Inquiring Minds

A Few Words With Spoon's Britt Daniel

Not long ago, a photo appeared on Spoon's Instagram page of front man Britt Daniel appearing to share a laugh with none other than spiky-haired "Cradle of Love" rocker Billy Idol. It was taken backstage at a recent radio show, Daniel explains, adding, "it was not a great show, but the fact that we got to meet Billy Idol..." Asked what sort of caption he might tack on, he manages, "uhhh...Britt Daniel confers with Billy Idol about longevity and bangers and mash? I don't know."

The longevity part is indisputable. When Daniel founded Spoon in Austin more than 20 years ago with drummer/human metronome Jim Eno, they seemed totally out of step with the times: Onstage they preferred dress shirts, tight tees and slacks to flannel and ripped jeans; Spoon's songs struggled to break the two-minute mark when alternative radio was coming under the thrall of the Smashing Pumpkins' sprawling epics; and Daniel's hyperspecific lyrics cut straight to the point when the order of the day was Stone Temple Pilots' sullen, vague mook-rock.


Earlier this year, Daniel told Texas Monthly the entire objective of writing his first album, 1996's Telephono, was to come up with enough material to land a weekend gig at UT-area bar Hole In the Wall. One notorious single from those days was a double-A-side flaying of the Elektra executive who, in the band's eyes, botched Spoon's major-label deal -- which nevertheless resulted in one of the greatest albums of the '90s whether or not anyone recognized it at the time, 1998's A Series of Sneaks.

By 2001, Spoon had secured a deal with revered North Carolina indie Merge, and raised their game again with Girls Can Tell, which began to draw attention to arguably Daniel's greatest strength: the stoic vulnerability he revealed on songs such as "Anything You Want" and "Me and the Bean." Kill the Moonlight, Gimme Fiction and Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga followed at approximate three-year intervals, each uncovering another layer of the band's personality -- the latent R&B chops that resulted in 2005 indie hit "I Turn My Camera On" being one -- and spawning another clutch of fan favorites. By 2010's Transference, which debuted in the Top 5 of the Billboard 200, Spoon's deal with Merge was up and Daniel was ready for a change of pace.

That came in the form of Divine Fits, the trio Daniel formed around 2011 with Wolf Parade's Dan Boeckner, who released the well-received A Thing Called Divine Fits the next year. Daniel bought a house in L.A. (though he says he's been spending more time back in Austin recently) and eventually returned to Spoon, bringing over guitarist/keyboardist Eric Fischel from Divine Fits to bolster the existing lineup of Daniel, Eno, bassist Rob Pope and guitarist/keyboardist Eric Harvey.

In August Spoon released They Want My Soul on Universal-distributed "boutique label" Loma Vista Recordings, also home to St. Vincent's latest. Many critics have called the album, Spoon's eighth, their best record to date; it has already appeared on numerous best-of-2014 lists and -- obviously -- is the kind of album that gets bands asked to play holiday radio festivals alongside the likes of Billy Idol.

Rocks Off: Was there ever any hesitation on your part in reactivating Spoon? Britt Daniel: No, not at all. I always knew it was going to happen, and I told them when I started doing the Divine Fits band that we should get back together and make a record as soon as I was done with that. We all knew it was coming.

Were the other guys pretty understanding about your wanting to take some time off? Yeah. I mean, I didn't hear anything that wasn't understanding (laughs). To me they were very understanding. I think everybody got it, that it was a good time to take a break.

What new song do you think you had to push yourself the hardest to get it like you wanted it? "Rent I Pay" went through a pretty massive transformation. It started out as a 6/8 song that was fairly poppy, almost a waltz. That was one of the first songs we did when we got back together, and it was all right. We tried playing it a few ways -- kinda bluesy, [and] in 6/8 [time]. I like that song "Hold the Line" by Toto; I think 6/8 has a kind of power to it. I kept trying to work on making it work like that, but it wasn't really thrilling us, so we set it aside.

Many, many months later, I went back to it and listened to it for the first time and I thought, the chords are really good and the melody is good and the syllables are good; words are pretty good, but it needs more power. So we switched it to 4/4. So that was a long transformation over a long period of time. As far as songs being different for us, I think "Inside Out" seems kind of different.

Do you think you have a pretty good handle on when to kind of push that envelope and when to pull it back in? I can have a good idea for it. Sometimes it helps to hear what other people think. But sometimes you just get lucky, and you never know whether you're getting lucky or it's just a momentary buzz about what's going on with the song. Sometimes you get hooked on that buzz and keep trying to make it work in that direction, and it's not going to.

When you're playing the new stuff live, which songs are really seeming to strike a chord with fans? It's different for different kinds of groups. Like we played [two] of those radio shows. The one in San Francisco, they weren't really doing too much. We were playing to people who had mostly not heard us before, and we're playing this huge arena where everything is muddy and weird.

We played like half our set and they were kinda dead, and we played "Inside Out" and they started all kind of doing a little dance, like bobbing. They seemed to like that, and then from that point on they were more into us. I don't know why that beat worked for that crowd. I'd say when we're playing in front of our own crowds, "Rent I Pay" goes over well, people like "Let Me Be Mine" a lot, but we don't play that one as much.

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Chris Gray has been Music Editor for the Houston Press since 2008. He is the proud father of a Beatles-loving toddler named Oliver.
Contact: Chris Gray