Handsome Furs are a pretty great band, and therefore one of those that Reykjavík Grapevine really wanted to interview for one of our Airwaves specials of last month. They responded promptly and positively to our e-mailed interview request, but neglected to answer any of our questions before deadline.
After watching them play their inspired and, frankly, fucking awesome set at Iceland Airwaves Saturday, I knew I wanted some answers, and I wanted them now. Using my special skunk-pass, I managed to sneak backstage at NASA where I found the pair – keyboard-maverick Alexei Perry and her husband, singer/guitarist Dan Boeckner – breaking all the rules, laying on the couch, smoking cigarettes indoors and looking all post-coital in a way that didn’t really invite any interruptions from drunken journalists. I waited a while, and when they stood up as if to leave introduced myself as the Grapevine reporter they had failed.
“Yeah, sorry about that,” they said. “We were on tour in Eastern-Europe and had really limited Internet access. But we’re in town ‘til Tuesday… would you like to maybe have a chat before we leave?”
I promptly answered: “Yes,” and invited them over to my house for some fresh caught plaice. “We will bring wine,” they said as they skirted off into the night. I got all excited. It rarely happens that bands I really, really like want to come over for dinner.
Come Monday evening, all of my pots and pans brimming with food, the doorbell rang. They didn’t bring any wine, but that was OK as I had a little extra. We sat down, they broke the rules some more and smoked in my dining room and we talked about their touring habits, their music, their lyrics, Face Control, overlord Chthulu and the band Coldplay.
MILLI: The ghostly writings of Stephen King
“Hipsters in America all secretly want to listen to Coldplay, but they’re afraid their friends will make fun of them. That’s why we get crap like Bon Iver, a hipster-Coldplay,” says Boeckner, mostly out of the blue, sipping on a Screwdriver. They look at my bookcase with great interest. Turns out Boeckner, the son of an English-teacher, and his wife Perry, a lauded writer in her own right, share a deep passion for literature of all kinds. They immediately start recommending books and authors I ought to like based on my existing collection, and I get secretly nervous about my huge Stephen King collection.
“Are you kidding? Stephen King is a great writer,” Perry retorts when I make excuses for owning the complete Dark Tower septology. “We love his work, even Cell was great, although we suspect a lot of that was ghostwritten.”
I ask them if running a band together as well as maintaining a marriage causes tension or clash of egos from time to time. Perry answers that they both have strong egos, and that the band does indeed cause their clash from time to time. “But in a good way,” she says. “It’s only affected our relationship in strong ways; we tend to want the same things in life, we like touring and going places together, getting everywhere we can and working as hard as we can on creating the things we love.”
MILLI: Stupid, stupid tours
Boeckner concurs that the world of Handsome Furs has its share of ego-clashing. “But I don’t think any decent music is made without friction – there needs to be some kind of friction at work in the creation of good music. If there’s a smoothness, then what you’re making is going to be all easy and soft and not very interesting. In terms of our relationship, it’s like Luxy [Alexei’s nickname] said: we both want to be doing exactly what we’re doing. And I think the main part of the band that a lot of people miss is travelling. This band, it’s completely based, aesthetically and otherwise, on travelling. Our last record was about travelling to Northern Europe, Scandinavia and Helsinki. Not about it exactly, but inspired by travelling there and being there. And our next one, Face Control, is in turn inspired by Eastern Europe and Russia.”
Perry interjects, “We both secretly want to be journalists,” and Boeckner concurs: “Secretly, I want to be a foreign correspondent. This band is about that more than anything, artistically and otherwise. It is compact and transportable; it allows us to travel to places a lot of fully-manned rock bands with a drum kit never make it to. We get to absorb those places and regurgitate them in music, whether anyone notices or not.
“We have an X amount of commercial potential – not a lot – but enough to sustain two lives as much as two minimum wage jobs would or even more. So we can afford making decisions like playing only one show in L.A. and using the profits from that to go to Serbia. Like, I never imagined I would visit Iceland back when I was in high school, listening to the Sugarcubes. That’s the sort of decision we make, it balances out and we get to go places we otherwise wouldn’t.
“If you look at it from a financial point of view, we do stupid, stupid tours. Then again, we’re not really financially minded. I do not believe in the permanence of a band, so I think when you have one and people want to come see it play, you have your choice of playing the safe markets and lining your pockets or extending yourself as far as you want to go in terms of absorbing the world, life and experience.”
MILLI: The only true way to communicate
The tell me that playing live is important to them, that in 2008, playing live is the most important thing for a band to do. “The only true way to communicate with an audience is through live shows,” Boeckner says, “look people in the eye and play your songs. Maybe you’ll fuck up, maybe you’ll do completely different songs or shows, but you’re there with them and they’re there with you. As cheesy as that sounds, I honestly think the only true way of communicating as a band is playing your music in front of an audience.”
Boeckner is visibly interested in the subject. He sits up, takes a long drag of his cigarette and continues. “An album is several steps away, produced media warps. When you see a band on stage, and you hear them, and they’re there, when there’s no barrier between band and audience; that’s the purest form of being a musician. It is boot camp, the boot camp; the trial by fire, the meat and potatoes of being a musician is playing in front of people. And if you can’t do that, I don’t think you have any business being a musician at all.”
MILLI: Expression as character defect.
So we talk about playing music. “I play music because I feel lonely, and it makes me feel less alone. To play things for other people. It’s the same reason I write,” says Perry. Boeckner takes the ball. “I think I play music because I am fundamentally a really angry, frustrated person, and it’s impossible for me to express how I feel being alive as a human being in any other way than playing music. I can’t write. I can’t paint. I am not a great cook, and I don’t think if I could cook that my food would be an expression of my aliveness. Playing music is the only way my brain, body and heart know how to express my aliveness. And I don’t know why I have a desire to express that – a lot of people don’t. But I do. Maybe that’s a character defect?”
Perry: “Why would it be a defect?”
Boeckner: “When I figured out how to express myself musically, I quit giving a shit about anything else. If I didn’t do it, I’d probably kill myself.”
*How relevant are the lyrics to your music, the expression of your aliveness, then?
Boeckner: “I’d say for me personally, and you can talk about this too [motions to Perry], that the lyrical aspect of Handsome Furs is more important for me than in Wolf Parade [Boeckner’s other, bigger band]. We don’t write about interpersonal relationships on the surface, although I suppose you can read anything you want out of it. Our first record was about geography and urban and rural displacement. The next one [Face Control, due out on Sub Pop soon] is about the fall of communism in Eastern Europe.
MILLI: A group of socially acceptable, grown up punkers
*So you are making a political album? Are you a “message band”?
Boeckner: “I am very political, and the music on the next Handsome Furs record is very political, but I don’t hold that early nineties Fugazi aesthetic as a kind of touchstone of how to behave as a musician. For me it’s not a living, rather commenting on life. It is important for me to be aware of everything I can be, as much as I can be. A band like Handsome Furs is a thousand times more political than fucking Vampire Weekend, but the playing field as a musician has changed. You can choose to be soulless and not have a message or anything to say, or to have some sort of message, even if that message is that there’s this interesting chunk of history that you may not know about. I believe good music helps you broaden your perspective without ramming things ham-fistedly down your throat.
The fact of the matter is that the way the industry is now, if you get tagged as playing indie-rock, you have this amazing opportunity to get on David Letterman and play your songs for millions of people. We were offered Letterman – if I get to go on Letterman and talk about Kaliningrad, it’s a victory for people who care about history everywhere. To completely black out the mainstream media would be a mistake right now; there’s this window where people that are basically grown up punkers are doing what’s acceptable to the mainstream. And people have to take advantage of that, as it might not last. But you have to be kinda sneaky about it.”