I think that the best things about recording are those little accidents that happen.
If you’ve heard “Everything Hits at Once,” the first track on Spoon’s 2001 breakthrough Girls Can Tell, you’ve heard the most sublime opening track ever put to tape. It’s a perfect pop song, with the most unusually beautiful, slightly broken voice slurring, “Don’t say a word/The last one’s still stingin’“ over a melancholy bounce of electric piano and hollow-body guitar. You immediately want to replay it. Unless you happen to catch a bit of the next track. Or the one after that. It’s then you realize: they’re all that good. The Austin, Texas, four-piece managed to follow that masterpiece with an even more highly acclaimed effort, 2002’s adventurous Kill the Moonlight, which incorporated self-created samples and loops into their already unique mix, often leaving out the rock altogether.
We recently spoke with singer/songwriter Britt Daniel, calling from his apartment in Austin, where the band is midway through recording their fifth release, tentatively titled The Beast and Dragon Are Adored. Daniel was preparing for Spoon’s summer tour, a chance to preview new material and simply take a break from the studio, bringing them through St. Louis for the first time in six years.
Have you been to St. Louis before?
Yeah, the last time we played there was in ’98, on tour with Swervedriver. I think we played with the Smoking Popes; are they from there?
Uh—[I have no idea]—no.
Well, I think we played with them anyway.
How do you pick the titles for your records?
I don’t know, just something that sounds interesting, something that we’re gonna not mind seeing in print. Something slightly creative.
Each one of your records has been a big leap forward, production- and songwriting-wise. What kind of developments can we expect from the upcoming record?
I don’t know. [Pauses.] I don’t know. You’ll have to tell me when you hear it.
So the changes aren’t a conscious effort?
Are you using any self-created samples on the new recordings?
No. No more beat-boxing.
They’re more organic, then?
It’s been a little of both. A little rock band, you know, and a little production.
Does the band still have day jobs?
Yeah. I don’t right now, and I haven’t recently, but sometimes I do, and the other guys definitely do.
What kind of jobs?
Well, Josh [Zarbo, bass] really wants to work with animals, so he does that whenever he can. Jim [Eno, drums] is an electrical engineer. We have different keyboard players all the time, but I think our new keyboard player just got out of graduate school, at the University of Texas.
Looking back, what’s your favorite Spoon song?
Usually off the top of my head, I’ll say [Girls Can Tell’s] “Lines in the Suit.” There’s gonna be different favorites at different times, you know, but I like that one. I think that’s a good tune.
The one that kicked your ass.
Yeah, it did.
Tell our readers something they don’t know about you.
I think there’s an air of mystery to the band. Not a lot of info gettin’ out.
The mystery is unintentional.
Not like Jandek.
[Several moments pass and nothing really comes to mind. I give him a pass for now.] Do you have any long-term plans within the band, besides just getting the record finished?
Long-term plans? Ah. You know, just making my fortune. You know, this record has been enough of a long-term plan for now. I’m looking forward to getting done with it, you know, to have enough time to move somewhere, you know, in Austin, or somewhere else. I’m sick of living here in this apartment.
You’re in Austin now.
I am in Austin. I’m just saying that this apartment is… I can’t leave until I’m done with the record, ’cause I just won’t have time. Every day I think, “Well, I’m getting closer to getting the record done.”
How much touring will you be doing when the record comes out? Any more than with your previous releases?
I imagine it’ll be about the same. I mean, we toured a lot on the last record. I guess we didn’t get to St. Louis, but… Yeah, actually, the Midwest is the area we only hit once on that last tour. So it may seem like we didn’t tour much, but we toured twice to the East, twice to the West Coast… And I flew around and did a bunch of shows.
Have you spent any time in St. Louis on your previous stops here, or were you just in and out?
Yeah, that’s one city I don’t know very well.
Your scheduled dates look pretty tight. Will you have any time to see the city?
Well, it might be around a day off; if it is, maybe we will.
I could send a list of where-to-go’s. In this town, the good stuff’s not really touted by the Chamber of Commerce.
Yeah, send it to me. You know, we don’t have a bus, so we don’t leave right after the show, we stay, and we generally like to find people, locals that will show us around.
Okay, you’ve had some time, tell me something our readers don’t know about Spoon. Or about Britt Daniel, even.
[After a long pause] I’m very sensitive.
No, they knew that. They could tell that much.
Oh. [Sounding disappointed.] I didn’t know that. I didn’t know that they knew that.
Everybody knows that.
How about this? They didn’t know, that I didn’t know that they knew that?
That may have to suffice.
Um…I grew up in Texas, would you have guessed that?
Yeah, we knew that, too.
Although when I’ve played the Girls Can Tell record for people, they invariably think you’re British, because of this unusual accent in your singing voice.
You know, I never mean to do that. I’ve always wondered why, because I’m not trying to do it, why people say that all the time. And I’m thinking, now I’m remembering, when I was a kid I was in choir, in elementary school? And the way they taught us to sing was to sing like you’re British. Instead of “ar” you say “ah.” You don’t sing “car,” you sing “cahhh.” That was the proper way to sing on stage when you were ten years old, so you didn’t sound like a Texan. And maybe that just stuck with me.
Do you think it had anything to do with your early influences, the first bands you fell in love with?
The first band I was really into, that I took it upon myself to be into, was the Bee Gees, when I was eight. They’re Australian, right?
Um. [I have no idea.] They are…
Sort of Australian, sort of English, like a mix of those places.
What era of the Bee Gees would this be?
It was around the time of Saturday Night Fever and Spirits Having Flown, which was the record after that. I was…a mega fan. It was the first concert I ever saw. In Austin, at the Frank Erwin Center. I was eight.
Did your parents take you?
I have a question about Girls Can Tell. Listening to the record, it sounds like the first half of the vocals were recorded differently than the second half. Like the first half was recorded in a bathroom and the second half wasn’t. They’re both great sounds; I’m just wondering if that was intentional?
I don’t know; I hadn’t thought about that before. Um, what’s on the first half? There’s “Everything Hits at Once”; I think there’s sort of a slap-back on that. Probably it was just some unintentional thing.
But all recorded in the same studio?
Yeah, we didn’t record it in a bathroom. The most lo-fi one on the record is “Lines in the Suit.” We recorded it ourselves, in 1999, on a borrowed eight-track. It was the most do-it-yourself—I mean, all of our records are pretty do-it-yourself, but at that time we didn’t know what we were doing. We had just rented someone’s eight-track, which was uncalibrated, and it sounds pretty crappy, fidelity-wise, but we didn’t feel we could improve on the take.
The lo-fi-ness comes off as intentional.
It just didn’t sound as if we could improve on it. It was too good a version of the song. So we didn’t, even when we did re-record a bunch of songs on Girls Can Tell that we had done during that session, we just chose not to re-do that one.
On Kill the Moonlight’s “Jonathan Fisk,” am I hearing temp vocal tracks shouted in the background?
Yeah, we recorded that one live in the studio—the studio is one room, really, but we were all in that room. And so, yeah, I was singing the songs as we were recording it live and then later went in and did vocal overdubs, but, still, because it was such a live room you can hear that original vocal take.
Once again, it sounds intentional. It’s a lot of fun.
I think that the best things about recording are those little accidents that happen. You do intentionally decide to leave them on there, but a lot of people get freaked out by accidents; they think, “Well, we didn’t intend to do it that way, so it’s not right.”
A lot of people might hear that temp track and say, “I can hear the temp track! It’s not supposed to be there.”
Right. But, if you think about it, anything goes. I think it just makes it more interesting.
I think it makes it sound more alive, like a real, organic thing moving around on its own.
[A discussion follows of the last Spoon show I attended, at the Abbey in Chicago]
How far is the drive?
That’s a hike.
Yeah, but, you know, that was one of those crazy days: work in the morning, drive all evening to get to the show, and by the time you make it, you’re so tired… And yet, you kicked my ass with that show.
Cool. Well, this time you won’t have to drive, huh?