Born in 2014 as a continuation of sorts of the ideas singer Dan Boeckner was exploring in the Handsome Furs, Operators has developed its own set of aesthetics and a sound as distinctive as any of Boeckner’s other previous projects (Wolf Parade, Divine Fits). While Operators rely on a largely electronic palette, there is nevertheless no shortage of human emotion in what they create. As with electronic pioneers before them (think OMD, New Order, etc.), the various synths and sequencers they utilize are merely their instruments of choice for conveying the human experience.
Joining Boeckner in this pursuit is songwriting partner Devojka, an eponymously named Macedonian artist living, like Boeckner, in Montreal, as well as Divine Fits drummer Sam Brown, known also for his playing in Columbus punk bands New Bomb Turks and Gaunt. After releasing a five-song EP in 2014, Operators made their full-length debut in 2016 with Blue Wave, which set an often bleak outlook to a retro-futuristic blend of live instrumentation and mechanized backing.
The band has followed up Blue Wave with a second album, Radiant Dawn (Last Gang Records). While sharing its predecessor’s balance of analog and digital sounds, the new record seems more fully formed. Cuts like “Days” and “Terminal Beach” can be seen as personal apocalypses, but also express the societal angst so many are feeling these days. The album has a cohesiveness that would indicate this is the Operators’ vision fully formed.
With Radiant Dawn having been out for a couple days and the band about to embark on a tour that will last for much of the summer, I caught up with all three members on the phone to discuss the new album and its creation.
People always talk about the “difficult second album.” Was it tougher making this one than the first one?
Devojka: No, it was way easier than making the first one. It just took longer.
Dan Boeckner: Yeah, it was a lot easier. It was more fun to make than the first one, that’s for sure. Dev and I had a better idea of what we wanted to make going into it.
D: If you think about it, in a way it was like making our third record. Before Blue Waves, we were in Montreal in the winter of 2014 and recorded a whole album’s worth of songs…
DB: Yeah, like 14 songs.
D: Ultimately, it ended up being an EP of five songs because we went on a six-week tour with Future Islands, and playing live, we saw that a lot of the songs that we had recorded weren’t quite what they were going to become. They hadn’t matured yet. So we went back to the studio with Graham Walsh in 2015 and that became Blue Waves. That was a really arduous process for various reasons. So yeah, I’d say this record was easier. It felt more cohesive. We definitely had an idea of what we wanted to do, and once we had that idea, it was just a matter of making it happen.
I’ve read in a couple places where you’ve stressed that this was a collaborative effort. Was that more so than the previous records?
D: As a band, we’ve always had moments when we’re in a room together where we come up with the foundation of a song, and it’s then a process of arrangement and feedback. I’d say with this record, because Dan and I worked together a lot, there was no separation in the process from start to finish.
DB: In the early part of 2018, we did about three or four days of live improv and recorded absolutely all of it with Napster Vertigo. Looking back, even though that music only made it onto the album in the form of those inter-title pieces, the vibe of those sessions really informed the way Radiant Dawn sounds.
Sam Brown: It was a nice precursor because while we were making up jams, he was recording us with a cassette deck, with everything going through an Eventide delay and a couple other pedals before it even hit the cassette deck. So he was on the fly making this electric dub mix of our jams as we were making them up. It was cool that he ended up mixing the record because it became just a continuation of that experiment.
DB: When we did those sessions, we hadn’t even decided who was going to mix the record. Coming out of that and listening to those files, we decided this is the guy.
D: Napster Vertigo has a studio next to ours, and I was always like, “What is he doing in there?” He was becoming a really good engineer. And he spoke to each one of us individually, which was good because Sam is all about the ambiance, Dan is about the work, and I’m about abstract ideas that are really hard to translate but he understood them.
You described Blue Wave as a technology-induced depression, and Radiant Dawn has a literally much brighter title. Was your mindset more optimistic going into making this record?
DB: No! I was in kind of a deep existential depression for the songwriting process of this record. Songs like “Despair” and “Days”…
That was actually one I was thinking about because you sing about coming back to life on that song.
DB: Yeah, “Days” is in a lot of ways about using the creative process to dig yourself out of a depression hole, but also about embracing the systems that make you feel depressed. I think 2018 was a bad year for a lot of people on several levels. Politically. globally, it was not a banner year for humanity. I spent a lot of time online in 2018, and the more people I connected with, the more I found their personal lives were reflecting the kind of chaos that we saw in these bigger systems like political systems or social systems or the climate.
D: Depression is something I’ve always struggled with, and for better or worse, it informs the creative process and collaborative process. It’s something that Dan has to be around a lot and deal with. And Blue Wave is called “blue wave” because that’s how I refer to my depression. But I feel like Blue Wave was a bit impersonal and a more cynical record. Dan is really good at contextualizing his grief on a global scale. The world reflects backs to him and how he feels is reflected back upon the world. It’s all intertwined, whereas I am more navel-gazing. It’s all about me.
I think Radiant Dawn is a more tender record in viewing both of those approaches to how we feel. And Sam is just happy all the time.
SB: For me, the difference between Blue Wave and Radiant Dawn is that Blue Wave feels like a traditional collection of songs that are different from each other, whereas Radiant Dawn feels like when you go into a movie theater in mid-July when it’s really hot. You sit in the dark in the air conditioning and when you come out, your eyes hurt from the sun and the heat hits you. I can’t not listen to the album from top to bottom because it feels like a cinematic experience.
Is there a clear division between those points of view song-to-song or do they mesh together?
DB: They mesh together more on this record than they ever have because Dev and I worked on the lyrics together, and we all worked collectively on the way the songs were presented, on the sonic world that they live in. I think there is more depth sonically on this album than there was on Blue Waves. There is more emotional depth. There is a cinematic quality, and the songs live in these little pocket universes.
But there was definitely an attempt to mesh those two points of view together. If Blue Waves is a dystopian, cyber-punk approach, by the time we started doing Radiant Dawn, I felt like contextualizing modern events and how you feel in dystopian language was played out. I was more interested in the transformative power of big cataclysmic events that feel like they are coming very soon, like climate events and the inability to contain the systems like the Internet that we’ve created. I got really obsessed with this idea of the hyperobject. Sociologists refer to the Internet as a hyperobject. Climate change is a hyperobject. We can’t see the edges of a hyperobject or see the shape of it. We only know it from its impact on our lives, and we only see it when it doesn’t work the way we think it should, when it breaks. In a way, those hyperobjects, which are very real but hard to understand, are like the monsters in an HP Lovecraft story. They are almost beyond comprehension. I was interested in the idea that if these massive changes due to these hyperobjects are coming, maybe they’re not going to be entirely dystopian. Maybe it’s not a Blade Runner future. What does the future look like when the cataclysm comes then something good comes out of it? These systems could destroy negative patterns of behavior, negative things that we are doing to ourselves, to our minds, to the planet, but is there something good coming out of it? That’s the whole idea of Radiant Dawn. So on songs like “In Moderan,” you don’t know what is going to happen to the protagonist. Something is coming, and when the event happens, it might transform the world for good or it might annihilate everything.
D: And the imagery of the black pyramid in the artwork comes from a desire to pick something that is a constant in an ever changing ecology. That speaks to what is going on. We might extinguish ourselves but Earth will keep going.
DB: The people that worked on the cover art and the insert and all of the video trailers for Radiant Dawn were amazing. The guy that did the cover art was Simon Roy. He’s a pretty famous underground graphic novelist who did Habitat. It’s very science fiction, very crazy, and better than any science fiction movie I’ve seen in the last couple years. He’s incredibly talented and really nice. We worked with Simon and Oliver Leach, aka Bakoon, who is a photo artist. Johnny Dunn and Caleb Bardgett made all the videos and designed our merch. It was a treat to work with these people that I admire and who got what we were going for and were excited about extending this world out. When we play live, all of those visuals will be funneled through our visual guy for projections.
It’s interesting that you brought up dystopia because in the press release this record is described as having a “1970s sci-fi dystopian feel” so I was going to ask you what your vision of the future looks like and what does “the beach at the end of the falling earth” look like?
DB: When I was writing the lyrics for “Terminal Beach,” I was thinking about when I lived in Taiwan briefly in 2005 for about five months. I lived in this city that was by a harbor, and there was this stretch of beach called Golden Beach. Part of it was about half a kilometer of enormous concrete octagons sunken into the ocean to build a jetty out in the sea. I used to go out there and sit and look at the ocean. It felt like the end of the world. There’s a 1950s nuclear paranoia movie and book called On the Beach, and I would go out there and think about that book and that became the setting. In the context of the song, I imagined the last of humanity sitting by the boardwalk on the last vestiges of this beachfront, waiting for the end, waiting for this event that is either going to change or stop things. That’s what it looks like to me. There is also that JG Ballard story, “Terminal Beach,” that it takes its name from.
Sam, you said you had to listen to the record as a whole. Is there an overarching theme to the record?
D: I would replace “dystopian” with “pre-apocalypic.” But that’s really hard. You pick up a lot over three years. Everything and anything makes its way onto the metaphorical texture of an album.
DB: I have a theme, I think. One thing that links all these songs together and informs the sound of the record is the psychedelic effect on the human mind by massive systems that we can barely comprehend. How, when the human mind is faced with a problem or forces that are so beyond us, it starts to almost hallucinate. It starts to fill in the blanks strangely and create things. It has a psychedelic effect. I think that is reflected in the way this record sounds, the kind of the melting down of everything.
SB: But the shows will be fun, so come see us live!
Sam, obviously this is much different than playing with the New Bomb Turks. Was there a learning curve for playing to electronics?
SB: It was a natural progression because I was playing mostly locked beats with Divine Fits. When I first started playing with Dan and Britt (Daniel), I had an idea for how I wanted to play. I wanted it to be different than anything I had done previously so I decided to see if I could play the same beat (aside for a couple fills) for a whole song. So after two years of playing the Divine Fits songs and locking into pocket grooves, I was used to playing looped bass beats. Playing to machines was surprisingly easy. I was never a click-track guy and hated doing it because I thought I played too stiff. Once I started playing to machines, I found that I could just play to the bassline or the tambourine hit that comes along every two measures or whatever. It was like having the world’s most dependable bass player to play with. It was great because it made me aware of where I speed up or slow down and where I naturally rush things. It’s leveled out of my playing and made me more conscious of where I push and pull.
In general, are you guys very purposeful about trying to retain a human feel working in this electronic context?
DB: Yeah, especially on this record, depending on the song. The human feel is sometimes the way Sam approaches playing drums or synth parts that come in and melt and go out of tune organically. There are a lot of ways to humanize electronic music. But I think it’s a weird baked-in myth that we’ve all accepted since the ’80s that electronic music is soulless or heartless. Because of an article that came out about this record, I’ve been thinking about this a lot. In the late ’70s/early ’80s, there was a baby boomer reaction against electronic music. It was considered cheating. People would go see shows and if there was a sequencer, it was looked at as cheating, which is insane to think about now considering how far technology has advanced.
SB: Some bands play whole records with just an iPad now.
DB: Exactly. It was seen as a betrayal of this venerated rock idea that rock is this important primal thing. They thought there was no humanity to this stuff. But if you listen to the last 40 years of electronic music, that’s been proven wrong over and over again. In a weird way, it’s indicative of how we’re trapped in 1969 until the boomers die.
There is definitely a division in time, somewhere around 1980, of how people thought about electronic music. Prior to the ’80s, electronic music was people like Suzanne Ciani or bands like Tangerine Dream. Electronics was the providence of psychedelic warlords exploring the outer reaches of sound and trying to get sounds beyond traditional guitar-bass-and-drums. If you listened to electronic music in the mid-70s, even Krautrock, chances are you were a freak. I feel like we pulled a lot from that era on this album.
You’ve said before that this is kind of a continuation of Handsome Furs and you did those shows where you played entirely Handsome Furs songs. Are you going to be incorporating those songs into your sets now?
DB: Definitely. Sam was just up in Montreal for our rehearsals, and once we figured out how to play all of Radiant Dawn, we learned 12 Handsome Furs songs.
D: We’re doing some Handsome Furs shows in Vancouver, but we’d like to get away from doing that and just integrate the whole thing. Sonically, it makes sense. A lot of the equipment we used in the beginning was stuff Dan thought he was going to use with Handsome Furs, and the idea of playing with a real drummer was something he always wanted to do.
DB: Yeah, for the unmade fourth Handsome Furs record. But we evolved into something different, and I’m really glad that the first Operators album wasn’t just like the fourth Handsome Furs album.
Outside of your musical roles, do you guys have certain functions within the band?
DB: That’s a good question. It could be contentious.
D: Sam is really good at Tetris-ing the van, like loading it to fit everything in. And he’ll put in a good shift driving.
DB: I don’t drive, but I’m good at getting on the phone and yelling at a record label about stuff they are doing wrong and trying to fix it.
D: Dan says that, but he always comes in real hot like he’s going to crack some skulls. But then five minutes into it, he’s like “I’m sorry, I just feel…” and he gets off the phone being everyone’s friend. I have a lot of Virgo in my chart so I’m just unhappy with what everyone is doing, although it’s mostly directed at myself. There is a lot of busy work, so many emails.
DB: Being in a band at this level, if you don’t have a super structure of management, you’re constantly dealing with stuff that no one prepares you for when you decide you want to play music in front of people for a living, like dealing with supply chain stuff or merch costs or foreign tax documents. Real sexy rock & roll stuff like filing W-9s.