"I Won't Be the Same No More": Handsome Furs' Career-Defining 'Sound Kapital' Turns 10
"[These songs] represent, I think, the most transitional period of my life. Personally, politically, and as an artist," says Dan Boeckner
Published Jun 28, 2021"When I get back home / I won't be the same no more."
And he wasn't. When Dan Boeckner sang those lines in the opening bars of Handsome Furs' 2011 album Sound Kapital, he drew a line down the centre of his career, both artistically and personally. It was the moment he shifted from the scrappy guitar anthems of his early career to the lush electropop synths he's explored since; both the pinnacle of his collaboration with then-wife Alexei Perry and the end of it; the moment his worldview and political consciousness were transformed by travels through China and Southeast Asia.
Just as importantly, it might be his best album ever. It didn't define the Montreal indie rock zeitgeist quite like his work with Wolf Parade, and it didn't have the star power of his subsequent supergroup Divine Fits (with Spoon's Britt Daniel), but Sound Kapital encapsulates everything Boeckner does best. Distortion-laced ragers like "Damage" and "Cheap Music" perfectly embody the Springsteen-gone-punk energy of his best Wolf Parade anthems, while "Repatriated" and "Bury Me Standing" have the dance pulse he has leaned into in recent years with Operators. "Serve the People" is the most direct and universal of his political messages; when Boeckner revisited these songs on tour in 2018, that one was the climactic set-closer.
Sound Kapital wasn't influential, exactly. The synthification of indie rock was already well underway by this point, and, unlike Wolf Parade, it's difficult to point to any bands who were directly inspired by Handsome Furs. But it was politically prescient, with songs that detail social uprisings, urban decay and corrupt leadership — and the sparkling synth-rock soundscapes haven't aged a day.
The album turns 10 today (June 28), and, to celebrate, we spoke with Boeckner about the life-changing travels that inspired Sound Kapital, reclaiming these songs despite the band's bittersweet end, and how "Serve the People" lives on as a protest anthem.
When you listen back to Sound Kapital now, what do you hear?
I hear a band that kind of found itself. I'm really proud of that record. Out of all the records that I've recorded, that one's close to the top. It's kind of a synthesis of everything we were working towards with [2009's] Face Control. It just feels like a big step forward to me. I mean, I know it is, because I wrote the songs. I really pushed myself to get out of my comfort zone with songwriting, and just trying to advance it as much as possible. I think it's when the electronic element of that band really delivered. A lot of that is down to just focusing on learning how to sequence better. Learning how to use the hardware better. And with [Wolf Parade bandmate] Arlen [Thompson], too. Arlen produced all three of those [Handsome Furs] records. Sound Kapital was different because we had Howard Bilerman. We did it in the studio — we didn't just do it at the Wolf Parade HQ in Montreal. It was a much more pro approach. Or maybe "pro" is the wrong word. Ambitious. We really kind of swung for the fences with that one.
Is there anything you wish you'd done differently?
I think I don't think we could have done anything differently on that record. All of the writing that I did for the Handsome Furs records — especially starting on Face Control — was a kind of automatic reaction to whatever I was experiencing on tour and traveling. I think that was the driving force behind the writing of those records. And trying to chart the change of my own political consciousness as I went on and off tour. I think that came out pretty heavily on Sound Kapital.
Speaking of those political themes, how do they resonate now? How do you feel about a song like "Serve the People" or "Cheap Music"?
Totally vindicated! I felt like that about Face Control a little bit too, because Face Control was a reaction to watching the abject failure of neoliberal economic policy applied to post-Soviet Eastern Europe. Like, "Legal Tender" is really about the impending collapse — that record came out in and around the financial crisis that had huge ripple effects all over the world. We started making friends with those people in the places that we were traveling to, and going back there and playing more shows, getting to know the people there better and seeing how these policies affected their lives on a day-to-day basis. So, when that record came out, I remember, you know, occasionally people saying, "This really negative. Obama's in office. [This is] fucking shitty, it's not a time to be a bummer." But I feel like it was on the money.
Going into the writing of Sound Kapital, I really tried to focus on not writing too many extremely dark songs in that political mould. The real catalyst for that record was the tour we did of China and Southeast Asia. I had a bunch of riffs lying around, basically, and that trip that was really fertile ground for songwriting. With stuff like "Repatriated" and "Cheap Music," what I saw when I got to China — specifically China — was that I had all these preconceived notions about this country, the way it worked, its level of authoritarianism, its treatment of artists. When I got there, I realized that was completely wrong. I had a very Western, white lens on this, and, in fact, I didn't know anything at all about this place. I didn't know any of the history, aside from what I'd learned in political science and reading a handful of books. Being there and spending an extended period of time there, meeting other bands and talking to them about their experiences, it was very eye-opening.
So there was that level, and there was also a level of just traveling around the country. I remember, specifically taking the train from Shanghai to Wuhan — Wuhan being kind of the Chicago of China. It's a big railhead town, very industrial. It's kind of an amalgamation of four or five cities that, during the Cultural Revolution, would have started growing into each other. It was in the process of being either built up or torn down. Everything was either under construction or being demolished. Just being there and that train ride, and the ease of travel, and then the show and meeting other bands, I just realized: "Oh, this country is going to be, if not the political hegemon, then an economic and cultural hegemon in the future. Because traveling to Asia and going back to Montreal, which I love, but then going from Montreal to the United States, the contrast was insane. Right down to talking to people at the merch table after shows. We talked to people at these shows in Beijing and Wuhan and Shanghai, and you ask them what they do and what they're planning on doing, and there's an ambient electric feeling of hope. Granted, I'm talking to a very specific slice of the Chinese population: I would meet the people who would want to go see a Western rock band play. And then contrasting that with, like, fucking Ohio, where you talk to people and they're talking about the opioid crisis. Not total Armageddon, but the ambient stress of living in a country that is decaying politically and economically. That really catapulted the writing on that record. You could see some of it maybe as naïve or first impression-y, but it is very honest to where I was at, at the time.
What place does this record occupy in your overall catalogue, in terms of the artistic journey you've taken over the past 20 years?
I think it kind of drew a line between between two halves of my career. I think it just sits in the middle. Not just chronologically, but artistically. It was the first record where I really embraced my love of cheesy house music and pop. In a more general sense, I think it was the first record where I really sloughed off any kind of fears of — in quotation marks — doing something wrong. I think it was the first record where there was zero self-censorship. I wasn't really thinking about an imagined audience or anything. That's kind of the midpoint. And then I took some lessons from that, and I think Radiant Dawn is a good example of that, where [Operators bandmate] Devojka and I essentially created a world for this record to live in and fleshed it out with places and people and media that would exist in that world. We weren't really thinking about if people were going to like this on not. So, yeah, I think it's like kind of a line between everything that came after it.
You don't create music with an audience in mind, but how do you feel about how Sound Kapital was received and how it's remembered now?
I remember going into the writing process and the production process of the record and just making a decision that we were going to step up from our last record. On all levels: in terms of touring, production, the care that was put into the art direction on it. I do remember it paying off and being kind of surprised. I specifically was thinking about a show in San Francisco where we were playing to four times as many people as the last time we'd been there. It was a real sense that something was kind of organically happening with the band after all the work we put in. In Europe, too — by the time Sound Kapital came out, we were playing to audiences two or three times the size of what Wolf Parade was pulling in in a lot of markets in Europe, which was kind of crazy. It was all organic growth and then there was this push, and it seemed to pay off.
I'm not sure how people remember it, though. I know that I know that the songs have resonated with people a lot. My friend Darko [C, of Burmese band Side Effect,] was telling me they were playing "Serve the People" at the anti-government protests [in Myanmar]. Well, not protests — basically street battles between residents of Yangon [and the military], which made me happy that people were taking some sort of comfort from the song in a terrible situation. We played those songs live in [2018 and] 2019, and it's usually the Sound Kapital stuff that really pops off.
Are there any songs that really stand out as the definitive songs of this project?
"Serve the People," definitely. I think "Repatriated" was sort of the song that we'd been trying to write for the last few records and then finally kind of got it right on that one. And then "Memories of the Future," moving towards guitars not being a part of songwriting. Another thing about that record: there are guitar moments, obviously, but the more those songs were played live, the more the guitar was brought out to accentuate the other things that were going on. It was really focused on the electronics.
You performed the songs in 2018–2019. Is there ever going to be another chapter for Handsome Furs and Sound Kapital?
I think it's more of a way of folding them into a continuum, because I have a lot of projects. I've had a lot of different bands. I think part of playing those Handsome Furs sets was, mainly, Dev and I figured people would really like to hear these songs. People kept asking us to play the Furs' material. It just seemed like enough time had passed. It was something that seemed fun and exciting and a little bit scary. More than putting an end to it or putting a cap on it, it was just folding them into this continuum, so I'd be able to play those songs at an Operators show or at a solo show. I just didn't want those songs to die. I'm very proud of them, because they represent, I think, the most transitional period of my life. Personally, politically and as an artist. The idea that those songs would be in cold storage forever is kind of shitty.
Given that the project ended after this record, do you have any any complicated personal feelings about it?
I think it's been enough time that, for me, art stands alone. I have complicated personal feelings about the end of the project, for sure. But I wanted to emancipate the the songs that I wrote from that feeling, if that makes sense. I think it's a good way to kind of liberate them from my own whatever my own knot of emotions around them is.