Dan Boeckner’s latest endeavor, Operators, plays Social Hall on Friday
Dan Boeckner (Photo: Liam Maloney)
When Wolf Parade burst upon the scene in 2005 with their debut album, the accepted narrative of the band’s two creative forces was just too good for most people to pass up.
On one end of the spectrum, was Spencer Krug, an erudite, cerebral songwriter, who yelped out stream-of-consciousness verses from behind his keyboard. On the other was Dan Boeckner, the Springsteen-like, working-class figure who played guitar, chain-smoked cigarettes, and boasted an array of arm-baring T-shirts. It was a classic example of brain working with heart to create an extraordinary sound.
Yet that wasn’t quite the case.
Boeckner disrupted that tidy tale of opposites attracting with his 2007 release, Plague Park, a dystopian album full of whirring effects, eerie synths and strange sound manipulations. Born to Run, it was not.
The product of Handsome Furs, Boeckner’s group with his then-wife, Alexei Perry, Plague Park showcased that Boeckner could play the both role of tinkering musical scientist and heart-on-sleeve savior.
That versatility has since reigned throughout Boeckner’s career, whether he was exploring avant-grade noisemaking with Handsome Furs, traditional indie-rock tunes with the Divine Fits, or retaining his role as guitar hero in Wolf Parade.
The distillation of those wide-ranging efforts are being realized in Boeckner’s latest endeavor, Operators, a three-piece outfit that will perform at the SF Social Hall on April 8. Equal parts new wave, post-punk, rock, electroclash, and ambient pop, the group’s new album, Blue Wave (released on Friday), is Boeckner in peak form.
“This is the closest I’ve ever come to making an album that represents all of me,” said Boeckner. “It’s all the elements I’ve experimented with before. There are songs that sound a lot like early Wolf Parade, and then there a whole ton of really melted analog synths and stuff with just massive kick drums. I think this project is a synthesis of all the stuff I’ve learned how to write and all these genres I’ve learned how to play in.”
After a successful stint in the Divine Fits — the group he founded alongside Spoon frontman Britt Daniel — Boeckner said he had an urging to revisit the experimental electronic work he pioneered with the Handsome Furs. He put out three albums with that group, but the band broke up as his marriage to Perry dissolved.
“There was this musical world and language that I’d been working on that I didn’t want to just abandon because the band had broken up,” said Boeckner. “I spent a lot of time honing my programming skills and that was something I still needed to express and work out. As I started writing it, it started mutating into something a little broader than what I was doing with the Furs.”
Boeckner recorded most of the band’s self-titled EP, released last year, while he was living in San Jose. A Montreal native, he relocated to California to record with the Divine Fits. While in the states, he ran into Devojka, a Milpitas native and electronic recording artist whom he first met during a Handsome Furs tour in Eastern Europe. The two started jamming together, and eventually Boeckner enlisted Sam Brown — drummer for the Divine Fits — to fill out the trio.
“I definitely knew I wanted to start another band,” said Boeckner. “And everything just kind of fell in place for that to happen.”
Boeckner is a devout fan of David Bowie, and Operators employs the same kind of icy and alien sonic landscapes that populate the rock icon’s Berlin-era albums in the late ’70s. The electronic backdrop of Operators’ songs range from ebullient to ghostlike, but the whole time Boeckner’s voice — a raspy, serrated instrument — is beseeching and vibrant, validating his punk rock roots. Bowie’s presence is felt throughout Blue Wave, from the jazzy title track to the buoyant, triumphant “Cold Light,” and the extraterrestrial album opener “Rome,” where Boeckner namechecks Station to Station.
“Every couple of years, I go through a pretty intense Bowie phase, but this last one was really acute,” said Boeckner. “That was the musical world I was living in when we were making Blue Wave.”
Boeckner said that Bowie inspired him to reach for new vocal levels as well. A longtime smoker, Boeckner recently quit, which was a blessing for his health, but a concern for his gravelly and gruff singing style.
“I was actually worried that if I wasn’t smoking two packs a day, I was gonna lose this kind of raspy and blown-out voice I have,” said Boeckner. “But I found that my range had expanded, and again, going back to these Bowie albums from the ’70s and ’80s — he’s doing all sorts of crazy shit with his voice. That kind of inspired me to be not afraid of singing way up high for an entire bar, instead of belting it out all the time.”
The band’s live performance is a very authentic experience, as Boeckner has opted to eschew laptop computers in favor of the old-school analog synths he first came to appreciate while writing music for Handsome Furs.
Their current jaunt through the country will be the first as headlining acts, with the Social Hall SF representing quite a leap from their first show — a performance at a guitar shop in San Jose, the place where Devojka grew up. Devojka has been a career musician, but Operators is her first involvement with a nationally-known act.
“I definitely have these moments on stage where I’m like, ‘I was working in retail a little while ago and now I’m doing this,’” said Devojka, who plans on releasing a solo album once the Operators tour has wrapped up. “It’s been a little surreal.”
While Boeckner will shift his focus to Wolf Parade later this year and Devojka will begin work on her solo project, the plan is for Operators to remain a full-time band, with consistent album releases and touring schedules projected for the future.
In the interim, Boeckner will continue to be a very busy man. He said that Wolf Parade will be putting out some new music this year and a full-length album next year, on top of a busy touring outline that already includes several major music festivals. He also said he plans on meeting up with Daniel later this year to start writing material for Divine Fits, with the goal of putting out a new album in 2017 as well. All the while, he plans to continue making music for Operators.
“Sometimes I have no idea how I’m juggling all this stuff,” said Boeckner. “But I feel really lucky to be able to make music for a living. I know a lot of my friends who work just as hard at music as I do, but just don’t have the opportunities. I feel like I’d be a total asshole if I was going to complain that I have a lot on my plate.”