“I was essentially useless at everything except school and playing guitar and writing music,” says Dan Boeckner. “I had to make this work.”
There’s a desperation to Boeckner’s sound. The thrumming rhythms and chaotic vocals of Wolf Parade, Handsome Furs, and Operators stand in defiance of whatever passes for a status quo in Canadian music. His sound was born out of struggle. From his time as an emerging artist playing alongside Modest Mouse, to working in restaurants in Montreal while playing guitar for Arcade Fire, to becoming one of Canadian indie music’s most recognizable voices—Boeckner’s rise has been earned. Yet, despite his influence, he still identifies as something of a rebel, never to be contained by convention.
His songwriting is particularly contrary. He is driven not by the quest for a classic hook, riff, or jingle, but for something new and unique.
“I like to write songs that build their own world and live there,” he says.
This songwriting tradition was first widely appreciated via Wolf Parade’s anthemic Apologies to the Queen Mary, and the more minimalistic first offering from Handsome Furs, Plague Park. What seems to underlie Boeckner’s music, besides his vocal style, is this refusal to be anything like the music that is produced as mimicry, as copy-pasted tricks from other artists.
“You might as well just not write the song at that point,” he says.
A photo posted by OPERATORS (@operatorstheband) on
Operators, who play Arboretum Festival Saturday night, are an extension of that defiance: their sound has often been compared both to that of Wolf Parade and Handsome Furs, and not without reason.
Boeckner describes his new project as “sci-fi influenced,” specifically related to the work of Philip K. Dick. The songs have a futuristic texture. These are tones that are rarely heard, and sound alien. According to Boeckner, their sound was shaped on the road from an experimental, synth-heavy style to a guitar-rich, beat-driven sound. The result is hard to place within a genre.
This outsider-ness about Boeckner is what makes him a perfect fit with Arboretum Festival, now in its fifth edition and still oozing with indie-cred.
Boeckner turned down almost every festival this summer except Arboretum. He says it comes down to how the festival is presented. Its less-commercial flavour and its ability to attract high quality acts made the festival a good fit with Operators.
Plus, Boeckner likes Ottawa. When he toured with the Handsome Furs, Ottawa was a place to debut new music, to experiment. He remembers debuting “Face Control” at Mavericks, for example. It’s also clear that Ottawa has a special fondness for Boeckner, too: his bands are welcomed here with a healthy crowd when they pass through.
Part of Arboretum’s reputation has been spectacle of the festival. This is not the spectacle of a Bluesfest, with towering television screens and radio artists, but the spectacle of great artists doing what they do best in front of a crowd that appreciates that.
And Boeckner hopes that he can top the memories of last year when New Swears closed the island-bound festival with a scene that can only be described as a government town hoedown, confetti, beach balls and Bruce Springsteen in attendance. And while Operators won’t be bringing a confetti cannon, they will bring some rock and roll swagger, something the New Swears boys reportedly refer to as “GNAR-life.”
“I need to look up this GNAR-life,” says Boeckner. “Maybe I’m living all wrong.”
But fifteen years into a career of rocking out in front of microphones, Dan Boeckner doesn’t really seem to want to change. In fact, he’s looking forward to more projects, more tours, more albums, and more Ottawa shows.
“I still kinda can’t believe I can do this for a living,” he says, “and if I can do it all the time, I’m happy.”