Play It Loud, a major exhibition dedicated to the defining instruments of rock 'n' roll, went on view last month at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. In Madrid, a touring show of Pink Floyd artifacts, artwork and musical instruments has just opened at the Trade Fair Institution of Spain. Somewhere along the line, the products of Marshall, Ludwig and Fender became art instead of the tools for making art. The Pink Floyd exhibition is called Their Mortal Remains. Remember what the Who warned us about in the 1970s: “We tried, but you were yawning,” Roger Daltrey bellowed. “Look again, rock is dead.”
Rock isn’t dead, actually, but the old “hammer of the gods” guitar-rock model is no longer the prevailing style. That’s just evolution, though, not a crisis. What is worrying is the vanishing of the classic rock ’n’ roller. Bruce Springsteen is no longer the Boss, we’re still waiting on the next Patti Smith and what ever happened to the Strokes anyway?
As rock stars disappear, a live-wire Montrealer such as Dan Boeckner of the indie-rock bands Wolf Parade and Operators distinguishes himself as a survivor of the species. All darkness-on-the-edge-of-town sullenness and plenty of postpunk power under the hood, Boeckner is one of the last true rockers left standing.
Late last year, the Boeckner-led Operators played to a full house at Lee’s Palace in Toronto. Presenting old material from the catalogue of his disbanded synth-rock duo Handsome Furs, Boeckner sang about lost pasts, forgotten prospects and violent, bright reconstructions. “I threw my hands to the sky, I let my memories go,” he yelped. “I feel alone but it feels all right.” Later, on the crowd favourite Repatriated, he prophesied, “I’ve seen the future and it’s coming in low.”
On stage, Boeckner (sometimes with a blue Fender Jazzmaster and other times without an instrument) is a paradoxical proposition: invitingly unsafe, energized but malnourished, near frail yet tougher than the rest. He’s pale, jittery and smiley – usually an off-putting combination, but not in his case. He might share DNA with Joe Strummer’s leather jacket.
In front of an audience, he’s a lost breed caught in the wild. To borrow a line from Hunter S. Thompson, “Too weird to live and too rare to die.”
Rock probably began dying when Elvis Presley stopped singing about hound dogs and started having Fun in Acapulco. Or when electric-guitar virtuoso Eddie Van Halen discovered something called the Oberheim OB-Xa, one of the early compact synthesizers. There was a time when rock was dangerous – the devil’s music, a form of rebellion. That all ended when parents and their children began listening to rock music together. Or maybe it was new wave’s fault: A flock of seagulls (the species) was more intimidating than the Flock of Seagulls (the band). And Elvis Costello? Heckuva talent, but a nerd.
More recently, take Mumford & Sons – please.
To get back to the idea of loud classic-rock instruments being put under glass in museums, those guitars, stacks of amplifiers and colossal drum sets (with gongs!) were sexy, brash and intimidating. And the players had to be as well in order to separate themselves from other bands and distinguish themselves even from their own bandmates. A meek Daltrey would never do – not when competing against the shenanigans of Keith Moon and the windmill-armed, Rickenbacker-smashing Pete Townshend.
That’s ancient history. Keith Richards would never make it today – smoking isn’t allowed indoors; heroin is “uncool.” Decibel levels at concerts and festivals are monitored. Radiohead put down their guitars and started noodling with drum machines and “vinyl-emulation software.” Shoegaze rock became a thing. Bedroom maestros make music on laptops. Synthesizers are fantastic tools, but nowhere near as gunslinger-y as a beat-up six string.
Despite the likes of Joan Jett, P.J. Harvey, Courtney Love, the Wilson sisters of Heart, Liz Phair, Smith and others, rock has largely been deemed a man’s world. It certainly accounts for all the foot odour and insecurities. Today, with the lessening of the guitar’s importance and the phallic symbolism that disappears with it, a sort of emasculation has happened. A case could be made that the gutsiest and most poised performers in the genre today are women: Think Feist, the Kills’s Alison Mosshart, Metric’s Emily Haines, Whitehorse’s Melissa McClelland, Annie Clark (a.k.a. St. Vincent) or Courtney Barnett. Their male counterpart? An extinguishing kind, like the dodo and Kings of Leon. Nick Cave can only do so much.
Enter Boeckner, a 41-year-old singer, guitarist and songwriter, originally from small-town Lake Cowichan in British Columbia. He’s a long-time member of Montreal’s Wolf Parade. His critically acclaimed solo project, the drum-machine duo Handsome Furs, crashed and burned around 2012 with the end of his marriage to his synthesizer-manning wife, Alexei Perry. On the rebound, he collaborated with American indie musician Britt Daniel of Spoon on a side project, Divine Fits, which thus far has released one album – 2012′s A Thing Called Divine Fits.
When he’s not recording or touring with Wolf Parade, Boeckner is committed to Operators, his dance-rock trio with American drummer Sam Brown (also a member of Divine Fits) and the Macedonian-American musician Devojka. Making retro sci-fi dance music for cheerful dystopians, Operators is an exercise in sleek minimalism and a continuation of the dark lyricism of Handsome Furs. This week saw the release of Radiant Dawn, Operators’s pulsating sophomore album, put out by Toronto-based label Last Gang Records.
Over the phone from Montreal, Boeckner spoke to The Globe and Mail about the shift away from oversized classic-rock sounds and gear. “It’s getting increasingly difficult to make music with live instruments,” he says. “A band needs rehearsal space for all that equipment, and big-city rents aren’t cheap. But if you’re writing music on your laptop or a small synth setup, it’s a lot more economical.”
Boeckner just returned from Vancouver Island, where Wolf Parade finished recording its latest album. “It’s the unromantic part of the music business,” he says, gravel-voiced, speaking about the logistics of managing multiple projects. Boeckner will tell you about the time he once completed a Wolf Parade tour in Los Angeles with just enough time to shower before he headed to the airport for a flight to Hong Kong for a Handsome Furs tour. “The economic model has shifted drastically for middle-class musicians,” Boeckner says about this era of reduced album sales. “Being on the road is the key to making a living.”
Operators hit the road later this month for a tour that includes seven Western Canadian shows. The band’s beat-heavy sound is as lean as the group itself: mostly samples, synths and drums, with halting vocals from Boeckner that are reminiscent of David Bowie or, when he was dancing with himself, Billy Idol.
The move away from sprawling ensembles and multiple guitars has been happening for some time now. Two-piece rock outfits such as Japandroids, Death from Above, the Black Keys and the late, lamented White Stripes are examples of power in small numbers. And, although there are bands that still feature more than one guitar (Broken Social Scene, the National and Arcade Fire, for example), their expansive music is made with little or no room for instrumental solos. Moreover, the frontmen for those three particular bands are not “rockers” in the classic cock-of the-walk sense.
As for former White Stripes singer-guitarist Jack White, he absolutely rocks, whether with his own band or with side projects the Raconteurs and the Dead Weather (with the Kills’s Mosshart). But he’s just a little too enigmatic and stunt-prone. “Rock 'n' roll’s Willy Wonka,” Rolling Stone magazine dubbed the idiosyncratic Detroiter. Other rockers, such as Dave Grohl and Eddie Vedder, are just too nice. Axl Rose and Slash of Guns N’ Roses? At best, curiosities; at worst, dinosaurs. What’s missing among male rockers specifically is attitude, something Boeckner has in spades.
"Dan has swag,” says Devojka, who first met Boeckner years ago in Bulgaria before reconnecting with him more recently when they were both living in California. “He’s quintessentially rock 'n’ roll, and there’s no barrier between him and the audience.”
Here’s another thing about Boeckner: He’s handy with beatboxes and synthesizers. “Dan’s an amazing guitar player and he sings from the heart,” Devojka says. "But what a lot of people don’t know about him is that he’s a really great programmer.”
Programmer? The MC5 used to “kick out the jams.” Boeckner and the synth-loving Operators, they kick out the circuitry.
The music is brooding and desperate, though – a disco in the minefield. Lyrics are foreboding, typical of Boeckner. The new Operators record is a concept album, set in a preapocalyptic age. Radiant Dawn refers to the glow of an atomic bomb.
"There’s a transformative event approaching,” Boeckner explains. “The album is a rumination on late-period capitalism heading to the brick wall of something cataclysmic.”
Climate change is an identifiable concern on songs Terminal Beach and I Feel Emotion (“I want to watch the seas rise/ Want to watch the flood come and wash this all away”). Radiant Dawn is not the first concept album that deals with such dire things as planned societies and nightmarish global situations. “This ain’t rock ’n’ roll,” Bowie sang on the title track to his Orwell-inspired Diamond Dogs album from 1974. “This is genocide.”
Other concept albums (Rush’s 2112, Styx’s Kilroy Was Here and Townshend’s Lifehouse project) forecast the banishment of rock music.
Radiant Dawn closes with an “end of days" refrain, but with a horrific culmination comes a chance for rebirth.
“I see it every day,” says Boeckner, whose tours have often taken him to Asia and Eastern Europe. “There is a bizarre tension that something big is going to happen. We just don’t know what it is.”
That’s the rub, the uncertainty. Classic rockers are in peril. Maybe we all are. "The future is uncertain and the end is always near,” Jim Morrison once sang.
Now there was a rock star.