Meet Operators, The Electro-Punk Group Ditching The Electronics

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operators_01Photo: Kelly Castro.
Earlier this month, while performing in Seattle, the hard-edged synth-pop trio Operators got some unexpected onstage company. Frontman Dan Boeckner is used to seeing people dance, but as he tells Refinery29, he couldn’t believe this crowd’s response. Fans swarmed the band, and at one point, Boeckner’s microphone came unplugged. When it did, he was about 15 seconds from having to sing a verse, and as he crouched down to fix the situation, he had to figure out which of the six outlets his cord had been yanked from.

“I chose slot number two and, sure enough, it worked,” Boeckner says. “There was some kind of magic going on that night.”

A lot of other nights, too. Since playing their first shows late last year, the hotly tipped triumvirate of Boeckner, drummer Sam Brown, and enigmatic Macedonian keyboardist Devojka has earned a reputation for crackling live shows. According to Boeckner — a Canadian indie lifer also known for stints in Wolf Parade, Handsome Furs, and Divine Fits, the supergroup featuring Brown and Spoon singer Britt Daniel — Operators aim to deliver their bloops and beeps with punk-rock oomph. No need to save an outlet for a laptop — they don’t use one.

Hours before instigating another dance party, this time at the House of Vans in Brooklyn, Boeckner chatted with Refinery29 about the great new Spoon record, Operators’ equally great debut EP, the not-so-great situation in Russia, and the dangers of using computers onstage.

Is it a coincidence that Operators’ debut, EP 1, came out on August 5, the same day as the new Spoon album?
“Yeah, I think it is a coincidence, as a matter of fact. We do have the same management, so maybe they wanted to lighten their workload: ‘Hey, we can handle these to releases on the same day.’ Spencer [Krug] from Wolf Parade has an EP out today as well, which is pretty hilarious.”

Have you and Britt Daniel reviewed each other’s new records?
“We recorded 15 songs that we liked over the winter, in February and March. We did it pretty quick. And, when we were done, Britt was done around the same time. He sent me and Sam a copy of the Spoon record, and I sent him and [Divine Fits/Spoon keyboardist] Alex [Fischel] the Operators tracks. And, we were just texting each other back and forth: ‘Listening to your record in the van. It’s awesome.’ It’s really nice to be connected to those guys in that way, and to be working on creative stuff that we can trade back and forth.”

The new Spoon record is pretty great, no?
“It’s a great album. It manages to be a classic Spoon record, but I think Britt has really pushed himself out of his comfort zone. Which is just so cool. It makes me excited to make another Divine Fits record.”

You recorded EP 1 in Montreal in the dead of winter. How’d you get that summery feel?
“Most of the writing was in California, in San Jose, where it was blazing hot all the time and blue skies. I was really pushing myself with this project. I love pop music, and I wanted to write pop music like the stuff I listened to when I was six driving in the car — these crazy coked-up pop songs that would come on the radio. I wanted to do an analog, melted version of that. When we started recording in Montreal, it was like minus-30 degrees Celsius a couple of days. There was a blizzard. We walked from the Airbnb to the studio bundled up. I was used to it. I think the rest of the band acclimatized to it pretty well. But, there was a dichotomy, being in this frozen hellscape and recording these songs.”

How do the recorded versions of these songs differ from the live ones?
“The record is definitely cleaner. It’s maybe a little more nuanced on record. Live, it’s got more visceral impact, because everything is so blown out.”

Growing up in the ‘80s, did you get into synth-pop before punk rock, since all those British New Wave bands were all over the radio?
“I [recently] watched this great documentary called Synth Britannia, this BBC thing. It’s amazing. It traces the roots of post-punk mutating into what would become the default pop setting for the planet by the mid-‘80s. I think listening to that stuff — [the Vapors’] “Turning Japanese” or even Flock of Seagulls — as a child prepared me for the visceral impact or angular sounds of things that came later in life, like Fugazi or Sonic Youth.”

It seems fitting to talk about ‘80s synth-pop now, since so much of that music was infused with Cold War paranoia, and at the moment, we’re butting heads with the Russians again.
“Except for this time, there’s no ideological component, which is fucking terrifying, right? [Laughs] It’s really unpleasant. One of the most chilling things for me was to watch a few pretty big news stories unfolding in the U.S., now that I live here, and watching there be a big frothy hubbub on Twitter for a day, and then nothing. No physical protest. No checks and balances. Like the NSA thing. As they kept revealing more information, it became more comically evil. The old hippy guy that used to talk to you about [the CIA program] MK Ultra and mind control and mass surveillance — that guy’s actually right. We live in this fucking horrible dystopia. What makes it even more horrible is that people don’t give a shit.”

Getting back to the music, you’ve talked about how you want Operators to be a viable live band — kind of the opposite of all those chillwave bands a few years back that used laptops and had no stage presence. Have you ever been at a show where, like, someone’s screensaver has come on and ruined everything?
“Absolutely. Even with dance music. In Montreal, [U.K. dubstep producer] Rusko came and played, and he was running Fruity Loops and projecting stuff from his computer, and his computer just died in the middle of his set. It was just the Windows startup boot thing on the screen, and there were, like, 500 people there just staring at the Windows boot screen. Which is a bummer.”