A conversation with Dan Boeckner (Divine Fits)
There's an old saying that goes "You shouldn't meet your heroes, you should skype them." Unkempt and overdrawn, I sat on the edge of my bed waiting for my scheduled interview with Dan Boeckner about his brand new band, Divine Fits and their new album A Thing Called Divine Fits. Amplified by a peculiar feeling of debt and expectation, 8pm approached and internet-communication beckoned.
Do you want to just dive right in with this thing?
Yeah, absolutely, let's do it.
Do you want to hear the questions or?
No, let's just go straight in. I don't need a map.
How has your taste in music changed since the start of your musical career?
Well when I started playing music, I was playing in Hardcore bands, so that was my background – that was like music school for me (laughs). I guess it would be late-nineties hardcore, and the classics like Black Flag. And a lot of real crusty punk; stuff that was really influenced by Conflict, Discharge, and Crass – all the British Crass bands so, that world is… (pauses) I mean it's a great quote/un-quote School of Music to go to. It teaches you these practical values about touring and, you get a bit of politics, noise, and learn how to really give your all on stage but, it can be really dogmatic, you know?
A lot of people on that scene, they don't listen to anything but Hardcore. Or they didn't when I was a teenager. So, from that I kind of discovered more Classic Rock; stuff that I would've considered my Dad's music. And recently, I guess in the last five years the other big thing for me was sort of discovering house music and early electronic music, which I've always kind of secretly liked (laughs). But really getting into that, early Chicago House and Detroit Techno, so that's been my latest thing that I've been really going head first into.
So what kind of records took you toward the Classic Rock stuff?
Hm.. (pauses) One record in particular was 'Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere' which is the first Neil Young and Crazy Horse record. It really spoke to me - I would listen to that secretly when I was playing in these Hardcore bands. (laughs) But that band is just so heavy!
So you're a closet Neil Young fan then?
I'm not anymore – totally out of the closet, but I was a closet Neil Young fan. 'Cowgirl In The Sand', I could really get into. Just one riff over and over again, and the sheer kind of heavy rawness of it. So that was my gateway drug into seventies rock (laughs).
When a new song comes to you, what is it in its simplest form?
In its simplest form? I think it's generally a vocal melody and maybe a lead melody that's not a vocal. Maybe instrumentation and a very simple beat: a hook is usually what I start with, and then I go from there. Although with this record and the last Handsome Furs record, a lot of the songs would start with a drum pattern and no melodic anchor – I'd just work out a rhythmic vocal pattern over the top of it, and then a chord progression over the top of that.
Wow, that's crazy. At what point do lyrics normally come?
For this record the lyrics came early on in the process, but on the last two albums I made (Handsome Furs) they came after the rough skeleton of the song was in place. Before that I would always wait until the very last minute to write lyrics and until I had, I would make sounds with my mouth that sounded like words (laughs), and then fit things in after.
So would you say the lyrics are more of an important thing on the new record? - That's a silly question - but were they different as they arrived so early?
Yeah, I think they're important on this record I wouldn't say they were more so than in the past. I'm not sure why they arrived so early on this one. I really believe in – this is personal for me in my songwriting – not over-explaining things or layering on the metaphors with lyrics. That's personal taste because there are people that are great at it but it's just not for me. I guess the best example (of my personal taste) would be 'Suicide' where there are barely any lyrics to the song. It's like a sentence, and it's all in the phrasing, how they're delivered, and the emotional content. So yeah, that's my school of singing and lyric writing.
I think that on this record in particular, your lyrics are even more frank and direct than they've been in the past.
Yeah, I really paired stuff down on this record (laughs)
That's why they came so early! (laughs)
Yeah! (Laughs then pauses). I think I just knew what I wanted to say on the songs, and said it in the most direct way I possibly could. Then I just worked on the performance and delivery.
Why did you go with 'My Love Is Real' as the leading single?
Well, that was always a favourite of Britt (Daniels) and mine. It happened pretty spontaneously; I had a demo version of it that was just a chorus that I recorded in Montreal in my kitchen, much to the annoyance of the neighbours (laughs). And then I went to LA, where Britt and I were staying in the same house. After we had been at rehearsal, I came back and I just recorded basically what's the song now on the record, brought it to him and he said 'this is great', then it just happened all at once. I think we picked it (as the leading single) because it's minimal and super-emotional, so we thought it should be the first song we put out. It just seemed like a no-brainer.
It sounds like it all came together very naturally.
I think it was because we were working so close to each other, in the same house, with the same aesthetics. I would bring him stuff, we'd edit it, and vice-versa – all the tracks were written in a pretty short amount of time. Then before we recorded them, instead of just straight-up multi-tracking them in the studio, we got together with Alex, our keyboard player, and Sam the drummer and worked them out live - that really brought the songs to life and showed us what we needed to get rid of. It's one thing to sit in front of a computer and say 'that sounds good' but it's another thing to stand up, play it, and imagine you're doing it for people.
Would you say you're driven by the live side of things? It seems like it's important to you.
For Britt and I, we liked the idea that in the seventies bands would tour and it was an advertisement for purchasing the album. They would tour at a massive loss, and the expectation was that they'd make that up in record sales. But now it has completely reversed; nobody buys the record but they will go shows. Well, not nobody, but record sales aren't what they used to be.
And for me, the only way I can connect… (pauses) It's my favourite part of being in a band; it's this moment that's there and then it has gone. It's great – really exciting.
Does the sentiment behind 'My Love Is Real' carry on throughout the album?
In my songs? Definitely, yeah – it's a pretty dark… The stuff that I wrote, it's pretty dark and emotional.
What were you listening to when you wrote the album?
Britt and I put together a folder of music that we gave to Alex and Sam of stuff that we were listening to at the house. The song 'Radio Activity' by Kraftwerk was in there, lots and lots of ACDC, Factory Floor – who were a big influence on a lot of the production, specifically the drum sound. I kind of used 'The Tempest', which is a drum sequencer, to write all of my songs for the record on (laughs).
How much input do you have on Britt's songs? And vice-versa.
We never really talked about it – but when we were arranging the songs everybody in the band had equal say on what parts should go where, or whether we needed to get rid of certain parts, and I think because both of us have been in bands for a while and aren't teenagers or in our early twenties, nobody was precious. There were no egos, so it was completely alright to say a part wasn't working and to re-arrange it and we did a lot of that.
Which out of your songs do you think got 'diced and spliced' the most?
I think 'For Your Heart' really took a different form to what it was when it started. And weirdly 'My Love Is Real'; the length and structure of it was there from the beginning but we spent so much time putting hi-hats in, taking them out, and building it. Nick (the producer) was like 'it's great, but it needs another part' and we were like 'no! No more parts' (laughs). We treated it kind of like a techno or a house track where you just try and build it with additions and subtractions, so that got re-arranged a lot.
What did Nick Launay bring to the album?
Ah man (laughs). He brought great ideas and he's really un-flappable; I never saw him once in a bad mood and he always got really excited about whatever we were doing. He's one of my all-time favourite producers. I think he's one of the only guys to survive the eighties without becoming shitty, and that's really saying something that he lived and worked through that decade and then came out making Grinderman records.
What about Bill Murray?
That's true! (pauses) But it's a rare thing, right? I think one thing Nick added was a chaos element to some of the songs where he would come up with these ideas, and I think this has been his thing all along and I've been talking to him since he did that Flowers of Romance Public Image record – he will just literally try anything. So when we were recording Sultan Sea he got this harmoniser, which is an ancient auto-tuning device, and we started running shit through it, and he was tuning it live. He's just incredibly creative, and he'd try stuff that didn't work all the time: his method was one out of five things he would try could make the song. It was great working with him; it was like a master's class.
It seems like there was a lot of trial and error, has it always been like that?
Definitely, when I was a kid I had a ghetto blaster and a Walkman that had a recording function. So I would record into the ghetto blaster's internal microphone, then I would play that track back out and record it on the Walkman, then I'd record that on a cassette, put it in the ghetto blaster, and so on and so on.
(laughs) That's ridiculous!
(laughs) It was a very limited way of recording. Britt is obsessed with recording stuff even more than I; his demos often sound as good as the finished product. On the Divine Fits record, a lot of the vocals are demo vocals that were recorded in my kitchen or anywhere. The vocals for 'My Love Is Real' were recorded in an empty room in Britt's house on an SM57, directly into the computer.
When are you guys thinking of coming across the pond and playing in Europe?
We were talking about coming over in the fall, and that ties in with putting the record out over there, so it's just a matter of touring North America and hopefully we'll be over in then, I'm looking forward to it. It's one thing that doesn't really change I think; playing live shows and having people enjoy those shows – it's a constant.
What's your favourite UK show you've played?
I think some of the Handsome Furs shows I've played in London - 93 Feet East was a blast, I had such a good time. And weirdly, I remember this show only because it was so terrible, it kind of went through the other side of being terrible and came out being fun, but the first tour I ever did with Wolf Parade in the UK in 2004 - it was the first time I'd ever been to England and we played Nottingham. (the venue) Was one of those seventies social club's that The Fall would still play. It was brightly lit, had red carpets on the floors, and it smelt like people had been smoking in there for a billion years. It completely changed my view of England; I grew up watching the BBC, and I thought I had a handle on English culture, but going to Nottingham was, and no disrespect to Nottingham, revealing! It was drunk, violent, and crazy, totally crazy. Our drummer almost got beat up by a bunch of girls! He was totally scared of them. But that show was so bad, that it was good – so those two were my favourites.
Have you seen the show Quantum Leap?
Erm… Yeah, Scott Bakula?
Yeah, what's your favourite episode?
(pauses) I can't remember any specific episodes of Quantum Leap, but I've definitely seen it.
It's great. So what's next?
(pauses) Well at the moment I'm scoring a movie called Adult World with Emma Roberts and John Cusack, and he plays a bitter, aging punk rocker.
I love John Cusack!
Yeah, he's great. But yeah - touring starts soon, and then it's all band all the time.
Do you think there will be a second record?
Definitely. Everybody's really excited to be in this band.
Amazing. Thanks so much, Dan.
A Thing Called Divine Fits is out now. You can find out more about the band by heading to divinefits.com
Purchase and listen
Indie icon Bradford Cox joins Divine Fits on stage for a cover of the Ramones' '53rd & 3rd'. [read more]