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Totalocity recall

Handsome Furs takes the rock/electronics hybrid back to its unhinged, repetitive roots

Liam Maloney
Alexei Perry (left) and Dan Boeckner still figuring out synths, already know what to do with each other.

By Michael Byrne | Posted 7/8/2009

Cross-breeding electronics and indie-rock is old hat in 2009. The inclination has always been there, of course--bands such as Can and Kraftwerk lay deep in the DNA of most anything relatively forward-thinking made since, well, the '70s--but since indie-rock got hooked on dance beats and synthesizers this decade, it's even more of a fact of life. So finding programming laying at the core of a band shouldn't surprise or even impress any more than finding an Echoplex, but Montreal duo Handsome Furs have found a drum machine sweet spot, a signature sound that feels both brittle and exposed; oddly cathartic, like the band is at war with its own skeleton, and always at the crest of winning.

You know the voice of the band, Dan Boeckner, from the band Wolf Parade, another Montreal rock outfit with a turgid internal momentum that regards the social structures of modern white people with an obsessive and leery eye. One of the defining traits of Wolf Parade is an uneasy tension between songwriting styles, from near-exhaustingly restrained songs such as "Dinner Bells" to all-out cathartic charges such as "Grounds For Divorce." In Handsome Furs, a similar split appears: Boeckner puts his almost cracking, very rock-n-roll vocals and blues-influenced, brooding guitar passages against hollowed-out electronic atmospheres and the rigid stomp of programmed rhythms.

That it feels so natural--rigid and coolly cathartic in the same breath, and more traditionally rock than it has any right to be--is what makes Handsome Furs interesting and gives the music chilly spaces for its world-wary brooding to really freeze. "I think a lot of people that use drum machines, there's a pattern you can fall into with sounds and you have this sort of subconscious musical memory," Boeckner says by phone from Montreal while waiting on a guitar repair. "And maybe it's '80s pop songs that are written around a drum machine, sort of electro-pop sounds.

"But if you go back to bands like Skinny Puppy, like in the early-'80s, and Suicide, you have this great juxtaposition of completely unhinged vocals and random sounds and then a very metronomic steady beat," he continues. "And that aesthetic has always really appealed to me. And even going back to, like, the krautrock stuff like Can or Neu--very repetitive song structures with a lot of layering on the top. I like that a lot."

The duo's first effort, 2007's Plague Park (Sub Pop), was still a bit unformed, hoisting up its drum machine like a proud defect, repeating similar patterns between songs and not yet grasping just how deeply you can exploit a synthesizer for the purpose of eeriness--synth lines were more for harmonizing than taking over. Indeed, at Handsome Fur's genesis, neither Boeckner nor bandmate/wife Alexei Perry had any experience with synths and drum machines. "We just wanted to do it with two people and none of us are good at playing drums and we wanted to get the maximum amount of, like, totalocity out of the band, the maximum amount of sound," Boeckner says. "We both figured the best way to do it was with a drum machine and synths."

Plague Park won on the back of the duo's songwriting, which worked around and with the programming with a remarkably deft hand. Yes, some of the rhythms almost mirror each other, but it's something you have to be watching for. On this year's Face Control (Sub Pop)--named for the Eastern European term for rejecting people from establishments based on their looks--you hear a deeper incorporation. If the band's songwriting was adapting itself to machine drums and synthesizers on Plague Park, those electronics are flexing back and adapting themselves on Face Control.

"I spend a lot of time around a lot of electronic musicians and I don't understand . . . what they do," Boeckner concedes. "I come from a punk-rock background. We got the drum machines and figured out how to make it sound how we want it to sound. There's not a lot of tweakery in it."

When asked if Handsome Furs would ever go full-bore and make an electronic dance song, Boeckner is enthusiastically affirmative, pressing that a handful of Face Control's cast-offs already are. Whatever that means in Boeckner's universe--"I'm always a pretty moody guy, I guess," he says--remains to be seen, but if Handsome Furs could fully cross that line and bring their contemplative, sly chill to indie-dance music, it could bring some levity to a broader, increasingly vapid mutant genre poised to suffocate in a premature death.

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