Everybody Has a Fucking Xylophone: An Interview with the Handsome Furs

Caitlin Boersma sits down with husband/wife duo Dan Boeckner, best-known for Wolf Parade, and Alexei Perry of the Handsome Furs. Topics discussed include Californian city rivalries, fairy-tale imagery in indie rock, and the concept of face control.

I met up with the Handsome Furs in mid-April before their show at Seattle venue Neumos. The Montreal-based couple, made up of Dan Boeckner (vocals, guitar, tambourine) and Alexei Perry (keyboard and drum machine), writes dark, minimalist indie pop.

You can listen to the entire interview at KUPS 90.1FM The Sound.

Boeckner and Perry of the Handsome Furs looking, uh, handsome; courtesy of Sub Pop Records.

The Bygone Bureau: Dan, you’re a member of Wolf Parade also. Do you have any other projects you’re a part of?

Dan: No, I’m always talking with friends about starting up some bands, but for now they’re just pipe dreams.

And Alexei, you’re a short story writer?

Alexei: Yeah, I write a lot of stories, and I write some poetry as well. And some short little anecdotal things.

Do you have any books published?

Alexei: I self-publish them and then sell them on tour.

You have one album out, Plague Park. And that’s a real place?

Alexei: That is. It’s Huerto Puisto in Helsinki, where a bunch of plague victims were buried. It sort of started as a place that was outside of Helsinki, but then Helsinki sort of grew around it. Now it’s the one green, beautiful area in the very cubic, sort of Soviet façade of the rest of Helsinki. It’s where all these kids go and drink and have good life and stuff. And it’s just weird that it’s about all these dead people

A lot of your songs on the album talk about living both in a big city and in rural towns. Is there one you prefer over the other?

Alexei: There isn’t. That’s sort of the thing is that I don’t think we’ve come to any conclusions about which is better. They’re both really hard–and good. But hard. I mean, whenever I’m in the city I miss being where insects are, and whenever I’m in a small town, I miss the culture that is in metropolises. Metropoli?

(laughs)

Dan: Metropoli!

Which city are you referring to, if any in particular, on the track “Handsome Furs Hate This City”?

Alexei: We can’t tell you. No, it’s different every night. We just like to mess around with it.

Dan: We wrote it in Los Angeles, but it’s not really about any particular city. I had a couple cities in mind when we were writing it. Like, it was kind of a conflation of Vancouver, L.A., Toronto, and even Montreal, you know, but it’s not particularly one city. But it’s fun to pretend like it is about a city when you’re in other towns. It really gets people fucking riled up.

Alexei: Right. When we were in San Francisco we were like “This is about L.A.!” and everyone was like, “Woo!”. And we were like, “Really? I didn’t know there was this rivalry going on. Sweet. Now we know how to get you!”.

(laughs)

I read that the point of your sound is to make it as sparse and repetitive as possible. What is it about that sound that appeals to you?

Alexei: It’s just interesting. It’s just a challenge to do that. With a two-piece, we wanted to have a lot going on where there wasn’t a lot going on because then it forces different things from the listener to fill in certain blanks. And I think our sound has actually changed quite a lot.

Dan: Now we’re repetitive and really obnoxiously loud.

Alexei: But also more danceable now.

Dan: To answer this question totally honestly, I really believe–and this is just personal artistic taste–that a lot of underground music kind of holds itself above, say, the pop medium, the standard. I think one kind of really fucking disappointing trend in “indie rock” music is giant, enormous baroque arrangements with esoteric instruments. But everybody has the same esoteric instruments! Everybody has a fucking xylophone. For a while when the Neutral Milk Hotel record came out–and they did it beautifully–there was an accordion musical saw, and then all of a sudden, all these bands have an accordion music saw.

And now [there are] these giant, bloated progressive rock arrangements. I think that shit is dead. It’s a dead end. That was proved in the ‘70s when, like “Tarkus” came out, you know? It’s basically progressive rock, right? And there’s some great progressive rock, obviously, and there are some people doing amazing things in that format. But for me, writing these songs with Lex in this band was born out of frustration and a reaction against that. And I know this isn’t going to win me any of whatever today’s version of punk points are. Internet points? Fucking Xiu Xiu points or whatever, you know?

(laughs)

You can see it any era of music: Something becomes popular, a certain sound becomes popular. And I think it’s time for indie rock to just stop doing that. Even my other band is an offender in that. But I really respect bands like No Age, who are also on Sub Pop Records. They’re great. No Age are just drums, guitar, and electronics. That works for them, and it’s very direct and immediate.

But yeah, unicorns, crystal goblets, castles, fucking whatever. Phantoms? Just that fairy-tale imagery has become the new lexicon. It’s as boring and standard as 1977 punk, or like crust punks, or “fuck the man.” It’s totally predictable. If I’m sitting here and listening to a song, I don’t want to puzzle over something someone wrote just off the top of their head last minute in the studio.

Alexei: I want it to be sexy and cool.

When did you two meet and start working together?

Alexei: We met while we were working in a really shitty telemarketing office in Montreal. We were both working on various projects and they ended up colliding. A few years ago. About two years ago, right?

Dan: We met, like, three or four years ago.

Alexei: Yeah, but I mean two years of working?

Dan: Yeah, two years of togetherness.

So you’re working on a new album for 2008. And you’re working on the title Face Control.

Alexei: Yeah, face control is a door policy in Moscow that they use in these really fancy clubs where people are paying five to ten grand just to reserve tables at these places. But even those people who have paid that money are still subject to face control. So they can arrive at the door and the bouncer can be like (in Russian accent), “I don’t think so.” I don’t like what you’re wearing kind of thing. And there’s one dude whose nickname has become Face Control because he has denied Russia’s top super model three times. And if she’s not getting in, who the fuck is? It’s so bizarre.

Dan: It’s a verb too. You can be like, “Dude, I’m super bummed; I got face controlled.” It’s totally Russian, though. The vibe there is nothing is sugarcoated. It’s not politically correct. You are literally face controlled.

Alexei: At least it’s upfront. There’s something interesting about that

Dan: Those two words sound great together, though.

When do you think the new album will come out?

Dan: It depends on Sub Pop. It’ll depend on what they do with the Wolf Parade record.

Alexei: It’ll get out some point this year. We’ll be done by mid-June.

Is it much different than Plague Park?

Alexei: It is. I think it’s quite a bit faster and maybe a bit rock, too.

Dan: It’s a lot louder, that’s for sure.


The Handsome Furs’ latest release, Plague Park, is out now on Sub Pop Records.

Handsome Furs website
Handsome Furs MySpace

Caitlin Boersma is studying political science and English, but spends most of her time analyzing pop culture. Her premise for a new reality TV show, Killing Andy Milonakis, has yet to be picked up by VH1. She is notorious for spending a week’s wages on a ticket to see Morrissey live.