On the morning before one of Spoon’s first shows supporting new album Hot Thoughts, Britt Daniel exudes an inordinate calm. I’ve asked him to take a journey back through each of Spoon’s nine albums. He remains unfazed, speaking softly yet confidently, his memory sharp and his opinions sharper. And yet, he doesn’t seem the type to spend a lot of time looking back at his own records. “I don’t listen to them often,” he shrugs. “I listened to Transference about a month or six weeks ago because we were trying to figure out songs to play on the next tour.”
Perhaps constantly looking forward is the very reason that Spoon have produced such a fluid, evolving catalog of albums. Daniel and Co. have evolved mightily from their early Wire- and grunge-indebted debut, incorporating everything from Motown tones to vibraphones into their artful indie punk and rock. And yet there’s a constant core to Spoon. Their collaborators and influence palette have changed, but Daniel and drummer Jim Eno continue to churn away, revealing new shades of their vision for the band.
Now, click ahead as Britt Daniel takes you from Telephono to Hot Thoughts, tracing his career from garage guitars to robot girls. Yeah, that’s right. Robot girls.
Driven by Pixies, Wire, and Robert Pollard, the Austin outfit find a grunge-y sweet spot in the middle on their debut. There were still massive hooks, though more raucous and wild in energy than their eventual R&B-indebted swagger. The record packs a wallop and gets to it quick, front-loading some massive melodies and sharp-edged guitar. There’s a Pavement looseness, but a punk fury; that’s particularly true on “Nefarious”, where Britt Daniel speak-sings the opening verses about “torture to me” (even with a little Jonathan Richman slacker sneer), practically strangling his guitar over Jim Eno’s scrappy but precise drumming. “Claws Tracking” scrapes and lunges like Nirvana, a Metz precursor if Spoon cranked everything further into the red. It’s a strong album, but doesn’t have the unique personality that would come later.
A couple of those songs were from a band I’d been in before. “Wanted To Be Ya Friend” [released as “Wanted To Be Your” on Telephono] and “Plastic Mylar” were from this band called Skellington that I was in before. But I think we’d been a band for maybe almost a year before we started recording that album. Mostly those songs were written when we were playing in bars. That was what the band was about: weekend gigs. I was pleased with the record. I thought it was good, but there were a few things … I remember we were very, very particular about the kick drums and how they would sound on that record. The producer got a kick drum sound that sounded like he was dribbling a basketball. It sounded like a basketball hitting the ground real quickly. For the most part, I thought it was good, and a lot of labels were interested in the band based on the strength of an early version of that record. It was basically the same record; it just hadn’t been mixed yet. I was just convinced it was great.
We were going to wait for some label to approach us from our album, but I just thought that we could take things into our own hands. That was the way that bands I admired were doing it. John Croslin was an Austin guy. We were making the record in 1994. John definitely had a lot of ideas and taught us a lot about recording. His band’s records weren’t essential influences, but they were good. I liked the first one the best. Our record was made at John’s house, in his backyard toolshed that he’d converted into a studio. We knew a lot of people in town that he had recorded, like this band called The Wannabes that we did gigs with all of the time. [John] was from The Reivers, and I don’t know how we got introduced, but I was pretty psyched that he was interested in it.
A Series of Sneaks (1998)
The record doesn’t change the palette of influences that drove their debut, but it cleans up the songwriting and production, streamlining everything to the point that Britt Daniel’s esoteric but engaging lyrics and pristine, even pop-friendly melodies shine brighter. The distortion knob gets cranked down considerably, though it still feels like they were sneaks, slipping out a post-punk record disguised as major-label fodder — and it was, as they moved up the ladder to Elektra for the release. While the songs have mass appeal, they’re not quite at the iconic burn of later albums. In fact, their Elektra backer, Ron Laffitte quit not long after bringing them on board, which led to the label dropping them — and to Spoon adding two songs to the reissue punning on his name, including “Laffitte Don’t Fail Me Now”. Elsewhere, song titles like “Metal School”, “Metal Detektor”, and “Execution” suggest some tough stuff, but there’s far more subtlety here than their debut and more open space to breathe, though just as many hooks.
I always knew that music was what I wanted to do. It was just a struggle. We weren’t making any money at it, and making the record sound the way we wanted it to sound was also difficult. We might have had one or two songs for the second album that were around before Telephono, but we mostly started working on it in the summer of ‘96, so after the record had come out and the honeymoon was over. Listen, I like to work, and I’m always thinking about the next thing I’m going to be doing.
I was bummed that the band had put out two albums and very little notice had come to it. First, we were in the indie world, which we weren’t really accepted by very well. Then we were in the major-label world, which definitely had no interest in us. So, yeah, it was a bit disappointing. I never really felt like the record became a cult classic, but it is a good record. It’s a quality album, and at the very end of it, after we got dropped, I remember Magnet championed us. It didn’t happen until after we got dropped, but the fact that that magazine and those crowds had liked the record meant something, since they were always talking about my favorite bands. So, that was something at first. Then there was a piece in The New York Times about us, and it felt like the tide had turned a little bit. It took a while to turn, but that record started turning it around.
That one was made in a real studio. The second time we still worked with John [Croslin], but we were working in a not great, but professional studio in Austin. I think that that record has a really unique sound. It’s totally dry. There’s very little in the way of warmth or room sounds, or really much production. There’s production; it’s just very minimal and very dry. It wasn’t until the next couple records where we really started to feel like it was more like us.
Girls Can Tell (2001)
Returning to an indie home with Merge, Girls Can Tell immediately shows a darker shade of Spoon on opener “Everything Hits at Once”. The use of counterpoint, vibraphone, and Mellotron show a controlled, shadowy version of their itchy hook ability. You really feel the full weight of Britt Daniel’s intent as an artist when he slices open his heart (gently no less) and lets all his despair dangle out like an unraveled ball of yarn, fraying and unfurling from every impact. The romantic angst when he sings, “Don’t say a word, the last one’s still stinging,” combined with the gut-aching “I go to sleep thinking that you’re next to me,” is his battle cry declaring that everything hits at once – and damn well it hurts. The record rewards the sort of studied respect usually reserved for longstanding rock groups. That’s just the first track, but the lessons learned from that first listen extend throughout; keyboards offer essential shading, Daniel’s lyrics gain a weighty emotional clarity, and songs expand in noir tones with more subtlety than their initial distorted punch.
Well, maybe I’m able to connect with melancholy a little bit.
Before we put the record out, I was just excited to be able to put the record out on any label. I didn’t know that the band was going to exist. It took a long time between making the record and then putting it out, really, almost a couple of years. I was just pleased that it was coming out. Even though it was back to an independent label, and probably the smallest label we’ve worked with, it was the first time that we ever had any upward movement in terms of sales or offers to play shows and there were rooms full of people showing up.
Using instruments like vibraphone and Mellotron, we started with the album Get Happy by Elvis Costello, which my girlfriend, Eleanor, had a cassette copy of. We lived together in Chicago in the summer of ‘98. She got that tape and I started noticing similarities between that and Motown, and I started to remember how much I loved Motown, how much I loved The Supremes, how much I loved Marvin Gaye, and ‘60s radio, sort of R&B mostly. As I was realizing that, I was like, “Well, you know, all those records, all those singles, and all those bands do a lot of things that we’re not doing. They use room for their sound. They use piano; they use vibraphone.” We were sort of operating by these “cool rules.” We were going to be a guitar, bass, drums outfit, like Wire, and that’s all we really wanted to do. And at some point, I was just like, “Well, there’s all this other stuff that I really do like. Why not just try it?” And I think the first song I wrote in that vein was “Take the Fifth”, which was definitely Supremes-inspired. That whole record, I decided to run with it.
We had covered one of John Clayton’s songs before recording “Me and the Bean”. He wrote a song called “Irrigation Man” that we had recorded in our Telephono sessions and put out on a single. He was just a songwriter that had a real knack for melody, and sort of British songwriting, at least as I thought about it. Bowie-esque. Something about his songs appealed to me like no other person’s in Austin. He had this lovely song with his band The Sidehackers that I just knew by heart. I loved it; it sounded gorgeous. So, we were at a phase that we weren’t really sure the band was going to continue, and it seemed like a fun thing to cover a song that I loved so much. I thought maybe we could find a way to do it that would fit in with this new sound.
On the first album, we had this lady named Andy Maguire who was our bass player. [After that], we sort of existed as a two-piece, but we’d take out bass players here and there. By the time A Series of Sneaks came out, we had this guy named Josh [Zarbo] who was our bass player. Brad Shenfeld was our tour manager, just a friend, and at some point we gave him a credit. When we made Soft Effects [EP, 1997], we were basically a duo, but we toured with this guy Scott as the bass player, and Brad was the tour manager. There’s a line in the press for Soft Effects, where it says Spoon are Britt Daniel and Jim Eno, and in 1996 Brad Shenfeld and Scott.
Kill the Moonlight (2002)
While Spoon named their band after a Can song, the influence wasn’t always immediately apparent. Though, at the time of release, Kill the Moonlight might have been seen as a new peak of clarity and pop-friendly hook writing, far unlike the platonic ideal of prog rock, the album actually unveils a beautiful layering and push and pull much like the band that inspired their name. In addition to their newfound lyrical bravery, Britt Daniel and Jim Eno add a new musical directness. Highlight “The Way We Get By” didn’t just embrace that; it celebrated it. The song, like many others on the album, has a stylistic range and emotional depth that manages to blend head-nodding rock with a melodic structure that surprises right until the end with punchy piano and abrupt cuts to spaces of bright, light, and musical effervescence. They show self-conscious devotion to punk rock and merge it into a new decade of palpable intensity; whether it’s the reversed drum loop of “Paper Tiger”, the beatbox of “Stay Don’t Go”, or the piano noir smoke of “All the Pretty Girls Go to the City”, Spoon were clearly reaching beyond their indie guitar rock origins.
The label thought it was a good idea [to license our music], and I don’t think we were that precious that we would say our art couldn’t appear on a TV show. We didn’t have a big problem with it. We did want to reach people, and we definitely needed the money. It was a good call. We didn’t write or record those songs for TV shows; we made them for albums. But they were picked up and used there, and I was fine with that.
It’s been awhile since I’ve listened to the whole thing. I listen back when I’m thinking about maybe bringing a song around for a show or I’m in a restaurant and it comes on. I like the record a lot; I think it’s one of our best. I think it’s expansive; it has a lot of different sounds on it. It sounds like we were learning how to do new things, excited about getting to do new things. There are a lot of songs on there that are just guitar, bass, and drums, but there are songs with beatboxing and drum loops, which was totally an accident that just happened to work. A drum machine would just go backwards. That was stuff that I used to do on my 4-track all the time. To be able to use that kind of 4-track creativity and bring it into a studio, with Mike McCarthy as a producer, with a bigger world? That was pretty far out. I knew it was the best thing that we’d done.
Gimme Fiction (2005)
It should be completely unsurprising that this album wound up spotting Spoon on soundtracks ranging from Wedding Crashers and The Simpsons to Bones and Friday Night Lights. Building off of the cinematic scope of its predecessor, Gimme Fiction carries an undeniable cool in its bluesy swagger and a narrative depth in its songwriting, Daniel couching his emotional messages in medieval imagery and slinky disco punk alike. The burnished bass and rippling piano throughout make for a sleek, sexy mix, bottom-heavy and insistent, giving a powerful yet flexible platform from which Daniel can croon. He’s having fun revealing that miserable, common epoch many of us experience: preferring our imaginary worlds to our everyday vexes. As if aware they’d reached a new muscularity, they expand the record out to over 44 minutes, yet still holding things taut and punchy, not a moment wasted.
I was working on that record starting in early 2003, and we had had a little bit of success. Kill the Moonlight had done really well critically, and we were starting to reach more people. At that point, we hooked up with this manager who I thought was in the right vein. I do remember that it took a while to get the quality songs that I was looking for. I had the wind behind me. I felt like we were doing well, but I was also very aware that there were people who were very interested in what we would do next. I kept thinking about “Stay Don’t Go” and “Paper Tiger”, and these kind of tracks that had happy accidents that made them work, and I kept thinking over all those happy accidents, but I couldn’t just repeat them. You can’t just con them into happening. You have to put in the work, and then hopefully something will happen.
It crossed my mind to do the falsetto vocals on “I Turn My Camera On” because I was a Prince fan, going back to before I was a teenager, and he always did that. It felt like I knew this formula for making a hit single, which was to make something that was beat-oriented, simple, and falsetto. When I did it, it was just this thing where I was like, “Yeah, this is a thing I’ve known I could do forever, but I’ve just never done. I’ve known this formula. I’m finally using this formula.”
Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga (2007)
Though Spoon may have traded in the massive guitar rock of their earliest recordings, they certainly didn’t forget how to go big. It just so happens that on Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, that largeness comes from a burnished horn section. It drives the sublime, hand-clapping “The Underdog” and the classic rock push of “You Got Yr. Cherry Bomb”, two showstoppers that exemplify the album title: incredibly simple at first glance and yet impossible to stop yourself from repeating and conveying a visceral power when spoken aloud. It also features perhaps their best song, “Don’t You Evah”, a cover of the Natural History. Over and above the thudding bass riff and superb vocal melody, it’s a song about commitment and the inescapable cold feet that linger close behind the concept of monogamy. It’s certainly one of Spoon’s best and most relatable songs, even if it technically doesn’t belong to them. Hey, it worked for Hendrix. Throughout the record, they leave in snippets of studio banter, as if to prove how little frills they were adding to the songs, the magician daring you to try to look up his sleeve. And there’s no trick here, except they sure do pull a lot of magic out of nowhere.
It was fun working with Jon Brion. He’s a very energetic guy. When he is working with you, he is completely focused. There is nothing else he’s doing. I don’t think he even responds to texts from his friends for months at a time when he’s working on a record. He’s a lot of fun, and he can play anything. I wasn’t sure about the idea of working with Jon. What I thought about him was that he was one of those LA pop guys that loves The Beatles and doesn’t have a lot of danger to them. That was my general impression of him. But once I got to know him, I found out there’s so much more to him. I just thought, “Hey, I love the Beatles plenty. I don’t need to hook up with someone who also loves the Beatles. I’ve got that part down.” That was why I wasn’t eager, but once I met him, I got it. He likes to throw a lot of things at a record and see what happens.
I always liked how on The White Album there were little bits of conversation you could hear between the songs. That always made it seem more personal, interesting, and intense, less polished and more real. We were recording on tape, as everybody did at that time. When you record on tape, there’s inevitably a lot of conversations that happen before a take. We just kind of figured, that stuff’s there, why not use it? I think that’s one thing we were good at, knowing to leave that stuff in. A lot of bands would be like, “Let’s be professional here.” I think the unintended parts can actually be more interesting.
Britt Daniel called Transference “uglier” than the records that came before it, and considering the brass section and epic, cinematic songs that powered Gimme Fiction and Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, that could mean a lot of things. But while the latter left warts and all studio sound bites into the finished project, this record feels like it was more a series of blurry notebook pages; rather than the detailed diagrams of the previous album, Transference’s songs feel minimal in a way that doesn’t convey a cohesive mood like their other albums. The patchwork features some stunners — the spidery atmospherics of “Nobody Gets Me But You”, the dubby “The Mystery Zone”– but as a whole it shifts from sleepy moments to rough-edged bursts. It’s reportedly pieced together in part from home recordings and first takes, a record that comes from someplace much more raw, offbeat, and loose than the iterations of Spoon that came before it.
Some of the songs were first takes or home recordings. There’s that song “Trouble Comes Running”, which if we recorded that in a real studio would’ve been the hit on the record. I’m not saying it’s not good. It’s great, but it’s never going to get on the radio when it’s recorded like that. We had this magic thing happen when we were recording at a rehearsal, recording with a 4-track, and all this great stuff happened. When we tried to reproduce it in the studio, it just never sounded the same way again. Maybe we could have taken a few days off and re-approached it, but what I was into in the moment was, “No, this version we did on 4-track was a great performance, it sounds cool, let’s just use that.” That was what that record was all about, making mistakes. I remember saying at that time, “I want to make the mistakes that a band makes when they produce themselves. I want that kind of fuck up on this record. Because that’s interesting.”