Spencer Krug doesn’t like to be fawned over. It’s uncomfortable. It’s too much pressure. It’s unwarranted, undeserved. He’s not as smart or important as you may think he is. But try telling that to the crowds of the sold-out, five-night Wolf Parade residency at Bowery Ballroom last month.
I meet the 39-year-old musician on a sunny rooftop in downtown Manhattan, the day after one of these triumphant shows. It’s two in the afternoon and he’s enjoying a Stella Artois and bagel. This Friday on June 3, Krug will release My Best Human Face (streaming in its entirety below), the new record from his other current musical entity, Moonface and Siinai. We’re discussing his retrospective analysis of the record, but the conversation isn’t really about the music at all. There’s no talk of guitars or “his writing process,” but I am finding out a bit about who Krug is as a person.
He’s indecisive—for one. His late-in-the-game order change at the bagel store was almost a scripted example of that. He gets bored really easily and tends to think the grass is always greener. But he’s trying to shake that attitude, becoming more present and thankful, appreciating the here and the now. And he’s been successful lately, like when chaos struck a few days earlier when the band went to go play on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. With limited time for soundcheck, he realized that his MIDI controller had died a death. He ran through Times Square with a keyboard under his arm and made it just in time to perform on the show. Unfortunately, it was a “crazy, ugly, piece of shit” with silly lights and big knobs. It looked like he was standing in front of a clown car, but he caught his breath, and the show went on.
The majority of My Best Human Face was recorded north of Helsinki, where Krug was living at the time; the boys in Siinai are all Finnish. At that point, around the winter of 2014, the record only had scratch vocals (used more as a reference or placeholder). Once Krug moved back to Vancouver Island, Canada, he finished the lyrics. He then spent about a year tweaking the album to get it just right, another symptom of his perfectionism, or indecision. The town he lives in, Cobble Hill, is about an hour and a half north Victoria, the island’s biggest city. He’s got a house he shares with his girlfriend and Wolf Parade bandmate Dante DeCaro. While working on the record, he’d take his new puppy, a labradoodle named Oliver, to run around the lush greenery of a nearby mountainside.
“It’s not that hard to be poetically inspired when you’re living in the trees,” Krug says. “There’s something about the pastoral landscape that lends itself more to words than music. The words aren’t really about that, except as so much as they’re introspective.” He’s right, introspection and long walks in nature do go hand-in-hand. But he fears the solitude of the area is a trade-off for the culture he’d experience back in a big city. “It’s a very dangerous way to live for someone who is trying to make art for a living inside a vacuum,” he says. “I very easily stop being inspired and stop making music.”
Krug is the type of guy who actually loves cutting his own songs from a record. “It purifies the process somehow,” he says. “It acknowledges that not everything you make is good. And you should never think that it is. Sometimes you can take it all the way until the end, and it’s good to step back and realize the whole thing was a mistake.”
These notions: the ebbs and flows of inspiration and the cathartic purge of killing his songs, are two of many factors that fueled the theme of this record. At late stages in the game, it became clear that a lot of the album had to do with identity crisis. It wasn’t intended, but it kept popping up in the lyrics. The context of the phrase “identity crisis,” is important, because it isn’t necessarily some singular internal battle. It’s a series of questions, he lists: “Who am I? What am I doing? Am I good person? Am I even worthy of calling myself a human? Or am I just a monster sociopath?” For the record, he doesn’t actually think he’s a sociopath, but My Best Human Face is starting to make a little more sense as a title. “You know those days when you feel really worse than everyone else? For whatever reason?” he asks, “…maybe some people don’t get that.”
Most of the record is about Krug, his life, and how he interprets the world around him. The main question to take from it all is probably this one: “Is music a noble enough thing to put your whole life into?” Krug says. It’s some odd form of artist shame he’s stricken with, maybe particularly because he plays what he calls “self-involved-whiny-first-person-singer-songwriter-bullshit.” He follows up, “There are just so many more important fights to be had in the world, and I don’t know if music is a very noble way to spend your whole life. I think it’s actually a very vain, self-involved thing to do.”
It’s jarring to hear a guy wonder if the last fifteen years of his life were worth it, especially when he’s in the middle of a sold-out residency in New York City, Wolf Parade released EP 4 just days earlier, and the Moonface record is imminent. Yet that transparency, that honesty is powerful. He reconciles these doubts with qualifiers; although what he gets out of playing music is very selfish, he understands what the music he makes means to the people who love to listen to it. Plus, it’s the only thing he’s really good at. At this point in his life, what else is he going to do anyway? He’s wrangling his thoughts out loud. Frankly, it’s a wonder he’s able to take the stage without breaking down, but somehow, he doesn’t. When he takes the stage, he’s locked in a state of Zen. It’s a physical and exuberant experience. He’s using his muscle memory to play, more as an athlete than a performer. He’s putting his mantra to “embrace the chaos,” to use. It took him years and years to realize that keeping calm under pressure is the only way to achieve. Stay cool, knock things down one at a time.
“Even though objectively, from afar, I don’t know if I’m spending my life in the right way,” Krug says. “In the moment, I’m not gonna dwell on that side of my problem, because it’s not helpful.” Plus, he loves singing and seeing people enjoy themselves, like the front row that’s often lined with the Wolf Parade fan club. But that headspace is in constant flux and when he’s back in isolation his wheels start spinning. “It’s easy to be happy being a musician under those circumstances,” he says. “It’s when it’s three in the morning and you can’t sleep and you haven’t been on tour in six months, you have way too much time on your hands to think. Those are the times that you start having a crisis about whether or not you’re doing the right thing with your life.”
This symptom, this looming “what if,” has been going on for a while. In his twenties, he bailed on a college degree on two occasions, both of which he was three years into schooling for. He studied creative writing and music in cities from Victoria to Montreal, but ultimately decided it was all bullshit anyway. “What are you gonna do, put it on your resume and show it to a band?” he asks laughing.
In his lifetime, Krug has been a dish-pig, a busboy, and worked in retail stores. It was around the age of 25 when he had a realization while working at a bagel shop in Montreal. He was a natural-born Canadian citizen surrounded by undocumented immigrants from Jamaica and the Philippines working 18-hour shifts for minimum wage. He had a high school education and plenty of credits towards college degrees that he’d opted not to complete.
“It was such a slap in the face, it was a reality check,” Krug says. “I was an art kid just working to pay my rent so I could keep my band going, then I had this rude awakening of how easy I had it.” And then a co-worker asked him, “What the fuck are you doing here?” So he quit his job. He put all his effort into Wolf Parade, which happened to be gaining some attention at the time anyway. After that moment, he decided that he’d never work outside the arts again. And save for some occasional creative nonfiction writing for small publications, Krug has made almost all of his money through Wolf Parade, while Moonface and Siinai gives him the creative freedom he enjoys.
So how, after this grand revelation and all these years of playing music, is any of this uncertain to Krug? His constant need to be occupied only makes things trickier. He’s released a vast catalogue of music since the bagel shop: over 20 records since 2002—under the name of Wolf Parade, Moonface (some of which with Siinai), Frog Eyes, Sunset Rubdown, Swan Lake, and Fifths of Seven.
Krug is sincere, but a tough, often contradictory nut to crack. He loves writing music and performing it, but feels shame because of it. He doesn’t want to be idolized, but understands the inherent narcissism in playing music to begin with. He loved playing a weeklong residency in New York, but don’t get him wrong, he doesn’t want to be in a “big band.”
Maybe this is why his experience with journalists has generally been unfavorable. He’s not an easy person to write about. “I don’t like doing interviews,” he answers honestly when asked. “But I don’t mind this. We’re just talking like people.” Let’s hope he meant that. The promotion of art is always an artist’s least favored pastime and Krug is no different. He’s not a fan of the weird flowery metaphors—“Cascading synthesizers! Synthesizers don’t cascade. That doesn’t make any sense”—and sometimes the whole industry rigmarole swerves from cheesy and superficial, to simply dirty and distasteful, which is why he opted to cancel an interview with the New York Observer after finding out they publicly endorsed Donald Trump. There are moving parts to all of this, some of which he just can’t be a part of.
It can be inferred that he feels the perception of his relationship with the other members of Wolf Parade hasn’t always been accurately portrayed either. In the past few months preparing for tour, he’s been back at it with the band, rewriting abridged versions to songs from the last record before their break-up. It’s been their way of priming the newest incarnation of the band for their gigs. He’s been juggling the release of both records and hoping that the timing of all of this only helps garner attention for Moonface and Siinai, not subtract from it. As far as his relationship with the rest of the band, he sees it as a family.
“He’s a profound friend,” Krug says of cohort Dan Boeckner. “We both akin each other as brothers, I think the whole band thinks of each other as brothers.” And brothers will fight as they always do, but they’re learning to forgive each other and remember the love they have for one another. The idea that he and Dan have some underlying beef, he says is completely untrue.
“A lot of people weirdly think Dan and I hate each other,” Krug says. “Which is a complete fiction. We have huge arguments but so have all friends. They think that we’re in competition with each other. We’re in the same band. We’re actually just trying to make this band good together. Anyway, if we hated each other, you’d be able to tell watching. There wouldn’t be any chemistry on stage.”
That foundation of family is what created that chemistry. For Krug, that feeling of safety comes from the ability to take down his guard. He has that with Wolf Parade, and he has that with Siinai. And it all happens when he sings.
“I find that the most intimate part of making music with people is when I have to sing new lyrics in front of them,” Krug says. “It’s very vulnerable, right? You don’t know if it sounds good yet. And if your lyrics are any good at all, then they’re slightly poetic and they tell you something about the speaker. They are intimate feelings that you’re not sharing with your jovial bros. You are kind of standing there with your dick out and it makes you closer to the people that you make music with.”
As for his quest for nobility, he still doesn’t quite know where he stands. But that’s OK. Krug says that all geniuses throughout history have been slightly unhinged. And I think that’s fair.
Derek Scancarelli hopes he’s picked a noble cause, too. Let him know on Twitter.