Synthetic Synth

Supergroups in the age of new disco

by by Greg Nissan

illustration by by Lizzie Davis

Dan Boeckner is out of place in 2012. The former Wolf Parade and Handsome Furs leader took the stage last Tuesday at the Met in bonafide warrior boots, a sleeveless t-shirt showcasing the Iggy Pop sinews of his arms, and a crimson heart tattooed on his left forearm. It’s unclear whether he walked out of the post-Strokes rock revival of the mid-2000s (he’s a dead ringer for a Canadian Carl Barât) or an Aerosmith tour bus. He was there to perform with his new band Divine Fits, the so-called indie ‘supergroup’ born from a bond between him and Britt Daniel, the ghost-pale ringleader of Spoon, over Tom Petty and gravel-voiced, three-chord howlers (one can only assume). They added New Bomb Turk’s drummer Sam Brown to the line-up, but this is Britt and Dan’s baby.

While Spoon has remained a fixture of rock music for over a decade, the stakes are higher for Boeckner—Wolf Parade, the band Boeckner fronted along with jelly-voiced Spencer Krug (to whom the music press devoted significantly more attention), announced its “indefinite hiatus” to work on other projects. Handsome Furs, whose only other member was Boeckner’s wife Alexei Perry, called it quits for unknown reasons. This is Boeckner’s only band, and as the veterans launched into their 16th show as Divine Fits, playing songs from their debut A Thing Called Divine Fits, the sparse and idle crowd made it more than clear—Boeckner has started over. His old fans have certainly noticed his new band, but as music trends have shifted, Divine Fits has received less buzz than any of Boeckner’s previous projects. He groans on the bare and gorgeous “Civilian Stripes,” an acoustic strummer about returning to the normal world, “Is it good? Is it really goooood? The quiet life.” His wobbling croon never gives an answer.

As The Wall Street Journal noted in “The Lure of the New Disco,” the blurry terrain between electronic and guitar-centric music is disappearing, and fans are clinging to opposite sides of the spectrum—the digital wizardry of Electronic Dance Music (however stupid the Grammys are, Skrillex won three of them this year) or the acoustic folk of bands like Mumford & Sons, whose second album was the fastest selling of 2012. Divine Fits is by no means radical in its combination of gritty Telecaster melodies and ’80s New Wave synthesizers, but this relatively standard combination felt startling at The Met, as the band sits in the middle of these two trends. Boeckner tossed around his greasy, jet-black hair without a trace of irony, even crawling on all fours while belting out the band’s first single, “My Love is Real,” his back arched in a signature Iggy Pop contortion. Nobody seemed surprised or remotely inspired; rather, a foot-tapping amusement pervaded the venue. There was no nostalgia for the glory days of guitar, yet no visible irony about rock’s waning status. There were electronic elements, but they stand apart from the dubstep-addled pop songs on the radio. Maybe that’s why Divine Fits has gotten unexpectedly little attention-the band is stuck in the crack between innovation and revival, cutting-edge and looking backwards.

Rock music as a vessel for nostalgia is only gaining speed. While Mumford & Sons has four of the top 10 albums on the iTunes alternative chart right now, the rock chart’s top 10 reads like a Vh1 Classic special: Journey, Creedence, Guns N’ Roses, Led Zeppelin, Dave Matthews, etc. Wedding bands must be ecstatic. Once the beacon of youth and rebellion, guitar-driven rock has become mundane and predictable. Mammoth bands like Arcade Fire have straddled this recent musical divide with folky instrumentation coupled with inventive, ethereal production to move these instruments into the 21st century. Still, guitar rock is coping with its new identity: an inoffensive memorial to times past.

This state of music makes Divine Fits seem beautifully flippant or annoyingly stuck in the mud. Boeckner rose from the ashes of his old bands to find himself completely the same, still singing the word “heart” in almost every song (titles include “My Love is Real,” “For Your Heart,” and “Baby Gets Worse”) and playing scratchy but catchy lead lines. There’s no way around it—they’re a fun band, but they could be better. The Daniels-penned songs are easily forgettable, but the group’s chemistry is certain. The three core members constantly grinned at each other, genuinely impressed and happy to do something new, while keyboardist Alex Fischel seemed amazed that he’d found a way to weasel into the band. They shared all of their own guitars, which sounds trivial, but usually a band like this would have a fleet of guitar technicians handing them new instruments after every few songs. They traded bass, guitar, and vocal duties, working in expressive economy.

Nobody came to see Divine Fits because of Divine Fits; the audience was full of Wolf Parade and Spoon fans. Daniels and Boeckner, however, proved how seasoned they really are in the brooding opener, “For Your Heart.” For two musicians who’ve played to huge crowds, they didn’t change their dedication at all in front of a lackluster showing of Rhode Islanders. Brown’s deft drumming under the ominous synth pulse was the perfect backdrop for Boeckner’s howl and Daniels’s chiming upstrokes. You could see the collective “oh shit” moment take place, as everyone thought, this might be a real band.

The validity of a side-project or ‘supergroup’ is always in question. It’s the ultimate indulgent test of your fan base—how much can we screw around and still have people pay to hear it? In a recent interview with Spin, Boeckner was asked whether he likes the term “supergroup,” to which he responded, “No. No, I really don’t…Can you think of many bands that were called supergroups that were actually good? No, not really.” He’s right. The idea of an indie supergroup is even more disconcerting, as a supergroup seems like the apex of commercial desire. Laughable examples include Chickenfoot, with members from Van Halen, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Joe Satriani. With that roster and singles like “Soap on a Rope” and “Oh Yeah,” I’ll let you wonder how good they are. Reflecting the cultural ignorance typical of supergroups, this is all not in 1989, but 2009. As Boeckner explains, “It sounds like a bunch of managers got together and said, ‘You know, if we got these people in a room...’”  Monsters of Folk, an amalgamation of the biggest names from My Morning Jacket, M. Ward, and Bright Eyes, provided one model of the indie supergroup. They released an innocuous and inoffensive first album (with a band name like that, are you surprised?) and on tour played a “greatest hits” of their other bands’ catalogues. While Divine Fits does sound a lot like Spoon + Wolf Parade/Handsome Furs, that’s because there’s always been a musical connection between the two—the noisy mid-tempo, power chord, stomping grooves. As opposed to Daniels’ flaccid rockers, Boeckner’s songs are vibrant, filled with muddy hooks and buzzing energy. Daniel works best in a supporting role, lending his Texas-infused rhythm lines to Boeckner’s peculiarities.

It’s hard to say exactly where Dan Boeckner is going as a musician. While Wolf Parade could never match the quality of their stunning first album, Handsome Furs reached its zenith with their last, which sounded the least like Boeckner’s half-joking evaluation of the band: “Wolf Parade without the guy everybody likes and no real instruments.” Development is a seemingly impossible project for musicians; they’re maligned by their fans for changing (unless it’s a Radiohead-esque total reinvention into new territory), or maligned by critics if they don’t. If they conform to the trends of the day, they’re “selling out,” and if they repeat themselves too much, fans lose interest. Boeckner seems to be searching for something he missed, avoiding the pitfalls of development but also neglecting his potential to be a relevant musician once again.

I can only hope that Divine Fits doesn’t follow the predicted path and retroactively confirm this as a side project. Maybe Boeckner’s career depends on their continuation, or maybe his glory days as an indie rock guitar hero will afford him enough clout to start again one more time. The seductive chemistry is there, though, and maybe they’ll write the songs some day soon. They have before. Whether or not Boeckner will move forward is another story.

GREG NISSAN B’15 has crimson heart tattooed on his left.