How Operators conceived sci-fi synth masterwork Radiant Dawn in the shadow of late-capitalism
Is there any more opportune time than now for dancing to socialist synth music?
Dan Boeckner’s work outside of Wolf Parade should not be considered a side project. To the contrary, his project with electronic composer Devojka is far from the vanity exercise you’d come to expect from such a venerated punk.
Moreover, and this is worth bold-facing, it’s not strictly his project to begin with. Operators is a true collaboration, borne equally from Devojka and Dan’s thoughts on everything from the creeping neoliberal luxury class and literary sci-fi to the futurist architecture of Yugoslavia.
Dan has been nursing a ton of his big, zeitgeist ideas for years, bringing them to the light on Wolf Parade’s 2017 Cry, Cry Cry and now, with Devojka’s perspectives, fully fleshing them out in Operators. Such is the collaboration behind their brilliant new concept album, Radiant Dawn—a true crystallization of big ideas into a digestible, provocative capsule for consumption.
Before Operators’ next phase in the Radiant Dawn tour, Rock and Roll Globe caught up with Boeckner to talk about the power of working through big ideas within your own constructed narrative, the ominous creep of societal concerns too large to fathom, and why it’s all the fault of your gullible, baby boomer parents.
VIDEO: The Operators – I Feel Emotion
So what happens in the sacred time between a Wolf Parade event and an Operators event, in that small gestation period?
Well, in this case, [Wolf Parade] played a festival in Everrett on, when was it… Saturday? Friday? Can’t remember. Then I went home and started rehearsing. Before I went out to do the festival I’d been rehearsing for about ten days solid—eight hours a day, every day. My whole day is taken up by rehearsal.
What are you playing on this tour? Do I hear guitar on any of these tracks?
I’m not really playing guitar on any of the Radiant Dawn stuff except for two songs, and there’s no real guitar on the record. There’s a bass on “Low Life” that Tim Kingsbury (of Arcade Fire) plays, and there’s a sample of an unplugged electric guitar. We just recorded a handful of chords on an unplugged electric guitar with three or four mikes and then chopped them up and arranged them at the end of “Days”.
Oh, I thought you were just talking about the End of Days!
No, no! I’m just trying to resist the urge to do the thing where we bring songs that are mainly keyboards, drums and samples onstage and then I have to jerk off all over them with guitar. I don’t want to do that. [Laughs] Just focusing on the vocals mainly for this stuff.
Hats off to Devojka for all of the nuances in her programming that allow for you to focus on singing.There’s an element of cohesion and compositional depth to these arrangements that show how much of a collaborative effort this was.
Yeah, we wrote almost all of the record in very close quarters together, just ripped the songs apart, put them back together again. There’s a bunch of stuff, like “I Feel Emotion”, I don’t play anything on that song. She wrote and performed the whole song then I wrote the vocal melody and the lyrics, went over the lyrics with her. She tracked everything then Arlen [Thompson, drummer in Wolf Parade] and I did edits to her specs and carved the song out. But it was completely Dev. I wanted to add a chorus to the end of the song and she said, “Nope—no last chorus.” [laughs]
You guys really get into a more jammy groove on this one, riding a riff on songs like “Faithless” and “Low Life”, which starts off as a Happy Mondays-style tune and turns into something else…
A sprawling, six-minute… [laughs] That song basically wrote itself. I played this little guitar riff into the Digitech sampler and then doubled and halved the speed, wrote a very basic drum beat around it then started playing this arpeggiated bassline through a bitcrusher. Dev and I put the song together and it was sort of like if mid-period The Fall had Michael Stipe singing.
The first version had no bridge—that big, cinematic bridge where the protagonist sort of reflects on what’s happening to him didn’t exist—then we got into the studio with Tim and it probably took two hours? We ran the song once, built a bridge and the version that you hear on the record is just us playing the song together for the first time.
I like that you said “protagonist”, because it’s hard for me in the role of listener to not project my narrative onto the narrative you envisioned as the creator. You’ve always been an advocate and ally for people who don’t have your platform, and in your last two projects you’ve largely worked off of relationship dynamics and gender dynamics, by happenstance.
You’ve also gone to great lengths to clear the narrative around this being “Dan Boeckner’s solo project” and it being a more collaborative process. How do you navigate that from a promotional perspective, in a way that both respects your fans but shifts the narrative to how things were actually made and how you and Dev want this project to be perceived?
You know, when I was writing these songs with Dev it wasn’t just the songs, it was the world that Radiant Dawn lives in. I kind of brought the 1970’s ayahuasca science-fiction cosmic horror vibe to the record and she brought this deep, cultural traversing and knowledge of the Balkan experience and Yugoslavian experience to it. Those two things just kind of collided, and the record wouldn’t exist with one of those influences being gone.
VIDEO: Operators – Faithless
When talking to the media there’s just the raw, creative aspect of it—you have to come correct with how you made the record. It’s really easy to just say, “Yeah, I came up with all this shit” like you’re some kind of tortured genius, working away in a room by yourself until people come play synths on your record. That’s a false narrative.
Even though that would be easier for your brand.
It would be a lot easier for my brand! I haven’t always been the best at that. When you’re talking to journalists and they want to focus on you it’s easy to be lulled into accepting that perspective. In this case it’s a division of labor and it has to be recognized, it has to be talked about. I know that when people write about the record, often they’re gonna place it in the lens of my longish career, but this record is very different in a lot of ways.
When you were explaining this narrative and mentioned ayahuasca visions it got me thinking, because as much as there’s cultural context embedded in this record it also sounds very much like a personal journey. It’s hard to tell if the scenes are existing external of our characters or if they are sometimes projecting a state of mind. Sometimes it seems like both.
Yeah. I think the internal aspect is me, as the author, writing myself into these characters. But the journey would be, and I think this would hold true for anyone who lived it, that 2018 was depressing in a very specific way that is hard to put into words. One of the fundamental ideas of the record and the images that really tortured me, or kept me up at night as I was making it, is reflected in the pyramid repeated over and over again in the album art.
The founding image of this was the idea of a ‘hyperobject’, and I was thinking of three of them specifically. One of them being late-period, neoliberal capitalism, another being climate change, and the other being network systems—whether what we call the capital “I” Internet, surveillance systems—and all the political upheaval that goes along with it.
Those things, to me, I saw as these hyperobjects. Something so big and integrated intro our daily life that the edges of it, the contours of it, you can’t see them. You’re too close to it. A supermassive object that is incomprehensible to the human mind.
It absolutely exists, but we can’t map the shape of it or know what it looks like. And that, to me, thinking about that all the time was horrifying. It’s a Lovecraftian idea.
The difference between terror and horror. It hasn’t become visceral yet but it’s there.
Yeah! Playing off of that made me think that these hyperobjects, these structures, exert such a negative force field that it almost bends reality. In terms of late-period capitalism being a hyperobject, the reality-bending effects are like looking at the Taco Bell Twitter account tweeting about depression to the State Farm Twitter account.
A manufactured, ‘deep fake’ conversation.
Yeah. That to me is a deep distortion of reality brought on by proximity to this hyperobject. And the same with the depth and effects of extreme climate change. The numbers and what we’re told the effects are gonna be are so massive and terrifying that they’re almost impossible to comprehend. That also has a sort-of reality-bending effect on daily life.
The politics of self-realization. What’s that Stalin quote—when one person dies it’s a tragedy, when a million people die it’s a statistic?
Yeah. I thought that we’re subject to the reality-bending effects of these three hyperobjects and started building this world of Radiant Dawn around that. In my mind, this world of Radiant Dawn was a world where everything was breaking down, the laws of physics stopped working, nobody knew what was real and what wasn’t real. The protagonists of the song “In Moderan” have developed this beautiful society, this city that they love, but they know that this event is coming.
High above the clouds.
Exactly. The dawn is coming, but it could be the dawn of nuclear fission. It could be a comet, you know? But it’s coming.
So there’s resignation, a sense of submission that happens in this arc? And then we wind up as lowlifes in the end?
Yeah, that’s right. “Low Life” is really personal to me. The basic inspiration for it was just me wandering around the woods in Cowichan Lake, where I grew up, on acid as a teenager. I always got the feeling living on Vancouver Island that there was a malevolent elder god slumbering underneath the island, exuding this toxic mental pressure on everyone living there. Basically, the whole place was cursed.
You go into the woods on the first track, too.
Yeah! Start in the woods, end in the woods.
So you’re not out of the woods just yet.
[Laughs] I am not out of the woods. But I kind of wanted to take the place I grew up in and move it to the world of Radiant Dawn, where everything would be warped and melted.
Speaking to intention, your practice of making sense of this chaos through hyperobjects is unique. We’re all looking for a path right now, for a way to deal. Why was it helpful for you to codify these shapes into a narrative? How did that all connect for you?
I didn’t know how to convey the things I was feeling. And I made a couple of false starts after Blue Wave was done. Blue Wave, I think, is weirdly a more nihilistic record than Radiant Dawn because Radiant Dawn does provide some Exit strategies. On the whole it’s lighter and more fun to listen to, practically speaking.
But I made a couple of false starts just addressing these things I was reading, absorbing, and this nameless feeling that everything was sliding into clown world. This is not a veiled reference to the Trump presidency.
You’re talking about Xiu Xiu’s “Clowne Towne”, totally get it.
[Laughs] Exactly. So I made a couple of false starts writing about this stuff and it just didn’t feel fun—it felt claustrophobic and forced. Then Dev and I hit on this idea that these songs all needed a world to live in. A lot of my favorite writing is science fiction, and a lot of my favorite science fiction writers get to bat around these big ideas by building a world around them and letting them kind of careen around a tennis ball in a glass cube.
An internal logic.
Yeah! We needed to build a set, basically, to let these characters and stories live in. Dev and I just really worked on the sounds, making everything a little more cinematic. Nothing on the album has a stable pitch, which I’m really happy about. [Laughs] Everything is slightly pitch-modulated, constantly, at a random rate, warped up or down. Things are doubled.
The way you’re speaking now suggests you think of sound and production as building scene.
Yeah! Creating geography.
Do you have synesthesia?
I don’t think I have that. I think I honed it as a teenager because I was so fucking bored in the town I grew up in. You’re surrounded by all this beautiful nature, but it’s just the same all the time. This endless wall of green, same grey sky. When I would put my headphones on and listen to Sonic Youth, for instance, a record like Daydream Nation would transport me. Daydream Nation felt like they had built this whole world of sound, you know?
Having to work out my imagination kind of helped me be able to visualize that stuff a little bit better.
There’s a therapy piece here with working out those intangibles through a sci-fi narrative.
I don’t mean to pressure you to speak for Dev, but where does her Balkan/Yugoslavian perspective fit in here? You mentioned these old films that you guys unearthed on Twitter, although that may have been more for the visuals to tease the album?
Yeah, well there’s a reason we picked Yugoslavian films. Those films are heavily treated and have phantasmagorical pyramids beamed into them.
VIDEO: Operators presents: Come and See the Radiant Dawn
If I can speak to it a little bit, having been there a bunch, Yugoslavia was a fully utopian project. Architecturally, if you look at what the men and especially women of that country produced , they created its monuments, apartment buildings, official offices, government buildings. They weren’t thinking ten or 20 years ahead—they were thinking 100-200 years ahead. And then it all collapsed.
So there’s this tragedy of an imagined future that never happened. This imagined utopia that never happened.
What city has the best examples of this architecture?
I think Skopje is a really interesting example because it has successive layers of this architecture. It’s home to one of the oldest, if not the oldest mosque, in Europe. It has amazing examples of futurist, socialist architecture and metabolist architecture by Kenzo Tange.
In 1963 there was a huge earthquake there, and one side of the city was basically leveled. The Yugoslavian government petitioned other non-aligned countries, countries that were friendly, to come and build whatever they wanted to help rebuild the city. So the city center was remade in this fantastical kind-of high futurism, super playful architecture.
But then the last layer of architecture in Skopje was absolutely repellent. There was a right-wing government in power for about ten years, they were recently deposed and disgraced in a huge scandal. But their lasting legacy was Skopje 2014, which was not completed in 2014. It was a building project to enforce Macedonian nationalism, and it basically looked like what I imagine a Moldovan casino would look like—neo-classical and cheaply constructed. A lot of it wasn’t finished. Many of our friends there are completely pissed off that the town square in the center was being remade in this absolutely kitsch style.
So the futurist, utopian dream of Yugoslavia was a big influence on the visual representation and some of the lyrics.
[We talked for awhile about the complicated history of fascist ideologies and populism in the region, which Dan eloquently unpacked with a historical perspective filled with too many names and regime changes to list here. He mentioned that a lot of those nationalist sentiments seemed to arise out of a deep resentment for a wealthy, luxury-driven neoliberal reimagining of cities in the region.]
Sounds like you’re saying that the neoliberal practice of urban planning for a luxury class, like the Bloomberg-ification of New York, is really a global issue, classism under the guise of progress.
Yeah, it’s odd—everywhere is New York now. We could have had this conversation ten years ago and talked about the gentrification of Brooklyn.
Brooklyn is punching back as a hologram, a simulation of subversive countercultural rebellion. They’re punching back in a branded way.
Absolutely! When I say that everywhere’s like New York, I mean it. When I finished the record, in the very final stages when Dev and I were plotting out the aesthetics of the album, I was living in Nanaimo, British Columbia, making the new Wolf Parade record. I kind of cross-faded the projects into each other.
Nanaimo is a town of definitely under 50,000 people. Arlen lives there, and I don’t mind saying, having grown up on the island—Nanaimo fucking sucks. It’s a port town that used to be segregated by gender. It was owned by a coal baron for a while. It was the site of a brutal suppression of Aboriginal people, like so much of Canada. It was the site of a brutal suppression of labor activism around the coal industry and the mining industry.
It’s not like there was even gentrification that nice things sprang out of. There’s not a lot of nice things, but it costs between 12-14 hundred dollars to rent a basement suite there. And that’s the New York-ification of the rest of the world.
Can you walk us through the character narratives on Radiant Dawn is those narratives pertain to everything we’ve been talking about?
Starting at the top—the protagonist in “Days” is most closely me. That song is just about dealing with a very deep depression, you know? And that protagonist goes on a psycho-geographical journey where they wake up drunk in a parking lot and slip in and out of time, into the woods, mumbling and singing the chorus of the song. That’s me singing the chorus of the song I’m gonna write.
“I Feel Emotion” is the most direct on the record. Every song ends with an apocalypse on this record. The apocalypse in “I Feel Emotion” that the protagonist is facing is emotional. It’s about a relationship, just trying to keep love alive in a world that is very confusing.
Keeping those emotions in check when everything is false stimuli?
Exactly. I guess the next song is “Faithless.” The protagonist in that song is living in a hyper-normalized, late-capitalist state. Nothing ever makes sense but every day is weirdly the same, over and over again. The song ends with the palisades being burned and the dawn rising red, which is an analogy to the socialist uprising. But “Faithless”, the chorus, is talking about how it’s hard to have faith in anything when the idea of ‘truth’ is pretty much meaningless now.
I blame the hippies.
I blame the hippies, too. I blame the baby boomers for being gullible and getting their brains poisoned on Facebook.
There’s an old parable there.
Yeah—they went to the poison well, looked in, took a big old drink and said “This tastes great! Muslim supersoldiers are active at WalMart, I know it! I better have another drink.”
“In Moderan” is based on this book I was reading while making the record called Moderan. New York Review of Books published it a couple of years ago. It’s this series of stories that the writer, David Bunch… he worked for the U.S. Military in R&D and wrote this fucking insane group of interconnected stories that all take place in a world slowly being transformed from the natural world to a completely mechanized world, where these giant city-states fight each other endlessly. It fucking rules, and it’s hilarious. I’m pretty sure George Saunders has read it. You’ll recognize the voice as Saunders at his most nihilistic.
So I read the book, we had this space-funk riff, and I wrote the entire song around these loosely mind-connected drones living in a utopian city that was very flat. The future in reverse—they’ve automated themselves into idiocy.
It’s the grimacing emoji, put into song.
Yeah! After that is “Terminal Beach”. That song took a very short time to write and a really long time to record. I knew it was a good song, I knew the lyrics were good and I loved the chord progression, but I didn’t know how to present it. Dev and I hit on this idea that each little section of it should be slightly different, but we knew the overarching vibe was a post-nuclear beach, a post-nuclear goth surf party. The song is totally irradiated, and the protagonist in that song has made his way from the city that doesn’t make sense to him anymore, on this beach waiting for a coming cleansing. Either a wave, a comet or an A-bomb. It’s the end. They’re the last ones left. Surf’s up forever. [Laughs]
“Despair” is definitely the darkest moment on the record. I wanted the sounds to match the lyrics, and the sound that you hear at the beginning of the song is the sound I started with—this very corroded rave foghorn.
Like an emergency government-issued sound system that’s been inactive for years and rusted over a bit finally emitting a noise.
That’s exactly it. The people in that song are also nearing the end. That song was really inspired by a book called The Twenty Days of Turin. In the process of trying to fight my way out of this ambient depression, I read this book that got on my rader through John Dolan, AKA The War Nerd, who has a podcast with my friend Mark Ames.
Twenty Days of Turin is a cosmic horror novel that was self-published in Italy in the early 70’s, and it is a very, very thin metaphor for what was called The Years of Lead. I’m not exactly sure the timespan, but I think it was 1968 thru the mid-80’s, a time of massive political violence in Italy between ultra-left, red brigade-style leftists and far-right fascists. A lot of times, membership would swap. There were a lot of false flag attacks, and in a lot of ways, The Years of Lead predicted the incomprehensible psychosis of something like The War on Terror or basic military operations in Syria over the last few years—a gordian knot of conflict. It was all domestic and centered in Italy.
In this book, the protagonist is researching an event where, ten years prior to the events in the book, people started sleepwalking and there were mass casualties. People’s bodies were torn apart, and nobody knew what happened. People just woke from this fog and went about their lives, but the spectre of it haunts everyone. The protagonist gets embroiled in the mystery of trying to find out what happened. But it’s all just a metaphor for this complex, almost nonsensical political violence.
Sounds like a sci-fi horror version of The Battle of Algiers, almost.
That’s a really good analogy, a Lovecraft version of Battle of Algiers for sure.
Complex conflict obscures intentions and nobility, it degrades everybody.
Yeah, and I think even in nonfiction, when people write about a complex conflict, a multi-sided conflict after it happens, it’s very easy to impose these basic narratives on it. But I thought that Twenty Days of Turin was almost the more interesting approach as it’s this emotional howl.
The last two songs? “Strange” started its life as Handsome Furs-esque drum machine and Rotterdam bass techno-pop, but mutated into something totally different. The song’s about being crushed under capitalism, being poor and being exploited. But the end of the song, structurally, we kind of let disintegrate. Then we brought in a sample of a seance I found online from the ‘20s.
What does the sample say?
It’s a woman saying, “Yes, yes, it’s true. So much is unrecognizable.”
Do you believe in magick? The Aleister Crowley kind, where we can will our own realities?
You know, if you’d asked me this a year ago I would’ve said, “Absolutely not.” But I do believe in the transformative healing power of certain musical frequencies and rituals.
The other thing we didn’t talk about on this record are all the interesting noise transitions and ambient interludes. Tons of little left turns relative to the rest of your body of work that display your breadth of exposure to weird shit. You guys could make a full on ambient record if you wanted to.
It’s funny you should mention that because all those inner-title pieces, in the winter of 2018 we all got together in Montreal just to start writing. We just jammed on pretty much every synth we owned. Sam [Brown, drummer in Operators] had his drum kit, we had a bass and guitar. Nothing we recorded made it on the album, but we recorded a good 90 minutes of ideas, riffs, noise jams.
Andy, who produced the record, engineered the session and sent the entire mix through a table of effects pedals then onto a cassette deck. That’s kind of when we decided he was gonna be the guy to mix the album. When we listened back to it there were a lot of unintentional creative accidents. Andy and I have actually been editing that down and, at some point this year, we’re gonna release all of it. I’m really excited about it. [Laughs] It’s gonna be cassette only… well, cassette and digital.
This is all exciting. It feels like Radiant Dawn crystalized a lot of big ideas you’ve been sitting with for years and your influences, your knowledge of geopolitics and diaspora and hypernormalisation and all this zeitgeist stuff that started coming to a boil around Cry, Cry Cry.
It must be hard being a cool nerd, because most nerd musicians sell out in a grasp for acceptance. You’ve kept that DIY flex.
I’m very much a nerd. I’m part of this leftist Canadian DM group chat on Twitter. There are wonderful people on there, people doing really good work in activism, journalism, just trying to keep the Canadian media in check. And I’m maybe one of three or four musicians on the chat. I feel like I was invited in for kind of a more light or musical perspective. But what’s happened is, I just punish everybody with details about Ukranian fascists coming to Canada after the second world war.
[Dan explains how he was not inherently interested in Canadian politics, but the group pulled him in. He saw the poisonous American political rhetoric being spread to Canadian audiences on Facebook as communicated within this group.]
Facebook has still refused to directly address the problem is its micro-targeting ad platform, this tool for businesses who A/B test and can then market to hyper-granular demographics of people. Because they’ve never addressed that, they’ve never looked honestly at their role in this hyper-segmentation of identity. People talk about identity politics all the time, but nobody talks about identity culture marketing. And that’s what Facebook did.
Yeah, we’re seeing it now. Identity culture marketing manifests itself…what might have started as a way to sell things to people has become… a good example is the “Canfederate” flag, a confederate flag with maple leaves replacing the stars. It’s not super common, you see it pop up every now and then, but it’s a symbol of this rising, nebulous Canadian nationalism that is so bereft of its own ideas that it just needs to wholesale steal from the United States. It literally culturally appropriates to have an identity. And the reason that group has been able to coalesce like a mucus clot in this country is because of the micro-targeting identity marketing.
So how does an artist, tolerated by this ecosystem but not necessarily nourished or nurtured by it, go beyond? Is the metric for success these days still just survival, or is it something more?
On a practical level, yeah. For me, the metric of success is, “Am I living what I consider comfortably?” I don’t have a lavish life, but am I able to do the things that I want to do? One of them is keeping up the infrastructure to keep making art the way I want to make it whenever I want to make it. In that way, if I can keep doing that, I consider that successful. If I have food in the fridge, the lights are on, the rent is paid and I can occasionally splurge on a new synthesizer while keeping the maintenance of the studio up, I’m living well.
And the non-tangible, non-financial metric of success? Putting something like Radiant Dawn out, to me, feels successful. I had an idea in mind, I managed to put it together with Devojka, Sam, Andy and Arlen, and it came out better than I had expected. I feel like it’s gonna feed into the art that I make afterwards, and it’s pushed me. A lot of things I was too afraid to do sonically, lyrically or in vocal performances. I feel like I got over a lot of that on this record, and I can make better art now.
Your work exists in an interesting place between the personal and the universal. It can work on a superficial level for me to enjoy, but there’s also all this rich subtext and detail that Dan needs for Dan to keep doing what he’s doing.
It’s just a matter of people hearing it. We just locked in some dates in Turkey, Ukraine and Russia. I haven’t played in Russia since Handsome Furs was there, and I’m really excited to go play those countries and those markets, play with Russian bands open up for us.
Maybe your music has a greater chance of not just being received as ‘content’ in those parts of the world?
Yeah, maybe you’re right. I don’t think things are as laser-focused in terms of marketing. Once you put a record out now, the main platforms that people interact with it on compress your listenership for people who will just discover it through playlists. It seems like the business model for the music industry now is just to laser-focus the art and micro-target. That’s fairly negative.
That makes things tough when your music doesn’t have a lot of easy genre labels or shorthand. Not alot of SEO opportunities.
Right. Indie-rock is a meaningless term, and electro-pop is too.
People need those labels to codify things. We’re so acclimated to narratives as a culture, but we don’t read.
It’s true. Lately I’ve been alternating between nonfiction historical stuff and old, RPG source material like “RuneQuest”, which is a pretty fascinating pen and paper RPG from the ‘70s. I’ve gotten really into these, you can find scans and PDFs. People scan these obsessively. They’re great—almost self-published sci-fi with no plot. You can let your mind run around. Interesting cultural artifacts.
Just like Radiant Dawn? Giving you the pieces of the ecosystem but not putting them together?
Absolutely. I guess maybe that was also a big influence on Radiant Dawn, now that I think about it [laughs].
Operators’ Radiant Dawn tour comes to Bowery Ballroom on July 11
Operators, Live in Calgary, 2019–06-04, full show