5 Questions with Spencer Krug

1. What are some of your musical inspirations? Why is it that you stuck with playing keyboards, and are there any keyboardists that you find influential? Additionally, do you have any inspiration from world music, or orchestral works (for example, romantic era composers)?

Here’s what I think about inspiration.

Last week I went to see Tron (obviously). I thought Daft Punk’s soundtrack was fantastic. Easily as good as Jeff Bridge’s performance of a tripped-out baby-boomer trapped in a computer learning Zen principles. But I didn’t go see that movie because I like Daft Punk. I don’t follow Daft Punk, so I had no idea they were doing the soundtrack, and wasn’t expecting to hear anything special that night. It was a surprise. I think most music that I like nowadays, or that I find inspiring, comes to me randomly, and in the form of a surprise. It’s as though I forget how much I like music – or even convince myself that I hate music, in general – until I hear some random thing that excites me, and then I remember how awesome that feeling is; that kind of actual listening; physically experiencing the thing, absorbing it purely, outside of any cultural context. And that feeling in and of itself is what’s inspiring. That, and knowing that it can exist. The music itself, the specifics of it, become secondary.

I think inspiration, for musicians, just acts as a kick in the ass to get back to work at whatever it is that they do. I don’t think they necessarily sit down and try to emulate the thing that just inspired them. Chances are they were just moved by the existence and communication of beauty or darkness or energy within the thing, and reminded that they want to take part in that kind of communication. Just as the soundtrack to Tron made me want to write music, but I seriously doubt my next record will sound anything like Daft Punk. For me, the way moments of inspiration trickle down into any music that I make is through a long series of idea-tunnels in my head, and the specifics of the thing that initially inspired me are pretty watered down by the time I hit the RECORD button.

And sometimes listening to music can be like setting up a row of dominos that lead away from the initial inspiration. The other night some friends from Helsinki, a band called Siinai, sent me a link to their songs, and I really liked all of it. Lots of drones and long progressions and patience. I think it was the patience that I found inspiring. Then the 4th track reminded me of David Bowie’s LOW album. So I dug out LOW and put it on, and was really digging the instrumental stuff, and started thinking about how much I like instrumental music, or, another way of putting it, how much I think lyrics are bullshit most of the time. So then I started listening to some gamelan music, and it wasn’t long before I wanted to make the next Moonface album an instrumental record – or at least something not lyrically based. Regardless, I wasn’t thinking about Sinnai anymore at all.

But of course, the day after tomorrow I’ll hear a snippet from some lyricist that I love, (Leonard Cohen, Patti Smith, Mark E. Smith, Dan Bejar…) and be inspired again to try writing lyrically, and in the end, the next Moonface will be, like most albums I’m involved in, a shitmix.

Ultimately, different moments of inspiration just serve to keep me playing, but they don’t actually bring me any closer to knowing what I want a finished product to sound like. I try to let the music decide that for itself, in a way.

As for keyboards, no, there are no specific keyboardists that inspire me. At least not for the kind of music I’m making right now. (I love Glen Gould, but mostly because he, his story, was such an anomaly.) There are obviously really talented jazz and classical pianists out there, but they don’t inform anything that I’m working on in recent years. The truth is I’m a little bit bored of keyboards, and the only reason I “stuck with them” in Wolf Parade is because Dante and Dan are two of the best guitarists I know, and I’m terrible at guitar, so with them flanking me at all times it really only makes sense for me to play keyboards in that band. (The flip-side of that dynamic is that I am way, way better at keys than both of those two. Like, miles above them. Especially Dante.)

I do like listening to world music (though I’m not exactly sure what that term means anymore.) I love gamelan music – the more percussive the better. And I like all that reissue stuff that people are into these days – the rediscovered Asian pop or African choral music – stuff like that. A friend of mine co-owns Mississippi records so he gives me their releases sometimes. I’m not good at seeking out new releases, and probably wouldn’t have heard much of what I just mentioned if it weren’t for him. That said, I think I’m less into the southern-style-old-man-on-a-porch-with-a-banjo-folk tradition than most people are. Many friends of mine really dig those kinds of old recordings, but I can take it or leave it, myself.

As far a classical music goes, I don’t know my shit well enough to tell you who I like in the Romantic Era, but I think the classical composers I know are a little more contemporary than that. Here are a few of them in no particular order: Ligeti, Steve Reich, Bartok, Gorecki, Philip Glass, Satie, Charles Ives, Schoenberg, Harry Partch… and to go on would be bullshitting more than I already am.

2. What’s the status of the songs that you played on tour prior to At Mount Zoomer that never made it to the record? Could they ever make it to a future EP or album? Could they appear again on a future tour?

No. There is basically zero percent chance of that happening. And not just because we’re on “hiatus.” Those songs became dead songs a long time ago.

Wolf Parade has a little place we like to call the song graveyard, and we send songs there all the time. All songs die, but they have varying life spans which are unpredictable. Some are born super-healthy and live for a long time, like This Heart’s on Fire – that’s the first song Dan and I ever worked on together and we still play it live all the time, years later. That song is like Dorian Gray, and the band is like the aging portrait. But then even Dorian Gray died in the end…

Other songs seem like they’re really healthy and will live a long time, but in secret they have some bad disease they’ve never told anyone about because they don’t want the other songs to worry, and then one day the band turns around and the song has died for reasons we don’t know. This (we think) is what happened to songs like Lousy Pictures and/or Dinner Bells.

Then there’s songs like Grounds for Divorce or Secret Knives – songs that the audience always thought were pretty decent, but we, the band, knew otherwise. We’d watched the songs grow from toddlers into teenagers, and we could see them turning into a real ungrateful pieces of shit – just, petty and demanding, you know? After all we’d done for them… So one day we just snuffed them out when they least expected it. That’s how we roll.

Now, sometimes, when we’re playing a show, we’ll look over at side-stage and see the ghosts of old songs standing there, watching us, like the ghosts of Yoda and Darth Vader and Obi-Wan Kenobi standing (awkwardly) around the Ewok party at the end of Return of the Jedi. They’re usually looking not too impressed, and shit-talking all the new songs. The ghost of Disco Sheets, for example, HATES Cloud Shadow on the Mountain, and loves to bitch about it between the bumps he’s snorting off the back of his hand, pissing into the ear of the now long-dead Same Ghost Every Night. But Same Ghost barely hears him, because he’s overflowing with resentment toward Fine Young Cannibals, and so drunk that it’s all he can do to fold his arms at his chest and try to stand upright on one spot.

And then, to answer your question, there are tragedies like the songs you mention above: songs that are written in full, even played on stage a few times, but then die so young that they don’t even have names yet, like when a kitten gets under the sink and eats the rat poison while you and your roommate are still just calling it “Kitty” until you think of a better name. These songs, the tragedies, are just born at the wrong time, and doomed from the start. So we let them slip away without a fight. And no, we’ll never play them again.

We try to move forwards instead of backwards. If there are songs that we haven’t played in a year or more, while at the same time new material that we want try, then we’ll almost always opt for the latter.

3. What goes into the discussion when deciding on a set list for a given show? How much does the audience reaction from previous shows go into the decision about what to play?

We think a lot about past shows when making a set list – what works and what doesn’t, for us and for the audience. When we play live, we sort of only have as much fun as the audience does. If the audience gets bored, we get a little bored ourselves, or if the audience is awkward then we feel awkward, but if they get excited, well… An ideal show for us is one that creates an energy that flows back and forth from audience to stage, feeding off itself, feeding the band and audience in turn, and climaxing near the end of the night without too many obvious and vibe-harshing screwups.

It’s not unlike having sex. And audience, we’ve had sex with you so, so many times now, you just gotta trust us – we know what you like. A long time ago you told us that you don’t really like that thing we do with your nipple, and so obviously now we don’t do the nipple thing anymore. Even if you start asking for the nipple thing mid-sex, thinking that now you might want it, we still won’t do it, because we know, from experience, that it will kill the mood, (regardless of whether or not WE like the nipple thing), and we are thoughtful and attentive lovers. And by ‘nipple thing’ I of course mean Two Men in New Tuxedos.

So the next time you leave a show saying “Why didn’t they play blah blah blah,” the answer is one of two:

1) the band doesn’t like playing it, so if they do play it, it will stink, and you’ll be able to tell, even if you think you can’t tell whether or not the band is having fun, you can, on some level. That’s the feeling of your FUN-DAR picking up zero blips on the screen.

2) The band likes playing it, but they know from experience that you don’t like hearing it. They’re at least pretty sure you won’t like it as much as you think you will. You, sir, who’s yelling it over and over again.

Either way, the band has the audience’s best interests in mind, so don’t be mad at them for not doing the nipple thing or playing a song they haven’t played in three years.

4. Can you tell us more about your time in Two Tonne Bowlers? How did the band come together? What are some of your favorite ska bands?

First off, that band was undeniably terrible, but I was a teenager at the time, and therefore exempt in all mistakes made in the experimental worlds of art, love, and substance abuse, just as every teenager should be. That said, I’ll never forgive Carey “The Snitch” Mercer. Loose lips sink ships, and now, everybody, there will never be another Swan Lake record.

Two Tonne Bowlers started when I was fifteen or sixteen, and ended sometime between then and grade 12. We were nerds, so the high school band department had no problem giving us the keys to the band-room to use as a rehearsal space. There were eight of us to start, but at some point we kicked out the saxophone player for being too good. He went on to Berkley to study jazz. Looking back, that was probably the smartest thing we ever did, even though he was pretty cool in his own right. He could play Stairway to Heaven on his alto sax.

We played some shows around BC, mostly in Penticton, our home town. One day we played a show in Nelson opening for a band from Vancouver called the Smugglers. They liked us. They had ties to Nardwuar the Human Serviette, singer for a band called Thee Evaporators, and he brought us to Vancouver to open for them, as well as a cool band called Carp. It was on Hastings street somewhere. I think the place is a weed cafe now. That was probably our biggest show, and maybe the last… I have a terrible memory but I doubt if we ever played more than fifteen shows.

As for the CD we made, it was only possible because our bass player’s father was an anesthesiologist and he funded the entire thing. We recorded it at the only recording studio in town. I remember that the studio even helped us make the cover because they had real computers, and we were all blown away by some early version of photoshop. The recording was bland and dry and overproduced, (the engineers were really into learning how to use all the new digital gear at the time – not one of the strong points of the mid-nineties) and we never really liked the album. We were much faster and louder and messier on stage and preferred our live sound… sort of like WP…

The whole ska resurrection of the early / mid-nineties was a pretty regrettable fad in Canadian music, I think. It led to a lot of predictable, kitschy, corny music played with an insincere earnestness (kind of like indie rock?) But whatever, it was short-lived and harmless and part of our own little coming of age at the time (kind of like indie rock.)

I would like to go on record as saying that I have no “favorite ska bands,” but for a short time in my teenage-hood there was a lot of swapping of some cool old stuff, like The Specials, or Madness, as well as newer, harder stuff, like Operation Ivy, which segued into punk really easily, and so probably helped justify the whole fascination at the time.

5. Are there any trends that you find frustrating or disappointing? Are there any trends in music today that you find exciting or inspiring?

My initial answer to this question was a long rant about how excited I was to see online music journalism starting to wane. I thought maybe some of the hundreds of blogs were starting to lose some of their dubious credibility, and wanted to talk about it for a little while, but five paragraphs and two quotes about the meaninglessness of music journalism later I realized that even I myself didn’t believe I was writing. The truth is I have no idea what’s going on on the internet, and I like music journalism, when it’s good.

Let me just say, to answer part of this question, that it’s often frustrating to see how music is written about on the internet. There are many nonsensical similes and metaphors that say nothing in particular. There is a lot of writing that is more a showing off of vocabulary than a comprehensible description of what something sounds like; writing that’s more an attempt to make the reader notice the writer, rather than the music.

I think there are many writers that simply connect the dots of what was written before them, then cut and paste information to make their own piece. And then too there is a lot of writing that gets hung up on the past, insisting on comparing an artist’s work to whatever it was they did before, which seems to me like an easy way to write about a band, instead of taking the time to write an honest, thoughtful, and objective critique of the current music in front of them.

Also, there is often the building up of new acts in an attempt to appear cutting-edge, and then the tearing down of these same acts a year or two later, in an attempt, again, to appear cutting-edge. And in this way, there is a total lack of accountability. Also in this way, there is the championing of originality, but only that originality which falls safely within the parameters set and determined by whichever hundred voices are chattering at the time, agreeing with one another. This demands that artists walk a middle line; be something that can be comfortably yet hiply endorsed, even implicitly discovered, but then later shat upon, safely, if it will make the website look discerning. But this is “demanded” of an artist only if he / she / they are seeking the approval of the online critics. If they are not, then it become remarkably easy to be only slightly annoyed now and then, and the rest of the time just say fuck all y’all.

I know I must sound bitter, but I’m not, not really, not any more than any other musician I’ve talked with on this subject. So much online writing just seems totally irresponsible, and it’s weird that it’s still allowed to happen. It’s annoying when my own projects are written about in this way, of course, but these days I hardly read reviews of things I’m involved in – just the super influential ones that can actually have an effect on whether or not I can keep making music or have to go back to making dough at the bagel shop…

What I’m complaining about here affects (and annoys) musicians and readers everywhere. It’s a specific, half-assed, petty type of journalism found online that’s just getting so fucking OLD – across the board. So basically, come on internet – try harder.

What do I find exciting or inspiring these days? I don’t know. I remember at the end of the nineties being like, “Hooray! The next decade of music is going to be so much more exciting than the last!” But I’m not sure that happened. TV got better, that’s for sure.

I believe that “indie rock” is dying, or more specifically, I believe that the coy, sycophantic, fluffy beast I see in my head when I hear the term “indie rock” is dying, and that’s probably a good thing. My ear is not exactly to the ground nowadays, but I feel like there is a shift, or return, to electronic music, happening somewhere between the underground and the mainstream. I don’t necessarily find that exciting or inspiring, but I think it’s interesting. I also don’t know if it’s true. Things move so quickly in and out of the limelight.

What I would love to hear in music, everywhere, is a renewed appreciation for improvisation. Not just in noise or jazz music, but in bands all across the board – at least elements of improvisation. It would be refreshing to see more musicians take that risk, and to see more audiences open themselves up to it, because things have felt a little stiff for the past long while.