Cracks in the Crossbeams

Apologies to the Queen Mary: an appreciation; and, an unintentional eulogy for Wolf Parade.

Montreal, April 2003:

Round-headed, contented misfit Spencer is invited to fill a slot opening for another band in town. A keyboardist, guitarist, and prolific writer, the gig’s offered under the impression he already has his own band; the concert’s three weeks away. Phoning up Dan, a guitarist he knew from living in British Columbia now residing in Montreal, he proposes playing together. Both throw in a few songs, and they start rehearsing backed by a drum machine, beginning with a catchy bit of scumbag romantic rock called ‘This Heart’s On Fire.’ They rope in a drummer just two days before the gig. Wolf Parade, “a retarded dog with four heads. At any given time, three of the heads is sleeping,” is born.

Vancouver, May 2011:

A less than capacity crowd are shrieking in the darkened room, barely holding together with a ramshackle chant of ‘Wolf Parade…Wolf Parade….,’ intent but not entirely sure how much they mean it, or if they will even be heeded. After a few minutes, the band amble back onto the stage one at a time. While tuning up, Dan Boeckner quietly thanks the crowd; “The important thing is that we haven’t learned anything at all in six years.” Spencer Krug leans through his hair into the microphone over his keyboard, inviting everyone to join them on stage. Then they crawl in to a rambling rendition of ‘Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door’; the crowd obliges, trying as much as they can to liven up the cover, swaying, a few disjointed high fives. The instrumentation is pointless, it’s just a loose beat and a bit of guitar texture, every once in a while you can hear a bit of piano embellishment, the chorus taking off in a swirl of off-key yells. The indulgence of the gesture skews the song, passing by the Guns N’Roses version to align itself more maybe with Eric Clapton, Avril Lavigne, or Gabrielle’s woozy uses of the tune. It’s all excess fat tinged with bleary-eyed backslapping, on the audience’s part at least. Once they eventually fade out, someone yells out, not too loud as if almost in passing, “Don’t break up, don’t break up, don’t break up!”

I witnessed the energies of their performers separately at first, seeing Boeckner tear up the floor at 99 Feet East on London’s Brick Lane with his husband and wife electro-rock duo Handsome Furs. He looked ill, sweat dripping down his bony frame perfunctorily dressed in a sleeveless military top. He convulsed with every beat down on his guitar, looking every bit the embodiment of the punk spirit—that self same same spirit who’d had his photo taken too many times to have a soul anymore, at least for those of us too young to have had the chance to see the throes of rock and punk in the 60s and 70s, but still have it relentlessly re-narrated back to us. Through that prism, he seemed more Strummer than Sid, though between his wife and him writhing around on stage, mercilessly jubilant and undoubtedly off their faces, there was an uncertain underbelly allure, the fog of too many nights out to remember what they might have learned the night before.

Five months later, I saw Krug’s solo-project-turned-side-project-turned-full-band Sunset Rubdown in the attic space of Manchester’s Deaf Institute, Krug humble and shyly murmuring between songs. In his performance, though, he was defiant, almost aloofly so, gesturing like an eighties metal singer who hadn’t quite broken out of the bedroom, his eyes closed, framing the air around the mic with his hand. Seeing them together on stage as a band a year later, it added up. After three albums, and countless side projects that had subsumed the band, I could finally witness the dynamic tension that fixated their live presence. Krug and Boeckner practically ignored each other on stage, each knowing when to hand the reins over to the other, nodding occasionally. The music press loved playing on the antagonism; “Spencer’s side against my side,” Boeckner complained. “My side is ‘bone-headed, blue collar, roots  thing’ and Spencer’s stuff is ‘baroquely precise songs.’” But as much he might mock it, that knot that the media had recognized but never unraveled was part of what made them compelling and gave the drive and energy to their work.

That show in a boat in Bristol I saw was unsatisfying, the songs feeling mostly worked through like a grocery checklist, somehow creating a disassociation between the music coming out of the speakers and the people playing it. It sounded sludgy, tiredly rehearsed, predictable. But the rapport between the people on stage remained visibly charged all the way through. Reading through the substantial web reviews of the band’s live appearances over their time together, it’s readily apparent that all Wolf Parade gigs were a bit weird or off-kilter. And the band consciously cultivated that  tendency toward dissonance, like in Boeckner’s retarded dog quote above, or as Krug said in one 2005 interview: “I like that we suck sometimes.”

It was against a backdrop of references, name-checking and scene hype that Apologies To the Queen Mary was released in 2005. In a year that saw albums like MIA’s Arular or  Dangerdoom’s The Mouse and the Mask, a time known more for mash-ups, mix-ups and updatings, Apologies seems remarkably steady, almost reactionary. It’s recognizable pretty quickly as straight-up rock. But here that provided a slate of regulation, a sheen of normalcy on which to array a constellation of personalities, a pill for the delivery of something more inherently unsettled. This wasn’t the showy, jerking weirdness of Frank Black yelping on top of more steady bass and drum lines, or the out-and-out yelping of Animal Collective happening throughout the same period; this was close enough on the surface to bands like Bloc Party or Hard-Fi both of whom also emerged around the same time. This was a different breed of post-rock, another parallel timeline from the 70s which was less political, more packaged, but seething. In Apologies there were rolling tunes backed with uncertain, joyless sing-alongs; self-defeating anthems adrift with sonic tumbleweed. As the two main songwriters for Wolf Parade, both Boeckner and Krug constantly envisioned some sort of unearthly afterlife or post-existence – ghosts, hauntings, empty towns, spirits you don’t believe in but can’t help but be scared of anyway – but both approached it from distinctly different narrative and sonic storytelling methods and styles. That dynamic between them is most embodied, shared and productively mingled on Apologies.

The album sits towards the centre of a widening spiral of bands, scenes, and larger cultural roles. On top of the name-dropped associations from which they emerged other names began to appear with more and more regularity: Sunset Rubdown, Handsome Furs, Swan Lake, Fifths of Seven, Moonface. The successive Wolf Parade albums felt like each songwriter trading slots, with less and less influence on the other, a shrinking shared space. Krug and Boeckner became typecast, fulfilling set rolls for themselves and each other, the layered influences of the other members of the band also seeming to wane. But that sense of role-play is what also made the stories and sounds of the band interesting. The titles of all three of the albums Wolf Parade produced together – Apologies, At Mount Zoomer, Expo 86—all come from experiences they shared communally as a band. They are the characters inhabiting their own songs.

Their dynamic wasn’t just a dichotomy between Boeckner and Krug, but also the various influences of drummer Arlen Thompsen, guitarist Dante DeCaro, and sound artist Hadji Bakara. Like any band, it was schizophrenias with multiple personality disorder, though here it was more readily apparent in the songs themselves, the seams constantly showing themselves, pushing and almost splitting, eventually breaking apart. The characters stalking through their apocalyptic landscape, flighty and staunch, are their own visions of themselves, sometimes in a completely raw state, others more caricatured. I would argue that, whether consciously or not, they used rock like some form of Brechtian epic play. The two  ‘main characters’ are stock of particular type, one being Krug’s – who might have picked up his character out of the erratic special military services depicted obliquely in Brian Eno’s Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy) (1974), bringing along the sensibility of sonic jump-cuts between more contemporary compositional motifs and pop break-outs. Boeckner’s role is some sort of cynical drop-out from Springsteen’s Born to Run (1975), caught in an eternal struggle with nostalgia and adrenaline. Around them is a shifting chorus from a Greek tragedy, yelling, shouting, singing along, or just trashing the place before leaving.

In its making, production, and content, Apologies is positioned in a place that connects it to a series of markets and myths. Krug and Boeckner’s relationship resurrects a favourite trope of the rock critic, from Lennon and McCartney, Hell and Verlaine, to Carl Barât and Pete Doherty, a sort of shadow-puppet play of the contrast between the cults of Dionysus and Apollo. But through their rehearsal of those roles, playing them up though not necessarily exceeding them, Apologies provides an insight into how rock’s relationship to itself and its own past has shifted. The making, marketing and release of the album say a lot about the aspirations and direction of what was defined as ‘Indie’ and its relationship to the ‘mainstream’, and the tensions of the ‘characters’ are reflected in the tensions of the production and wider scene itself—the urges of Do-It Yourself, internationalism, and the terms and conditions of success. On top of this, I’d make the claim that Apologies provides, if not its own commentary, but then at least a viewing platform on the role of nostalgia, retrospection, and the power and allure of anachronism and hindsight. A momentary platform, like I envision of the exhausted or estranged couple in ‘Fancy Claps’: “we can sing/ to cracks in the crossbeams.” Lying on their backs staring at the ceiling, using sound to edge between and explore the structure they lie inside, some sort of intimacy mixed with critical exploration, a short imagined respite before growing old and passing on.

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