Operators’ crystal ball into our dystopian failures
If it holds true that great art proliferates in times of political strife, then we may be in for a wild ride—a cultural renaissance even.
For Operators’ Dan Boeckner, the decline of Western Civilization is the counter culture fighting over exactly what it is we must counter. The quick spiral toward illiberalism made the whole “let’s move to Canada” strategy necessary for Boeckner, but that was easy, as he was born and raised in British Columbia. Crossing from his adopted home of several years in California and back to Montreal before the border got thicker was a huge impetus for Operators’ sinister and sparkling sound. Released last summer, their debut album, Blue Wave, came as the perfect hybrid of pop radio nostalgia and dystopian electronic arrangements. It was also a prescient warning about where we are headed and from the perspective of Boeckner, who’s lived a lifetime under what he calls “democratic socialism,” we are kind of doomed.
“I felt like things were going totally f*cking haywire,” says Boeckner. “I had noticed during my time in the states this unpleasant trend towards fencing off information, the way two people can have a debate on something as simple as health care or vaccines—and as a Canadian, I can see it clearly—but the other side is someone who is completely uninformed. That psychology scared the shit out of me, and I think it was that psychology that led to the 2016 election.”
As one of the founding members and principal songwriters in the celebrated Wolf Parade, Boeckner is used to questions about that band being the focus. For much of this millennium’s first decade, Wolf Parade was the gold-standard for Canadian indie pop. With them in the midst of a huge reunion, a new album in the fall, and festival dates all summer, he’s using what little time he has remaining to assure the proper appreciation for Blue Wave. After all, Operators originally filled the void left by the Parade’s hiatus and the dissolution of his first solo venture, the Handsome Furs. In bonding with local legend, and Operators’ drummer, Sam Brown, as members of Divine Fits, Boeckner also recruited Devojka to round out a trio that dabbled heavily in synths and sequenced beats, the personal and the politics. Something Boeckner says was the template from which he began.
“I’ve always loved that sound palette and that wheelhouse of music. Listening to the radio all my life, it was those great pop productions that seeped into my subconscious. All I ever wrote in my teens was metal or some kind of ’90s post-punk when secretly I was really into OMD. But no one could sing the praises of Dazzle Ships back then. It’s a lot less dogmatic now. Everyone listens to everything now.”
With nods to New Order and Kraftwerk, a handshake to Gary Numan, Operators still project a sustained modernity contrary to their retro reverberations. “Rome” and “Control” both deal in Orwellian romanticism, topical in a world of increased surveillance and decreased civic responsibility. It’s a utilitarian message through a conduit that’s slick and evolved. As a child of the ’80s, Boeckner, like many, suspected an apocalypse much more intriguing, and that’s reflected in the music.
“The stock dystopias that we got in the ’80s were ones I actually enjoyed,” remembers Boeckner. “There was post-nuclear annihilation survival, the Commie takeover, that was a good one, and then maybe the Blade Runner dystopia. Very few people wrote about the dystopia that we actually live in now, which is a grinding and insidious dystopia that is not sexy at all. There’s nothing f**king cool about it.”
Instead of those fantasy dystopias, we’ve got the equivalent to “the t-shirt rack at a truck stop in Arkansas.” And instead of Operators and Boeckner creating freely in and out of the U.S., they are met with an ignorant resistance. On his last trip to Seattle to record with Wolf Parade, Boeckner was asked by a TSA agent, with whom he’d been familiar for years, if he intended to participate in any “demonstrations” while in the country.
“That really put a chill in me,” says Boeckner. “Things are a lot colder in America right now. The idea that security could ask that question affected me.”
The Great White North may not be utopia, but it provides a pretty sturdy plateau from which to see our Pompeii. So then, what advice does Boeckner have, as a secure Canadian, for us Southerners?
“Sustained, focused protest,” concludes Boeckner. “Being super local and putting aside these petty differences that divide the left.”
Good to know that Operators intend on being the soundtrack, no matter where we’re headed. •
Operators play Saturday, April 8 at Ace of Cups. Visit operatorsmusic.com for more information.