“I believe in growing old with grace,” Spencer Krug sang on “Silver Moons”, the opening song of Sunset Rubdown’s 2009 swan song Dragonslayer. It’s something the 36 year-old Krug has been trying to do for past three years, since he let that band go on ahead for a while and walked away from indie rock stalwart, Wolf Parade, to make music on his own, or at the least, on his own terms.
In 2013, that means Julia With Blue Jeans On, an album he refers to as simply “the piano record” in conversation with BYT yesterday. It’s his fourth release as Moonface – his stage name going forward, his “mask to wear” – and much as a prior Moonface record consisted solely of a double manual organ and another of marimba and “shit-drums,” it’s sonic pallete is constrained – in this case, to a single, stately piano. It’s a striking and gorgeous record, the kind of thing you wonder why it took so long to make and yet know he’ll probably never do again. Lyrically, he lays himself equally bare, singing about love and romance without the cryptic and fantastical mythology of snakes and phoenixes and buffalo that defined his earlier work. “All the animals I rode in life are sleeping,” he sings on “First Violin”.
Julia With Blue Jeans was recorded in Helsinki, where Krug has been living since he traveled east to work with Finnish post-rock group Siinai on the thundering Heartbreaking Bravery. Remarkably, cataloging his records across Moonface, Wolf Parade, Sunset Rubdown, and under-appreciated “super group” Swan Lake, it’s his twelfth full-length is nine years. The thirteenth may be a “percussion pop” record. Or maybe it will be another LP with Siinai. Or perhaps his creative impulses – those “quickly changing things” – will lead him elsewhere.
When I reach Krug, he’s at a friend’s house in Chicago’s Hyde Park, “lounging around,” filling time between tour dates in the Midwest and Philadelphia. “Yesterday I went exploring, but today I’m just dicking around.”
Krug will be spending the next few weeks playing sporadic shows across North America. “It seems really weird that I’m floating around from East Coast to West Coast with huge jumps and gaps between shows,” he says of the scattershot itinerary. “The problem with these shows has been finding venues that have a piano. I wish it could be a normal routing and I could just drive around from city to city.”
Despite the best of intentions, keeping a steady course has never been Krug’s forte.
After playing keyboard and organ and accordion and guitar for years, how did it feel returning to a proper piano?
It was really rewarding. I started playing piano again last winter. I felt a real urge to reconnect with the instrument. I’ve been playing in rock bands for the last decade. I’ve been playing a lot of keyboards – with Wolf Parade, obviously – and the different instruments you mentioned and percussion and stuff, but I haven’t put a lot of effort into the basic piano since my early 20s. I had forgotten how to properly play it. I wanted to remember how to do that before it left me completely.
It was immediately a lot of fun. I hadn’t played that much acoustic piano in, like, ten years. I set it up in a studio in Helsinki and just started writing, and the songs came out really quickly. It was great.
How does writing on a piano – as opposed to a keyboard – affect the character of a song?
Keyboards just aren’t that beautiful sounding. They’re usually tools to get some other whacky sound to come out of your amplifier, at least for me playing in rock bands. If I was ever writing on a keyboard, I was probably writing for myself in some collaboration with other people, or writing parts for people to play, like in Sunset Rubdown, for example. Even with the Organ Music stuff, there were a lot of overdubs in the whole recording process. The process was completely different.
There’s also a pretty big gap between playing an old double manual organ through a giant bass amp with lots of distortion, volume, and long squealing drones, and an acoustic piano. Pianos are just bare-bones. They’re really honest and exposed musically. What you get is what you hit, and the harder you hit, the louder it gets. It’s a really straight game, you know? It’s refreshing. It was nice to not be plugging anything in.
Do you enjoy making music by yourself?
Writing a record alone can be really rewarding in a dark and crazy way. It’s an introspective experience where you have nobody around you to bounce your ideas off of. There’s nobody to tell you when you’ve gone too far down the rabbit hole. There’s nobody to tell you what you’re doing is nonsense. When you work with a band, you save a lot of time, because your buddies will be like, “No, that’s shitty.” And then you can just forget about it. [Laughs]
Making a record alone you can fall into this crazy world of self-doubt. You have no one to tell you whether or not what you’re doing is worthwhile. You just have to trust yourself. It can sometimes take days to reach the point where you realize which side of the fence something is on – whether it’s worth pursing or a terrible idea. You kind of go crazy that way. But, at the same time, it’s a slow, peaceful craziness. You’re by yourself, slowly working on something that you’re passionate about. It’s a nice existence.
What’s life in Helsinki like?
It’s pretty quiet for me. It’s weird – I am a foreigner. I don’t really belong there. I’ll never blend in, culturally or otherwise. Finns are really interesting people. They’re quiet and they don’t complain. They deal with the cold and the darkness a lot better than I do.
I have a quiet life. I have good friends there, but not a lot. There are a few people that I know around town; a few of whom I’m really close with. I spend a lot of time in my house or in my studio, or just walking around. It’s a beautiful city. But once the winter hits, it’s like any city, you can’t just go wandering around – you’ve got to find somewhere to go, and often that is the bar for a lot of people. You don’t want to end up staying home and turn into a total alcoholic.
It’s a super quiet life, especially in the winter, but it’s not permanent. I’ll probably come back to North America in six months.
Is anything driving that timeline?
No, it’s just time to go. I’m doing some more work with Siinai over the winter and the spring, and then I think I might try to move back to the West Coast. It’s been a long time since I’ve lived there.
You’re making a second record with Siinai?
We’re in the studio, at least when I’m in town. We’ve been in the studio, jamming and writing and screwing around. We’re planning to do some recording in January, but I don’t know to what ends. I don’t know if we’re going to make an album. I don’t know if we’re going to make a song. Maybe we just make a pile of shit and we don’t release anything.
The first record with them was made really spontaneously. When we went to the studio, we didn’t know if we were going to make anything worth releasing or sharing. It was an experiment. We barely knew each other. Now we know each other really well, because we’ve been on tour and we’ve had more time to write and work on things slowly. It’s hard to say if that’s for better or worse with these guys, or with any project. Sometimes it’s better if you don’t have time to overthink anything.
I can’t say whether or not what we’re making is going to be released, but we are going through with the idea. We’re going through all of the motions. [Laughs]
When we spoke last summer, you mentioned that you were almost finished with a “percussion pop” record.
That’s still in the pipeline. It’s been on the back burner for a long time now. To be honest, that’s what I would like to finish next. I didn’t listen to any of it for a year. I just put it away. But I recently dug it up and I think it’s worth finishing. That is another thing that I plan on doing when I get back to Helsinki early next year. That record doesn’t need much to be done to it. It just took a long time for me to realize what should be done.
But I can’t speak to whether or not these things will get released or when, because that gets into the world of the record label and the music industry and album cycles and all that nonsense. A label is not always wanting to release things as quickly as a I want to. And they have to like the record too. It’s stupid for me to say that the next record I’m putting out is the next record that I finish. It hasn’t happened yet, but they do reserve the right to say, “No.” You never know.
Is that true? One record a year for nine years? I don’t feel that busy. Maybe it’s just coincidence or lucky timing? This album just came out, right? So, we’re pretty late into 2013, and the last record was released early last year. I don’t feel like I am making music any more than other musicians that I know or have worked with. I don’t think I’m working any harder or am any more inspired.
When you say it like that – like, a full-length a year for nine years – that does sound a bit crazy. I hadn’t realized that. I don’t think that I physically make more music than your average musician, or at least the average musician that doesn’t have a day job. I’m in this really privileged place where I’m still able to barely pay rent with music, so I have a lot of time to put to it, if I want.
Maybe I’m just in a position where I’ve been able to release more because I have a fairly lenient record label, and for a while I was releasing things on two unaffiliated record labels. They weren’t in contact, talking about what should come out when. When Sunset Rubdown was Jagjaguwar and Wolf Parade was on Sub Pop, I was working with two totally different groups of people. It was fairly easy to have releases coming out all of the time. There were two completely different infrastructures set up to do that. All I had to do was go to two different jam spaces.
Do you view Julia With Blue Jeans On as companion to Heartbreaking Bravery? They were obviously recorded in the same place geographically, but more than that, they each wrestle directly with the idea of love in a way that’s stately and overtly dramatic.
Are they two sides of the same coin? Maybe. [Heartbreaking Bravery] was more of a break-up record, which is something that I had never written before. It’s a selfish and juvenile and self-involved thing to do. But so is Julia With Blue Jeans On – it’s a piano record.
The difference is that the one I made with Siinai is a little bit more angry. It’s obviously more rock and roll – there are guitars and drums and bass and the whole bit. It’s louder. There’s a little more darkness in the music. For the most part, in general, it was kind of a break-up album.
This piano record is more of a love record. It’s more of a romance album than I’ve ever made before. Part of that might have been an answer to [Heartbreaking Bravery]. Some part of me maybe wanted to make something a little more optimistic and romantic and appreciative of love in the world, rather than spiteful. With the music, there was the simplicity of a single piano, which compliments the other side of that coin. It’s something more lovely and soft, but still dramatic, like you said.
In that way, they might be sister albums. I haven’t heard anyone else make that comparison. Most people say that they’re just totally different.
It wasn’t something that I did consciously, but I was aware that it was happening and I had no impulse to fight. I embraced the way that the lyrics were coming out. I’ve recognized that it’s something that’s been happening in the way that I write songs for the past five years. Things are slowly becoming less fantastical. There are still a lot of metaphors bouncing around, which a lot of people don’t like.
In general, my songs are getting simpler. There are literally less words coming out of my mouth. I’m trying to embrace that. It’s more of a challenge to try to express something that is both beautiful and meaningful with shortest amount of words possible. To be succinct and still have impact is a really fun challenge.
The music on the piano record is also very simple – it’s just the piano. It’s just my two hands. There are no overdubs. I recorded it live. In the way that the music is simple and exposed and honest, it made sense for the lyrics to reflect that and match it. That’s probably why it came out so simply. I think it would be weird if I was rattling off at a minute the way that I used to in Sunset Rubdown or Wolf Parade. I don’t think it would work.