Operators on the Political Ramifications of Human Existence

Interviews
06/07/2019
Jasmine Albertson

“How can you live life under impossible weight?” asks Dan Boeckner on the second track of Operators' latest record Radiant Dawn. The answer, it seems, is that we have no choice otherwise. Boeckner, alongside keyboardist Devojka and drummer Sam Brown, created a pre-apocalyptic world for the new record in order to comment on the absurdity and difficulty of the modern world.

The band doesn’t mince words or hold back when commenting on their feelings surrounding the current political and technological climate. Nor should they, when it would be ridiculous to tip-toe around something that affects every one of us on a day-to-day basis. KEXP had the honor of speaking to the band in-depth about the inspirations behind and process of making the new record, socialism, and how being truly fucked connects us all.

 


KEXP: Where’s everybody at?

Devojka: Dan and I are currently in Montreal at the studio getting ready for tour. And Sam, where are you?

Sam: I'm in Columbus and I'm sitting in what is referred to as the phone chair in my house. It's in the corner of my living room and I usually sit in it when I'm doing my business.

Devojka: Right. When you're selling stocks.

Sam: Oh yeah a lot of action from this seat.

Congratulations on the new album, it's so fantastic. I love me a well-crafted concept album. How do you feel about the response?

Dan: Feels good. I feel really good about it. The reviews have been...for the most part, I think people get what we were going for. When we finished, I'd just been living so long in the concept of the record and building it and creating the trailers to go along with it and the art and working on building a world for the record to live in. I had this moment after it got mastered where I was like, “Wait a minute, did I just make something super esoteric that no one is going to get or is gonna pick up on any of this sort of interconnectedness.” Like, “Did I just write a sci-fi novel for myself?”

Devojka: Also we were so immersed in it in and relaying what we wanted to relay and everything except words. You know, in the sort of twist in-between tendon-like art and texture and lyrics and expressiveness to the music that I was kind of like, "I don't know if I could really say what the album is about." I'm in such close proximity to it. I feel like it's there, I just I can't put it into words. Then just to read reviews where people are basically nailing the description and in ways that I can't even articulate is...I don't know what that says about me but still, it's really nice.

Dan: I was about to say that the inside of my mind was basically that meme of Charlie from It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia in front of the board like, “It's all connected.”

I’d love to unpack it a little here. If you can or if you’d like to talk about it.

Sam: The record should have come with push pins and red yarn.

Well, I think that it's kind of the perfect time to release an album like this. Something dystopian and conspiracy themed with everything going on in the world. Like, it's not an overtly political album but by commenting on how we're actually living in a world that's far more dystopian than people ever predicted it would make it a political album. Do you feel that's what you set out to do?

Devojka: Well I think Blue Wave was the more overtly dystopian politically-charged album. And with Radiant Dawn it was more of a pre-apocalyptic setting and how just existence itself is political, you know, like in how we create systems, how we're integrated and how we organize ourselves. As far as a political backdrop, I would say that that's one of the themes and also the way that Dan processes a lot of his feelings is in relation to the more global political scale as well.

I guess it reflects back to him and he reflects back at it where it's relational and an exchange almost. And so I think those are always going to come up. Also, how we are as people individually, emotionally and in our art and working together. I think that those are always things that are going to kind of creep into anything that we do. But with Radiant Dawn I would say like instead of dystopian it's almost like utopian where we lose our concept of what a utopia is. And looking back at how people used to envision the future and how it was integrative and it was more about the community. So I wouldn't say it's as isolated and cold as I think Blue Wave was which was very dystopian.

Dan: I think it's about how utopias fail. A lot of the songs take place in a utopia that's on the verge of some kind of transformative collapse or change. And I think in a lot of ways it's actually more political record than Blue Wave, I just think it gets its point across in a way that's maybe more subtle and accurate to 2019. Like, I'm personally a socialist leaning towards Marxist, you know. I'm pretty hard left and a lot of these songs on the political and emotional level deal with basically these what I call hyper-objects. The three that it comes back to a lot on the record are late period neoliberal capitalism, climate change, and an integrated networked systems like the Internet.

So these three things, to me, are hyper objects in kind of a Lovecraftian sense where they're so big and their tendrils are so woven into our lives that we're incapable of seeing their full shape. We can't see the edges of them, we can't see the shape that they take. We barely understand the systems that drive them and how they work and for the human mind to kind of be faced with that is to create kind of a reality-warping field. And you feel that today like how everything just feels absolutely fucked and surreal and you can't quite put your finger on why. And, for me, talking about those things in Radiant Dawn was because we're incapable of comprehending the totality of life.

“Faithless” is really about the hyper objective late-period capitalism that infects and informs every single part of our day to day lives. And it is so static and monolithic that it becomes almost hallucinatory. It becomes insane. I guess a good example is having the Twitter account of Burger King tweeting at the Twitter account of Cialis. You know, it's funny in the same way that like a grinning skull is funny. You just have to embrace the surreality of it. And I think in the world of Radiant Dawn we wanted to amplify those hyper-real to the point of surreality aspects of modern life and create a whole planet out of them and put characters in them and have them interact in there

Devojka: Also, how we hyper normalize in order to endure. You know, it's a constant paradox. There are a lot of paradoxical sort of motifs that run in that idea that you have to hyper normalize the sort of hell that's happening around you so that you can continue to survive and subjectively thrive. But also, in doing that it's sort of like nothing matters anymore. More and more all these fallback safety systems of the truth and facts like nothing really matters or will make an impact. It doesn't work. Just have to take it.

Sam: Yeah, you have to deal with what you're handed because the alternative is death. You do what you have to do right.

Right, exactly. Like the fact that we just let ourselves be monitored all the time. We know we are and we just let it happen.

Dan: That's actually a line in “Terminal Beach.” The protagonist of “Terminal Beach” is sitting on a blasted former boardwalk just waiting for something they don't know what it is. It could be a giant wave. Could be a comet but they know it's coming and one of the lines is, “We love our lives here under occupation / Cuz every day is just the same / Of course they keep us all in line.” You know, they're just accepted.

Devojka: But also within that paradox...like in Yugoslavia, socialism that is what it was. Everything was organized in such a way that everybody that lived in socialist Yugoslavia had a job, they had their vacation. And in the fall of that, they actually miss it. They realized after the fact that they loved it. So it's constantly like I don't know if it's just that thing of “we don't win either way.”

Dan: I mean there's just trading one future for another.

Devojka: Yeah. But after saying all that, I really want to reiterate that Radiant Dawn is a personal album and it's an emotional album and it's sort of tender in a way. There is sort of like, “How do we convey both things?” There’s how you exist individually as a person and how you process your reality and your life. And then also how you exist collectively. And so, even that first line of “Terminal Beach” which is “It's impossible to live today,” that's looking at the personal as in I wake up in the morning and I'm just like, “No I can't. I don't know if I can do it another day," but also today in general. It’s a comment on the collective world at large. So we're really trying to make sure that it wasn't just one thing or another, that there still was a bit of humanity in the record.

 

Yeah, absolutely. And I think that's definitely felt through the record. Like a collaborative uniting where we're all in this together. We're all dealing with this, how do we get through it? How did the process of making the album differ this time around?

Dan: It wasn't as compressed as it was last time and also this record was way more collaborative than Blue Wave was. Over the last couple of years we've built a nice little studio home for ourselves in Montreal and it's a really great place to basically work out ideas. Either Devjoka can work or Sam and I or all three of us. We jammed a lot first but we didn't use hardly anything that we wrote in these sort of improvisational sessions in the songs. But we managed to develop, I think, an overarching vibe that the record has in those sessions and then built songs out of that vibe. Also, one big difference for me on this record was that there's actually, I'd say, the catchiest song on the record and I had nothing to do with writing or performing any of the music on it.

Sam: I didn’t either. It was all Devojka.

Dan: So I just got to cruise in and sing. I don't know, maybe you want to talk about your process?

Devojka: Yeah, I mean I would say...oh what would I say about this process? Hmm. Well, the song in question is “I Feel Emotion” and I really wanted to write a song that felt like a cathartic victory lap. But also was real and true to who I am and what I believe. I really feel like Dan has been a really good cipher for a lot of my ideas because he does have the energy and the vocal capacity to convey what I wanted to convey with this song.

And I'm just grateful that the people that I worked with on this album were open to my ideas and suggestions. It felt like less like a battle than Blue Wave did. And that could also be that because like the finished product of Radiant Dawn feels so wholly realized that you kind of forget the pain of birth. Whereas with Blue Wave I think there are definitely songs where I was sort of like, “Is this the band that I signed up to play and I'm not sure.” Which is okay, I think that there's a quality to all of that. It's all experience that you gather.

Dan: We spent a lot more time on the aesthetic properties of the songs too. Like really trying to craft sounds that were non-standard. We didn't really limit ourselves to one piece of gear or certain writing processes. It was just all pretty much open, everything was on the table. For instance, something like “Come and See” which is like a lounge ballad played on these plasticky sounding synths at the beginning. We just allowed it to turn into a really ambient wash of drones and a sample of a very sad song about Los Angeles.

Devojka: Yeah, like Dan was saying, we had all gotten together the three of us and we spent a slightly extended amount of time just jamming, if you will, for lack of a better word. And I think that was a really great musical palate cleanser and spiritual sort of palate cleanser for us. I think we really got in touch with the fact that we could play whatever we wanted to play. We're not as beholden to a certain style as maybe some other bands are because we come from, collectively between the three of us, a pretty large canon of inspiration that we can pull from. And I think that was really important to get in touch with and maybe because in some weird ways we sort of felt like Blue Wave came and went and no one really noticed it. We were like, “Well, let's just do whatever we want to do.”

Were there any artists you were listening to or inspired by while making the album?

Dan: All of them [laughs]. I mean on my side I was listening to just a ton of mid-‘70s krautrock like Cluster and just all of these you know very motorik German synth-psych bands. I started listening to a lot of New Age music because of the guy that produced the record Andrew Woods a.k.a. Napster Vertigo. We share a studio with him and he's a big fan of like mid-‘80s New Age stuff. So I got exposed to a lot of that and kind of fell in love with it.

And then the biggest influence on this record for me was discovering Suzanne Ciani. It like really kind of blew my mind in the same way Metallica blew my mind when I was 13. Just maybe made me listen to music in a completely different way. And I tried to apply a lot of her very joyful philosophical processes into making the sounds on this record. And it kind of helped me get out of what I thought was like kind of a rut that I was in post-Blue Wave. I'm just speaking personally, but like yes, listening to krautrock and Suzanne Ciani in particular really just absolutely freed me up and inspired me in a way I haven’t felt since I was a kid.

Devojka: She’s amazing. She has a six-minute video clip on YouTube of her from the late 70s early 1980s on PBS explaining synthesizers but it's just the most succinct explanation music and also what I do in a way that I don't even know and I'll like revisit and watch the video. It's just awesome. And if you're ever interested you should totally watch it.

 

 

Dan: The major thing I took from her is that with synthesis and building sounds is that nothing should ever be stable because nothing is really stable in life. And I felt like the world that we were building with Radiant Dawn in my mind was unstable. In the world that the characters live in, the reality was warping around them all the time kind of like our current hyper normalization state. So I wanted to apply those processes to the sounds on the record and none of those sounds are ever really perfectly in tune with each other. They're always kind of pitched down or pitched up or warbling or melting or fading away. And they never quite repeat in the same way. And that just was like a key turning in my head you know and I've applied that since to other stuff I've been working on too. Like the new Wolf Parade record. Yeah. Felt good.

You're known for having amazing my shows. I saw you guys play Iceland Airwaves in 2015. That was amazing, I was blown away. How will the show behind Radiant Dawn differ from your previous live sets?

Dan: Well, we’re a three-piece. I think you saw us as a four-piece. We've got a different stage setup and Dev’s playing different instruments. I'm playing less guitar than I ever used to ever or have before. I'm mostly just singing which is wonderful for me. And we have like a whole visual package with the tour. Our friend Brad is doing projections and video that are pulled from the source material that we used to make the videos and the trailers and kind of affected in the same way. So the idea is to sort of continue that world out onto the stage. Add to that narrative.

That sounds amazing. I’m really excited to see you when you play Seattle.

Dan: Yeah we’re playing Neumos which is one of our favorite venues.

Do you have a favorite show you've ever played here?

Devojka: Our KEXP sets have always been really great.

Dan: Yeah, anytime we've done anything live for KEXP has been good. I mean, we managed to book an entire European tour of the back of our first KEXP set.

Sam: Yeah everybody I meet anywhere in Europe always first says KEXP.

Since we’re talking about KEXP, I’m going to end with a very KEXP question. We're the station where the music matters, why does music matter to you?

Dan: You go first

Devojka: No! But, you know, before I answer that question I just want to say that Sam's woefully understated in his performances on the record because he's such an amazing drummer and every time we met him he just got better in a way that's infuriating to me as a musician. But about the live shows, I just want to add I'm really excited Sammy about your drumming.

Sam: Aw thanks!

Devojka: But that's the really hard last question. So I'm gonna let Sam take it first.

Sam: Well, currently and within the last couple of years, the thing I love most about music is how it just locks a place in time and in your being. I started to do an experiment where I would pick something I'd never heard before the first time I visited a place and listened to it. Just to see if it really would lock that place in it. You should try it, it's really cool. It permanently tattoos this experience on you. Then, I purposely would not listen to that piece of music for at least like half a year. It's like unlocking a little vault. It's a really cool experiment. I mean, people say all the time like it's “the soundtrack of your life” but like it really does kind of just suck in and encapsulate and then repeat upon demand certain feelings and mile markers in your life. It's pretty cool.

Dan: Yeah absolutely. For me, it matters increasingly to me because as I feel like modern life gets more atomized and absolutely just grotesquely surreal and hilarious that music, especially performing on stage in front of an audience, I feel...and I know music is a verbal communication form because of lyrics but for me just the act of playing music in front of people and trying to telegraph how you feel in that moment is something that goes beyond words and feels to me in that moment very grounding. When I'm on stage and playing and people are watching and listening, I feel connected briefly for the duration of the show and it makes me feel good. It keeps me centered and it kind of snaps everything into focus. And that's important to me. Otherwise, I feel like I'd start just spiraling off into madness.

Sam: I would agree. Playing my drums is the quietest my mind gets. I realized this recently too. I'm not thinking about anything, it's as close to meditation is I can really get with me. That's a nice thing about it.

Devojka: I don't know. Humans, we're just so hopeless sometimes and I don't always know how to reconcile being alive. But I feel like music has constantly been there to create a little bit of hope or to make me feel like my life can be saved in some way or that it matters in some way or to make sense of something that's going on. It can bring me in touch with places in myself that I'm not always aware of and don't have other ways to express.

And increasingly, the older I get, the more and more I realize that, for me, there's a deep need to express even if it's pointless. It's sort of like, this is a bad example but just go with me, it's like when you break up with someone. There's no reason to like write them this letter telling them everything that they thought they meant or didn't mean. Or if something happens to you, there's no real reason in terms of a reaction or a connection that's going to feel immediate or tangible but it's that act of putting it out there and releasing it that's just really really important. Music has definitely been there for me in ways that other things just can't penetrate or reach.


Operators are playing Neumos this Sunday, June 9. They'll also be live in the KEXP studios the following day, Monday, June 10 at noon. The event is free and open to the public. Below, revisit Operators' live performance for KEXP at Iceland Airwaves in 2015.

 

 

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