The Eye Pointed In: An Interview with Spencer Krug of Moonface
Man of many hats Spencer Krug discusses new Moonface release My Best Human Face, future collaborations, and avoiding "just icing" lyrics.
Full disclosure: Moonface's 2013 full length, Julia with Blue Jeans On, is possibly my most favorite -- and easily most played -- album in recent memory, something nearly eclipsed by 2014's similarly perfect City Wrecker EP. Such a personal preference is often inconsequential when it comes to writing impartial features. However, Spencer Krug is an artist with such a varied and deep career that almost anything in his back catalogue could hold that same special meaning for just about anyone, no matter whether that recording was released under the title of Moonface or Swan Lake, Wolf Parade or Sunset Rubdown.
Even within projects, one can find a gamut of sensations and sounds, Krug's Moonface releases being a prime example. The otherworldly dream journal excerpt set to marimba on 2010's Dreamland EP flows into the more centered loopiness of 2011's Organ Music Not Vibraphone Like I'd Hoped, which in turn is decimated by 2012 Siinai collaboration Heartbreaking Bravery, a breakup album whose brooding heavy-heartedness makes Julia's piano-dominated ruminations even starker.
Krug is back with Siinai for My Best Human Face, seven songs "meant to inspire good times in the listener" as Krug states in the album's bio notes. It would be easy and somewhat lazy to say these songs are light where Heartbreaking Bravery's songs are dark, groovy where they are somber. But, as Krug politely told me early in our hour-long phone interview, "[My Best Human Face] is a different record. It differed in every way." Comparing one Moonface record to another isn't really the point.
The primary constants in Krug's world are key-based sounds galore, unpredictable turns of phrase, and idiosyncratic vocals, all working together to form a thoroughly moving whole. Likewise, Krug's primary constants as an interview subject are mild-mannered self-deprecation and a willingness to engage in outre questions, even on a morning following a whirlwind mini-tour for the newly reformed Wolf Parade. At home on Vancouver Island, Krug discussed lyrical ambitions, and Helsinki fondnesses.
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How were the recent Wolf Parade shows for you?
They've been great. They were maybe even better than we expected. I guess I tried to not have any expectations so that I didn't get disappointed. We didn't know how we'd be received after like six years, but audiences were very kind, they seemed sincerely excited. They seemed to sincerely like the new songs, and that was something that was really important to me. Playing the old stuff, I was worried I would feel a bit bored, doing it. And I wasn't at all. It was a total blast. The whole thing was really fun.
How did the recording of My Best Human Face differ from the recording of your previous collaboration with Siinai [2012's Heartbreaking Bravery]?
The first one was me writing [to] them. In this previous line I immediately think he's talking about writing the songs, not writing to Siinai. They're friends of mine, they sent me their new record. They're an instrumental band, and I wanted to try a thing at that time where I would make a Moonface record where I didn't have as much control over the music, and could just focus more on lyricism and singing. And they were an instrumental, Krautrock band. So it seemed like a good fit. So I wrote them, said "Do you wanna make a record together?" I was living in Montreal, they were all in Helsinki. They said yes.
And then they sent me a few demos which were basically just like little riffs that were repeated over and over again. I started writing lyrics while I was in Montreal, and then I got to Helsinki a couple months later, just traveling. And we spent about three or four days jamming in their jam space, just really coming up with some loose ideas, and then we went into a recording studio for about two weeks, and made the album in there. So that was all very spontaneous and written quite quickly. Some of the band members I didn't meet until I got to Helsinki to record with them. So, in that way, it was really unique. I hadn't even met some of these guys and we're making a record together. And so that came out all right, I think, and then we all became very close friends and were touring together for a little while.
Shortly thereafter, I ended up moving to Helsinki, because I liked working with them and also I had no reason to be in Montreal anymore and I was just kinda bored. And I had a romantic interest in Helsinki, so I just moved there for something to do and ended up living there for two years with my partner there. So the second record was me living in the same town as these guys. We're all close friends at this point, and we're jamming in our studio every once in awhile for fun, kind of like dads in the garage. And then, after a couple of years, I decided to move, so we thought we would put the new songs that we had jammed out over those couple years to tape; get them recorded just to make sure that they weren't lost forever. We didn't know at that point that we'd actually make a record. We were sort of documenting the things we had written, so we went into a recording studio, really just for a couple days, and laid it all down. And it was fun.
But I didn't finish the lyrics there. I knew that the lyrics I was writing and singing over those songs we were making weren't quite good enough. I just didn't love them enough is a better way of saying it. So I told those boys that I was gonna take this music home -- to Canada, when I moved back here -- and finish the lyrics and the vocals here. So that's what I did. But it took me like a year to actually get around to doing that, 'cos there was no one interested in the record. The record label, Jagjaguwar, was not breathing down my neck waiting for it to release. Those Finnish boys, Siinai, their band does other projects, so they weren't worried about it. I got busy with Wolf Parade and other stuff, so it's not like anyone even knew the record was coming. So I very quietly finished it by myself, over a long period of time, and then I sent Siinai the whole album, kind of edited already and said, "What do you think of this as a record?" And they liked it, and then we mixed it properly.
So that is a very long answer to your question! The first one took place spontaneously and quickly, the second one took place really organically, but very slowly. And it was the result of friendships and long relationships rather than this ambition to make a thing.
How much did the melodies change between then and the time you finalized everything and finished the tracks?
Not too much. I think some songs were basically set in stone. And there was one that was written in Helsinki and it was a piano song already, called "City Wrecker" [from 2014's City Wrecker EP], so that was done. And maybe a couple others that were basically finished, I just wanted to tweak them. Then there were others, like the single that just came out, "Them Call Themselves Old Punks", that changed really drastically. I had a completely different approach to the lyrics and even the placement of the words. Not just the lyrics and melody and syntax and all that, but even where in the song I was singing. Ultimately, the first thing I was trying, I didn't fall in love with it, so I kept trying different ideas until there was something I liked. So it really varies from song to song, but the short answer is, sometimes it changed a lot. So I'm glad that I waited.
You mentioned "City Wrecker." What was the decision behind re-recording, or "covering" it, for My Best Human Face?
It was something that I wrote in Helsinki, and it was a piano song. I think even before I recorded the EP, I had shown it to Siinai just for fun, in the jam room. Whenever we were playing music, there was no goal in mind. It wasn't a means to an end. We were just playing music for the fun of it. So, one day I was like, "Check out this song. It could be a fun one for us to just groove around on." And it is sort of exactly that. It's such a groovy version of the song, and kinda more fun. Once we recorded it, we were just like, "Yeah, if we make a record we gotta include this." It doesn't matter if it's already been released in a different form, and that kinda stuff really doesn't bother me at all. It never has.
It's just 'cos we liked it. It's a really groovy number, let's put it on! That's the short answer.
I've read the Helsinki winter had an impact on the sound of Julia with Blue Jeans On. Did winter influence the musical direction of My Best Human Face in a similar way? It kept you indoors, for one.
You know, if I told you in some way that it had affected me, I think I'd be bullshitting. I can't think of any specific way that the cold influenced this record. Artists in Helsinki are really quite active for eight months of the year because it's not very pleasant outside, so they hole up in their studios and just work. The coldness gave us something to do, to write music together.
But that's about the extent of it. We recorded it in the winter as well, so, same thing I guess. We stayed in a live room and jammed. You just go outside to, like, get some fresh air every once in awhile. But that's about it. I don't think the cold even made its way into the lyrics. If it did, I can't think of a specific instance. So, sorry, I dunno.
Your lyrics have obviously evolved over the years, but do you have any writing inspirations who have remained a constant? You refer to Leonard Cohen and Dan Bejar a lot; are there any less likely influences?
Well, they're still all old timers, though. I guess Bejar's not an old timer. Patti Smith is a good go-to. Mark E. Smith, from The Fall, has a different kind of fun wordplay. He's good to listen to sometimes.
I'm very excited to hear the new Anohni. It is lyrically very politically driven and quite literal, which is, as I get older, something that I'm more interested in; lyrics that are less fantastical and less metaphor-laden and more literal and straightforward. Especially if I could get into a world where I can stop singing about myself and more about the world around me, not even as I see it but more objectively. That's something I aspire to, lyrically, but I can't do it yet. I'm not good enough. But if I could get there that would be something I'd be proud of. You know, just to get away from yourself. I don't have anything specific that I should be complaining about, right? I have a very privileged, blessed existence.
All that is to say that I'm looking forward to hearing her new record. It's really brave when artists start singing about politics, I think. Because I, for one, never have the balls to put my opinion into my lyrics, like political opinion, because it's so ill-informed. I'm not too afraid of someone calling me out on it. It's the same reason I don't talk about politics at dinner parties. I'm just not informed enough now for my voice to be a relevant part of the conversation. But maybe as I get older, I will become smarter, and can eventually partake in that conversation.
In an interview with Pitchfork from earlier this year, you mentioned that you've already recorded the next Moonface record. Any teases as to how that one will sound?
Sure, I just can't believe I told them that already! The record was made here, where I live, on Vancouver Island, with a drummer who I admire very much, named Ches Smith. He's the drummer for Xiu Xiu, and he does a lot of improv work around New York. He's more of a jazz or improv guy, he also does Haitian drumming. But sometimes he likes to do rock music. I sent him some demos and asked if he would drum on them. And he was into it, so he came here in December and we recorded in my friend's studio for about four days. So that's the next Moonface record. It's me playing keyboards with a lot of delay, not necessarily piano, but keys and synths, and him playing drums, and of course I have some lyrics that I'm singing. And might add more instrumentation to it, I haven't decided yet. We're talking about a record that probably won't come out for another 18 months or something, or maybe a year at best. But it will be sometime in 2017. I'm really excited about it, and I'm actually really looking forward to touring it, because it will be so simple if it's just me and a drummer. He's just so talented, he's such a joy to play with. He's a very high caliber artist, if you look him up you'll see.
At one point we went on a hike up this mountain that's right beside my house. He started telling me about all the people he plays with in New York, and the things he gets up to, really heady projects, like working with John Zorn in New York and stuff. And I was just like, "Ches, why are you here? Why did you say yes to this project?" It's not like ... I didn't make a huge leap into wild improv psychedelic jazz music or something. It's more of the same, basically. His answer was really sweet and really cute. It was, "You know, I just play a lot of intellectual music. People's huge brainchilds that they're really precious about. And sometimes it's nice to do something a little lighter." And I think that is the sweetest, most honest answer you could get. And, you know, he is a fan of the music itself. He just needed to take a breath from all the heady stuff.
So, that's in the can, as they say. I've got a few more things I need to do, do some editing, flesh out some of the vocals, and then we'll see. That's the most I've ever told anyone about it.
Will you be touring with Siinai in support of My Best Human Face?
"Hopefully" is the best answer I can give. We're gonna do some shows in June, in Europe, about a weeks' worth of shows just throughout central and western Europe and that's it. We might play a show in Helsinki. And then I'm sort of struggling, trying to schedule some North American shows with them. I'm trying to schedule it in and around the Wolf Parade schedule, and also find the funds to get Siinai work visas for America, which, as an American, you might not really know, but it's very expensive for foreigners to get visas to play there. Moonface is a side project, right? It doesn't have any money. It doesn't make any money. It's just for fun. So, if I can find the money to get them visas, then we might be doing a run in the states in the fall or even early winter. Otherwise, it might have to wait until next year. So I'm planning to tour but it's not cemented yet.
Can you elaborate on what you said in the My Best Human Face bio in regards to identity-confusion as a recurring theme and realizing it was the theme after the fact?
Well that's sort of about it. I didn't set out to write anything specific when I was writing these songs. In a lot of the songs, maybe not all of them, there's at some point some question about "Am I or are you really who you think you are, and if so, is that a good enough existence?" I question my role in the world sometimes, and whether or not being a singer-songwriter is a noble enough way to spend a life. Especially a first world, straight, white male singer-songwriter. I don't really have a struggle that I need to be conveying, or a cause that needs my help. Maybe I could be doing something more useful in another field, you know? Those are questions that sometimes bother me. And other times I think, no, there are people that like my music and get a lot of joy or comfort or help out of listening to music. If I'm one of the people in the world that knows how to make music, that's the sort of gift I have to give, then I might as well keep doing that as best I can. It might not be the most important gift but it's sort of all I have to offer.
I go back and forth between those two extremes sometimes. And maybe that question popped up a few times, and also just what it means to be an artist, or what art is, what it means. Does it come from the heart? Does it come from a place where you're trying to sustain a living? Are you writing for yourself, are you writing for your fans? And again, like I said in the bio, I think these are questions that really, on some level, occur to most people. Not just artists, but just anyone at some point has some sort of crisis in their day or their year or their life, their own existence, what they're doing with their lives and their own identity. Who they really are versus who they think they are versus how they are perceived by others. They're three very different things. It can be confusing!
So, I think it's universal. Like I said in that bio, I don't think there's really much to say about it. I don't even really want to talk about it that much. I don't mean specifically to you right now, but I think it's like its own self-evident problem, like it's so obvious. Not problem -- it's part of being alive, part of the human condition. And I don't necessarily think that there's an answer to the question, not like a clear answer.
There is an interview on YouTube in which you say you'd like to write songs about sex but haven't, possibly due to shyness. Is this still something you'd like to do and have you gotten any closer to it? There is a pretty bold moment in "Helsinki Winter 2013"!
I might've gotten a little closer to it, probably without thinking about it. I don't remember that interview too specifically but I think it was around the time that ... PJ Harvey had just come out?
Yeah, you were driving with your friend and your friend mentions PJ Harvey.
Right. More about sex or something. I think, to be honest, that might've been a passing fancy. Something that was on my mind at the time of that interview. What I was saying before, about lyrics and maybe getting to a place where I'm wise enough and talented enough to sort of sing about the politics of the world, that's something that would be more important to me at this point in my life. But, that shyness stuff still exists, it is still something that I'm not very good at doing, but maybe I shouldn't be good at doing. It's not something that's on my mind anymore.
But it's still kind of an interesting question, about when or how songs should get sexy.
I'm always hoping for more sexuality in -- for lack of a better term -- indie rock.
Yeah. It is a very vanilla genre, to the point that I am embarrassed to be called indie rock, but I don't know if there's a way out of that for me at this point. I don't consider Moonface very indie rock, but ...
It's just such a blanket term, especially nowadays I feel.
Yeah. It means nothing. But that's sort of sad to be pigeonholed into a genre that means nothing. [chuckes] But it is vanilla, it is safe and vague, and often non-committal; and ineffective language is used in a lot of indie stuff. I've been guilty of it for sure, in the past, and I just try to be aware when I'm writing, to not write things that are just icing. Like actually put a bit of an opinion in there sometimes, or something that has a sort of impact. But I also don't wanna just be like, singing about my dick, just for the sake of getting people to perk their ears up. It has to come with a sort of poetic purpose. And now, that you're asking me this question from a couple years ago, I don't really even know what my point was in that interview, other than wanting to try something I had never done, but now it sounds a little bit immature.
What do you miss most about living in Helsinki?
My friends. Just the people I know there. I got very close to a few people, mostly the Siinai guys but others as well. Usually it was people I was working with. Music's such an intimate and vulnerable way to be working with people, like when you're writing music together, recording music together, you have to expose parts of yourself that you don't have to in a normal, just shooting the shit, bar relationship or whatever. So you develop these weird bonds with people. It's a beautiful city and it's pretty in the winter and it's really light out in the summer, there's a couple great bars and there's all that kind of shit, but mostly it's just friends.