Ambling steps: an interview with Sebastian Krueger, pt. 1
NL: All right, so what is a typical day in your life like?
Inlets is the whiskers of steam rising up from a mug of tea, curling up into your nostrils and circulating through your system. It's the driftwood of city nights and the ephemera of love pinned down and preserved like scrapbook wildflowers. It's the yellowed margins of a poet's notebook set to miniature symphonies and one-man orchestras. Inlets is also Sebastian Krueger, a bedroom architect of songs that are uniformly gifted, intimate, restorative and gentle. Since releasing the enchanting Vestibule for free last year, he's gained a good deal of much-warranted attention for his work. As he prepares his follow-up album, he's certain to gain yet more, because Inlets is also the sound of great potential and even greater talent.
Here's part one of my conversation with Krueger:
SK: It depends. On a weekday, I’ll go to my day job at a civil rights organization. The day job is a source of tons of internal conflict because I would love to have more time to do music. But in terms of finding a way to survive, I really appreciate working there because I value the work that we’re doing. So my weekdays are pretty much taken up with that. And then in the evenings, if I can find some time to write or record or screw around or practice, I will. But my weekends are now the prime musical time, because right now I’m trying to write and record as much as possible, so weekends are pretty much in my bedroom. Feeling isolated and lonely and crazed in the warm glow of the computer is not a comfort, but you know—
NL: It’s amazing how much like a blogger you sound like.
SK: Oh no, really?
NL: Yeah, it’s essentially the same. Write in your bed, absorb some laptop radiation, hopefully go to work, write some more.
SK: But that’s not to suggest that there’s an absence of getting out of the house. I’m sure you have the same conundrum because when you describe things that way, people start to think you hate it.
NL: No, I mean, obviously it’s a passion. You’re there because it’s something you feel compelled to do.
SK: Exactly, exactly. You’re laying a foundation for things to come. It’s always terrible to record things—it can make you crazy—but you forget about that when the song is done. Especially if you’re in your own room, you don’t even feel like you went anywhere to divide up the day. It’s not as though you went to the studio and you’re recording. You’re working in the same place that you woke up.
NL: It’s cheaper though.
SK: Oh yeah, totally, I love it. But sometimes it can feel like you didn’t do anything with your day no matter how productive you are.
NL: What do you do for the civil rights organization?
SK: My job is kind of unsexy. I work in the membership department, so I end up communicating with a lot of crazy people. Once you start getting into the realm of politics, people are crazy and they will call you and freak out. Or they’ll write you and freak out and you have to address all those issues. It’s a lot of nuts-and-bolts administrative stuff and correspondence and things like that, but those crazy people can make it a little more interesting. At least you’re not punching in numbers the whole time.
"I wanted to get back to
singing and saying something
and actually feeling vulnerable."
NL: There is that. What does your new music sound like?
SK: I think it sounds a little bit more aggressive. I don’t know why. I’m interested in exploring that a little more.
NL: Do you think the crazy people are having their effect?
SK: Yes! There’s also a lot of frustration in living in Brooklyn and working all the time, things like that. No, I don’t know. Of course, you don’t want to write something that sounds the same as this thing you finished. I enjoy a lot of the innate qualities of the other thing and that will certainly be in the new stuff. But at least the stuff that I’m experimenting with right now, I want to be able to test the limits of what I can do in my bedroom.
NL: Right. The stuff that you’re recording now, is it just you or are you bringing other people in?
SK: I will bring other people in. Right now, it’s just me. I’ll probably use some strings, so I’ll probably use some of the string players from My Brightest Diamond. I haven’t officially asked any of them yet…(Laughs.)
NL: No worries. They’ll find out when they read this.
SK: But I’ll use them and I’ll probably try to put some horns on it. It might also include a variety of brass instruments. I don’t know where I’ll get those. It’s usually whatever strikes me later on. I would love to include as many of the people who help me play live as I can too, but sometimes it’s a little redundant if they’re just playing things that I’m already tracking myself. We’ll see. Also, I have friends who work in the electronic music field and I’d love to include a little—I’m bad with the terminology—maybe some glitch percussion stuff. I’d be curious to experiment with digital percussion and noise and error and things like that.
NL: How did your band come about?
SK: I had ignored that part of myself for a while. I was practicing a lot of jazz and I had a weird jazz group going on. I really liked it but it wasn’t—maybe this is a fault of my rearing—as direct as I wanted it to be. Clearly, there’s something more direct about saying something in lyrics. And I had sung when I was a kid. Part of it is that it’s easier to not feel embarrassed or vulnerable if you’re just playing something on the guitar. If it’s obscure music where you feel people who don’t like it just don’t get it. Eventually, I got around to deciding that I wanted to get back to singing and saying something and actually feeling vulnerable. It just started with experimenting with some newly acquired recording gear in my bedroom and I liked it so much that I haven’t really done much with my other group in a while. I’m not even sure if they’re alive anymore.
NL: (Laughs.) Where did you sing when you were young?
SK: I was in boys’ choir. (Laughs.) Boys’ choir. I don’t know why that’s funny to me. There’s something a little dorkish about it, I guess, but it was amazing. We traveled around and sang and went to Japan and England among other places.
NL: Sounds like a good time. Going back to what you were saying before about how your new music sounds more aggressive than Vestibule, do you think part of that’s an effect of the live performances? When I saw Inlets live, you were louder and fuller-sounding that I expected you to be.
SK: I remember reading that, but I don’t know if that was by virtue of just playing all this plugged-in stuff and the fact that the drummer I play with now is kind of a loud guy. But I have been thinking more about playing live. It’s weird because I don’t think you can actually play some of those songs the way that I recorded them, with the same interpretation. Like the band Grizzly Bear, their album Yellow House is this beautiful acoustic, for the most part, exercise and it’s incredible. But when you see them live, their show is so different. And I’m learning the benefits of that every time I play. At the show that you saw, there’s so much I want to do differently from that even live, because it’s a very different medium. You have to do some things to be readable, and I mean that rhythmically too. I’m not sure all the finger-picking elements that happened on the recording translated well live. I want to expand on things like that and it’s just naturally evolving that way. So maybe some of the louder stuff was a result of that, wanting to have a presence onstage and not be super-inward.
"I was sitting with it...
wondering whether anybody
would give a crap."
NL: What are you listening to you now?
SK: Right now, I’m obsessed with this band called Department of Eagles.
NL: [Grizzly Bear guitarist] Dan Rossen’s other band.
SK: Yeah. He and my friend Fred [Nicolaus] are that band. It’s weird because Fred gave me the album that they’re working on now months and months ago and I can’t stop listening to it. It’s so good. I feel very similar in a lot of ways to some of the stuff that they’re doing. Not to say that my stuff sounds like it either, but, I mean, I get it. I know what they’re doing. That’s on my iPod all the time. That and I’ve been really into Erik Satie lately.
NL: What about when you listen to Vestibule now? Are you still happy with everything on there?
SK: I don’t think I’ve ever been really happy with it, only because I’m kind of crazy. You make yourself crazy evaluating it over and over again. One of the reasons I put it up for free—
NL: Wait. That question’s still on deck!
SK: I thought this was my freshman effort and I’m totally proud of it but I also don’t want to overhype what it is compared to what I want it to be. So I’m totally happy with what it is and what it’s doing, but at a certain point, I was sitting with it, listening to it a lot and wondering whether anyone would give a crap or whether it was good enough or whether I should keep working on it. Those voices will just end up censoring any output that people have if they listen to them too hard. So I try just to like it now. Or I do like it. That’s the short answer. (Laughs.)
NL: What are some of your favorite songs on there?
NL: Or most successful songs, let’s say.
SK: Oh, I don’t know. (Laughs.) I don’t know why that question is embarrassing. It shouldn’t be. Maybe I’m easily embarrassed.
NL: Wait till you hear some of the other questions.
SK: (Laughs.) I don’t know why you’re asking me. I’m weird.
NL: You can pass…
SK: No, I don’t want to. I’m trying to think… It’s weird because they all sound like different styles to me. Each track sounds like a different style of music, and they’re all useful exercises for me. In every way. Not to sound too corny, but emotionally and artistically and technically and sonically. They’re all different exercises so it’s hard for me to pick one. That’s a terrible answer, because everybody’s going to say that.
NL: No, people usually pick.
SK: For me, maybe it’s because I’m not in a democratic band so I do feel like I own everything. Maybe in other bands, people feel like one song strikes them more because it’s more of them. I don’t know what it is. I’m going to have to think about that.
NL: Okay. My roommate Jason told me to tell you that his favorite is “See Her, Seer.” I’ve been listening to the EP around the apartment all week and that’s the one that he always mentions when it comes on.
SK: Oh really? Did he say why?
NL: No. I’ll have to get back to you.
SK: Okay. But that’s cool.
NL: You sound surprised.
SK: No… No, it’s just cool that people are even posing that question to themselves. If I were to propose a theory as to why he likes that song more, maybe it’s because that song has a narrative to it and a lot of the other ones are more impressionistic lyrically. That song actually (sort of) has a beginning, middle and an end and it’s about a specific character, whereas some of the others are just really ambiguous brushstrokes.
NL: I’ll check if that’s it. But I know that he also really likes the vocals in the chorus. What kind of response have you gotten from releasing the EP and what is your response to the response?
SK: I think it’s gotten a really good response. I’m sure it’s a cliché answer for people who are starting out a project like me, but it feels weird and awesome that anybody is listening. Of course, I would love for it to land me something concrete. Like because of this effort, I can quit my day job. But no, it did exactly what I wanted it to do, which is lay the foundation for what kind of style I am and what I want to be saying and spread my name. And in the future if I have more polished output, there might be a home for it somewhere.
"The last thing I want is to
be the Rolling Stones."
NL: Do you know when your new record will be done?
SK: Hopefully, I’d like to be done with it by the end of June. I’m going to try to travel a little bit this summer and play some shows and it’d be great to have that with me and play that material more.
NL: Does it have a name yet?
SK: No, no, it’s super-early. I just have tens of sketches and I’m trying to assemble them and put them in some order.
NL: I just felt bad continually calling it “the new record” if it has a name already.
SK: Right. I’m thinking of calling it Vestibule II. Maybe I’ll call it The Foyer.
NL: And your greatest hits could be The Attic.
SK: So awful. But yeah, I just want to have something that sounds big. I want to be able to draw from a huge spectrum of styles. One of the reasons that I like Vestibule and I think it sounds characteristic of something—someone called it “wobbly chamber music” once and I thought that was kind of appropriate—is because it’s me doing this really imperfect thing on imperfect instruments with imperfect mic placement. Maybe I haven’t changed my guitar strings in a year. All those things I’m not really concerned with as much. Somehow, they give it its shape. But with the new thing, I’d like to have a wider sound. I want the element there, I want it to sound like me screwing around on a toy piano in my bedroom, but I also would love moments on there that are totally surprising and big.
NL: From the vestibule to the whole house.
SK: (Laughs.) Yeah. It’s going to be a skyscraper.
NL: Are there any musicians or artists whose career trajectories you’d like to emulate?
SK: A lot of my friends, not to say that it’s been easy for them. But Shara [Worden] from My Brightest Diamond, she put a lot of time and thought into her album and that album said exactly what she wanted it to. That’s really admirable. I’m sure I sound kind of hasty from my descriptions about not caring about excellence when I’m recording, but that’s super-admirable. I think her plan for it, just to play and enjoy it, and her spirit are really positive. That’s not to say that it hasn’t been hard. Being on the road all the time is taxing, but she did it really wonderfully. If you’re going to talk about someone bigger and more long-term, Tom Waits is amazing. He’s been around forever and he’s still producing incredible music. I guess he’s got a sound, but he keeps stretching the definition of what Tom Waits music sounds like. I love it; it’s incredible. And I think the dude has a family and he lives in California…
NL: Yeah, his son Casey plays the drums with him.
SK: That’d be great. The last thing I want is to be the Rolling Stones. I’d hate to be this giant tour machine, where you’re still playing the same song you wrote thirty years ago. It just doesn’t interest me. And I know some people who are trying to go this very commercial route with their music and want to be around for a long time, because they’re going to find a niche and ram a knife into that niche and hang on for dear life. I don’t think they really care about their art that much and I’m not sure what their goal is, to play music like that. I’m sure they’d be happy to have a gigantic Stones-like career in fifty years. That sounds gross to me. I’d prefer to play a small coffeehouse for five people and my music isn’t bland. That’d be cool.
Part two of the interview coming tomorrow...
Check out Inlets playing at Prince George Ballroom on June 15th. Details here.
Download the entire Vestibule EP here.
* MP3: "Pictures of Trees" - Inlets from Vestibule EP
* MP3: "Decks, Up and Above" - Inlets from Vestibule EP
* MP3: "Straphanger" - Inlets from Vestibule EP
* MP3: "See Her, Seer" - Inlets from Vestibule EP
* Artist MySpace: Inlets