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 necessity. You know, I don't come from a lot of money. If I don't keep making music, I have to get another job. So, what I'm doing right now is I upload a lot of songs to the internet on a thing called Patreon, where subscribers pay me money to hear songs, more or less. There's all kinds of different things that I put up there, but the gist of it is that one of the things I do is make a song every month.
You write it and rehearse it and record it and produce it and upload it, and that exercise is great for me because it forces me to stay creative. I feel like if I didn't have that commitment to those people online, I probably would be doing next to nothing music-wise right now. It’s just seeing people, just having conversations at a party or whatever. You need your wheels to keep getting greased in that way. So, I probably wouldn't be doing anything, but I have to.
So, it's been interesting to watch the ways in which my brain finds another way to make a song each month. I do my best to not fall in any tropes, like writing songs about songs. I'm trying to not write too much about just myself or loneliness or overtly about COVID, but it all finds its way. Traces get in there. It’s almost impossible not to, because there isn't actually very many things that I am drawing inspiration from right now.
I spend a lot of time walking around in the woods, and my partner very recently was like, “I think you need to stop putting trees and leaves in your songs.” I was like, that's fair, I think you're probably right.
It actually would be a good idea for me to try another exercise of writing from a minotaur's point of view, or some other. I wouldn't go down that road again, but some similar type would be fun.
ZL: Something on Patreon I didn't recall from earlier records is this thing you described as a sort of “Reading Rainbow” music. You speak your lyrics, sometimes even have a machine voice to make the song. It reminds me of spoken word, for sure, but also musicians like BARR or Laurie Anderson, even some Coil. I just dig that. Is that totally new to COVID times?
SK: I've always been drawn to that sound and fooled around with it a bit in the past, but having come from the tradition of making records, if I ever did that kind of thing, it probably ended up in the pile of songs that got cut from the record. Especially if you're working with a band, your bandmates want to hear you sing. They don't want to hear that you have a spoken word piece. But I've always been really drawn to it. So again, it's so cool to hear someone else say that they like it, because I really love the sound of it, too.
I love the “Bone Grey” song because it's not even my voice. It’s some AI that I found online, where you type in the words, and it speaks it for you. Then I took that audio and cut it into the song, and I had so much fun doing it! There was a little bit of pushback from a couple people online that were like, “This is not what I want to hear from you! I want to hear you singing!” There's a lot of me singing up there, too. I really get a kick out of that “Bone Grey” song, and I can probably listen to it a lot easier than I can listen to my own singing voice, because it's like a different person delivering the words. I can kind of even hear my own lyrics more objectively that way, which is kind of fun.
But yeah, it is kind of new to the COVID times, or at least me sharing it with the world is new. It’s not because of COVID so much as Patreon and the freedom the platform allows me, to experiment more than if I'm making a record, even if I'm making a solo record. I don't have to worry about if the song fits in with other songs, to make sort of a set. I don't consult with anyone.
Another thing—and this is a huge thing—is I don't have time to overthink a piece of music and eventually, ultimately decide that it shouldn't be shared because it's too weird or too something. I'm trying to share a song every month. If I'm almost finished with a song, that means I only have a few more days to finish it and get it posted, which means I do not have time to start from scratch. I have to follow through with whatever idea I've started, which again is a great exercise provided by that platform, forcing me to finish each idea and then and share it. You put a little bow on it and move on.
Another thing—and this is a huge thing—is I don't have time to overthink a piece of music...
It's refreshing way to work. I've been enjoying it because of those creative freedoms that I haven't known in the past, and then, yeah, getting to do stuff like experiment more with spoken word or software or a bunch of stuff I wouldn't have normally done in the past.
ZL: It's fabulous. “Bone Grey” is the one where I'm like, this is the type of music I'm always looking for. Give me noise and some sort of syncopated lyric. That's part of why I love BARR, because BARR has this bald and brazen brutal forthrightness that Xiu Xiu has, but it's also just someone monologuing.
SK: I don't know this band, this artist.
ZL: Let me find their album. B-A-R-R. I think it's Brendan Fowler maybe. The album’s called “Summary.” Let me know what you think whenever you get a chance to listen to it.
There are these fabulous rhythms, some noise, and then spoken monologue. What I hear is the musicality of the language rather than the musicality of the chords. The way he'll throw a consonantal cluster against some hard music. Then at another point he'll have this drone sound that adds a sort of legato to the harshness of his own voice.
I thought that was one of the awesome things about “Bone Grey,” is you have that juxtaposition of that recorded, artificial voice with moving, fluid sounds. They just pair so beautifully.
SK: Thank you. What's a continental cluster?
ZL: Just a group of consonants with no vowels between them, like “T-R” in “tralala.”
SK: Okay, yeah. I heard a “continental” cluster. I pictured someone like quickly rattling off all the continents.
ZL: That sounds terrible.
SK: Have you heard of Dry Cleaning? They had a single come out about six months ago that I really loved right away, and it's got a great video, too. You know, I hate music videos, but this one's a lot of fun.
ZL: Even, like, Björk music videos?
SK: Maybe Björk gets a pass. I shouldn't be so black and white. Of course, I don't hate all music videos. I love some music videos. I just find that ninety percent of them are not interesting enough to watch through to the end. But when they're good, they're so good. This is one of those. I want to find this song for you.
Do you like Dorothea Lasky?
ZL: I love her imagination.
SK: That's nice. Very diplomatic.
ZL: Ha! Do you like reading her?
SK: Yeah. Yes. Yes. Are you friends with her?
ZL: No, I don't know her at all.
SK: Cool. I was just drawn to her poetry. I think the first thing I read was Awe. Awe was one of her first books. This was like ten or fifteen years ago. I don't read a lot of poetry, but her stuff I liked right away. I like how stark and cold it is sometimes.
But the reason I bring her up is not because I'm trying to sell her to you as a poet. I looked her up to watch her do a reading, and her cadence when she was reading her own work, to be honest, moved me to tears. Yeah. I can think of one time where I, like, actually started crying. I was quite drunk, but I just thought it was the coolest, most powerful thing I'd heard in a long time. Just her reading one of her poems to a small crowd.
It wasn't the poem itself that moved me, but her delivery. There's some magic there, that it crosses into this this kind of song that we're talking about, where people are sort of speaking with a musical cadence, but they haven't quite crossed into singing. Even like The B-52s, right? It's fun, but there's a power to it that gives the words a little more weight than when they’re sung. Singing words kind of makes them a little more ethereal in my mind.
ZL: I totally get that. I could sing entire albums and couldn't tell you the lyric to any song for the longest time.
SK: I will often write words after the music. That's part of my process that I don't love, because those melodies, and the syntax of a line, will often hit me before the words themselves do.
ZL: That make sense.
SK: The shape, the line, is totally there, but I don't have the words yet. Then it's really hard to get that shape out of my mind and to just to just come up with a pure and sincere line.
ZL: It sounds like a puzzle. You have the sounds, you know how many syllables you're afforded, and now you need to paint by numbers.
SK: Yeah, it is. I know exactly what you mean. It does feel like a puzzle sometimes, and that can be the fun of it. I sing in a very sort of rhythmic way, often in a very pre-prescribed way like that, “Mm-hmm, yeah, all right, let's fight, let's rage against the night.” If you listen to someone like Destroyer, you can hear that it's more of a poem. They have the freedom of singing their lines, and it's got a looseness I envy. I envy it, but I also have a lot of fun doing what I do. I can appreciate that both things have their strengths, so I don't dwell on it. I don't lose sleep over it or anything, but there's all kinds of ways to write a song.
ZL: I would like to picture you, like, thinking about a song you've recently written… and you have a box of chocolates on your stomach, and you're eating them slowly, and you're like, “Damn it! If only I had one more flourish in that song!”
SK: Ha! I do often write lyrics in the bathtub, which is pretty luxurious. So, that's almost there.
ZL: It's so good for writing: baths, walking, driving, anything with water or motion.
SK: That makes perfect sense. Yeah!
Going back to what you're saying about it being a puzzle, it does feel like that sometimes. It can be fun, but also frustrating, when you have the specifically shaped box that you're trying to fill with the right amount of syllables, per se. Sometimes this will happen to me, where I will have to choose between the word that I love and the melody that I love, or the syntax. In trying to fill that space, I come up with a line that I like better—but it's no longer the melody that I like. You start Frankensteining and bastardizing things. You end up with something actually kind of weaker than both, right? In that way it feels like a puzzle, too.
You start Frankensteining and bastardizing things. You end up with something actually kind of weaker than both...
ZL: I want to come back to some of your lyrics as a kind of landing place for the interview. I'm thinking of the lines, “I think you gotta fall in love with your fascination. Makes you wonder, wonder, wonder.”
I just want to reiterate how grateful I am for your time. It’s been a joy speaking with you. I'm gonna check out the Dry Celaning video, and I'd love to hear your thoughts on BARR whenever you get a chance to check out the album.
SK: Yeah! I'm looking forward. I'll check them out tomorrow.
Thank you for your kind words. The fact that you even mention that line from the “Wonder” song, it's great because that's one of the lines I was not sure about when I was singing it. It's funny, when they say that writing is the loneliest profession—because you're doing it completely alone and there's no one to bounce your ideas off. I get to post my music online and get feedback, but usually the feedback's positive, because the people that comment online are usually positive… at least, in my experience. I'm lucky that way. But that line that you just mentioned, I feel like I was raising my own eyebrows at it when I was listening back. What am I even talking about here? I’m glad it resonated with you, because it must have resonated with me at some point when I was writing.
ZL: Sometimes you forget why you write a thing, right? We need our families, our communities. Sometimes you just gotta have a neighbor be like, “Yeah! You’re right, Spence. Sometimes it does. Sometimes it makes you wonder.”
SK: Yeah. Or even just my wife telling me to stop writing about leaves.
ZACH LINGE's poems appear in AGNI, Best New Poets, POETRY, New England Review, and elsewhere. Linge is the recipient of scholarships to The Kenyon Review Writers Workshop and the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, and lives in Tallahassee, where they serve as editor-in-chief of the Southeast Review.