If you have a list of alternative icons you’d love to get into but don’t know where to start, get ready to cross some of them off with PRIMER, in which we guide you through the varied careers of renowned indie icons. This week Dan Berube guides us through the work of Spencer Krug.
Spencer Krug is perhaps best known as the co-frontman of early 2000s buzz-band Wolf Parade. However, the majority of his recorded output is something like solo work, which many reviewers have eagerly labelled side projects or digressions from the centrally important Wolf Parade. Really, the line of continuity from his earliest home recordings to his most recent stuff is a clearly defined personal song-writing and performance style, occasionally augmented by collaboration and obscured by an ever-changing series of monikers. Spencer Krug may never put out a record simply as Spencer Krug, but the work is always unmistakably his.
His first serious adult recordings (ie. skipping past his much discussed stint as the lead singer of a high school ska band) are lo-fi “computer music”, originating from around 2000. They were initially put out as a run of 5 custom CD-Rs, and were then collected in the 2005 Global Symphonic release Snake’s Got a Leg. They cover a jumble of styles and in quick spurts display Krug’s particular melodic sensibility and signature loopy vocal delivery. Case in point:
Krug labelled this solo testing ground Sunset Rubdown, and as Wolf Parade took off from 2003 onward he expanded it into a 4-6 person live rock band. I should also note that a pre-Wolf Parade Krug served as keyboardist and founding member of the Carey Mercer fronted Frog Eyes, and even considered donating some of his home recordings to their early releases. The slinky instrumental “Sol’s Song” from Snake’s Got a Leg appears as a b-side on Frog Eyes’ expanded Golden River album, tellingly re-labelled “A Song Once Mine, Now No Longer Mine”.
But I digress. Wolf Parade, although composed entirely of Victoria natives, formed in Montreal and was caught up in the Arcade Fire-led ‘Montreal Music City’ buzz that defined cool for so many impressionable high school students. Apologies to the Queen Mary, their first record, is very solid and features a full-band version of an early Rubdown song that has since become Krug’s signature tune. Here it is, set to an excellent Barry Lyndon-esque music video, directed by visual artist Matt Moroz, who also designed many of Krug’s album covers.
The 2008 follow-up album At Mount Zoomer is full of great ideas, but marks the beginning of the end for Wolf Parade as a productive unit. It’s an unlikely intersection of opposing ambitions, shoving together songwriter Dan Boeckner’s increasingly spare proto-punk with Krug’s ever expanding vocabulary of whimsical prog techniques. Compare Fine Young Cannibals to Bang Your Drum. Both are rad songs, but not logical album-mates. For me, the aesthetic tensions are occasionally engrossing, and in the 11-minute closing track Kissing The Beehive, they play out in a kind of operatic volley of motifs that is totally fun to listen to. 2010’s Expo 86 (AKA Apologies to the Queen Mary 2: The Quickening) feels like a contractual obligation or an attempt to pay off a gambling debt, and is just not my favourite thing. For example, “Ghost Pressure” is almost a parody of a Wolf Parade song, which may be intentional, but probably isn’t.
During this run, Krug appeared on a zillion other records, with groups like Fifth of Seven, Islands, Swan Lake, and his old pals Frog Eyes. Many of these efforts are best classified as side projects and guest appearances, but should not be lumped in with Krug’s highly collaborative but still clearly personal and singular band Sunset Rubdown.
The group emerged as a full blown team-effort with 2006’s Shut Up I Am Dreaming, and reached its creative peak with the following year’s Random Spirit Lover. Although a polyphonic and variously talented band, it obviously centred on Krug’s sensibility: a convoluted, mythological lyricism and gleefully tangled prog-pop arrangement style. Swimming and The Taming of the Hands That Came Back to Life are only two examples of the group’s baroque new wave sound. If you ask me, these entire records are essential listening. You may even want to start with the Sunset Rubdown EP – a slight offering, but a favourite of many devoted fans.
2009’s Dragonslayer is a less taxing listen, but also a much less rewarding one. Its more patient, conventionally structured songs are a smooth segue into Sunset Rubdown Introducing Moonface, a limited edition 7” of two stripped down solo recordings. The picture disc, emblazoned with a nostalgic full-band photo, marks passing of the solo project torch to this new moniker, and was followed shortly by the release of Dreamland EP: Marimba and Shit Drums under the name Moonface. This 20-ish minute single track draws on ideas from Krug’s public dream log, and announces a newly introspective, personal song-writing project.
Moonface sees Krug returning to his most fruitful creative post: sole author of his own meandery, self-referential poetic world. So far the output has resembled a catalogue of obviously appropriated sonic minimalisms: Dreamland and Organ Music are clear Steve Reich pop-pastiches, and Heartbreaking Bravery boasts a Neu!-like krautrock drive and melodic economy, with moments practically borrowed from Terry Riley. The lyrics, although laden with sometimes obscure symbolism, have become more emotionally immediate, such as on the tracks Fast Peter and Headed for the Door, two achingly sad stories of romance that bear their humanity with a new-found elegance.