By Philip Runco.
Spencer Krug feels under the weather but his suffering is not without perks.
“My voice is not normally this sexy,” he admits, sipping on a coffee, birds chirping somewhere in the distance. “And I’m a little bit out of it, so I apologize if I’m spacey.”
It’s the last morning in May, and Krug is somewhere on the remote part of an already (somewhat) remote island. He’s called this home for the past two years. A few days earlier, the singer-songwriter was on the other side of Canada, in a much different kind of geographical setting, playing a five-night Toronto residency with Wolf Parade.
Almost six years ago, that band had announced an “indefinite hiatus.” Many, including those within the quartet, assumed 2010’s Expo 86 would be the last we heard from Wolf Parade, but in January, the band announced its return with a series of residencies and gigs atop numerous summer festival line-ups. (They had been playing in private for over a year.) Just before the first of those shows, Wolf Parade self-released a four-song EP, too.
As usual, though, Krug is up to more than just one thing. Last month, he put out his sixth recording as Moonface, My Best Human Face. And it would be a shame if it’s overshadowed by Wolf Parade’s return, because My Best Human Face is Krug’s best rock record this decade.
Of course, that’s a somewhat misleading statement: Krug hasn’t released many records that scan as “rock” since 2009. In the wake of Wolf Parade’s hiatus and Sunset Rubdown calling it quits, the Moonface moniker has allowed Krug to follow his creative impulses wherever they lead him. That could mean entire releases composed on the marimba or an old organ. It could mean songs recorded alone, in single takes, just Krug’s voice and a traditional piano. Or it could mean collaboration with another band entirely.
My Best Human Face falls in that last category. The record is technically credited to Moonface & Siinai, and as such billing suggests, it marks the second time that Krug has worked with the Finnish post-rock band. Their first effort, 2012’s Heartbreaking Bravery, was as somber and lofty a statement as its title let on. It wed Krug’s cryptic imagery – all fires and reptilian bottom dwellers – with chugging krautrock and lumbering atmosphere.
But these same musicians have created a much different record with My Best Human Face. Sure, “Risto’s Riff” chugs and “Them Call Themselves Old Punks” broods, but on the whole, this is a nimble and varied collection of music. When you take into account the pop structures and female backing vocals, it’s the closest that Krug could come to making a sequel to Dragonslayer with Siinai as his band.
Unsurprisingly, Krug has already moved on to other projects – a keyboards-and-drums Moonface record; more Wolf Parade; his forgotten “percussion pop” LP. We discuss those and more below.
Moonface & Siinai’s My Best Human Face is out now on Jagjaguwar Records. The reissue of Wolf Parade’s Apologies to the Queen Mary is out now on Sub Pop. Wolf Parade EP 4 is available through the band’s website. Wolf Parade plays (mostly) festivals through the end of September.
What’s the move back to Canada been like? What’s changed from your life in Helsinki?
Things have just become more relaxed. I lived in Montreal for ten years, and then in Helsinki for two years, and one day I just woke up beside my girlfriend / partner and was like, “We gotta get the fuck out of the city.”
It was driving me crazy being in any city. She was living in Helsinki for seven years, but she’s also actually Canadian, and her family is here on Vancouver Island. It was sort of like, “Do you want to give the countryside a shot?”
I don’t live in Victoria – I live about an hour north, in a small town in the woods. And so my life has changed a lot. I went from an apartment to a house. I had to buy a car. I have a dog, which I walk around in the woods a lot. And none of these things are permanent, but it’s a nice respite from living in the city. In some ways, I’m a lot more relaxed. I’m wearing my Crocs right now as we speak.
In other ways, there are differences in the fucking worries you don’t have to deal with in the city. I blew a head gasket on my car right before I went on tour with Wolf Parade, and I had to deal with that because my girlfriend and I only have one car, and it’s this old 1991 Jetta, and she needs to use it. That’s the sort of thing that I’ve never had to deal with before. And, I don’t know, the dog got two ticks today. [Laughs] So, it’s different.
Did the change in scenery have anything to do with the procrastination that accompanied finishing these songs? Or had you experienced that sort of writers block before?
I’ve experienced that before, but I’ve never maybe let something sit for quite as long.
The music was recorded in Finland about four months before I left. We just wanted to document the songs that we had been jamming. We didn’t even know that we were making a record. Jagjaguwar didn’t know that I was recording with Siinai. The label was definitely not in a hurry for another Moonface and Siinai record. No one really cared about us making another record together. But because we’re friends, we had been jamming, just writing tunes the whole time that I’ve lived there, so we thought, “Let’s document this music.”
Then I said, “Look, I’ve never really been paying much attention to what I’ve been singing on these songs. And what I have right now I don’t love enough to commit to the ages.” So, I took it home to Canada to finish there.
But I don’t think I ended up listening to any of it for a year. It just sat there. I didn’t want to think about it. It became bigger than it was in my head. Inside of my head, that hard drive [of music] was a mess that I had to stew on. I just kept putting it off. Then one day, I finally opened it up and sort of remembered, “Oh, these are actually some good songs here. All I have to do is tweak a few lyrics and tweak a few melodies and do a bit of editing.”
I think the reason that I procrastinated for so long was that no one was asking for it, and so I had the freedom to do that. Ultimately, that was for the benefit of the music. Some part of me waited until I knew I was creatively ready to dive back into it.
And then I took a couple of months to finish the writing and record it here on the island in a friend’s studio, and then I took it back home and kind of finished the whole record as best as I know how. I did all of the editing myself and bounced down the best mixes that I could come up with, and then I sent it all to Siinai in Finland as a sort of surprise. They had no idea that I had started working on it. I just sent them the record and said, “What do you think?”
Luckily, they’re very relaxed guys. They were like, “It’s great. Let’s go with it.” Then we had to properly mix it. Siinai didn’t even know that I was planning on having those back-up singers on it. They’ve never even met those women. It was really fun to send them this message, like, “Surprise! Remember when we made this record?”
In that way, it was fun.
When you were jamming with Siinai, do you have a sense of how different the material would be from Heartbreaking Bravery? Or did that only come into focus later?
When we were jamming, and when we finally started recording in Finland, it was apparent that we were making something different – something that’s more poppy, right? It’s groovier. It’s more fun. It’s less brooding. It’s less dark, in general. I have no problem with any of those things. We just sort of embraced it.
I didn’t really think about why it’s different until recently. The first record was almost an art project. I contacted a band where I only knew half the members. I was in Canada. They were in Finland. And I said, “I would love to make a record with you guys.” They said yes, and they started sending me very rough demos – like, little riffs – and I started doing the preliminary lyrical work at home. And then I flew to Finland and jammed in their jammed space for four days, and then we went to a studio for two weeks and sort of composed and recorded the entire record. I think we polished it off Berlin.
Basically, what I’m saying is that the music was made quite quickly. It was very spontaneous. Whatever note came first is what we went with. It was more of a lofty statement. It was more of an arty collaboration: These two projects that have nothing to do with each other are going to meet and make a record together, having never worked together before, and we’ll just see what happens.
It was also lyrically more brooding because I was writing about an ugly break-up. It’s almost a break-up record, which I had never done before. I was like, “Oh, that would be a cool way to get rid of these shitty emotions.” And then Heartbreaking Bravery came out the way it did.
With this record, it’s a bunch of guys who already know each other, who are already used to playing with each other, who have no expectations from anyone in the industry about another record. We’re basically just dads in the garage jamming out some tunes.
We stuck with the fun stuff. Whatever we enjoyed playing the most would be the final version of the song. We had time to mold things into a more enjoyable place for ourselves. There were songs cut from this record, and they were the darker, broodier, longer ones. There’s a 10-minute slow jam where ultimately I was like, “We have to cut this song. It just sticks out like a sore thumb. It’s not what this record is about. This record is fun and groovy. We don’t need this 10-minute whine session.” Maybe we’ll upload that or it’ll be a b-side or some other thing in the future.
That’s the best answer I can come up with: It did become apparent, but I didn’t really think about why until recently. I think it was because we were literally having more fun, and hopefully that translates into the recordings – it’s friends enjoying their time together. Most of it is live off the floor. We’re in the same room together. Everyone’s amps are turned up and we’re just playing a tune, except for the vocals.
It’s interesting to hear a looser version of a heavy song like “City Wrecker”. You’ve rerecorded songs in the past – “Paper Lace”, “I’ll Believe in Anything”. What made you revisit this particular one? In these instances, does a song’s meaning change for you?
I think I’ve only really done that with songs that I think are worth revisiting – songs that are worth maybe two different interpretations. And I think “City Wrecker” is not a bad song.
I wrote “City Wrecker” on the piano. I recorded it on piano. But right when I wrote it, I also was living in Helsinki and jamming with Siinai every once in a while. Again, we were just having fun. There was no agenda. So I said,” I wrote this song on piano. I’m going to record it. But do you want to try it for fun?”
It’s only a few chords. It didn’t take a long time to put together. It just was so groovy right away. The meaning does change. It became lighter and less important. There’s less to the words – in not necessarily a bad way. Whereas the piano version is sort of sad and everything is so final and almost fatalistic, the rock version is a little more whimsical. It’s more a “this is the way the cookie crumbles” kind of feeling.
Mostly, it’s that I really like the groove to it. I really like the way it bounces along. And I thought it was worth including. It seemed to fit in with the rest of the songs.
Also, the piano version is on an EP, so a lot of times we record EP songs onto an LP. I don’t really think about those rules, anyway.
What about the material called out for female backing vocals?
I think it was just screaming out for it.
With the first track, “Nightclub [Artiste]”, in the end, I’m singing one refrain while the girls and Dante [DeCaro] are singing the other. That’s one of the songs where the lyrics were already done when we recorded it. As soon as we put it to tape, and that organ intro started playing, the idea just dawned on me rather quickly. It sounds corny to, but it was like, “OK, we’re going to have backup singers singing what I sing next, and then you’re going to repeat it in the end, meanwhile I geek off on a different tangent with a different melody, and it’ll be fun, and it’ll sound good.”
So, I recorded a scratch version of those backup vocals right away, thinking that the boys in Siinai would be doing them. But then we ran out of time, and we realized that none of the vocals were really going to get finished anyway.
It was in Canada where I decided that it would more fun for the sonic palette to be more diverse – to have female vocals instead of more male vocals. I contacted some friends of mine who I knew could sing, and it took, like, two nights. We went into the studio with some drinks and just made it as fun as possible. Putting that kind of icing on the cake is always one of the most fun things. I got to the be the guy on the other side of the glass producing them, which I hardly ever get to do, and it’s so much fun.
It seemed just really obvious right away that female backing vocals were going to work well. Their placement seemed very natural to me. They were never not going to be there. I gave you the “Nightclub” story as an example, but I don’t really ever sit down with the songs and think, “OK, what does this part need? What’s the next part? What should go here?” The melodies just sort of the appear, and when you think of a good one, you think, “OK, we should do that.” I know it sounds like bullshit, but you don’t overthink it.
You’ve said this release is bittersweet because it will probably be the last thing you make with Siinai. You characterize the collaboration as a splash that’s rippled outwards and slowly faded. Is that a sentiment that’s unique to this project? Or does it apply to all of your collaborations?
I think it’s case by case. I don’t know if you can say one or the other is generally true.
Part of the reason I feel like I won’t make another record with Siinai – and that’s not to say that’s necessarily true – is age. They’re getting older. I’m getting older. Those guys aren’t career musicians. They all have jobs. They’re going to start popping out babies pretty soon. At some point, it just doesn’t financially make sense to be making albums with people that live almost directly on the other side of the world – unless I move back there, but I don’t see that happening, either.
So, you just sort of look at the probability of things, and I think the most probably thing is that this is album is the last one. I could be wrong. I hope I’m wrong, because they’re so fun to play with. There’s just a good chance it won’t happen.
But you look at a band like Sunset Rubdown: I didn’t really realize we were going to break up until right before we did. We were doing this tour in Japan, and it was awful. No one was having any fun. And then all of a sudden, it just dawned on the whole band all at once that what were doing was not sustainable and wasn’t going to go any further. We honestly didn’t even talk about it. We just finished that tour and stopped playing together. That was a completely different case where no one was even thinking about it, and I don’t see that band getting back together. Whereas, if you take a band like Wolf Parade, where we talked it out and decided we needed a break – lo and behold, to everyone’s surprise, including ourselves, we’re back together and having a blast.
I guess I’m saying that I don’t think there’s any rhyme or reason to how long the ripple lasts – to allude to my own writing.
Are there any plans to tour Siinai in the States after Europe?
I’m currently in the midst of a nightmare trying figure that out. It all has to do with work visas and flights and the fact that Moonface & Siinai is not a moneymaking machine. It’s just for fun. We don’t really have any finances to play with – nor have we ever. I call it a side-project for a reason.
Not to get too crass about it, but in order to get them over here and offer to pay for their work visas in the States – which are wildly expensive for foreigners – you’re looking at starting a tour where we’re already 10 grand in the hole by the first show. It’s very difficult to climb out of that hole without getting a bunch of grants, and I don’t know if the grants are secure yet. This is all boring industry stuff, which is the harsh reality of the music industry these days: There’s just not that much money for smaller bands, but they’re still expected to pay the same visas costs.
So, I’m trying to work it out with my booking agent the best and most financially secure way to get them over here. It was looking like November of this year, but that vision is slipping away every hour. We’re having a hard time making it work, and we’re just thinking about putting the touring of this album aside until 2017.
I might even start playing live the stuff from my following record instead – the next Moonface release. A lot of that is already finished. It might be fun to start touring that next year, and then the other record will come out.
I know it’s confusing but whatever. I don’t think the general populace really cares about Moonface doing proper album cycles wherein I release a record, tour it for 18 months, and then wait six months, and then release another record. I think people get at this point that Moonface is a little disorganized and chaotic and unpredictable. I just have to roll with that approach in order to make it sustainable.
So, the next record is still a work in progress?
It’s still a work in progress but a lot of the legwork is done.
Is it going to be a similar record to Julia With Blue Jeans On – a straight piano record?
No, it’s keys and drums – like, keyboards, synthesizers, and a drummer Jeff Smith from New York. He’s a great drummer and a new friend of mine. I like his work, and I sent him some demos, and he wrote back and said he would do it.
He flew out here in December, and lived with us for a few days, and we put down the basic tracks. So, I have all of the music but none of the icing. It was live off the floor with drums, keys, and scratch vocals. I might add a bit more instrumentation – I haven’t decided yet.
Whatever happened to the “percussion pop” record with Mike Bigelow?
It’s still there, man. It’s still in the can – waiting, like a magnificent, beautiful flower that’s just waiting for the right season to break the crust of the earth. [Laughs] I really think that’s an interesting set of songs. I also don’t know how exactly they should be treated.
I’m not going to rush it. What does it even matter at this point? It’s been over five years. Who cares? I’ll just wait until I know exactly how to finish them. And then maybe I’ll just have to put them online. The label might be like, “You’re kidding. We’re not going to put this out now.” But I’ll get them into the world one way or another – I have no idea when.
On My Best Human Face, why does “Prairie Boy” cut off?
Well, that was my decision. The song did continue on. But I will tell you now that it did continue on with more of the same. It was those riffs overlapping and interweaving back and forth at the end of the song. I think they happened again in a couple different variations and combinations of each other, just for the sake of science almost – like, “What does it sound like when you do them in this order?” And then it sort of faded out. It felt unimpactful, like the musicians were going through an exercise of trial and error. It didn’t feel like it was actually necessarily to the song. And so I chopped them off.
I chopped it off on a computer, like, “Here’s where it should end.” I just made the cut. And then I played it played it back and it was like, “Snip!” I stopped the way it did. And I thought, “I like the way that sounds. There’s no reason for me to clean this up.” I liked the effect it had. I still do. I like the reality of it. It snaps the listener back to reality, like, “Oh yeah, I’m listening to a recording – something that came from a computer.” I could have done that anywhere. I like that kind of meta-listening.
The record is really short. It’s only seven songs. I just wanted to make something that in my mind really had no filler. I wanted to love every minute and every note, and I didn’t love the end of that song, so I chopped it off. It felt very satisfying. And the way it ends sounds like a chopped it off with an axe. It’s kind of fun.
I recently heard a quote from the composer Arvo Pärt – or somebody anecdotally told me it – when he was giving a talk at a university and somebody asked him what I would take as a very naïve question: “How do you compose music? How do you make such beautiful songs?” And he had the coolest answer. It’s so simple. He basically said, “Make sure you love every note, and then you’re going to love it, and if you love it, you’ll know that other people will, too.”
That’s something I’ve been thinking about lately when I make music. It’s along the same lines of editing out the things that you don’t think are necessary.
Does that idea tie into the length of the Wolf Parade EP? It’s a little over twelve minutes and relatively sanded down for the band.
I think so. Wolf Parade is consciously trying to be brief and not go down the same rabbit hole of these rambling endings that were all over Expo 86.
A lot of our music goes a little too far. There are songs that just take too long to end. Someone’s like, “Well, I have another idea, and we could put it here!” And then someone else will be like, “Yeah, and we could play it this way, too, so we’ll stick that on after that.” It’s not giving the listener enough credit. It’s not giving the core ideas of song enough credit. I keep using this analogy of icing, but it’s true: You’re just piling icing on the cake and it becomes disgusting after a while.
So, we are consciously trying to be more succinct, concise, and brief. We’re trying to edit things down and only put enough of the song as the song needs and not think about ourselves. To try to take yourself out of the song makes the song less vain, and that ultimately makes the song better, because you served the song and not your own ego.
I spoke with Dan [Boeckner] a few months ago and he said that you have essentially developed your own language of music at this point. Do you think you have?
No. I think he’s being too kind and exaggerating. I’m very flattered, I love to hear that he thinks that, and I love what he does, as well, but to say “a new language” in music is a grand statement, right? Jon Cage came up with a new language in music – or the first composers who started digging really deep into micro-tunnel music or the first beat poets or the first hip-hop guys.
There’s nothing new about what I’m doing. When I went to music school, one of my Profs said something that resonated with me for a long time: True originality is almost impossible to achieve, and it’s also overrated. Originality doesn’t necessarily make something worth listening to.
And it’s not to say that you can’t make really good unoriginal music. There are so many variations within the world of music and art in general that you can still draw on things that have been done before and do your own interpretation of them. For a lot of people, it’d be rewarding both to the artist and the listener. That’s what rock music is. That’s what rock music does. That’s what I do. All rock music at this point is referential, right?
So, it’s very kind that Dan would say that, but I don’t believe it to be true. I’m just playing keyboards and singing. I know him, and I get the place in his heart that that’s coming from, and I’ll just take it as brotherly love.
How have Wolf Parade shows felt?
It’s been a joyful reunion, to quote NoMeansNo. It’s been a lot of fun. We used to fuss and fight over little things that we now realize were not that important. I think we all feel really grateful and blessed to be in a position where we can play these rock songs as a living. We’re grateful to have a fan base, and to have each other, and to still know to play music, and to still be barely young enough to pull it off.
We hit the stage every night just grateful and stoked that it’s happening at all, and that translates to a better live show for everyone. No one on stage is in a bad mood or pissed off about something that happened earlier that day in the tour van. Younger bands are volatile. We’ve grown out of that volatility.
When we reunited, we had a long chat about how we were going to do this if we were going to do this. We discussed what everyone’s criteria was. And after that open communication, we’re having a great time. As far as the audience is concerned, I think they’re surprised and appreciative of the fact that we can still play live and, in a way, that we got tighter and better than worse. Or maybe we’re along the same lines but I don’t we’re disappointing anyone too badly.
What did you guys fuss over? Where was that tension coming from?
I don’t want to dwell on the past and why it didn’t work. I don’t want to get into details. They were general human things. There was nothing scandalous. There was nothing surprising. No one slept with someone else’s girlfriend. It was just fatigue and annoyance.
When you have a band, and you’re touring with them a lot, you’re basically married to those four or five people, and like any marriage, the little things start to bug you – the little, trivial things that shouldn’t matter wear on you. We would bicker like an old married couple, but bickering can turn into resentment.
We were tired physically from touring all of the time. We were tired mentally because we had Wolf Parade but we all had side-projects. Creatively, our wells were starting to get a little bit dry. But no one wanted to admit any of it. And then we were emotionally getting tired of each other – the schlepping back and forth across America and Europe. It turned into more of a grind than an adventure.
That’s not to say that we stopped talking to each other or had explosive arguments. It just stopped being fun. That’s sort of been one of the most important things in this band: It has to be fun for us, first and foremost, and then after that, you pile on the other wants and needs of people.
So, it had stopped being fun, and eventually we were like, “We need to get away from each other. Whether it means two years or ten years or forever, it doesn’t really matter right now. We have to take a break.”
If we had made a fourth record at that point in 2011, it would have been shitty. It would have been forced. You would have been able to hear the lack of enthusiasm in every note. It would have been a tragedy. Whereas now, we are going to be recording again this winter, and I think it’s going to be a lot more exciting for everyone. Hopefully, it will translate to the music.