Earlier this year, DiS gave Sunset Rubdown’s fourth album a rare 10/10. With their multi-segmented, multi-hooked songs whose lyrics more than match the music for intricacy and emotional impact, Sunset Rubdown feel like a cult band teetering on the verge of populism, and only remaining cult because they deliver too much. In the Spencer-verse, Olympians and vampires fall into and out of affairs, speak slangily as they hang out with extinct buffaloes, handsome vultures and snakes with legs, while a gang of travelling players navigate a landscape of stadiums and shrines. Two years ago, SunRub felt like a return to the golden age of Elephant 6 psychedelia (Neutral Milk Hotel, Olivia Tremor Control, The Microphones), but with their new album written to be played live, and played loud, Dragonslayer is more like a return to the golden age of Bowie, T-Rex, Eno, Roxy Music.
With the UK leg of Sunset Rubdown’s tour beginning next week, DiS caught up with songwriter & frontman Spencer Krug to talk about the new record…
DiS: How musicianly are you? In an earlier interview, you described yourself as lazy, but then elsewhere you mentioned music college, so it made sense that you might compare yourself to people who are more prolific, or more technically ambitious…
Spencer Krug: I went to music college for three years. And I am kind of lazy. But, [I’m] comparing myself to what I know can be done, and what I might be capable of… I’ve been working on some projects that are more artistically inclined, and more challenging. At college I was exposed to a lot of contemporary classical music that I adored. Or jazz… but I wasn’t super into jazz. So, when you hold a song that the people like, like ‘I’ll Believe in Anything’ [on both the first Wolf Parade and the first Sunset Rubdown albums], up to Steve Reich, or John Cage, or Kronos Quartet…it seems like a joke, like holding something you drew, while you were on the phone, up to a great painting. There’s a part of me that knows those are great works of art, and these are just rock songs. And rock is important, it plays a cultural role, and I like going to shows, but I don’t think that…I think that these songs may be good because they’re not ambitious. They have a different role in society… but I don’t know what that means, and I don’t want to elaborate on that. They’re rock songs, but at the end of the day, they’re a lot easier to do, technically. Gigging is fun…and honest…and [laughs] it’s really easy to be in a shitty rock band!
DiS: At the beginning of Sunset Rubdown, the point seemed to be exploring the possibilities of a lo-fi sound. Thinking of Snake’s Got a Leg, the impulse there seems to be: experimentation with the textures produced by lo-fi recording – but that project’s valid in its own right, No?
SK: That’s true. But it was also necessary. I didn’t have any other equipment, and there was something I liked about that sound. I think Sunset used to be an exploration of sound…and now it’s lyrics, and structure, and what five people can do together. I’ve basically abandoned that, because it’s not practical on the road. It actually becomes more expensive to sound lo-fi. I used to play accordion, through distortion pedals, with one side going into one amp, and one into the other. It sounded pretty cool, but it took time to set up, and I wanted to write the songs better so they can be played on anything. That’s become the objective, over the last few years. [See Sunset Rubdown’s Black Cab Sessions, where ‘You Go on Ahead’ is played in the back of a taxi, because the tune’s strong enough, even when it’s stripped right down.] But, we still have a really elaborate set-up that sound-guys are bummed to see. I’d like to strip it down more. I think, right now, we’re at the pinnacle of complexity, and to make it creatively interesting, the next logical thing to do would be to take things away. I think this record was the peak of this line-up’s capabilities, but I don’t want to do that again, because it would get boring. I mean, this support band [Mon Dieu!] have seven or eight people, and it looks Hell to tour with…but that’s why [Sunset Rubdown] isn’t great art.
DiS: How do you feel about the development since the last record? Are you pleased?
SK: I don’t know if I’m “pleased” – I’m certainly not displeased. We got a fifth player, who sometimes plays extra drums. It tightened everything up. For the first time, we thought “oh, we sound not half bad, live”. We sound more like a rock band, and less like an experimental band. I think Random Spirit Lover is more artsy, and Dragonslayer is more r-r-rocking, and that doesn’t really please or displease me; sometimes I like both.
DiS: So, do you feel like you may be able to go back to making a record that mixes the “heavily-overdubbed” approach, and the “live-in-the-studio” approach, now that you’ve got the energy captured?
SK: Maybe that would be nice, but I don’t know – we have no plans for a new record, although that’s not to say there won’t be one. I think, after these tours, we’re going to take a little break, and then re-convene next summer. I don’t know if it’ll be the same line-up, the same people. We want to take a step back from this…slot, or groove, before it becomes dangerously predictable, and people have too many expectations about what our sound should be. I don’t want people to think we have to follow suit. I like to keep it fr-r-r-esh.
DiS: Hopefully those other records are fresh enough in people’s minds that they expect big differences from record to record [i.e. the lo-fi solo experiments of Snake’s Got a Leg… the minimal band sound of Shut Up… the more complex psychedelia of Random Spirit Lover… the complex but predominantly rocking Dragonslayer] Where do you feel the pressure is coming from? The record company? Critics?
SK: Mostly from me! It’s hard to stay true to your initial ideas, and remember you’re doing it for yourself, and responding to your own spontaneity and creative impulses… rather than worrying what people think. I’ll admit, it’s hard to get that out of your head sometimes. When you’re 20, you make music that’s completely different.
DiS: Was that more like the music on Snake’s Got a Leg, back then?
SK:Yeah, basically. It was just like “whatever” – because I didn’t expect anyone to hear it. There’s a lot that, people if they want to, are going to hate it, you know?
DiS: For the later records, it seems that you’ve assembled around you a group that have (on the one hand) classic, “big rock” influences, like Neil Young, Smashing Pumpkins, and (on the other hand) are open to much stranger music. Was that a conscious decision?
SK: Was it conscious? Maybe that they were open to stuff, and now it’s more important that they have an ability to…ROCK. Jordan’s drumming and Mike’s guitar playing have changed, but I also wanted them to be open to stuff that other people might consider cheesy, or un…cool. That no-one would listen to.
DiS: So, you never thought – in a Velvet Underground way – no-one may listen to us now, but we’ll still be listened to, and maybe considered important, in ten years?
SK: No. I don’t think it’s true…or possible. There are so many bands right now, and there might be a movement we’re part of, but…If you want to talk genres, like say “indie rock”, a lot of it’s despicable, and lacklustre. And I know we get called that, and Wolf Parade does too, and I’m fine with that. I have no idea what distinction people make, or not… We don’t need to get into how indie rock is…corrupt.
DiS: Who would your benchmarks be, of good musicianship then?
SK: Probably bands that are more experimental, and art-rock. I wouldn’t say Sunset Rubdown is one of those. Xiu Xiu, or Carey Mercer of Frog Eyes [and Swan Lake, with Spencer, and Dan Bejar of Destroyer] Carey has strange criteria; it’s not a matter of genre, for him, it’s about whether it’s got “heart”. I like bands like Destroyer…I hate to say it, but I like a lot of my friends!
But there are other artists. I really like Fever Ray, right now, I think that’s a great record…or the Liars. You can’t call that indie, though? I like things that show personality, or individuality, or personal vision. You can tell when you listen to [Fever Ray] that it was made with love and passion, uncompromisingly, and some of it’s almost naïve. I really like her arrangements.
DiS: Thinking about the development of SunRub, what was the point when you realized a band was needed?
SK: These people kind of came out of the woodwork. They were the first, most obvious picks. Michael [Doerksen, guitar & keys] was the first person I asked, and then Jordan [Cramer , guitar & drums], who almost joined Wolf Parade, before we found Dante. I started jamming with Mike, and then we tried to be a threepiece, but after a couple of practices, it felt a bit empty, and not what I wanted to hear. Wolf Parade had started by then, very much as a rock band, with everything loud, and I wanted to do something really quiet, so I asked those guys. [Credited on the 2005 EP as “Elven Army”, as if to ram home the difference from Wolf Parade.]
The initial incarnation of the band had acoustic guitar, and a chord-organ, and quiet drums. I also knew that Camilla made music with a lot of instruments that were basically toys, and that fitted into what we wanted to do. I was aware of Secret Choir, and I liked what she was into. Over the years we abandoned the accordion, and the drums got louder, and now we have a bass player, and we’ve become more of a rock band.
DiS: Is the appearance of ‘Paper Lace’ on both Swan Lake’s and Sunset Rubdown’s  albums a way of saying the lines have become blurred between the two bands?
SK: I don’t know. I wrote that song very slowly, with Carey in the room, and I wanted to hear it as a cheesy guitar rock song as well [as the keyboard-led version that ends with Dan and Carey shrilling “oh sanct-u-ary!” less mellifluously than Camilla], but I don’t play guitars in Wolf Parade. The people I’m playing with change the way I’m writing, but I think with Sunset Rubdown, I’m more drawn to longer arrangements. I still think of this band as a guinea pig. Lyrics that are a bit dubious… although I really like them. It’s stuff that walks the line of “too cheesy… too self-aware…”
When I’m working with Wolf Parade, I’m more drawn to the idea of music-as-catharsis, and not as a cerebral exercise. It’s not that I write songs and then decide where they go. I just write Sunset Rubdown songs when Sunset Rubdown are working. It used to be more of a dictatorship in Sunset Rubdown… and it wasn’t that I didn’t like what they were doing, but they were more reserved. That’s their personalities, as people. They’re fine to take a little more direction. In Wolf Parade, me and Dan and Arlen are more collaborative. In the past that difference [between the bands] has been bigger, but [the band members] came up with more of the details on the last record. But you know, I still write the songs.
DiS: There’s a thread through the lyrics of Dragonslayer that seems to be new: asserting that the lyrics, for all their surrealism and complexity, are meaningful (the self-decoding ‘Black Swan’ – “my heart is a kingdom / where the king is a heart”; the opening of ‘Nightingale Song’ – “so let me hammer this point home / I see us all as lonely fires…”; ). That they aren’t just free-association, or nonsense, but you stand by the world you created. Was there a sense that you were refuting what some critics have said – who haven’t taken the time to understand the lyrics?
SK: Do I want to refute that? I don’t know. I mean, in a sense, I agree with everything you’re saying, but maybe I don’t work as deliberately or consciously as you’re implying. I mean, there’s the line about the critics (“so this one’s for the critics / and they’re disappointed mothers…”)
DiS: I thought that might have referred to that [i.e. reviews that say they have no idea what’s going on] or it might be critics talking mostly about Wolf Parade, when they’re supposed to be talking about Sunset Rubdown.
SK: No…that’s more about the general state of music criticism in the last few years. I don’t read much music criticism, and it’s just my opinion, but when I read a string of random descriptive words, I think “I want to see this guy’s credentials”, you know? Like, under every review, I sometimes think I want to see a list of the bands he’s been in.
DiS: The fact that the opinions of a random blogger can reach the whole world?
SK: I don’t think that’s a problem. I think that’s kind of exciting. That people’s voices can be heard. The problem is when people think their voice is important. Because I don’t think Sunset Rubdown is all that important, and I think people write about Sunset Rubdown or Wolf Parade as if I do think it’s important. That I feel like I’m a step above…? I’m just making songs that I want to play live…Wait, can I interrupt you? Hey Mike – [calls SR guitarist over]
MD: Holy fuck! That’s amazing. That’s fucking crazy…
SK: Sorry… I was just showing Michael Doerksen a giant rainbow. It’s… we’re in Malmo, in Sweden, and there’s this huge fountain, like a pink rose sticking out of the ground, with a full rainbow above it. There’s some willow trees behind it…anyway, it’s funny, because we just made a video for ‘Black Swan’ – or it got made – we didn’t do anything for it. Our friend Chris Taylor made it. I was a bit hesitant because I don’t like animated videos – I don’t really like music videos, because I feel the medium’s kind of ridiculous…
DiS: Hence the trailer for the album… [a video posted on www.sunsetrubdown.net, using the credits of an ancient Canadian sitcom featuring the young Michael J Fox; whose eyes glow red as the names of the band members appear in subtitles.]
SK: [laughs] Yeah…I think most videos are bad. Chris wanted to do it though, and I said give it a shot, because The Knife had a really cool one. So our one’s very trippy, it’s psychedelic, and it’s funny because it ends with a bunch of giant spinning roses. So this thing outside is like a sign.
NB - The video for 'Black Swan' can be found here
There’s this part of me, with music videos, that I think “how much stimulation do you need?” Also, it’s mostly seen online. I don’t expect the video we’ve just made to ever be seen on a television set… so I don’t fully understand why we did it, and I don’t think it has any impact. It’s just another thing for people who already like the music to look at…and that’s fine. It’s not like we sank a million dollars into it. It’s an art project…until you think “but wait, the music was the art project…?!” There’s this after-the-fact addition that’s independent of the songwriting process, and you think “that’s kind of weird…”
DiS: Going back to the lyrics, there’s less “swimming” on Dragonslayer than on previous records… is the struggle not to drown, artistically (as you suggested it might mean, before) getting easier?
SK: I wasn’t conscious of that as a difference, but that could be true…but this isn’t great art. We’re just a band, trying to make songs, and have fun. We’re tying to write songs that don’t make us… sick. [DiS laughs] I don’t listen to them EV-ER.
[DiS ponders the paradox that self-critical bands with high-standards often make the best music, whereas bands with big egos are limited to just being fun, at the very best… but fails to turn this into a question.]
DiS: The Trumpet Trumpet songs [i.e. ‘Trumpet Trumpet, Toot Toot!’ on Random Spirit Lover, and ‘You Go on Ahead (TTTT, pt. 2)’ on Dragonslayer,] are about other kinds of performers, but they seem to be a reflection of the experience of a band on tour, albeit dressed up in a more mythological language…
SK: That’s what they’re about… although it’s more about the parts of being on the road that AREN’T fun. It’s about the…two-faced nature of… being a performer. I should rephrase that – it’s about what I find to be a contradiction between being a musician and being a performer. Putting on a performance, versus playing your songs the best you can. I’m not so much of a performer. You’re trying to emote this impression…but you’re doing it every night, and there’s gotta be a night when you’re not that into it…
were you the leopard or the virgin
or the child in a grown man’s beard
worn out of place and hanging off his face
by the time the audience cheered?
You were feeling pretty cocky on the day
You became an actor
I know the thing I shouldn’t say
so I’ll leave it at this
I hope you get what you’re after
and if when you you’re out you see the hundredth rose fall from the sky
brother, stick it in the ground and
say a heartfelt prayer for your safe arrival
(‘Trumpet Trumpet, Toot Toot’)
SK:…the nights where I’m not, I feel that strange kind of contradiction, like it makes me feel kind of sick, because… you’re some dolled-up performer, and it seems like the people in front of you are enjoying the song…
When I was in Frog Eyes, playing the piano, that’s okay, but when you’re singing, it’s more emotive, and it comes across in the voice. So. I feel a contradiction in myself, and that’s what the first one’s about.
DiS: The opening songs of each of the last three albums share images of dresses and gowns, suggesting that you see performance as exposure, but also artifice…
“shall I lift my dress up for you?” (Shut Up)
“this is the tender mending of this slender gown…” (Random Spirit Lover)
“under all the folds of the dresses that you wear / an ocean and a tide, and a riot in the square…” (Dragonslayer)
SK: It’s not just about performing, it’s about creating, and making art. Whereas the ‘Trumpet Trumpet’ songs are about being on the road… which is kind of a shame, because, I read this interview with Dan Boeckner [of Handsome Furs and Wolf Parade], because he’s a friend of mine, and it really hit home. He called out bands who just sing about being singers, and how boring and inward and incestuous that it is… and I’ve definitely done that…but I think he’s right. There’s so much more to the world, and it’s so self-involved. Writing songs about the fact you’re writing songs is kinda…weird.
But [on the other hand] I’m writing about how [the experience of being in a band has] changed my outlook on the world; my perception, and my whole person. I’ve grown a lot differently, than I would have done if I hadn’t been making art.
DiS: Still, even when you’re talking about those kinds of things, there’s an impulse to defamiliarize experiences, with a dense array of metaphors. If a song’s about desire, it’s not just “I want you” but “I have lusted after you / the way bloodsuckers do”. So, even when the subject matter is relatively typical, the songs feel as weird as the experiences would make you feel at the time.
SK: Maybe. I don’t know…lyrics are a strange world. When they’re bad, they’re still bad, right? [DiS laughs] But sometimes when I listen to people, I’m like “You’re not even trying. You’re just stringing shit together that rhymes.”
DiS: Any examples?
SK: I don’t want to get into that. It’s not nice. Examples of the good are…well, people I work with. Dan Bejar [Destroyer, and Swan Lake – with Carey Mercer and Spencer]. There are so many times when I think he’s an amazing lyricist, because he’s actually a poet, and he’s managed to make it musical. I think lyrics and poetry are always very different things, and I don’t write poetry. Dan, though…he’s more like a Leonard Cohen figure. To me. That’s an example of someone who’s good.
DiS: Another thing you said about Random Spirit Lover was that it’s like a musical without an obvious plot. (It’s unclear who all the He’s and She’s and You’s are, but there are some character names.) Does that apply, at all, to the most recent record?
SK: Did I say that? I don’t know if I could link up all of them! I think there’s a little of that on Dragonslayer, but like Random Spirit Lover the songs are written at the same time as each other, so there’s going to be a lot of overlap. They’re written in the same house, with the same person. But there aren’t super-deliberate connections. There isn’t this hidden tapestry I’m weaving. [DiS would contest that Apollo and “his sister” are two characters on the record referred to by name, and by symbol, but likes the ambiguity]
DiS: Did you know ‘Silver Moons’ was going to be the opener? It’s interesting to open with a song that so pointedly closes a chapter…
SK: No. I’m aware of the effect it has, as an opener. It was written about Montreal, and the music scene, and I don’t want to say that, it’s not true. But it’s about getting older.
Tell the new kids where I hid the wine,
tell their fathers that I'm on my way, and say
“Hey, maybe these days are over now...”
And I loved it better than anyone else, you know.
I believe in growing old with grace.
I believe she only loved my face.
I believe I acted like a child
making faces at acquired tastes.
And now silver moons belong to you...
DiS: It always struck me as a very distinctive music scene, with a lot of creative freedom and opportunities for individual artists to be in different bands doing different things. Do you think that’s changed, or just your relation to it?
SK: I don’t think it’s gone anywhere, but you know, if anyone’s looking to make a million bucks, in the last five years, they’ve probably tried to follow Arcade Fire. You hear a lot of bands – not in Montreal, but in the world – who are Arcade Fire influenced, and they’re so… boring. I like Arcade Fire, and they’re a great band, but it’s because of the way they work together, and it’s their own songwriting. When you hear imitation bands, though…
Anyway. Montreal really seems especially creative to me, but it may be because I’m getting older, and I’m not spending so much time going to rock shows, and [instead] more gallery-shows. I don’t think any spark’s been lost. There are a lot of interesting things, and definitely not just indie-rock, or whatever you want to call it.
The whole Constellation scene is still there, and they haven’t done much press, so it’s amazing [that they do so well], and they’ll be there when Arcade Fire have broken up. There’s some great art bands… I don’t know… you’ll see these 20 year old kids doing little shows, like electronica, or poppy electronica, and there’s this woman who moved to town from Chicago, who’s this free jazz saxophone player, and she’s rounded up the Constellation kids…like people who worked in Silver Mt Zion, or Godspeed, and she’s got them all doing free jazz…these pieces that are like 2 hours along…and it may never even leave the city. It’s great, but it’s not like she’s going to make a video! [laughs] That’s appealing to me…
In PART TWO of our exclusive Sunset Rubdown interview, DiS continues talking to Spencer, and catches up with the band, by e-mail. For now, here's a video of ultra-rare SunRub material:
...and in case you missed it, the video of 'Black Swan' can be found here, or paste the following into your browser: www.scjag.com/mp3/jag/blackswan.mov