Your Chariot Awaits: An Interview with Moonface's Spencer Krug
Wolf Parade. Sunset Rubdown. Moonface. No matter what moniker he's donning, Spencer Krug remains a compelling figure, and with his vulnerable new album, people see new sides of him, and he tells PopMatters about that, the status of all his bands, and so much more.
Over his ten years or so of releasing music, Spencer Krug has created quite a bestiary: his lyrics tell tales of leopards, snakes, dragons, nightingales, colts and stallions, winged and wicked things. His fans can take their pick of spirit animals from his work -- the restless, gnawingly hungry ghosts of his most famous band, Wolf Parade, or the more melancholy, fanciful flights of Sunset Rubdown's black swans, for instance. But on his latest project, Krug announces, "All the animals I rode in my past life are sleeping." The record, released under his moniker-of-late, Moonface, is called Julie With Blue Jeans On, and in its sparse piano and plainspoken, love-shocked lyrics, it may represent Krug's most marked departure from his past stylings in a career full of left turns.
Krug has spoken in the past of Moonface being a project designed to allow him more creative freedom than he might be able to find with a full band, saying he sees the moniker as a means to experiment with new instruments with each consecutive release, the freshness of tangling with unfamiliar instruments giving him fresh jolts of creative energy. This restless spirit and its accordant canyon-deep ambition are familiar to those who have followed Krug's career from its early days with Wolf Parade through Sunset Rubdown and now to his output with Moonface, which has so far consisted of albums written on marimba, organ, and with the help of Finnish post-rockers Siinai.
His consistent work with synths, keys, and percussion throughout this trajectory may lead you to assume recording a piano record in Julia With Blue Jeans On was an easy return-to-form for Krug -- not so. As he puts it, Julia was partly conceived as a means of relearning the piano. "I played piano as a teenager," Krug says, "and in my early 20s, and then I kind of put it away for a decade, because I started playing in rock bands. And though I would play synth and whatever, that kind of bullshit you do onstage, it's not the same as real acoustic piano. I felt like I had forgotten, sort of, how to play the instrument."
As ever, Krug felt driven by the difficulties presented by writing on an unfamiliar instrument. He explains: "It is a different kind of writing, [with] an acoustic instrument, without any knobs or buttons or any effects or overdubbing. I got really into that challenge right away: can I write a song that I like that is just my two hands and my voice? I've been working with so much machinery for the last decade." Writing on a piano felt more honest to Krug, in a way. Playing acoustic piano in this giant studio," he recalls, "cold and dark and by myself, the whole thing felt sort of cold and vulnerable and exposed. And the sort of vulnerability of playing an acoustic instrument, with your human body being the only thing that can control it -- the piano's a very exposed instrument, right? When you fuck up, when you hit a bum note, there's no distortion or anything covering it up, you can hear it."
About all that cold and dark. Krug wrote and recorded Julia in Helsinki, Finland, where he's living (though he says the move isn't a permanent one). The record was born out of the harsh Finnish winter. "Winter here is 6 months long," Krug says. "I didn't have any traveling to do. I was just sitting in my studio at a piano, a freezing cold studio, I'd be sitting there with my coat and, like, a tunic on, in a country where it gets dark at 3 PM," he laughs. On the other hand, the moments of warmth in Krug's life in Helsinki also suffused the record and his writing process: "But then, you know, going home to a really small, cozy apartment, sharing that with a loved one -- it was a really quiet, introspective winter. As winters usually are, I find. And I think I made a kind of quiet, introspective record."
That sense of sharing a space with a loved one permeates Julia With Blue Jeans On. The record seems as much "Julia's" as Krug's. Take a snippet from the title track as evidence of Krug's new found directness: "I'd say the only name worth singing is not God / it's you, Julia." Krug was conscious of this shift in his lyrical approach, his move away from headspinning syntactical twists and fantastical imagery. Or as he puts it, laughing, "There's a little less screwing around."
Again, he frames the evolution as a means of embracing difficulty in his craft, saying, "I think it's something that has been happening in my lyrical style over the last five years, slowly getting away from overly flowery imagery or cramming too many words into one five-second chunk. It's not that I think that's bad, I just -- I'm actually finding it more challenging now to say more with less. I'm enjoying the challenge." The sense of exposure that accompanied writing on the piano affected the writing process for the record's lyrics, as well. "I feel like the lyrics maybe followed that sentiment," Krug says, "that element where the lyrics themselves ended up being simple and honest and also exposed and vulnerable, in a way."
He's also aware that the starkness of Julia may prove alienating for fans looking for him to write songs in the vein of Wolf Parade of Sunset Rubdown. "People give you shit for straying too far away from your sound," he says, "or whatever that's supposed to mean. Am I supposed to be, like, Peter Pan and just stay the same person my whole life? I don't know." Speaking of his time with Wolf Parade and Sunset Rubdown, he says, "I feel quite far away from all of that stuff. It's not that I'm not proud of it. Well ... pride is the wrong word. I'm not exactly proud of it. I'm not ashamed of it. I have some regrets, for sure."
He goes on to explain further, saying, "Choices I would make differently today. But that's part of the game, right? We're always changing as we get older and you can't go back in time. I don't think I made too much of an ass of myself." He laughs. "It does feel like another person made those records. Like, completely -- there's no way where I am today, right now, that that music would come out of me."
At the same time he balks -- and understandably so -- at the notion he shouldn't evolve as an artist, Krug is extremely grateful to those fans who have followed him from the days of Wolf Parade's first EPs. As he puts it, "I know there's a lot, not a lot, but a handful of really awesome hardcore fans that have been around since the beginning of Wolf Parade, and that's always a nice thing to think about. Because it's almost freeing, that you feel like you have this -- it's more like a support group than an audience."
He's also happy to find new listeners connecting with his recent material, though he's somewhat surprised at who some of these fans have turned out to be. "I've noticed," he explains, "as I'm getting older that friends my own age, especially with Moonface, they'll like, email me, and be like, 'I like this,' which is something that would never happen with Wolf Parade or Sunset Rubdown, like those things were more for -- kids? [laughs] Which I hate, the idea of considering myself this adult contemporary singer-songwriter, that's just for ages 30 and up, that kids won't get. I hate that idea, and I hope it's not true. But I do know on some level the audience has gotten older. But maybe it's just because I've gotten older."
The passion with which Krug believes in music as an egalitarian artform comes through in his voice when he discusses his ideas about music, in general, and how audiences relate to it, whether they're listening to his songs as Moonface or any other material. Krug is 36, and he circles back to the notion that Julia is a record made for people his own age.
"But I hate that idea," he says, "because it goes against a lot of my core beliefs about music, which is that music is universal, it's for everyone, and there's no wrong way to listen to it, or wrong way to like it, or wrong way to hate it. And age shouldn't play into that. It should just resonate with you, or it shouldn't." He takes a long pause. "But maybe it does, I don't know. Maybe it's unavoidable. But then, another generation always comes around, right? Like, why do I love Leonard Cohen? He's old enough to be my grandfather. Not to compare myself to Leonard Cohen. But I think if music is good at its core, it's autonomous, and age will play -- in time -- less of a role in who listens to it."
Reflecting on his other projects, which now exist in that potentially age-defying past, Krug speaks plainly. "I miss working with Wolf Parade," he says, "because it was such a boys' club, you know? It was such a stereotypical rock band -- we'd get together, have a few brews, and write a rock song. Like a 'dads in the garage' kind of thing." Though he doesn't allude to any desire to revisit the partnership, his affection for Wolf Parade's Dan Boeckner is clear. "Dan and I had a great understanding," Krug says, "we let each other do our own thing, we never questioned each other's choices. [That band] was a collaboration in the true sense -- everyone wrote their own parts. It was democratic, if three guys hated what was going on, they could just say so and the other two guys would just deal with it. I do miss that."
Sunset Rubdown worked differently. With that band, Krug explains, "I was the primary songwriter, and there were definitely different dynamics going on in that band. It's sort of a harder ship to steer, when you're the songwriter and then you're bringing in these friends of your sand showing them new material, and it doesn't always work. It's this weird, vulnerable place to be, and sometimes it's embarrassing." But he's quick to undercut the idea that he controlled every aspect of the project. "It's just all these different dynamics and resentments can spring up so easily in bands," he says, "and I do think that's what happened with Sunset Rubdown.
"I really enjoyed the music from Sunset Rubdown a lot. In some ways, I probably like the music in Sunset Rubdown better than Wolf Parade. But Wolf Parade was more fun -- it was more like a fun hobby, I don't know. I can't really compare them, but either way, they're so far in my past now. I know they aren't literally, in terms of time, but they feel like a million years ago."
His thoughts on Wolf Parade and Sunset Rubdown echo a sense of an acceptance of finality that colors the songs on Julia, with that record's focus on clear-eyed evaluation of the self and of one's circumstances, one's loves and failures. When asked if Julia expresses the importance of self-reliance, Krug says no. "I don't really consider myself a self-reliant person," he says. "But there's definitely stuff in there about accepting yourself and, moreover, accepting yourself in relation to the rest of the world. Trying not to have too many regrets."
Yet Krug would tell you that acknowledging your regrets -- being in touch with your failures -- is a crucial step in letting go of them. He laughs at the idea, but he expresses it clearly enough: "It really boils down to the simplest cliché: just trying to be happy. Just like, that personal struggle. And sometimes you've got to dig pretty deep in yourself to, you know, fight the good fight against the darkness." He mentions Julia cuts "Everyone Is Noah, Everyone Is the Ark" and "Love the House You're In" as reflective of this idea. "That's what 'Ark' is kind of about, sure," he says, "you know -- pull up your bootstraps, man. [laughs] And 'House' is definitely about me getting older, realizing that you're kind of a fuck-up and that's okay. And I don't just speak for myself. Humanity is pretty flawed, you know? People have got all sorts of disagreeable elements about themselves, and you just have to sort of love it."
Krug has made a career out of this willingness to put himself out there, writing about his foibles and insecurities, his failures and disappointments, with a candor that has clearly resonated with his audience. But he doesn't see his honesty as something worthy of too much celebration. "The truth is," he says," I like singing about those things, but in a weird way, it's a total safe bet for me. It's relying on the fact that everyone understands what it means to be disappointed in yourself."
He goes on: "[Or], if you can't, then you're probably one of the worst kinds of people. Quote-unquote 'good people' are often the ones that feel the worst about their actions." Talking with Krug for even a short while gives you the sense that he's someone who spends plenty of time reflecting, and his work -- with Moonface, with Julia With Blue Jeans On, with his past records and past bands -- suggests the same, pointing to an artist never willing to go easy on himself, always embracing the challenge of the new, the difficult, the uncomfortable.
When I suggest that dealing with a consistent sense of self-reproach, a sense of disappointment in yourself, may be the trade-off for possessing empathy or for not existing in a selfish, self-contained bubble, Krug answers simply. "Yeah," he says with a laugh, "it sucks." At least there are Spencer Krug's songs to help provide a balm for all that cold and dark.