A Home On the Other Side
Sep 12, 2011
Over the past few years, Handsome Furs—Dan Boeckner and his wife, Alexei Perry—have toured through regions of the world rarely ever visited by Western bands (Poland, Myanmar, Yugoslavia, China, etc.). As a result, they’ve been exposed to things about which we North Americans know little to nothing. Their third LP, Sound Kapital, finds the duo embracing the role they refer to as “closet journalists,” and as a result, morphing into a political band.
The album’s centerpiece, “Serve the People,” is a rousing call-to-arms in the vein of John Lennon’s “Gimme Some Truth” and a political anthem broad and direct enough to connect with the citizens of any country. More than anything, Handsome Furs care about human interaction and connection. During some rare downtime from touring, Dan Boeckner spoke with Under The Radar about traveling the world and finding inspiration in unexpected places.
Ben Schumer: I saw you guys at the Bell House in Brooklyn a couple months back and the new stuff already sounded killer live. Has it been difficult getting used to switching between guitar and keys on stage?
Dan Boeckner: It was a little unfamiliar at first but we road tested some of the stuff we had ready for the album back in December in the Balkans and, then again, like when you saw us at the Bell House. I really love when I don’t have a guitar strapped on me and I can just kinda wander around and sing and bang out some drum parts on the sampler. It’s been really nice for me [laughs]. Did you see the end? When our friend Matana Roberts got up and played saxophone at the end?
Yeah! I wanted to ask you about that: was that just a spontaneous thing, or a hint of something you guys might try more of in the future?
We’ve played with other people before. People we’ve played shows with—we’ll ask them to get up and play a tune with us. Like, we played a show with No Age in Vegas a year ago and they played a song with us and basically learned it as they were playing it. Matana—her and Alexei are close friends—she’s got a record out on Constellation Records and I love her stuff so much. So, Alexei just called her up and said, “Wanna come and lay down some really heavy saxophone on this meltdown song?!” and she was totally into it. We didn’t even rehearse it. She’s such a good player that she just got up and busted it out. I really like that because the way the band is we have the drum machine going and we have keyboards—none of it’s synched up with a computer so there’s always an element of human error which adds a bit of organic-ness to the band that wouldn’t necessarily be there. Then to have someone play an instrument over the top of that—quick and dirty like that—it’s nice and fun to do.
Handsome Furs albums often feel like travelogues or dispatches and, in your press release, you guys joked about being “closet journalists,” but I feel there’s some truth to that statement. I’ve been exposed to people/cultures/issues/etc. via Handsome Furs that I’d probably never be exposed to otherwise. Is that something that you feel is part of the band’s mission statement—to put a spotlight on people/places/things that are underexposed?
Yeah! That’s totally accurate. I probably couldn’t have said it better myself. I think it comes from being genuinely interested and lucky enough to meet bands in China, Myanmar, and Eastern Europe over the last three years and becoming friends with these people and promoters as well. And just really getting into the culture in these different places. It’s something we really wanted to write about on this record. It was the most immediate thing in my mind over the last couple of years and it was really liberating. It was like, instead of sitting and writing fictional lyrics, we got to write about people and places that we cared about and things that we’d seen. When we wrote the lyrics for “Serve the People,” we were with this band that had brought us to Myanmar and we stayed there for 10 days and got to be really close with them. Their situation was so heavy compared to a lot of other bands that we played with and, even just personally, the situation there is incredibly oppressive. It’s an incredibly oppressive place to live. So, when we wrote the lyrics to “Serve the People,” we kept it simple and were really careful not to insert any flowery poetry or ego into it. We wanted to keep it simplified and sung directly. When we were in the studio singing it, I had a photo-book of Myanmar and I was looking at the faces and the places that we’d been. And I’d never really done anything like that before on a record. It felt like we were doing something really honest.
I caught that documentary you guys did for CNN.com last year, which tracked your tour through China. It was very interesting and enjoyable, but have you guys thought about creating a more permanent document of your shows and tours?
Yeah, that’s something we’re trying to do this year. Actually, we started a couple months ago when we toured the Balkans and we brought No Age over and we played Sarajevo and Kosovo and we filmed a lot of it, and we’re just sitting on this footage. Ideally, what I’d love to do is have it edited and put out every couple of months on the Internet for free for whoever wants to look at it.
Yeah, you guys obviously have a lot of great stories to tell. Is there anywhere in the world that you haven’t played yet that you’re aiming to play?
Yeah, we actually just confirmed a show in Beirut and we’ve never played in the Middle East before. We have a show on November 26th in Beirut and we’re going to stay for three or four days. We have a lot of friends from Beirut who live in Montréal and may actually be over there for that so they can show us around, and I’m really excited for that. Oh, Jakarta is another place that looks like we’re gonna get to play.
When you places like this, where most bands—indie or otherwise—don’t tour through, what are your crowds like size-wise?
It really depends on the place. When we played in Beijing, China, it was 600 people—maybe more? I think it’s the Internet. It’s the great equalizer for just hearing stuff. I think it’s a combination of the Internet and going back to places. Poland and Serbia would be a good example of that for us. The first time we ever went to Poland, this kid emailed or Myspaced Alexei and said, “I really love the Handsome Furs. Would you consider coming and playing in Poland?” and we said yes. We went and played Warsaw for maybe 150 people. We did two or three more shows and then, six months later, we were like, “Let’s just go back!” And we went back and the crowd had pretty much tripled in size. Then, we went back again and played the Off Festival there for like 10,000 people! Now, we can go to Warsaw pretty much whenever we want and make money. Part of that is people know who you are from the Internet and, initially, it was a small crowd. Then, if you keep going and you engage with the local press and local people, then you can draw more people every time you go back.
Many of the songs on Sound Kapital remind me of the kind of call-to-arms anthems that Fugazi, Springsteen, and The Clash wrote. Do you consider Handsome Furs a “political band?”
I do—I do now. I mean, not when we started. I don’t think Plague Park is a political album. Maybe it’s like socio-political because it dealt with the classic topics of small town vs. big city, but I kinda left that behind. I got that out of my system in the last couple of years. With Face Control and definitely this record, when we sat down to pick out songs we wanted to put on the record and develop, the most exciting thing for us was to sing about and write music to were these huge changes and political ideas that we’ve been running into in China, Thailand, all over Asia and Eastern Europe. So, yeah, I think we’ve kind of evolved into a political band. It’s funny you mentioned Fugazi because that has been the blueprint for a lot of the stuff that we’ve been doing and, musically, we might not sound like Fugazi but I really respect what those guys did.
I saw Guy Piccioto [a member of Fugazi] at your Brooklyn show!
Yeah! I was going to mention that! That was one of the best moments I’ve ever had playing music in my life. We had met him briefly in Montréal but he came backstage [at The Bell House in Brooklyn] and we had this great talk about knowing the same promoter in Croatia, and I guess Fugazi had gone there when it was still Yugoslavia and we had this great talk about touring through Yugoslavia, and he said some really kind things about the show. I basically turned into a 12-year-old [laughs]. Fugazi really inspired me. I talked to him about going back to places. A lot of bands I love have never come to play a club show even in Vancouver. So, I would travel to see bands like Fugazi, Drive Like Jehu, Murder City Devils, Nation of Ulysses—stuff like that. And all the band members were always really kind to me and my friends. There was never the feeling that they were untouchable. Then I remember going to see Metallica [laughs] which is just the complete opposite—bigger show, how they treated the audience, you know? I have nothing against that but that’s not what I wanted. I saw Fugazi and Drive Like Jehu shows and thought: This is the blueprint. This is how you deal with people. This is what it means to go travel and play music for people.
You’ve mentioned ’80s Eastern Bloc Industrial and electronic music as being a big influence on Sound Kapital. Can you talk about how this music as well as anything else helped mold the record?
The Eastern Bloc stuff really started when I went to Yugoslavia which had a really open policy with travel and the arts compared to other Communist countries and, also, I think culturally they have a really strong folk music tradition with dancing, singing and really complicated rhythms. And the punk bands that came out of that country in the ’70s and early ’80s were sort of post-Joy Division, early industrial/goth/electronic stuff—I think it was so far ahead of the stuff on that side of Europe, even Western Europe. I heard one band and started getting stacks and stacks of CDs every time we went over there and it was all I was listening to for a long time. I love the emotion in it. All the songs are really political and there’s a nice sense of urgency to them. When we went to China, we met bands in Beijing—these kids were a huge influence on the record. What they were talking about lyrically—I had it translated for me—was just so immediate compared to what I felt was the popular songwriting style back in North America which was sort of godly, metaphorical stuff. I mean, not everyone, obviously, but it is kind of the indie rock thing to have literary references and grandiose metaphors. I listen to these Chinese bands—especially this band, Carsick Cars, who have this song called “Zhong Man Hai” about cheap cigarettes and all the punk rockers. There’s this mournful quality about the song and they’re singing about what’s happening in their lives immediately. It just spoke to me a lot more than what I was hearing back home.