That's the Way They Get By
"Do you remember when you were small / And all the people seemed so tall?" -- John Lennon, "Remember," 1970
"Do you remember when you were small / how everybody would seem so tall?" --Spoon, "Me and the Bean," 2001
"I'm into tension," says Spoon front man/mastermind Britt Daniel, in response to a question about the wound-up-tight-with-no-release-in-sight energy of his band's output over the last several years. The only real precedent for Spoon tracks such as "Everything Hits At Once," "Small Stakes" and "Jonathon Fisk" (clean, undistorted adrenaline-rushes all) lie in late-'70s Elvis Costello (whose "Green Shirt" would appear to be a direct ancestor of the similarly sartorial "Fitted Shirt") and early-'70s John Lennon. When confronted with the lyrical evidence cited above, Daniel is both enthusiastic and unfazed.
"John Lennon / Plastic Ono Band is one of my favorite records ever," he declares without hesitation. "It stands up incredibly well through and through, just a totally solid, totally classic record. It brings a big punch with it. It's just so emotional."
Aside from the Smart Beatle's primal-scream-therapy-inspired solo debut, the most blatant cross-reference in Spoon's lexicon is contained in a trio of allusions to that most visceral of rock icons, Iggy Pop. "The Way We Get By" from 2002's Kill the Moonlight CD begins as the title characters "go to sleep to 'Shake Appeal' " (quite a feat, as anyone familiar with the scorching Raw Power will attest); later, they "make love to 'Some Weird Sin' " (a track from Iggy's 1977 Lust for Life LP); and finally the protagonists "fall in love to 'Down on the Street' " (the brutal opening salvo from the Stooges' Fun House and one of the most gut-wrenching pieces of rock ever recorded). So what gives, Britt?
"I was going through a major Iggy obsession that week," he chuckles. "That song was written really quickly, and I guess that was what was on the brain that day." Well, okay then.
With or without footnotes, 2005 was a huge year for Spoon commercially. Gimme Fiction was a watershed record for the band in terms of sales and exposure, appearing on year-end best-of lists from Pitchfork to Time.
"It seems like it's been more like a step up along a staircase than some huge, mind-blowing change for us," says Daniel. "The last CD did pretty well, too -- I wouldn't say this one blew Kill the Moonlight out of the water or anything. But yeah, there have been more notices, bigger shows, we sold more records. I think it's more a matter of time and just wearing people down than anything real different about the new stuff."
One of the privileges of relative monetary success is that a band can bring pretty much whichever artists it wants on tour with it, an opportunity the members of Spoon did not waste during their long months on the road last year.
"We toured with the Clientele early in '05," Daniel explains. "And I just think that band is amazing. They made my favorite record of the year, and I know that a lot of people who did see them play with us were wild about them. But there were some shows where people didn't want to see, y'know, a quiet rock band. It didn't happen often, but it did happen a couple times. But overall, that's the kind of band that I wanna bring out. It was the same way when we were touring with [Merge labelmates] American Music Club. It's a totally different vibe between our two bands. But we like bringing in groups that do something different from us. Just as long as we love them."
One of the most popular tracks from Gimme Fiction is "I Turn My Camera On," a song that fans and reviewers alike have pegged as a simple, goofy, tongue-in-cheek party tune à la Beck. This is understandable, considering the song's infectious yet minimal funk groove and Daniel's falsetto vocalizations. The song does come off like Spoon's answer to the Rolling Stones' campy-as-hell "Emotional Rescue": All that's missing is a spoken-word break wherein Daniel declares in full basso profundo, "I will be your knight...in shiiiiiining aaaaaarmor." But the song's composer begs to differ with this interpretation.
"Everybody seems to think it's just a dumb dance song," Daniel complains. "But there is some emotion in there. I was just talking to a friend of mine the other day, and she commented that the line 'you made me untouchable for life' was just so heartbreaking. And that reminded me of how I actually felt when I wrote that line. When you're singing, you're just thinking about what's going on at that moment. Still, I don't expect most people to pick that up out of the song. Gotta read that lyric sheet if you wanna know what's going on."
Despite his concerns about that particular tune, the music of Spoon is far less concerned with making literary inroads through clever wordplay than with providing a visceral sonic experience. "I was never the kind of person that would drive around in my car listening to music and reacting to the lyrics first," he says emphatically. "The lyrics are so important, but the thing that matters to me is the impact of the music, how it makes you feel, along with the sound of the vocal and just the way a melody..." He trails off and then starts again. "There's no way to describe it, but some melodies'll make you feel like fighting and some melodies'll make you feel like crying, and that kind of thing was always what impacted me first and heaviest. If you can have a great lyric on top of that, then that's everything.
"Of course, some people do listen to the lyrics first," he says, his smirk audible over the phone lines stretching from his home in Austin. "That's why there are so many Decemberists fans."
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.