THE INTERVIEW: Handsome Furs

Their last album Face Control dropped in early February and it’s unfortunately very easy to lose sight of this truly innovative offering from Handsome Furs in the shuffle of new albums that are coming out weekly. Luckily, Alexei and Dan were kind enough to take some time out of their busy eastern European touring schedule to field some questions that flesh out both their methods in preparing Face Control and how the whole experience has affected them personally. In listening to the new album and researching how their travels and interest in eastern Europe/Russia influenced the sound and lyrical content of the tracks, I found myself very interested in how East influences West and vice verse.

Which musical components of the new album do each of you think are the most influenced by your travels in the East?

Alexei (A): They may be a little tricky to pinpoint. Hopefully the album will act, in its entirety, as a collection of those experiences we had. I like to think of Face Control as its own little time capsule to that time, both sonically and artistically.
Dan (D): I was really influenced by this specifically Eastern “cheap” sounding techno. Songs where the equipment might not be as up to date as their western contemporaries but the spirit is stronger. Also the abrasiveness of early Polish and Russian punk guitar sounds I found really exciting…as if the instrument was struggling to live. That’s something completely missing in Western indie rock…making fearless, strange sounds with limited resources. We also tried to work in some of the hard repetition of socialist architecture into the bass and drums. Just raw blocks of sound.

I felt so keenly that the tracks succeeded at making available an Eastern rhythm to a Western audience that has little to no conception of the musical tastes in that part of the world; is this influence something you’d both specifically hoped to bring to the Western scene? Why?

A: Firstly, thank you. I guess, for myself, I was just so wholly wide-eyed and impressed by the musical tastes we encountered that I wanted to harness that in some way. Maybe selfishly! As for exporting those sounds to the western scene, I hope we did a half-way apt job, but I’m not exactly sure. It’s all so personal. Though I feel an obligation (I always have) to comment on the world in my work, I need it known that it is just one set of eyes… or in our case, two. Endlessly, I hope it’s interesting to others.
D: Agreed!

I’ve read about the practice of Face Control that inspired the name for the album and wondered, though obviously not as blatantly advertised, if either of you have ever experienced or heard of a practice similar to this going on in the West? In essence, is there a practical similarity between east and west in this regard, if not a methodological one?

A: Western “Dress Code” is really just a euphemism for “Face Control.” I think part of why we decided on that title was because we wanted to show juxtaposition between East and West values, no matter how similar they are in truth. I like exploring different systems of control – in club etiquette, politics, and border crossings. We’re not that dissimilar but the small differences are really intriguing.
D: I think there is now a contradiction in the practical applications of “getting in” somewhere regarding East vs. West. The West believes that the East still has outmoded, unnecessarily bureaucratic systems of control in place at borders.
It’s actually the opposite. In Russia, for example, many potential problems can be solved with a very basic (and very capitalist) cash transaction. Between border guard and traveler, bouncer and club patron, police man and tourist. In say, the US, you have to not only go through HUGE amounts of red tape just to play music legally, you also have to pay an extremely large amount of money.

In one of the reviews I read of the album, a commentator referred to the album’s sound as ‘Glasnost-Era’; did either of you actually reach that far back in history to seek musical influences for the album? Or would you say the album reflects the contemporary evolution of what Glasnost made possible for former Warsaw Pact countries?

A: I think we were influenced by both the history we had read – in volumes of good nonfiction stuff – and in the realities we faced.
D: Musically we did go back to that era by overdosing on Polish punk bands like Shakira and Siberian 80s protest music as well as post independence techno and uhmm..a lot or Serbian 90s anti government bands. I think lyrically the album would hopefully reflect post-Glasnost…or at least our first impressions as outsiders to post-Glasnost Eastern Bloc countries.

Is there a country that you both visited during your travels that you don’t believe you could ever tire of? Why?

A: Well gee, I feel earnestly that I want to experience as much of the world as I can without ever tiring. I know I’m not answering your question, really, because it would be hard for me to settle on any one country in particular, having loved so many.
D: I feel like we’ve only scratched at the surface of so many places we’ve been lucky enough to go to. Even a country like Slovakia, which is comparatively small, holds so much interest for me. We played a really crazy show in Zlinia last night and we’re already planning to go back!

Personally, I love dancing at shows and music that inspires one to move. I’ve been very pleased that the new album is so conducive to getting crowds to move. What, if any, differences have either of you perceived in how crowds react physically to your performances depending on if you’re in the East or West?

A: We’ve had some pretty great riotous crowds in random places in both the East and West, so I feel wildly lucky for that. I think there does exist an intensity in Talinn, Moscow, Belgrade, Riga, Zagreb, Prague, Warzaw (and all) that emerges from the freshness of the music to new ears. It has felt really chaotic and meaningful to play to folks that have heard little else like us. So, on a very gut level, it feels very genuine to win over those crowds because I know they truly like the music, not the “Buzz.”
D: I can’t put it any better than that!

Reading a list of guidelines for couples touring together that you two put out; were there any additional nuggets of wisdom either of you could share with our readers?

A: Man oh man. That List was looooong in its entirety! They had to edit it way down. We have oodles of wisdom. Would you like me to send along the whole thing?

As our site is primarily concerned with events and happenings in New York City, I was wondering which venue(s) in the City is/are each of your favorites to play or see shows at?

A: We’ve played at the Bowery Ballroom, Mercury Lounge and a rather daunting (for me) opening slot for Spoon at Terminal Five. I loved talking to the sound/stage techs at Bowery while they discussed their Death Pool – the latest addition had been Charleston Heston and neither had taken the prize for guessing the right date.
D: I freaking love the fact that Bowery Presents works outside of Live Nation. The staff is amazing and things don’t seem to be micro managed to death like so many other “high profile” venues.

What would you say you’ve found to be the biggest difference between a city like New York and a metropolitan area of comparable size in Russia; say Moscow or St. Petersburg? What’s the largest similarity?

A: In Moscow, things are of an inhuman scale and much of pedestrian life is spent crossing streets in underground tunnels beneath roads that are too broad to cross, whereas New York seems positively busting at the seems on the streets. There is a thick sweaty liveliness in New York, infection on all levels (I love it there!) that is wildly different from the towering and massive concrete facades of Russia (I love it there too!). The biggest similarity for me, personally, would be my inability to afford real estate in either.

Lastly, did either of you develop a taste for certain Eastern cuisine items that became a favorite to eat whilst on the road? If so, what?

A: We got pretty addicted to pickles and vodka.
D: Pork and potatoes. Pork and cabbage. Pork and Pork. Had to learn to love the pig. And yeah…pickles and vodka with rye bread.

Kenneth Joachim

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