By Gabriel Mathews
Barboza, the newish downstairs room at the Neumos complex, was air-conditioned to hell when I arrived for one of the first few shows ever by Dan Boeckner’s new band Operators.
The chill didn’t seem to have much of an effect on openers Noddy, whose name I misheard as “Frottage.” Frottage would have actually been a better name for these guys, whose dirty dance beats fit very well, for better or for worse, with their degenerate lyrics. Every single song, as far as I could tell, was about meaningless sex and seduction, like a disturbingly less funny Lovage. The one thing that struck me as moderately innovative here was the inclusion of a trumpeter, but she certainly didn’t redeem the rest of Noddy’s set.
Thank god, then, for Operators. Dan Boeckner has been putting out fantastic music for fifteen-ish years now, and between his bands Atlas Strategic, Wolf Parade, Handsome Furs, Divine Fits, and now Operators, probably has a larger percentage of “Best Records of the New Millennium” under his belt than just about anyone else. As a high-schooler, I initially found Wolf Parade co-leader Spencer Krug’s songs on their debut Apologies To The Queen Mary (which was most people’s introduction to both Boeckner and Krug) to be more interesting, with their twisting melodies and weird keyboard skronk. But as Wolf Parade’s output over their next two records got increasingly marred by Krug’s overelaborate composition and jammy tendencies, Boeckner continued churning out priceless, hooky rock songs about alienation and the dangers of modern love.
Handsome Furs, his band with his now ex-wife Alexei Perry was significantly more consistent, and arguably better, than Wolf Parade, putting out three albums of politically charged, electric, sinewy rock ’n roll that evolved from the dank lethargy of Plague Park through the Soviet-styled riffage of Face Control and on to the triumphantly synth-laden Sound Kapital before their divorce and dissolution.
Boeckner then went on to co-helm Divine Fits with Spoon’s Britt Daniel to excellent effect. Where Daniel’s contributions to the project were pretty great, they mostly felt like Spoon cast-offs. Boeckner’s songs, on the other hand, retained the urgency he’s put into everything he’s ever done, and bolstered Daniel’s lighter material.
Point being, this man is a fucking wizard, and my expectations for Operators, who have been shrouded in secrecy since Boeckner announced their existence in May, were very high. And they were 110% met.
Rounded out by Divine Fits/New Bomb Turks drummer Sam Brown and the enigmatic keyboardist who goes simply by Devojka, Operators sound a lot like Boeckner’s work on Sound Kapital, but with a real live drummer this time around. This is crucial not because it adds an extra oomph and blood-filled component to their largely electronic sound, but because Sam Brown is a fucking god. Divine Fits doesn’t generally let him go nuts, but the builds and drops of Operators’ music, which often rivaled both LCD Soundsystem and the likes of Skrillex, allowed him to show how seriously he combines both muscle and precision into an athletic drumming style that elevates this band beyond most other electronic acts around.
The emacieted Boeckner was in fine form, gesticulating, spazzing out, and singing at the top of his lungs in his nasally rasp. His performance felt distinctly heartfelt and passionate, demonstrating the degree to which he cares about this project. Between Brown’s locomotive skill, Boeckner’s thrashing, and Devojka’s intense stomp as she manipulated a table of electronics, my eyes couldn’t decide where to look. This is a band of three incredibly magnetic performers.
Ultimately, of course, it’s Boeckner’s show, and part of what made this set such a great experience was how sincerely grateful and straight up stoked he was to have drawn such a crowd. The first words out of his mouth after opener “Ancient” were “Holy shit!” and his expression of disbelief at his fans’ adulation continued throughout the set. “Frankly, I didn’t expect nearly this many people show up,” he confessed. At one point he said, “This is like when you’re a teenager, and you’ve been writing songs in your rooms and you invite your friends in, like, hey guys, I wrote some songs. It’s very intimate for me. And I feel good about it.” He seemed consistently thrilled to have such an enthused audience for these songs, which he’s clearly poured his heart into.
And we were enthused for a reason. While only one Operators song (the excellent “True”) has been released thus far, not knowing the songs wasn’t a problem simply because they were so damn good. Each one had its own distinctive feel, and everything felt more organic than one might expect from a synth-based act. I kept wondering if they were going to pad out their set with older songs from the Boeckner songbook, but Operators have a significant body of excellent work all their own, and I can’t wait to hear these tracks on record, when EP1 is released this fall.
For the encore, Devojka informed us that at their previous show, which was at Pickathon, the crowd had gotten on stage, Brown had been tickled and “someone even grabbed Dan’s wang.” She encouraged us to try to top that, and I felt compelled for the first time ever to actually get on stage and dance. Bravo, Operators.
Dan Boeckner, you are a North American treasure. Keep it up.