Three Men On Swan Lake

Three Men On <b>Swan Lake</b>
Photo: Chris Frey
Three men known for their singular sounds. Three bandleaders with specific ideas about songwriting and recording. Three lyricists who favour abstract poetics and often arcane wordplay. Three men who appear to speak their own language. What happens when they form a band together?

Carey Mercer, Dan Bejar and Spencer Krug are the three men in question; Swan Lake is their new band. Mercer says they’re all tyrants; Krug counters, "none of us are megalomaniac control freaks.” Either way, none of them have a habit of making a listener’s job easier. Each of their respective projects rewards those with patience and perception, whether it’s the labyrinthine lyrics of Destroyer, the tension-riddled rhythms of Frog Eyes, or the off-kilter new wave folk of Sunset Rubdown.

Swan Lake’s debut album, aptly titled Beast Moans, gave them a clean slate. "We could do whatever we wanted,” says Krug. "Maybe that’s not to our credit, because we didn’t stray too far from what you might expect. Maybe we’re not capable of doing that.”

"At the beginning there was some trepidation,” says Mercer of the writing and recording process. "But once it bloomed it was really neat to be in the control room and hear the song for the first time. What’s odd is that in my experience, recording is the last phase of the song. Usually you’ve played them on the road. I felt privileged when I heard these songs for the first time. Hearing this unfold was one of my more memorable experiences playing music.” Working together illuminated much about the relationship between the three men. Mercer had already been commissioned by Bejar to re-arrange Destroyer songs on the 2004 tour for the Your Blues album, and Krug is an on-again off-again member of Frog Eyes. When Krug’s voice was first heard in Wolf Parade and Sunset Rubdown, many critics were quick to compare him to Mercer. "I know it’s been levelled at Spencer that he sounds a lot like me, or vice versa, but I think we both felt that our aesthetic was quite different,” says Mercer. "That has been an illumination for both of us, that each one is right in our own way. I have this idea of weaving 20 different melodies, and he wants everything to turn into one very cohesive whole. I think that had an effect on me in our little battles, which were always civil. I especially like the parts on the record where you can feel all of our wills murking about.”

When asked what about his two cohorts he finds to be a kindred spirit, Mercer hesitates somewhat. "There’s a lot of things, and it’s kind of weird to talk about in terms of friendship. You would never have an interview about a friend, and then the friend would read it. That would be horrible, right? But musically, there’s a pretty similar sense of struggle and commitment to the idea of an album as high art, and the contradictions and the dilemmas that brings. No matter what you do, you’re kind of a hollow mockery of what you started out to do. But you do it nonetheless. You keep going on.

"Then there’s the natural, organic friendship, too,” he adds, "which has an effect on the music. In some ways it’s very masculine. I have no idea what they’re singing about. Some topics are very off-limits when we’re sitting around. It’s as if we’re a couple of mechanics, not fey songwriters.”

Perhaps it’s only when interviewed separately that they get to articulate to each other their true feelings. Otherwise, we’d have to wait for a funeral. Of Mercer, Bejar writes, "His lyrics are pretty funny, and vivid. So are mine. He has a kind of total disregard for melody, and a total insistence on it at the same time, which is something most of my favourite singers and guitar players have.”

Their differences were as attractive as their similarities. "I don’t have anything in common with [Dan] musically,” says Krug. "It’s his lyrics that get me, and the way he delivers them in his heartfelt crooning style. I don’t think there are many songwriters who are poets, for lack of a better word. I know I’m not, and I don’t think Carey is. But Dan’s stuff remains poetry, transcending the songs.”
Despite their confidence in the project, they’re well aware that it might be perceived as an impenetrably private affair, which indeed it might appear on first listen. "We’re not trying to be wilfully obscure or repelling the listener,” muses Mercer. "I like a record when you’re not sure about it the first few times, and then you go back to it and you feel rewarded.”

"I think it’s going to get crucified, personally,” laughs Krug. "I think it will be a small handful of people who really like it, whether or not they’re already fans of one of the other projects. Hopefully there will be people who just like it for what it is. But it’s not a one-off. Even if it does get totally brutalised, we’ll do another one because it’s fun.”