Dismantling Ayn Rand’s Philosophy With Dan Boeckner of Operators

J. Edward Keyes

By J. Edward Keyes

on 09.23.14 in Features

EP 1

The Operators

When I reach Dan Boeckner, he’s in the middle of what he describes as a “Walking Dead-type scenario.” Apparently, a woman who was transporting medicine that required refrigeration locked her keys — and the medicine — in her car, and the members of Boeckner’s newest band Operators are trying to help her get access before the shipment spoils. “We’ve got pieces of wood, a jackknife, a coat hanger. It’s kind of amazing.” In fact, it was that same spirit of utilitarian resourcefulness that led to the creation of Operators. Boeckner, a veteran of bands including Wolf Parade, Handsome Furs and Divine Fits, had begun to take an increasing liking to analog synthesizers, so much so that he had amassed a small pile of songs that didn’t quite fit anywhere else. When Divine Fits returned from tour, Boeckner recruited Fits drummer Sam Brown and Macedonian musician Devojka to hammer out his compositions and immediately take the act on the road. The hastiness amounted to a kind of indie rock sneak attack — Operators were showing up in venues before a lot of people even knew who was in the band.

That kind of velocity suits the group’s music. Their debut EP is packed with propulsive tracks that marry the steady throb of dance music with the primal wallop of punk rock. Call it synthpop with a snarl. Over the course of our hour-long conversation, Boeckner discussed the impetus behind the band, as well as the covert political contents of their lyrics.

Also, at one point about halfway through, his bandmates successfully jimmied the lock on the medicine courier’s car.

‘There’s this bizarre utopian idea in Silicon Valley that somehow these things are helping — like they’re the Madame Curie of convenience.’

I don’t want to get too basic here, but can you just walk me through the genesis of Operators? It felt like you guys appeared out of nowhere.

I mean, it’s not like there were reporters from Pitchfork staked out around the studio where I was recording, wondering what my next big move was gonna be [laughs]. I think it was a bunch of different factors. The Handsome Furs split up a couple of years ago, and by the time we were finished writing San Kapital, which was a lot more electronic I had gotten better at programming. When Handsome Furs finished I wanted to make a new album and I had a bunch of songs written and I got a bunch of new gear, strictly analog. The band broke up, but it was an artistic direction that I didn’t want to stop pursuing just because the band didn’t exist anymore. I had relocated to San Jose and set up this studio and just started writing like a maniac. And then I brought in Devojka and Sam, and we started rehearsing together, and we were like, “This is good – we wanna play this stuff in front of actual humans,” instead of crafting some master marketing plan and looking forward eight months or a year when we were going to release a record. Everybody in the band was like, “When can we play live?”

You said the equipment you bought was “strictly analog.” Why is that important?

Coming from a guitar background, I play really hard. There’s a tactile feeling with guitar. With the analog stuff, having all the controls light up, having everything available to touch — it feels more musical to me. I went on these forums a lot — I’ve had seven years of experience programming sequencer stuff, but I’m still learning. So I go on the internet and I’m asking, “I really need to figure out how to get this SH101 bass sound, does anybody have any tips on how to make the low end cut through more?” And in certain forums, people will just unleash nuclear-level amounts of hatred on you for even asking. Sometimes you’re not even asking musical questions, you’re asking, “How do I load theses sys-ex patches back into the box without destroying everything that I’ve written?” And you’ll just get the reply “RTFM!” — “Read the fucking manual.” These nerds are just ready — they’re so mad and they’re just sitting at home waiting for some poor sap to be like, “Oh hey guys, how do I work this?” And they’re just like, “FUCK YOU, YOU IDIOT. GO DIE.”

A lot of these guys — and I’d put myself in the same category — these are like comic book nerds. I mean, I know what I’m doing is fucking nerdy. I know it. I know plugging in these modules and watching tutorial videos is nerdy. And it’s so dude-heavy. You’d think the shame associated with that would give you a little bit of humility. But no! People still gotta have big balls about it. It’s totally counterintuitive.

So after dealing with that I found my safe place on the internet, which is the Elektronaut forum. The Swedish company Elektron, they have an open source user forum, and the people on that forum are the sweetest, most helpful people.

You’ve mentioned your love for a label I’m also a big fan of, Long Island Electrical Systems. What is it about their releases that you find attractive?

When we were writing those songs, I got that “Mars Out of Range” 12″ from Svengalisghost, and I listened to that every day on the walk to the studio. There’s something about that label — the jankiness of the beats, the organic feeling that you get from it. When you listen to a lot of contemporary electronic music, the stuff that’s filtered into the upper echelons of pop, you have the ability to go in and micromanage sound changes right down to the drum hit. So you can have a bass drum sound like an 808 one second and then modulate into something completely different the next. I love the L.I.E.S. stuff because it’s a little janky and it’s a little meditative — it’ll be the same kick drum sound through the whole song. There’s just something more alive about that I think. It’s the difference between listening to Television and listening to System of a Down. Those guys are quote-unquote better at playing guitar, and there are more notes, and it’s very technical, but Television has more of an emotional effect. I feel the same way about L.I.E.S.

Lyrically, how was your approach to these songs different from what you’d done with Divine Fits?

‘One of the great things about being able to put songs out for a living is that you have this public forum for catharsis, and then you get to move on from it. There’s a lot more joy in this project than I’ve felt in a long time.’

With Divine Fits, I had just gone through a pretty bad breakup and moved out of Canada, and those songs were focused on that. One of the great things about being able to put songs out for a living is that you have this public forum for catharsis, and then you get to move on from it. There’s a lot more joy in this project than I’ve felt in a long time.

The lyrical content came a lot easier with this. Living in Silicon Valley especially, I was obsessed with the non-reaction to what I consider one of the biggest news stories of the last decade, which is the mass surveillance of the American population and the international population by the American government, and also this sort of feudal state that’s being created in Silicon Valley. Because I was a recent transplant, I could watch it with this “detached observer” status. And also because I’m Canadian, once that place turns into fucking Blade Runner, I’m out of there. “Alright, you guys want to auction off public parking spaces to the highest bidder and get poor people to stand in the spots and hold them for you?” That’s actually something that happened. The city shut it down. These guys invented an app where you can bid on public parking. “We hate looking for parking in San Francisco and we’re rich, so hmmm. What if there was a great way to utilize our richness to not have to deal with looking for parking?”

They figured out a way to do that, and they were shot down by city government who were like “Public property means public property, idiots.” There’s this bizarre utopian idea in Silicon Valley that somehow these things are helping — like they’re the Madame Curie of convenience. They give themselves a big, fat, Mickey Mouse glove pat on the back for like helping people who are rich steal parking spots. It’s an interesting melding of the really unconsidered end of utopian leftist politics and the really nasty side of Ayn Rand’s libertarian objectivism, all mixed into a delicious stew of stupidness.

Wait, they were actually going to pay poor people to stand in the parking spots to hold them for rich drivers?

The plan was that they were going to hire people at less than minimum wage to go stand in the spots to hold them. Kind of like — did you go to South by Southwest in 2012? Do you remember the homeless WiFi hotspots? [The company BBH Labs launched a plan to equip homeless people with Wi-Fi transmitters in order to provide free roaming internet access for festival goers. — Ed.] Super fucked up, right? The argument on one side was, “We’re providing a service. These people now have jobs.” But the counterargument is, “At what cost? What social worth do these people have? These are people with parents, with families, who are physically hungry or have mental health problems. They probably don’t feel so great most of the time. And the best thing we can think to pay them for is to stand around so I can put a picture on Instagram.” And it’s that kind of thinking that’s prevalent in Silicon Valley right now.

It’s weird to see this kind of Randian philosophy, that started out with really conspicuously noxious people like the Tea Party, start to creep into, like, the tech sector and the young product innovators — who historically have been forward-thinking, leftist, progressive — who I think don’t even realize the objectivist underpinnings to what it is that they’re doing.

‘You’re young and impressionable and you read [Ayn Rand] when you don’t really understand how the world works, and you’re like, “Yeah, this is great! What if I’m just selfish all the time?” It just baffles me that grown-ass men and women would still fall for that.’

It’s a bizarre time in American politics right now because of this specific cross-pollination. Objectivism has been roundly debunked. It doesn’t work. It’s not a tenable social and political philosophy. It reminds me of Nietzsche. When you’re in high school, there’s a real appeal to Nietzschean philosophy. And then you kind of grow out of it, like you grow out of Marilyn Manson. You’re like, “This is just a nihilist fantasy world.” And I think Ayn Rand belongs in that same time period, where you’re young and impressionable and you read this when you don’t really understand how the world works, and you’re like, “Yeah, this is great! What if I’m just selfish all the time?” It just baffles me that grown-ass men and women would still fall for that.

And I think what you’re seeing from Silicon Valley isn’t just these stories about somebody trying to hijack public parking for a profit. It’s more stuff like the guy who owns eBay working with US Aid in the Ukraine to foment anti-Russian sentiment among young people there in order to make Ukraine more receptive to the European Union and Western business. The end result is that you’ve got a civil war and a 2,000 person body count. It’s the same as when they went to India and were doing microlending, which resulted in a bunch of women drinking pesticide to commit suicide because they couldn’t pay back their microloans. These people go in with what I assume are good intentions, they’re just based on a philosophy that doesn’t work.

And now they’re doing that in a country that I have a deep personal attachment to, which is Burma. [Handsome Furs were the first foreign band to play a public concert in Burma since the '60s –ed.] And their idea is, “What if we made an app so local farmers could find out what fruit market they would most profit from selling their products at?” Everything’s just going on the assumption that everybody’s on the same tech level, and that’s just not the case. It’s meddling, but they go in with these utopian libertarian ideas, and they come out the other side creating havoc.

I’ve noticed between my first visit and my last one, there’s been this pseudo-democratic opening. In the capital, there was this party that I went to, and you just see these fucking carpetbaggers. And they’re all the same kind of person: White, mostly dudes, all have some level of Ivy League education, some of them are politically connected, some of them are just failing up — like, somebody’s dad works at the State Department, and they couldn’t quite make it through Harvard, so they’re like, “Oh, we heard Burma’s a great place to rape the local population for business investments.”

So these guys move in and, just because they speak English, all of a sudden they’re talking to the guy who’s in charge of all of the forestry resources in Burma. There’s no reason that should be happening. It’s the same thing that happened in Russia in the early ’90s, where these guys came over with the “invisible hand” idea of capitalism and started advising the Yeltsin administration — “Hey, you know what? Privatize everything. Privatize your nickel mines.” And then you get the oligarch class. That kind of meddling has never really worked.

Yeah, I mean, you can’t just go in and try to impose industry or even a particular economic system, because often the social structures of a lot of these countries aren’t built to support, say, free-market capitalism. It’s an unbelievably Westernized way to look at the world.

I mean, just the basic idea that not everybody understands credit. Not every culture understands the idea of credit. And the modern capitalist system is built on credit. If they start doing microlending in Burma, who’s to say that people just won’t understand that? And not because they’re stupid — because it’s not part of their culture, just like we don’t understand their system of Buddhist worship. It’s really troubling.