The “food is the new rock” thing has almost become cliché, so I can’t say I was surprised when the pitch came through: Dan Boeckner wanted to have lunch and talk about his pre–rock star culinary career while he was visiting NYC recently. What I did not expect, however, was that this founder of the revered indie rock band Wolf Parade would school me on Sichuan cuisine.
Boeckner, a lanky, rock ‘n’ roll-lookin’ dude with a speaking voice that hints at his alluringly throaty singing voice, grew up on Vancouver Island, about as close as you can get to Asia on the North American continent. So he was raised on terrific Chinese food. But it wasn’t until his music career took off and he started touring the world that he experienced the real thing —and he fell hard for it.
Thus I found myself sharing “husband and wife lungs,” a 10-ingredient dry pot and other Sichuan specialties at the East Village hot (literally) spot Málà Project, with Boeckner, his Operators bandmate Devojka and his longtime friend (and Wolf Parade merch guy) Todd Graham, who shares Boeckner’s love of Chinese food and runs the fermentation program at a Vancouver restaurant called Forage, as well as his own company Handtaste Ferments. Boeckner, in town for a five-night sold-out run at the Bowery Ballroom with a revived Wolf Parade, talks about Operators’ super-catchy recent debut, Blue Wave — a recommended listen for any fan of Wolf Parade or his other projects Divine Fits (with Spoon’s Britt Daniel) and Handsome Furs — as well as how he developed his love of spicy Asian food and more in the latest edition of Good Food, Rocks. (This interview has been condensed and edited.)
Where have you been eating since you arrived in NYC for the Wolf Parade shows?
We’re staying across the street from Pig and Khao, so [that’s where] I had my first meal. I’d never been there before. Todd and I just ordered a ridiculous amount of food, and it was fantastic. Since then, we’ve been to random places in Chinatown. And Mother’s Ruin has been a kind of postshow jam for us. I’m planning on taking my friend to a Georgian restaurant in the Lower East Side this week.
Is this your first time in New York in a few years?
No, I was here a couple weeks ago with Operators. We played [at] Baby’s All Right.
Tell me about the Operators record. You went a little more electronic than you usually do.
It’s kind of a continuation of Handsome Furs, which was like a drum machine, mostly digital, with digital synths. I was very specifically limited in what gear was being used. So Operators was sort of that programming but also a bigger sound palette with analog synths, live drums, bass and guitar.
How did the songwriting differ for you, or did it differ at all?
I don’t think it differs that much. With Operators, I write almost exclusively on keyboards and then I’ll transpose stuff to guitar, so there’s that. It almost always starts with a drum pattern and bass — one good mono bass synth and one good drum pattern. It really depends on who [from the band] is in town for how we wrote it. Like, if it’s Devojka and myself, usually we’ll just work on a sequence like you would build a house track and put buckles on afterwards. If it’s just me, I’ll write a song like as if I were writing for Wolf Parade.
“My friend told me that Sichuan food is essentially the Italian food of China — soulful, unfussy, everybody loves it. It’s represented in every city.”
Where did you record it?
We recorded in a barn in southern Ontario. It’s a barn from the 1850s.
Did it play a part in the sound?
I don’t know. I think it played a part in the creative process because we were totally isolated.
I imagine you did some cooking in the barn?
Yeah, it was great because the barn was a live-work-eat-sleep environment. There are no walls, all the sleeping was in the loft, there’s a kitchen under the loft area — a pretty decent kitchen. We made food almost every other day. We had barbecue, we made Sichuan barbecue at one point. A lot of pasta. It was good. The sort of cooking during the recording process was a way of bonding or kind of having a family, sort of, or a center to orbit around. Feels good to do that. It’s nice to sit down with everyone and have a meal.
I’m sure it’s difficult right now. You’re probably not having a sit-down meal right before the show or after.
No, although last night we did end up at Mother’s Ruin. We took over the whole back and ate those chicken sandwiches. Drank picklebacks. It was great.
Let’s talk about your culinary past. Were you a cook?
Yeah. I also did menu planning and kitchen management for a couple medium-good places on Vancouver Island. Basically, this was before food became the new, I don’t know, rock music. Before it was ingrained into popular culture. It was a transitional period for food, I think.
It sounds like you’re particularly passionate about Asian food now. How did that happen?
Growing up on the West Coast, in British Columbia, you’re exposed to it. If you want it, it’s there. If you have a taste for it, you can go deeper, and deeper, and deeper.
How did it compare when you got the real thing in Asia?
I think by the time I went on tour in China, the Philippines and southeast Asia, I had been able to get deep enough in the cooking. I had thought, growing up like everybody, that Chinese food was just Cantonese. I thought Yunnan food was Cantonese food with red chili flakes in it ’cause that’s what I ate with my family when we went out for Chinese food. Living in Vancouver, I got to explore regional Chinese cuisines. And touring in America, you come to New York, obviously. Vanessa’s Dumplings — that was one of the places that was my gateway. I remember I came here in 2003 to play a show at Pianos with Arcade Fire. It was the first time I ever came to New York. It was fucking awesome. I went to Vanessa’s Dumplings, which I guess used to be called Prosperity Dumplings…. So when I went to actual China, New York Chinatown had prepped me for it.
And you’ve been all around Asia?
Yeah, I did a bunch of touring there with Handsome Furs. We were the first band to play Myanmar at a public show since the early ’60s.
How’d that happen?
A friend of mine was living there working a job; it was like an NGO monitoring and a liaison job. He became the manager of a local punk band that was called Side Effects. He got in touch with me and was basically like, “Side Effects loves Handsome Furs. I know you guys are in China. This would be amazing if you could play in Yangon.” And we did. It took six months of forward planning to make it happen. It was pre-democratic election — Aung San Suu Kyi was still under house arrest. The military junta had just restricted exit visas and there were two ways of getting into Yangon. There was a commercial flight from Guangzhou [China] and then another one from Shanghai.
But you got in and played?
We got in and played, and we stayed for awhile.
Just 10 days. Then we got out and played more shows. I did some more touring in Asia with Handsome Furs, and Divine Fits did a big tour.
Divine Fits toured in Asia?
We played in Singapore as part of the [Laneway Festival]. Before that show I decided to fly out early and just go back to Yangon. I fell in love with the food. I spent a lot of time in Vietnam and especially China. I really fell in love with Sichuan food mostly. Sichuan and Yunnan cooking. I realized, when I was there, my friend was telling me that Sichuan food is essentially the Italian food of China — soulful, unfussy, everybody loves it. It’s represented in every city.
Now you live in Montreal. Obviously, it’s known as a serious food town. Where do you like to eat?
I really love Liverpool House. That’s the Joe Beef guys. There’s some really amazing Syrian and Lebanese places, [since there’s a] big Syrian and Lebanese population. Basically wherever the French had colonial influence, you have two or three generations’ deep communities. The Lebanese have had a huge presence in Montreal for 30 to 40 years. You can get crazy good kibbeh nayeh — it’s Lebanese steak tartare, chopped beef or lamb with mint. So there are a bunch of restaurants like that. Great Vietnamese food because it was a former French colony.
You still cook a lot?
I stopped for a long time because I just didn’t have time to. I was working all the time, too, pre-making money off Wolf Parade.
What’s the deal with Wolf Parade? I was reading some of the reviews and people were surprised that there was so much nostalgia — enough for five sold-out nights at Bowery Ballroom. Did it surprise you?
Yeah, a little bit.
Why’d you guys decide to start playing again?
We never broke the band up. Five, six years ago we were like, “Okay, we’re going to stop playing music for awhile.” The idea was that we would take a break for however long we needed and that we would come back and write new music, play new music. It’s not a reunion because we never broke up. But sure, Apologies [to the Queen Mary] came out 10 years ago — I’m sure people are kind of nostalgic for that era.
I hadn’t listened to it in awhile and then I put it on and was like “Damn, this sounds like it was recorded yesterday.”
Well, we never fit in with any of that stuff that we got lumped in with. It was that sort of mid-2000s quirky — not that any of these bands are in any way bad, like Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, or Feist, or anything that came out around the same time, which seemed to get to thrown into the same Garden State, um, quirk. But we were always a really dark, aggressive band and weird. We’re not quirky.
How does it feel to be playing those songs in front of a crowd again?
Good, really good.
What happens after this? Do you have a game plan of keeping Operators going?
Yeah, Operators is playing shows. I’m playing a show with Wolf Parade once a week every week until October, then Operators is doing a monthlong tour through Europe. I tour there a lot. I like it.
You said you were going for Georgian food in NYC. What kind of Eastern European food do you like when you’re over there?
I like Balkan food. That’s kind of my favorite. Balkan food, and I don’t mean any offense to Balkan cooking, but it’s a simplified version of Turkish food. It’s like a better, less fussy version of Turkish food. It’s got the same flavor palette, but more intense and basic.