Friday, November 17, 2006

Swan Lake: Spencer Krug

This is the second of three interviews for Swan Lake, the new band for Carey Mercer of Frog Eyes, Dan Bejar of Destroyer, and Spencer Krug of Sunset Rubdown/Wolf Parade. This one runs today because I find myself back in Montreal on an abnormally balmy November morning (it's warmer and sunnier than Ontario today, go figure; yesterday was the most torrential and miserable experience I've ever had making this trip on the 401). Also, because my email interview with Dan Bejar is kind of terrible--entirely because I sent him questions in a rush, before I'd really begun to understand what was happening on Beast Moans, Swan Lake's debut album, and before I talked to Carey and Spencer. That conversation will run on Monday, the day before the album's release, and long after you've absorbed the better two of the three interviews.

The Exclaim piece these interviews were commissioned for hits the streets on Tuesday, November 28. I'll provide the link when it goes up.

Side note: Thanks to Chromewaves for the shout-out yesterday.

Spencer Krug

November 7, 2006

Via phone, from his home in Montreal

How is Montreal?

Pretty much as you remember it. I don’t go out much these days.

Have things calmed down a bit? Are you at home for a while?

Yeah, I’m pretty much done for the winter. Wolf Parade was just in Iceland, and that’s it. I’m just writing right now for Sunset Rubdown. I don’t think I’m playing a show until April. I might be a bit stir crazy by February, but right now it’s nice to be at home.

This record was made when, last March?

February and March. Then a little more mixing… I can’t remember.

I had no idea what it was going to sound like, but when I heard it, it didn’t sound like what I thought it would.

That’s fair.

For some reason I thought it would be more band-like, with drums and such. Did you have any idea what would happen when the three of you sat down in a room?

No. There were thoughts of getting a drummer up to the studio, but it just never happened. And we were fine if it didn’t happen. There were no preconceived notions of what any of it would sound like. Whatever came out was going to be the record. It could easily have gone a completely different way, more like a real band with a drummer on every track and more succinct-sounding songs. But it didn’t! I’m not surprised. I didn’t know what it would sound like, but I’m not surprised at all at how it turned out given what I know of Carey, Dan, and myself and what we like. I knew, for example, that there would be a lot of noodly guitar, because it’s Carey.

One thing that did surprise me is the treatment of the vocals on the record; the lyrics are quite obscured. The voices are more textural than they are lead instruments. It’s less of a songwriter-y record.

I can’t really tell why. You’ve asked me about this before, about why I like vocals up so far in the mix, and I think I answered by saying that I didn’t realize I did. I probably wrote a whole paragraph about it. And Dan does that too in Destroyer. I think Carey got his hands on us. If you listen to Frog Eyes, the vocals are fast and a blur to understand anyway, even if they were up in the mix, so they turn into more of a texture. Carey and I mixed a lot of it together. I don’t have a real aesthetic towards vocals that I lean towards one way or another. There are also points where all three of us are singing—and you just naturally want to turn that stuff down. We’re not trying to make an opera.

The record baffled me quite a bit initially and I keep hearing new things every time I listen to it. At first I thought it was pretty much the three of you in your own corners with your own songs, but the more I hear it the more I notice collaborations and people singing on each other’s tracks. But that doesn’t strike me right away.

Yeah, there’s a lot of things floating around in the mix!

Initially, I thought that Carey’s stuff sounded the most different from Frog Eyes, whereas some of Dan’s songs do sound like Destroyer to me and some of your songs definitely sound like Sunset Rubdown. How do you think all of that worked out?

Carey has another project that he used to do called Blackout Beach. That stuff tends to be a lot more ethereal, trippy, washed-out sounding. Frog Eyes is becoming more and more streamlined and clean. He still has that side of him that really wants to trip things out, and maybe he was letting that side out with this project. I know what you mean, though, because there is some of Dan’s stuff here that rings like Destroyer as soon as you hear it. I think that’s his voice and his lyrics—when I think of Destroyer, the first thing I think of is his voice and his phrasing. It’s almost like it doesn’t really matter what music you put underneath it; it’s going to sound like Destroyer. For me, anyway. As far as stuff sounding like Sunset Rubdown, I don’t know. I’m sure you’re right.

Both Carey and Dan have singular visions in their other bands, where they drive everything. You have two other bands: one where you write everything, and one where you and Dan collaborate and modify each other’s songs. How did you find it entering into a writing situation with two other bandleaders? Or is that more natural for you because you do that with Dan?

It was fine. I played with Carey for a long time in Frog Eyes. I’m used to taking directions from him. Frog Eyes is his baby and I’ll write my own parts and be respectful of the fact that it’s his material and I like it and I just do what he tells me. That relationship between him and I is fine. None of us are really megalomaniac control freaks.

Carey actually described you all as tyrants.

Then we’re all totally passive tyrants, with frustration taken out through mockery. We make fun of each other’s stuff a lot. We went into it with open minds and ready to let go of that stuff. In Sunset Rubdown I do like to hold the reigns; I bring stuff to that band that I have very specific ideas for that are already fleshed out. With Swan Lake I went in with really loose ideas, with lots of holes in them to be filled by the other two. That was the whole idea of the project.

Did the three of you share any work habits, good or bad?

No, none at all. We’re pretty different. When it comes to mixing, both Carey and I are workhorses. We’ll sit there for hours and hours. We did some shiftwork: overdubbing, mixing, and erasing it. I’d do that all night and he’d do it all day. At this point Dan was in Vancouver, but we did do another mix with Dan. We’re all different in the way we approach recording. I’m not totally sure what you mean by work habits.

A lot of people approach songwriting and recording differently; I was just curious how the three of you did that together.

There’s definitely differences, but nothing that got in the way. The one uniform thing we did was sit down with an acoustic guitar for the first few days and had a round table of pressing record and laying the bare bones of a song down. After that, all rules were off.

Carey told me that if someone told you a couple of years ago that you’d both be playing acoustic guitars that you’d be horrified.

I wouldn’t have, he would have.

He’s just speaking for you, then.

Yeah, not the first time! He shirks the thought of the singer/songwriter open jam night at the coffee shop in Ann Arbor—that whole scenario. He’s scared he’ll end up being that, which he most surely will. No, I love acoustic guitar.

Did making this record illuminate anything in your own work you didn’t realize before, didn’t know was there?

Hmmm. Maybe some different approaches to mixing. It was also further affirmation that you can record tons of shit, tons of tracks on top of each other and then go back later and find the gold. It’s the way you treat the things you want to keep that I might start doing differently because of Carey. I mean, once you’re actually mixing it.

We also talked about how it’s a personal project without particular goals in mind, just three friends seeing what they could do together. Obviously when you make a record like this you’re not thinking about how people will react, but now that it’s done, do you think it’s more of a personal thing or is it something…

You mean, how will we react to how it’s accepted? It felt really free. None of the three of us had aspirations for Swan Lake to make it big or signed to something bigger. We weren’t mouthwatering at the prospect of a first tour. We’re all busy with that stuff already with other projects. This was really pure, for lack of a better word. We just wanted to work with each other and see what happened. I don’t want to say that we don’t care what anyone thinks of it, because that’s not the way anyone should ever make a record: it is for sharing and bringing something good into the world. It was nice to have a clean slate. If it was another Frog Eyes or Sunset Rubdown record, there’d be something to hold it up against. We could do whatever we wanted. Maybe that’s not to our credit, because we didn’t stray too far from what you might expect. Maybe we’re not capable of doing that.


Who knows?

Going back a fair bit, then, what drew you to these two men? When and why did you realize you had something in common with them musically?

I lived with both of them at different times within a few years of each other. Carey’s stuff I didn’t really like when I first met him. Listening back to it now, The Blue Pine, I find things that I like. But I liked his ideas a lot, and we started playing together when I lived with him. We always clicked musically right away. I was a fan of Destroyer long before I ever played with Dan. I learned about Destroyer and heard it when I lived with him and a bunch of other guys in about ’98, and it took off just after that. This is around the time of Thief. I remember him doing the cover on his computer. It was my last year of school in Vancouver, that might even have been 2000; I’m really bad with dates. I’ve barely played with Dan; I was part of Destroyer for a European tour, that’s it.

That wasn’t all of Frog Eyes, was it?

No, and I was the replacement for Grayson Walker, who didn’t want to go to Europe.

Was Michael Rak there too?

No, he didn’t want to go to Europe either. I shouldn’t get into it. (off the record talk). I got picked because I could play bass lines with my left hand and do whatever else with my right.

Are you back in Frog Eyes now then?

I can’t really speak to that. I will keep playing with Frog Eyes whenever I can. I’m like an honorary member. I’m always welcome.

You talked about how you met Dan, but musically, what do you like and respect about what he does? Or that you think you might have in common with?

Oh, I don’t have anything in common with him musically. It’s his lyrics that get me. I think he’s an amazing lyricist, and the way he delivers them in his heartfelt crooning style. I don’t think there are many songwriters who are poets, for lack of a better word. I know I’m not, and I don’t think Carey is, but his lyrics transcend songs. I like playing with words and making words and phrases as meaningful as I know how, with the syntax and the cadence of a song. But Dan’s stuff remains poetry with that cadence and rhythm to them, and I don’t think many people can do that. He does it really well.

I find it interesting that it’s obviously part of what drew me to him as well, but in pretty much any interview with him—I don’t know if he’s just being self-deprecating, a jester, or whatever—but he gives off the impression that he’s really just putting words together. I guess people try to press him to explain meanings and relationships in his lyrics, and he usually dismisses all of that.

He always will, though.

Most people would at least defend themselves instead of insisting there’s no meaning to their work. I find his reaction quite funny.

It’s not a show. He is truly humble. You just have to make your own guesses. He’s given me the same answers.

I thought he was just trying to throw off people in my profession.

I don’t think he has an agenda in that regard. There’s just certain things that he won’t talk about.

In terms of the division of labour, it sounds like everyone was all over everything, really.

Pretty much. If you hear a screechy electric guitar, it’s Carey.

Are you all the keyboards?

No, Carey did some. Dan did some of the electric guitar. Drums is me and Carey, mostly. I even played some bass, which I never do.

Do you think the record has a unity? Was that a concern when making it?

Do you mean does it stand separate from our other projects?

I think it does that, but in terms of song choices...

Oh, as a single work of art. Lyrically, there was not a lot of collaboration. But we were definitely conscious of making a cohesion to all of it, to make one work rather than a compilation of three guys. Because the lyrics came from three different people, we could only attempt to do that through the music. Really, all you can do is try to stick to the same kind of instrumentation. There’s some stuff we cut because it conflicted with the rest of the record, not because it was horrible. All you can do is try. I don’t know if we succeeded.

I understand that there are plans to revisit this, schedules willing. What kind of life do you think it will take on?

I don’t know. I think it’s going to get crucified, personally. I think it will be a small handful of people who really like it, whether or not they’re already fans of one of the other projects. Hopefully there will be people who just like it for what it is. But on the whole, I have a feeling that it will be really torn apart, and I’m okay with that. I’m interested to see what happens to it that way, but it’s not a one-off. It is a ‘when-time-allows’ thing. Even if it does get totally brutalized, I think we’ll do another one because it’s fun. Whatever label is willing to pay for it!

I’ll admit that I was baffled the first time I heard it, and anyone who reviews it after listening to it only once might not be kind. But anyone who’s an honest fan of any of the three people involved is going to give it a few shakes. I also don’t think it’s any weirder than any given Frog Eyes record, so anyone who likes that band will like this.

That’s true.

I don’t about Wolf Parade or Destroyer fans, though.

Yeah, I’m not sure frat boy Wolf Parade fans will take a shine to it.

They might not Shine a Light, you mean?



No comments: