PHOTO BY PAMELA LITTKYDivine Fits
It's mid-August, and the members of Divine Fits sit around a kitchen table backstage at the Bootleg Theater. Preparing for their first show in Los Angeles, the band members are relaxed and in good spirits, snacking on chips and hummus.
The relationship between their leaders, Spoon's Britt Daniel and Wolf Parade's Dan Boeckner, is particularly chummy.
They are two of the most influential indie artists in recent years; the Austin-formed Spoon had three works included in Pitchfork's list of the top 200 albums of the aughts, while the landmark 2005 debut from Montreal-based Wolf Parade led to a rabid international following.
What Daniel, 41, and Boeckner, 34, have most in common, however, is that they're beginning anew, having emerged from broken relationships and come to L.A. to start fresh.
Boeckner's fall has been the most shocking. In 2007 he married writer and keyboardist Alexei Perry, a published poet with bright red hair and enough tattoos to complement Boeckner's ever-expanding collection.
They also were together in a venerated side project, Handsome Furs, which signed to Sub Pop Records. With their industrial-tinged synth-pop, they developed a devoted fan base of their own, pulling in audiences with a dynamic stage presence and, not surprisingly, strong chemistry. An overwhelming sense of intimacy permeated their live performances.
But over the past year or so it all fell apart. Boeckner began flying out to L.A. from Montreal to collaborate with Daniel, all the while dealing with hellish personal issues. By February this year, he was living upstairs at Daniel's house in Beachwood Canyon, reeling in the aftermath of what he calls an "apocalyptic breakup."
Handsome Furs canceled a European tour in March and called it quits not long after.
Now residing in two different cities, Boeckner and Perry presumably are separated, though neither he nor the duo's publicist will get into specifics.
Over dinner at Pho Café, the jet-black-and-stringy-haired Boeckner maintains a surprisingly upbeat disposition, the tattoo of Perry's initials on his right hand waving in the air while he speaks. "Shit got really dark," he says.
Needless to say, Handsome Furs' abrupt split came as a shock to their fans. The couple seemed to be the epitome of hard-rocking, glamorous indie artists who were making it work in both their personal and professional lives.
But Boeckner is clearly invigorated to be working with Daniel and the other members of Divine Fits, which include keyboardist Alex Fischel (formerly of L.A.-based band Papa) and Sam Brown, longtime drummer for Columbus punk band New Bomb Turks.
Boeckner's inspiration for the group came after he relocated to Los Angeles, and he credits it with pulling him through this unstable period.
"It really helped me process everything and put everything into the album," he explains, adding in a not-entirely-unrelated aside that the frigid Montreal is no match for L.A.'s endless summers.
Daniel's Southern California adventure also began after a breakup; he, too, was running away from a relationship in a way.
He arrived here last year after growing tired of the dank and dreary climate in Portland, where he moved for a girlfriend in 2005. Two years later, their breakup came to light in the unflinchingly honest lyrics of Spoon's breakout album, Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga. The stripped-down standout "The Ghost of You Lingers" seems to address the situation: "I had a nightmare, nothing could be put back together."
"I'd been there (Portland) for a long time and I moved there for a girl who had long since left," he says now, "so it was just kind of time to move."
Daniel and Boeckner, longtime friends who met at a Handsome Furs show in 2009, spoke on the phone regularly in early 2011. With the other members of Spoon embedded in reunions, solo albums and production duties — and Wolf Parade about to go on an "indefinite hiatus" — the two agreed to start a group.
Song ideas were passed via email, and Boeckner recorded vocal takes for "What Gets You Alone" in his kitchen. That hard-stomping track appears on the band's debut album, A Thing Called Divine Fits, released in late August.
Daniel continued to write new songs throughout the year, and flew to Austin a few months later to record demos with producer Mike McCarthy, who had worked on the last three Spoon albums.
"We all felt really natural in the way the band sounds," Boeckner says of his first rehearsal in Los Angeles with Daniel and Brown last October.
Boeckner and Daniel buddied up and attended shows together: Danzig, The Damned, Zola Jesus, Alabama Shakes. "And I remember we were listening to lots of AC/DC in the car," he adds.
Boeckner's dark period is reflected on Divine Fits' album. On "Civilian Stripes," the only acoustic song on the album, you can hear his heart sinking as he cries in his yelpy mix of Springsteen and Morrissey: "Is it good? Is it really good?"
On "Baby Get Worse," he takes a spiteful jab: "You've got your good thing and I'll get mine."
While Boeckner's lyrics often read as a postscript to a breakup, Daniel's are more lighthearted ("I'll be here waiting with Basmati rice," he sings on "Would That Not Be Nice?"). His could almost be from the perspective of someone who's gone through a difficult phase and moved past it.
On "Like Ice Cream" he almost makes the unfamiliarity of single life sound enticing: "Café dancer, she shows you her wounds and you think that you know her well."
In March the group reconvened in Studio City at producer Nick Launay's studio, where they spent the next several months hammering out the rest of the album.
Launay, famous for his work on Arcade Fire's Neon Bible, was the driving force behind much of the experimentation on A Thing Called Divine Fits, which differs noticeably from the members' previous projects.
Nearly every song maintains a subtle build, conveying emotions through complex synth melodies, intricate drum patterns and gut-wrenching vocals.
It's an exquisite first outing, with songwriting and vocals split evenly between Daniel and Boeckner, save for an epic cover of Rowland Howard's "Shivers," sung by Daniel, who also plays bass on several songs.
Live, Boeckner and Daniel trade vocals or instruments continually, constantly trying to top one other. During their show at the Bootleg, Boeckner shook his hair and flailed around during "What Gets You Alone," while Daniel slinked off to the side and smiled in approval.
The group seems successful right out of the gate, holding a monthlong residency in August scattered across intimate L.A. venues: the Bootleg, Hotel Cafe, the Masonic Lodge at Hollywood Forever and the Echo.
Almost every show sold out the day it was announced, a testament to the pre-album buzz and the members' success in their previous outfits. (They've also sold out shows in each Divine Fits member's hometown.)
For that reason, the mood backstage at the Bootleg during our interview is oddly Zen, with each member enjoying each other's company and laughing like old friends.
With heartbreak seemingly fueling the majority of the lyrics and melodies on their debut, the occasion almost feels like a support group. "I felt really blessed," Boeckner says, "just to have these guys around."
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene with music features, additional online music listings and show picks. We'll also send special ticket offers and music promotions available only to our Music Newsletter subscribers.