An Interview with Spencer Krug
Photo: Tero Ahonen
Spencer Krug's career spans projects and decades. He is the frontman of Wolf Parade, Sunset Rubdown, Moonface, and other bands. Krug's new solo album, Fading Graffiti, was released April 2021 through Pronounced Kroog and is also available via BandCamp, Apple Music, Spotify, and elsewhere. Subscribe to Spencer Krug's Patreon for exclusive content and new music monthly!
Spencer Krug's lyrical experimentation inspires critics and interviewers alike to say Krug is “as much a poet as he is a musician.” Personally, Krug's lyrics inspired my early poetry more than perhaps any other single writer or musician. Having learned he follows a few poets on Twitter, and even took a writing workshop with Zachary Schomburg, I reached out for an interview. We talked Patreon, songwriting, poetry, Xiu Xiu, and sad clowns.
Zach Linge: It feels like coming full circle, having the chance to say how grateful I am for you and your work: I have long benefited from, appreciated, and needed your music. So, thanks for what you do, and thanks for taking the time to talk about words and craft with me!
Spencer Krug: Wow. That's all very kind. It's nice to hear it. And with COVID happening—which means no shows happening—it's really easy for me and probably a lot of musicians to question if there's any value in what I’m doing. I'm kind of in a vacuum, right? I don't spend too much time online. I do post a lot of music to the internet, and that's like the one thing that's kept me making music and realizing there's still people out there that are interested in hearing what I might want to share.
Usually, you get that sort of affirmation and confidence-building when you're on the road. You spend a lot of time alone working on music, but then you take the music out of the world and share it with people, and you get this response. There's that affirmation that what you're doing has value. With COVID I find myself questioning way more than usual what the point of what I'm doing is. Is it just like a vanity project?
The point is, it's very nice to hear. It's rare to hear, these days, that anyone gets anything out of what I do. So, it's very good. I'm just saying thank you.
ZL: You made me think of a recent song where you say, “Is my mind just a mirror making rainbows on the wall?” A lot of poets, writers, and artists struggle with this question. How do I know the value or the import of something that's created in isolation? So, for you a lot of that affirmation comes from in-person events?
SK: As opposed to what? Like, as opposed to the internet?
ZL: A writer might get the occasional kind stranger who reaches out online and says, “Hey, thanks for writing that. I needed you to write that.” But there there's a difference between that and going to a live reading, sharing your work, and having someone say in person, “Wow that touched me.”
SK: Yeah, I can only imagine. I was lucky enough to participate in a live reading only once, like years and years ago now, and I thought it was really fun. Musicians are quite lucky, other than of course right now, in that we can’t go out. It's really built into the career that you're gonna go out and share your work over and over again. You have a chance to hone that part of what you do, the performance of it, and you get to share it with people that are guaranteed to at least be curious. They bought a ticket to be there. You have this already biased audience in front of you. You're totally spoiled. Then you get to perform the songs that you already know they are interested in hearing. It really does boost one's ego.
It's hard actually to keep your ego in check sometimes, I find, and not let the adoration go to your head. I mean, that gets easier and easier when you get older, but I imagine with writers you have that opportunity a lot less, to share in person. I find sharing things on the internet not the same. The way people present themselves online is so veiled. It's so hard to gauge sincerity when you're reading comments online, and it doesn't hit you the same way. I'm much more dubious of people online and wary of any sort of praise or criticism that I receive through the internet.
ZL: There's this thing in poetry, that the "speaker" of the poem is not necessarily the poet themselves. Is the performer Spencer Krug the Spencer Krug on the phone right now?
SK: That's a good question. I like to think so. Maybe not always. Performing music, sometimes you feel more like an athlete than an artist, and that is especially true for the rock bands I've been in—especially once they've been around for a while—like with Wolf Parade or Sunset Rubdown. You do a lot of touring and end up playing some of the same songs over and over again. Even with new material, you rehearse it in a private space, not unlike an athlete, and then you go to the game, right?
What you do is you execute it as well as you can based on your training. That’s especially true for written songs. It feels like you're a high jumper or something. You're just doing the same action over and over again, so you can get it as close to perfect as possible. It's different for improvised music, which is why I'm so drawn to and terrified of improvised music.
I don’t know the answer to that question, if Spencer Krug the performer is the same Spencer Krug that you're talking to right now. I think it depends on the song, on the music, and on the night. If I get quite nervous, which sometimes I do, then I will hide behind this kind of sad clown act. This thing will happen where I'll see myself from outside myself, but I can't stop the words from falling out of my mouth. I'll say a bunch of nonsense, usually bad jokes, and a lot of self-deprecating stuff, which can be me sometimes. So, I think it's as diverse as your actual person is.
This thing will happen where I'll see myself from outside myself, but I can't stop the words from falling out of my mouth.
We all tend to wake up a little bit different each day and present ourselves to the world a little differently as we grow. Even being alive in the world is this kind of performance, right? So, to separate them like that, in a black-and-white way, I think it's kind of impossible. I try to be as sincere as possible on stage, but my comfort level is obviously different on stage than if I'm at home in the bath or something. I'm gonna be a different person. That’s a long-winded answer to a simple question.
ZL: A great answer. I mean, it's a hard question. I imagine there's a difference between an auditorium or a large-stage Wolf Parade show and you at a piano in a chapel with a more intimate audience. I imagine those performances require something different.
SK: Definitely, because they're almost two different worlds. It’s actually more nerve-wracking to be in a more intimate show, especially if it's a solo show. If I'm playing a piano show for one hundred people versus a Wolf Parade show for 1,000 people, I'm definitely more self-aware and more nervous. It takes so much more focus to perform alone on stage, and I feel so much more exposed and vulnerable because I'm alone. When I’m up there with a band, and everything's really loud, and there are people who are all talking and texting and cheering and stuff, then if I make a mistake or say something stupid, it easily gets glossed over quickly. Half the people wouldn't even notice.
ZL: Versus like a quiet group of people really focused on what you're doing alone? It's so intimate.
SK: It is. It's weird, performances. It's weird. It's a very strange, surreal way to make a living. That's not the only reason I do it, of course, but that's a big part of it. I have these nights where I'll just be like, Holy fuck this is my job. What a strange way to pay the rent, to get up in front of strangers and pour my heart out, whether I feel like doing it or not.
Cover Art: Fading Graffiti
ZL: Writing poems versus writing songs. Differences?
SK: There is a huge difference between lyricism and poetry, or songwriting and writing a poem, I think. I think there's all kinds of differences, but once you get into even singing your poems, you start to cross that threshold, and you'll automatically start thinking in terms of songwriting rather than the written word. It just turns on a different part of your brain, I find.
ZL: Can you tell me more about that?
SK: I’m not sure I can. I hope I can. It's funny that we would talk about poetry at all, because I'm not a poet, and I don't really know anything about poetry, but I often wish I was more of a poet so that I could write my poems first. I do have friends who are songwriters who do this, like Dan Bejar from Destroyer. He is more of a poet than a songwriter in a lot of ways. He'll write a poem and add music to it afterwards.
I'm almost always the opposite. I write music quite naturally and quickly, which isn't to say I write good music naturally and quickly. Whatever comes out of me comes out not effortlessly, but it's the easiest thing that I do in my process. Finding words to go along with the music, words that fit not only the music but also the mood of the music, is easily the most difficult part of the process. I often think if the words came first, there'd be something more sincere about them, something slightly less contrived.
What I do is this sort of bastardization of language and music. I've often thought that I would love to separate them. That's my life goal, actually, to be writing instrumental music one day and then the other day writing like fiction or poetry—to be good enough at both those things independently that I don't need to stuff them into the same box, to fill the space.
That's often what it feels like I'm doing. It's like, oh this music isn't good enough on its own, so you have to add words. Or like, these words aren't good enough just on their own, so you have to have music. That's sometimes what songwriting feels like to me, which isn't to say that I don't like what I do. I really enjoy the process. But songwriting is the child of poetry and music, right? And it's not necessarily a bright child. It's the disappointing middle child.
But songwriting is the child of poetry and music, right? And it's not necessarily a bright child. It's the disappointing middle child.
ZL: Spencer, honestly it amazes me to hear you describe it that way. As someone who works mainly with words and has a very limited understanding of music, I’m so envious of what musical sounds can do that words can’t accomplish alone. I’m thinking of an incredible marriage of the two in “Little Panda McElroy” by Xiu Xiu.
SK: I know Xiu Xiu, but I don't know the titles of his work.
ZL: It’s fucking perfect. It's so good. There's this thing where he's singing, “I can do it, I can stop punching my own face,” and all this tragic shit, but before he can even finish what he’s saying, the music just pours over his voice. All this yearning toward some sort of improvement is just fucking destroyed by the sound.
When I'm working with words, I'm like: I feel I need a pillow to rip apart, or a piano to punch, you know? There's something more honest in sound than in language. I hear what you're saying. It just utterly surprises me to hear it.
SK: What you're saying totally makes sense, too. Don't get me wrong: I'm not trying to belittle my craft too much. It's just this is how I feel some days, but what you're saying is of course another entirely valid truth. It's true, like, the music can help bring meaning and power to the word. I mean that's why songs exist in the first place, I'm sure, right? Singing the words out loud empowers them.
The way Jamie can do that, Jamie from Xiu Xiu, he is a super gifted guy. I was just listening to Fabulous Muscles the other day, and I hadn't listened to that album in years. I was digging through old CDs. I was driving by myself, and the song “Fabulous Muscles,” like the title track, came on, and I felt like I was hearing it for the first time. I probably have done so much more songwriting in the years since the last time I heard that song that I was able to see the genius of his lyricism. The song struck me in a way that never had before. The chorus has just got such brave and honest and great lyrics: “cremate me after you cum on my lips and place my ashes in a vase underneath your workout bench, honey boy.” Something like that. It's such a great verse, which later ends up being the chorus. Like, you're so glad he sings it a few more times. He’s ahead of his time. That song's probably twelve or fifteen years old.
ZL: Yeah! I remember listening to that, and also the Shut Up I’m Dreaming CD at about the same time in my formative, early, queer years. I didn’t need to know who the speaker of the poem… or not… oh my god, what is the word you use? The person singing the song?
SK: Um, I know exactly what you mean, but it's like… that's not really addressed in songwriting. It's sort of ridiculous that it's not addressed, because it's a total thing. Yeah. The singer doesn't have to be the author of the song, right?
That's something that has been true for your work, as you step into persona from time to time?
SK: I don't know what you mean.
ZL: Like there are times where you write from the perspective of a mythological creature.
ZL: I’m not assuming Spencer Krug is the minotaur, right? Like, the song is telling me what to listen to and who it is.
SK: Right. So, when you're hearing that… It's a good question. It's a funny question. When you're hearing those lyrics, and you're hearing a line that you appreciate, are you like, “Oh, that's clever that Spencer would have the minotaur saying that”? Or are you more like, “That's a good line for the minotaur”? How far down that path does it take you? Of course, it's eventually going to come back to the songwriter, which I guess is how each poem eventually goes back to the poet.
Writing in other characters like that can be really liberating, creatively, and just easier in a lot of ways. I remember writing those lyrics for the all the minotaur songs on that record, and it's so freeing to have this other persona to view the world from. One, because it's a new perspective, so you don't have to use your own tired, old ideas about the world. Two, especially with a mythological creature, I don't have to worry about properly representing the minotaur, because he's basically like a cartoon character, right? I have to work pretty hard to offend people by having a minotaur. It’s safe and fun in that way and easy to come up with ideas and perspectives that I wouldn't have otherwise if I'm just writing as myself.
Now that I hear myself saying this, it's probably something I should try doing again relatively soon, because I feel like I've been really too far in my own head lately, in my own life. I know I have been because I've been house bound. This is the longest I've spent in one spot since I was like thirteen years old. You know the saying “Art is not made in a vacuum”? I feel I'm getting close to a vacuum right now. I feel that I'm digging further and further into my own psyche, and it's getting boring in there.
ZL: I feel that so much. I had to stop myself from writing a poem about a fucking lizard today.
SK: You should have done it.
SK: But yeah, it's hard right now.
ZL: Where are you drawing inspiration if not only from inside the noggin? Is this a particularly creative time for you?
SK: It has been, ironically. At first out of necessity. Well, it's still out of nec