Wolf Parade on Reuniting and “Cry Cry Cry” - The Full Interview

Winding Trails to Higher Ground

Jan 18, 2018 Issue #62 - Julien Baker
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It's hard to imagine what it's like for a band to get back together after five years apart, especially when its members have cultivated their respective musical identities in the space between. That's where Wolf Parade found themselves when they began jamming loosely on Vancouver Island in 2015, feeling things out and entertaining notions to reunite. Now, just over two years later and with a husky new album, the Canadian quartet has stuck the landing in a place where you won't find many other bands that have reassembled to spot the chemistry of their origins. Formed from instincts evolved and sharpened through independent projects, Cry Cry Cry is a sturdy structure made up of all the alt-rock trestles that ran through their first three albums but with new-fashioned surfacing, applied under the guidance of veteran Seattle producer John Goodmanson (Unwound, Sleater-Kinney, Blonde Redhead). The songs flash leaner builds, throwing jabs that snap your head back, and also form a collection that allows perambulating over passages back through it, where strange fruits not spotted the first time are abound in the brush.

The refinement of craft culled by frontmen Spencer Krug and Dan Boeckner since the band's "grounds for divorce" in 2010 can answer for the expansion of Wolf Parade's sound. Krug has since taken to introspective night strolling with his Moonface recordings, honing his articulation as a classically rooted pianist along the way. And Boeckner has hurled himself into each of his subsequent projects (Handsome Furs, Divine Fits, Operators) with the tenacity of a dreamer, clenching the neck of his guitar and hunting for a stage to rock on. The two have returned to their original pack more polished as musicians and performers, ready once more to take turns pouncing from the reliably solid rhythmic springboards of drummer Arlen Thompson and bassist Dante DeCaro. By accounts both internal and external to the band, Wolf Parade sounds better than ever.

You never do know though, what it's going to be like coming back to a second life as a band. Seven years is a long time to be gone and expect to return to welcome arms; people move on from albums in seven days now. But there was a palpable enthusiasm coursing through music communities in 2016 when Wolf Parade announced that they were recording again and zealous turnouts at their first shows back together. All of this kind of caught the group off guard.

Our last print issue featured a shorter feature article on Wolf Parade and Cry Cry Cry, but below is the full Q&A interview with Dan Boeckner and Spencer Krug.

Dan Boeckner: I'm still kind of trying to wrap my head around it. The band existed from its inception to when we took a break without management so our world was really hermetic. We were kind of clannish, or tribal. We even felt cut off from other bands in the same scene. Even though we were touring and would sell out shows, I don't think we had a good concept of the impact Wolf Parade had made as sort of a cult band. We never had overground commercial success. We were never on the radio because the songs were too long. So I don't think we realized how much the band had reached people.

Charles Steinberg (Under the Radar): How much did the knowledge that your fan base missed you so badly and actually grew after your split factor into the reunion?

Dan: I can't speak for anyone else but it definitely pushed me towards really thinking we should start the band up again and that making a new record and playing shows was a good idea. It was a cumulative effect of touring for a couple of years with other bands and talking to people after shows where Wolf Parade [kept] coming up. There was more of an interest in the band than I had realized. I got a sense for it when I moved to San Jose [CA] and started to hang with the independent music community there, which is a really embattled, close-knit community. People I met who were younger than me were like, "Oh man, this Wolf Parade record I listened to all throughout high school was super inspiring." That was really flattering and kind of strange to hear. When Wolf Parade started playing shows again, I'd talk to people afterward who were in high school when we passed through their town [back then] and couldn't come to our show because it was 21 and over. That's really humbling and pretty rad.

Spencer Krug: Before the New York shows [the five-night run at New York's Bowery Ballroom in 2016 that marked Wolf Parade's return] we did some warm-up shows on Vancouver Island and around the west coast of Canada under our alter ego name Del Scorcho. We never advertised them as Wolf Parade in any way. We were just playing bars and our friends put together a show at a community center in Powell River, which is a town you shouldn't know. Word kind of got around that these Del Scorcho shows were actually Wolf Parade and all of them were really well attended by friends and fans alike. A lot of people caught wind and made it over to Vancouver Island, which is not an easy trek. When that happened I realized we had a very dedicated following and I was grateful. I also realized how much I had missed it and how much fun it is to play onstage with Wolf Parade and how we have this thing that comes out of us naturally that we can't really put a finger on. As soon as we started to rehearse together there were hints of it but onstage, it was like, "Oh yeah, this is Wolf Parade." It's this weird thing we do. It's sort of like there's this big dumb gorilla onstage with us in spirit. He's like another member that comes out, like a spirit member...I'm not trying to say our sound is all magical or beautiful, it's just a sound that we all need each other to create. None of us can do it alone or with other bands.

This element of having fun with Wolf Parade, is that something you weren't exactly getting from your solo projects?

Spencer: I mean, I haven't given up on solo performances at all. They are taking a bit of a back seat to Wolf Parade this year and last year. But you're right, I wouldn't describe it as fun. It's definitely not the same kind of energy or vibe but it provides different rewards. It's more of a quiet, spiritual, introspective place I go to when I'm performing a piano songI put myself into a thoughtful place and try to emote that as best I can and bring the audience to that same place with me. [At] Mooface piano shows, people are often just sitting down. I played a lot of church shows with [Julia With Blue Jeans On] and people were literally sitting in pews.... You can either sit there and be bored or try and let the music take you somewhere. Those were great shows and are really rewarding to me in a completely different way and I'd like to think that the audience is getting a similar reward. But it's more about quietly going into yourself instead of loudly going out of yourself.... In my heart and mind, one doesn't take priority. It's like having two children.

Do you recall a moment in particular that made it really hit home that you were back as a band?

Dan: One big moment was officially our second show back at Bowery Ballroom [in New York]. The vibe at that show was really good. It was nutty.... At the first show, it felt like the whole contingent of east coast super fans were there and it was more subdued. Everybody was just listening and being really respectful and attentive. The next night was just a fucking zoo. It was a blast. I had a moment in the middle of the set when I could do a little reflection and could think about what was going on beyond what note I had to play next or what my feet were doing and I was like, "Man, this band sounds better than we did when we stopped touring." Like, "This is good, we made the right move here."

Another was our second or third rehearsal [back together]. I was still living in San Jose at the time and flew up to Vancouver Island to jam. The first rehearsal we had was, objectively speaking, pretty fucking awful. [Laughs] It was fun, we recorded itthere was like a 10-minute funk jam, or whatever our prog version of funk isand it was great to play with everybody again but it didn't necessarily feel like Wolf Parade. But the second time I went up, Spencer brought what would eventually become "C'est La Vie Way" off the EP [EP 4, the first release of new Wolf Parade songs in 2016], and I had this song "Flies on the Sun" which is on the album. I had been working on it in my apartment in San Jose on an unplugged electric guitarthat's how I wrote itand the shape of it wasn't clear to me. It was just this sort of amorphous mess but I knew there was something there. But when we started working on it in Dante's studio it totally came together and immediately sounded like Wolf Parade. That made me really, really happy. That's not a song I would write as a solo artist or for Operators. That song needed Wolf Parade.

Do you think that if you hadn't all gravitated back to each other geographically, getting back together would have ever happened?

Spencer: Impossible to say. I have no idea if it would have happened if we were all still in separate places but I can say it would have been less likely. The fact that three of us were on Vancouver Island definitely made it easier and more plausible. Before I moved to Vancouver Island I lived in Helsinki, Finland for two years. Dan was in California and Dante was in Toronto.... We were really spread out, so of course, it wasn't going to happen when that was going on. But when [Dante, Arlen and I] moved to Vancouver Island, then there's only one missing piece of the puzzle and Dan knows how to get on an airplane. The thought was that enough time has passed and maybe we can try this again. We basically all needed to go take a long breath and we did that and then very organically wound up in the same spot again.

What do you notice coming back to the "rock" landscape Wolf Parade is returning to as it's shaped now. It's rather different than when you left. Does that enter your mind at all?

Dan: Yeah it does. Just in a practical way, the mechanics and economics of touring have really changed. The way people absorb, enjoy and listen to music is seismically different than it was in say even 2005-6. That's a big shift, but with the exception of Arlen, everyone in the band has been changing with that because we've all released records in the meantime. So we've all been able to surf on that wave and adapt to it. The other part of it is that in hindsight, we got lumped into the early Montreal sort of ensemble, jubilant style music scene that Arcade Fire was a part of when they put Funeral out...and Stars and maybe Broken Social Scene. But I never really felt like we were aesthetically part of that. There was always a more punk and prog influence...a darker thing going on [with us]. We definitely benefited from the rise of Pitchfork and blog culture in the mid 2000's and we would not have been able to make a living off music had we not [been grouped in that movement], but I never really felt like we were aesthetically part of it, so it's easy now to come back and just keep on being Wolf Parade.

Yeah, it never seemed like you guys wrote songs considering what was out there and what other bands were doing. It always seemed more self-contained.

Dan: Yeah we kind of have a rule in the band when we're putting together a record that we've had since the start and I think in the beginning it came out of contrarianism [laughs], but the rule is that you don't imagine the audience that's going to be listening. It's really hard to do now because everyone's opinions are instantly accessible but you just try to ignore that and make what your heart tells you to make. It sounds flakey but it's true.

Spencer, You've spoken of a "distance" you felt between the recordings of the past few years and your early recordings with Wolf Parade. How was that distance been reconciled or made smaller as you started to play with the band again? Did it just disappear? Did you have to seek connection with the old songs again?

Spencer: I think It was a big deal [at first]. It wasn't like casually stepping back into rock music. Sunset Rubdown is another matter entirely. I don't see that band playing together again and I feel much further away from that music than I ever did from Wolf Parade. It's like it's in a past life. With Wolf Parade, when we started playing together again, the first thing we did was just jam. Just improvising and making a lot of noise for a few sessions and recording it before either Dan or I even bothered to step up to a microphone and start singing. And then when we started singing it was like ,"Here's maybe the idea for a song." It was a really long time before we were like, "Okay, we need to remember how to play '[You Are a Runner and] I Am My Father's Son.'" We never talked about [approaching the old material] but it was this moment that we had been kind of avoiding. It's like when you're in a relationship where you're like, "Okay we gotta have a talk, we gotta [address] this obvious thing." It wasn't that we didn't like the [old] music or playing it together, it was just that thing that you're talking about, closing that gap, closing the distance I created between myself and that past that I was going back to. There's a vulnerability to it, to sing all those old songs again in front of your friends and even the band. And a vulnerability for the whole band to step back into that place because as much as fans love those songs and as much as we can appreciate that they're not bad, there's another part of you that very naturally wonders if you're taking a step backwards in life when you're relearning a song that you wrote almost a decade before. It's very natural to question, "Have I stepped somewhere in the wrong direction here creatively?" So it was a big deal emotionally to go back to it. But at the end of the day, I think the songs came out better than ever. As a live band, we're better than we ever were the first time around because we're more experienced musicians at this point.

In what way has time apart manifested itself in recording Cry Cry Cry?

Dan: I haven't really stopped being on tour or working since Wolf Parade went on hiatus. So, on a practical level, from doing three pretty intense projectsOperators, Divine Fits and what were the last days of Handsome FursI think I just got better at singing and playing guitar. Just because I was doing those things in three completely different aesthetic formats.... So going back to Wolf Parade after that, it sounds dumb, but I was better at my instrument and had a better voice and sense for arrangement. Also, everybody has a specific style of playing that I love and they've refined it. Nobody got lazy. Nobody really plays drums like Arlen. I think he's like the MVP on the record. It's my favorite drum record he's done. When we were recording in Seattle, we'd listen to his drum takes and be like, "Holy fucking shit. He's nailing these sticks." And he had the most time off of anyone!

Spencer: We're better at our instruments. Literally just better at playing. There are also different songwriting styles than the first time around. Not that we are better songwriters but we became more focused in how to write a Wolf Parade song and how to write for each other, or write songs with each other in mind, you know what I mean? The rest came very naturally. As far as the physicality of playing music with them, that was kind of like riding a bike.

So now coming back from your other bands, is there still a clearly defined role for you in Wolf Parade?

Dan: That's a good question. There's definitely a defined role for me. I know that when I get together with Spence and Dante and Arlen, I'm going to be playing some lead guitar. I know Spence or Dante are going to take care of the bass and Arlen's going to take care of the drums. I tend to back off trying to arrange. But it's a total democracy at the same time. It's actually more of a Marxist collective. Everyone has veto power on decisions like "Hey should we use this keyboard sound? Should we edit this portion of the song?" And we get into arguments about it but the difference with this version of Wolf Parade is that the arguments don't descend into toxic masculinity.

Was it starting to at the end of Expo 86?

Dan: That's always been a defining component of Wolf Parade the band, just friends arguing with each other about what sounds cool and what doesn't. But I think that's super necessary when you're trying to challenge yourself and the people you work with to make the best thing possible. The difference now is that it never gets really dark. There were a few points during our career when even the songwriting became a little tortured, and not in the way that was going to produce something good.

Did any of the unfamiliar instruments you were exploring in your solo projects swing back into this album? Cry Cry Cry sounds in essence like Wolf Parade, and yet it definitely has a different feel than the other records.

Spencer: Not really. Wolf Parade is a rock band and there's a balance there that we don't want to upset too much with me trying to introduce a marimba or something. Then you're gonna end up in a completely different ballpark. Dan plays electric guitar and gets loud and so I play my loud squealy keyboards so we can keep up with each other. The instruments themselves change over the years but it's always geared towards the same end result of something loud and distorted in a nice way. [That being said], when we recorded this last album, I was pretty adamant about using real instruments, by that I mean, instead of plugging in a digital keyboard and turning on the Rhodes piano sound, I wanted a real Rhodes piano or a real Wurlitzer. There's a lot of piano on the album and that was a real acoustic grand that was in the studio. ["Lazarus Online" is a chilling album launcher that rumbles forth with the low keys of the piano he speaks of.] All of the keys we chose to put on the record were the real deal. But obviously, that doesn't translate to the stage. We're not a big enough deal to haul around actual pianos and organs, but on the record, there's a B3 organ and a Rhodes and a Wurlitzer and piano. I was really excited and stubborn about putting real instruments on the record. On stage we have to get a little more digital of course. I'm trying to streamline everything down to one keyboard, which is a bit of a process.

I went to an early Moonface show a few years ago and remember you telling the audience that it was special because it was the last show anyone would see the huge vintage organ you were using. You wouldn't be hauling around that beast anymore.

Spencer: Oh you saw one of the Organ Music [Not Vibraphone Like I'd Hoped] shows?! All I remember is that tour couldn't leave the continent. I still have that thing but I was actually just about to get rid of it. I need to make some space in my studio. It's fine, everything has its time and place, right? I'm not really nostalgic about instruments. I don't get sentimental. If I'm not using it, let's get it away. I'm a real "purger". I was just watching the new Alien [Covenant] movie on a plane. It's terrible, but in the opening scene, the droid awakens in this giant white room with nothing but a chair and a pot of tea and a grand piano and a beautiful view of mountains. I got very excited at the idea of being able to hang out in that room.That's my ideal studio...nothing but a piano.

Was there any open conversation of the conceptual direction of a new Wolf Parade album? Did you have to feel out where each other stood creatively before launching into recording? 

Dan: We talked conceptually about what we wanted, like with every record. It's never [as specific as] "Ok we think the guitars should sound like Brian Eno circa Taking Tiger Mountain" or whatever. It's more like, "What did we do wrong last time and how do we fucking fix it." [Laughs] With Expo 86, at the time we were pretty stoked on it and it was definitely an honest expression of where the band was but we're always trying to look at albums as part of a whole career, you know. On Expo, we had all these super long static songs with a ton of different interlocking parts so on this record, one of the things we set at the beginning was that we need to cut the fat off anything that has it. We still ended up with a seven minute prog jams but they're bookended by a lot of the tighter arrangements we've written since Apologies..., when we were really about being brief.

I've always been curious how you two negotiate the songwriting in Wolf Parade. You both have starkly individual voices, not just in sound but in delivery and content. So, has it always just been most natural to trade off on songs?

Spencer: Right since the beginning, Dan had these songs and I was like, "I'll play in a band with you" and I started writing keyboard parts for them. And even before our first show, I was like "You know, I have a song that could work with some guitar on it, so maybe I'll sing a song" and he was like "Yeah ok". So, right from the beginning it was kind of this [alternation] of I'm going to sing this song and you're going to add that. We write very basic skeletons independently and then flesh it out with the whole band. And It's not just me and Dan, it's the whole band structuring the songs and fleshing out the little details. It's a four-way process. I'll just write a couple chord progressions and vocal melodies and the rest gets put together with the whole band. Same thing with Dan. There's no real negotiation. Nothing's really ever questioned. It's more like we just work on something until it works and if it doesn't work, scrap it. We never confer about lyrics or vocal melodies. We're not that sort of band that we're doing anything so complicated that we have to talk about it beforehand. Dan just sings his melodies and I sing mine and if he wants me to sing a part with him he'll just tell me and vice versa. On a song where I have lead vocals and Dan is singing backup it's because I've asked him to sing that part with me. And it goes both ways. That's the only time we'll ever talk about lyrics. Lyrics are sort of like sacred ground. It's too vulnerable of a place to go and be like "Do you like my words?"

There also seems to be more interchange and fluidity between the two of you in those respects on this album. It's not like this is a Dan song and this is a Spencer song.

Spencer: That's good. That's good. We'd like to erase that, but that's naturally what we go to, this back and forth. We try to keep as consistent of an aesthetic as possible without forcing anything. But if you're saying it's less tick tock and more water sloshing back and forth in a bathtub, then that's good.

Dan: I think that comes from us both pushing ourselves as songwriters individually and broadening the palette. I have a style of song that comes really naturally to me, that I can emotionally connect with and tell whatever story I want to in that format and I feel that the same goes for Spencer. I think we've both pushed ourselves outside of Wolf Parade to [evolve]. [But on Cry Cry Cry] we worked closely together on the writing aspect musically. Lyrically is a totally different thing. Spence and I have always had this thing that you don't fuck with someone else's lyrics. It's embarrassing enough to be like [sheepishly] "Hey guys, here are the lyrics to the song" It's basically like reading a poem for your friends. The only time there's any critiquing of lyrics is if somebody asks for it. Like, "Am I going overboard with this line?" So the lyrics are generally left alone but we worked really hard on that [stylistic fluidity] in arranging this record.

Speaking of Lyrics, specifically on "King of Piss and Paper." To me the first verse captures the dichotomy in music between a personal perspective and a social responsibility [How can we sing about ourselves?/How can we sing about love?/How can we not sing about love?/Oh love, how can we not sing about ourselves?]

Spencer: That's a fair statement. It's a bit of a quandary right? The idea behind those lines is that when things get this obviously ugly and lopsided in the world it seems trivial or selfish to sing about your own small problems or sadnesses or loves when so many people in the world have [greater] problems. Coming from my first world perspective, it feels almost petty to complain. On the other hand, how can you not if that's the way you can bring comfort to yourself and maybe to some others, through music and song? How can you not remind yourself that there's love or small joys and small sadnesses? It's like if music is your medicine then you're going to keep doing it anyway. I don't like to get overtly political, at least not in a literal sense.... But yeah that song was written right after Trump got elected so that's the closest I'm going to have to a political protest song.

How did the choice to work with John Goodmanson come about?

Dan: We've never had a quote-unquote normal experience with a record producer. Apologies... was enjoyable but it was a total shit show [from that standpoint]. Isaac [Brock of Modest Mouse] had never produced a record before and we'd never been in a studio before, so we didn't know what we were doing. The next record we produced ourselves [Arlen headed the recording]. The third record was Howard Gellerman at Hotel2Tango, and his strategy sort of comes from the Steve Albini school, which is hands-off, getting really good performances and sounds but letting the band do their thing. So working with John was kind of a revelation. He would let us do our thing but if we were drifting into the weeds he would pipe up and be like, "Okay, you guys might want to tighten this up, this song does not need to go on for another two minutes." The reason we chose him is because he made a lot of records that we all love. Me specifically, I grew up in British Columbia, close to Washington State and when I was in high school I was in love with this band Unwound, who are a fucking amazing post-punk band. They should have been a huge band on the level of Fugazi or bigger.... But I loved those records and the production on them always seemed so much cooler than the other similar post-hardcore stuff that was coming out. John did those records so it was kind of a no-brainer for me.

There have been more grumblings and even flat-out statements lately that rock is dying or dead. That original writing and creativity are obsolete in the genre. Yet your new album stimulates all of this for me.

Dan: I don't know man, I kind of think rock has been dead for two to three decades now. I remember this conversation happening in the mid to late '90s. This is maybe a goofy example but a record like [Nine Inch Nails'] The Downward Spiral. I love that record, like unironically really like that record. And that's not technically a rock record, but also isn't not a rock record. Around then once the first wave of what they would call electronicaand I'm super glad that term doesn't get thrown around much anymorebut when that made its way over from the U.K. to mainstream American culture, there were tons of think pieces and print media about rock being dead, there's a new hybrid thing. That was also arguably the peak of American hip-hop, the glory days. There were so many classic records. So if you were a music critic and wanted a hook for your story, it made sense to [point to all of the music without guitars]. So I think it's sort of like an ebb and flow. Yeah, rock is dead, but music with guitars still seems to be going pretty strong. It's a mutating artform, it's always adding elements from other music and there will be successive waves of nostalgia.

How do you look at Wolf Parade going forward? Is this reunion indefinite? What would stop the things that got in the way at the end of the first run to creep back in this time around?

Spencer: There are no guarantees right? It might. But it's simply experience. Having gone through it once, you recognize patterns and hopefully not make the same mistakes. That's the only safeguard. Also being a little less cynical and a little more grateful of our very privileged and lucky positions that we're able to pay our rent through playing rock music. It's a rare place to be and I think in our mid-20s we maybe didn't appreciate that quite as much. And now as I'm in the middle of my life that's worth fighting to keep, even if it means putting up with shitty arguments. But we don't even argue really. We're all older now and a little wiser.

Dan: I love playing shows with everybody and just being onstage has been really joyful.... And making the record. Making a record is always a painful process, for me and I think for Spencer too, but it was actually fun this time around. There were super painful moments, but those will always be there. But I think we're going to continue doing this because it makes everyone happy. I think we have more records to make.

Well, it's probably not something to focus on now anyway, as you're just back in swing!

Spencer: Yeah, you know things are going well. We're enjoying playing together. We've been back together for over a year now and it's still fun. We're just about to rehearse and I'm really looking forward to it so I'm not really thinking about how not to break up again. We're about to go on tour with Arcade Fire, in bigger venues than anything Wolf Parade would ever play and we're friends so it will be good to spend some time with them again. It'll be like the old days.

Well, that makes everyone on this side happy as well. I did always love that even after Wolf Parade, I still got to hear you guys on other records. So it wasn't like you were all the way gone.

Dan: Yeah, that's another really good thing about this version of Wolf Parade. We all get to keep pushing at these edges of creativity outside of Wolf Parade, which is only good for the band.

www.wolfparade.com

 

 

 

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