Waking From a Dream

A conversation with Spencer Krug about his epic final bow as Moonface, a labyrinthine headtrip made of dream and myth

Photo by N. Pašanović & JPJ

Songwriter, composer and multi-instrumentalist Spencer Krug has long been unapologetically mercurial with his work. This month he bids farewell to Moonface, an eight-year-long solo project that let him shed old skins and cultivate new sounds without restraint. In working with a richly evocative writer’s palette he cultivated years ago, Moonface also gave Krug free reign to deepen his world-building, making it simultaneously more pronounced and more universal.

As part of the feral Wolf Parade, Krug unwittingly established himself as the aughts’ most enigmatic, eccentric composer who also happened to play in a rock band. Somehow, he managed to juggle Wolf Parade’s initial run in tandem with his own band, Sunset Rubdown, touring and all. All told, a fantastically eclectic solo career over the last 13 years has afforded Krug the ability to both build worlds and destroy them, exercising a mindfulness for metaphor and a desire to keep deepening his compositional ambitions.

For the last eight years, however, Moonface has been Krug’s main solo vessel for this evolution. The project has shifted forms with almost every release, from an album of organ and drum machine to a solo piano record, and two albums with the Finnish prog band Sinnai. Lyrically and thematically-speaking, some Krug imagery has stayed consistent—fires, water, the naïveté of youth, animals, invocations, a singer prone to self-imposed exile, a party saboteur—and Krug has worked at cultivating all of it with a craftsman’s attention to detail, sharpening his imagery while singing surreal metaphors about strange realities.

In October, Krug announced that his seventh Moonface release, This One’s for the Dancer & This One’s for the Dancer’s Bouquet, would be released a month later as his last album under the Moonface moniker. While he’ll still record and tour under his real name, Krug explained in the album’s autobiography a myriad of reasons why the name Moonface no longer made sense for him.

He also explained the album’s two song cycles, the bones of which were recorded years apart then woven together as sonic labyrinth apropos of its subject—a marimba and vocoder-heavy set of songs, sung from the perspective of the Minotaur from Greek mythology, is intertwined with another set of avant-rock songs, sung from Krug’s human words over Ches Smith’s in-the-pocket drumming and Matana Roberts’ skronking sax. The album was produced by old friend and Wolf Parade bandmate Dante DeCaro, and Jace Lasek of Montreal’s beloved The Besnard Lakes, another longtime pal who has worked with Krug many times before.

Rock and Roll Globe caught up with Krug to talk about the powers, and limitations, of myths and dreams.

 

RNRG: How’d the end of the Wolf Parade tour go? You guys hit rural Western Canada, and watching it from afar, there seemed to be an arc to your travels.

Spencer Krug: We did want to hit some small-town Western Canada places, and some of us live on the island [Vancouver Island], so the idea of ending on the island was kinda fun. It didn’t actually occur to us until we were loading in, but when we were getting back together after our hiatus and we started with some warm-up shows here on the island, the first show was at this venue in Nanaimo called The Queen’s, and the last show was in the same venue. We said, ‘Oh, yeah, we did a full circle here.’

That show was also the end of Wolf Parade 2.0, and we’re getting back in the studio this winter to write another record, so the band is going through another transformation. We won’t be back playing shows until spring of next year.

 

One big Wolf Parade/Moonface connection worth calling out: the real diehards listening to This One’s for the Dancer & This One’s for the Dancer’s Bouquet remember that you first dropped a minotaur reference on the early Wolf Parade EP track, “Wits or a Dagger”, and there’s also the line about Poseidon’s White Bull in “Am I An Alien Here?” (off 2017 Wolf Parade LP Cry Cry Cry). This minotaur myth has been on your mind, in some form or another, for years. Why are you so fascinated by it?

I think I like Greek mythology because it’s this twisted, dark soap opera, one of the first soap operas that was ever put down for western civilization. I like how interconnected everything is. When you start reading the different myths, there are all these overlapping characters, and they weave in and out of each other’s lives in a way that’s a lot like a soap opera or a serial television show.

It’s sort of entertaining in the same way, and super dark. I can’t believe that HBO hasn’t just fuckin’ ran a show yet that’s just The Myths about Greek mythology—not even just one myth, but the whole thing. It totally lines up with their vibe of sex and violence and incest, all that dark, nefarious shit.

 

Proto-Game of Thrones stuff.

Yeah, but the arc is better [laughs]. You wouldn’t run out of stuff to write because it just keeps going, and there’s just so much weird stuff in it. When I was in college I needed to fill credits, and I did that thing college kids do, just picking random shit that had room in it. So one year it was “Contemporary Chinese History,” “Introduction to Philosophy,” and “Greek Mythology,” just this shitmix of random humanities. I got really into the Greek mythology class, and I wasn’t expecting to, they were just really cool stories. They sat with me for years.

Maybe the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur…hmm… so many other myths center around that, maybe that one is a little more pronounced in my memory. You were talking about [famous myth scholar] Joseph Campbell on Twitter, and I’ve never read that guy. I haven’t thought about Greek myth in an academic way for like 20 years.

 

I thought about Campbell because, in one way or another, myth has run through a lot of your work. I could listen back to the Sunset Rubdown days to fold in the way that your songs conjure animals and speak of esoteric invocations. There’s a mythological theatricality that you seem to enjoy messing with as a writer. Maybe more abstractly in the past.

Then, reading your Jagjaguwar artist statement about the new album, you said, “This idea resonates with me, this nagging feeling of self-made misrepresentation, a discrepancy between the medium and the message, shouting out new ideas while standing on a soapbox built for some bygone campaign”.

I know you’re talking about how the world has changed since you started Moonface, but it’s almost as if you’re also acknowledging the motifs that you built into your work and asking what still fits for you, maybe taking some of them to their logical endpoint on this record. The minotaur songs are not obtuse, but direct and easy to grasp, plainspoken. There’s a universality to these numbers that takes your love of myth and brings it back in a manner maybe less dense than some of your prior myth love. Do you still want to work with that language?

[Laughs] I’m not saying that outright in that part of the bio I wrote. A mythological theatricality, as you put it… I’m not trying to put a cap on that, per se. I’m more talking about working under the moniker of Moonface, not necessarily the style of the work that I do.

But I do think that I’ve been moving away from those sort of overflowery, wackadoo metaphors. I’ve been moving into more of a concrete place with my lyrics for a couple of years, now, especially with the solo stuff.

 

Julia With Blue Jeans On was a big shift toward that.

Yeah, and I’m working more that way now for sure, simply because it’s more of a challenge to evoke emotion with straightforward language than it is to use a bunch of flowery imagery… “flowery”’ is the wrong word.

So you’re right—the way I used to reference myth was a bit more veiled. I created my own little world of monsters, animals and myself. It wasn’t this very on-the-nose, direct reference to Greek myth the way that these minotaur songs are. I mean, the word “minotaur” is in the songs, right? Once I started writing those lyrics they came super easily, because I’m not actually emotionally invested in them [laughs]. It’s a fable.

I wanted to separate myself from this character more so than just with the words, which is where the vocoder came in. I needed a different voice, and I’d never really recorded with a vocoder. The first time I heard it over one of those marimba songs with the first draft of lyrics I was really into it right away. I knew it was gonna work, at least for me. I don’t know if it works for other people, but I finally cracked what I was trying to do.

 

When you dropped the “Minotaur Forgiving Knossos” track earlier this week, it caused a little uproar in the fan community. It was an interesting discussion. Someone mentioned the record going back and forth between “human problems and monster problems,” which seemed a nice way of describing the two distinct song cycles. How do you think those two cycles talk to each other?

As far as a discussion in the fan community, I’m not privy to that. I kind of don’t… I don’t want to be. I realize that a lot of people don’t like autotune and vocoder just out of principle, and that’s fine, you can have that opinion. I don’t think there’s a problem with it. I do think it’s overused in hip-hop right now.

 

But you use it as a stylistic device, which is different. People are also very close to your music in the fan groups, too, which makes it hard. Like when Dylan went electric, all those folk fans kind of lost their shit. Twenty years later they got used to it. I’m not comparing you to Bob Dylan, but you know what I mean.

[Laughs] I know exactly what you mean. I kind of think of it as acoustic guitar and electric guitar, too. People are like, “It’s not your voice!” But it’s a voice, and I still decided the notes, and played them. Even when I was working with [producer] Jace [Lasek] he said, “Are you sure about this?” I said, “Yeah, I really want to do this.” I’ve made a bunch of records with my voice.

 

There are a couple of moments where the two song cycles almost talk to each other. I’m thinking in particular of “The Cave”, where you mention the album’s title,  and “Sad Suomenlinna”—are you talking about that fortress?

It’s a fortress in Finland.

 

Ah, that makes sense. [Spencer wrote those songs upon returning to Montreal after living in Finland for several years.] The idea of these structures—a fortress and a cave—seem to connect closely with the minotaur, who’s isolated not by his own choice. Did you group the two song cycles together from a purely sonic place, because you like the flow, or was there a deeper thematic connection for you?

If you’re looking for them, you’re gonna find reflections of the two cycles in each other. Even though one is from my perspective and one is from the minotaur’s perspective, it’s all me writing, right? And I kind of have a limited palette. Some of the things that plague the minotaur are loneliness and feeling lost, maybe anxiety, things that anyone would feel if they were trapped in a labyrinth. And those are things that all human beings feel. When I’m writing the songs from a human being perspective and trying to exorcise all those same problems.

The songs on this record are very much not love songs—it’s a fairly anxious, fear and hate-filled album, sort of a therapy record. So when I’m trying to address those problems in my own soul, of course, if you have a monster trapped in a labyrinth addressing his existence, there are going to be reflections.

But I tried to make it really clear that I do not personally identify with the minotaur. I’m not trying to use the minotaur as an avatar of my own self. It’s not me at all. It was just sort of a fun game, like I said in the bio, “an exercise in empathy.”

 

Empathy is not something the myths traditionally have, though, which also speaks to what you just said about this being a therapy record. In these Greek myths, the archetypes are clearly defined. The minotaur is the bad guy. We were never supposed to think about Theseus as a hitman before. The minotaur’s way of finding empathy for the other characters still involves condemnation, negative association. The myths never went that deep.

I totally agree with you, but I’m not talking about the minotaur having empathy. I’m talking about me trying to empathize with the minotaur, an exercise in that way. And it speaks to what you’re saying—he’s not really ever seen as a tragic figure, he’s a monster. It’s sort of fun to look at a monster in any story and sort of Frankenstein them, humanize them and say, “poor guy.”

But I don’t want people to think I’ve got it bad. I have a very privileged life, and I’m aware of that. I feel no shame in singing about loneliness and anxiety, things that all people feel, but I would be wary to sing about any sort of oppression. I’m not an oppressed person in any way, but the minotaur is, and I don’t want people to think I’m projecting myself onto the minotaur or vice-versa.

 

You said something similar when we spoke before your Colbert gig last year, regarding your reservations about the then-new Wolf Parade album. You said you weren’t always sure if those zeitgeist issues you were folding into your Wolf Parade songs were a stand-in for the real trenches of youth that made up Apologies, or if they were legitimate complaints of oppression.

As long as you keep asking those questions, you can kind of check yourself before you wreck yourself, I guess?

[Laughs] Yeah, it’s true. But if people want to, they’ll find a way to say, “you can’t sing about that”. I think I can. It’s just a mindfulness. All artists should know the place they’re coming from, I guess. I need to stay where my place is. Super privileged, always has been. I didn’t grow up super rich or anything, I grew up lower-middle class. But still—I’m a straight, white male from Canada. How bad can it be?

 

 

Photo by N. Pašanović & JPJ

 

The album title, as sung in “The Cave”- what’s going on there? Based on his narration in “Knossos”, I’m tempted to think of the minotaur as our ‘dancer’, and the other song cycle as his ‘bouquet’.

That’s a valid interpretation of the title, for sure, especially given the minotaur’s penchant for dancing on the album. I like that. .  In general, ‘duality’ was this vague theme I recognized as the project came to completion (two perspectives sung from, two projects culled from, two sets of instrumentation, two distinct elements in the cover art, even two pieces of vinyl in one package…) and I was trying to give that idea a nod in the title.

I also just like that line, and that song. The song is about hate, self-hatred, hatred for others, and how hate can swallow you… or drag you down like a tentacled monster into a sea-cave. The title line falls in this verse:

“Raindrops run into rivers down the hill (things build / overwhelm) / And the monster grows yet another pair of legs (hate grows more powerful) / Saying: This one’s for the dancer (the artist / art) and this one’s for the dancer’s bouquet (fans / appreciation of art).”

In this way it’s about how self hatred can lead to hatred of what one does (the dancer / dancing), and in turn hatred of appreciation or recognition from others (the bouquet). It stems from feelings I’ve had in the past about being a performing musician / dude in a rock band. The song is a call for hope and resilience in the face of these kinds of doubt and hate:

When all the colors run together / Surround yourself with golden hearts”

 

You think with a compositional nuance, but you also like rock music, and play in ‘traditional’ venues and clubs. Have you thought about presenting this last Moonface album, and your work at large, in a more multi-disciplinary or avant garde, performative capacity?

I’d love to. It’s hard to get out of the groove that you make over the years in whatever you do. You’re touring and you work with the same booking agents, those booking agents work with the same promoters, those promoters work with the same clubs, and you end up going to the same places over and over again even though the music and projects are changing drastically.

You just end up in The Bowery Ballroom again, which is great, because The Bowery Ballroom is great, but if you start to question it then you feel like a douche. Especially with what I’m planning to do next year, I’d love to get into more art spaces.

 

You sing about a play going on in the next room in “Dreamsong,” and you’ve sung about “sending all the actors away” before. Considering that you traffic in a performative and theatrical language sometimes, it’d be interesting to see your shows take the shape of a more multi-disciplinary production.

I’ve done a couple of interviews already for this record, and I told them this as well, but I can’t tour this record.  I hate to disappoint fans that way, and I wish I had the money and the time to go through with an idea like you’re talking about.

It’s really boring to talk about the money side of the industry, but those realities do exist where, as everyone knows, there’s less and less money going to artists and labels in the industry. So labels can’t offer tour support anymore like they used to, like when I started. You’re totally on your own when touring, so you have to find that money yourself. A band like Wolf Parade, we have that cash in our back pocket to hire a crew and get on the road. Even if we just break even it’s OK, which is often the case.

But a small to middling level project like Moonface? There’s no money coming from the label, and not really any money coming from the guarantees, because most promoters are wary of something like Moonface that’s always changing. Sometimes it’s popular, sometimes it disappears for a few years.

I am going to go out next year and do some solo touring under my own name, I think an April/May/June kind of thing. Those shows will mostly look like when I was touring solo for Julia With Blue Jeans On, just me and a piano. I love the simplicity of it, the purity of just sitting down at a piano and seeing if I can put on a show that way. It doesn’t contain any of the problems with trying to represent these songs as they sound on the album.

So I will be going out, just as Spencer Krug, but that doesn’t mean I won’t be playing Moonface songs, and some Swan Lake or Sunset Rubdown songs, as well as some newer material. It’s just going to be me on the piano, at least so far. I will be doing at least a couple of the songs on this record that we’re talking about, but they’re not going to sound anything like the record.

 

Let’s talk about dreams. They come up in your work a lot, and “Dreamsong” on the new record is such a showstopper. There’s a trajectory that the song takes, can you unpack it a bit for me? What’s your fascination with dreams, with dreaming? The power that they have over you? The power that you have over them?

Dreams probably fall into the same category as myths for me in that they can contain a lot of imagery that just doesn’t exist in real life. They’re just so abstract and surreal and beautiful, especially when they’re vivid. They’re also challenging because they’re almost impossible to convey. There’s actually few things more boring than people trying to explain their dream to you, you know? [Laughs]

When people say they had the weirdest dream and tell you about it for 15 minutes, it’s super boring because, unless they’re really good with language, you can’t get into that space and have those feelings that they were feeling in their dream. But I think that emotions are more pronounced in dreams—when you’re angry, you’re fucking violently angry, when you’re sad, you’re just sobbing.

I’ve woken myself up laughing a number of times, and my partner, too, because I’ve said a joke that I thought was so fucking funny and I’m laughing in my sleep—then it’s not even that funny. Well, one of them was funny—when I called Leonardo DiCaprio ‘DiCapAndGown’ because I was on the set of The Man in The Iron Mask and was making fun of him for some reason by calling him Leonardo ‘DiCapAndGown’. It made him so mad.

“Dreamsong” is a challenge of trying to convey the feeling of being in this one particular, fairly vague dream. It wasn’t necessarily about much except being in a strange building with someone who loved me and my behavior towards them. I was a bratty child, and they were almost my caretaker. I just started writing it down the next day, on tour a long time ago. I transcribed the whole dream, then transcribed that into verses, and the music came later.

Then Jace, he caught on right away as to what I was trying to do. It starts kind of dry and it ramps up into this very ethereal, surreal, washy dreamscape. The vocal changes and the reverb really opens up, then you kind of wake up out of it towards the end. He did that so fucking well, that’s his creation. I was in the other room working on some of the minotaur lyrics.

The way he and I work together now is, he sits down for an hour or two with the songs and I go in the other room and work on something else. That way I just stay out of his hair, because I can be really annoying just by asking questions and wanting to try different things, as every artist wants to do when mixing their own stuff. I realized a while ago he was way better at this than me.

 

Collaboration isn’t always supposed to be an active engagement, sometimes it’s about knowing when to let someone do their own thing and pull back a little.

Yeah, and Jace is becoming such a talented producer. So I let him do his thing for a few hours, then he comes back, says, “OK, I’m ready” and goes to the window to smoke a cigarette while I put on headphones and listen to it. I’ll usually just make five notes, we address those notes and it’s done. With “Dreamsong,” I heard it the first time and said, “That’s it, it’s done, there’s nothing to change.” It was so different from the dry tracks I gave him—he built this entire dreamscape.

 

It hits you right in the chest. And if this is Moonface’s White Album or Sandinista!, then bringing back dreams into the writing when you started this project with the Dreamland EP: marimba and shit-drums is another inspired, full-circle trip. You’re folding all the worlds you’ve built back into this epic final bow.

Thanks, and I like what you said about the myth stuff coming to a close, too. It really does feel like the final chapter of a lot of things. I was on the fence about dropping the name Moonface, but once this record was finished, it made the decision more obvious. This feels like a final thing.

 

Believe it or not, this interview has been condensed. It has been culled from two conversations.

 

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Justin Joffe

Justin Joffe writes about music, art, technology, and other cultural treasures. Reach him on Twitter @joffaloff.

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