It’s 2am on a Sunday night and Dan Bodan is marking the release of his album 'Soft' at Ficken 3000, an inauspicious dive bar/sex club in Neukölln, Berlin. Tucked away in the DJ booth at the side of the tiny dancefloor, his DJ set takes in Björk, The Carpenters, and Ace of Base (twice). It’s not knowing, or cheesy, or ironic – if anything, the high theatricality and emotion of the slowjams and soft-focus pop productions is elevated by the proximity of the TV screens showing porn and the trickle of bodies between the bar upstairs and the dark room downstairs. There’s something about this blurring of public and private, the quotidian and the romantic that is, quite simply, very Dan Bodan.
'Soft', the third album by the Canadian-born, Berlin-based artist (his first was self-released, the second given a limited run of 250 vinyl copies), sees his vision crystallise into that of a particular kind of 21st century torch singer. His strain of fractured narrative pop gains its charge from the twin but opposing poles of his dreamy (in a pop idol sense) vocals and the freeform, synthetic and, yes, dreamy (in an otherworldly sense) nature of the production. Human desires and pleasures are reflected, refracted across technology’s screen, sure, but they’re felt deep inside the body, too – or, as Jaws of Life, puts it: I look through files of you and feel ashamed.
The roll call of collaborators who’ve helped construct 'Soft’'s universe is, for anyone attuned to electronic music’s vanguard, mouthwatering: M.E.S.H., 18 +, Physical Therapy, and Oliver Sabin (late of Unicorn Kid), while his choice of artwork betrays his deep-rooted connection to the art world. For some, this blend of sincerity, pop fandom, and art world credentials throws them off. "There’s still that problem with journalists not knowing what to make of it," he says when we meet in a café in Kottbusser Tor.
But it matters little. With the first in a series of remix compilations called 'Softy Soft' out now (featuring versions by Lotic, CFCF, Draveng, and Gobby), Dan Bodan is already a dozen steps ahead and plotting his next move – quite literally. "I’m having a problem with eight years in Berlin. I’m getting this angst, this wanderlust to go and see."
'Soft' sees you collaborating with a string of Berlin-based producers working at the forefront of electronic music. How did you come to know M.E.S.H., Physical Therapy, Ville Haimala, and those guys?
Dan Bodan: "When I came to Berlin, I fell in with the blue chip art world. I was mentored by these German artists and Heji Shin, my best friend, introduced me to the Hamburg school of German photographers. I got into the art world through that context and met Jaime [Whipple, aka M.E.S.H.], who had been doing music his whole life, like me and also Lars [TCF], who’s another good example – he was doing Cracksmurf at the time. But it was music in this guise of the art world, and I don’t think any of us were terribly comfortable there. I can’t speak for them, but I think there was suddenly this move away from that world because it wasn’t a great incubator.
"The reason I started working with Jaime was that he was the only other person I could talk to – it was like, 'Wait, you take music seriously, right?' It was originally just going to be remixes, but when I was in London I met Howie B, who’s a producer I grew up with and one of the key figures in '90s trip hop. I wrote him an email and he was like, 'Come hang out!' He engrained a way of thinking about music in me, and we were going through the remixes and he said, 'You should work with this M.E.S.H. kid, start with your friends.' Just to hear something that’s not my own dialogue changed my view of how I was going to produce music. Once the songs came out, musicians who I respected started reaching out to me because they were getting it. That’s how it shifted to working with other people."
Coming from a predominantly art background, do you find that music is judged differently in that context?
Dan Bodan: "Well, it’s measured by very few people in the art context. And they’re not judging it. I think the art world doesn’t have a point of context for music because it’s the most impossible artform – everyone can do it and no-one can do it, and it’s really hard to discuss it academically, except in really specific terms. And most musicians tend to disavow that conversation."
You mentioned Howie B and mid-'90s trip-hop. Was that ever a reference point for you?
Dan Bodan: "It must have been. Talking about influences is something people can’t really answer – the fact is, I’m probably influenced more by musical theatre than I am other things."
I gathered – you played a bootleg recording of Lolita, My Love, from an obscure Lerner & Barry musical, on Berlin Community Radio.
Dan Bodan: "Yeah! Oh, I was a total theatre geek, but I really liked recordings a lot. Even on the recent mix I did, the song from Sunday In The Park With George is from the live recording because I think to get those performances is something really specific. Some people collected Throbbing Gristle bootlegs, I collected musical theatre bootlegs."
"I think the art world doesn’t have a point of context for music because it’s the most impossible artform – everyone can do it and no-one can do it, and it’s really hard to discuss it academically, except in really specific terms. And most musicians tend to disavow that conversation." – Dan Bodan
I read that you studied classical singing – how far did you take it?
Dan Bodan: "That’s way over the top. My sister wanted to be a star on Broadway, so she went to singing lessons twice a week, so I went to singing lessons. I stopped when I was 10. I was in a couple of operas, but the kid's chorus of an opera is a mass of school children singing Avec La Garde Montante."
What’s the area like where you originally grew up in Canada?
Dan Bodan: "I grew up in the city. Well, I lived in Novia Scotia for about four years, right before junior high. We lived in a very small town in the Annapolis Valley because my dad had got his first teaching job at the university there. That was amazing, I’m glad to have had that. I would live by the ocean in the heartbeat. Then I went back to Edmonton, this very grey capital city – very culturally conservative, even if not politically conservative."
Did you feel like you wanted to break out?
Dan Bodan: "God, from the time I was in the womb! I just knew I was going to get the hell out of there as fast as possible. One of the only reasons that I continue doing music is because it allows me to travel. That’s why I hope my music gets more successful – to maintain that momentum of adventure. I feel I’ve grown a bit stagnant here in eight years. I’m approaching 30, and I hope my thirties are full of travel. Travel and have a kid, or something."
You want a kid?
Dan Bodan: "Definitely. But I would only bring a kid into the world now if I was able to support them until they were about 50. I wouldn’t want them to have to worry about money, because I don’t think it’s going to get much easier."
"Some people collected Throbbing Gristle bootlegs, I collected musical theatre bootlegs." – Dan Bodan
Thematically, 'Soft' frequently deals with desire and loneliness within a very hyperconnected culture. Romeo is about a dating app, for example. Is this sense of alienation something that troubles you?
Dan Bodan: "No, it’s just something that I’ve lived through. My friend came up with a term: digital puberty. We were the generation that went through it. I was born in 1985, when the internet was becoming more developed. I had the internet proper when I was eight. So we grew up alongside it – as we changed, it changed. We have a different relationship to our parents, who are confused by it, it’s frustrating, but we’re not as eloquent with it as the kids five years younger. For example, I was cyberbullied in junior high by a friend, but there was no point of context for that. It was very damaging. My friend made a fake name and was sending emails. How do you explain that? Well, now we know what that is. The idea of a troll didn’t exist. But we learned about it."
On a positive note, we were the first generation to grow up with things like fanfiction…
Dan Bodan: "Oh, I loved fanfic. I loved Sailor Moon fanfic. I was in one of those clubs where you created a character, and the story was passed around by email chain to continue the story. Then I was kicked out of the club and I was devastated!"
What were you kicked out for?
Dan Bodan: "I was drawing all this fanart, but I wasn’t doing the fanfic. Being kicked out of Sailor Moon RPG sucked."
"My friend came up with a term: digital puberty. We were the generation that went through it. I was born in 1985, when the internet was becoming more developed. I had the internet proper when I was eight. So we grew up alongside it – as we changed, it changed." – Dan Bodan
Can you talk a little about the artwork of 'Soft'? It’s by an artist called Julien Ciccaldi…
Dan Bodan: "Before any of this had blown up, he had a website where he posted these t-shirts, which I loved. Then I was in London three years ago doing a series of performances with Alexis Taylor [of Hot Chip] in Dalston, and I wanted something to wear, so I commissioned three shirts. After that, I had him design some art for a single that was put out, but the art was never used because I had a falling out with the label. When we finally finished 'Soft', we were trying to figure out what to do and at first, we were like, what if we do a photo of me in this classic pop pose? But then I thought maybe it shouldn’t be that explicit, because then people would have too hard a time disconnecting this really straightforward pop with the deeper stuff.
"Anyway, Julien and I got drunk one night and I was like, 'I have an idea!' This is before the Artforum thing happened, which I kinda wish hadn’t happened until after. Because Simon Denny did the artwork for the last one, then he got really big. I don’t want to be like Sonic Youth, finding the next coolest artists and exploiting them. Not that I think Sonic Youth does that."
The characters that Julien creates are very striking, muscular and androgynous…
Dan Bodan: "…there’s a nice violence to it as well. What I like most about his work is that there’s something violently emotional about it. Even though it’s over the top, it’s violently over the top."
I like your idea of presenting yourself as a traditional pop idol, too. You did that a little bit in the video for Anonymous, with the poster of you on the wall.
Dan Bodan: "There’s only so much you can play with that though before it becomes parody. Then it becomes unfunny because you get it right away. But definitely the first two singles we were playing on this idea of Justin Bieber past his due date."
Where the producers you’re working with seem to be working at the quote-unquote "experimental" margins, you seem much more engaged with pop.
Dan Bodan: "I guess that’s maybe why people do work with me, or people like Kelela. I think a lot of those musicians are really interested in more literal storytelling, or being able to use the word as poetry and explore that boundary between sound and human performance. However, I know a lot of people are obsessed with the perfect pop song or the perfect structure, the perfect middle eight – they’ll talk to you at length about manuals that tell you how to do that. I would never approach music that way; it’s a bit too cerebral. I want my music to be thinking music, but it has to sound like it’s coming from me and not a textbook. Like The Manual by the KLF is interesting as a project and maybe a comedy book, but there’s people who take that as their whole careers. They talk about music in these terms that devoid it of all spirituality."
Do you feel that your music possesses a sense of spirituality?
Dan Bodan: "I hope so. I strive for it. I’m not a religious person and I’m not superstitious but I think I am deeply spiritual and [my music] has to come from that. Music or science, these really human, real life experiences that I can’t define on any terms other than feeling: that’s spiritual to me. If I don’t hear that in my own music I’m not going to put it out."