Q&A: How Spencer Krug Made His New Moonface Record, “Julia with Blue Jeans On”
By Christian Koons; photos by Tero Ahonen on December 27, 2013
Spencer Krug’s eclectic career in music has been as stylistically varied and colorful as the names of his former projects (Wolf Parade, Sunset Rubdown and Frog Eyes, to name a few). But for his latest album under the solo moniker Moonface, Krug made a left turn back to the basics. He holed up in Finland for the winter with little else besides a piano and the intention of reconnecting with it—an instrument he says he hadn’t really played in 10 years.
The result, Julia with Blue Jeans On, is comprised of only a piano and Krug’s distinct, operatic voice and is a collection of powerful and intimate songs about love and self-acceptance.
We sat down with Krug before his recent show in the Masonic Lodge at Hollywood Forever Cemetery in Los Angeles to talk about his bare-bones approach to making Julia, inspiration and growing comfortable with being uncool.
At what point while reconnecting with the piano did you think you could make a whole record of piano songs?
Spencer Krug: It wasn’t right away, but it was pretty quick. Fairly soon after starting to tinker around with the thing, a couple of songs came out, and somewhere in the deep recesses of my mind, I was probably already thinking I’d make a piano record. And then I kind of just wrote all the rest of the songs at the same time, more or less. I had about 15 rough ideas and I’d pull pieces from one and stick them on another one. I started making a whole album, instead of writing songs, if that makes sense. I think of it as a painter working on a collection of paintings. Like, you hang up a bunch of canvases and walk around the room with your palette. You’re not necessarily finishing one thing and moving onto the next.
Tying to make arrangements with such a simple palette was challenging. I just have my two hands and this instrument that’s really brutally honest. It’s not like a guitar; when you hit a wrong note it’s really obvious. It’s a really dynamic instrument. What you get out of it is how you play it. And trying to write lyrics that reflected the simplicity of the piano was another thing on my mind.
So the content followed the instrumentation.
For sure. I think I normally work that way. The music kind of comes first—to a point—then the lyrics start to form and you tweak the music to the emotional value of what you’re writing.
So a guitar-only record might have produced some different emotional content.
I think so. I would never make a guitar record ’cause I’m so shitty at guitar. Somewhere in my head I was thinking about the piano as I was writing lyrics, for sure. There was totally a point where—not that I didn’t think I could do it—but that I thought that everything I had made was absolute bullshit, just not worth sharing. I thought my head had disappeared up my own ass, basically.
You were working entirely alone. Did you have anyone to bounce ideas off of?
Nope. No one heard it until I recorded it. And by then I try to just trust myself. Like, if I’ve gotten this far, if I’m already in the recording studio, I’m just gonna do it. I don’t care if the engineer hates it or loves it, or whatever.
I still, even now, have doubts about the songs, whether or not they’re any good. But I like playing them. That’s usually a good sign for me that a song is maybe half-decent, if you actually enjoy playing it.
Were you ever tempted to add instrumentation, or were you committed from the start for it to be piano only?
Not from the start, but again, pretty early on. Probably about halfway through the writing process, I thought, “This is it.” I thought about adding drums, actually. I thought piano and drums could be kind of cool, but that’s a whole other vibe. I applied that idea mentally to what I’d already written and it just wasn’t gonna work. I wanted the recording process to be simple and fun and straightforward. And now I can represent the record live, alone, which is both terrifying and extremely calming and also really easy.
Is a piano record something you ever thought you might do back in the Wolf Parade or Sunset Rubdown days?
Yeah, but I didn’t think I’d do it this early. I am in my mid-30s already, but I think in my head it was gonna happen when I was like 50 or something. But then Wolf Parade broke up and Sunset Rubdown broke up, and I had this Moonface thing. The last record I made was a rock album with this band called Siinai, and they’re busy making their own new record, so—well, why not? I guess. I think that was somewhere in my head when I got the piano.
Now that I’m doing it, I love it. Now I don’t want to play with a band again, ‘cause this is so fun and easy. But I will. I’ll get bored of it and I’ll want to play something really loud, and I’ll want to hear the drums and stuff.
What were you listening to when you made Julia?
Before recording I started thinking about production, about what kind of sound I wanted. So I started seeking out piano-and-vocal albums, most of which are pretty shitty. But I found this woman named Rachel Grimes—this album called Book of Leaves. It’s just piano—there’s no vocals—and it’s really cool.
If I wanted to hear just piano music I listen to Philip Glass or Erik Satie. I’m not really a jazz guy, but weirdly some of these songs get kind of jazzy. But I don’t really listen to it. I probably should. If I feel really uninspired by lyrics I’ll listen to singer-songwriter stuff, like Leonard Cohen or Destroyer. Patti Smith has cool lyrics. You know, the obvious ones, the great ones.
People are saying this is your most mature sounding record. You learned piano at a young age. The “Barbarian” video has footage of you as a kid. Could you talk about how you view age and identity in the making of this record?
I didn’t think that I was returning to my childhood in any way. If anything it was a return to my early 20s when I was playing a lot of piano. That’s when I went to music school. I was a composition major and I spent the bulk of my days sitting at a piano just making shit up and writing it down. Making this record was the closest to that time in my life that I’ve been for the last 15 years.
I loved that part of my life, so that was really cool. But then there’s this other flipside—making these kind of schleppy love songs and being comfortable with not being cool. These songs aren’t cool. It’s something that I think has come with age. I think I had to wait to get to a certain part of actual adulthood to be able to properly make a piano record essentially of love songs that are not ironic, that are really sincere and kind of vulnerable and exposed and honest.
So, musically, it was a return to 15 years ago, but lyrically and emotionally, it’s something that I think I only could have made now.
There’s a lyric in “November 2011” about burning your old music and burning computers. How do you view your old material pre-Julia?
So far, with Moonface, there’s nothing that has been released that I regret, or that I’m ashamed of, which I can’t say about other bands that I’ve been in in the past. When I think about Sunset Rubdown or Wolf Parade or Swan Lake, it really feels like a different person made those songs, which I think is pretty normal. I don’t think that’s a dramatic thing to say. We all keep changing every year that we get older. You look back at your behavior from 10 years ago and, in the same way that you wouldn’t behave and interact in the world the same way, you also wouldn’t write the same songs, or the same kind of music, or the same paintings, or whatever it is that you do.
I don’t really ever listen to any of that old stuff I’ve done, and for the most part I can’t even remember most of it, or what it sounds like. I remember, of course, the aesthetic. I can tell you the names of Wolf Parade songs of course, but it really is like somebody else’s work.
In that lyric you’re referring to, “It wasn’t much good anyway,”—actually, I think a lot of it wasn’t much good, but I think some of it is probably great, and maybe even some of the best shit that I’ll ever be able to do. You can’t return—you can’t go back. I’m not going to go back and try to drum up those same kinds of sounds that I was doing 10 years ago. I think that would be forced and it would be terrible and sound horrible. But, when I did it at the time, and it was sincere and genuine— like early Wolf Parade or something—maybe some of that was great.
I was just talking about Destroyer, Dan Bejar, and I remember this conversation we had a long time ago. He was talking about music versus authors. It’s funny, he felt that musicians past 40 or 50—even though he’s totally pushing that age now—he’s like, “It’s a fool’s game. Musicians are only good when they’re young and reckless and they don’t care, or if they have something to prove and they’re all heart. You do your best stuff in your 20s.” And [he thinks] authors are the opposite. If you write books, you only get better. You do your best stuff when you’re in your sixties or something. Obviously that’s a huge generalization, and not always true, but it’s something I think about sometimes.
How does inspiration strike you? Is it mainly musical? Are you inspired by other forms of art? Are lyrics a big inspiration?
Lyrics are a bigger inspiration to me than music, which sounds crazy. It sounds really vain, actually, but I pull most of the music from within. But it is vain. It’s kind of juvenile too. It points to a person that’s really self-involved or something. But it’s true that I mostly just get excited about making something that I haven’t made previously, writing music that’s technically hard for me to play and practicing it over and over again until I can.
But lyrically I do have my heroes I look to—Dan Bejar is one of them. I don’t know. I love words. On a really surface level, I think about lyrics more than I do about music. The music comes out more naturally and more instinctively. I think probably most people that do this kind of shit would tell you the same thing. I could be wrong, but if I sit down at a piano, the stuff just comes out itself, really.
You just have to wait around for it, then you’re like, “Oh, that sounds good,” then you just start arranging things. Then you memorize the arrangement and you play it over and over again until you can do it. It’s a really natural, easy process, whereas lyrics are a lot headier and more about refining and revising. Then there’s the whole thing of actually singing, like, how do you sing them? That’s a really roundabout bullshit answer to a question about inspiration.
Do you like this piano record enough to do another one? Or is it too soon to say?
I do want to make another piano record. I don’t know if it will be just piano and vocals.
So you’ll maybe bring the drums in?
Maybe bring the drums in. Or another vocalist or something. I probably have to sort of vaguely make that decision before I start writing. Well, I’ve already started basically—I have some other piano songs that are not recorded. They’re a little bit different. It’s getting more compositional, more contemporary classical—pseudo-contemporary classical nonsense. Like, long-form stuff. One of them sounds a lot like “Moonlight Sonata” [laughs], with me singing over top of it. F