Q&A: Britt Daniel and Dan Boeckner of Divine FitsMarina Chavez
Britt Daniel (Spoon) and Dan Boeckner (Wolf Parade, Handsome Furs) have been mainstays in the world of indie music for years, but their new band, Divine Fits, is still a baby. This week marked the release of their very good debut LP, A Thing Called Divine Fits (Merge Records), as well as their ninth ever live show at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery in Los Angeles. I met up with Daniel and Boeckner at the venue, where they talked about their collaborative process, their recent relocation to sunny California, and crowd-surfing in Salt Lake City.
So, this is show no. 9. You’ve been playing a lot of smaller venues, and it seems like there’s a lot of good energy onstage — the energy of being in a new band. How do you plan on keeping that up as you start to get back to bigger venues?
Daniel: I don’t know, do you have any suggestions?
I don’t know, more banter? There was a lot of good banter onstage.
Boeckner: Was there? I feel like our banter is the one thing that we could work on. [Laughs.] But you liked it.
Yeah — it was a pleasant surprise.
Daniel: Why were you surprised?
I’ve been to a few Spoon shows …
Daniel: … and there wasn’t a lot of talking? We’d just get down to business?
Daniel: Well, I hope that we don’t lose that feeling. But we did play one bigger show … We played a big show in Salt Lake City. We went from — I think our first show was to 70 people, and then a couple hundred, 150. And then we played to … 11,000 people? Was it more? Sixteen [thousand]?
Boeckner: I think it was 20,000.
Daniel: It was a lot. A lot of thousands.
Boeckner: Yeah, it was a weekly festival, low ticket cost, out in Pioneer Park in Salt Lake City. And nobody knew any of the songs —
Daniel: Nobody knew any of the songs, and everybody went nuts.
Well, that was the same way it was at your first show here in L.A.
Daniel: Yeah, I guess so. But nobody was crowd-surfing at the Bootleg.
Boeckner: I was crowd-surfing in Salt Lake City. I didn’t mean to. I went to go sing, offstage to the audience, and they just kind of pulled me in. And then I was like, “Oh, this is happening, so … ” It was fun.
So it’s clear you’re enjoying yourselves onstage. But the record itself skews a little melancholy. Was that a conscious decision you made, to keep the shows light and fun?
Boeckner: Britt’s songs aren’t entirely … [to Daniel] I don’t feel like your songs are melancholy.
Daniel: There’s a little of both. I think that when you go out and play a show, you’re in a frame of mind that’s usually pretty different from when you wrote the songs. And I know I’ve heard people say that they expect the singer is reliving the emotions every time they sing the song — sometimes that can happen, but it doesn’t happen every time. So you could be having a great time singing the most twisted, depressed, dark tune.
I guess by then you’re more just singing a song, it’s not so much a memory.
Daniel: It’s performance.
Boeckner: And the meaning of the song I think subtly changes the more you play it, you know? If you’re on the road, say you do a month, that would be 28 dates. That’s 28 versions of “My Love Is Real” every night. You’re not going to have the same emotional content exactly. And even if you do tap into that emotion that you had when you were writing it, when you’re done singing the song that doesn’t mean you’re gonna be staring at your shoes and sad. You’re performing in front of an audience, and hopefully people are having a good time. [Laughs.]
You guys relocated to Los Angeles to make the record with Nick Launay (producer; Arcade Fire, The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Gang of Four).
Daniel: Well, I moved out in August. And then we had our first rehearsals here last fall. Dan came out again in January so we could work on songs and write songs …
Boeckner: And February and early March. That’s when I moved here permanently.
OK. So you guys are here for good?
Daniel: We are. We were roommates for the first four months.
Boeckner: That was nice. [To Daniel.] I actually woke up this morning and I kinda missed that.
Daniel: Well, I haven’t seen you as much lately.
Boeckner: I know.
What do you mean? Haven’t you guys been on tour?
Daniel: Well, I haven’t seen him since last … Tuesday.
Boeckner: Yeah, Tuesday.
Daniel: It’s been a week!
So how’s the transition been? I mean, I don’t know that I’d ever see [Daniel] as a Los Angeles resident.
Daniel: I never would have seen myself that way either.
Did it come to influence the music at all?
Daniel: It must’ve. California is mentioned a couple times on the record. And it must’ve had some effect on the music. It’s probably a brighter record than it would’ve been otherwise.
Boeckner: I always end up writing and recording stuff in the wintertime, and for the last seven years of my life that’s meant either being in Portland, which is miserable during the fall and winter, or Montreal, which is a fucking deep freeze in the winter. Sometimes, like on the last couple Furs records, I have to fight to make the songs more up-tempo, more upbeat, because psychologically, I was just like … it was Snowpocalypse outside. But here, it’s a pretty consistent climate, so I think that probably made it a little sunnier. Breezier, maybe.
Daniel: We were spending a lot of time in maybe not the most touristy or glamorous part of Los Angeles. [Laughs.]
You can definitely hear both the Spoon sound and the Wolf Parade/Handsome Furs sound coexisting in the album as far as style and instrumentation goes. What about actual songwriting? Was that also collaborative?
Daniel: We did a little of both. For the first thing we did, I sent him a song that I’d been trying to write words to, and it was just too hard. And I didn’t tell Dan, “Oh, this is a really hard one to sing to,” I just sorta snuck it over to him. And he — well, [to Boeckner] you had trouble with it at first, right?
Boeckner: Yeah, well, you did say that eventually, ’cause I called you and was like, “I’m having trouble with this, I don’t know … ” and that was the first thing we worked on. But then I figured something out, and we recorded.
Daniel: And that was “What Gets You Alone.” And there was another song that sort of started as a jam from a practice, and I sang on top of it. But there were a lot of songs [where] I would bring in a done or mostly done song, and then he would put parts on it and make suggestions …
Boeckner: And Sam [Brown, drummer] would put parts on it. I like the fact that we were working in Pro Tools, each of us, writing demos and stuff like that. But with every song, there was always a point where it would come to the band, and we would try and play it, and you know, get a better sense of it, then maybe go back and re-edit the demos. I’d never worked like that before, but it was really cool. It felt natural.
Did Sam do a lot of work on production and arrangements as well?
Daniel: Yeah, one of the songs, he recorded the drums himself, which we ended up using.
Boeckner: He recorded the drums in his garage.
You guys recently shot your first music video together. The Handsome Furs had a lot of pretty dark videos — very different from your average Spoon video. What’s the Divine Fits music video approach going to be?
Boeckner: We didn’t do a narrative for this video. The Furs videos are all real narrative-based, mostly with the same [directors]. I mean, [out of] the three really good ones, Panos Cosmatos did one, and then Scott Coffey did two of them [link NSFW]. But this one was really different. I had a really good time on the video shoot.
[Boeckner grins, laughs. Long pause.]
Daniel: And that’s all he’s gonna say.
Boeckner: And that’s all I’m gonna say.
Daniel: We haven’t finished it yet.
Boeckner: It’s a work in progress.
What’s the song?
Daniel: It’s for “Would That Not Be Nice.”
You also put out a series of short trailers with video artist Alexa Gerrity leading up to the album. How did those come about?
Daniel: I think somebody saw her stuff maybe in a museum, or just online, and brought it to our attention. We wanted the trailers to be mysterious, and she seemed good at doing that. And I love what she did.
Boeckner: Yeah, I did too.
Do you think you’ll be working with her on any future video projects?
Daniel: Maybe. I mean, I’d like to work with her again, because she was real easy to work with, and I feel like we kind of had the same aesthetic.
Boeckner: The stuff that she came up with — I mean, I really like the one with the foil. That was my favorite one of the four.
Daniel: I think everyone liked those videos except for Merge. They thought they were too mysterious. And that’s what I loved about them.
There’s been a lot of that mystery in the buildup to the album’s release — a little melodrama. Even the name of the band you guys did your first show as, “Hot Skull” — I got a kick out of that. Was that aesthetic part of the plan from the beginning?
Daniel: Hot Skull was one of the band names we were really considering. Yeah, I guess we like mystery. I guess that just comes naturally to us. But I don’t think there’s anything mysterious about the show. I think maybe that’s a little bit more … human.
Yeah — I think if you just saw those trailers, and then walked into a Divine Fits show, you’d be like, “Oh, these guys are actually nice!”
Boeckner: We’re not wearing, like, robes.
The Birthday Party cover “Shivers” is a definite highlight of the album. What made you want to cover that song?
Daniel: It’s actually by this band The Boys Next Door, which was Nick Cave’s first band. And I thought that The Birthday Party was his first band, too. But the last time I was in Australia, I was talking about Nick Cave with a friend of mine, and my friend played me that song, and she said it was her favorite Nick Cave song. And it’s actually not a Nick Cave song, it’s a Roland S. Howard song. So I heard it, and I loved it, and I kind of kept it in the back of my mind, that maybe I could do something with it. Some songs, and great as they are, you don’t want to cover them, ’cause they’re too well known, or they’re —
Daniel: Uncoverable, yeah. But that seemed like a great, classic song that a lot of people didn’t know. And it seemed doable.
You guys also did a couple other covers live — there’s a Tom Petty cover …
Boeckner: Yeah, we did “You Got Lucky,” which is one of my all-time favorite songs. When we were kind of learning it separately, I listened to it a lot, like over and over again, figuring it out, and it kind of stuck me that that is a really bizarre song to have been a top — It was a no. 1 single in the U.S.! And that song is … well, not only are the lyrics incredibly dark and mean-spirited, it’s just weirdly arranged.
Daniel: There’s no bass on it.
Boeckner: No. [Laughs.] There’s no bass on it, and it’s just these kind of ghostly keyboards just pumping away with some ’80s reverb on it.
Daniel: It’s kind of the most New Wave thing Tom Petty ever did. It almost sounds like one of those New Wave Prince singles. “1999” or something.
Boeckner: I just really love that song. I love the sentiment of it, and everything is so sharp and well put-together. I’m really a sucker for the major-key chorus, minor-key verse thing.
What else have you guys been listening to?
Boeckner: We listened to some Kraftwerk. “Radioactivity” got played. [To Daniel] You got that tape that Nick Launay made.
Daniel: The Armoury Show.
Boeckner: This obscure ‘80s band that Nick produced. Britt ordered the tape —
Daniel: Yeah, I couldn’t get it on CD or vinyl. Which is funny, because that’s how I had it when I was in high school. I bought this record when I was in high school, and Nick couldn’t believe that somebody in America actually had it. I thought it was going to be huge — I was on this streak where I kept picking all these hits. Like, that ‘Til Tuesday song …
Boeckner: “Voices Carry”?
Daniel: Yeah, and that Simple Minds song, I knew that was going to be a hit. [Laughs.] And then I found this Armoury Show song, and was like, “This is gonna be a hit!” And it was not.
Boeckner: We listened to a lot of AC/DC during the making of this record.
Daniel: I was playing that every day when we were driving to the studio.
Boeckner: And we watched AC/DC concert footage.
Did that influence the process at all?
Daniel: I think it always does, some way or another. I wouldn’t have thought this, but one person told me that one song — I think that was “Would That Not Be Nice” — had an AC/DC type riff, and that was the greatest compliment ever.