Interview: Dan Boeckner of Handsome Furs

Over the past year, I’ve got to chat to some interesting bands in interesting places. When I managed to catch up with Dan Boeckner from Handsome Furs, he, along with the rest of his touring group were travelling from Tahoe in Nevada to Boise, Idaho.

Phone coverage in mountains isn’t good though and it took a three phone calls to get things going. When they did, Dan freely chats about touring and being in a band with his wife Alexi Perry. He also reveals his Irish heritage and his memories of Whelans.

There are a couple of things that automatically come to mind when talking about Handsome Furs, the first is the very noticeable chemistry yourself and Alexia have. It comes across musically and visually. If you weren’t a couple would you still have that visual element?

‘I think they only thing that might not happen is that we might not occasionally kiss on stage. I think Alexia and I are both from the same school of performing which is a 100%, un-self aware full body performance. Just speaking for myself, maybe it’s because I grew up listening to The Clash and punk rock and watching videos on Canadian MTV of Iggy Pop and Clash playing and being like ‘That’s how you play music! That’s how you project to people’ I think if we weren’t a couple the energy would still be there, on stage, we might not smooch, occasionally.’

You guys love touring, you always seem to be touring. The first track on the new record seems to have an echo of ‘coming home’. Where is home now?

‘Home is Montreal and it’s been Montreal for the last four or five years, it’s amazing to think we’ve even been in Montreal that long, it doesn’t seem like it. Home is Montreal but we are hardly ever there. We have an apartment with all of our books and possessions and our mini studio and then we have an actual studio a couple of blocks from our apartment. We have a lot of close friends there and we’re really a part of our neighbourhood, even down to the guy at the corner store. That’s a great thing for me to be able to go back to.

I don’t get homesick and I don’t miss it when we’re on the road….

handsome_furs(Phone signal dies – a couple of minutes later we continue)

You’ve gigged a lot in Asia and a lot of places that are slightly off the beaten track. Why do you choose to go to these places?

I find going to China is totally rewarding for us. I’ve talked to other bands about touring and part of me just doesn’t understand why more people don’t tour there. There’s a music scene and it’s emerging and it’s a country that’s at the forefront of the world in terms of fast development. …..

Yip, it’s gone again… the band send me a text when they’ve got decent signal a while later.

‘We got out of the mountains, we’re at a gas station and the rest of my touring crew are dancing to Beyonce. We’ve got about another five hours to go without breaks so about six hours’

That doesn’t seem quite as appetizing as going to China.. You brought your camcorders on the road for CNN, you guys work for yourselves, do everything yourselves, have creative control and then hand everything over and it’s out of your hands how things turn out. How did you find that?

It was interesting, I think it was the first time, in our career, at least in my career with this band and with my other band (Wolf Parade) that I’ve done something aside from certain video interviews that have been edited that I’ve done something where the finished product was out of my hands.

We shot thirty or forty hours worth of footage. Going into it we knew that they were going to reduce the content down into something that was more palatable for an audience that wasn’t familiar or interested in geopolitics or indie rock. It was more of an introduction.. There’s a Canadian rock band and they’re touring China, that’s crazy! And we knew that right from the start so we kinda accepted that when we signed the paperwork.

For me it was good, I liked how the project evolved and their take on it, some of it was a little frustrating. I wanted to focus on other things, their demographic, the people watching it, would not be interested in the things I would be interested in. I get that.

You played in Burma and places like that as well. Is seems a lot of bands don’t have the guts or the gumption to search out these places..?

I guess that’s true not a lot of bands are playing in Burma or even China. We got asked by a local band in Burma to come and do a show and it was about six months before we went over and did our second tour of Asia, Alexia and I immediately said yes, we thought it was a good idea.

I think part of it is that we both grew up in these isolated communities in Canada, no one ever came. I always wanted to see my favourite bands when I was in High School. I wanted Sonic Youth to come and play and they never did, you know? I would have to go drive to see them. I was just starved for music and live music in particular so part of going to do these live shows, if people want us to go play for them I would like to go play for them even if it means we make less money than we’d make in London or Dublin or New York, you know?

Also I never got to travel as a kid, I never got to take a year off before university and go travel Asia or Europe, so I’m really interested in going to these places. I mean if somebody is going to offer me a place to stay in Burma and pay me to do what I love to do, play music, I feel like it would be crazy to turn that down right ? (laughs)

handsomefurs 1You and Alexia spent so much time together on the road, it’s great to have your partner there with you to experience all these but how do you make sure you both still get enough space for yourselves ?

When we first met, not one of the reasons we fell in love but one of the things that made both of us know that the relationship was going to work was we’re both creative people and we both need our space and that was pretty obvious right from the start.

Even before we started touring, I never had a problem leaving the house for six hours while Alexia was writing and then coming back and seeing what she had made and she never had any problem leaving the house for six hours while I sat in the bedroom trying to write a song cos I think the creative element of each of us is what we fell in love with.

On tour, we really don’t have to talk about it any more because we’ve done it so much, she’ll take three hours out of a day off to write and I’ll go wander around the town and vice versa. We just kinda make it work.

As a touring band unit, you seem to have a small group of people that you work with. You’ve got a booking agent but you seem to do everything else yourselves. How much extra work goes into the business side of the band?

It takes a lot of time, especially when we’re not touring, when we’re preparing for the next tour or the next album. We made a rule at our house that we each do four hours maximum, emailing and being on the phone, a day. A lot of times that rule gets broken because we need to do an extra two hours of emailing and deciding if we should licence a song to a certain thing or how to line up touring, we manage all the finances of the band ourselves so it’s extremely boring business stuff that we have to go through just to make this work for us.

I don’t mind doing that. We both used to work really terrible jobs, awful office jobs and physical labour jobs and anytime I get stressed out at home, emailing or being on the telephone or any of the menial moving part tasks, I think it’s better than working for the pharmaceutical company that I used to work for, or putting up dry wall. I get to do what I want to do for a living and I get to do it with my wife and it’s not that bad (laughs), it’s annoying and it’s boring but the reward is that we do have total control over our creative output and what we do with our lives.

How far in advance do you try and have your diary sorted so you know you’ll have two weeks off here or any little time off?

I think with the touring climate right now and so many bands being on the road constantly, it’s increased it so we have to plan at least six months in advance. Right now we have our lives planned right up until February 2012. That feels good in a way, maybe it’s my personality, I like having something to look forward to. Like, right now I’m looking forward to playing in Moscow in December. That’s exciting for me.

Having a permanent base isn’t as important anymore because you’ve got the internet and you van pretty much do anything from anywhere. You constantly update your website, Twitter and Tumblr. How important has that interaction with fans become?

Over the past year or two, it’s really become one of the most important things for us, besides playing and recording. We’re not tech savvy, I had to have twitter and Tumblr explained to me like you were explaining it to a five year old. (laughs) Once I got the hang of it, I used to play in punk bands and write a zine, it’s like writing a zine that’s instantly accessible to everybody for free. I guess this is not new news for anyone who is into social media and maybe it’s going to date me but I really enjoy it. On this tour we’ve had people coming up to the merch table after the show talking about things that we’ve posted, our daily updates and it’s a really good way of having a community feeling with people who pay money to see us.

handsomefurs 2Getting back to your new album ‘Sound Kapital’ your bio has said it was written on keyboards but there are guitars on it. Some of the media seem to have taken off and run with the ‘Oh there’s no guitars in it’. Does that piss you off?

‘It does and you’re the first journalist I’ve talked to that noticed that (Nessy is smiley) It seems like there’s a collective blindness when it comes to reviews or interviews we’ve done, people will have received the bio, misinterpret that point and stick with that no matter how much I say, ‘just listen to the record there’s guitars on it’.

With the last song ‘No Feelings’, probably has more guitar tracks than the rest of Handsome Furs tracks put together. It’s like eight squalling feedback guitar tracks in the middle of that song. It completely surprised me when that started circulating on the internet.

Written on keyboards does not mean ‘no guitars’. Even after we were doing preview shows for the album where these people would post reviews of the show and the picture would be me with a guitar slung and playing said guitar and singing. They’re like, ‘There’s a distinctive lack of guitars on the material’. It’s like ‘Oh eesh!’

There for a freebie?

I think a lot of people especially those who work in weeklys in North America, I think it comes down to laziness in a lot of ways but that being said people are being kind about this record and it’s getting written about. I just wish we had excised that from the bio.

Every album has a talking point, I understand that as someone who has put out a bunch of records. Every album cycle needs a talking point and I think a talking point will develop on the internet and be latched on after that, some of them are valid. On this record talking about travelling is totally valid because that’s how we wrote it. But overstating the lack of guitars or supposed lack of guitars, is not valid.

handsome furs - sound kapitalYou got into a little bit of trouble with your album cover, some nice music shops didn’t want to stock it because of the cover. How ridiculous is that?

That is true, in 2011 I think it’s pretty ridiculous, especially considering and maybe it’s just my opinion but that cover is a tasteful nude. I don’t find that cover explicit in any way. I was actually shocked that the biggest resistance that we got was in supposedly liberal Canada, the chainstore here, HMV.

Right after the mini debacle with our album cover they announced that they had been purchased and they were basically phasing out music in Canada, at least the Canadian HMV is, there going to move towards selling video games and not sell music anymore so it was frustrating to have to argue with them and then for them to say ‘Actually we’re not even going to stock records anymore’.

Their decision was to put a giant black sticker over our friend Carly’s breasts and vagina, that was how they fixed it and I’ve actually seen it in the store and it is somehow worse! (laughs)

It draws more attention to what it’s covering and you want to peel the sticker off?

Yeah, absolutely you wonder is there something wrong with her under there ? What could be so horrible that you need to put a sticker over it. That and a lot of female fronted Top 40 artists get sold in those stores and their covers are, I mean if they’re worried about sending a message to young men and women, the Katy Perry album cover is probably going to do more damage, psychologically than..

That’s the one with the cupcakes?

Yeah, I find that more offensive than our friend under an overpass, that’s just me I guess. It was kind of mind boggling though.

Wolf Parade are on a hiatus and when you started Handsome Furs this was your side project. How hard was it for you to change your mindset that Handsome Furs became your main thing?

I always split my attention fairly equally between Wolf parade and Handsome Furs and when Wolf Parade decided to take a break, it just allowed me more time playing and booking show with Handsome Furs. I think I always took both projects as serious as the other. It’s weird, one of our best shows for the Furs was when we were touring ‘Plague Park’ and we played at Whelans and it was the first time we played outside of North America where people were at the show who necessarily didn’t know who Wolf Parade was. I was talking to some folks after the show and they were like ‘We never heard of you, great band’ .

That was the first place I ever played in Ireland was with Wolf Parade, I think it was 2005/2006, I think it was before our first record even came out. That was my first day in Ireland, taking the ferry, and going to the dressing room upstairs which I had never seen a dressing room which was, you know, so fancy and nice with a fireplace.

I also remember that the Irish crowd like, my mother’s family is from Ireland from County Armagh so I was used to Irish family gatherings where everyone could play and instrument and have a passable singing but playing in Ireland for the first time, even with the Furs, it’s intimidating because I think a lot of people are pretty well versed in music but people will fucking talk to you when you’re playing, which is something that doesn’t happen in, like, France. You’ll be playing and people will just start a conversation with you onstage , I like it but its disarming when it happens at first.

First time I played in Ireland people were just talking, like ‘Oh that was good’. ‘play this song’ or ‘Howya doing?’ (laughs) I like it, I like engaging with the audience, it dissolves this barrier , I kinda figure what me and Alexia are doing it’s not stadium rock right? There’s no barrier between us and the audience really, it kinda reinforces that. It keeps me on my toes too, you can’t just go on auto pilot and play your songs.

Handsome Furs play Whelans in Dublin on September 15th. Sound Kapital is out now.