HANDSOME FURS: FAN MAIL FROM PRISONS AROUND THE WORLD
Handsome Furs are husband-and-wife team Dan Boeckner (also in Wolf Parade) and Alexei Perry and their new album Face Control blends classic rock riffs with a techno beat. They have been to many places you have never heard of. Alexei takes time out from a day at the beach to do this interview. This interview by Tom Child.
Are you in America now?
Alexei Perry (synth/drum machines): We’re in Vancouver now, actually. Basically in the last week we flew from Bucharest to Portugal to Montreal to Chicago to Vancouver. It’s wild, I have no idea what time it is. It’s beach time, actually. That’s what Dan just said. We’re sitting on English Bay right now. We used to live in this area, so we’re having a bit of a beach date. It’s gorgeous. Yeah, it’s beautiful. I have a bikini on. It’s nice.
I don’t think I’ve ever conducted an interview with someone in a bikini before.
I get very little downtime, so I’m eating it up.
What inspired you two to first form Handsome Furs?
I think it happened pretty naturally really. We were both living in a pretty small place and we ended up just sort of working on each other’s stuff. Dan was editing a lot of my stories and we bought a drum machine and started working stuff out together on that. There’s no big story about it, really. We just enjoy working on projects together I think. And also we really wanted to do a lot of traveling together. That was a big reason for starting our band.
How did you first become interested in being a writer?
I’ve been writing since I was a little kid. I think my dad would say that it started when he was telling me stories. He always used to come up with stories when I was falling asleep and I could never fall asleep because I was always fascinated. He would try to throw in new words for me—words that I wouldn’t know. So I would always sort of leap onto each new phrase and ask him all about it. I’ve just always loved words and I’ve always written and it’s always been the most important thing in the world to me.
I read that a poem you had written when you were 13 was submitted by your teacher without your knowledge and was published in Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul…
I hate that people know that story! How embarrassing.
I was just wondering if you’d received any residuals.
Yeah, that was actually kind of a weird story for me. I was, I think, 12 or something when I wrote that and the teacher submitted it. The poem actually got completely lopped in half and I was really unhappy about it. But to my 12-year-old bank account, $300 was pretty awesome. And I continue, to this day, to get a lot of fan mail from prisons around the world. So that’s something.
I did a search for your name on Amazon.com and the three books that came up were…one of them was Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul, and the other two that popped up were Thomas Canby’s From Botswana to the Bering Sea—My Thirty Years with National Geographic and Mike Toth’s Fashion Icon: The Power and Influence of Graphic Design. Do you find any cosmic significance in this?
That’s perfect! That’s great. That’s all the things I love. Messed up teenagers, fashion and travel. I’ve been published in a lot of compilations and I hand bind things and sell things at little stores and galleries. I have a collection that I want to work on getting published. I just haven’t totally had the time to make it happen yet, but I’m working on it.
And you sell your books at the merch table on tour.
Yeah, those are some of the funner, lighter kind of things. It’s a good way to get words out there. I’m not one for having things online. I’m kind of a neo-Luddite. Me having this cell phone, actually…I just got it three days ago and I still don’t really know how to do anything on it and it’s the first cell phone I’ve ever had. I still write on a crappy old Underwood typewriter, so I’m getting used to the real world.
The music of Handsome Furs seems to express some sort of anxiety about our increasing reliance on social interaction through computers or digital technology. What aspect of this trend is most troubling to you?
Well, to be totally honest, there are good and bad things about it. For us, because we’re trying to play in a lot of different places, the one lovely thing about our music being available everywhere by the Internet is that people like in Belgrade have access to it, where we otherwise don’t have distribution. People can listen to our music and find out about us that way, which I think is great. It can all be used for really great things. But there’s a lot I find troubling about it. I think people don’t have the same experience that I did listening to music growing up, and waiting for release dates and going down to the local record store and actually getting this thing in your hand and enjoying it the whole way through. So I think that’s a sadness. And I think there’s just so much that’s available that people don’t take the time to get really devoted to bands anymore, which is unfortunate. And it’s not the way that I experience things. Maybe I’m wrong, maybe it’s just as good, but for me it’s a totally foreign way of listening to music or appreciating anything really. It’s the same reason why I don’t want to make my writing available online because I don’t want it to be read that way. I want people to sit down with it and actually take time with it. I think that’s been lost and that’s terrible.
It’s really hard for me to get into reading anything of any length or impact online.
I know—I have no patience for it. I can’t personally do it. And I find you can tell. Maybe I’m hypersensitive to this kind of stuff, but I can really tell the difference between blog writing and story writing—like when you’re writing in a journal or whatever, is so totally different. There’s not a whole lot of craft. There’s a lot that gets lost when you live exclusively in your computer, I think. I’m fortunately not one of those folks, so I get to appreciate things in really great ways.
Would you say that you and Dan have an equal level of distrust of these sorts of technologies?
I think so. Like I said, I think we both see the stuff that’s good about it and the stuff that sucks about it. I think Dan feels the same I do. He’s sitting beside me. I can ask him. How do you feel about technology, baby? He’s shaking his head. He’s reading the paper. That’s how he feels about it. We’re sitting on the beach reading books and the newspaper, so…
When you two are writing songs together, how does the process work?
It’s different for every song actually. We both work on different parts separately and then flesh them out together. We’ll come up with riffs or drum machine patterns and then bring things into the studio and try to make sense of it all. But I think we both do a pretty equal amount of all parts of it. We both do lyric writing and drum machine programming. I don’t do any guitar, but I’ll have ideas about it. It’s a pretty natural thing and we’re pretty fortunate because we live together and work together and travel together so whenever we have ideas we get to get them out pretty quickly, just because we’re together. So that part is really nice.
When you got your drum machine and synthesizer, did you have a specific sound you knew you wanted? Or did you buy the equipment first and then figure out what sounds you liked?
It was a combination of the things that I ended up getting being cheap because I was totally broke, and you know, I had a lot of friends recommending different things to me that were a lot fancier and a lot cooler. I’m not terribly hip, you know, so for me I just wanted the drum machine to be really tactile and something I could play live. I have no interest in using computer programs and stuff to do that, because I know you can just press play and play along with that, but for me, it’s a lot more interesting to be able to trigger things live. I guess those were sort of my reasons for getting the things that I got.
You and Dan met at a telemarketing job. Do you have any telemarketing horror stories you care to share?
It was a nightmare the whole way through. The place were we worked, we were selling basically bogus business directories to old ladies taking care of crumbling businesses, especially in the southwest of America.
Any terrible stories?
Well, you know, like cokehead bosses, stuff like that. But we made it through pretty unscathed just because we were in it together. We tried to spend as many hours as we possibly could making out in the elevator rather than being on the phone. But we got fired for that kind of behavior.
A lot of bands absolutely hate touring. How do you think you and Dan are different, personality-wise, from other bands where that’s their least favorite part of the business?
I understand why a lot of bands hate touring. It’s a grueling lifestyle. And I think the more people you have involved in any project you do, the more difficult it can be. I know that for Dan and I touring is relatively painless because it’s just the two of us trying to figure out where to have dinner or what museum to try to check out before sound check. So the same challenges that exist in other bands, we don’t face. We’re also such a compact band. We have such little gear that we can travel in a car or trains or planes much more easily than other bands. We don’t have those same sorts of hardships. And a lot of other people don’t like being away from home as much as Dan and I do. I could be on the road forever. I feel so fucking lucky to be able to go to the places that we get to go. I never, ever though that that would happen for me. And traveling has always been such a huge deal to me and what I wanted to do most in my life, so I can’t take that for granted. Whereas a lot of other people, they want to spend more time at home, working on other things, which I totally understand. But Dan and I both come from kind of meager backgrounds, not having a lot of money, and we both like to work really hard at what we do. I just feel tremendously lucky to meet the people that we do in the places that we get to go to. It’s the best job in the world.
What’s your favorite place you’ve been?
There are a lot. I’ll just go with the most recent one that was really touching for me. We just spent a week in Bucharest and I have never felt more alive in any city. I think there is so much going on there that is incredible. It’s a very unusual city. It’s got 300,000 stray dogs and a lot of people living with very little. It’s the most densely packed city in Europe and it just feels like people have so much will to do so much, no matter what they have and I find that just incredibly inspiring. We met so many writers and artists and musicians while we were there that were just doing really incredible things. It was eye-opening and I loved every minute of being there. And it was also hot and filthy and the architecture is both beautiful and horrible. It’s just got an incredible and exciting nature that I can’t wait to go back to. I’ll go back there as soon as I can because I think that there’s so much good that’s going on. But there’s a multitude of cities that I hold dear to my heart. We’ve had incredible times in Helsinki and Moscow and New York and I like L.A. and I don’t know—there are a lot of places I really really love and a lot of places that I never would have known I would have loved, you know? We played in Klaipeda and it was a really, really cool place, so…who knew? It’s a really small little city on a port right near Kaliningrad and I never would have heard of it unless we were playing there. We’re trying to get to China and Singapore. We haven’t played anywhere in Asia and I’m tremendously excited about doing that. We’re trying to figure out playing in Beirut and Istanbul. The truth is I want to play everywhere we possibly can. I want to go everywhere, so name it, and that’s a place I’d like to play.
What is the most unlikely place you’ve found yourself playing?
Probably Klaipeda. It was totally bizzaro. It was a very, very strange place and the venue we played was really weird. It felt like we were in Russia, but in small town, middle-of-nowhere Russia. There was a lot of money at the club and a lot of security and face control and all that jazz. It just felt totally foreign, like I’d never been to any place like that. There were all these sunken submarines that you could still see in the harbor and that was really cool. That place was a real surprise and I loved it.
Have you or Dan ever found yourselves victims of a particularly harsh face control policy, either literally or metaphorically?
Coming into your fair country, yeah. We did actually face face control while we were in Russia, but on a pretty light scale. We tried to go for lunch, totally midday, at a buffet place and there was a guy who face controlled us and we were fortunate enough to be with this girl named Anja who was working with the promoter and she luckily talked our way into the place. As far as other kinds of face control, yeah, the harshest I’ve probably faced was trying to come to the U.S. without proper visas and getting denied. Yeah, that was a pretty shitty experience. Those wounds have healed and everything, but that was a pretty lousy day. It was really, really hard on me. I mean, for about nine hours, I basically thought I was going to jail for ten years. Yeah, I did a lot of crying that day.
On behalf of my country, I apologize.
Oh, it’s not your fault. I think we’re not much better up in Canada. It is what it is. Those borders are tricky. I wish things would get a little easier, especially for musicians. The laws should be a little different. It’s not like we’re coming down to steal your jobs. We’re just coming down for a few days to play shows that generate you more money.
You and Dan had composed a list of tips for successful touring as a couple for Anthem. Are there any updates to that since you wrote that?
The truth is, for that thing, we wrote about nine pages and told them to choose whatever you want, so if you want me to send you the list, I have a much more complete list. It was really long and they had to edit it. Yeah, we’ve got lots of advice.
Maybe this is too personal a question, but has it always been smooth touring with Dan?
Yeah, it has been. We travel really easily together, and we both like what we do so much that we don’t really hit too many snags along the way. Our only grievances are not getting enough alone time or quiet time to ourselves. You’re always doing something while you’re on tour, whether it’s sound checking or whatever, there are always a lot of things you have to be on top of. And we manage the band ourselves, so the business-y stuff we have to do on the road…yeah, there’s very little that we’ve had that has been hard. I think we’re pretty lucky. A lot of bands face problems that we don’t have. It’s pretty easy.
You’ve said you can’t be afraid to get injured while you’re onstage. I was wondering what the worst injury you’ve sustained in service to Handsome Furs has been?
Well, I’ll tell the most recent one just because it’s funny. It’s not actually my injury, it’s Dan’s. We were playing in Belgrade in Serbia and Dan got yanked off the stage by an awesome amount of moshing fans, which was so great. It was so awesome, but he got pulled offstage and he sort of hit his forehead on the monitor as he came down and didn’t realize that he got a pretty significant gash on his forehead. So he got back up and started singing and he was just completely covered in blood to the point where all the guys and girls who had pulled him offstage basically ran from him in horror. ‘Holy shit, he’s covered in blood!’ So that one was pretty good and he gets to say that he bled in Serbia now.
You’ve said that your experiences in Eastern Europe and the Balkans shaped the themes or sounds of Face Control—what kind of music were you listening to you while you were there?
They listen to a lot of shitty techno, but it’s kind of awesome because it’s a lot of stuff from the ‘90s that’s really nostalgic for them. So you go into these clubs and to my ears, it sounds like garbage, but these songs have actually changed people’s lives. So we listened to a lot of that. I think that was influential sonically. We just wanted to create something that was really immediate because what we were finding with the people we were meeting was that people would joke a lot about life being shitty and the only relief from it was being able to dance it away or listen to music, so I wanted to, in some way, give that back. So I wanted to make something that was more danceable and beat driven and heavier. I feel a lot of kinship with that. Life is not always what you want it to be and sometimes the only thing you can do is make yourself feel good. And dancing is nice, it helps.
Is that a particularly uniquely Eastern European attitude? ‘Life sucks, let’s dance?’
Well, it feels that way sometimes. Maybe it’s just the people we’ve met. I know that when I go to shows in North America, it can be quite different. People aren’t necessarily there for the same reasons, just to feel joy. Sometimes folks are there for a lot of other reasons, whether it’s to be cool or whatever. At least with the shows we’ve played, I feel that people in Eastern Europe were there for the right reason, and that’s just to try to find joy. I know that sounds really cheesy, but there’s something great about that.
On your bio on the Sub Pop site, it says that you are simultaneously a political band and not a political band. What’s your interpretation of that?
It was an Icelandic journalist who wrote that, and I think that’s a pretty apt description of us. I think we want to comment on the world we’re having to deal with but I don’t have any political agenda and I don’t have any good answers. So as much as I want to talk about the things that I find unjust or dissatisfying, I don’t have any of the answers. I just want to be able to comment on them.
Did you stay at the Hotel Arbat and if so, how did you find the accomodations?
The Hotel Arbat is hilarious. It’s actually owned by Putin and it’s right on the pedestrian street called Arbat. The facade of the building and the lobby is totally grandiose. There are chandeliers and everything’s marble and plush velvet curtains. Then you go into your room and it’s sort of shabby. It’s got industrial soap and the perks that you’re expecting to find aren’t there. So it’s an awesome juxtaposition of being very showy and yet it’s probably the same soap they had during Soviet times. You’re using it to shower off under terrible water pressure. When we were walking down Arbat, I saw an enormous amount of wealth…wealth that I’d never really seen on those kinds of levels. Really crazy, crazy money. And on that street, there are women who have made their homes in port-a-potties. So that was a pretty wild thing to witness. But I mean, I love it, I don’t mean that as a negative and you see that sort of divide between rich and poor everywhere, but it was such an extreme level I found it pretty mind blowing. And I also thought it was really cool that the dogs can navigate the subway systems.
They actually get on the trains and get off at their stop?
Yeah. It was amazing. We entered the subway and the cars are pretty old. A lot of them are still these wood lined cars. We saw these packs of dogs that get on and off at the right stops. They really know where they’re going. It was hilarious. And it’s funny because I think there’s something valued by the people of Moscow. People love that there. In one of the main stations we were in, there were all these statues of dogs that you rub for good luck.
I was reading in another interview that Dan said ‘Handsome Furs Hate This City’ was at least a tiny bit inspired by L.A. What happened to you here and is there anything I can say to help change your mind?
We don’t hate L.A.—we don’t hate L.A. But we did write that song in L.A. That’s the only reason. That song isn’t about any particular city, to be honest. We did a number of shows opening for Modest Mouse when we were just getting started and we wrote that in the dressing room before going onstage in front of a couple thousand people and it was one of the scariest things I’ve ever done. I’m not used to performing in general. I mean, I am now, but when we started I was. I’m a very solitary girl and so it was a strange thing for me, an incredible challenge. That’s the only reason that song has anything to do with L.A. I like L.A. There are things, of course, I hate about it, but we’ve always had really awesome times there.
Is there a city that just really seems to get Handsome Furs?
There are two. I think that’s a hard question to answer because every night is different and every time we play in those cities is different, but the two places I’ve played where I felt most conceptually understood or whatever have been Belgrade and Helsinki. The crowds have been really really really good there. I don’t know why, they just somehow get it on a gut level.
If you could open for any band in history, who do you think would be best matched with Handsome Furs?
I don’t know. That’s tricky. There are a lot of bands I like, but then a lot of bands I just think would be cool to open for. I’d like to open for Tina Turner. I don’t know, that’s too hard for me.
That would be a good match. I wouldn’t necessarily have thought of that.
I’ll stick with that then.
You and Dan both seem to be very open and honest about all sorts of things in your life, from drug use to your relationship. Have you ever experienced any fallout from being that honest in interviews?
Well, yeah—we try to be as frank and open as possible because that’s what we’re trying to do with our music anyway, to be honest about everything we’re doing. My mom hates that I smoke in press photos. There have been some things that people have said negative things about, but I don’t really care. There have been a lot of things said that were untrue, but I think for the most part, we can back up whatever we’ve said in interviews. Anything that’s been said negatively, I don’t really care because that’s who I am.
Not to take up anymore of your beach time, but what is the viscous zombie fluid from the ‘I’m Confused’ video composed of?
I don’t even know exactly what it was, to be honest. I think it was toothpaste and cake mix and baking powder. It was disgusting. And actually at the end, when Dan spits it in my mouth, he was supposed to wait for his cue, but it was so gross for him that he ended up spitting early, so when I’m choking in the video, that was real. It was like, ‘Woah, my God, I wasn’t prepared for that.’ And it totally stained our teeth and skin for the next couple weeks, so we just looked like hell.
THE HANDSOME FURS WITH THE CINNAMON BAND AND THE MONOLATORS ON THUR., JUNE 11, AT THE ECHOPLEX, 1154 GLENDALE BLVD., ECHO PARK. 8:30 PM / $13-$15 / 18+. ATTHEECHO.COM. THE HANDSOME FURS’ FACE CONTROL IS OUT NOW ON SUB POP. VISIT THE HANDSOME FURS AT MYSPACE.COM/HANDSOMEFURS.