Taming mercurial impulses with a solo piano record, Wolf Parade and Sunset Rubdown alumnus Spencer Krug finds grace in simplicity
“I don't think I make any more music than an average musician,” says Spencer Krug, a man whose full-length output since 2003 surpasses that of his Montreal peers Arcade Fire at a 5:1 ratio. “I don't make more music than some 15 year old with a guitar,” he reasons. “What I have is the luxury of an open-minded label, Jagjaguwar, who’ll release almost anything I give them. And perhaps I should be more picky, but at this point what's the difference? It's not like I can confuse people with random output any more than I already have. So maybe that's my role: jack of all trades, master of none.”
His modesty is as misplaced as it is genuine. The industrious Canadian’s third LP as Moonface, Julia with Blue Jeans On is inspired by Satie and Philip Glass, a masterclass in elemental piano-and-voice songwriting. Krug has always been impassioned and earnest (in the best way), always creatively outstretched, never a man whose work you would regard and say, ‘Not bad, but where are the guts of the thing?’ But Julia... goes one further – the songwriting innards hang twisted and bare, Krug’s insecurity and vulnerability plain to see. “Here and there it’s about self-acceptance,” he says of the record. “And there’s a universal theme, that we need to take care of one another, as humans.”
It was a long road to clarity. Krug took up piano aged 12 in his native Penticon, a small town in British Columbia, later leaving for Victoria, where he met Handsome Furs singer Dan Boeckner. One evening in 2001, believing Krug an established bandleader, the ascendant Arcade Fire offered him an upcoming support slot. Krug accepted, seducing Boeckner into co-founding Wolf Parade, and swiftly forged a superior songwriting alloy.
After the hype-storm of their Isaac Brock-produced debut, Apologies to the Queen Mary, the four-piece took hiatus for its principal songwriters to tend their respective crops. As those groups conquered pastures of their own, Wolf Parade attained retroactive indie supergroup status, its elevated profile affording Boeckner and Krug yet more freedom outside the group.
"Making art alone is a great way to go insane, if that's what you're looking to do" – Spencer Krug
For Krug, this meant developing pet project Sunset Rubdown. The mercurial art-rockers made elemental tunes that wallowed and whorled like tropical thunderstorms, a comparison abruptly literalised when nonfatal lightning struck bassist Marc Nicol in 2009. The manic fritz of SunRub’s zigzag guitars and rainbow-reaching vocals at once compelled and confounded, albums like Random Spirit Lover breathlessly depicting the machinery of a schizophrenic mind. Such was their deranged potency that, preparing to portray the Mad Hatter in Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, Johnny Depp would spin Random Spirit Lover for inspiration.
On returning in 2008, Wolf Parade neatly distilled their rock impulse on the unfairly maligned At Mt. Zoomer, a one-album hit factory, before releasing Expo 86 in 2010. But like Sunset Rubdown, that mothership was soon for retirement. For all his talk of collaboration and improvisation being the lifeblood of progressive music, it wasn’t until he left Wolf Parade and SunRub to venture on as Moonface that Krug’s ambition purified. Choosing not to perform under his own name, he sees Moonface as a “sort of mask or persona which allows more creative freedom, somehow. Maybe it was just something to hide behind.”
Far from veiled ego-trips, early Moonface efforts felt like wilful demystification after the fantasy of Sunset Rubdown and Swan Lake, Krug’s mystical baroque-noise project with Dan Bejar and Carey Mercer. The autistically titled Organ Music Not Vibraphone Like I’d Hoped, Moonface’s 2011 follow-up to debut EP Marimba and Shit-Drums, was bedroom-recorded and sounded it – oppressive, dense and fusty, as if set to tape in a windowless attic with Bela Lugosi films beaming against the back wall. It took last year’s teamup with post-rockers Siinai to crystallise Moonface’s potential. Not just a sonic upheaval, the acclaimed collaboration encouraged Krug to relocate long-term to the Finns’ homecountry.
It’s here that Krug resides today, sharp, chatty and slightly dozy after a late night grappling with iMovie, a new concept to the technophobe. “I assume this application isn’t difficult for most people,” he drily concedes. “Luckily there were some YouTube tutorials provided by eleven year old kids, which helped.”
Musically, Krug’s Finland move yielded animating results, but where his and Siinai’s Heartbreaking Bravery LP – a bleakly euphoric thing – saw Krug mesmerised by the dark glamour of heartache, new record Julia... opens its heart to the light. It’s avowed and proud, an album of “big, soft and fuzzy themes: love, acceptance, compassion.”
These themes are not hard to spot. All of Julia...’s songs stem from doubt, vulnerability and despair. “There’s no reason I should feel like dying/But you’re the reason I’m here and alive, either way,” he sings on centrepiece Dreamy Summer – but they flourish and branch into contradictory utopias, somewhere hopeful and pure and elevated. On First Violin, Krug’s tender lyrics are borne by pluvial piano lines, his wails evoking a skydiver in freefall, upper-echelon keys fluttering like doves, and it sounds magnificent. “The music is sort of vulnerable and exposed, yet true, or pure. So the approach to lyrics was to keep it simple and tell the truth. There's a vulnerability in that, too.”
It’s never clearer than on opener Barbarian: “I am a barbarian,” Krug roars, before adding, “sometimes.” Even his self-flaggelation is noncommittal. Elsewhere, unfashionable biblical allusions at once rebuke and sympathise with a Godless generation. These pangs of transcendence don’t speak of hippy spirituality or genuine theism, but rather of a man who has seen darkness all over and deduced that the only way out is up.
“This album is more optimistic than anything I've put out so far as Moonface,” he confesses. “There are a lot of love songs, which in part address the rock-angry, love-is-shit songs of Heartbreaking Bravery. Julia... is like a current version of myself talking reasonably to a younger version of myself.”
Does working alone help or hinder sanity? “It hinders! Making art alone is a great way to go insane, if that's what you're looking to do. It’s this combination of paralysing self doubt and delusions of grandeur, running free in your brain. There’s no one to stop you when you've gone down a rabbit hole of some bullshit idea, only to realise weeks later that it's so convoluted it expresses nothing. Working with other people can save you days and days of that sort of agony.”
His flowery language is telling: agony, insanity and paralysing self-doubt all figure on the album’s title track, a sweetly histrionic ballad about music’s inadequacy in the face of real beauty. It seems to rebuke his entire catalogue: “It’s a mad man’s game/To make the commonplace unreal... I see you there/At the bottom of the stairs/Obliterating everything I’ve ever written down.” Is he getting disillusioned with it all? “Musical burnout is not something I've ever felt close to,” Krug claims, before pausing to change course. “Although I've definitely noticed it looming on the horizon from time to time. Maybe I saw it there once or twice while making this album. I firmly believe that forced art is shit art, and I try to stay very aware of that.”
“Trying to express pure ideas through songwriting somehow belittles them,” he concludes, without resignation. “The medium just isn't sophisticated enough to be a true reflection of the 'soul'. It always ends up being cracked and distorted. So to make music that does justice to its subject is an almost impossible task, for me, and I basically always fail in some way. I think most artists do, and that's why they keep making art.”