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Interview: Dan Boeckner of Wolf Parade and Handsome Furs

"We saw these Ukrainian teenage girls living inside a portable toilet."


Wolf Parade

Wolf Parade (Dan Boeckner, second from left)

Meqo Sam Cecil

Wolf Parade are a Canadian rock 'supergroup' founded by songwriters Spencer Krug and Dan Boeckner. In 2005, Sub Pop released Wolf Parade's Isaac Brock-produced debut LP, Apologies to the Queen Mary, to an avalanche of acclaim. Since then, the Montréal-based outfit have issued two more records: 2008's At Mount Zoomer, and 2010's Expo 86. Away from Wolf Parade, Krug fronts adventurous art-rock outfit Sunset Rubdown, whilst Boeckner works with his wife, Alexei Perry, in Handsome Furs. That duo have released two albums of stark, Cold War-ish post-punk: 2007's Plague Park, and 2009's really great Face Control, a travelogue-cum-concept-record about modern life in the former Soviet Union.

Interview: 7 July 2010

So, how's talking about yourself all day treating you?
"It's OK. I used to hate doing interviews. Now I almost like it. When I first ever did them, it was with this punk band in Vancouver, and I just always had a hard time doing talking to college radio or whatever, because I felt what we had to say was so totally important, and they didn't get it. But I was also like 20 years old."

So now you feel like what you have to say isn't important?
"I feel like what I have to say is as important as anyone else. I just don't have a huge chip on my shoulder about being a musician."

Are you into trying to convey thoughts you have on complex political situations —like, say, the expensive persecution of ethnic minorities in Québec by a bankrupt government— as a songwriter?
"I am but I'm not. It'd never come out in Wolf Parade, where there's an unspoken rule where politics all have to go under some kind of metaphor, just to maintain consistency between my songs and Spencer's songs. But that last Handsome Furs record [Face Control] was definitely an album of politically-motivated songs about Eastern Europe, the kind of runaway capitalism we saw there. And, a lot of the new songs that the Furs are working on are really overtly about China, and our friends in China."

The first Handsome Furs record seemed to be about being trapped in cities, or by rural boredom. But the last one felt like it was about moving from city to city, this travelogue due East through Europe. Is that how they were designed?
"That's a fair assessment, definitely. I think the idea for Face Control came to us at the tail end of the first European tour we did for Plague Park. We had started writing all this stuff that was much more upbeat, and was lyrically outside of what my general field had been up until then, which was the dichotomy between living in a small town and living in a city. Which, I think, was really specifically North American, the way I was approaching it. Being in Eastern Europe for the first time, Alexei and I were both heavily researching the places we went to, and reading a lot of newspapers, keeping up with politics, and these songs just sort of came out of that. We thought that if we kept touring, kept writing like that, we could make an album that was like a travel diary for an issue of a magazine. And I kind of went from there."

Did it feel daunting trying to condense contemporary Russian politics into pop-songs?
"Not for me. I like the idea of taking the standard rock format, or the standard rock topics —girl leaves you, guy leaves you, you're alone, you're sad, this stuff that's easy for people to connect with— and putting that inside of a post-communist metaphor. It never seemed like a weird idea."

"Talking Hotel Arbat Blues" seems, to me, to be about the spate of journalists who, after criticizing the Putin regime, soon died under 'mysterious' circumstances. And you have a photo of a young Putin on the back of the record. Were you concerned, at all, about going on the record with such subjects?
"I wasn't really concerned about that particular song —and that's definitely what we were thinking about when we were writing it— but we were worried about being able to go play in Russia again when we put that picture of Putin, when he was head of the KGB in St. Petersburg, on the back of the record. I thought that was going to cause problems when we were traveling, but it didn't."

So, you've been back to Russia since then?
"We have, and it was fine. But, when we were writing ['Talking Hotel Arbat Blues'], we were trying to do a snapshot of the first day that we were there that we weren't 'train-lagged,' basically. We took a long train-ride there and we showed up at this hotel called Hotel Arbat, which is on a big walking street. When we got there, we noticed the sign said, in Russian and in English, 'Hotel Arbat Department of Affairs of the President.' I guess it used to be an old 'interest' hotel, the one you could go to with a Western passport. Now, it's this totally opulent but kind of trashy hotel; very expensive and very strange. The song is a time-frame, of waking up the next day, walking up and down the Arbat for a couple of hours. We saw these Ukrainian teenage girls living inside a portable toilet, and one block up from that is this bar that, in the middle of the day, had out the velvet rope, and Escalades parked out the front, and security concern with headsets and shaved heads, working the 'face control.' So, the song's about the vast discrepancy between rich and poor, and the history of the hotel we were staying in, and the fact that you feel like you're under surveillance the entire time you're there."

Do you see 'face control' as metaphor for oppression?
"The thing that really attracted me to using that as an album title was that it was a perfect example of how post-Communist Russia had so embraced this crazed form of hyper-capitalism —the kind that has no regard whatsoever for human-beings— to an extent that would horrify even the most right-wing North American Republican capitalist. The 'face control' policy isn't that different to the policies enacted at various 'exclusive' night-clubs in New York and LA, but, in that classic Russian fashion, they just brutally call it what it is: it's face control."

Next: "With Wolf Parade, there's something I don't get in the Furs, though: that classic 'men playing rock music together' feeling. It's as close as I could ever get to being on a sports team. Just dudes being dudes..."

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