Published Oct 01, 2005Two and a half years ago, Wolf Parade played their first gig on borrowed gear. They were recording an EP with a whopping budget of $20. They were too broke to leave Montreal on tour. Their closest musical ally was a tiny band struggling to put itself back together called Arcade Fire. The Wolf Parade website had a 1995 look and very little information.
Cut to this past summer: Wolf Parade are awaiting the release of Apologies to the Queen Mary, their debut full-length for Sub Pop, a big budget affair co-produced by Isaac Brock of Modest Mouse. They now fly to far-flung locales like Helsinki for one-off gigs. Their friends in the Arcade Fire are finishing a yearlong global conquest by bringing Wolf Parade on tour. The Wolf Parade website, however, still has a retro look and very little information. So much of the band's history up until now has been about being — in their own words — "paralysed by our own incompetence."
"None of us come from wealthy backgrounds or have lucrative jobs," says guitarist Dan Boeckner, "so our gear was consistently on the verge of falling apart. We usually had just enough money to get done what we had to get done." Drummer Arlen Thompson adds, "Our website is a prime example of that. At some of the early shows we'd show up with ten CDs that we'd just burned and we'd stick 'em in Ziploc bags with a photocopied insert, because we were too lazy to get it together."
When did they realize that had to change? "Oh, last week," laughs Arlen.
When it comes time for their closeup, Wolf Parade opt for a sunny Sunday afternoon on St. Laurent, steps away from the site of the first Wolf Parade show ever. Guitars and amplifiers had to be borrowed for the occasion. Arlen was recruited to play drums a mere 48 hours earlier. That took place what seems like a lifetime ago in April 2003. "I feel like I've been in this band for ten years," sighs keyboardist Spencer Krug.
But if the current story is firmly set in Montreal, it actually begins in the unheralded streets of Victoria BC, where all five members of Wolf Parade cut their teeth.
Arlen Thompson played in numerous bands there, most of which featured at least one member of Hot Hot Heat, none of which lasted longer than six months. Sound sculptor Hadji Bakara is best remembered in Victoria for being the singer in the black metal band Jonas. Back in 1998, Hadji was the first future member of Wolf Parade to move to Montreal, for a degree in English lit. As befitting a next big thing, Hadji is currently writing his master's thesis on cynicism.
Spencer Krug spent his teenage years in Penticton BC, in a band he'd rather not talk about. He then moved to Vancouver, where he was Dan "Destroyer" Bejar's downstairs neighbour, and then Victoria, where he lived with Carey Mercer while Frog Eyes was being formed. Spencer played on the first Frog Eyes album before moving to Montreal to study music and creative writing at Concordia in 2001.
Guitarist Dan Boeckner has the most memorable pedigree, at least in Victorian musical circles. His band Atlas Strategic were invited on tour with both Modest Mouse and Isaac Brock's solo project Ugly Casanova — a connection that led to a Sub Pop offer just before the band split acrimoniously. Dan's mother died around the same time, and he dashed to Montreal in early 2003 for a change of scenery. But both Brock and Sub Pop had long memories, and watched the development of Wolf Parade closely. The result was a contract signed last summer after several Sub Pop execs flew to Montreal to see a packed private show at Spencer's loft.
What attracted Sub Pop to these Montreal underdogs could have been any combination of things: two lead singers, one with a soulful, cracked howl, the other with a love-it-or-hate-it swaggering yodel; guitar drenched in haunting, electrifying reverb; a powerhouse drummer; a guy hunched over a laptop and waving his right hand at a theremin; and an arsenal of keyboards that sound like they fell out the back of the New Pornographers' van and were dragged across the prairies all the way to Montreal.
Earlier material displayed an obvious divide between the two songwriters, evident in both their physique and their songcraft. Dan was the rocker, the one with hip-shaking swagger and a restless right knee, with spiky hair and a penetrating gaze. Spencer was the moustachioed artiste clad in a sailor's cap, arched over his keyboards stringing unlikely chords together with non-linear melodies. Fans of Dan's would sigh in disappointment when Spencer would take the lead; Spencer's legions would balk at Dan's Springsteen-angst rockers.
Those days are long past. On Queen Mary, the singing duties are split down the middle, and it's a credit to Wolf Parade's evolution that it's no longer obvious which songs are Spencer's and which are Dan's. Their synergy is such that at times it's easy to forget who's singing.
Apologies to the Queen Mary sounds like a rock-solid debut from an overnight sensation; it's actually been 12 months in the works. In late September 2004, Wolf Parade hauled themselves across North America in three days flat — killing a van in the process — to record in Portland, Oregon with Modest Mouse's Isaac Brock. There, they spent two and a half weeks working 14-hour days in order to fit in as much recording as they could before Brock had to jet off and go back on tour. The big budget paid some large sonic dividends, but the rushed atmosphere left the band wanting more. After remixing some songs as many as six times, the band were still unsatisfied, despite serious cost overruns. Recording resumed again in Montreal, this time self-producing and on their own schedule, even if it delayed the album from a scheduled May release. Now it's near impossible to tell what was recorded where. "The energy of the performances we did by ourselves is better, and the sound quality in Portland is better," Hadji says. "Those two elements balance it out."
Hadji is Wolf Parade's secret weapon. He's the mystery man, the one whose musical presence seems invisible during the sonic onslaught of a live Wolf Parade show. At his first show in September 2003, Hadji unleashed some bowel-destroying bass frequencies that derailed the entire set. Since then, he has moved up to considerably higher frequencies, running old synth patches through his laptop and adding sonic swoops and whoops reminiscent of vintage Pere Ubu. Spencer says, "We both play keyboards, but we do really different stuff. Hadji is one of the only elements of the band that's always variating. Dan and I work in locked-in patterns, and we fall into that trap and can't get out of it. Hadj is basically too dumb to memorize stuff."
"I could never play what Spencer plays, because he's too good," Hadji responds gracefully. "And Spencer could never play what I play because he's too good. In my necessity to be rudimentary, I foil the magic fingers of Spencer."
Wolf Parade's Victorian connections continue further with their most recent recruit, Dante DeCaro on second guitar. Dante's defection from Hot Hot Heat was followed by his move to Montreal last March, where Wolf Parade snapped him up to flesh out the sound of the heavily-overdubbed Queen Mary album.
"I always thought Dante would be an amazing person to work with," says Arlen, who also drums with Dante's solo project. "He's one of the best guitarists I've ever heard and extremely easy to get along with. As a fifth member he has a lot of freedom to move around the songs musically. It allows for things to be more random and different. It's not the exact same song each night."
"It's changed the way I play guitar on certain songs," Dan says. "He's just so fucking good at his instrument. My guitar playing is totally smoke and mirrors trickery — and not even that much smoke."
Part of the reason Dante was hired was to cover tracks left when Hadji goes back to school next semester, but Hadji says the more the merrier. "When it comes to rock music, I'm a total proponent of a wall of sound. I'd rather see a shitstorm than a delicately woven tapestry.
I find that in an attempt to recreate a well-mixed album version of a song, it ends up being really boring live."
Boredom has never been a problem in Wolf Parade. Not sucking, however, has. "We're the most erratic fucking band," Hadji says, an observation that applies both on-stage and off.
Their appearance at the L.A. instalment of All Tomorrow's Parties earlier this year culminated in a ruckus aboard the Queen Mary cruise ship where the festival was held. The band was kicked off the ship after an incident that allegedly involved fire extinguishers, séances, and an unhealthy amount of hard alcohol.
Last April, Wolf Parade were invited by the Arcade Fire to open six sold-out homecoming shows in Montreal and Toronto. At the second Montreal show, Wolf Parade were at their worst: all heavy-handed bluster, bludgeoning their songs with seemingly no connection to the audience, or themselves for that matter. The next day, Dan stumbled onto the often-volatile Montreal Stille Post message board to read various posts berating him for his performance. He took the stage that night humbled and slightly sober, took the time to address the audience, however perfunctorily, and suddenly the shambolic band from the night before were nowhere to be seen. In its place were a band totally ready for prime time, all anthemic melodies and art school rock'n'roll that silenced any naysayers. Spencer simply shrugs. "I like that we suck sometimes."
Most of Wolf Parade's Montreal appearances have been held in off-the-map loft spaces. They played to their biggest audiences when they opened for Modest Mouse last fall, which taught them a lot about their own approach to performance. "I see a lot of band progress to that size of venue, and they adopt this rock persona where they're amplifying and projecting themselves," Dan says.
Hadji reasons, "If you can't play your songs to a dispersed and somewhat unsympathetic crowd and still have fun, then you shouldn't be playing."
Dan adds, "When you play large shows with huge P.A. systems, you have a responsibility to do the best job you possibly can do, and not have utter contempt for people."
This comes from a man who says of his previous band, Atlas Strategic, "the idea behind that band was audience confrontation." Much of Dan's scorn was focused on other musicians in Victoria — particularly Hot Hot Heat — than on dogmatic hardcore audiences.
The fishbowl of the Victoria scene was filled with alcohol, a vice that continues with Wolf Parade, leading to incidents like the aforementioned Queen Mary incident.
"Alcohol is like a unifying force of Victoria subculture," muses Hadji, "Victoria is one of the few strange, positively catalytic alcoholic milieus. It's so bizarre, the somewhat light and fun loving and genuinely good-natured art that came out of boozing in Victoria."
Dan adds, "There's an archetype for people in Victoria: the drunk pseudo-intellectual clown, a clown that's read some books and then chugs a bottle of Jack Daniels and forgets everything they read except for a few funny jokes, and then falls down a flight of stairs into a pile of bikes. And then gets up."
The clowns in Wolf Parade know that they've been incredibly lucky so far, and they're taking any recent windfalls in stride.
"For the last couple of years, I've always been genuinely surprised any time something good has happened," Dan concludes. "It's always confusing and nice. Flattering, but I always feel awkward, and slightly embarrassed at the same time."
Joining the Parade
Spencer joined roommates Carey Mercer and Melanie Campbell as Frog Eyes were forming. They loved his piano playing but never thought he'd be interested in their material. Carey hints that Spencer could have played a larger role in Frog Eyes had he stayed. "Since he left, Frog Eyes has become my band," says Carey. "He never wrote lyrics, but [the music] was about 70/30. He brought his own compositions in, and if he had stayed I think he would have ended up singing. He's really found his voice and confidence in the last couple of years."
This soulful sci-fi post-punk blues band had as many left turns as Wolf Parade, and was just as keyboard-driven, with plenty of ear-shattering high frequencies. The break-up went badly, and Dan has mixed feelings today. "We were really lazy and fuck-ups, but that might have had as much to do with Victoria as it did the general personalities of the band," he says. Their 2001 album on Global Symphonic stands up well.
Spencer had been writing material as Sunset Rubdown while he still lived in Victoria, but this project didn't become public until last year in Montreal. Early solo shows featured him on keyboards and hi-hat; lately it's been fleshed out to a full band with other Victoria expats and Camilla Wynne Ingr of Pony Up. The debut album, Snake's Got a Leg, was released this summer on Global Symphonic. At first glance, it sounds like demos of Spencer songs that were too weird for Wolf Parade. Repeated listens betray more textures than the lo-fi setting would suggest.
Fifths of Seven
This trio features Spencer on piano along with cellist Becky Foon (A Silver Mt. Zion, Esmerine) and mandolin player Rachel Levine. This is where Spencer's experience in 20th century composition comes into play, but: "To say that I come from a classical background would be a total lie," he insists. "I just doodled in it. To say that is such an insult to people who actually study it and are passionate about it. It's hard work. I never did any of that work." The debut album, Spry from Bitter Anise Folds, came out this summer on French label DSA.
The new Wolf Parade guitarist left Hot Hot Heat immediately after recording that band's Elevator album. His solo material is in a folkie vein, complete with banjos, and features Arlen on drums. Dante recently moved to Montreal and has apparently forgiven Dan for slighting his old band. Meanwhile, Wolf Parade is ecstatic to have him in the band. Says Spencer: "It's going to make the next record really awesome, with the five of us writing together."
Dan played bass with them briefly after Will Butler went back to Chicago for school in the fall of 2003. He is also their most vocal heckler at Montreal shows. Arlen plays drums on Funeral's "Wake Up." Arcade Fire's Tim Kingsbury plays on three Queen Mary tracks, and appeared with them at shows in April. Of the two bands' first gig together in March 2003, Tim says the Arcade Fire were disastrous; their rhythm section went to see Cat Power that night instead. "The best thing about that show was meeting Wolf Parade, and we became huge fans. It was a time when we weren't really friends with many other bands in Montreal. Both of us were writing songs, trying to put out our records and learning about stuff at the same time."