As a singer for collaborative bands Wolf Parade and Swan Lake, as well as his own project, Sunset Rubdown, Spencer Krug's unique voice dominates his songs. Something of a hybrid of David Bowie's emotive wail and Isaac Brock's cracked yelp, it's strong, if not necessarily confident, and always the defining feature of any song in which it appears.
So it's somewhat of a surprise that his conversational voice is so soft and hesitant. Frequently, he apologizes for what he believes to be an unclear response to a question, no matter how eloquent his answer might have been. One thing is apparent, though: He has not let the critical acclaim and enthusiastic fan base for his beloved bands go to his head. Instead, he dismisses his songs as "little ditties" and passes off the ideas that inspire his lyrics as "whatever kind of bullshit I'm interested in that day."
"I play with so many talented people," Krug says. "I feel stupid when I try to write them a guitar part or something, and then they're like, 'Yeah, or we could—'" [makes guitar noises] "—and I'm like, 'Yeah, of course!'"
Sunset Rubdown performs with Hospital Ships and Fight Bite on Monday, September 29, at the Granada Theater.
Then, when talking about how Sunset Rubdown, the band Krug is currently leading around the country on tour, evolved from a solo recording project into a working, touring band, he says, "I kind of wanted to play the songs live, but the solo shows were kind of a joke."
Though it seems unlikely that many people in the audience for a Krug solo show would agree, his self-deprecation seems genuine. He simply holds his work to a high standard, one he doesn't feel he can reach on his own. Some bandleaders try to achieve perfection by micromanaging their fellow musicians, dictating note-for-note exactly what to play. Krug takes the opposite approach, as his work in collective projects like Wolf Parade and Swan Lake demonstrates. That doesn't mean it's always comfortable, though.
"I think [working with collaborators] is really rewarding and something people should do, to try to work with other people and compromise your own work," he says. "They open you up to working in different ways. But to say that I'm naturally drawn to it would be a lie. If anything, sometimes it's a struggle, and you want to say, 'Fuck this, I'll do it by myself.' I mean, we're talking about some of my best friends in the world, but sometimes you're just not in the mood for collaborating, and you're listening to someone else's guitar track over your song, and you want to be like, 'I don't know if that works there.' But at the same time, you're like, 'We chose to do this together.'"
This attitude even informs his one-time solo project. While all of the songs in Sunset Rubdown are his, Krug says he takes the input of the other three band members quite seriously.
"A lot of the little details of writing happen when you're jamming," he says. "Those are some of the best parts of the song, the little details that never are discussed."
Those little details can add up, as completist fans of his work can attest. His openness to others' input, coupled with his hesitance to accept a song as finished, has led Krug to record some songs multiple times. For example: "I'll Believe in Anything" was first released on Sunset Rubdown's Snake's Got a Leg in July 2005, and then again, albeit reworked, on Wolf Parade's Apologies to Queen Mary later that year. Unofficial releases of reworked Sunset Rubdown songs abound on the Internet as well.
"Through playing a song a bunch of times, or teaching it to other people and hearing what they do to it, you're like, 'Oh, this song is actually better played like this,'" he says. "I don't think there's any reason not to share that, if there's anyone that wants to hear it. I like making different versions of the same song...They happen really naturally. Especially with Sunset Rubdown; things really morph in the hands of those people. Sometimes they change for the better so much that it feels like it warrants a second recording."
But for every re-recorded song, there are a few songs with which Krug is so pleased that they warrant a sequel—such as Sunset Rubdown's "Stadiums and Shrines" parts one and two, and "Snake's Got a Leg" parts one through three.
"As far as sequels go, that's usually just lyrical ideas that I'll only touch on in one song, but I'll be like, 'Oh, I really kind of like that sentiment, or that metaphor'...but wasn't able to expand on it as much as I wanted to within the song...I could just not address that—like say it's another song. But by making it a sequel, it's my way of communicating to anyone paying attention that I was borrowing from something I've already done, and I'm aware of that, and they don't need to point out that I'm repeating my lyrics."
As one would expect, lyrics are a primary concern for Krug, who, along with musical composition, studied creative writing at Concordia in Montreal. But Krug dismisses the idea that the workshop setting of his creative writing classes informed his habit of working with musical collaborators, or even had much influence on his songwriting.
"I took a poetry class, and I'm terrible at it," he says. "I'm a terrible, terrible poet. I wouldn't dare submit song lyrics as poetry. I think song lyrics and poetry and short fiction are three very, very different things. I can kind of pull off short fiction if I have the time and attention span, and I can kind of pull off song lyrics. Poetry, I'm terrible at. I don't have a delicate enough hand.
"If there's crossover between the fiction and the lyrics, I wouldn't know, because I don't really pay attention to where my lyric ideas come from. I guess, in a sense, they are boiled-down stories, and I just pare things down to the bare-bones metaphors and things. I guess they could be seen as little narratives."
Animals and magic are recurring themes in his lyrics, as Krug likes to steep the world we live in with mythology to create some parallel universe. The narratives are vague, which many fans appreciate. But Krug struggles with the question of whether to continue writing such open-ended lyrics.
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"I like to mask things in metaphor, but I don't really have the attention span to create one giant, perfect, seamless analogy for things," he says. "Like, I'm gonna write a song about this lady I like, but I'm going to make her a tiger. I don't have the attention span to hold onto that metaphor for a whole song. I don't know why. It'll last for two lines, then it'll drift off into something else."
Krug has not left behind fiction entirely, however. He still works on surrealist short fiction when he has the time, which is seldom. He generally doesn't write for an audience, though. He has submitted stories to some "small, free publications" but thinks he'd need another decade of work to write anything presentable. Rather, he looks at fiction writing as a way to keep up his chops.
He can't be a rock star forever, you know. Not at this prolific rate.
"I don't think I'll be singing these songs my whole life," he says. "I don't mind the idea of Plan B being writing—fiction writing or anything. I've always liked writin