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Interview: Spencer Krug
June 29, 2012 | 9:00AM

Put on a Spencer Krug record and you step into a world of winged and wicked things.  Gazelles and buffalo and leopards roam the land.  The sky is filled with black swans and phoenixes and the occasional dragonCassandra and Icarus haunt local dance halls and fires rage eternally in the distance.  It’s a wild and vivid place to visit.  But on the Friday afternoon that I speak with him, Spencer Krug is in a van on its way to the far less fantastical terrain of Pontiac, Michigan.

He’s journeying to the Detroit metropolitan area with Siinai, a Finnish post-rock outfit with whom he collaborated on the recently released Heartbreaking Bravery.   The album is a staggering eleventh full-length in less than seven years for Krug, and his third release as Moonface, a nebulous moniker he first officially adopted in early 2010 for a 20-minute, single-song EP composed primarily of marimba.

“Moonface” allows Krug to do weird shit like that.  It lets him chase his “quickly changing” creative whims.  It frees him from the expectations of a more static gig.   It greases the revolving door of collaboration.  Last year, Moonface gave us Organ Music Not Vibraphone Like I’d Hoped, five prolonged hemorrhages of lush double-manual organ and dinky drum machines recorded in Krug’s Montreal home.  This year, it’s a majestic, grand, and unmistakably rock album laid to tape with a Scandinavian quartet in a spacious Helsinki studio.  With Spencer Krug, that’s just the way things go.

Krug tells me he’ll probably return to Finland this winter to cut another record with Siinai.  He can do things like up and move to Northern Europe now that the acts he spent the majority of his career with – Wolf Parade and Sunset Rubdown – have disbanded.  It’s a subject that’s largely been skirted – Wolf Parade has preferred the murky “indefinite hiatus,” while Sunset Rundown never issued any sort of public statement – but to hear Krug discuss it, each band has played its last notes.  “It’s a good thing,” Krug says while in that van to Michigan, and though anyone who has spent time with Apologies to the Queen Mary or Dragonslayer or Shut Up I Am Dreaming would assuredly disagree, it sounds like he’s made peace with their demise.

As Krug once sang, ”All fires have to burn alive to live.”

Moonface and Siinai visit Baltimore’s Sonar tonight and NYC’s Bowery Ballroom on Saturday.

If I understand correctly, the process behind the new record was such that Siinai would create the bedrock of a song and send it to you to work from.  The band has a style that’s distinctively glacial, hypnotic, even majestic – how did that set the tone for your contributions?

SK: It did to an extent, in that I wrote a lot of the lyrics after hearing a lot of the music, or the general ideas for the songs or music.  That sort of majestic, almost melodramatic, lush tone that Siinai produces is one of the things that I was drawn to, that made me want to ask them to do this project.  Those elements of their music are something that I would want reflected in the lyrics.  It would be weird for me to write kooky, joke lyrics or something on top of that.  I don’t think it’s something that I even have to think about consciously – one will end up writing lyrics that reflect the tone of the music that they’re going with.  So, the music did inform my contributions in that way.

Is that an unusual process for you – producing lyrics to music after the fact?

SK: I mean, it varies song to song.  I don’t really have any sort of formula.  There’s no rhyme or reason to any songwriting that I’ve ever done.  Sometimes the lyrics come first, sometimes the music, sometimes – rarely – they sort of come at the same time.  Well, not rarely, but it’s a thing that you can’t force.  It does happen that sometimes the music and lyrics come out of you in, like, the same two-hour timeline.  It’s sort of this magical kind of feeling.

But, to answer your question, it’s not the first time that I’ve written lyrics to preexisting music.  This was more like preexisting sheens and riffs though.  We structured the songs together once I got to Helsinki according to lyrical ideas that I had been working on.  I just had these sort of overarching themes that I had worked with to write lyrics, and when I got there, we put them together into songs.

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You’ve said one of themes of the album is heartbreak – and it’s right there in the title.  Do you typically hear overarching themes in your records?

SK: Not as intentionally as with this one, I don’t think.  I think they sometimes are there – they exist kind of after the fact.  I’ll sit back after a record is finished and look back at the whole body of songs and then see this common thread that runs through them that I didn’t even realize was there as we were making the record, whatever the project might be.  Usually it’ll be some sort of lyrical thread that keeps popping up, and that’s only because I’m writing all the lyrics within the same couple of months that I worked on a record.

But it’s not always an intentional exercise, whereas with this record it was.  About halfway through the writing process, when we were up in Helsinki, I decided to make sort of a break-up record – a heartbreak record – because a lot of the songs that I had written up to that point were pointing at the same thing.  So I kind of thought, “Go for it.  Make a break-up record.”  It’s something I had never done before.   Some of my favorite records are break-up records.

Like what?

SK: Have you ever heard El Perro Del Mar’s Love is Not Pop?  It’s a beautiful record.  It’s heartbreaking. There are just these songs, like “Money Changes Everything” by Cyndi Lauper – songs about failed love that I grew up listening to.

The press release for Organ Music that “lately [your] musical ideas are quickly changing things, not steady or constant.”   How does the formation of your ideas differ from earlier in your career?

SK: I guess it doesn’t differ all that much at all, but it might be changing faster nowadays than it used to.  Or maybe it’s something that fluctuates with me, that goes up and down.  But I remember saying that in that press release, and at that point in my life I had interests that were, like, offloading all over the place, kind of really rapidly.  There was this high frequency of things I really wanted to try, and I could never really settle on one.  It took me a long time to even settle on making the Organ Music record.  I was trying all these different things, sort out of curiosity.

But I guess they’ve always sort of fluctuated and changed.  Some things remain consistent about what I like in music,  and what I get out of it, and the things that I want to try, but I have this sort of gnawing curiosity to try something I’ve never tried before.  And that makes for a lot of sometimes really questionable songs and, like, a lot of eyebrow raising, which I don’t blame anyone for doing for one second.

In that same statement, you describe trying to fight your inclination towards pop music and trying to balance it with your desire to create something else, in that instance something droning.  How often do you find yourself fighting a pop instinct?

SK: Well, almost always.  I really like pop music.  It’s sort of fighting it and embracing it at the same time.  Maybe just being aware of it is a better way to put it.  I’ve always liked the sort of challenge of making weird pop music – something that’s a little more challenging for myself to make.  Not that it’s easy just to make a great pop song – it’s probably one of the hardest things to do.  I’m talking more about making the sort of the pop that maybe pushes one area of itself in a further direction than the audience or another listener is used to hearing.  You could call it weird pop or you could call it making arty music more accessible – it depends what side of the fence you’re sitting on, you know what I mean?  But it always boils down to this idea of coming to this sort of catchy and beautiful  but also challenging and thought-out music that has an actual goal to it.

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You posted a dream journal on your website in conjunction with Moonface’s Dreamland EP.   Your lyrics can be otherworldly and surreal – are dreams something that often bleed into your music?

SK: I’m fascinated about dreams, and I think about them a lot when I wake up from one that’s particularly vivid, but I don’t keep a dream journal anymore.  It’s something I tried for a while – I think about six months – just out of curiosity.  People do that sometimes.  It’s a neat process.  Once you get into it for a few weeks, dreams become more vivid – it’s almost as if some part of your brain is trying to pay more attention to them as they’re happening.  It’s like some part of your brain knows that it has to remember it, so you can write it down when you wake up.  You start dreaming these really vivid, elaborate dreams.  But I don’t keep a dream journal anymore.  I don’t write lyrics based on dreams, really – it was just for that one record.

A recurring motif on Heartbreaking Bravery is the imagery of fire and flames, something that’s popped up throughout past records as well.  Why do you think that’s something you find yourself returning to so often?

SK: You could probably just assume the answer.  The imagery and language and even the word “fire” – it’s a fun word to sing– is something that I find powerful.  The metaphor of fire is… I don’t have a specific answer for you.  I haven’t sat and meditated on the nature of flame and what it means to me.

Fair enough – I know parsing lyrics is not always a favorite pastime for songwriters.

SK: Yeah, as soon as I start overthinking, it’ll be destroyed not only for you, but for myself too.

Heartbreaking Bravery comes packaged with a sticker that notably describes you as “formerly of” Sunset Rubdown and Wolf Parade.  There’s a finality to that – do you consider those bands to be finished?

SK: Yes… Yeah.

Do you feel any sort of guilt walking away from those projects?

SK: Noooo, not at all – I didn’t walk away from either of them.  Neither of them stopped because of just me.  They’re both just relationships that ended mutually – both bands.  Sunset Rubdown was more a fizzling out, like a slow awareness that crept over all of us that we weren’t going to play together any more.  We finished a tour, and we were like, “Let’s take a break,” and the break became a final thing.  The break never ended, until I was finally able to say aloud, “Sunset Rubdown is done.”  It was just because relationships changed and priorities changed.  It wasn’t because of any sort of big blowout or fight.  The nature of the relationship between all the people involved changed and there was no reason to keep going, whereas Wold Parade was more of a deliberate conversation we sat down and had.

With Wolf Parade, it was very civilized and mutual, and a conversation between friends about whether what they were doing was still rewarding and relevant to everyone.  The answer was “no.”  We all mutually walked away from that feeling good about the decision.  So I don’t feel any guilt at all.  It’s good.  It’s a good thing.  It’s, like, healthy moving forward.  If either band had made another record, it wouldn’t have been very good, musically or otherwise.

When you leave those projects behind, do you walk away from those songs?  Are they clearly Wolf Parade or Sunset Rubdown songs that belong to those bands?

SK: Well, with Wolf Parade for sure.  I don’t think I’ll be playing those songs again any time.  And that’s ok.  They had their lifespan within myself.  I sang them enough, you know?  I spent enough time with every song Wolf Parade wrote.  We toured a lot.  I got everything I was going to get out of them.

Sunset Rubdown is a little more open-ended because there’s some crossover in the songwriting – solo work that I did that got mixed into both bands’ albums.  Sunset Rubdown sort of bled more naturally into Moonface, so if there was stuff that I could find myself singing alone on stage when I’m 60 years-old, it’s probably more likely to be old Sunset Rubdown songs than old Wolf Parade songs.  But for the most part, the answer is that I’m done with all that music.  I got out of it what I needed to and it wouldn’t be rewarding.

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Do you have other Moonface collaborations planned?

SK: There’s a record that’s almost finished that I made in Montreal last winter.  We finished it in December.  Well, we finished it, and then I decided that it’s not finished yet.  That record is me and my friend Mike Bigelow.  He’s a percussion nerd like myself.  We started to playing together because we both love playing marimbas and vibraphones and all that kind of nerdy shit.  We started writing these dreamy, repetitive percussion pop songs that were based on these sort of overlapping, Steve Reich-ian kind of patterns – I mean, but not nearly as good as he is.  I guess it’s kind of like of pop, but it’s all played with percussion. That record for the most part is done, but I don’t think it will be released for a long time for boring reasons that I won’t get into right now.

What is that you want to change on that record?

SK: I don’t really want to get into all that about it yet, because it’s still growing, and the more I talk about it then the more… You know I don’t want to get into what I want to change – I just know when I listen to it, it’s not finished.  I thought it was, but sometimes you think you know something and then you reread it or revisit it and do some more editing or whatever.

And then Siinai and Moonface will probably make another record, or we’ve been talking about it.  We had a lot of fun with this one, so there’s no reason not to do another one.  I think that’s something we would start working on this winter.  I’m spending a lot of time in Helsinki these days and I’ll probably be there over the winter, and over this whole year, so we can work together in a studio there and see what happens.

Those are the two things I have on the horizon right now.

How was the European tour with Siinai earlier this year?

SK: It was good.  Europe’s a great place to tour.  Audiences are warm – they’re a bit more mellow and subdued than some American and North American audiences, depending on the country you’re in. For the most part, people are very welcoming and promoters are really nice.  They really care about the bands they’re bringing in.  It was our first tour, and we didn’t know how the songs were going to translate live.  To the best of my knowledge, I don’t remember any show that really sucked, where it felt the like the music didn’t reach anyone.  I think for a first tour, it was successful.

Wolf Parade attracted some very masculine and testosterone-heavy fans, and I was surprised on recent Moonface tours to see a large portion of that crowd still turning out, even though Organ Music couldn’t have been further musically from the most recent Wolf Parade record.  Is that something that you’ve noticed?

SK: I think I know what you’re talking about.  Wolf Parade used to play to mosh pits and crowd surfing and shit like that on a nightly basis sometimes, depending on the record and the year.  There was a while when the audience got really quite young and rambunctious.   It didn’t really bother us.  You can’t control your audience.  You can’t control who comes.

And there’s no wrong way to appreciate music.  The person that sits down and wants to intellectualize your music with you for an hour is not enjoying it any more than the person that’s like, “Duuude! That was fucking awesome!!!”  They’re both relevant opinions.  Either way, if they like it and they’re getting something out of it, that’s the whole point – for it to be communal.  So I didn’t really pay too much attention to the demographics of an audience.  There’s no point, since I can’t control it, and I’m not looking to hit any sort of age group.  I understand what you’re saying, but it’s not something I’ve really thought about as an issue.

I wasn’t suggesting it’s a problem.  It’s nice  – I don’t think it’s always safe to assume that any particular audience will follow an artist to weirder pastures.

SK: There have been times that a couple of dudes have been hanging around a venue before we’re playing, and I’ve thought, “Oh, those guys are going to beat me up later.”  And then I realize that they’re there to see the show.  There have been those kinds of funny instances.

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  • dp says:

    Great interview! I’m a huge fan of this guy and I’ll listen to whatever he does, but it’s sad news about no more Sunset Rubdown. While I appreciate the immediacy of the Moonface stuff, it tends to come off as somewhat monotonous sketches or jams when compared to the more complex, dynamic, proggy song structures of a lot of the Sunset Rubdown material. I understand and respect that he wants to move on from what he did in the past, but I think there’s still room for growth in that context as well, and I hope he’ll revisit that kind of songwriting at some point.

  • Liz says:

    excellent intro and interview. I can’t wait to see tonight’s show!