Spoon’s Britt Daniel gives us a ringside seat to his band’s two-decade rise
If you’re old enough to recall the classic video game Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!! or young enough to know what an NES emulator is, picture Britt Daniel as the game’s improbable hero Little Mac: a scrappy little small-town fighter underestimated from the start who, against great odds, plods on, fight after fight, setback after setback, to finally take the title. Like Mac, the frontman of Austin journeymen Spoon has never let down his guard, evading virtually every music-biz pitfall, moving from indie label to major and back again. With each album he’s reinvented his band to greater acclaim, eventually evolving from the guy everyone counts out to the one everyone counts on—for radio hits, soundtracks and reliably solid rock & roll records. He coulda been a contender, but instead he became a champion.
Now, on the heels of the band’s ninth and latest triumph, Hot Thoughts, and in advance of a two-night stand in Brooklyn, Daniel brushes off the compliments, lets down his guard, and explains this musical rope-a-dope 25 years in the making.
Did it surprise you when the website Metacritic named Spoon as the best-reviewed artist of the decade in 2009?
Well, I guess I was surprised because I’d never even heard of that award. We certainly were reviewed better that decade than the one before it.
Speaking of the previous decade, how’d it feel to be back on Matador Records 20 years after it released your debut, Telephono?
It’s cool. It’s a totally different thing now. We were all in much different places when we worked together back then. I think everybody would agree that record didn’t sell as many copies as any anyone wanted, but I still loved the label and the people there, although I wasn’t really expecting it to happen again. We made Hot Thoughts on our own, and we paid for it on our own, like we always do. Then we see who wants to put it out. They just made the most compelling argument.
“So we’ve always tried to do stuff we figured would—get other people off too.”
That seems like a smart way to do it, so people know exactly what they’re getting into.
Oh yeah, definitely. If you have the means.
On the Song Exploder podcast Jim Eno said you pitched [2014 song] “Inside Out” as “What would it sound like if Spoon made a Dr. Dre song?” Do you try exercises like that a lot?
I came around late to Dr. Dre and had just gotten into his 2001 record that year and became totally obsessed with it.
That’s honestly pretty impressive. I mean, it’s been 20 years and it was never ruined for you and you could still just get into it on your own time? Respect.
Well, I was living in L.A. at the time, and I would put it on in my car and just drive, and so it was L.A. for me. [Pause] Sometimes you do think, there’s this music that I make and this music that’s so different that I love, so maybe I can find a way to grab an element from one and use it in the other.
You’re celebrating the 10th anniversary of Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga this year and the 20th of A Series of Sneaks next year. Neither sounds that old. Do they feel that old to you?
You know, I hadn’t thought about that. I never really think about that kinda stuff. I just think What am I doing now? What am I doing tomorrow? And then someone tells me, “Hey, we should do a reissue!” and then I go, “Uhhh—okay. So what do I gotta do?” When we did the Gimme Fiction reissue we did so much research and digging and came up with all these different demos. We put them all together, mixed them again, and did this big biography on the band, and I’m really proud of that. It was a great reissue. This time we just did a regular reissue where we remastered the record and put it out with this EP [Get Nice!] that came out around that time, so it was a little less work.
You guys never seem afraid to pull the curtain back in that way to demystify that process for your audience. You release all manner of demos, alternate versions or even rejected songs, whereas most bands keep that shit in the vault until someone dies.
Well, it’s always really interesting to me to hear an early version of a song I’ve come to love. Call me a music freak, but it always kinda gets me off. So we’ve always tried to do stuff we figured would—get other people off too.
So you’re a musical smut peddler?
Exactly. For people like us.
My personal favorite was always that really loose country take on “Cherry Bomb.” It couldn’t be more different from the O.G. version, but it still sounds great in that style.
Oh yeah, I know which version you mean. Where did that come from though?
I wanna say it was one of those free downloads off the site?
Maybe. I don’t remember where we first released it. For awhile we did that “Demo a Month” thing on the site, which we don’t do anymore. So it may have been there. Or it coulda been an official b-side, I can’t quite remember. But I’m sure there’s somewhere on the internet we’d be able to dig that information up!
Great, let’s get you back to work!
Hot Thoughts is your second record with Dave Fridmann, who’s produced Mercury Rev, MGMT and the Flaming Lips. What do you like about working with him?
He’s just the best. A real mild-mannered lunatic. He’s got this real dad vibe in the studio. He keeps things focused, keeps everybody in a good, positive frame of mind, but still wants to try to break as many rules as possible every single time. I mean, anything. Trying to make it sound like the tape is melting. Whatever. Any way to make it sound as fucked-up as possible. That’s what gets him off.
Well, that jives with you guys and your seemingly ’down for whatever’ studio ethos. Whether it’s human beatboxing, off-the-cuff studio chatter or sampling Jamaican dub reggae legends, the band’s undying desire to never play it safe has led to some truly unique production flourishes that bands.
Well, I’m always kinda looking for that angle. That perfect angle on a recording that makes it special. There’s another way of looking at making records too, which is that it’s just about the songs and just about the singing, and that you can record things very simply and still come out with a great record. But personally, I tend to think about the production on a record a lot. What is it we can do to make this particular recording special and give it some sort of new angle that none of our other recordings have? But usually you just have to get lucky with that kinda stuff. It’s hard to plan it.
Are there ever things you attempt in the studio but reject for being too far out there?
[Long pause] Something that could have been too weird? We try ideas all the time that we throw out but it’s hard for me to think of a time where we ever thought “OK, that’s just too weird.”
There’s been a gradual shift lyrically from Telephono, which was pretty obtuse and impenetrable, to the more recent records, which are a lot more narratively direct, referencing specific people, places and things. Was it a conscious decision to obfuscate less and let people in more?
Specific language and places just interest me. It gives you this nice foothold on where this story, where this song and where this whole world is.
The reference to Memphis newspaper Commercial Appeal on “Finer Feelings,” seemed like the perfect mix of those styles to me. If you get it, great. But even if you miss it, it doesn’t detract from your enjoyment of the song in any way, in fact, it gave it this whole different meaning for me.
So, the thing with Commercial Appeal I thought, was that it was just the strangest name for a paper. I mean, it’s a regular newspaper, it’s not some coupon clipper—it is an actual, real newspaper! So, as soon as I saw that I thought, “That has gotta be usable somewhere,” you know? And it made sense in the context of that song and ended up becoming this double entendre of “finding it” in Commercial Appeal, which is what we were looking for.
As a songwriter, what other songs have you been particularly proud of?
I like “Inside Out” quite a bit. I don’t listen to our records straight through very often, but Alex [Fischel, keyboardist] and I were trying to figure out some new songs to play live from the catalog, and we listened to Transference all the way through and, even though I don’t really think of it as our strongest album, there is some great stuff on there. “Trouble Comes Running” is really good, “Out Go the Lights” is really good. I mean, these aren’t songs that were necessarily intended to be lightin’ up the charts or anything though. Even “I Saw the Light,” which we started playing again around March I hadn’t really thought about since back then.
In 2006, you teamed up with composer—and former Redd Kross drummer—Brian Reitzell to score the film Stranger Than Fiction. Did you enjoy that experience and would you do something like it again?
It was fun. I would do it again, sure. But rock n’ roll is my primary concern. The soundtracking was definitely fun because with Brain as my partner I didn’t really have to deal with anybody but him. He took care of everything. All I did was come in, play some melodies, give him some ideas I had stored up, and we’d just turned them into things. I actually found it really easy because it’s almost like a paint-by-numbers approach to music. “We need this piece to be twenty seconds long, we need it to have this vibe, and we need it to do this fifteen seconds in.” And for some reason, that makes making music easier.
Well, it gives you the structure of some lines to paint inside of and is probably better than staring down a blank page because it gives you somewhere to start coloring.
Exactly. And those things help, you know? It can actually be kinda cool for writing pop songs too, because when you have no restrictions and you don’t even know what you wanna write about sometimes, it can be really hard to get going. Sometimes I ask people for directions…
Speaking of pop songs, is there any recent Top 40 stuff you’ve enjoyed? Maybe a guilty pleasure people might be surprised to know you like?
Hmmm, well, I wasn’t really a big fan of the Weekend until this album but I love those songs he did with Daft Punk. “I Feel It Coming” is amazing and “Starry” is pretty fucking good as well. I find things all the time. [Pause] Actually—there’s some Calvin Harris song that I can’t believe that I like. I forget the name of it now though…
Oh, that’s convenient.
No, I honestly can’t remember what it’s called at the moment. But I will send it to you.
[True to his word, he eventually sends along a link for the Calvin Harris, Future and Khalid song “Rollin” and he is not wrong: It’s damn catchy. Minus the hip-hop verse, if you close your eyes, it could almost sound like a Spoon song. Almost.]
OK, well maybe you should cover it in Brooklyn. Spoon has always done quite a lot of covers. You’ve been commissioned to do them, appeared on tributes and at benefits doing some, even included others on LPs. You even popped up doing Elvis Costello karaoke on Veronica Mars once. Why do covers play such a big role in the band?
Well, it’s fun for me. I just love playing great songs. So if there’s a song I’m obsessed with that’s not mine, it’s fun to play it. That being said, I do feel like if you’re gonna cover a song, you’d better bring some of your own personality to it. Otherwise why bother?
Now that you’re nine albums in, do you ever feel like not taking these artistic risks and just playing it safe?
No, I really feel like you have to. You have to prove that there’s a reason that you still exist, other than your own financial outlook. That’s why I take the making of each record so seriously. We still have fun and get wild with it, but try to push out as far as we can, too. I guess is what I’m trying to say is, we don’t settle.
Well, I suppose that’s why websites have created new awards for you.
What’s the next award they’ll create for us? That’s the big question.
“Band who took it the most seriously but stayed the most wild this decade.”