Few musicians, let alone married ones, can boast of a life as adventurous as Alexei Perry and Dan Boeckner. Young and penniless, the two met at a telemarketing job in Montreal amid a burgeoning music scene and later relocated to Vancouver to form Handsome Furs. Having just finished a tour with his former outfit Wolf Parade and fellow Montreal-based powerhouse Arcade Fire, Boeckner set out with Perry to forge a new sound, pairing his punchy guitars and belting vocals with drum machines and dissonant keyboards.
It was a departure for them both, but six years and three full-lengths later, Handsome Furs continue to deftly and defiantly challenge the formula by traveling to places forgotten by most touring musicians. The music reflects their ever-expanding worldview: Sound Kapital, released in June of last year, is their most recent book of songs, and by far the most political. Stark tracks like “Serve the People” and “Bury Me Standing” recall the bombed-out landscapes of Cold War-era Eastern Europe but retain a feeling that is positively humanist. The theme of change is pervasive throughout, but whether that change is internal or external is never quite clear. It’s difficult to imagine a life as transient as Handsome Furs’ (think a nine-month trek across Europe, North America, and Asia during just last year), but after taking a call from writer and keyboardist Alexei Perry, I learned that life on the road can be a reaffirmation of oneself when it is shared in kindred company.
It seems that travel is a fundamental aspect of Handsome Furs. How do you feel the place you are and the places you’ve been influence the music that you make? Sometimes the influences are tiny, and sometimes they are huge, like certain industrial music scenes in Eastern Europe have had a big impact on things I want to say sonically. To answer that in a small way, I think traveling just lets you bear witness to more of what’s going on in the real world, and as an artist and musician and writer, I always want to discuss what’s actually happening on the planet.
Do you feel more inspired by bleak environments or beautiful ones? I feel more thrown by the bleak ones that conjure up artistry because I want to write about what’s painful for people. But for the writing of [Sound Kapital], I was influenced by some of the really, really beautiful, positive things that we were witnessing. We were in Beijing, and I was seeing all these amazing kids with very little money and access to gear making great music, and feeling like there was a lot of potential for their futures. So a bit of both — sometimes it’s the evil that makes you want to change it, and sometimes it’s the beauty that makes you want to harness it more strongly.
It’s a bit strange to see Santa Barbara included on a tour roster with places like Moscow, Bucharest, and Beirut. [Laughs.] We’re weird people. I want to play everywhere we fucking can. Santa Barbara isn’t visited enough. It’s not on most touring circuits, just the same that Bucharest isn’t, or Cluj-Napoca, or Shanghai. Not enough bands go through the places that aren’t on the normal touring circuits that their booking agents have provided for them. I’m not interested in seeing that small slice of the world. It’s pretty important to me to get to as many as places, good and bad, bleak and beautiful, that I can.
You’re also a writer, and the band is named after one of your short stories. When it comes to writing lyrics, is it all Dan, or are you involved, as well? We both do it, very equally. A lot of the time, he’ll go through longer things that I’ve written and slice out the things he can sing or belt out. But I would say it’s definitely 50-50 for lyric writing.
Sound Kapital is supposedly about Eastern Europe in the 1980s. Is it possible your personal memories of Canada bled through, as well? Absolutely. It’s all about us. I hate the government in Canada right now, so we talked about that, even when we were referencing, you know, Burma and things like that. Certain place names are interchangeable when you’re discussing politics because a lot of them are global disasters. As a writer or artist, you’re always writing about the things you know, the things you’re personally witnessing. So that’s what Sound Kapital was: a collection of our ideas about what the world is like.
There’s a fan-made video that compiles footage of police brutality on Wall Street to the tune of “Serve the People.” What did you think of it? It’s interesting. It’s one of those great things where people take a snippet out of what you said to give it a new meaning. I love that. I’m equally proud that that song got radio play in a country that we weren’t even allowed to play in, which was Burma. They managed to get it on the radio, past all the government censors, past all the difficulties there. So I’m equally proud that the song has been used in other forms of protest. One of my closest girlfriends in Beijing, she made an official video for that song, and I liked what her spin on it was: young labor finding some semblance of peace and joy in the song.
Handsome Furs play an all-ages show at SOhO Restaurant & Music Club (1221 State St.) on Tuesday, January 17, at 8 p.m. with opener PAPA. For tickets and info, call 962-7776 or visit sohosb.com.