One half of the Handsome Furs, Dan Boeckner, unbundles the Montreal band’s latest album Face Control on the eve of two shows in New Zealand this August. Interview by BRANNAVAN GNANALINGAM.

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THE HANDSOME FURS are a husband and wife duo (Dan Boeckner and Alexei Perry) from Montreal, Canada. Brainy, fearsome live, and oh so danceable, the pair have released two albums: 2007’s Plague Park, and 2009’s Face Control. The first album was a slightly subdued affair (given Boeckner also plays in indie darlings Wolf Parade), but the second is wonderful – full of restless electronica meeting jagged guitar work, all wrapped up in irresistible pop songs.

The Handsome Furs came about when Boeckner moved to Vancouver, and moved in with Perry. Boeckner says “we’d known each other for six years – now that is a long story, but the short story is I moved into an apartment in Vancouver with her. We happened to be living in this apartment, and it was really, really small. We started working on stuff, and the apartment was too small for either to be working privately. We always wanted to do something together, some kind of project like a book, or music. We just decided to start a band, and that was that.”

Being a member of a well-known band (also featuring other band members who have also created successful side projects e.g. Frog Eyes, Sunset Rubdown, Swan Lake), will often lead to critics comparing the work to the ‘main project’. Boeckner says “I got a little bit on the first album, but that’s kinda to be expected. I was really happy with the response to the second one, and I was happy with the way that we did it – I think we figured out what kind of band we wanted to be. After enough people went to the live show, and listened to the record, it was pretty apparent it wasn’t Wolf Parade Jr, or just a whack off session to let off some steam from our quote unquote main project. I know everybody else in the band puts the same energy into their own projects.” Boeckner hasn’t found it too difficult to differentiate between the two either. “Wolf Parade is such a collective of people, and because the tour schedule is fairly minimal compared to a lot of bands, it’s easy. Also, just the song-writing, I don’t know why, it’s really simple for me to write for Handsome Furs and have it there, and write for Wolf Parade and have it there.”

Face Control was written while touring Eastern Europe, and having to play live constantly is evident in the songs. “We wrote almost all the songs exclusively on tour, in the places we were singing about. I think that gave it an immediacy. By that point, when we were writing, we were at the end of touring Plague Park and we had already changed all the Plague Park songs – quicker tempos, [they were] a lot louder – and I think it was just a natural progression to get to where the band is now. We’ve written stuff since Face Control that’s more in that direction, danceable but really, really loud. I think that’s just how the band is evolving.” The album features a tension between digital and analogue sounds. “A lot of the guitar stuff on the record is a response to having drum machines on the record. We try to programme a lot of synthesiser patterns that were self-oscillating, uncontrolled. They balance out the fact the drums are stiff and programmed and mechanical. That was definitely conscious.”

The restlessness of the tour carried through to the writing as well. “The pace on those tours when we were writing was insane. We’d be up all night playing shows which were fairly high energy, and I’m usually exhausted and sweaty and destroyed at the end of a Handsome Furs show. And then going back to the hotel, and drinking and writing songs and getting up at 6.30 in the morning and then driving for twelve hours to Poland and playing. I think that sense of no sleep and forward momentum influenced the record.”

Face Control itself is heavily influenced by Eastern European politics and places, something that the pair had always been interested. “We knew a lot about it before we did our first tour over there, and we finally got there and were actually experiencing it in real-life, not just reading about it. All our research, our energy and our personal fascination with it came to a head, that’s what we ended up writing about.”

The title of the album references a Russian bouncer practice called “face control”. Essentially if you don’t look ‘good enough’, and haven’t paid a lot of money to reserve a table in a bar, the bouncers will turn you away. The band themselves encountered face control in an unlikely venue. “I was denied entry into a lunch buffet in Moscow because I didn’t look good enough. I was a regular steam table lunch buffet, and the bouncer was face controlling people. Originally he didn’t want to let Alexei and me into the restaurant, and our Russian translator sweet talked him and we finally got in.”

“People are always going to find something they don’t like about it, and on the other hand, people are always going to be hyperbolically praise-ful. The best thing you can do as an artist is do what you set out to do in the first place and ignore the fact that people are analysing what you do.”

A theme in the album is surveillance – both the formal governmental type of its citizens, and the ‘informal’ self-surveillance which drives people to make sure they look, dress and behave in a particular way (e.g. the fear of being judged by others). In terms of governmental surveillance, Boeckner says “I never really started getting obsessed with it, until post 9/11 when I was touring and I went to Europe. Just going to Europe, the sheer difference. The experience of going through a European airport, with the exception of Heathrow or anything in the UK, is so totally different to going through an airport through Canada or the United States. I know an airport can be quite a specific, random thing, but it points to this post-September 11 new world of surveillance. Just the way they [the US, Canada, UK] phrase everything. This is ostensibly a capitalist country, but the way you phrase everything is ‘it’s for your safety’, ‘it’s for your security’. They’re ‘helping you’, but what a lot of it is irritating, and invasive. The language which they use, if you’re educated at all, if you have a half an ounce of perception, it’s like ‘who do you think you’re fooling treating your citizenry like children basically’”.

The duo found a strong parallel between this type of surveillance and the type of surveillance which the former Soviet Bloc was notorious for – and consequently, while this album is ostensibly about Eastern European themes, it spreads its arms a bit further. “The comparison between that which sprang out of capitalism, and the state surveillance of Eastern Europe – we were comparing those things as we were traveling through Eastern Europe.” That said, Boeckner confesses “I found it easier to get things done in Eastern Europe – bureaucratic things like getting visas or getting across borders. Any problems you had could be fixed with cash, for better or worse.”

This linkage between Eastern Europe and Western Europe in terms of surveillance and behaviour bears a strong resemblance to American author William T. Vollmann’s masterly 2005 novel Europe Central. Boeckner admits “I love that book so much. The opening of the book, when he’s talking about the switchboard and the telephone, which he describes as an octopus, I don’t know, it’s one of the key images that unlocked a lot of stuff for the writing process for this record. That was a big influence for sure.” The duo were also inspired by Vollmann’s masterly treatise on violence, Rising Up, Rising Down, and in particular the section on Serbia ‘[It’s] pretty much a cross-section of every player in the Balkan War, and the objectives. The humanity with which he approached people, you can’t get that across in a rock record, but that really inspired me to travel to a lot of these places.”

However, the album also touches on the self-surveillance society, typified by concepts such as face control. This has only expanded with the internet, where what someone in the spotlight says or does, such as a musician, has the ability to linger and proliferate. However Boeckner argues that he doesn’t worry about having to self-censoring or watching what he says. “This is something that almost everybody knows and it’s got to the point where it’s part of the subconscious culture, but with the internet, the fact is that the voice of the critic is no longer limited to the ‘expert’. Whether that whole concept in the 70s, 80s, or 90s was even valid that one person could be an expert because they wrote for this magazine or this newspaper, now it’s like everybody’s voice is equally loud. Everyone’s just going to make up their own minds anyway, so for me, there’s no real point in censoring anything I say or the art that I make, or what I do. I think a huge pitfall that happens especially with indie rock bands, especially because the fans on the internet are so rabid because they’re anonymous (they can be very cruel to each other or in their opinions) [is that] a lot of people will take this imagined audience that has this vocal presence that you can read on the internet and tailor their music whether consciously or subconsciously to appease this. Which never ever works. People are always going to find something they don’t like about it, and on the other hand, people are always going to be hyperbolically praise-ful. The best thing you can do as an artist is do what you set out to do in the first place and ignore the fact that people are analysing what you do.”

The Handsome Furs are playing two shows in New Zealand at the end of August. Boeckner suggests however, that their live shows don’t subscribe to notions of face control. “After we decided to call it that, we were talking to some of our friends about how our audiences in North America tend to be really random, totally mixed. The last time we played in New York, we did two large shows, and the sheer weird mix of people that were at the shows, that was pretty good. That’s something I’m kinda proud of with the band. There are some older people who are into industrial music, and indie rock fans, and weird electronic music fans. The Handsome Furs shows are the opposite of face control.”