We were standing in the center of the occupation
Caught between the ground and the gray gray sky…
Talking Hotel Arbat Blues – Handsome Furs
…and with those seven huge and addictive beats, so begins my favorite track on the newest album from the Handsome Furs — one of my favorite albums of the year. Face Control is unrelenting in its danceability and brilliant in its rock and roll hope, replete with sloppy ragged guitar riffs and visceral howls, all bound up with sharp electronic beats that never quit.
In June, this married pair of (short story author) Alexei Perry and (Wolf Parade’s) Dan Boeckner came to Denver’s Larimer Lounge and nearly caused the place to burst. We all danced and yelled along, while the band did calisthenics up the walls and the stage hummed with a palpable sexual energy between the two.
I sat down with them before their set, after photographer extraordinaire Todd Roeth took advantage of some crazy post-tornado light, and we discussed the Cold War influences on the new Handsome Furs album, rallying against despair through music, and butterflies and underwater candy unicorns in songwriting. Seriously.
This was one of my favorite conversations about music in a long time.
HANDSOME FURS INTERVIEW / JUNE 2009
*Before you jump in, peruse and digest the chronological first part of this conversation over on the Gigbot companion piece*
F/F: To me, if your music could sit with certain artistic movements, I hear a sort of Bauhaus minimalism, blended with this streak of wild romanticism.
Alexei: Yeah, I think I frequently feel dissatisfied with how clinical life seems sometimes and what you have to do within it to feel alive.
Dan: And what we saw in Eastern Europe, too, I mean like the juxtaposition of the blocky sort of soul-crushing, utilitarian, socialist architecture.
Alexei: It’s totally dehumanizing. I mean you’re always the smallest thing. When we were in Warsaw, one of my favorite things that we did was we saw the building that’s nicknamed the Stalin’s middle finger. It’s huge. It was his gift to Warsaw and it’s the tallest thing in the skyline. And you stand in front of it you feel tiny. And yet now things are so changed and all these artists that work around that building want to do all these different things in that area and do different things with that building. Like there’s been these projects about wrapping the whole thing in like brown paper, like weird things. People have all these great ideas that spring through.
Dan: I was thinking about the electromagnetic factory in Bucharest that we went to. That juxtaposition of the music, like what we were trying to get on the record was, and this is a good example, is there was a factory that made magnets for motors, like electromagnetic parts. It’s now completely overrun by dogs. It’s totally decommissioned. And these kids were playing the craziest rock music I’ve heard in a long time in the basement cause they took the basement over, which still has the workers’ showers. So you’ve got that organic, uncontainable art in this awful place.
Alexei: And that’s just how I feel about making art in the world right now. The world isn’t representative of how I want it to be, so I have to always rally against it. And that’s what I want on the record.
F/F: I hear that in the music, very much so. A lot of the songs are pretty unrelenting, minimalistic, and then you’ll have this chorus or guitar riff that just cuts and rises up through that. Alexei, as a writer by trade, are there things you like better about writing songs versus writing a story?
Alexei: Um, it’s been an incredible challenge for me to write lyrics just cause it’s not at all what comes naturally to me. But I think that’s an important challenge and one I really, really like. You have to make things succinct, and you have to make them something that can be twinned with, and something that Dan can emote. Like that he can sing out and have them make sense, no matter whether the words actually do as written on a page. They frequently don’t, but because of how he pushes them out there they do.
Dan: For me, the personal sort of approach to songwriting is not one of sitting at home and inventing a fictional character or using whatever fairytale metaphors to get something across. I’m also not good at doing that other stuff. I can’t, I mean — I’d just feel like a fraud writing like, “the prince came down and the butterflies exploded from your hair and you were dreaming underwater of a fucking candy unicorn.” Grecian metaphor and literary allegory – I can’t do that. Other people can do that really well. Carey Mercer from the band Frog Eyes is kind of one of the masters of that. I love his songwriting. Spencer from Wolf Parade too, God bless him, is really good at that. And I just don’t know how to do it.
I really believe there’s this language of rock, right? Like rock and roll music has been around long enough that when people say stuff like…you take the guy from Spoon. In so many of his songs, he says stuff like “uh-huh” or “yeah,” but it’s just the way he says it, that word ceases to have the same meaning that it does on paper. And it can be interpreted depending on how he inflects it or what point in the song it comes. So, I like that minimalist lyrical school – it works for me.
F/F: Tell me more about the connection you made when you were touring in Eastern Europe with the underground radio station in Belgrade, and what that’s meant to you guys.
Alexei: When we were in Belgrade, there’s a station called B92, that is basically a guerilla radio station that was anti-Milosevic, and they were the people that basically motivated all of the demonstrations against Milosevic. They were the promoters that brought us over.
Dan: On the first visit we became really good friends just right off the bat. One of the actually traveled to Texas to come and see our show at SXSW! I consider them some of my best friends now. We’ve gotten to know a few in particular really well, like Milos and Svetlana. They’ve all had different but equally, completely and totally heartbreaking lives you know.
F/F: How old are they?
Dan: They’re in their mid-30′s. About 35.
F/F: So they’ve grown up with conflict?
Dan: Yeah. And so the first time we went over we became good friends. There was just a real connection between all of us. Then the last few times we’ve seen them it’s grown into this, I mean music, the show is the things that they are putting on and the show is what we a communicating with these kids who are coming out.
But the best part of the visits for me beyond the show is staying up all night getting completely piss fucking drunk and talking politics with them and talking about their lives and them asking us about our lives.
And that’s the whole reason I got into this thing in the first place, is just to be able make connections with people. And I never, never ever thought we’d be able to go somewhere as far away as Serbia and make connections with people there. I mean, who knows when people are going to stop giving a shit about what songs we write. But these connections, they’re permanent.
F/F: It reminds me of a book I loved about the same region called Fools Rush In – just the way that music shines through. There’s this indomitable characteristic of people that wants to play music and be in bands and go out and make love and and do all these things that embrace life. And you have to stay away from the windows so you don’t get shot, or run to the club, to avoid snipers. Meeting people that have lived through that firsthand must have just been really powerful.
Dan: Themes like that really inspired the record that we made, and then to go back — I mean the last time we were back we played for maybe seven or eight hundred kids in Belgrade and to sing those songs about the places that we’ve been to.
Alexei: I was crying after the show.
Dan: …And the shows have been really intense over there. You know like a lot of audience interaction.
Alexei: ..Yeah you got a scar from it.
Dan: It was one of the last songs we were playing in Belgrade. It was at this club called Academy, which has been around since the ’60s. And at the end I had thrown my guitar, and I grabbed the mic, and I was out in the audience. I had twisted and fallen off the stage and cut my head open on the monitors. There was a mosh pit and when I got up…
Alexei: …Suddenly the mosh pit just like moved back like, “What?!”
Dan: Yeah I was gushing blood. But our friend Milos grabbed me after the show and started stitching me up, and I didn’t know what to do. I was like, ‘How do you know how to do this?’ And he said, ‘I cleaned people up after the NATO bombing.’ And I was like, ‘Alright, well, this is slightly more joyful.’ And then we got drunk.
[photos by Todd Roeth]