Operators :: Embracing the Human in Electronic


by Devin King

When Operators first broke onto the scene, there was a lot of mystery surrounding the band. With only a few live shows played, word quickly spread about the group comprised of Dan Boeckner (Wolf Parade, Handsome Furs), Sam Brown (Divine Fits, New Bomb Turks) and Devjoka. The mystery now is beginning to fade as the band makes themselves available across Canada for a tour following the release of their latest EP. 

Stylus: Operators is one of many notable bands you’ve been in. How is Operators different than those other bands?
Sam Brown: Like every band you’re in, it’s different than any other band you’ve been in, even if it’s in the same genre. This band is exceptionally different in that it’s different from a lot of bands I’ve played in before that have been punk or straight-up rock and roll. This band has a lot of electronic stuff in it so it’s a totally different variant. Playing in a lot of different bands, you learn from all the different people your play with, and with this band it feels like a natural evolution in my playing.

Stylus: How has your drumming evolved?
SB: It’s a lot more controlled now. When you’re young you have a tendency to overplay and song vibe be damned, you have something to say. A lot of young drummers don’t realize that they’re playing the loudest instrument on the stage and they’re still trying to push through the music and prove to other drummers that they’re good. When you get older you grow out of that. You start to really appreciate drummers like Phil Rudd and Charlie Watt.

The band I was in before this, Divine Fits, was a lot more like zen-based drumming. You’d play the same beat for three minutes, and when I’d hit the cymbal it’d be a big event. That’s a whole other way of playing. It’s kind of fun to try to play the same beat exactly the same for four minutes. I think it takes a lot more patience and skill to do that than just flail around and play solos when some of them are great and some of them aren’t.

This band, there’s a lot of dance grooves, a lot of four on the floor going on. It’s the most songs in a row with a four on the floor kick pattern that I’ve ever played. There’s a lot of double-time hi-hat stuff going on.

Stylus: How does recording electronic music work when you know you’ll be playing it live with live instruments?
SB: Sometimes you treat the drums to make it sound closer to electronic. For some songs that are slower the drums should sound more acoustic and live, and other songs where the drums are basically playing what the drum machine plays. But there’s still a human element to playing these repetitive 16 pattern on a hi-hat, there’s still some huge variation in there. It gives it a unique melody which is what we’re going for.

Stylus: Is the human element something unique in Operators?
SB: Oh, for sure. Not all the songs are clocked in to machines. At this point, 80 per cent of the songs, especially live, there’s a lot of arpeggiation and things that need to be clocked in. There’s parts that can’t be played by a human as perfectly as we need them to be played. That’s why people use arpeggiators and that type of stuff. But then there’s some songs that we have where I’m the clock and everyone’s playing to me and Devojka is playing keyboard parts over the drums that I’m playing and Dan is playing lead keyboard parts and guitar parts over it. It really varies.

The farther down the road we get with our songwriting and performing the looser it’s becoming. When we made the EP we had really only played two shows. We were recording, but what we captured is not entirely sterilized but compared to what we’re doing live now is pretty sterilized. That can be a little frustrating when you’re trying to present something to people live. The record should embody what your band is about. And so now the live shows are way more unhinged and punked out and there’s a lot more random energy that goes into it. Dan and I are both shoot from the hip players and even though I’m playing to a machine I play different fills every night and the songs take on a different intensity at the live shows, and Dan’s the same way. He’ll sing different melodies here and there and the guitar parts are different in the same way that the drum fills can be. The shows are definitely a different experience, and every night is a different experience.

We played this run of shows in Toronto at the Silver Dollar and we got off the stage the first night that we played and looked at each other and were like,  “Okay. This is the band that we are.” Something different happened when we got into a room full of people.

Stylus: In other interviews Dan has talked about how you all want to “reverse the Internet-centric and digital heavy production out of music today.” Why is that important?
SB: There have been so many records that have come out in the last five years that just sound so perfect. And even though they can be chaotic and they use maximalism, at the same time in that maximalism there’s a purpose. What you get is just this perfectly clocked in thing where everything is really tight. What we’d like to capture is a more human element of what’s going on, especially because we have a live drummer and most of the elements of our show are live.

We’re trying to go for something that’s a little more human and a little less quantized. But at the same time it’s clocked in and you can shake your ass to it.

One thing I really like is that Nenah Cherry record. Those tracks are great because it’s live percussive instruments as if it’s a drum machine instead of an artificial drum machine. I think the D’Angelo record is the highest profile version of this and it’s going to kick of a new movement in production heavy, slightly electronic dancey type music. I think people are going to take that lead and try to get less perfect in their music. That’s the reason that album is so great, you can tell it’s a guy playing that drum for four minutes. That’s what we’re aiming for.

Stylus: I read someone say that there’s a “Sense of dislocation to the songs but a joyfulness in playing them.” How does that tension work?
SB: When you have a band, everybody’s personality comes out in different ways. In a band the music is driven by the drummer, so you have that personality. And then you have the personality of the person adding the melodic elements and arrangements. And the icing on the top is the feelings of the person who’s singing. I think that’s how sometimes you end up with something where the vibe contrasts with the music. I think the Smiths is a good example. The three guys wrote the songs together, and Morrissey didn’t really pay attention to the music they were writing. They said one of the things they enjoyed the most was going into the studio and listen to what Morrissey was going to sing over top of it. So it’s a bit hard to ask me or anyone in a band who didn’t write the lyrics to ask about what direction they were going in or why the mood is the way it is. I think Dan was thinking about his childhood and his time growing up in this tiny town on Vancouver Island. I think he was in a reflective mood, and that came out in the lyrics. He’s also a huge sci-fi nerd, so that came out in the lyrics too.

Stylus: So far you’ve released one EP. Are there plans for more?
SB: In the spring we’re going back into the studio to record four or five songs and we’re aiming to capture what we’re doing live and what we feel like we’re about now. We’re hoping to have the second EP out by summer and then get an LP out by fall.

Stylus: Why the EPs and then the LP is such close proximity?
SB: We were playing some shows in Montreal and we wanted to pick a handful of songs to get some music out. We’ve since decided that we want to take another stab at capturing some of the songs we’ve already recorded. I think we have a better idea of what we want out of our recordings. I think we would be better served to go back to give it another stab. We’ve only been a band for a year and a half, and we recorded all that stuff having only been a band for six months.  We were excited about the fact that we had so many songs that we had already written and we wanted to catch them while they were fresh and while we were excited about them, but I think we caught them when they were a little too fresh and we might want to catch them the way they are now.

Catch Operators at the WECC on Thursday, January 29 at the Big Fun Festival, with locals Hana Lu Lu and Will to Power.