Wolf Parade: Vanishing Creative Communities
and the Privilege of Making Art
Words: Justin Joffe
Photographs: Shane McCauley
and Justin Joffe
Words: Justin Joffe
Photographs: Shane McCauley
and Justin Joffe
Wolf Parade finishes its soundcheck for a recent appearance on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, then heads down West 51st for some Japanese food before returning for the taping proper. This is the Montreal quartet’s second Colbert performance in less than a year; the first went down in May, when the band reunited after a five-year hiatus, reissuing its celebrated 2005 debut, Apologies to the Queen Mary, and releasing a new self-titled EP.
During the hiatus, band members pursued seemingly endless outside projects. Guitarist Dan Boeckner went full tilt into Divine Fits with Spoon’s Britt Daniel, and released a couple of albums with his own globally conscious electro new-wave outfit, Operators. Keyboardist Spencer Krug focused on Moonface, initially a solo project, which soon incorporated Finnish prog band Sinnai to cathartic, grandiose ends. Multi-instrumentalist Dante DeCaro released an LP as Johnny and the Moon, and a wonderful EP under his own name. Drummer Arlen Thompson issued three unapologetically experimental albums by Annunaki, a collaboration with Dave Read.
Last week, the reunited Wolf Parade released its first LP in seven years, Cry Cry Cry, on Sub Pop, to near-universal acclaim. The album’s 11 tracks revisit lyrical themes the band has always embraced: city life versus country life, feeling overtaken by otherness, the creeping paranoia of invasive technology. But this time the focus turns outward in an attempt to make sense of our trying times – Cry Cry Cry was written in the thick of last fall’s three-ring circus of a hyper-accelerated news cycle, and it shows. Ahead of Wolf Parade’s show at Brooklyn Steel Oct. 21, The Log engaged Boeckner and Krug in a sweeping, substantive conversation about privileged classes making art, vanishing creative communities, and what it takes to stare down the political zeitgeist through song.
THE LOG JOURNAL: Spencer was just talking about Sinnai’s first and only trip to Canada with Moonface. It’s a bummer you couldn’t get them visas, and had to cancel the New York date.
SPENCER KRUG: It would’ve been too expensive, yeah. Way too expensive. I mean, we lost money just in Canada. But they wanted to see Canada, so everyone chipped in a couple hundred bucks, we made really shitty guarantees, and they got to see Canada.
DAN BOECKNER: It was like a working vacation.
KRUG: It’s expensive to get here.
BOECKNER: It’s hard to come and play in the States. It’s the biggest market for certain types of music, but it’s also more expensive than anywhere else to legally go and play music by like a factor of ten.
The cost of artist visas here is considered by some to be another way that “the game” is weaponized against the creative class. Of course the gentrification evergreen’s been written 500,000 times, but few people are talking about how it’s kind of impossible to have the nomadic, rambling man musical lifestyle in this economy.
BOECKNER: Well, it has to be inherited wealth. It has to, you know? Unless you are incredibly talented and get a benefactor, in a Renaissance-type way, whether that’s a record label or Red Bull putting your band on tour. Someone’s gotta support you. The only other way to play difficult music is to have inherited wealth, or be of a certain class. Then you aren’t worried that when you get home from tour you’re gonna get kicked out of your apartment, and have to figure out how to eat.
You see that here when 16-year-olds show up out of nowhere to open Bowery Presents shows decked out with sparkling new Moog synths and Rickenbacker guitars.
BOECKNER: Even the act of living in a city like New York, or to a lesser extent, Los Angeles. You need a certain amount of capital to live here. When you meet people and ask, ‘What are you doing here?’ and they answer, ‘I’m working on my band’… making money off of music takes a long time. And usually, if you’re lower-middle class, you’ve got to support yourself with another job. That eats into your creative time. The money has to come from somewhere.
People talk a lot about how you both bring distinct energies to Wolf Parade, and I like the line in your press release about how the band is the fourth member of the band. That’s what bands that play live scores to films often say: “the film is the fourth member of the band”.
BOECKNER: Wolf Parade is definitely a character in the Wolf Parade equation. It’s not like we came up with a persona and are writing to it, it just happened naturally. Because I don’t write the same kind of tunes with Operators, you know? And Spencer doesn’t write the same kind of tunes with Moonface.
KRUG: Yeah, we were just talking about how that sound is almost inexplicable. I don’t think any one of the four of us could describe how and why it happens. We just start playing together, and it sounds like Wolf Parade. Maybe it’s just a tone thing, who knows. It definitely came out as a Wolf Parade record. Fans of any other projects aren’t going to get confused and think it’s a Moonface record or something.
There’s intention in the distinctions, too. You got a lot of Reddit AMA questions about how the work you all made in your own projects during the hiatus fed back into the reunion. But what about your writing styles? Listen closely enough to your other projects, and they almost sound in dialogue with each other.
BOECKNER: I think we’re tuned in, not on the same wavelength, but the same group of waves.
To that end, Spencer plays the oracle or bard, the guy outside the acropolis watching the flood waters rise and warning the kids. And Dan’s the muckraker, combing through the news stories and talking about these new systems for understanding what’s happening in the world. They’re both creative conversations about our world right now that artists only seem to be having amongst each other. Musicians in many interviews have talked about the HyperNormalisation documentary, and its thesis that all art we’ve perceived to be part of the counterculture actually has been filtered through a corporate narrative. Was the early-aughts scene in Montreal inspiring to the communal vibe of the band? Maybe you guys approach the same questions from different mindsets?
BOECKNER: Yeah, the community thing in Montreal has its plusses and minuses. There’s micro-communities of friends, and there’s this perceived community of the old guard of musicians, hoarding over their cultural holdings like dragons. Then there are just those people, as people, with their separate, disparate groups of friends. It’s weird. And HyperNormalisation, definitely.
Did you see the doc?
BOECKNER: Yeah, I watched it the day it came out. I actually happened to be in the U.K., so we watched it on BBC.
It’s a three-hour found-footage behemoth. How would you describe it to the band?
BOECKNER: We watched it together, actually.
KRUG: We watched it while we were recording [Cry Cry Cry].
BOECKNER: This band watches a lot of Adam Curtis. Going back to the mid-’00s and Century of the Self, Adam Curtis was on the bus.
KRUG: I found out about him from these guys. All three of these guys are way more informed, politically, than I am or ever will be. So I actually learn a lot just from listening to them banter and debate about politics.
Nobody’s talking about that sort of new media theory in outlets like Reuters, it seems.
BOECKNER: No, because if they did, the entire facade would collapse. I think the ideas of HyperNormalisation come up on [Cry Cry Cry songs] “Weaponized”, “You’re Dreaming” and “Artificial Life,” specifically. HyperNormalisation in the mainstream media would read like one of those Lovecraft tomes of forbidden knowledge, where if they were to confront it, they would go insane and the system would shut down.
Tell us this, Spencer. Are “The Queen of Darkness and Light” and “The King of Piss and Paper” sharing a bed?
KRUG: Right! No, not at all. I’m sharing a bed with “The Queen of Darkness and Light,” and “The King of Piss and Paper” is basically just Trump. That came right out of Trump’s election.
You like trafficking in the grandiose, but I can tell you don’t really wanna hang with those people, either.
KRUG: You mean other grandiose traffickers? Yeah, I don’t really feel qualified to.
Did [Spencer’s former bandmate and Frog Eyes maestro] Carey Mercer appreciate “Who Are Ya?” The song sounds like such a loving stylistic homage, a seemingly adjunct sound from the rest of this new record.
KRUG: It is almost a nod to him, isn’t it?
Was that intentional?
KRUG: No. I was writing that song at home, and my partner Julia was like, “What’s that ragtime piece you wrote? That Broadway show tune garbage you’re working on?” She just hated it. I said, “You’ll see. The band will turn it into something else.”
BOECKNER: We made it more Broadway. I listened to the Rocky Horror Picture Show soundtrack recently, a fantastic piece of art and music. And there it is, “Who Are Ya?” That’s the vibe. Like a couple of Meat Loaf songs.
Once you see Rocky Horror and do karaoke to Meat Loaf, he makes a ton of sense. “Paradise by the Dashboard Light” was recently suggested by a prominent publication as a song that should be retired, but I disagree.
BOECKNER: I also disagree. No song should be retired. All songs forever!
They also put “Hallelujah” on there, too, but the Jeff Buckley cover, which I was fine with.
BOECKNER: Yeah, that’s O.K. Not the original, though.
KRUG: The original’s no good? Cohen just fucked it up?
It wasn’t him, but the producer. His producer was high on Casiotone.
BOECKNER: He loved that sound, though. Near the end of his life, within the last 10 years, there was a brief moment where a friend of ours who works at hotel2tango and also works with Leonard Cohen’s son suggested he do a record at that studio, with the community, with the Godspeed You! Black Emperor people. It probably would’ve been incredible.
Constellation Records is still there?
BOECKNER: Constellation is still there, in the building. And according to our friend Howard, Cohen was like, “Eh, I like the sounds that I get out of my…” he named this keyboard. And he just liked it. He liked that sound.
KRUG: Yeah, I think he sort of discovered it around I’m Your Man.
You imply on “Valley Boy” that there’s some significance in the fact Leonard Cohen passed the night before Trump’s election. As a writer he had the concept of duality down: darkness and light, body and mind, spirit and flesh, whatever. And now that sense of proportion in life feels totally askew.
BOECKNER: And he’s funny, too.
KRUG: He’s funny, he’s sexy…
But – and credit to Dan Bejar [of Destroyer] for pointing this out — Cohen was no champion of the protest movement. He wasn’t about it. There was a sense of otherness about him, too – maybe that had something to do with it.
BOECKNER: I think a lot of people in that mid to late ‘60s scene, that were looking beyond the rising tide of protest music or protest poetry, felt that way. My dad grew up in that scene — he used to drive Leonard Cohen back to his hotel from his poetry performances at the university in Toronto. I think a lot of people who were maybe trying to cast a wider net with their writing maybe just rejected the dumb… I think of Country Joe and the Fish, sort of basic protest music. Which is fine, but it’s the ’60s equivalent of the [Green Day] American Idiot record. Did they stop a war in Vietnam? No! The Americans left in 1976. I think Cohen was smart enough and/or selfish enough to realize that just jumping on that…
There’s another parallel to Hypernormalisation here, too. Some of the artists are just sitting there, not marching or organizing, but tripping balls and rolling around in patchouli instead. There’s this idea that they embraced a passivity making them complicit.
BOECKNER: Well, when they started there were revolutionaries on the left, and, I don’t know, there’s kind of an analog to this with leftism today, with the anti-Trump resistance or whatever. There were hardcore leftists at first, politically, but as time wore on they were faced with the full might of the state bearing down on them. Then the state was literally fucking murdering these towheaded white kids at Kent State. Then after that, the hippie philosophy was, “Wait. What if we just work on ourselves really hard? Then we’ll stop the war!” Or they just decided that they stopped the war, even though the last American helicopter left in 1976. It’s hard to make political art. History is never kind to it.
Maybe that’s why there’s such an ethereal glow to Cohen’s music. What’s the conclusion you draw from the coincidence that Cohen died the night before the election?
KRUG: That’s what the whole song’s about, almost. It’s just waxing poetic about the fact that he seemed to bow out right as Trump got in, right as the barbarians were banging down the door. There’s a line where he goes out on the back stairs. He’s just like, “fuck this, I’m out!” This house is burning down. And then we got to say a little bit about Trump in there. It’s nice to play a song like that in New York right now, so that’ll be fun. Not that we actually name him by name, but it’s in the record.
That’s what attracts me so much to this new record you guys made, too. It seems less concerned with the minutiae of resistance, and more interested in speaking to the systems and infrastructures keeping a lid on that resistance, the bigger picture stuff. Are artists be the ones who should be having those difficult conversations in a public space?
BOECKNER: I think direct action doesn’t translate in music. If you’re gonna name names and do something that’s actually gonna affect change, you’ve gotta do community organizing. Some of the stuff that Will Butler did on the last Arcade Fire tour we were on… doing community organizing with city counselors! Super boring shit. Unions, local governments, government on a minuscule level. That’s where naming names and being very pointed and direct works. And I think that’s honestly the only thing that ever affects real political change. It’s either that, or violence on a massive scale. [laughs]
KRUG: When you’re too on the nose in songwriting, it narrows the audience a little bit, right? And to keep it a little more open-ended and open to interpretation means that whatever your message is might reach a wider audience and be interpreted by them, but hopefully not too far from the original meaning, or twisted into something different than what it is.
To that end, the idea of not just the Cohen and Bowie allusions in the lyrics, but the sounds… I hear Scary Monsters and Super Creeps on “Am I an Alien Here?” On the back half of “Weaponized” there’s a piano flange that recalls Space Oddity or Reality. You guys seem to swallow the meat of pop sensibilities as a device on this record. It helps all these big ideas digest a bit easier.
KRUG: We don’t really discuss the musicality of that stuff. It’s just part of the natural thing that comes out of us, when it gets proggy. And it’s as much [Arlen and Dante] as it is us.
BOECKNER: Writing “Weaponized” was one of my favorite experiences on this recording. Basically, we had the front half of it kind of done, but it always felt unwieldy to me. It was almost there. When we were in Seattle writing, I had a back half of this song. And Spencer and I got together one night, while everybody had fallen asleep, in the studio… it was really creepy and quiet in there. We just arranged it and it was done. Dante figured out a great bass line, and that was that.
Does it help to sequester yourself and commit to recording, to carve out a block of time and just be together through it all?
KRUG: It can be maddening, but I don’t know that there’s any other way to do it so it feels like one project, one piece of art that comes out of the same place at the same time. We did a lot of writing before we tracked, but then we went in there for two and a half weeks or something.
BOECKNER: Just honed it.
KRUG: Yeah, we wanted to get away from the home life and our other projects.
BOECKNER: The dogs.
KRUG: Well, my dog came around for mixing.
“Cry Cry Cry” is a snippet of a lyric on “C’est La Vie Way” off your 2016 reunion EP. Why did that become the name of the full-length record, too?
KRUG: 2016 was just such a shitty year that by the time we were tracking at the end of it, we realized we were just complaining about all these things. Dan and I don’t really confer about lyrics. I don’t ask him about his lyrics or what they’re about, and we definitely don’t ask each other’s permission or anything. But given that we’re friends and basically came out of the same place, we end up writing about the same kind of things, just differently. Like you said, he’s a little more straightforward. But we realized that the whole record was just bitching about the state of affairs in 2016. Not only had things gotten so ugly politically in North America, but so much of the artist and musician community died. There was so much to bitch about.
What are your relationships to the avant or classical music communities in different cities like Vancouver, L.A., or Montreal these days? Montreal in particular seems a lot less dour and somber than it was a decade ago.
BOECKNER: The local music scene is rich and very alive. There’s a band, Napster Vertigo, that are doing ‘80s Leonard Cohen with almost no-wave backing. The vocals are great, but you gotta lean into that music — then it grabs you and you’re there. There’s another band called Freak Heat Waves, also relocated to Montreal, that are fucking phenomenal. But for me, I got exposed to a lot of “out” music in the late-’90s because I got into punk, then hardcore, through catalog tape labels in the Pacific Northwest like Union Pole, who are putting out these weird acts like Truman’s Water and other bizarre art projects. Then there’s some mutual friends of ours, Kenny and Jeff. Spence grew up with them, and we all worked in the same kitchen together. They exposed me to the wonderful world of musique concrète and noise. I spent a couple of years just observing and eating whatever those guys brought in.
A lot of those noise guys write great, great lyrics. I interviewed Eric Paul about his book of poetry on Heartworm Press a couple years back, and was amazed to discover how thoughtful a lot of the writing is in noise music. It’s just that nobody hears it because of the noise.
BOECKNER: It’s a tough sell.
But one that speaks to what you just said about having to lean into difficult music sometimes.
BOECKNER: Yeah, and I guess for my own writing I’ve always enjoyed listening to that stuff at home. That’s the stuff I’ll throw on while I’m cooking. More recent, out-there electronica stuff like Pye Corner Audio, The Focus Group… stuff like that. But I love pop music, and wanna sing pop hooks. That’s the dichotomy in the writing.
Maybe a good approach for making something that’s critical of an infrastructure it also exists within? A lot of the criticism levied at Arcade Fire’s rollout strategy for their last record was that it used “fake news” and a lot of the other manipulative media strategies in the interest of promotion. Win Butler has since said the rollout was misunderstood, but music fans weren’t sure if he was being disingenuous or not. And it begs a question that’s relevant to what we’re talking about here: can an artist “trojan horse” the entertainment industry? Can they criticize the infrastructure from within it?
BOECKNER: Well, years later you totally can. People name-checking the Clash and all those postpunk bands, remember, they were all on fucking major labels. So was Wire… Public Image Ltd! And then there’s also the uncomfortable truth that if you’re criticizing structures and making fashionably aggressive, noncommercial music, chances are you’re from a certain economic class. Because it’s really easy to make super-abrasive shit and not care if it sells zero copies when you don’t have to work. I’m generalizing, but there’s definitely a class element to criticizing music.
We walk back to the Ed Sullivan Theater, where the band will head backstage ahead of their Colbert performance. Krug hangs back a moment, and conversation resumes.
So you and Dan were both line cooks, and that’s how you met? Do you remember the name of the restaurant?
KRUG: It was called the Bent Mast, in Victoria. That’s where he meant when he was talking about those friends of mine playing all that noise music. That’s where we realized we were both kind of doing the same thing. We talked about getting a band together, I moved to Montreal, he moved to Montreal shortly thereafter, and eventually we did this band thing. You guys’ conversation about class and music got me thinking about how Apologies [to the Queen Mary] was the only record we wrote where we had nothing to lose. All of us were working shitty jobs at the time, and neither of us come out of privileged backgrounds or families.
That comes through in the music.
KRUG: I don’t know if it does anymore.
It’s naive to think that a band writing their first record in their early ‘20s will have the same youthful interplay forever. That’s why I asked about trading lyrics and your dichotomy as writers, because I think that same tension that some posit is a purely Apologies thing is still present in the way that you approach the problems you’re singing about.
KRUG: But who knows, that could be true. Because that’s the one record where I still worked in the bagel shop and he was a fuckin’ telemarketer.
Oh, man, you’re a Montreal bagel guy, that’s right.
KRUG: Yeah, I worked at [historic Mile End bagel shop] Fairmount Bagel. And Arlen was a projectionist at the university he went to. We all had these shitty jobs, so there really was nothing to lose. And I think working a shitty job in a city fuels a different kind of music. It probably happens to so many bands — [by] the second or third record, they come from a privileged place. Because suddenly, their job got way cooler.
Then it’s a question of, how do you get back to that place in a genuine way?
KRUG: Yeah, and you’re not angry anymore. You’re just angry at Trump or something, or you try to drum up some anger and it comes off as insincere, which I think happens to a lot of bands.
That’s the same line of thinking I take to those who say “I’m not a political person.” It’s kind of a privileged thing to say these days, because it comes from a place where the bad things that are enabled by politics don’t affect you.
KRUG: Yeah, I have some new lines on the record about that, too. I come from a very privileged place demographically, so sometimes I feel out of line complaining about anything. How can you, now?
“How can we sing about ourselves?”
KRUG: “How can we not sing about ourselves?” So that’s what it’s all about.
Wolf Parade performs at Brooklyn Steel Oct. 21 at 8pm; bowerypresents.com. The band is also giving away concert tickets and autographed albums as incentives in a GoFundMe campaign for Puerto Rican relief; see details here.