Spoon: Further On Down the Road
Britt Daniel is at home in Austin, Texas, attempting to relax during a short respite in the midst of a busy summer on the road. The Spoon frontman and songwriter is as affable in conversation as one would expect from his rollicking onstage and in-studio persona. “Three whole days,” he jokes of his brief vacation before surveying the near quarter-century of success and occasional missteps since the Austin-based outfit formed in the Texas capitol.
Spoon have long since climbed to the upper echelon of indie-rock royalty and, in many ways, are survivors of the blogger boom that dominated critics’ lists a decade ago. They are also the rare breed of band that found widespread fame in the early-to-mid-aughts and have continued to put out quality and boundary-pushing material, including this year’s Hot Thoughts—an engaging collection that ranges from catchy hooks to ethereal soundscapes—which finds the band continuing the growth they displayed with 2014’s critically acclaimed They Want My Soul. In somewhat of a homecoming move for the group, another indie stalwart, Matador Records, the first label to house Spoon’s music when they released their debut Telephono in 1996, put out their new album.
Their renewed partnership with Matador, with whom they’ve remained friends over the two ensuing decades, isn’t the result of warm and fuzzy memories. In fact, the early era of Spoon held some stretches that the band might rather forget entirely. Just a few years after their promising introductory record, the members found themselves at a point where they weren’t sure they would ever record another note of music.
“We were fabulously unsuccessful for the first couple of records,” admits Daniel. “Something had to change.”
“We felt incredibly lucky that we had this chance to be on one of our favorite labels,” adds drummer Jim Eno who, along with Daniel, has been the band’s only other constant member since its inception. “We also knew that we were going to do this as long as we can—we just didn’t know how long that would be. We figured we would keep trying and, if people liked our music, that would be great. Unfortunately, in those early years, no one really listened to us.”
Spoon quickly followed their debut album with an EP, Soft Effects, which honed in on a bit more of the band’s unique flavor of indie-rock. But finding a voice doesn’t necessarily translate to finding an audience, and though Spoon soon signed to a major label, their career was nearly derailed before it could even gain steam. Simply put, their first record with Elektra, 1998’s A Series of Sneaks, was a commercial flop, at least as far as their new partners were concerned. The label quickly dropped the band, following the departure of their A&R advocate Ron Laffitte—a wholly disheartening incident that the band took as abandonment and to which they later responded with a two-sided single featuring the punnily titled tracks “The Agony of Laffitte” and “Laffitte Don’t Fail Me Now.”
“I was pretty bummed out when we left Matador and made a record for this major label,” Daniel says. “And we were not doing it naively—we knew all of the pitfalls, or at least a lot of them, that could arise. We were pretty wary of that situation, and somehow it turned out worse than we could have pictured. We really felt like we’d been run through the ringer.”
The band even started questioning their future. “We didn’t know if anyone would want to put out our music again,” Eno admits.
“I definitely thought that it was not only possible, but likely, that we wouldn’t be able to keep making records,” Daniel says. “For some reason, we didn’t quit and start over with new people, or with a new band name. If we had been smart, that’s probably what we would have done.”
If the band’s ultimate goal was fame and fortune, then they would have opted for a clean slate, maybe even a wildly different sound. Luckily for their current fans, Daniel’s aspirations were considerably more modest, at least at the outset.
“I knew that I’d still be able to do shows in Austin and that I would always find a way to do music because I love it,” he explains “That’s why we kept going. Because even though business-wise, it made sense to quit, there were always the shows in Austin.”
Those local performances kept Daniel writing music, which has always been the backbone of the whole Spoon endeavor, something that Eno recognized early on. “I kept hearing the songs that Britt was writing, and I was just like, ‘We need to keep moving on this. We need to get things recorded. This is fun.’” So the band continued, and so did the albums.
“Nobody wanted to hear them, but we kept pushing anyway,” Daniel adds with a laugh. “I never lost the desire to do it; it was just a matter of, ‘It looks like we’re not going to be able to do it.’” Enter Merge Records, who put out the band’s next album, Girls Can Tell, in 2001. The album outsold their previous two efforts combined and kicked off a highly successful relationship that lasted throughout the decade and produced four more LPs, solidifying Spoon’s place near the top during the hipster era in the process.
Along with the change in label, the music began to solidify into the sparse, swaggering style that Spoon is known for. Daniel’s songwriting matured, too, taking on a more personal air. “I felt like, if we were going to keep going, I had to keep [evolving] because, so far, this wasn’t working,” he says. “To start, it was art for art’s sake and lyrics for lyrics’ sake—the vibe of Pink Flag by Wire. I loved that approach, but, eventually, we grew out of it.”
Girls Can Tell had enough of an autobiographical bent to include his then-recent struggles with Elektra, says Daniel. “That’s where I started opening up lyrically, and owning up to the fact that I had feelings. Before that, it was all about art. With some of the songs on that record, I was writing about that experience—what it’s like to feel heartbroken, to be a bit washed up at a tender age.
“I don’t feel like the same songwriter who made the first record,” he continues. “It’s weird to look back on a document like that, to see that it has the same name and to feel so different. I guess that’s part of what some people find so cool about our catalog. For me, personally, it’s hard to relate to that record. It does feel like a different guy made it.”
Spoon’s studio presence advanced quickly in a similar fashion to their writing. While they made their early recordings to feel like their live show—partly because that’s all they knew how to do—their acceptance of the studio as another instrument, which also came around Girls Can Tell, helped further their career and lead to today’s process of creating records.
“I would say, around maybe 2000, we started using the studio more,” Eno says. “Britt has a background in audio and sound effects—he worked at a video-game company right out of school—so he was that sort of little tweaker when it comes to sounds. You start hearing that on songs like ‘Paper Tiger’ [offf 2002’s Kill the Moonlight]. That’s a crazy song that has a wild backing track, a lot of reverse things.”
Four albums after “Paper Tiger,” Spoon recorded the track “Inside Out” for They Want My Soul. The single and final song the band recorded for the album—as well as one of their best compositions to date—ended up paving the way for the extended, experimental nature of Hot Thoughts. The album contains more exploratory tracks, like the longest song Spoon has put on record to date, the slinky mid-album cut “Pink Up.” (The record’s experimental twist, not surprisingly, also has a lot to do with its producer, longtime Flaming Lips collaborator Dave Fridmann.)
The track—which boasts a vibraphone-heavy ostinato, various instruments that oat in and out of focus, and even some back-masked vocals from Daniel—is the ideological descendant of “Paper Tiger” and, Eno predicts, it denotes a direction that the band plans to explore further in the future.
“We’ve never done anything like that before,” Daniel says of the track. “So when I happened on that idea and got it halfway done, I thought, ‘If we can finish this one, and we can get it feeling as good as I need each song to feel, then that will be a new step for the band.’ So I jumped on it.”
Spoon are still looking to take new steps on the eve of their 25th anniversary. Even after experiencing those nearly devastating early failures, Daniel knows that there isn’t any real movement for a band except for going forward.
“The Beatles couldn’t make Revolver again, even if they wanted to,” he muses. “That’s part of the way you prove your mettle. Every band and every songwriter says they want to do something different, but you’ve got to truly go do something new. You also have to know when those new directions are good and when they’re crap. I could go make a hip-hop song tomorrow, but it probably wouldn’t be very good.”
Daniel has written enough quality songs to know what works for his band, though some outside encouragement always helps. The songwriter remembers the first time he really noticed that Spoon were making a name for themselves, back in 2002.
“After Kill the Moonlight had been out for a few months, I remember that Christmas, going back home and feeling like something was actually happening that I had never experienced before,” he says. “We were selling out shows. I remember opening up a magazine and seeing [producer and composer] Dave Sardy cite that his favorite bands were Radiohead, Beck and Spoon, and I was like, ‘What the fuck?’ Those were my favorite bands! So something must’ve been going right.”
“I think that’s what made that a really exciting time,” Eno agrees. “You could see things building, and more people coming to our shows. It was pretty rewarding.”
Daniel and Eno still share a palpable sense of excitement all these years later, and it’s not hard to see that their energy is exactly what keeps their music fresh. A Spoon song always sounds like a Spoon song but, nine albums later, there isn’t any staleness to the newer tracks. And, Eno notes, that’s partly why the band decided to team up with their old partners at Matador this time around: not to recapture that youthful feeling, but because the label felt the same way they did about their music.
“We’re friends with those guys, and it’s funny because all of the same people who run the company are all still there,” Eno says. “So it’s crazy to get back into meetings with them like we did 20 years ago. We’re fans of that label still, and Matador could not have been more excited about this record. They showed an enthusiasm that was basically unprecedented with any other industry people we talked to. When you have that enthusiasm, it doesn’t matter— obviously, the business stuff has to work out but you can’t manufacture enthusiasm.”
“Full circle” may seem like an appropriate phrase for Spoon’s return to their first label, but the band’s direction has never felt circular, so perhaps it’s more apt to call it another meeting along a continuing road—a path that has stretched far longer than the group could have ever dreamed.
“I certainly didn’t think more than a few years ahead,” Daniel says of Spoon’s early days. “I knew that making records was a thing I really wanted to do because it seemed like the best job. The thing that made life worth living was other people’s great records, so I wanted to make some, too. I had this general vibe that that was what I wanted to do with my life, but I didn’t think too far down the road about what that meant. Similarly, I don’t know now, either. I finished a record last year, it came out this year and I’ve got some shows to do; I’m not sure what happens after that.”
This article originally appeared in the December 2017 issue of Relix.