Why are Operators playing Handsome Furs songs?

Dan Boeckner is bringing back his old duo's songs for two shows with his new band, with no involvement from his former partner, Alexei Perry Cox

OPERATORS perform HANDSOME FURS with KIWI JR at Lee’s Palace (529 Bloor West), Saturday (December 15), doors 8 pm. Sold out.

When Dan Boeckner introduced his latest band, Operators, in 2014, it felt as though his previous synth-rock band, Handsome Furs, had all but been laid to rest. 

After an acrimonious break up with then-wife/Handsome Furs bandmate Alexei Perry Cox in 2012, Boeckner quickly moved on separately and formed Divine Fits with Spoon’s Britt Daniel, followed by Operators and the eventual return of Wolf Parade. 

Considering his busy schedule and the new Operators album in the works for 2019, there was no reason to think he’d ever return to his old band. But now after six years, Boeckner is reviving the Handsome Furs songbook with Operators for two shows: one in New York City and one in Toronto.

The idea is not without controversy, however, or reservations from his former partner.

“It was a somewhat crazy idea to begin with,” Boeckner says from his home in Montreal, having just arrived from Vancouver Island where he was beginning a new album with Wolf Parade. “But last year when Devojka, Sam [Brown] and I were writing the new Operators record, I was revisiting some of the political content and overall vibe of [Handsome Furs albums] Face Control and Sound Kapital. There seemed to be a parallel between this new Operators record and the last two Handsome Furs records.”

Despite the absence of Perry Cox, Boeckner sees the two bands as part of the same continuum. 

“Operators is really a continuation of Handsome Furs, just with live drums and different members.”

These two shows won’t be the first time Operators have performed the songs live. At last year’s Folk On The Rocks Festival in Yellowknife, Boeckner and Devojka added a handful of Handsome Furs tunes into their set after requests from fans.

“People went nuts,” Boeckner says. “So I thought, ‘Okay, if that’s Yellowknife then maybe we should actually do this.’” 

Next, Boeckner threw the idea out to fans on Twitter to gauge interest. The feedback was mostly positive. “Then I started wondering, ‘What does it mean psychologically, emotionally and artistically to play these shows?’”

Emotions will definitely play a big part. The last memory many fans have of Handsome Furs was from the 2012 Polaris Music Prize gala, where Perry Cox – not Boeckner – accepted the band’s post-breakup nomination with a tearfully moving speech. 

Which raises the question: how does Perry Cox feel about Boeckner revisiting these songs with another band?

“To be candid, I don’t really know,” he admits. “I reached out to her and it seems pretty clear to me that she’s at a different point in her life now.” 

NOW reached out to Perry Cox and she provided a statement. 

“From an ethical standpoint I think it is a disheartening choice to perform Handsome Furs material in this manner,” she writes. 

“At a time when I believe there to be at least some growing awareness of the importance of intellectual property and creative output, and some acknowledgment being made that these endeavours have often historically undervalued the female, queer or racially marginalized voices of their creations, I’m deeply disappointed that my former partner would present an erasure of my contribution to our joint project.”

The fact that Boeckner wrote these songs and performed them with his ex for six years straight is something he carefully deliberated, he says.

“One thing I had to psychologically grapple with was at what point do you separate the songs from the conditions and the place that inspired them?” he says. “So much of Handsome Furs’ aesthetic or appeal, the entry point for a lot of people, was the fact that it was music being performed by a couple. That was a big draw. When that is gone then all you have left is the songs. I love these songs, they still have a lot of meaning to me, and I’d still like to play them.”

The quick sell-out of both shows confirms that there’s still demand to hear the songs performed live. Boeckner says the decision to play just the two shows was to test the waters in the band’s two biggest markets – outside of Zagreb and Belgrade, that is. More shows could come in the new year.

So far Boeckner compares the rehearsals to “haunting your own life, like you’re a time-travelling ghost.” And since Operators has one more member than Handsome Furs did, adding a human drummer into the mix certainly changes things. 

“It’s definitely more propulsive and less rigid,” he explains. “But then there are a couple of songs in the catalogue where the rigidity should be showcased, so we’re getting Sam to play more like a robot. And the emotional excavation, especially playing songs off of Sound Kapital, I really have to force myself back there. But I like this process. It’s certainly challenging.”

While the band’s three albums are currently out of print, Boeckner says they will be bringing some newly discovered merch with them.

“We found a cache of Handsome Furs stuff sitting at our merch company’s store in Montreal, so we have some leftover vinyl, which is the last stuff we have,” he says. “So we’re gonna sell them at the Toronto show.” 

@nowtoronto | @yasdnilmac

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