or playing live with all analog synths has been fairly prohibitively expensive. But I think now with the democratization of cheaper, more accessible gear has brought it back to the middle-class musicians. You don’t have to be James Murphy with $50k worth of vintage gear onstage to make something that sounds interesting. But in a lot of ways, it’s like – each synth, each sequencer has its own personality, and Devojka is really amazing at basically wrestling each of these little things into shape. It’s like wrestling an animal, you have to be constantly keeping it in check.
That’s what it looks like as an outsider – it looks like a lot of moving parts that you’re not quite going to know if it’s going to work out like you want. It seems like actual wizardry.
One of the influences on this record, and kind of my new guiding light in music, is this woman Suzanne Chiani, who mastered the Buchla, which was this ‘60s-era modular system – she helped design the original modules for it. She went on to create sound effects and score music for anything you could think of, Atari hired her to do all their sound design, Maytag hired her to do washing machine commercials in the ‘80s. She’s an incredible hustler but she’s also an amazingly talented and spiritual musician. Her whole thing when she performs with the Buchla is adding chaos elements, these organic chaotic structures that interrupt the sequences and the pitch of what she’s playing. I really, really tried to apply that to everything we were doing on this record – nothing is stable, everything is just sort of drifting around. That happens live as well in a way that isn’t un-musical – it’s exciting and natural and more interesting than just hammering out a four-kick or a standard bassline. She’s my hero right now.
Her whole philosophy on music is incredible. There’s one great YouTube clip of her on a Canadian children’s science TV show called “3-2-1 Contact,” and it’s just her explaining how modular systems work. There are so many videos of men explaining analog synthesis online – there’s probably a thousand years’ worth of footage of men just being extremely technical, but Suzanne Ciani manages to explain analog synthesis in a way that is probably accurate but welcoming and accessible.
What do those chaos elements look like live?
For me, purely on a technical level–for example I play a lot of guitar on these songs live. There’s not a lot of guitar on the album, if any. But live, if I’m playing guitar, I have this pedal that applies random pitch deviation to the guitar that’s very organic. On a song like “Faithless,” I play keyboard on it, I have chaos elements built into my patch and I never play it the same way. A lot of instrumental parts are open ended for the solos or the lead, but Dev and Sam and I just listen to each other, and however we’re feeling, we just get to break out of the sequence structure of the song and have this bubbling chaos come out and lock it back in.
I think for an effective live performance of stuff that’s constructed in the studio, you have to strip away more of the delicate details and focus on the things that are exciting, whether it’s Sam hitting the drum a little harder or us refining the bass part so it’s heavier or the solo is more crazy. I think that’s your goal, you want immediate connection with the people in front of you.
One last question: We’ve missed you at Pickathon! When are you going to form a new band and play for us again?
I would really come back and play with whichever band! [laughs] It’s the best North American festival, and one of the best festivals in the world. I’ve been evangelizing the Pickathon experience to anyone I can talk to. Arlen [Thompson, drummer of Wolf Parade] and I have an acid house project that would be pretty good for Pickathon. We’re gonna have a mixtape/record coming out in the next couple months.