Wolf Parade and Menno Versteeg on the Economics of Being a Musician

The Canadian bands talk cancelling shows, mental healthcare, and paying rent with stolen garbage cans — plus, a new music video from Mav Karlo.

Menno Versteeg is a member of the Toronto supergroup Anyway Gang, performs solo as Mav Karlo, and a co-founder of Royal Mountain Records; Dan Boeckner and Spencer Krug are respectively the guitarist and keyboardist of Wolf Parade. In light of Wolf Parade’s Thin Mind coming out on Royal Mountain earlier this year, the three sat down for a conversation. Plus, check out the premiere of Mav Karlo’s video for their track “There In The Morning, There In The Night”!  
— Annie Fell, Talkhouse Senior Editor

Menno Versteeg: I remember when we met first was at some really weird film conference in Banff, [Alberta], and Operators were playing, and my band was playing, and it was completely empty except for about eight people who totally didn’t give a shit. We were in the middle of a long tour, and it was like the first time I’d ever started to feel a bit jaded in my entire musical career, where I was like, Ah, this is bullshit

I went up to you expecting a little bit of let’s-wallow-in-our-sorrows — I was like, “Oh, man, this gig is bullshit. This sucks!” I will never forget you just being like, “Get a hold of yourself, kid. You got the best job in the world. Go out there and play.” You guys went on next to, whatever, 15 people in the place, and just burned a hole in the ceiling. I honestly never will forget that. It was one of those moments where I think it saved me from becoming a jaded old fuck.

Dan Boeckner: Wow. I felt exactly the same way you did about that show. I don’t know, I think it was so hard to get to Banff, and it was such an insane day that I was just kind of like, There has to be a point to all of this, you know? I guess the point was to just fucking tear it up in that weird sports bar for 45 minutes or whatever.

Menno: I feel like so much of the things that we do are trying to give a point to some things that might seem pointless. I’ve been asked a lot lately, questions about the whole Royal Mountain mental health [fund] — it’s really funny, just because I’m now giving money to bands on the label to use it for mental health treatment if they want, all of a sudden I’m an expert on mental health, which I find absolutely hilarious. I’ve gone to a bunch of conferences and stuff — I got flown to London to talk about mental health. I was like, This is absolutely absurd. I should not be the one talking about this. I really have no idea what I’m talking about

One of the questions I’ve been getting is, “Do you think artists are more pre-dispositioned to having mental health issues?” The only answer I know how to give is for myself, and it’s kind of getting back to what you just said. When you’re having a lot of these tough emotions that seem absolutely pointless, I find that making them into something gives them purpose. Do you guys feel the same way about that at all?

Spencer Krug: I think that the purpose of all art, maybe, is to take your emotions and process them, and exorcise them, and turn them into something — find some expression for them that you can’t otherwise through just normal day-to-day language. And then in doing that, it’s therapy for yourself, and then also becomes therapy for anyone who happens to connect with it. Then you have this two-way transaction, where everyone comes out on top, and it’s a win-win for you and the listener, wherever your heart is. I think that’s the whole point.

If you discover at some point in your life that you are capable of making, or you’re an artist, I don’t think it’s a bad calling, because not everyone can do it, but almost everyone enjoys listening to music or watching a movie or whatever. I think people get a lot of therapy. We talk to a lot of fans here all the time, telling us how our music, or my music or Dan’s music or whatever, just got them through some bad year, or their brother’s death, or whatever.

Menno: It’s an amazing thing to hear. Also, it’s a hell of a responsibility sometimes too. Do you feel that ever?

Spencer: I sometimes feel the weight of fans that come to you with… They feel like they know you because they know your music so well, and so they do know some aspects of you, but obviously not the whole person. That familiarity, for better for worse, sometimes [lets] people feel they have the license to come to you with really heavy problems. Like you say, you’re not qualified to speak on mental health just because you’re trying to give money to the cause. I’m not a grief counselor, right?

Menno: Yeah, 100%.

Spencer: It feels a little heavy, and like a weird responsibility. Whether you approach that and try to help, or to direct them to some other more professional person is sometimes a weird call to make.

Dan: Yeah, I’m with Spencer. That closeness that you get from somebody connecting to your art sometimes, depending on the person who’s receiving it, sometimes erases boundaries that would and should be there in a professional grief management setting, if that makes sense. For a certain type of person, I think seeing themselves in a song or having a song speak to them — a very small amount of people — it just erases those boundaries. That can either be great, because you can have these really meaningful conversations with people where all the bullshit is stripped aside, or it can be terrible in that it is labor for you, the artist. Like Spence said, it does get into a kind of territory [where] you as the artist are not equipped. Unless you’re totally delusional and have a fucking god complex, or a very high opinion of yourself, you are not able to administer proper care to these people.

For the artist’s own mental health, I’ve been thinking about this a lot, because we’ve been on this very grueling tour, which is kind of an inhuman schedule — we’re doing 13 hour driving days, 16 hours on the road. It’s pretty nuts. I think about the mental stamina that it takes to be a normal person under those circumstances. It’s sad, but I also have been thinking a lot about when I was working a desk job, or working as a bar back, or whatever. The cumulative effect of working those jobs and just being punished by your boss or the structure that you work under is worse.

Menno: Yeah, I totally agree. At least you can somehow be the boss of your own environment, even under these grueling tour schedules. You can decide when you need a break, if you really need to cancel a show. It’s only in the last few years of my touring life that we’ve been like, “Hey, we’re all about to lose our minds here. We need a day off,” and just like, “Fuck it, we’re canceling the show.” Have you guys done that? On the last tour, I did it.

Dan: I’ve done it for health reasons.

Spencer: Yeah, not for mental health reasons.

Menno: Why are you totally cool to do it for, like, your voice is about to blow and you’re like, “I’ve got to take a day off because I’m going to miss 10 shows down the road”? I’m not criticizing or anything, but I find that interesting, where that’s totally accepted. If you feel like someone in the band’s about to snap, and they just need to chill for a minute, not be in the van for 14 hours, take a day off and recharge to be able to do the rest without wanting to kill the bandmates, or want to drink every day… I don’t know, I find that interesting.

Dan: I think, no matter how much the touring environment has evolved, there is this underlying macho quality to being a road dog for a lot of people. Especially maybe men, to admit that your brain is melting down and you need a fucking time out is… I don’t know.

Spencer: I totally agree. That’s what it is, because, you can in theory fight through it. If you have a broken wrist, you can’t physically do the job, but you can get on stage and pop a pill and take a shot and get yourself up there if you’re not feeling it. I guess that’s why a lot of people do. Also, you’re broke as hell, so it’s like, if can’t play the show —

Dan: That’s other thing, it’s economics too. Actually, I did cancel a show recently on the Operators tour. It was just something that slipped my mind. It was a show in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and it would’ve meant driving nine hours on a show day, and then driving 12 hours on another show day to a radio session and a big show in Austin. We were already pretty fried at this point, and I didn’t check it on the routing. When I realized what was going on, I was just like, “We’re shit-canning this show. I’m sorry.” Love to play in Albuquerque, but it’s going to destroy everyone, you know?

Menno: That’s amazing. I’m not trying to be like, “Hey, be a wimp and cancel shows because you don’t feel like it,” but I like having it on the public record that someone who’s been doing it as long as you have did it for exactly that reason. It just would be too grueling and that, within reason, it’s OK. 

I wanted to ask Spencer, because I listened to your song, “Chisel Chisel Stone Stone.” I love the story about starting to record it on the road. Being on tour and finding ways to still do your job within doing your job — I don’t know if you want to talk a little bit about recording that.

Spencer: I’m happy to talk about it. I started this Patreon thing last year, just to see what it would do and it’s been more or less a success. I really enjoy the way it forces me to be constantly creative. Even if there’s a week or month where I don’t really feel like writing a song, I’ve kind of now promised this small group of fans that I’m going to get it done, and they’re paying me for it — we have an agreement. My job is to make these songs. I really like the black and white reality of that. Last year, Wolf Parade wasn’t on tour, so it was no big deal. I was at home with my piano, in my little studio, so I had a lot more time to throw at it. Now there’s this new reality of, can I tour and do this at the same time? I was a little worried that I couldn’t. 

I did end up posting the song. It was absolutely the 11th hour, the last day of the month. I threw a bunch of road piano riffs together, just recorded a bunch of riffs that I knew would be the song, but I didn’t know the structure yet, and then just sat in the back of the van on Logic Audio and put it together with the structure, and added beats and other stuff, and then sang it in the hotel room, and edited it, and just did my thing. Instead of being at my desk, I was in the back of the tour van.

Menno: That was going to be my next question. Did you find that actually doing the recording in a different environment brought something new to the experience?

Spencer: For sure. Definitely for the vocals, which normally I would record at home in my studio. I live in a kind of remote part of Vancouver Island. I don’t really have any close neighbors around me, so I’m very comfortable to just sing at the top of my lungs, when I’m tracking vocals in my little home studio — I usually wait till my wife is out for the day or whatever, and I just belt it out. Whereas this time, it’s like literally between one and three in the morning, in a hotel room surrounded by other people. There wasn’t other people in the room, but I’m a shy guy. I’m not going to just start singing my usual style at that time of night and start waking people up. Plus, I had this head cold, so I was like, OK, we’re doing quiet vocals. It’s neat to let the circumstances dictate the sound like that sometimes. That’s the one thing about Patreon and having made this promise to people, is I can’t just wait until I’m better, or wait until I’m home to record. I have to figure this out. That was cool.

Menno: I literally had the exact same experience recently. I sent you that record that I did in Reno, and the fact that I was recording it in a hotel room made me sing in a lower register that I don’t normally do. That exact experience turned out really opening a lot of things. 

Spencer: Yeah, getting out of your comfort zone.

Menno: One thing about that song [“Static Gauge”, off Thin Mind], and kind of generally what you guys do is, you guys take a stance and you’ve managed to do it in a way that doesn’t sound preachy or lame in my opinion, which is really, really hard to do. In that song in particular, it really is hopeful. Tell me if I’m imagining the guitar harmonies at the end, like being in an ambulance, or like a siren. Am I there?

Dan: There was definitely a siren vibe, yeah. It’s kind of like the beginning of “Police On My Back,” but in a minor key and slowed way down. There’s a quality to it.

Menno: I don’t know, to me that part just gave a hopefulness to the end of that song. My question for you is: in real life, are you hopeful?

Dan: I am right now. I’m cautiously optimistic right now. The main theme of that song is this muted gray neoliberalism that we’ve been living under — the idea that we can’t hope for anything better, that we can only affect these tiny little changes, managerial style changes, to our political system, and that’s the best we can do. We’ll do little things to fix shit here and there. Then you’ve got the Sanders campaign, which is about tearing down these structures and replacing them with something good, so I feel cautiously optimistic.

Spencer: Just going back to what you were saying at the beginning of this interview, when you and Dan were talking about this being the best job in the world and just suck it up, and Dan talking about comparing the hard times on tour versus the hard times in a quote-unquote normal job — it really is true. It’s something that I try not to forget as well. 

Dan and I met when we were both cooking in a shitty pub in Victoria. We were just line cooks making fries and burgers. I worked all kinds of those jobs in my 20s, just different labor jobs like being a window washer and stuff, and I remember this distinct feeling. The work itself, as shitty as it got some times, never really bothered me that much. It’s that the amount of time I had to spend doing it, not working on art, and not working on music. I always resented that so much, that in order to pay my rent, I had to spend hundreds of hours a month on something that wasn’t my music, something I didn’t care about.

To finally get to a place where you could pay your rent doing the thing that you do care about, it’s like, I’ll put up with a 15 hour drive or a couple shitty shows, or some records that get reviewed at 3.4. It feels so much better than that feeling of not being able to control my own time.

Menno: I couldn’t agree more. That’s why we do it.

Dan: People who haven’t worked those jobs can’t understand, and it’s not their fault. It’s just, I don’t think you can understand that feeling of your time and your life being taken from you unless you’ve experienced it.

Menno: I think we all did the same thing. You guys moved to Montreal — I did the same thing from ’99 to 2009, and it was basically because it was cheap enough to live, to work less of those jobs while you were still trying to do it. Is that one of the reasons behind your move, too?

Spencer: Yeah, yeah.

Dan: Yeah. I worked with food a lot. Spencer and I were both living in Vancouver Island and Victoria specifically, and that labor is very seasonal. It’s dependent on tourists, and I was finding myself in a position where I was putting myself through university, and working, and trying to have a band that recorded records and played shows. I was constantly getting laid off, or the restaurant I worked for would go bankrupt because all the profits from one summer went up somebody’s nose or whatever.

Right before I made the move out to Montreal, Spencer was already out there. I hit my lowest point where I could not find a job in the city and was working as the kitchen manager for the ABC Restaurant overseeing a bunch of teenagers, and making less than minimum wage and supplementing my income by stealing food.

I had been out to Montreal once before, to visit our good friend Chad Jones, who put some records out on Constellation, and it just seemed like the promised land. People were living in apartments and paying $175 a month. Everyone seemed to have a job in the arts, or a job that allowed them to do their art. For me, it was a no-brainer.

Menno: Yeah, no, same thing.

Dan: Yeah, it was Mecca.

Menno: I’ve since moved, but I still have a lot of friends who live there, and a bunch of the bands on the label. It seems like they’re still doing alright surfing between each other’s couches and still paying $300 bucks a month to have a little corner of a room. I’m like, “What are you doing for work?” They’re like, “I just picked up a job. I’m moving this pile of bricks to this other pile of bricks. It’s going to take me two days, and then I’m good for a couple of weeks.”

Spencer: I did so much of that shit in Montreal. It’s so much random labor. Actually, when Wolf Parade first got together, I was paying my rent by doing odd jobs for my landlord, because I just didn’t have money for rent, but he was this nice, compassionate-towards-the-arts kind of guy. He was like, “OK, well you can just do random construction work for me to pay your rent.” And I’m like, “Cool. But I also don’t know how to do construction with you.” “OK, I’ll teach you.”

One of Wolf Parade’s first shows, actually I think the one at Sub Pop, he showed up to see if they’d sign us, to pay my rent. We just very honestly put that out there like, “Pay Spencer’s Rent” show. It was in my house.

Menno: I love that. I have the exact same story. The landlord was a real sweetheart. We could never pay our rent, but we had this old van. It’s real old — they couldn’t go on the highway or anything, but it was an old van that you could get around the city. He needed industrial size garbage cans. He wanted one in each jam room, so all the bands could throw their garbage in there, but $150 bucks at the store, at Canadian Tire or whatever.

He said that if we went around the city, to Westmount, and just find the condo buildings that looked like they can afford it, and go in the back and steal their industrial garbage cans, throw them in our van and take off, he’d give us $60 bucks for every one we did. We must’ve stolen about 10 of them. Then one day, we just got lazy and we did it in broad daylight and totally got busted stealing a garbage can. That’s one of those moments where you’re like, “OK, guys, time to grow up a little.”

Spencer: You were a hired thief.

Menno: Yeah. But in Montreal, petty crime is an accepted form of making money if you’re in a band, right?

(Photo Credit: left, Calm Elliott-Armstrong; right, Astrid Lyre)

Mav Karlo is a new project from Menno Versteeg, a Toronto musician and the founder of Royal Mountain Records. His debut full length as Mav Karlo will be released in the summer of 2020.

(Photo Credit: Calm Elliott-Armstrong)