Operators—Imaginary Past, Psychedelic Future

For Dan Boeckner, the critically-acclaimed synth-pop group Operators has always been a means to push his songwriting beyond his indie-rock comfort zone as vocalist and guitarist for the band Wolf Parade. On their debut album, Blue Wave, the group addressed technology as a science that’s advancing quicker than mankind can ever imagine. Now, with their latest release, the concept album entitled Radiant Dawn, Operators’ Boeckner, his songwriting partner Devojka, and drummer Sam Brown (New Bomb Turks), have created a synthetic world that can only be defined—and re-defined with each subsequent listen—through the suspension of belief, and an embrace of our  absurdist existence.

We caught up with Boeckner just as Operators were gearing up to head out on a multi-month tour that will find the band exploring their newfound artistic realism throughout the United States and Europe.  

I have read that Radiant Dawn is a conceptual piece that focuses on a speculative future created from an invented past. Can you expand on that concept a little?

Absolutely. Just to contextualize what that means, I feel like our first record Blue Wave was very much in the tradition of dystopian science fiction—so basically just taking a dystopian sci-fi template to process the political and emotional things that were happening in my life leading up to the writing and release of the record. I was living in Silicon Valley, so it was easy to use that template and that language to express these feelings and the things that I was thinking about. And then in 2018—I don’t think anyone had a good 2018. Unless you were somehow financially able to be absolutely disconnected from the breakdown of democratic institutions globally, the collective ‘Oh shit’ moment everyone had about the impending climate doom, and then—even more so—just the flattening of human experience and reality that’s been happening both online and off… having to live under very accelerated late-stage capitalism that’s indistinguishable from the absurdity that people were going through in socialist countries in the late eighties. I think there’s a very big parallel between the absurdity of Soviet life from the Glasnost/Perestroika era to what we’re going through now. So, with all of those things combined while beginning to write Radiant Dawn, I was pretty depressed (laughs).

Well, being in Silicon Valley, that was probably all right in your face.

Yeah, yeah… it’s there. Everybody’s living it. It’s sort of a weird psychedelic soup of bad vibes. You’re constantly waking up and rubbing your eyes and adjusting yourself to whatever new, insane reality is set as the baseline for political discourse, for climate, for whatever it may be. So when Dev and I started writing the album, the idea that we would use a dystopian lens to look at this stuff and talk about it, it just seemed wrong. So, we started looking at the idea of failed utopias, or the idea that, everything is so strange and unrecognizable, it’s almost become psychedelic and fantastic. That was the starting point for us—we wanted to create the world in which Radiant Dawn lives, which is a series of utopian ideas that have failed, and the protagonists—the characters who are singing—we wanted to give them a world to live in and tell their stories from.

Would it be off to mark to say this album could be categorized as music noir?

No, not at all. I think that’s very accurate.

Because there’s a clear distinction between dystopia—which is a popular theme throughout the arts—and what you spoke about in regards to collapsing utopias. You mentioned the characters within the album; each song has a different protagonist, right?

Yeah, in our mind, when Dev and I were writing this, our thinking was that each of these protagonists—if you think of Radiant Dawn as a planet—all live on the same planet, they just live in different cities, and on different continents. They occupy different spaces in the social structure. So, for the multiple protagonists—the “We” protagonists in songs like “In Moderan”—I was reading a book called In Moderan by David Bunch, which is just a great piece of early absurdist science fiction, and the characters in that song—this collective—they’re convinced that this place they’ve built is going to last forever, that it’s wonderful, but they’re aware of this impending event—the chorus “Witness to the dawn, we are here until we’re gone”—they know something is coming but they don’t know what it is.

Then there’s the protagonist in “Terminal Beach” who is waiting with a handful of people in what I imagined as an abandoned resort beach just waiting for the final wave to come in and take them all out (laughs), or the mushroom cloud on the horizon, you know?

It sounds like a lot of these characters aren’t related within the broader narrative, but they are all intertwined in an almost socio-political, psychological limbo.

Yes, yes… totally. That’s a really good way of putting it.

My understanding is a lot of different influences informed this album, and I was wondering if you can speak about how they shaped the album in total. I know you were reading and listening to a lot of interesting stuff, and absorbing a lot of different philosophical theories, so I was wondering if you could touch upon that a little bit.

Well, I think the thing we hit on, especially when we started on the lyrics, was to write and talk about these themes in psychedelic terms, so everything was very trippy both sonically and narrative-wise. But, one of the big things I kept coming back to was the idea of these hyper-objects, and I can think of three of them that loomed large over the process: the interconnected nature of our politics and the bizarre, almost organic quality of this massive return to populism and the shifting alliances in geopolitics. The other was network systems, like the Internet, and the connected-ness of everything. And the last was climate change. All of these things are so big conceptually, and they’re so complex at the nanoscale, that they’re almost, in a Lovecraftian sense, almost incomprehensible to the human mind. It’s like in (H.P. Lovecraft’s) At the Mountains of Madness, when the protagonists finally see the Elder Things, and this city at the base of the Antarctic ice sheet—they’re minds decay, you know? They can’t comprehend them. They can see the outline, but they can’t see the totality of the shape. The art that we put together for the album, the repeating image of the pyramid, is representational of these objects that have a warping influence on our everyday life. We can’t see the totality of them, but we can see the effects of them. That idea was a big influence.

I’ve seen a lot of videos of Operators performing live, and it seems like past presentations have been very minimalist. Has that changed at all for this new album and tour?

Yeah, one big thing that’s changed on this tour is we’re touring with our A/V guy, Brad, and we have a full suite of projections. At the best technically-specified venues, we’re running three projectors of film clips that Dev had culled from the Internet… taking old Yugoslavian footage and placing it in the world of Radiant Dawn, for example. So, Brad is pulling from those archives and then doing live, very psychedelic video-transformed stuff over that, like generative stuff that reacts to the music. I’ve never been on a tour where we’ve had this much visual content, and I love it. It makes me really, really happy because I feel like this record deserves a visual framework, and not just three people on stage.

I would think that type of imagery would enhance the experience of the material.

Yeah. If you come and see the show, we want to invite you into this world, and have it so that you can spend some time with us.

Be sure to take the cosmic trip with Operators on July 11 at the Bowery Ballroom in NYC and at Johnny Brenda’s in Philadelphia