Dan Boeckner of Divine Fits on being inspired by the sprawl of L.A. but put off by $5 cupcakes
Diving Fits formed when Britt Daniel of Spoon and Dan Boeckner formerly of Wolf Parade got together with their friend Sam Brown of New Bomb Turks. The music that came out of that union was a kind of power pop infused with a strong electronic undercurrent, like something that could have happened in the so-called New Wave of the early '80s but which never could have been created back then. As co-frontmen, Daniel and Boeckner have that rare combination of two singers who play off each other well melodically but also know when to step back and let the other shine. Likewise, both know how to kick up the excitement level of the music with a passionate vocal delivery without coming off like it's all been calculated.
The Divine Fits' debut album, A Thing Called Divine Fits, is either the product of a sustained period of inspiration or a rigorous, artistically ruthless process of honing the best material because there's not a clunker in the bunch. We recently had a chance to speak with the intelligent, observant and affable Boeckner about the importance of playing in small clubs to a band's development, the band's love of Kraftwerk and living in Los Angeles.
Westword: In an interview you did with Interview Magazine, you said that for Divine Fits that you're playing "more muscular rock." What is it about playing that way that you enjoy? How would you say it's different from what you did with Wolf Parade or Handsome Furs?
Dan Boeckner: Hmm... I think with Divine Fits there's a minimalism to what I get to play, especially on the songs that I'm not singing, so I'm doing different things. There's sort of a tension and release and minimalism that maybe wasn't there with Wolf Parade or Handsome Furs. There's a restraint and tension in some of the songs that wasn't there. But I've never been in a rock band that communicates so well musically with each other when we're on stage. So that's new for me, and that's really exciting. That's the best thing about being in this band for me. Also, the guys in the band are also great and it's actually really pleasant to hang out with [them].
On an earlier tour you played mostly small clubs that you've described as something like sweaty and small. Why did you feel it was important to do that with this band?
We did that series of what we called "hometown shows," but I guess it also included Salt Lake City, which was for about 20,000 people -- that was for the Twilight Concert Series that they do. But the rest of the shows were Montreal, Columbus, Ohio and the two Austin shows. Then there was a bigger Chicago show thrown in and then Lollapalooza. But Britt and I both thought it was important that we go out and play these semi-announced smaller shows where we could just get right down with the audience. You know, maybe the monitors don't work properly.
I think you have to do that to learn how to be a band. I don't think you can go straight to five or six hundred capacity clubs and expect to know exactly what you're doing. Those smaller shows tend to be, for me, the most fun. They also prepare you for anything. They allow you not to be spoiled by a decent sound system or being able to necessarily hear what everyone's doing. I think you have to be able to do that to be able to translate any kind of energy or playing off each other on a large stage.
Yeah, because not everything always goes according to plan no matter how big or "professional" the venue.
In the interview you did with Bright Young Things you seemed to joke about how you, Britt and Sam have your own personal OCDs when it comes to presenting the aesthetic of the band. How would you characterize your own?
I'm kind of obsessed with stripping stuff down. Working with Britt exacerbates that condition because he's kind of a master of basic elements and nothing else. That's something I really respect about his songwriting. That just brought that part of me out. Sometimes in my previous bands, not so much Handsome Furs but in Wolf Parade, and maybe this is one of the things that made Wolf Parade a good band; there was this constant aesthetic battle between myself and Spencer [Krug]. Spencer has a propensity for this maximalism thing going on with as many notes as possible. And I'm the total opposite. So, working with Britt, I really got to indulge that part of my songwriting. It made me happy.
Why do you prefer that minimalist approach?
I don't know. If you listen to great Motown records or even some of the great post-punk records -- Young Marble Giants is an extreme example -- and also early Detroit techno, there's only really four to five things going on at once in a lot of these recordings that are classic pop songs. Maybe there's a snare drum, a bass, a hi-hat, a kick drum, maybe a handclap comes in every now and then. I think, aesthetically, I gravitate toward that.
Now, with the ability to manipulate things in ProTools, which has been an industry standard for over ten years -- and maybe there's not even a point in talking about it, but ProTools and Ableton with electronic music, you have the ability to make each bar sound different. You can change the drum tone from bar to bar. You can have a new set of synthesizer sounds come in halfway through.
I think it's kind of an Adderall/ADD culture. With this band, the more we played together, the more we sort of realized what our band was going to sound like. I wanted to do something completely different than that. I wanted it to be something very focused. I like Krautrock a lot too.
And that music has its own kind of simplicity while also having a compositional sophistication. Which Krautrock bands are your favorites?
I'm a really big fan of Kraftwerk. I'm not sure if they go with the basic canon of Krautrock but I love Kraftwerk and we listened to a lot of Kraftwerk when we were making this record. And I also like Cluster and Can. And the second Neu! record.
Did you get to see Kraftwerk when those guys toured a few years back?
Yes! Yeah, I actually got to play with Kraftwerk with Handsome Furs in Helsinki at a festival. It was us, Flying Lotus, Kraftwerk and Grace Jones, and that was one of my favorite shows that I had ever played in my life. I was so excited after being at that show that I couldn't sleep. It was one of my favorite moments in my entire life. Kraftwerk was so fucking loud, too. They were louder than a metal band. It was amazing. But it sounded perfect. It wasn't distorted, it was just fucking loud and mechanical.
For sure. Kraftwerk played here in Denver on April 23, 2008.
Were you at that show?
Oh yeah, they were very loud. But it wasn't painful, just very strongly, physically present and full.
Did that surprise you when you saw them? Because I was definitely surprised that that volume was that high for a Kraftwerk show.
Yeah, because I don't think of that music as a strong physical force but it definitely was in the live setting. What other live bands that you say, let's say from your teen years, that has had the longest lasting impact on what you do as a musician?
I think Fugazi. I saw Fugazi when I was sixteen. That band was so tight, and the energy of the show was so positive. After the show, I got to talk to Guy [Picciotto] and Ian [MacKaye], and I was in a terrible, terrible post-hardcore band when I was in high school -- my first band ever -- god, we were awful, and I played guitar and sang, and I really idolized that band. But they talked to me for fifteen for twenty minutes, and I gave Guy a cassette tape. A couple of years ago, I met him again. He came to a Handsome Furs show in New York, and we kind of spent the night hanging out, which was a real thrill for me.
When I was sixteen years old...Just now, being a musician and touring, for them to take fifteen minutes of their time out after the show and really, actually, engage with me? This [dorky] kid who's got his demo tape in his sweaty little paw, you know? Musically and the way they operated, that band and the way they treated their fans, that really made a big impression on me.
I saw Drive Like Jehu and Unwound when they did a show together in Victoria, British Columbia at the student union building at the university. I was very young. It was before the Fugazi show. That made a huge impression on me, too. They were playing in this brightly-lit cafeteria, and both bands just crushed it. It was one of the loudest shows I've ever seen. Unwound did this incredibly long, sort of free-form jam at the end of their set.
I was used to this sort of cut-and-dried...the aesthetics of hardcore are kind of fascist in a lot of ways. It's a reactionary thing. It's like, "We don't want to be like this. We're not this. We're that." But Unwound had this sort of positive attitude of "We can do anything we want." And I had never seen a band that wasn't a hippie jam band jam out for fifteen minutes. That opened my mind a lot about song arrangements and how to entertain an audience. Those two shows made a huge impact on me.
That was pretty early on in that band's history. Was Sara Lund the drummer at that point?
Yeah, Sara Lund was the drummer. There was Vern Rumsey on bass and Justin Trosper was the singer-guitarist. I saw them when they were a three piece. I think they eventually added a fourth member.
Yeah, I only saw Unwound once when they toured for Leaves Turn Inside You and they had a fourth member. At any rate, I was curious about the line-up because Unwound had another drummer before Sara -- who plays in the Corin Tucker Band.
Yeah, that's right. They had a dude on their earliest recordings. You know, if a band came out right now sounding exactly like Unwound, I think Pitchfork would be all over that.
In that interview you did with the Vine, you talked about how you felt that geography had an impact on your music or how you're thinking about it. In what ways would you say that living in Los Angeles has influenced your music?
I think just the fact that it's sunny all the time kind of motivated me to work more. I work in the morning. It's not like I had a bad work ethic before, but living in Montreal, it's kind of hard to get motivated when it's minus forty out and you really have to force yourself to get up in the morning.
If you don't have a regular job, you've got to force yourself to get up in the morning. You have to have a rigorous schedule just to sort of psychologically un-tether yourself from the fact that the outside would kill you if your apartment wasn't heated. So the weather in California maybe didn't necessarily cheer me up, but it's definitely easier to get out of bed and write songs in the morning when the sun is shining.
The sprawl in L.A., I think, influenced a lot of the songwriting on this record, too -- the sort of expanse of the city. Driving around at night listening to Kraftwerk in Los Angeles was very inspiring. Just watching the palm trees and the city lights, I think that definitely made it into the music somehow. Not that it turned out like Best Coast record, but California definitely seeped in there.
What were some of the things you felt were the biggest adjustments you had to make living in Los Angeles specifically and maybe the United States generally?
Living in L.A., everything is very disconnected. L.A., to me, as an outsider, is like six, seven or eight different smaller cities linked together by this network of highways -- which people complain about driving on constantly. It's the definitive ambient bummer of everybody's life in Los Angeles that they're stuck in traffic. They're obsessed with traffic. So when I first moved there, I moved to Silver Lake, which is the Williamsburg of Los Angeles. At first, I thought it was this kind of Utopian community.
Slowly, Silver Lake completely wore its welcome with me. It's just not for me. It started reminding me of every other place in America or Canada that has...You know, as soon as you get a store that sells five dollar cupcakes on the street, it's fucking over, culturally. I did find that although there are great things to do in Silver Lake, it's really just this sort of wild game preserve for mostly kids who are making art, or claim to be making art, but there's a lot of trust fund kids there like in any other sort of younger, affluent artistic community. I think that just has to be a function of those communities.
Who has time to make five dollar cupcakes, right? Definitely not lower middle class or working class kids, right? It is what it is, but it's really not for me and I found that it was incredibly distracting and kind of frustrating being there. So I moved to Koreatown, which is maybe kind of escapist in the way that I walk out my door and no one speaks English and it looks like Korea.
I've been on tour in Korea and it's shocking how much Koreatown is kind of a monoculture. It's definitely very Korean. But I like that. I find it inspiring for my writing. If I want to go listen to cool music and have a twelve dollar cocktail served to me, then I can go to Silver Lake. If I want to go people watching I can go to Hollywood. Once I figured out where to live in L.A., I started really enjoying the city a lot more.
What kind of guitar do you play?
It's a Telecaster Thinline. It's kind of been my go-to guitar for the last four years, I guess. I started playing one in Handsome Furs, and I started using that guitar in Wolf Parade. I love those guitars. They don't go out of tune, and they're basic. They're resonant because they're semi-hollow and they're ring-y. They're very simple and you can get a lot of different tones out of them. They're like a workhorse.
Do you like to switch up your guitars a little or do you prefer to kind of stick with one guitar across an entire set?
I generally like to play one kind of guitar. There's one song in The Divine Fits where I play this Gibson E335 because I play kind of behind the bridge and do a lot of feedback stuff. That's a hollow body so when you plug it in, you have to make sure you're pointing away from the amplifier because it'll go crazy.
Is there an amp you prefer to use?
I was a Fender guy until this band started. I specifically used a '74 Fender Super Reverb that would fall apart and I would rewire it and it would fall apart again. It caught on fire. In this band, Britt turned me on to the hand wired Vox AC30s that got put out a couple of years ago. Man, I love those amps, just the amount of tone control you can get out of them. There's a specific sound you get out of them where it's clean but it's really loud but not tinny like a Fender Twin. So, yeah, I've been digging that.
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