Lost In The Woods: Moonface’s Spencer Krug Interviewed

Siobhán Kane talks to Spencer Krug about alter-egos, freedom, Finland, and collaborating with Siinai for new album Heartbreaking Bravery

You can sometimes elicit a philosophy from a title, and the title of Spencer Krug’s most recent work, this year’s Heartbreaking Bravery, is appropriate to his approach. One of the most intriguing songwriters of his generation, the Montreal native has worked in many bands, from Frog Eyes to Wolf Parade, Sunset Rubdown to Swan Lake, taking a break of sorts at one point to study musical composition and creative writing. Wolf Parade he formed with Dan Boeckner, and they went on to release three records, with their first, 2005’s Isaac Brock-produced Apologies to the Queen Mary, as a particular highlight – a swooning indie rock record that made the ordinary seem romantic.

Ever prolific, Krug had already begun another band, Sunset Rubdown, releasing five EP’s, each one focusing on a different instrument. They were combined to form their 2005 debut LP – Snake’s Got a Leg, before the band went on to release four more records, including Introducing Moonface in 2009. That album’s title would go on to become his solo alter ego, tentatively at first, with 2010’s Dreamland EP. He followed this with 2011’s Organ Music Not Vibraphone Like I’d Hoped, and now Heartbreaking Bravery in collaboration with Siinai – an album which took him to Helsinki, where he is currently based, and into different terrain.

The word ‘Moonface’ instantly evokes something ethereal and wonderfully off-kilter: the moon-faced woman in David Lynch’s Eraserhead that lives in a radiator, or Moonface from Enid Blyton’s The Faraway Tree. Perhaps, indeed, he is caught somewhere between the two, going down the ‘slippery slip’ of the faraway tree, to a creative space that’s somewhere not quite of this world.

When you began releasing work as Moonface, it almost felt like a new breath, refusing all history – how did that period feel for you?

Spencer Krug: I loved it, and still do. Moonface feels completely wide open to me. I don’t really know what will happen next and that’s an exciting feeling. Wolf Parade and Sunset Rubdown ended almost simultaneously, and when that happened, I felt a deep need to return to self-recording, small shows, experimentation, and I knew that Moonface would the best and only musical vehicle for me to use. I also knew that I didn’t want to start another ‘band’, in the sense that there would be any set instrumentation, or set members, or a specific sound that was expected from the project. I find those kinds of parameters constricting, so I’m trying to avoid that pitfall.

The beginning was also a little bit scary. Before the first Moonface show, last May in NYC, I was more nervous than I had been in years. I think some part of me felt that if the first show didn’t work then Moonface, as a project, wouldn’t work, and because the other bands had stopped, then I would have to realistically think about bowing out of the music business altogether.

Moonface seems like an alter-ego for you, do you always want to collaborate with different people, each time?

SK: It is a sort of alter-ego, yes, but more to allow me to indulge in melodrama if I feel like it, or conversely, be more honest. The name is a sort of mask, I guess. I’ve never had any trouble understanding an authors desire to work under a pen name. It’s hard to explain, but I think if I were operating under the name ‘Spencer Krug’, I would feel more reserved. But in the end, Moonface is still just me, so for all intents and purposes I am working under my own name now. I’ll keep it ‘Moonface’ from now on in.

As far as collaborations, there are no rules. It doesn’t necessarily always have to be a different collaboration, or different instrumentation, from one record to the next. I just want to leave that side of things open, so that if the next record does happen to be a different collaboration or musical choice than the last, then I don’t have to justify it.

Heartbreaking Bravery is such a sumptuous sounding record, had Siinai done a lot of the instrumentation before you came in, and does their process differ a lot from yours?

SK: Besides the songs that we made together from scratch in the recording studio, Siinai had composed most of the riffs before I ever got to Helsinki. When I arrived, we worked together to sculpt those sounds into structured songs that would work with my lyrics and my playing. We wanted to keep it loose as possible until the last minute.

But yes, the instrumentation – the lushness of the record – is their doing. It is the part of their sound that led me to asking in the first place if we could work together. Their process is different from mine, in that the music is a little less pored over. I tend to revise ideas over and over until they’re at a place I feel is good. I love the process of finding exactly what I want to hear, editing, and constantly asking why a part, a riff, a line, exists at all within a song. That’s where I find a lot of the reward.

Siinai sort of just records the first thing that comes to mind, and if no one has a problem with it, then they keep it. So their way is a more free and spontaneous, which is of course rewarding in a different kind of way. We had a lot of jam sessions together in the studio, some of which turned into songs that we kept. The record is a meeting of the two approaches to song-making, I think. Hopefully it is more of a strong union than it is a weak compromise.

Was there a part of you that was a little inhibited initially with Siinai, or did it all feel very natural?

SK: There were two members of Siinai that I didn’t meet until I got to Helsinki. That was a little unnerving, because music is a really bare and honest kind of communication, and one can feel vulnerable throwing around ideas with strangers which might not work at first. But as soon as I met them I knew it would be fine. They’re all nice guys, and really open-minded to anything. That was the best part of making the record – no one had any preconceived ideas about what kind of record we should / would be making. We just let it become what it wanted to be.

You are so used to working at home, but for this record you were working for a full band in a large studio. Were you in any way wary of it?

SK: No. I’m comfortable in the studio at this point. Self recording and working in a real studio are such different processes to me that I don’t really consider them comparable. In a studio, I become an extrovert. It’s an exciting, fast celebration of music making with a strict deadline – almost a game. Self-recording, at home, alone, with no deadline and no one to bounce ideas off of, is more like staring into a mirror for so long that your reflection starts to distort, and you have to tell yourself that it’s not what you really look like. It’s much more introspective and introverted. It can get a little dark sometimes but the process is still rewarding in it’s own way.

How has the live aspect of the record been?

SK: It’s been great so far. We have stayed fairly true to the recordings, for the most part, but the thing we’ve found ourselves doing is expanding any parts that involve improvisation – the ‘jams’ at the ends or beginnings of songs have gotten longer – and that keeps it interesting for us, and hopefully for the audience as well. So far, we have not become bored at all with playing these songs, and from what I can tell the audience is not bored either. I could be wrong on that last part though.

How have you found your time in Helsinki?

SK: I’m currently living in Helsinki. I’ll be there, on and off, until at least the end of autumn. I’m still getting a feel for the culture and the people – and I’ll be taking Finnish lessons this August. From what I can tell so far, Finns are a straightforward people – kind, but not overly polite. It is a young city, appreciative of the arts, full of musicians and designers, where drinking in sunny parks is a standard pastime for the summer. Also swimming and sauna-taking seem to be pretty important to most people. All things that I have no problem getting down with. It’s a beautiful town, right on the water, and in the summer the sky is light for almost 24 hours a day. I’m glad to be there.

How far do you think environment and nature affects your music?

SK: I don’t think it’s important for me to be in any specific environment, so much as it’s important for the environment to keep changing. I think always working with the same people, in the same spaces within the same city, for me, would – and has – led to stagnancy. Fresh surroundings are always inspiring in one way or the other.

If I can be close to nature, it’s all the better. This last record was recorded on a farm 100 km north of Helsinki. The studio itself looked like a barn from the outside. We were surrounded by trees and wheat fields, chickens, goats, horses. There was a dirt road through the woods that led to a lake if you followed it long enough. When I needed to get away from the instruments and noise to think about lyrics, I would grab a beer and take a two hour walk to the lake and back, and never see another soul, although one day I saw a frog. I believe the lyrics for Heartbreaking Bravery would have been worse if that road hadn’t been there.

I read that you felt like Wolf Parade and Sunset Rubdown were "creatively spent by the end" – how far do you think your creativity is reached through challenging your own fear?

SK: Well, it’s not that any of the members of those bands were creatively spent as individuals, just that the groups as a whole were no longer functioning in a healthy way. The music was becoming forced. So, each group in it’s own way decided to stop, mutually. In either case it was not at all a decision that I made alone, and so it would be false of me to say that those bands stopped merely for me to be able to throw myself into the ‘deep end’, just for the sake of renewed inspiration. It was much more complicated than that. But on the flip side, the ending of those projects did speed up the development of Moonface – sort of rushed it, in fact – and that was sort of scary. That sort of fear is one that I love, yes, and try to embrace. I like the challenge of new territory. And I like when landscapes reveal themselves only once you have walked halfway across them.

Do you think your experiences being in bands has in some way refined your knowledge of what you don’t want to do anymore? I often find that it is more useful to know what you do not want, as the positive aspects of life can be more confusing, somehow.

SK: I totally agree. I talked already about how working with Sunset and Wolf Parade helped me realise that I don’t want to be in a ‘band’, but rather something more open ended, and even more experimental, should the spirit take me. I worked within certain parameters long enough for me to realise that I hate them, basically.

Sometimes I think it’s just as good for me to listen to something that I hate, while asking myself "Why do I hate this?", as it is for me to listen to something that I love and try to draw inspiration from it. Knowing what you don’t like, or what you don’t want to do, is almost more important than knowing what you do want to do, because when you’re seeking a specific sound you’ll likely not achieve it anyway, whereas avoiding a feeling or vibe is somehow easier.

You have a kinship with the brilliant Dan Bejar – how would you describe your experiences working with him? Do you think you might collaborate with him in the future on another Swan Lake project, or a different project altogether?

SK: I met Dan when I moved into a house in Vancouver where he lived, around 1999 I think. He was just finishing Thief, I remember. I lived there for about a year and we got to know each other, but we didn’t work together until a number of years after that.

I love Destroyer. I have a lot of respect for Dan, and I like to think, or hope, that it’s mutual. The first Swan Lake was a real eye opener for me, lyrically. It was then that I realised how much harder I could be thinking about / working on lyrics. Here was this "peer" of mine spouting lyrics that really moved me, while I was still scribbling my ideas down five minutes before doing the vocal take. After that record, I started trying harder with words.

I don’t think that there will be another Swan Lake record, but that’s just a feeling, not based on any conversation with either Dan or Carey. Who knows?

Your lyrics as very poetic, like on Organ Music and the Dreamland EP – the references to dreams and water, for example. Do you view dreams as quite an instructive and important part of your process?

SK: I’ve always had very strange dreams. They are not set in this world. They take place in some place that is dark and fantastical and scary – sort of like a mix between The Never Ending Story and Brazil. But in truth I try not to think about them very much. They are weird and unnerving, like big new bugs in a foreign country. I kept a dream journal for a few months, a few years ago, and I used those dreams as the lyrical fodder for the first Moonface release, the Dreamland EP – but really that is the only time I’ve written based on dreams. I doubt I will ever do it again. I’d rather not be a dude who thinks about the meanings of his dreams too much.

‘Fast Peter’ is a song that was more direct – do you feel that is a different aspect of your writing that you might expand on later?

SK: I don’t plan out my songs in that way, in that I don’t aim for any specific style. ‘Fast Peter’ was easy to write because it’s a true story. I just told it like it happened. The story itself was beautiful enough that it didn’t need poetics. Whether or not I will expand on that more direct style in the future, I can’t say. I find the more deliberate I get with lyrical choices and directions, the worse the lyrics become. For now, I’ll stick with my process, and let whatever falls out of my brain land on the table, then shift the pieces around until they make sense to me.

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