My talk with Dan Boeckner – 10 Year Anniversary of Apologies to the Queen Mary

Here are all the parts of my talk with Dan in one place! Enjoy!

The first recording session we did (in Portland, Oregon) we had only 2 weeks to get everything done. But I also remember it being really really compressed for the vocal days cause basically we had taken a lot of time doing bed tracks and then we had gone over budget on the record. It was kinda a shit show, that whole recording session. We went over budget on the record, and it was crunch time. Isaac basically told me we had one maybe two sessions to do all the vocals. So I cut all the vocals for the record in one day. And that was pretty intense. I didn’t really know how to pace myself and my voice was already pretty blown out. I basically destroyed my voice by the time that session was over. It was pretty intense.

When we got to Portland and everyone was staying in a hotel, like a pretty decent hotel. And it was exciting because you know we were all pretty broke. It seemed very luxurious. I was spending a lot of time staying at Isaac’s house and most of the band was at the hotel. As the recording session went on and we spent more of Sub Pop’s money the hotel accommodations changed. First we were at this nice hotel, and then we were staying at Kennedy School for a while. Which is still nice, a quirky old school hotel. But the last week we were there we got moved to basically one room at a fucking quality inn across from the university in downtown Portland. Window at street level, open the blinds and there’s just people walking by, kinda a sketchy hotel. And we ran out of money, all of us collectively. I remember having dinner, I think it was Canadian Thanksgiving, eating dinner and just basically having thanksgiving dinner with $7.50 worth of Taco Bell spread out between the entire band. I remember driving the van through the taco bell drive though and that was like the last of our money.

I do remember that there was a Mexican restaurant right down the street from the studio in Portland. Isaac would go there and order a bucket of margaritas, or a couple of beer pitchers filled with margaritas and he would have them delivered to the studio. The server from the restaurant would walk into the studio with a cardboard box filled with the pitchers and the bill, which we were paying for. Which is why of course we went over budget. We didn’t really know anything back then right. I think a lot of us thought that everything that was happening was some sort of magic that was related to Sub Pop. We didn’t really think about it. Like Sub Pop was magically turning the money tap on. But the truth is we owed all that money that we spent recording back to them.

I was the closest to Isaac and what I didn’t realize is that he had never really made a record before with another band that wasn’t Modest Mouse. He was good, he had Chris Chandler there doing all the technical stuff and fixing engineering issues. He really pushed the band in a good direction with a lot of the songs. I think ‘…Father’s Son’ would not exist, and I don’t know maybe Spencer would disagree, if Isaac wasn’t at that session recording the drums and making us play this beat over and over again. The sound that Isaac was trying to create for us was something that we didn’t think we were capable of. We didn’t have a bass player and our pallet was always the Jupiter keyboard playing bass, and this sort of shrill guitar. I always had to play high leads to kinda cut through the sonic murk. Arlen just wailing away on the drums, with Hadji kinda fitting in wherever he could. So when we wrote songs that was our canvas.

Going in and doing something like ‘Modern World’, for instance, acoustically, I don’t think that would have happened had Isaac not been involved in the process. Those things I think, are integral to how people responded to the record. Because instead of a monochromatic wash of sound, it showed off the actual songwriting I think, behind a lot of the material. Without sacrificing any of the insane energy that we had when we played live, or the slop. We were aware of the esthetic of our live shows and really fucking protective of it. Because a lot of the conflict that happened between Isaac and us esthetically on the record, I think on our part was an attempt to protect the craziness and the sorta abrasiveness of the band. It was a bit of a struggle but I think in the long run it was good that we painted some of these songs in a different light. Like ‘Sons and Daughters of Hungry Ghosts’ I think is a great example and ‘Modern World’ is a great example. They’re both more nuanced and it allowed the actual songwriting to come out. But then for every song like that you’ve got ‘We Built Another World’ or ‘It’s A Curse’ which both sound kinda unhinged.

We went up to Vancouver after the session (in Portland). The session had been pretty hard on everybody. I remember Hadji almost quit during it. It was fun and productive, to a point. We were a new band and we had never been in that kind of environment before. The only recording I’d ever done was at this studio in Victoria where they did Dayglo Abortions (Canadian punk band) records. That’s where all the Atlas Strategic stuff was recorded. And that was in this guy’s basement. So we had never been in a pro studio environment. It’s our debut record right, so there’s considerable amount of stress on the whole process and on us. Also the fact that we were totally fucking broke and stranded in Portland. We drove up to Vancouver Island and went our separate ways after the CBC Radio 3 session. I remember having to abandon our van on the way there because it was falling apart.

There was a very big dichotomy and battle between the assistant engineer and the actual engineer, named Chris Chandler. He was, at the time, doing front of house for Modest Mouse and Flaming Lips. Chris is a great dude. There were just tons of different mixes floating around. Chris’s mixes, Isaac’s sub mixes, and then Chris and Isaac’s mixes. Immediately after we finished recording in Portland we went up to Vancouver and recorded that CBC Radio 3 session. (November 1st 2004, see below). So that would have been a day or two after I had done that marathon vocal day. It’s funny because that session is like the introduction of my voice to a lot of people. It wasn’t an unrealistic portrait of what I sound like, but it was maybe a little exaggerated compared to what I settled into maybe 6 to 8 months later while touring.

After the CBC Radio 3 session Spencer and I flew down to Los Angeles to listen to mixes and mix with Chris Chandler and Isaac. I remember Isaac had done a pretty great job mixing and Chris was backing him up. But we went to LA and we just didn’t like the mixes. They were very polished. Isaac had just come out of making Good News for People Who Like Bad News. Isaac had never worked in a pop studio format before and I think he had to do all sorts of stuff he’d never done before. Like tons of vocal comping and having 4 pro tools set ups running at the same time. So he was in that mindset, with vocals way up front, like everything being really clean. I remember that being the biggest problem we had with the original mixes.

In retrospect, things might have turned out different for Wolf Parade had we used those mixes. They were pretty poppy and I think maybe it was only perceptible only to us. But I think there were would have definitely been more radio involved (in our career) because a lot of Isaac’s mixes were mixes for radio. He had this idea to mix, especially Spencer’s songs, like early David Bowie stuff. So the piano stuff is super dry and hard panned and the vocals are really really loud and up front and that just didn’t gel with our idea of what the record should sound like. I think mentally at that point we weren’t in a great state to be weighing the pros and cons of those kind of mixes. It was a really stressful experience.

We left that session with a giant question mark over the record. Then everyone met up in LA and we played All Tomorrow’s Parties. Which was our first real big show. It was the first time we played in front of that many people, and it was our first outdoor festival.

After ATP we toured our way back to Montreal. And that tour was fucking insane. It was everybody in the van. No one was coming to the shows. This is November 2004. So we played these small clubs that were huge distances from each other on a routing that would eventually get us back on Montreal. We played a terrible show in Phoenix where no one showed up, then drove to Denton, Texas and played an 80’s night between DJ’s. Our next show was in St Louis and that was kind of the nadir of the trip. It was our last show before we were supposed to go home. We played a show in Arkansas where Hadji passed out at the show, literally fell asleep on stage. We were just ground down. We had literally been out for over a month at this point, all of us getting pretty feral. I think the worst part of that whole thing, which started with us driving out to Portland to make the record, was when we played in St Louis at the Rocket Bar. That venue is basically the downstairs is the bar, there was a little step down to the bar and that’s where all the locals hang out. But if you pay a cover you could step up these tiny stairs and go see a band. The people that don’t pay cover are still in the bar and maybe they’re heckling you from there.

So we played with two of the worst bands I’ve ever played with. One of them was this jock dude singing joke songs. Everyone hated him. The other band was this sort of polished older pop punk band. That clearly had their sites set at one point on being like Green Day or Pennywise, but hadn’t made it. They were in their mid 30’s and I was just like, this is really depressing. I didn’t want to play the show and Spencer really didn’t want to play the show and we had a pretty heavy-duty internal band conflict about whether we should play or just drive away. We ended up playing and then immediately drove back to Montreal. Without stopping, from St Louis. I think 10 hours after that show, on our way home, Ol Dirty Bastard died. Arlen and I were the only people awake at the time and we heard on the radio that Ol DB had died. We had all these leftover fireworks from tour so we just went out and shot fireworks over some miserable fucking gray field outside of Detroit.

We got back to Montreal and I didn’t have a copy of the record. Nobody had a copy of the record. We couldn’t listen to it. Then we stopped hearing back from Isaac. So we had done this thing and nobody knew what it sounded like, it only existed in our minds. I was so fucking broke I was living on my friend’s couch in Hochelaga, which is a shitty suburb of Montreal. My girlfriend at the time had moved to Taiwan. So I just worked my ass off at my job for a month, saved up for a plane ticket, and flew to Taipei. When I got there she broke up with me and I lived in Taiwan for 3 ½ months after that. All in the back of my mind I’m thinking, there’s like a record, we did a record.

I came back to Montreal and we started fixing the record. With Isaac’s help, we used some of his mixes. But we had to re-record Shine A Light. Spencer and Arlen did a lot of heavy lifting for mixing stuff like ‘I’ll Believe in Anything’. Somehow we managed to get a coherent record out of that whole thing. Even though we were dealing with different mixes, different formats, different sound quality, we pulled together a coherent record. The whole process took about a year with a lot of huge gaps of not working on it because everybody had gone their separate ways. Or that we couldn’t get in touch with Isaac to get mixes because he was doing shit with Modest Mouse. It’s interesting, it seemed very precarious right from the start. That sort of informed the rest of our career.

When we were back in Montreal there wasn’t a lot of retooling done to the record because we didn’t have the skills to do that. Most of the retooling was sonically, like running stuff through a crappy computer. The biggest ones were Disco Sheets and Shine a Light, which were entirely re recorded. For I’ll Believe in Anything, Spencer did a lot of work on that. Not re-recording his parts, just mixing.

After we left the session (in Portland) they lost the multitrack version of Shine a Light. So when we got back to Montreal there was no Shine a Light. We had recorded Killing Armies and Shine a Light around the same time and I believe those are on the missing reels. We never got those reels back. So we had to re-record Shine A Light in Montreal. The existing version of that song is recorded on a Mac G-3 with a couple SM 57 mics and Tim Kingsbury playing bass. The version of Shine a Light that came out is not the studio version. We recorded it at our jam space on home recording equipment basically and just slotted it in with the record. Disco Sheets was also recorded this way.

(These next two parts are more personal. Dan spoke frankly with me about his personal life and wanted to share with the fans what he was dealing with personally and how those events inspired his lyrics on Apologies. I want to thank Dan for sharing this with us.)

A lot of the songs on that first record are about Cowichan Lake. I’m a 15-minute drive from there right now. I’m gonna have dinner tonight at the house where a lot of those, at least the psychological component of those songs were born and incubated. I was trying to have my own voice and I think I figured it out on that record, just naturally. Cause the stuff I had done up to till then was really informed by a lot of other musicians, people I worked with in Victoria, a lot of the Atlas Strategic stuff has like wacky science fiction components in it, with failed attempts at humor. Before I moved to Montreal, my Mom died in a pretty horrible way. She had been ill for a really long time, since I was a child, with systemic Lupus. We always had these groups of doctors saying ‘all right get ready she’s gonna die, everybody prepare for the inevitable’. But it would just never happen. She’d always pull out of it at the last minute. Her lupus would go into remission and this was the backdrop to my childhood, up until I was in my mid 20’s.

What happened right before I moved to Montreal in 2002 was I had gone on tour with Atlas Strategic opening for Modest Mouse down the west coast. We finished that tour and we were about to start negotiations with Sub Pop and I got a call from my Dad as soon as I got back to Victoria saying ‘come home to Cowichan Lake your Mom’s not doing so great’. I went home and they were at the doctor and I was at the family house. They came back home and my Mom was like, ‘I have cancer’. She had basically gotten cancer from the drugs she was taking to keep her Lupus in check, which is a heavy immunosuppressant and it gave her liver cancer. She died 4 days later at home. They said maybe 2 more weeks, maybe another month, but it was literally 4 days. That was a huge blow psychologically for me. I stuck around for the wake, and then I went to Montreal and I started Wolf Parade with Spencer shortly after that.

A lot of the songs like ‘This Hearts on Fire’ obviously are just completely autobiographical. ‘Same Ghost Every Night’ is also about that, and about living in this environment. This weird isolated rural area in Canada. It’s a little different now, the world has changed and there’s no industry here and the redneck component is a lot smaller. But at the time when I was growing up there was this backdrop of family tragedy but there’s also the environment you’re in. If you liked punk rock music, the environment is hostile to you. Because of the people who lived there and the environment itself, the natural world. People come here for vacation now, but for me as a kid I tuned into this aspect of it, an almost ‘Lovecraftian’ cosmic horror of living in this tiny outpost of humanity surrounded by the woods. And not in a nice way. In a way that nature is constantly just trying to swallow up these little colonies of humanity and just doesn’t give a shit about you. This forest just doesn’t care about you. You’re insignificant compared to it. And those two thing, my mom passing away and that feeling of being here I think that translated into the way I started writing songs and how I wanted to communicate things. I wrote about landscapes and describing geography more than I wrote about personal relationships or love. I would rather write about that, this place. Existential horror with a bit of positivity thrown in there. Maybe there’s an exit. There’s dignity in feeling that bad.

‘It’s A Curse’ is really about Cowichan Lake. It’s about growing up in this rural place. Shine A Light is about my mom passing away and moving to Montreal and living in a giant city and working a shitty job and having brutal insomnia. But seeing sort of a light at the end of the tunnel maybe. ‘Modern World’ same thing, it’s like moving to Montreal and being broke and wandering around in this metropolis. So that recording session with Isaac helped me figure out what kind of writer I was. I think I went on to write songs that summed up those feelings more eloquently or in more detail but I think the early songs are the rawest expression of what eventually became the language I would use to talk to people through songs.

I think weirdly ‘Plague Park’ is an addendum to ‘Apologies..’. ‘Snakes on a Ladder’ was actually gonna be a song for Apologies. I wrote it during the Apologies session on acoustic guitar. We had a recording of it but it got cut from the record. It’s on the lost reels. That (song) was really the bridge to songs like ‘Sing Captain’ that was coming from the same pool. Then I got free of it. It was the launch pad. It was a painful and weird process and was also very exciting and joyful.