A Constant Questioning: An Interview with Spencer Krug of Sunset Rubdown

Sunset Rubdown
Random Spirit Lover

As much as I admire Spencer Krug’s fine body of work and have no reservations calling myself one of his fans, I must admit that I want to hate this man. It isn’t because Spencer is withdrawn or sullen when we speak, or that he posses the usual overblown ego characteristic of many lead singers. No, my contempt for this man exists only because his productivity over the past few years makes me feel like I’m sleepwalking through my life. My insecurities are only intensified by my jealousy of someone so clearly at the top of his game (even though he would be the first to disagree with this statement).

If you flip through your Webster dictionary and look up the word “prolific” there might as well be a picture of Krug staring right back at you. In the past three years, Krug has put out a remarkable amount of work through various outlets including Frog Eyes, Wolf Parade, Swan Lake, and Sunset Rubdown. In a modern era where artists often treat their fans to new material every two or three years, it seems impossible for Krug to stop from making music. And this restlessness acts as a gift to the rest of us left to listen to what he does next.

So when I am handed Spencer’s digits so we can chat about his craft and his band Sunset Rubdown’s new album, I am excited and prepared to speak with indie music’s hardest workingman only to find him not quite as ready.

“Ummm … can you give me a call in ten minutes?” Spencer asks in a barely audible whisper. “I just woke up this morning and realized that there was no coffee in the house and I have had a couple of these interviews in succession and I am pretty sure one of them sucked cause I really needed coffee. So I am just going to go to the store to buy some.”

Fair enough.

Ten minutes goes by. Then 20. A half hour later I am still receiving his voicemail as an unrecognizable rapper throws a few rhymes in my ear, instructing me to leave a message. There has been plenty written about Krug, but I am intrigued to see first hand what he is all about. I imagine him at a Trader Joe’s deciding between a Chilean dark roast and a Venezuelan blend as nobody in the store recognizes him before I try one last time and he picks up.

“Eddie? I am sorry about that. So what’s up?”

Unlike the usual interview situation, I know what Krug looks like and I certainly am familiar with his voice. However, the first thing that strikes me when we begin conversing is how quiet he is. After all, Krug’s emphatic delivery is a well-recognized compliment to the emotional journey his music brings a listener on. Regal sincerity mixed with drunken pirate revelry, Krug’s voice pleads as much as it sings, willfully imploring his audience, his muse, and his world to listen to his heart breaking.

Krug arrived just as the entire country was looking toward our Canadian neighbors for the next great thing. In the course of a few months, it seemed that the entire world was talking about bands like Broken Social Scene, the Dears, and of, course, Arcade Fire. So when Wolf Parade came charging through the border from Montreal, music enthusiasts were excited but hardly surprised.

“I don’t know if Wolf Parade would have taken off if Arcade Fire hadn’t paved the way. You can talk about Canadian bands but just say the word, it’s Arcade Fire, you know? They kind of blew it out. We were kind of right behind them. We were touring with them and I know that had a lot to do with Wolf Parade and I know that Wolf Parade had a lot to do with Sunset Rubdown getting known.

“There is so much music out there to sift through that if you have that opportunity to start a band while labels are looking at your city, then go with it. Who cares? Don’t get into the politics of it. People will decide on their own whether the band or musician is actually something they are interested in listening to again, if it is any good. They aren’t going to care if it’s from Canada or Sweden or the States. Whatever it is affiliated with is what gets it out there. It creates the buzz. I hate that word. You still have to do something good to make it last. It’s not like you can just ride that wave forever. People aren’t idiots. The whole Canadian thing was kind of cool for that reason but you want to talk about whether there is any fact or truth to it, I don’t know. I live in it. It’s hard for me to look at the Canadian scene objectively. I can’t really compare it to the West Coast American scene because I don’t know what that is.”

While Wolf Parade has garnished the most success and praise for their no-frills rock (most notably in the bombastic sing-a-long anthem “I’ll Believe in Anything”), it was Krug’s solo “side project” Sunset Rubdown that has acted as his cathartic outlet of ideas and experimentation. After releasing a handful of EPs, Krug enlisted the talents of friends and artists he wanted to team up with. The lineup expanded towards the end of 2005 to include Camilla Wynn Ingr of Pony Up!, Jordan Robson-Cramer of Magic Weapons, and Michael Doerksen. The full band released 2006’s spectacular Shut Up I Am Dreaming and followed up with Random Spirit Lover in early October. This marks the band’s third full-length, while Wolf Parade has not announced a release date for their sophomore record. I jokingly ask Krug if Wolf Parade has become his new side project.

“I don’t really think of either of them as a side project,” he softly replies. “I actually play in more bands than those two. These are just the two that people know. They kind of demand equal attention from me. I understand if a Wolf Parade fan would consider Sunset Rubdown a side project, but Sunset Rubdown probably had a release out before Wolf Parade, but no one knew about it. I don’t care if people call it a side project. I think people assume that Wolf Parade takes all of our time and that these other bands are just something we squeeze in on the side. But Wolf Parade didn’t do anything for a year. I don’t think we even practiced for like eight months. That band is actually pretty laid back and everyone is really busy with other stuff and we just do it when we have the time.”

And time is not something that Krug wastes, nor does he worry about a lack of ideas for any of his outfits. He explains that his writing is an organic process and he doesn’t necessarily save a song he likes for one specific band but rather writes songs as they come out of him and the band that is recording usually finds the fruit of his labors. Though he has received mostly positive criticism for his work thus far, Spencer is anything but complacent, still completely focused on creating music that challenges him into exploring new places. In a recent interview he discussed how he is still trying to make a “perfect record”, one that he could enjoy from “start to finish without skipping any tracks”. Though that is what he strives for, it is clear that he is enjoying the journey rather than obsessing over the destination.

“If I had reached that point, I would probably stop making music. With that said, I am not far enough removed from this one to really know what I think about it yet. It takes at least six months — more like a year — of not hearing it at all. And then you put it on and that is like the only time you can hear things objectively when you can forget how you did them. The details of the studio and the choices you made because right now if I listen to it, all I hear are choices.

“There is a constant questioning of if you made the right choice. Whether it is in mixing or like a lyric or whatever. But if I can get to the point where I can forget all of the creative process and just put it on objectively, that will be the only time I can tell if I like it or not, you know. I can’t help it. I don’t hate it. I have hated things that I have put out. Not this one,” he says with a chuckle.

Though this is Sunset Rubdown’s third official release, it is the full band’s second and the two albums are as different as night and day. Certainly a bit more theatrical in both a sonic and literary sense, Shut Up I Am Dreaming still had traces of the scent of festiveness found on a Wolf Parade album (see “Snakes Got a Leg II”), but at other times a it was a painfully beautiful quiet affair (” The Empty Threats of Little Lord”). It was a pensive and strange place that Krug brought to us to, and there we slept and waited for chapter two to be read.

If Random Spirit Lover is the play’s second act, then the story finds the castle walls have been stormed and a fire set in the courtyard. The quiet moments are only foundations for the pending emotional meltdown, as the music is on the brink of spilling over the edges.

Krug says, “I don’t know. I think that this new album is a harder listen than Shut Up I Am Dreaming. It ‘s a little more convoluted. The songs are longer; it’s not as catchy. The hooks aren’t as obvious, stuff like that. It is a little more cerebral. A little more … nerdy.”

The album kicks into full gear with “The Mending of the Gown”, with a squealing lead guitar, followed by a dribbling piano before Spencer comes in, slurring, “He made an enemy then / H e made an enemy of all of you/ It’s him, not you”. The disc doesn’t let up for the better part of an hour. It is the older brother of Shut Up, less easily understood but with several moments of pure beauty that shows Krug’s songwriting maturation. Check out the third track “Up On Your Leopard, Upon the End of Your Feral Days” as a xylophone, an organ, and Krug’s “uh oh uh oh” carry the song through the first two blistering minutes before the plug is suddenly pulled and we are left with just Krug’s own beast moans: ” I am the one who sat at your capture / And let the snow fall on this whispering rapture / And you’re the one kissing your captor’s hands”. I listened to this 30-second bit on replay for days on end, hearing his enunciation, imagining his eyes closed while blowing out these words and chills ran through my body like I was the one sitting in the snow. And just as you become comfortable with yourself, the songs kicks back into its original melody and the roller coaster continues on the track.

In fact, several listens were required for me to really absorb the album and few songs stand as well alone as they do in the context of their placement on their album. (“It certainly isn’t dinner party music,” quips Krug.) The transitions between songs acts as bridges and it is quite apparent that Krug is trying to shake the iTunes generation out of their $0.99-per-single slumber to once again find appreciation in the album as a concept and as a complete piece of work. The care the band put into the recording process echoes this sentiment.

“We were very conscious of the sequence. We knew the sequence before we started and than we recorded it in order. I think that I found out in the past that when you record a lot of the times you record bed tracks with just drums and the key instruments. And you have to do that to like, I don’t know a shit load of songs — like six songs. And then you go back and you do overdubs on the same songs in no particular order. You fix up some guitar and whatever and then you do vocals on everything and it like kind of doesn’t make sense. Nothing is ever deliberated on like it’s its own piece of art from start to finish the way that most art is.

“I am not saying that is the best way to work but I just wanted to try working that way. It is like letting everything grow from start to finish before we moved on to the next thing. We all kept the same head space for one song, you know? All you are is thinking about that. You aren’t just thinking about a vocal take of something that you recorded a week before, you know? I just wanted to try it so that is pretty much the only reason we did that. Curiosity.”

Curiosity plays a large part in the band’s mythology as well in the interest of their lead singer’s creative output. Though the album was not officially released through Jagjaguwar until October 9th, a leaked version of the album was available to fans by the end of July.

Krug sees two sides to an album leaking that early. “To me it doesn’t really matter. On the one hand, it would be nice if people could just wait but on the other why should they if they don’t have to? And it’s almost flattering right? Oh, like, ‘You actually want it?’ That’s cool. Even going to work downloading is something that I don’t even do that often unless I am really interested in it. In a way, it is kind of like, ‘Who cares?’ But the person who this hurts most is the label.

“One thing that kind of makes it kind of cool is that when we go tour in October — we start our tour like three days before the record comes out — and in a normal world we would be halfway through that tour before we were playing to audiences that knew the songs at all. Now there will probably be more people that know it. And it is funner to play to audiences that are familiar with what you are doing because they are more excited to hear it and you’re more excited to show it to them.”

The anticipation leading up this record was bordering on the ridiculous. Various bloggers began reviewing individual tracks and providing early assessments of the album in the months leading up to its official release. Some fans could not accept the complexity of the new disc, while others viewed it as a mature evolution of an artist constantly raising the bar of his own standards. More than one weighed in calling Random Spirit Lover one of the year’s best, while a handful chose to make the case for best of the decade. One post went so far as to include Krug in the same songwriting company as guys named Lennon, Bowie, and Yorke.

“That is too much praise. It is very flattering. I am still just figuring out what it is that I want. The reason I keep making records is ’cause I can’t figure I would make a good one yet [laughs], you know? It is super flattering to be put in a list with names like that but you know, anyone who reads that would know that that is a bit absurd. I have only been putting stuff out for maybe three years.”

As we continue to discuss all of the personal recognition that his songwriting has been receiving, Krug is also very adamant that he is only a part of the bands that he plays in and that all of the other members bring their own ideas to the table to add to the songs he pens. “I mean with Wolf Parade, I don’t even write all the songs,” he adds. Besides, Krug does not even fancy himself that talented of a writer, anyways. He says this and I laugh, but he is quite serious and not putting on a front because a tape recorder is running.

“I definitely have friends that I work with that are lyrically much more gifted than I am, and if I compare my work to what they are doing, I kind of come off like a seven-year-old. I am still too caught up in syntax and phrasing and cadence in the words that I will compromise the poetic elements of something that I have written beforehand so it fits in a song. I am still too much of a sucker for, like, I like to hear when things are catchy. I like it when things rhyme and bullshit like that. But Dan [Bejar] from Destroyer somehow does all of it. Somehow it is catchy and it does rhyme the phrasing of stuff but it is still so poetic and beautiful and that is just somewhere I don’t think I am at yet. Maybe I will be one day.” So even though it is great that so many people are listening to his music, he cautiously remains skeptical as he feels he has much more to offer, especially when performing live.

“I am going out on tour in two and a half weeks with Sunset Rubdown and we haven’t practiced since the spring and I am trying to work in a new member and it is going to be pretty shaky. Like it is going to be a hairy tour. The first couple shows are not going to be very perfect. I am not professional, basically. I have never been good at pretending to be professional so I am still just kind of winging it and improvising it as I go. And when you think that there are people out there who have those kinds of expectations when they come to your show, then yeah … that makes me nervous.”

When I’m quick to point out that the overzealous fans calling him the greatest writer of his generation and owning everything he has ever put out would be the last to criticize a sub par liver performance, he is quiet for a moment. “Yeah, but if you can do no wrong, then that is a dangerous place to be.”

And with that statement I finally have come to scratch the surface of what Spencer Krug is all about. He is too modest to ever vocalize his desire to ever be likened with the legends he grew up listening to. He is too ambitious to ever settle for a record that he deemed inferior to his previous effort. And he is too self-centered to care what anyone thinks about it anyways. Time will tell how brilliant and original Krug truly is, but accolades and compliments are truly immaterial to this musician. He just wants to be left alone to work. No amount of five-star reviews will ever change Krug’s own assessment of his own work. And if does hit his zenith, there is a chance that he very well may go off into the sunset a la Jeff Mangum, never to be heard from again. Until then, do yourself a favor and go put Random Spirit Lover on your stereo and give it a listen from beginning to end. I don’t know if Krug is a poet or a genius, but I do know that as long as he keeps making music, I will be listening.