Wolf Parade—Experiencing the Absolutely Surreal

In a car traveling up to British Columbia to hit the studio for Wolf Parade’s last rehearsal before heading out on tour in support of their latest album, Thin Mind (Sub Pop), guitarist-singer Dan Boeckner is chatting with AQ by phone. It’s the day before the release of the album, and the reality of tour has eased its way peacefully into Boeckner’s forefront of attention. “It feels good to know that tour on the horizon. It seemed kind of theoretical two weeks ago, and now the reality is sinking in,” he says. 

What was once theoretical will soon settle into concrete, as Wolf Parade come to Brooklyn Steel on February 24. The always insightful Boeckner gave AQ a glimpse behind the creation of Thin Mind, a feisty and spirited commentary on the new technological havens that society has constructed seemingly for a perfected chaos.

It’s the day before the new record is coming out? What’s that feel like for you? I have always wondered.

You know, we finished this record I guess the spring of last year. It mixed and mastered and then we put the art together, but once we had the whole package together, I just kind of put it out of my mind…. The reality of this album [coming out]… it’s exciting…. I’m pretty excited about this whole new record. It’s a new direction for the band.

A lot of the album deals with what I’ll call “technology fatigue” and the anxiety that comes with that. Can you talk a little more about that concept?

Yeah, absolutely. For me, writing these songs… it’s not so much as the actual mechanics of technology or the objects themselves, [it is] the weird kind of liminal state that we all kind of live in now. Sort of 50/50 meets space meets non-meets space. Technology is the platform where that space has been created, but I don’t think there’s a name for the sort of psychological or synaptic burn out that that we’re all experiencing living in this bizarre liminal space; sort of one half in, one half out.

It’s not so much that technological advances are terrible, it’s just they’ve brought out a unique quirk in our behavior that maybe we never recognized before?

Absolutely, and I don’t think it’s something we saw with other huge technological advances or advances in communication—like the age of television or radio, even, because so much of our day-to-day is now spent interacting with people in these spaces. I think a lot of Thin Mind isn’t like AdBusters or a killing your television-type thing. I think we’ve all sort of internalized the lessons of the nineties, post-modernism, and that type of media theory. This is a completely new thing that we have yet to kind of see the limits of the edges of. We don’t have a good handle on it. It’s hard to even make a judgment as to whether it’s good or bad. I don’t think the record is about smashing your phone and moving to the woods and loudly proclaiming that you haven’t plugged yourself [in], because I don’t think that’s a real possibility.

Wolf Parade recorded the album in a studio on Vancouver Island, and my understanding is this place itself has a special meaning for the members of Wolf Parade, right? 

Yeah, absolutely. So Arlen and Spencer both live on the Island. Arlen grew up on the South Island closer to the biggest sort of population center here, which is Victoria. I grew up North of there, in a sort of a glorified logging camp… like a really, really small town of resource extraction called Cowachin Lake. Spencer moved back. Spencer did not grow up here but moved here about maybe four or five years ago. So, when Wolf Parade reformed in late 2015, the center of the band was really the Island…. and I have really conflicted a relationship with this place. I do not like it… at all. There’s beautiful things about it, but I’m also aware that a lot of that is colored by my experience growing up here. There is kind of psychic darkness for this place that is both personal and I think very real and pervasive. And also because it’s such a small place, it’s surrounded by water. It’s kind of a Petri dish for the sort of neo-liberalism that has ravaged like the lower class and middle class in Vancouver, and on the coast. Not just Canada, but all the way down to San Francisco. You see the same sort of corrosive policies affecting people here. It’s just very concentrated. So, it’s just right up in your face.

Can you give me an example?

Just the fact that a town of 50,000 people on the East coast of the Island has a medium, single occupancy apartment rent that’s like 12 to $1,400 a month, when there are very few jobs here. Like the resource extraction business on Venturella has been steadily gutted. It’s still since the nineties.

Were you apprehensive at all about going back and making a record there?

Oh, absolutely. I knew that I had to toughen myself up mentally if I was going to spend an extended time there. But I have to say, the of writing the album for me, personally, was really cathartic, because I did get to dig down into [those feelings] and really think about it and experience it—and the interesting thing about the album is: Spencer’s also writing about this place that he lives, but he has a totally different perspective on it. So you do get two varying perspectives on the same place, and I think that’s cool.

This is the second album the band is made with producer John Goodmanson, who’s worked with Sleater-Kinny, Bikini Kill, Blonde Redhead—the list goes on. What does the band enjoy most about working with him?

I liked that during the writing phase and the initial recording phase, John had this ability to make his presence almost invisible. But he’s always sort of listening for something that could be improved. He hardly says anything, and then occasionally, he’ll just pipe up and be like, ‘You sure you want to do it like that?’ For a band that’s collectively made a bunch of records, both with a full band and solo projects, it’s just nice to have somebody who you can tell that they trust your creative instincts, but they’re also not afraid to come in and tell you if you’re just going off the rails. So, when he does talk in the beginning stages, if he says something, you know that he’s thought about it and it’s important.

“Julia, Take Your Man Home” is the latest single from the album, and aside from being an excellent, upbeat tune, it’s lyrically comical. I understand Spencer meant for the lyrics to be sort of an exaggerated sense of himself as a man.

Yeah, I think that’s right.

How, how does that concept play into the idea of that sort of struggle to remain present amongst the barrage of digital chatter?

Honestly, I’m not sure that that fits in with that narrative. I feel weird, speaking without Spencer about his lyrics, but as an outsider and as someone who didn’t write those lyrics, if there’s any sort of connection between that and this digital space, I think it’s young people being bombarded with suggestions and archetypes, or these fantastical archetypes of what they should be like, how to behave… and for the most part, I think it has a brain-melting effect on a lot of people (laughs).

Most definitely, especially when it comes from all different angles and almost uniformly different and contrarian ideas. 

DB: Definitely. There’s a positive side and a negative side in the camps, and there’s varying degrees of ideological purity. I’m thinking specifically like the sort of Petersonian, dark intellectual web shit—which is hilarious and absurd to me—but I might find it hilarious and absurd because I have 20 years on somebody else who is absorbing this crap, and [I have] a framework [idea] of actual Marxism, [not] some bizarre fantasy from some sixth grade social studies reading of Marxism. So, yeah, it’s funny… I had to deprogram a couple younger people in my immediate social and family circle about that stuff.

You always strike me as a little bit of a professor, Dan.

Thank you, thank you. 

Wolf Parade

When we spoke last summer, you were touring for the most recent Operator’s album (Radiant Dawn), and you were drawing a lot of influences for that record from different pieces literature. But I remember we talked at length about HP Lovecraft, and a track you wrote for Thin Mind—“Against the Day”—seems to hark back to similar ideas about moving through different worlds and existing as outsiders. Would you agree with that?

Yeah, definitely. I think those were the last lyrics that I wrote for the record—and I was in the process of wrapping up Radiant Dawn—and I was just kind of obsessed with this idea of consciousnesses or how consciousness is unstuck in time and observing geography and human development from different points in time, and how that could give them perspective, but also drive them completely insane. It’s sort of a birds eye view. And then I wrote the protagonists of “Against the Day” to be kind of a psychic vampire that could never die, but kept returning to the same place, kept seeing a change, but also fundamentally remained the same. Watch it change and also grow, you know?

Definitely. I like that you write from a surrealist point of view, because it gives a better outlook in terms of what’s really going on instead of getting sort of bogged down in the micro.

Yeah. You know, when I was younger, I tried playing in punk bands. I think I was trying to work out the same ideas, but they were super-on the nose, and I don’t feel like that makes for good listening, because the songs have to be fun. And part of that is making sure you’re not just dropping references about stuff people don’t know or care about, [and to] make these things more of a parable, or a surrealistic experience, to sort of protect the vibe more than the detail.

Sound like if you tried to wear that out on the sleeve, you become an informer, in a way. Whereas with the way you write, if you create a colorful aesthetic on top of it, it keeps the music fun, but a particular message or idea is still there.

Yeah. I think that, at my best, that is what I am going for and is successful. It’s just a different way to be political. I think this welding of surrealism and politics means we’re experiencing it right now. It is absolutely surreal.