Handsome Furs + Scott Coffey = Sound Kapital’s insurgent, antithetical go-go dancer
Handsome Furs: Sound Kapital [June/2011] — NOTHING GRABS OUR attention, or holds onto it, like bare skin. The desire to see other humans naked does all sorts of crazy things to our brains. Horniness, obviously. It easily overpowers other chemical reactions, especially melatonin uptake. It can also be the root of more complicated emotional states: shame, trepidation, awkwardness, megalomania, ecstasy, transcendence, addiction, love.
This need can end up off-kilter in a culture where porn is viewed as deviant, yet it’s consumed as rampantly and unapologetically as Big Macs. Given the sheer number of times we get flashed by idealized nudity in our lives, and the enormous, enigmatic cultural carrot of sex as a marketing tool, we end up with a lot of images and ideas that don’t necessarily produce healthy perspectives about the human body. Alexei Perry, one half of the Handsome Furs (the other is her husband Dan Boeckner), is not one of those people: “I love nakedness. I wish I could see everyone naked. Nudity is appealing to me for its obvious sexiness, but even more so for its rawness and honesty. It unnerves and excites me and makes me want to know more.”
As well as kicking ass on keyboards for the duo’s third full-length release, Perry selected the Sound Kapital cover image, and she art directed and produced all the packaging layouts. She had a handful of artists she loves giving her great material to choose from, she ruminated, she weighed her options and advice, and in the end she couldn’t resist. Provocative, yes, but her reasons are also wise and heartfelt.
“I find especially female nudity and sexuality is often used in ways that I don’t identify with,” Perry explains via email. “Mainstream pop divas are exploited with their suggestive cupcake bras and lollipop-sucking lips and school girl uniforms and cat suits, and I find most of that type of sex very superficial and unreal and, for most of us, demeaning and unattainable. In music videos and album art there is also the exploitative use of body parts. Girls’ heads are cropped off but their tits and asses are used to be cheeky and scandalous. I have even seen artsy contemporaries of ours obscure women’s faces with balloons and tribal masks. I like things that are suggestive and scandalous, but I’m also a feminist and I’m not a dummy or a prude, so I find most of the ways nudity is usually used either very tame and boring, or superficial and unrelateable.”
So why was this naked woman, photographed under an overpass in Portland, Oregon, a good emblem for this group of songs? “For her utter humanness. Despite everything around her, she is trying to get her sexy, absurd and confusing motivations across.”
The cover image was created by film director, producer, writer and actor Scott Coffey, a good friend of the band’s and an artist whom Perry obviously admires to pieces: “Scott is a genius. He is dark and moody, but also full of light and sex. I love his brain and I love his heart.”
It was actually one of the first stills that Coffey sent to Perry and Boeckner while developing a video concept to accompany the song “What About Us,” off of Sound Kapital. As he tells it (over the phone from L.A.), this was also the first idea that popped into his head while trying to come up with something. But not just any naked, tattooed girl; he had someone specific in mind. The woman in the photo is a friend of Coffey’s, whom he’d worked with previously on a beer company ad in which she disrobed and dove into a lake.
“So I knew she was uninhibited, and I knew she trusted me, and she certainly isn’t an exhibitionist in any way, and not an actress, but she’s really interesting and she’s also a photographer and an artist, so I knew she’d be game,” explains Coffey. “There is something really strong about her, really grounded and rooted. She’s fiercely intelligent, and really aware and interested and curious. She’s kind of brilliant. There was something about working with her in an intellectual way that seemed really unexploitive. I definitely wanted it to be sexy, but I didn’t want it to feel like a cliché idea of what men think sexy is. That was really important to me. And I knew she would have her own interesting take on the cliched idea of a sexy, naked, go-go dancer on top of a car. I feel like that’s something we’ve seen a lot, it’s familiar. It was important that she brought herself to it, and I knew she would.”
All this was spawned by very open minded and flexible input from the band. Having gleefully collaborated with Coffey previously on the zombie horror video for “I’m Confused” (from 2009’s Face Control), they were content to let him hatch a concept and have a say in which song would be best to work with, with the caveat that the idea needed a sexual component to it. “We weren’t really sure what that meant,” admits Coffey, but “What About Us” emerged as a great fit for articulating it.
Aside from time and money, Perry describes their collaborative challenges as intellectual ones: “We wanted to make something meaningful. Perhaps absurd and dark, but also tender.”
Coffey, Perry and Boeckner spent a few intense days driving around Portland, improvising scenes and brainstorming ways to achieve this sensibility. Coffey brought the idea to begin with a hitchhiking girl, “and it would evolve into something that seemed narrative, that felt like a story, but I also didn’t want it to be literal. So a lot of the time when we were shooting, even though I had a really solid structure and foundation in my head about what I wanted to shoot that night or that day, it was specific but it wasn’t regimented. This is the first time I’ve ever done that, where I was going to play around with some stuff and experiment and then see what happened in editing. It was a really big leap of faith on my part, because I’ve always been super planned and told more narrative stories. And I wanted to do something that was poetic and non-linear, because I didn’t want it to detract from the song.”
Capturing intimacy was one of Coffey’s structural anchors. “I wanted the nudity in it to feel like skin, like flesh that sweats and has a smell to it and a feel to it. And the amount of intimacy in the video, especially between Dan and Alexei, is really real and great, and I don’t think you see that a lot in sexualized art. It’s always very titillating and idealized. It was really important that we sort of did the opposite of pornography, with emotion and intimacy in it. We talked a little bit about that specifically. It was something I was really careful about doing, because I didn’t want it to just be a bunch of people fucking.”
Instead, Coffey wanted to enhance the sexuality with a threat, or at least the atmosphere of one. “I didn’t want it to feel violent, but I wanted a slight, ominous, eerie threat to it. And I think that’s sort of sexy, and the song has it a little bit. The song has this sort of melancholy longing, but at the same time it has this kind of predator dance vibe, and I was thinking a lot about what I could do visually that would do both those things. Something kind of gentle, but also weird and scary and disturbing a little bit, an unsettledness about it. It’s not quite comfortable, but it’s still carnal.”
He refers to the shot of a naked man with his shirt pulled over his head, and another with two nude bodies rolling around on a lawn at night. (Those bodies actually belong to Coffey and his boyfriend.) You can also see what he’s talking about in the way the hitchhiker kicks at the car windows, as though she could either be fucking or trying to escape. Or, eerier still, the long sequence inside a motel room (shot with a crew of five) where a portrait of Perry on the wall ends up flipped to show the back of her head, suggesting a dark, fragmentary, Lynchian dimension.
This freewheeling, mood-chasing approach to scripting and shooting “What About Us” worked because of what Coffey describes as his “very weird kismet or synchronicity with those dudes. It’s inexplicable and I can’t really put it in words, but we have a really similar sensibility about things.”
Coffey says this first became evident when they were working on the “I’m Confused” video together. “I’d never met them, never spoken to them, and I just had the idea that it would be a zombie video, based on nothing other than listening to the song. They were so into it, and as we started hanging out and becoming friends, it turns out that they’re into all kinds of zombie and grindhouse stuff. That’s not really my thing, but we’ve always had this great energy together, where we’ve felt on the same path in terms of what we wanted to do in our work. I’ve definitely been talking to you more about what we were up to than Alexei and I ever did.”
In turn, Coffey feeds off the Handsome Furs. He’s working on a new film project based on an original screenplay he wrote, and he’s already tapped Boeckner to score it. He also says the film is partially inspired by an idea Boeckner spoke about during a CBC Radio 3 interview around the time of the Sound Kapital release.
Boeckner was basically saying that he wanted his song lyrics to be very direct and literal, not knotted up in metaphors. “There is no subtext, the song really is about what you’re hearing,” recounts Coffey. “My favourite art isn’t usually like that, but there is something so refreshing about hearing an artist say that and do that, and to do it in a way that was successful, and with more to it than just what’s on the literal surface. There’s a hundred different meanings to the things he says. I was tripping out on how resonant the lyrics are on that record. They always hit me a different way, even though they’re not coded. I think having those lyrics be so strong and literal, it gave me a really strong foundation to be more surreal with the video.”
Boeckner and Perry have made it clear that the content of their new record draws heavily on recent travelling and touring experiences, during which they’ve discovered bands who really do have to defy authority and put on rogue shows to play their music. Their new songs definitely feel steeped in the same sort of hopeful, ecstatic and rebellious spirit (not to say their first two records didn’t). Appropriately, the other photographer who contributed to Sound Kapital’s packaging art landed on Perry’s radar because of a music scene that thrives on loud, clandestine noisemaking.
Perry met Matthew Niederhauser years ago when she was living in Beijing, working as a music magazine editor. The American photographer and writer spent a couple of years in the Chinese capital taking portraits of bands from an erupting upstart music scene — “a fresh, independent voice in a country renowned for creative conformity and saccharine Cantonese pop” — for a book he released in late 2009 called, curiously, Sound Kapital: Beijing’s Music Underground.
Perry says making use of the same moniker was sort of a coincidence. “We did not name the record after the Niederhauser book exactly, but it was a twinned fate that we used that terminology. On Sound Kapital, we were trying to create a global sonic capital that has no actual place in the world, but that can be found or created anywhere in the world.”
Instead, what led Perry to want to use Niederhauser’s images in her packaging art was an exhibit of his more recent work, which explores a broader realm of overbearing experience. “I feel his material really beautifully articulates what it feels like to be alive in modern China,” says Perry.
She selected photos that Neiderhauser had taken at a huge, hyperactive water park in downtown Beijing, which gel with the record’s themes of resistance and perseverance, albeit more cryptically. “I am fascinated by mad-made oases in downtown locations. Those images are from the dead centre of Beijing, amid towering skyscrapers, but people are still trying to find a way to feel like themselves. To have a good time. That is exactly what I’m trying to do with my music.”
This sentiment is also what binds all of the artists who contributed to the look and feel of Sound Kapital. “We are all strange freaks trying to figure out how to live within conditions that do not always appeal to our hearts,” says Perry. “Life is strange, but you have the power to find its humour and integrity in the art you choose to make. We all share this approach.”
As you might expect (and as anticipated), much of this message hasn’t made it past the full frontal that adorns Sound Kapital. Perry was surprised by many of the prudish, conservative reactions, and finds it “shocking that people find nakedness such a bone of contention.”
“All I am showing here is humanity in oppressive landscapes,” argues Perry. “So much of the music on this record was inspired by artists and writers and musicians who struggle to do their work under the constraints of difficult governments, who try to get their ideas out despite political infringement — China, Myanmar, etc. So it’s basically strange that here in North America, we are being censored by our very own ‘peers.’ The headlines have read that the artwork is ‘Not Safe For Work.’ Who the fuck gives a shit? I hope I make your cubicle job exciting for a fleeting second! And: ‘Make sure the kids aren’t around.’ Are you kidding? Kids love nudity! In fact, they know it’s totally normal! One said it was a ‘Perv’s dream.’ Frankly that just makes you a pervert if you see it that way. It’s ironic and sad that this is the society I live in. I hope it will change. And I will do the best I can to change it from within.”
Perry debated the merits of the image with her sister and three headstrong girlfriends, a mix of feminists and bisexuals and gays and straights with varying degrees of religious upbringing, “all of whom thought it was beautiful and equally fearless and uncertain and poetic, and a good summation of how it can feel to be alive.” The issues they identified are as follows, each with Perry’s response:
1. You’ll be the one taking the flak for this because you are a woman.
“Well at least that might finally even out the interview requests between Dan and I!”
2. People might think it’s you.
“I would have had no problem using it if it was me. If a photo of me had been taken that summed up that character and emotion I would have gladly allowed it. Had it been male, female, young, old or otherwise, I would have gladly used it. It is the expression and emotion and angular versus organic aesthetics of the image that appealed to me.”
3. The album features a white woman and mostly Chinese men.
“I hadn’t thought of that. But I guess I’m comfortable with forcing people to check if they’re racist or not.”
4. Twelve year old boys are going to masturbate to this.
“God I hope so. And twelve year old girls too! At least I would have. I hope this rawness is sexy to young people. I always worry that there’s so much internet porn now that it’s harder to titillate the kids. I remember how exciting porn magazines were, and seventies art books and Roxy Music covers and basically anything I could get my hands on to jerk off to.”
5. People will think you’re trying to be bad ass.
“Only prudes will think that.”
Whatever people think, it’s out there now, getting juices flowing one way or another. And ultimately this is a record that intends to move your body as much as your brain.
“Of course there are practical uses of nudity: For art to express humanity and for pornographic material to excite you,” says Perry, “and I’m a practical woman. I personally love good pornography — in fiction, film or art — because it is the one medium that works only if it works on you. If it gets you off, it is successful. It’s like the sentence: ‘I declare war.’ It’s true immediately once it is said. Just as ‘you’re getting wet’ makes you get wet. I find those returns really triumphant and poetic.”