The Spin & Rub of Spencer Krug of Sunset Rubdown

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Spencer_KrugOn tour in support of his terrific new album Dragonslayer, Spencer Krug (of Sunset Rubdown, Wolf Parade, Swan Lake, and Frog Eyes) took the time to sit down with me on the steps of a church in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. What began as a casual discussion of his new record quickly evolved into a rumination on music journalism, the songwriting process, and the divide between lyrics and poetry. Was the process of writing and recording Dragonslayer different than earlier Sunset Rubdown records? Yeah, it was a lot different. It was more of a live effort. Our first two records, especially Random Spirit Lover, were more studio-built; the band was writing songs in the studio, and figuring things out that way—on the spot—and recording and saying “ok, that’s the song,” and then we would ask “now how are we going to do this live?” and we’d figure it out slowly and practically, and take the songs out on the road that way. And with Dragonslayer it was the opposite, we said “let’s get these songs good live now, and then we’ll go to the studio.” Dragonslayer was a live, off-the-floor record. I wanted to ask you about one lyric from “Dragon’s Lair,” the line that goes, “so this one’s for the critics and their disappointed mothers.” How do you feel about music journalism, and do you feel like that has some relevance to or effect on the music you’re making? Uh, not too much of a relationship to the music I’m making, and no more than any other band. How do I feel about it? Online journalism is killing print media, but that’s the natural evolution, and that’s going to happen. Living and dying, whatever, shit goes on. I think it’s incredibly important, I think any art criticism is part of the back-and-forth that happens culturally. It’s very integral to the process of making art. But I feel, specifically, there’s something about music journalism right now that’s tongue-in-cheek, that’s immature, that won’t take itself or artists seriously. And not every music magazine right now, but the big ones, they use semantics and a tone that undermines real effort, like no one is trying to be really serious, because it won’t be taken seriously by the critics. There’s a slack in music journalism right now, like you should try 75 percent, and the other 25 percent just goes to fucking partying, and maybe there’s truth in that but… So, if you’re making music seriously, then the ideal journalist should approach criticism similarly? If the artist is making music sincerely, then—I don’t want to get distracted, I don’t even know what I’m saying. Music journalism is really irresponsible right now and it won’t really take its role seriously if not challenged. They make jokes and make elaborate metaphors; like this Vice magazine bullshit, it’s funny on the first read but it doesn’t actually mean anything; I’ll read Vice magazine just like anyone else on the toilet or whatever. Music journalism doesn’t seem well thought out or in-depth. It’s so many wisecracks and plays-on-words, and it’s just piled onto the pile of shit that has already been written about art. And a lot of music journalists right now aren’t doing their jobs, they aren’t contributing to the back-and-forth of culture in a positive way. Music is important, music journalism is important, like criticism is important to art, but it should be used to propagate banter in society, and to further culture. A dialogue. Yeah, it’s important. Modern music journalism is generally not very engaging, it does not require much thought, it’s mostly surface bullshit, mixed metaphors to the point where you don’t know what you’re reading, and you finish the review and you’ve learned nothing. I guess you just have to listen to the record yourself, cos music and meaning are ultimately subjective. I know I sound super jaded, I just think they should be doing a bit a better job, more journalism and less jocular trolly-horsing. I have a question about “Nightingale/ December Song” [off of Dragonslayer]: all your albums and tunes feel like structural labyrinths, where they all have so many different sections covalescing to comprise the final, finished product. However, “Nightingale/ December Song” is the first tune in your entire catalogue to have two titles. This surprised me, because the track doesn’t seem any more complex or dual than your other works. Why the two titles? What’s the thought behind that? I don’t really have a good answer to that question. I just felt like it could go either way. It feels like a lullaby to me. Yeah, maybe. I think it was just called “December” while we were working on it; we thought about calling it “Come Find Me in December,” which I didn’t like. In my mind, the song had more to do with the symbol of the nightingale, but I couldn’t get away from the winter imagery, the snow falling, so I just incorporated both. I don’t think too much about song titles; I might think about song titles more than some people. To me the most important thing is to always make good music, and I know that sounds very cliché, but I want my songs to sound good, and I want the lyrics to be good, and those are the most important things, and after that its just song titles trying to sound smart. I think the lyrics throughout Dragonslayer are the strongest you’ve ever written; they are much more direct and more powerful than your previous work, without being cheap or over-simplified. Were you doing anything different when you were writing this album? I was just trying to really be more straight-forward without sacrificing beauty or poeticism; I was trying to be a little less vague and less metaphorical—well, not that, because metaphors are beautiful. I was trying to be a little less abstract. You seem more influenced by myth and antiquity when compared to other modern songwriters. Yeah, I suppose you’re right. I don’t sing a lot about modern times. They’re really just symbols I’m using, trying to illustrate other points about my own life, which obviously takes place in modern times. I’m not actually sing about or to Apollo or divine beings. It’s not really heady or cerebral, or heavily researched. I’m not sitting in a library with a pile of books; my lyrics are quite surface stuff. Do you know what I mean? You’re not trying to trick people or over-complicate your meaning. Whatever it means on the first listen, that’s what it means to you. And whatever it meant to me on the first inclination when I was writing, that’s what I meant. Do you find that being such a prolific artist sometimes acts as a cripple? Like do you feel that a huge output inhibits you from self-editing as fully as you should? Do you mean that maybe it’s not such a good thing that I’m constantly putting out music and streamlining my ideas onto record? Is seems a bit foolish to ask when you put it like that. No, I ask myself that question a lot and I don’t know the answer. My output isn’t forced; what I’m doing now, I’m doing naturally. I know that a lot of things I’ve done could’ve been better, but I didn’t know they could’ve been better while I was doing them. In retrospect, I can think, if I had taken this song in this direction, it could’ve been a much better song, or on Random Spirit Lover, for example, the production is quite terrible. Sonically, it’s a very rudimentary record, and it acted as a lesson for me and helped me grow as an artist. I believe that you can destroy art by spending too much time on it. It’s the classic question: when do you stop putting paint on a canvas? There’s definitely a time to step back and realize it’s fine not to be perfect, cos perfection can never be achieved. The job of the artist firstly is to share his art. Do most all your ideas get put down to record in some form? Not everything, but something I’ve taken far enough to put on tape, and mix and master, if I do that— It will get heard. Exactly. Then I’ll put it on a record. And I think all of it needs work, it’s not perfect. I do think that if I kept spending time on it, eventually I would suck the life out of my work and make it worse. When I write and record a song, I will try and isolate the experience to a day; perhaps I could’ve hit the perfect notes on some other day, but enough is enough. You can only perfect so much. So would you say that your inclination as an artist is towards initial moments of creation rather than long, arduous hours recording, for example, the perfect tone of a handclap? Yeah, very much, and even more so, part of the creative process for me in a very conscious way is knowing when to stop; that’s even more important than knowing where to start. Do what you can do, be content, and move on. Do you have any music theory training? Sure, I went to music school in Vancouver for two years, and then I did my third year in Montreal at Concordia University. I was a composition major, and then I quit; I never got my degree. I got tired of people trying to teach art. I think any artist should be a little bit suspect of any “school of the arts.” Art schools I think are always a little bit shady, and it seems like they’re sometimes pushing private agendas. I got tired of being told what to do and I had already gotten out of the program exactly what I wanted. I’m not quite sure what you’re asking. I was asking for curiousity’s sake. The new album is very complex, with very intricate structures and rhythms and chordal work, and yet you can balance that theory with accessibility. I can feel that balance working perfectly throughout Dragonslayer. Thanks, man. I appreciate it. Does that thought ever go through your head when you’re writing songs? Do you set out to make albums that are “challenging”; do you consciously make “hard” records? Hopefully not hard listens, but hopefully not easy sells. I’m just making what comes naturally; it’s this niche, of going to music school and being a composition major and doing things like trying to write a string quartet, or writing all the instruments, and I could write whatever I wanted, and I had the flutists to one side and the violinists to another, and if I had a sound I wanted to recreate, I’d say “hey can you help me?” There was a part of my life that was making pretty heady, cerebral music, but not in a pretentious way. I just wanted to communicate a music appreciation, and to try and make things beautiful, not smart, not clever, just good in a musical way. Thinking about lyrics was not part of that world. And then there was this other part of my life, when I was a teenager, listening to Fugazi and the Pixies, and rock bands I could never let go. I like to think I’ve found a niche between those two worlds. I think my music is a little bit classic, a little bit Frank Black. What about lyrical influences? Leonard Cohen is great. And some friends of mine that are really beautiful lyricists, like Dan Bejar. Your collaborator in Swan Lake. Yeah. He’s not about writing pretty quotes that can be pulled trivially from a record. He is striving for beauty rather than being pretentious or inaccessible. When music gets elitist, it’s useless. I really love looking at the audience and seeing people that I wouldn’t think I’d have a conversation with. I love that, I think that’s cool. I want to be accessible, but I don’t want to be dumbed down. I love a record that’s challenging, but not a record that’s so challenging that it’s alienating. I don’t aspire or claim to know what that difference is. Do all your side projects function to indulge your craft in different ways? Yes, like Wolf Parade with Dan Boeckner is very cathartic. We just beat on our instruments and sing as loud as we can, and we have a lot of fun. I saw you guys on tour last summer. It seems like you enjoy one another on-stage. Yeah, and that shit never gets too heady; it’s a whole band. But, I’d say that I’m heavily influenced—well, not heavily, but am influenced—by Dan Bejar and Carey Mercer of Swan Lake. Just being able to talk to Dan and say “what do you think?” is incredible. I’m very lucky, because I think Dan is an amazing lyricist and…I think it’s funny, cos he can barely play guitar, and yet he’ll write these meanest songs, and with the coolest, most beautiful lyrics. They’re not too cryptic or clever, they’re poetry and Bejar is a poet, and there are so few people that can do that. Leonard Cohen is one. There are people that write lyrics, and there are people that write poetry, and there are so few people who can do both. And especially do both well. I know I don’t do both. I write lyrics; I would never claim to be a poet. Is that something you might aspire to? Probably not in my life. I might one day get into writing fiction, or writing a giant novel. Poetry though, I just don’t have the grace. Dan is very graceful; his words are light and float, and yet they are so smart; if you just read his words, they are poetry. And there are so few modern musicians—or just musicians in general—who can do that. Another was that guy from Neutral Milk Hotel. What was his name? Jeff Mangum. Yeah, Mangum could pull it off. And Bejar and Leonard Cohen. - Adam Kritzer Sunset Rubdown & Spencer Krug of Wolf Parade adam-kritzerMr. Kritzer travels the globe -- or at least NYC --- looking for revelatory moments of musical bliss.