I spoke with Spencer Krug about his memories from recording Apologies and how some of the songs were created:
I remember driving to Portland from Montreal and halfway there being like ‘We’re only half way?” As we were getting closer it’s sort of dawning on us, just being like, why are we driving to Portland to make a record? This is insane. We live in Montreal. You know the travel anger just building up, the anxiety. We’re just like, what are we doing here? Then we got there and we went to Isaac’s house and he clearly was surprised to see us and didn’t expect us until at least the next day. He didn’t care, but that just right away showed how disorganized everything was. He was like ‘Oh yeah, fuck, you guys, right, yeah I booked the studio, we gotta do this. I wasn’t expecting to see you yet’. And us being like ‘I’m pretty sure we’re supposed to be here but you could be right’. In retrospect anyone could have been wrong about when we were supposed to be there, we were so disorganized.
The whole making of the record is a blur of staying sometimes at Isaac’s house; we couldn’t stay there the whole time. Staying in a couple different hotels and no one having any money and Sub Pop trying to put us up even though it’s not really part of their job description as a label to put up the band. I remember scrounging a bunch of change together to go get 5 7-layer burritos from Taco Bell. Literally digging for change out of the cushions of the van. I think we literally had to go to Isaac for money like ‘we have no money, we don’t know what to do, we need to eat’. Stuff like that was happening. But at the same time he was ordering jugs of Margaritas from the bar next to the studio for us to share. Margarita night! There was a definite time crunch though. I specifically remember about half way through Isaac saying ‘I keep hearing the word overdub over and over again, you guys can’t do that’. Everyone was being like ‘oh I’ll overdub it later, I’ll overdub it later’ and there’s this huge list of overdubs that was completely unrealistic. So we were like ‘oh yeah we have a limited amount of time here’. I think we spent a long time getting the bed tracks together, getting the drums feeling right.
I don’t think anyone had a vision for this record. I don’t think Isaac did or we did. It was the first real record that we’d made in a proper studio. From my understanding, it was the first time he was taking a crack at producing and we were all just kind winging it, flailing around and drinking too much. This guy Chris (Chandler) was there, he was the engineer. He was probably the most organized of the bunch. He kept us under wraps. He was the man behind the curtain. He helped to produce that record a lot I think, and helped all of us figure out what to do. Isaac did a great job with a band as disorganized and just sorta childish as Wolf Parade was back then. We’re still disorganized and childish, and this is over 10 years later. I can’t believe he got a record out of us at all. He did a good job with what he had to work with. It’s just that we were children.
When we were in Portland Arlen and I wrote the tunes, like the structure, when everyone else was away. But Chris was in the room so we got him to record it. That’s like one of those magical quiet time moments that sometimes happen in studios. Where if you can get just a couple members together, while the other guys are busy, sometimes you weirdly can get more done really quickly. Sometimes really nice things happen. There’s a song on Mount Zoomer called ‘Call it a Ritual’ which was the same thing, just me and Arlen where the only ones in the barn for that 2 hour span and we put that chord progression and drum beat together. They’re almost the same, right? To me they’re kind of sister songs. Both piano and drum heavy.
As for the drive back to Montreal, I remember parts of that tour. I definitely remember the Rocket Bar show (which Dan mentioned) and I remember the promoter paying us $20. I remember that I didn’t want to play so bad that I said to Dan ‘let just play your songs, I don’t want to sing, I really don’t want to do this show’. Then everyone in the band was like ‘you can’t do that, you have to do it’. It was like ‘ok you’re right I have to do it’. So we just played the show and I remember it being horrible and the promoter showed up late saying ‘sorry I couldn’t be here, I had to be somewhere else and here’s $20’. That was a particularly bad way to end things. I remember those shows basically having no one there. But we were just trying to make our way back home, right. What’s the point of stopping for $20? It wasn’t even that big of a deal. We were young men, so what if we slept in the van and took turns driving and playing these shows. That show was shitty just cause the place was so shitty and the people were kind of shitty. But we just had to drive home and play some rock and roll shows on the way. We were just little kids back then, we had the energy. Like nowadays we’re like ‘oh I need a hotel’ but back then it was not a big deal.
The genesis of ‘You are a Runner’:
Everyone was out getting food or something and Arlen and I put that rif together just me and him. The beginning thing, and the chord progression for the whole song. It’s quite simple right, I just kinda whipped it up and was like ‘Arlen can you play drums’ and he did this weird thing where the drums didn’t really line up with the rhythm of what I was doing. And then there’s this moment of ‘lets not fix that’ and lets keep that a little bit awkward like that. Then it became a great rhythm once we got it tight. So we had the music and I remember writing the lyrics for that song in the basement of the studio kind of like right before I tried to sing them. There was a point then where Isaac was like, ‘this could be a great song’ but it just doesn’t have the energy, it’s not bombastic enough. He was like yelling and getting everyone to keep playing it over and over again. It was fun. Isaac helped to build up the energy of a song like that, which ended being one of my favorite songs on the record.
When we were in Portland Arlen and I wrote the tunes, like the structure, when everyone else was away. But Chris was in the room so we got him to record it. That’s like one of those magical quite time moments that sometimes happen in studios where if you can get just a couple members together while the other guys are busy sometimes you weirdly can get more done really quickly. Sometimes really nice things happen. There’s a song on Mount Zoomer called ‘Call it a Ritual’ which was the same thing, just me and Arlen where the only ones in the barn for that 2 hour span and we put that chord progression and drum beat together. They’re almost the same, right? To me they’re kind of sister songs. Both piano and drum heavy.
There were some other songs that were written in the studio other than ‘You are a Runner..’ . There’s a song of Dan’s called ‘Snakes on a Ladder’
I believe there is a missing reel and it has a couple songs on it. So we re-recorded Killing Armies for Apologies, and there’s another version of that song that is on the missing reel somewhere basically. And then there’s ‘Snakes on a Ladder’ and there was something we called ‘The Bus Song’. Which was a Dan song. I think there’s another version of ‘Shine A Light’ on there too. There’s the long recording of the warm up of ‘You Are a Runner…’. There was a big difference between the version we of ‘Shine A Light’ that we recorded in Portland vs the one we recorded in Montreal. The song we called ‘Costello’ (We Built Another World), there’s a version of that too that got re-recorded and Shine a Light. There are much cleaner versions of those songs on this missing reel I think. But I’ve only heard about this reel from Arlen and Dan so you have to take everything I’m saying with a grain of salt. I don’t know if it even actually exists. It makes sense to me that there could be songs that didn’t make the record that would have not ended up in Sub Pop’s hands. There’s not real gems on there, otherwise it wouldn’t be the reel of unused material. Probably just some real skunkers.
When we re-recorded songs in Montreal at the hundred sided die, I think we re-recorded Shine a Light, Fancy Claps, and Costello (We Built Another World). My best memory of that is Tim Kingsbury coming in and playing on Fancy Claps. We all had so much fun. Cause Tim is such a nice guy and Wolf Parade is not always nice guys you know. Wolf Parade is just weird guys and then Tim is just a nice positive energy and we had so much fun recording that song.
(about the creation of ‘I’ll Believe in Anything’)
I think I wrote that song when I was living above the Barfly in Montreal. Wolf Parade first started practicing in my apartment when I lived in a different part of Montreal, and that was just Dan and I. When I was living above Barfly, that’s when I first started playing with Arlen. It was this loft thing and we were able to have band practices there. Barfly’s a bar in Montreal. There was a piano there in the loft that was left there by whoever lived in my room before me. So I didn’t actually own a piano but had access to this one that was actually in my bedroom. I wrote ‘I’ll Believe in Anything’ on that piano. I remember that. It was a love song, I was in a relationship at the time and I had sort of screwed up and hurt that person’s feelings and it was just an apologetic love song. The words and music came together at the same time. Which doesn’t always happen. In fact it’s kind of rare. It was a real singer songwriter kind of song on the piano. The mini discs (aka the source material for his first Sunset Rubdown release, Snakes Got A Leg) have 2 versions of that song. There’s a piano and vocals version and then there’s one that is keyboards and drums. Which I played a keyboard called Jupiter 4, which is the first keyboard that I used in Wolf Parade and used it for the first few years.
That keyboard was used on Apologies and a lot of the sounds of that record and the EP’s before it come from this keyboard called the Jupiter 4. It’s like a Roland analog synthesizer. So there was another version that was drums and that thing and that was the version that got turned into the Wolf Parade version. It had this random arpeggio setting that I would turn up to a really high rate and just sort of hit the C chord over and over again and made that weird into thing at the beginning of the song. It sounds like random notes but it’s an arpeggiator of a C chord. Eventually I stopped using the Jupiter on stage and Dante had to learn how to recreate that intro thing and he sort of took over part of the keyboards and I just played it on more an electric piano sound. I think from the time I wrote the song to the time Wolf Parade was playing it live, it happened all within the same year. I probably wrote it, then played it once at a solo Sunset Rubdown show, then recorded it. It’s a very uplifting song, you know it’s in like C major and it really swells up to the chorus, and I think the lyrics are sincere.
You know I used to really beat around the bush a lot with vague poeticism. And even though I definitely do that in this song too, maybe not so much as compared to the rest of the record. The lyrics were sincere, I felt really bad at the time when I wrote that song. I felt bad for hurting my partner’s feelings, and that song came out. There’s a truth to it. It’s an honest song. It’s still fun to play this song, and it’s the only song that we’ve played at basically every single show we’ve ever done. It never stops being fun to play live because people enjoy it and that made us feel like we were doing something worthwhile.
Who came up with the tracklist for Apologies?
SK: To be honest I think Sub Pop had a lot to do with putting the track list together. I remember Stuart (Meyer) from Sub Pop saying ‘You Are a Runner…’ has to be first and us just being like ‘yeah we don’t care, of course’. We didn’t care back then. I can’t remember if they had an idea for the entire sequence but I definitely remember Stuart wanting that song to be first. I remember talking for a long time about the sequence for Expo 86 and for a short time on the sequence of Mount Zoomer and not talking at all about the sequence of Apologies. The first record we didn’t care. We didn’t think it was that important probably. The label just suggested a sequence and we were like, yeah. I think we liked it because it went me, Dan, me, Dan for the most part. That set this precedent for all the albums.
Apologies has you and Dan singing on each others songs, maybe doing background vocals at times as well. Was that a conscience decision?
SK: The difference between Apologies and the records that followed, and this is probably true for most bands, is that we recorded the songs after already touring the material. We wrote the songs to play live. Which is how most bands start. Then as they start making records, they start writing songs to put on records. Which is a different kind of monster that yields different results I think. When you’re recording songs that you played live a bunch of times, like all these little ideas have already come out of the woodwork. So it’s very natural just to record them. I think things like backup vocals are one of those things that develop from playing a song over and over again. Especially in a live setting, I might have been like ‘hey Dan, what’s at the end of that song, what are you singing, I’ll sing it along with you cause I’m comfortable enough with my keyboard part now that I can sing along with you’. Or what if I go ‘bop bop bop’ here, or sometimes it’s just not even discussed. If you’re playing a really great show and everyone’s getting really excited and I’m singing the end of ‘I’ll Believe in Anything’ and maybe one day Dan just starts singing along with me because it’s an exciting moment, and maybe it was never discussed. Those things then get recorded cause they’re already happening and it’s natural. When you’re recording songs you know you’re like ‘this is what I do here’ and ‘I sing this’ you put it all down and mix it and see how it sounds.
When you’re writing songs for a record, like the subsequent two records, we were writing them to record them, or writing them in the studio as we record them. Those sort of spontaneous or developed things I guess they’re less frequent and it involves more discussion to make them happen. I would have to approach the band or Dan would. There were have to be a discussion like ‘what if I sang this part here’ and therefore ‘can you teach me the words and show me the notes’ and other combinations. These are conversations that Dan and I are really bad at having with each other. It’s like peeking behind the curtain; you don’t want to ruin the magic. It’s like this weird unspoken rule, never talk about what goes on inside the machine, just let the machine run. Sometimes when we have to have those conversations, they can be quite stiff and awkward between the whole band. Not just Dan and I, but everyone. When we have to talk about the inner workings of a song. Even being like ‘what are you saying there’ for Dan or I to be like ‘what are the lyrics of this part’ is this whole like ‘ugh ok well Dan what I’m saying is..” There’s this stiffness. It’s kind of funny, we’ve always been like that. Part of ourselves is that we’re not good at sharing I guess. I mean we’re friends. We communicate about all sorts of things, just not music. I know that sounds crazy. But we talk about everything else, even our feelings. Especially our feelings if we’re having a big argument. But we don’t communicate that well about music. All we can do is just turn the machine on and let it run and see what happens. Then the next day you turn the machine on and let it run and see what happens and then at the end of the day you go ‘well that’s terrible’ or ‘that’s passable’ or ‘that’s good’.
From Spencer’s email:
Grounds for Divorce:
Thinking about any of these songs always brings me back to some place in Montreal, usually the place / time of their origin, or early stages, and for each of these four songs it’s a different place.
Grounds for Divorce, in my memory, was written by me, Dan, and Arlen, when we were jamming in my weird loft apartment above a bar called Barfly, on St. Laurent. The bar is still there. And I’m sure the lofts are probably still there as well, though I doubt they still rent out for 500 / month or whatever ridiculously low rent I was splitting with my roommate back then.
I don’t remember much about the making of the music, except that it was fun and that Dan and I both liked the rhythmic syncopation that was happening between his wacko guitar shots and the off-beat trills in my right hand. And I’ve always had a soft spot for that song’s dumb-dumb bass line in my left hand. The keyboard we used for that bassline was this little Yamaha thing that Arlen owned which had some cool sounds, so we ended up touring with it for years (but it was just plastic, not meant for touring), until it finally fell apart past my level of patience at an Iceland Airwaves show and I handed it to some kids in the crowd after the last song. A third key had broken off, I think… I met those kids years later, somewhere, maybe when I was back in Iceland. They said they kept the keyboard and had started a band in which it was played. I thought that was cool. Writing this down, I see now that I never actually owned the keyboard and so it wasn’t mine to give away. Sorry, Arlen.
Speaking of Arlen, and the song Grounds for Divorce, I have a specific memory of him saying to me one day: I can’t believe you put the words “Wedding Cake” into a rock song. It was neither a criticism or compliment.
The words for that song… it was about a breakup. I’m sure I’ve talked about it before. The whales and all that…
The place this song brings me back to is our later jam space, at the 100 sided die; a huge screen printing / studio / artist workshop / show space, where I also lived at the time. I had a habit in Montreal of living in sort of big, strange and open spaces, or tiny cramped apartments. No middle ground.
Anyway, I truly have no solid memory of writing the song; not the music, not the lyrics. Maybe we were drunk. But my memory of the 100 sided die is of us recording the song with our friend Tim Kingsbury. It was a really fun afternoon. He’s a nice guy, really funny, and having that new energy in the jam room was great for us, and resurrected our faith in the song, because at that point I think we were on the brink of scrapping it. Somebody told me recently that Tim plays bass on that song, but I don’t think that’s true. In my memory he was shredding on the guitar. Doing all the finger-tapping stuff you can hear on the track. My memory, however, does not have a great track record. So you can believe what you want.
Sons and Daughters:
There is another, THIRD jam space we used in those early years – the space above the bar on the corner of Bernard and St. Laurent. It is still a jam space now, and in fact I was just there a month ago visiting my friends in the band Wintersleep. It hasn’t changed that much. Wolf Parade moved back to that space later on , but at the time of “Son’s and Daughters” it was actually Arcade Fire’s jam space / house and Win and Regine were just letting us use it for a while. I think we were between using the space above Barfly and the 100 sided die space, and just needed something temporary.
So, Arcade Fire had a piano in there and it was on that piano that I wrote the chords for “Son’s and Daughter’s”. I remember the 1st day we jammed it out… the day it became a song. There is a descending melody that happens in my right hand, it happens in the intro, and then a few times times after. Specifically I remember the moment where I realized this descending line would work on top of the main progression AND work to come out of the breakdown, which is a different chord progression, and so it could act as a sort of melodic glue to hold the parts together and make them relevant to each other. That was the moment I knew the song was a song and not just a jam. A keeper. And by the end of that rehearsal we all knew there was a new song somewhere in there.
The lyrics came after. That happens a lot.
I wrote them in my bedroom, still above the Barfly, at my piano there, like a cliche.
The memory here is not of a jam space, but of Jeanne-Mance Park, on the Plateau in Montreal. I was walking there with my friend Jenny on a fall afternoon. I told her I had some possible new lyrics for a new song. She surrendered. I recited the 1st verse. She more or less laughed and said they were corny, but also touching. I knew they were corny, yes, but I liked them anyway. And walking with her there I made the decision to use them, if for no other reason than simply BECAUSE I knew they were corny, because to not do so would be somehow cowardly, and a step towards being the kind of songwriter I didn’t want to be. I’ve written a lot of lyrics over the past decade that have been just plain embarrassing, especially having to sing them out loud to people, but I don’t regret any of them. I don’t want to play it safe. I don’t want to pose.
The music: I remember really liking the ending; Dan’s guitar lines.
When Wolf Parade signed to Sub Pop, the owner, Jonathan Poneman, told me he liked Dinner Bells. It was the only specific thing he told me about the album. He’s seen a lot. I welcomed the compliment.
Now it’s 2015 and I haven’t listened to any of these songs for a long, long time.
It’s nice to think about the old days. Another life.