Though he’d be the last to admit it, for a guy who spent much of the last three years writing and recording alone in his bedroom, Sebastian Krueger sure has a lot of friends. He’s been in backing bands for former Sufjan Stevens-ites like Shara Worden (aka My Brightest Diamond) and Marla Hansen. He’s been backed up by Beirut frontman Zach Condon and Dirty Projectors’s Angel Deradoorian (both make guest appearances on his latest album). He’s even played banjo with Feist on Saturday Night Live, thanks to a last-minute recommendation from his pal Dan Rossen of Grizzly Bear.
“I have friends doing a lot of great stuff,” Krueger says about his famous Brooklyn cohorts. “They are wonderful, amazing musicians. It’s a really lucky thing. But it’s more about friendships and creative spirits and being on a similar page with people than it is about any sort of virtuosity on my part.”
Ignore his modesty. While Krueger likes to downplay his musical chops, one listen to his intricate, beautiful new record, Inter Arbiter, and it’s clear that the 28-year-old multi-instrumentalist is in good company. His atmospheric take on baroque pop is both complex and haunting, blending the lush, orchestral folk of Sufjan or Andrew Bird with the dark, playful dissonance of St. Vincent. Bass clarinets moan over finger-picked classical guitars, Krueger’s vocal harmonies dip and soar around stuttering hand claps, pianos tinkle under plucking banjos — all crafted layer upon layer into a twisting, musical eddy of fragile chaos.
So it can come as a bit of a surprise to learn the entire album — aside from the drumming — was recorded entirely in his tiny, Brooklyn apartment.
“My neighbors never complained,” he says, laughing. “Actually, I found them to be really obnoxious. Little dogs would bark and drive me crazy as I was trying to think, or some kid below me would play Fleetwood Mac really loudly. So it was actually difficult to find the spaces in which to write.”
Which makes sense when you realize Krueger has a Frankenstein-style of songwriting. Unlike most musicians — who typically build songs around a core melody — Krueger cobbles together different elements he’s been playing around with, fleshing out the disparate parts and arranging them piece by piece into his own musical jigsaw puzzle. Just a single song can take months, even years to work out. Which helps explain why Inter Arbiter — his first release since his 2006, blog-acclaimed debut The Vestibule EP — took more than three years to finish.
“It was certainly longer than I was expecting,” he says. “I think I let my deliberative nature get in the way of things. It’s easy to always think [a song] is not there yet, that the polish isn’t on it yet, especially if you’re doing it alone in your room. But I had to let go of those feelings, because they’re elusive and you can keep pushing that bar back further and further and eventually produce nothing.”
Recently, Krueger left his job working in the membership department of the ACLU to concentrate on music full-time (“after saving diligently,” he notes). That leap of faith has finally given him the freedom to take his project out of the bedroom and onto the road for the band’s first major tour, stretching from L.A. all the way to Portland, Maine.
The challenge for Krueger now is to find the best way to capture Inlet’s ornate, multi-instrument sound with just the two backing players he’s brought with him.
“You’re not worrying about how to make this stuff work live as you’re writing and recording,” he says, “so it creates a new experience for us to find ways of getting that across with less players. It’s about concentrating that energy onto a smaller unit. But it’s been really fun to try to get people to respond to the music, even if we’re playing at a loud rock club which might not be ideal for some of the stuff we’re doing. Like, how do we take a bedroom project to a stinky, disgusting rock club in the middle of, like, North Dakota or somewhere?”
Very carefully, my friend, very carefully.