Britt Daniel Looks Back At Two Decades Of Spoon

Britt Daniel

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

In the 24 years since Spoon’s debut record came out, the band has become one of the cornerstones of the modern alternative scene. A highly adaptive and effortlessly creative group, Spoon has explored all sorts of sounds, themes and moods throughout their discography. Now, Spoon is celebrating that discography with their “Slay On Cue” reissue series, which will see the band’s first eight records re-released worldwide on vinyl and CD. 

Listening back on their early records, you can see the blueprint for Spoon’s trajectory. From day 1, the band exhibited the infectious energy and attitude that has illuminated every record they’ve released. Frontman and songwriter Britt Daniel is aware of this spirit. Last month, American Songwriter sat down with Daniel to take a look at Spoon’s career as a whole. Daniel is cool and collected, and with every word, he said you could sense the genuine devotion he has to his craft. Throughout our conversation, he offered fascinating insight into how Spoon approached making records, how they evolved over time and what the success he’s gained means to him.

What made y’all want to do this reissue series? Why now?

We’ve put out a number of records and they’re scattered amongst different record companies — especially outside of the United States. So, it’s boring stuff, just business stuff. Some of those record companies went out of business and in some countries, those records never even came out. When we started working with Matador and they had a worldwide operation, we decided it was time to get them all in one place and get them all out, physically.

Has reissuing these records spurred much self-reflection about your career? 

I’ve lived. We make these records one after the other as life goes on. We’re very lucky to do that. I think that something we generally try to value is the ability to know when to keep it visceral. From the beginning, my strength may have been knowing that The Ramones carried the type of creativity that I was interested in — more so than a group like, say, Steely Dan or something (although I do love “Do It Again”). One of those bands was about world-class musicianship and one could barely play, but one amped me up and the other I found genuinely difficult to sit through. The Ramones were always doing something more interesting to my ear. Why is that? It’s not about technical prowess, it’s about spirit. That’s what I’m trying to find whenever we’re writing a song or making a record.

You mention that your experience has been something akin to making records “one after the other as life goes on.” In that regard, would you say that music-making feels the same now as it did 20 years ago? Do you feel as if you’re tapping into the same creative energy?

Yeah, I think I can tap into some of that same energy — it happens when you turn the machine on, the microphone’s in front of you and it’s time to perform. It’s the same thing for going on stage and doing a show. Last time we were prepping for a tour we learned this very well. We were rehearsing alone in a studio for a number of days and it got to where it was like “ugh, we have 17 more songs to get ready to go.” But then, Alex started livestreaming on Instagram and all of a sudden we knew that someone was watching and listening. After that, getting in front of the microphone was a totally different thing. There’s some kind of energy there. 

Building off that — how does your relationship with your audience influence your work?

I assume the best of the audience. When you expect that they know what you’ve done before and that they have certain expectations, then you want to give them the best. You want to surprise them. You want to build a relationship with them. I don’t think either party would be satisfied if we did the same thing over and over again. We’ve bumped up against that a lot when making records. We’ll work on something new and if it brings to mind something we’ve done before, then we tend to push it further than that. We’ll maybe try to keep the good bits from it while figuring out a way to get a new read on it, some new dimension. It’s about assuming that the audience is smart and they know what they like.

It’s sorta a vague thing. I don’t know that the audience wants a particular thing or a particular style, I think it would be unhealthy to know that. It’s more about assuming that they’re paying attention. When you have that understanding of them, it helps bring out the best.

Y’all returned to Matador in 2017 after being away from the label for nearly 20 years — what was it like to work with them again? 

It’s cool. There were a couple of records — like Telephono and Soft Effects — that we originally did with Matador before they went to Merge for a while. Now they’re back with Matador. It’s funny how these things happen. It feels like a lifetime ago that these records came out, but the main people at Matador are the same. I like them quite a bit. The first time we worked together, we didn’t exactly “score” in the way of business, but we always liked each other and have kept in good touch. I worked with Gerard [Cosloy] on his European label. So, yeah, it’s been a really good thing. I feel very comfortable with those guys.

Y’all’s sound has evolved considerably throughout your career — if you had to try to describe it, what has that change looked like for you? Are you inspired by different things now?

I would say that when we first started out, I was very much into bands like Wire, Talking Heads, that sort of lyric. That’s what I was shooting for, at least — I was very young and those guys were very inspired. I wasn’t getting there, but I was shooting for something a little mysterious. The lyrics were poetry, but they were also, well, like “what can I write quickly before the show tonight that I won’t be embarrassed to scream on stage?” There was a lot of that. As I went along — especially around the time of our third record — the goal became a little different. It became more about writing about myself. I started appreciating records where the writer expressed some vulnerability — some real-life doubts or nostalgia or happiness. That became more of a goal at that time. Now, I’m at a point where it’s a little bit of both. Some songs are revealing and some songs are “let’s just get this out.”

What was it like to start to sprinkle in moments of vulnerability after gaining a fair amount of notoriety? Was there a therapeutic side of it?

Maybe. I guess so. It was kinda like “hey, what do you know? I can write about myself and maybe even learn about myself through writing these songs.” Before, it was more like “let’s just be cool.” I still like both types of records. I still love those Wire records — in fact, just yesterday I was playing one of those records just for fun because I wanted to find that spirit.

Are there things that stand out to you as informers of your sound’s evolution over the years? Any specific artists/producers/gear that particularly inspired you?

Yeah, there were some specific instruments. When we started out, I thought acoustic piano was uncool. I wasn’t recognizing that one of my favorite records is Plastic Ono Band and I wasn’t listening to it right, at least not that month. So, for our first couple of records, we avoided piano. It was essentially just guitar, bass and drums. Specifically, I remember that we wanted our second record to have the driest guitar, bass and drums. We could tell when our producer added any reverb or delay to the mix because if we hit “stop” on the tape recorder, the delay hangs a little bit longer. So, we’d do that and say “ah, we caught you! You’re doing it again!” We were that adamant about keeping everything very dry. That’s just where our heads were at. 

As things went on, we grew — I got a reverb tank. We worked with this guy named Mike McCarthy on several records throughout the 2000s. We worked on “I Turn My Camera On” — I didn’t know what type of song that would be. I liked where the vocal was, but I didn’t know that it was going to become this minimal dance track. Mike brought in this Fender reverb tank — I had never seen one before — and he added it to the guitar and all of a sudden we had this hit record. We knew it at that moment. We had this demo that was just okay, but when Jim added his drums and Mike brought this idea of the reverb tank, it added this element that I never would’ve been able to bring out of my own back pocket. It just worked. So, yeah, reverb tanks. Piano. This delay pedal called Memory Man, which we still use a lot. It’s always progressing.

Any other stories stand out in your mind 

I wanted the beginning of “My Mathematical Mind” to sound like a film starting. Like an old film, back when it was real film on the big rolls in the back of the movie theater. So, we brought one of those in to record it starting up at the beginning of the song, which you can hear on the record.

Another thing I remember us recording is the sound of that stuff, Emergen-C. I noticed that when you pour a little water into the Emergen-C, it makes this really fantastic bubbling sound. So, we recorded that. That didn’t end up going anywhere… we didn’t use it… but, there are a million things like that which happen. In the studio, they mostly happen spontaneously. When you’re working on that stuff every day, these ideas just start coming to you. Sometimes they work out. 

So, would you describe your process as more exploratory than declarative?

Yeah, I think that that’s a good thing. It’s not only a fun way to approach using the studio, but it’s also essential, in a way. You have to be able to go in there and be in the moment without just following some list of directions. You’ve gotta open yourself up. That helps us, at least — it’s always helped me. I love that at any point, anyone can say anything and we can spend 15 or 20 minutes trying to figure it out.

Would you say, then, that you’re always striving for a certain sense of organicness?

I don’t know, that sounds pretty deep. I’m just trying to make something work. I’m trying to make something that feels good when you listen back to it. I remember some quote from Gaz [Coombes] of Supergrass that said something to the effect of “when people come into the studio and you play them the song — if you feel a little sheepish or don’t want to turn it up too much, then you’ll know immediately that you’re not on the right path. If you play it back and you want to explode with excitement, then you know that you’ve got something.” That doesn’t mean that it has to be a celebratory song. It can be a morose song. But, as long as you have that feeling… I don’t know, I think that’s what makes a musician or a producer good: the ability to know when it’s working. That’s the test to put it to, rather than asking someone else.

At what point in the writing process do you begin thinking about the arrangement for the recording?

I feel like I am — maybe to a fault — thinking about the recording from the beginning. Or, at least, very early on. The way that I write is through demos, so I’m putting together the words as I’m figuring out the one element of the song that’s going to be the focus. It can be almost distracting to get so focused on it in that stage. In the end, it’s all about the feeling you get off the record. So, I’m just looking for that. Maybe it’s because I’ve been recording for as long as I’ve been writing, I don’t know. I’m sure that there are songwriters out there who are like “I’m going to write this song and I don’t care how it’s recorded because that’s someone else’s job.” I’m not like that, I’m always thinking about the recordings. 

Y’all have had the amazing opportunity to mature and grow as a band concurrently with the digital revolution of the past 20 years — what has it been like to see technology advance over your career? Do you feel that it influenced your artistry?

Well, I saw recordings go from tape to digital. That was a pretty big one. I still like to use tape when I can. The process of using tape is probably a bigger deal than most people realize. It’s not that it affects the sound of records — in fact, it’s less about that now — but it really influences your relationship with the sound as you make it. You can’t see the sound when you use tape, you have to just listen to it. Instead of having this concept of seeing the waveforms and knowing when it’s coming up, you are just in this totally different frame of mind.

In terms of the rest of the innovations… I’m more of a classicist when it comes down to it. I knew Led Zeppelin’s records inside-and-out, but I knew very little about them as people. Or, an artist like Prince — I knew what Prince looked like, I knew what his voice sounded like. But, I didn’t know what his house looked like, I never really got to hear him have a conversation. I knew his records inside-and-out, but I never knew what he ate for breakfast or whatever. In the end, it would make the concept of Prince less interesting if I knew about what he ate for breakfast. I’m good with the Prince I know from the records.

So, has the whole social media side of it felt a little foreign to you? 

Yeah, that’s my take. I know you gotta play the game a little in 2020, but that’s where my head is at. I just like listening to the music. That’s what it’s about to me, both as a musician and a music-fan.

How does it feel to look back on your career? Did the process of getting these reissues together spur any strong emotions about the adventure as a whole?

Well, it’s a good life. There’s no two ways around it. I’m happy about where I am and how I got here. It’s really been what I’ve always wanted to do since I was 7 or 8 years old. From the moment I was allowed to drop the needle on the record, music became the thing that alleviated boredom for me. For a long time, I was writing songs with bands that weren’t successful, at least in terms of finding a label to release a record or playing a live show on a weekend night. So, if you would’ve told 22-year-old me that many years down the road I’d have to reissue my records in France because it was out of press and there were people there that wanted to hear it, it would’ve given me a thrill. It still gives me a thrill. It’s something I really appreciate. 

What do you think the younger version of yourself would think if he could hear the records you’ve made throughout your career?

I’ve thought about that — what would little Britt think of the records I’m making now? Or even, what would Telephono-era Britt think of them? Who knows. I hope I would like it, but everything changes.

There will be three installments of the “Slay On Cue” reissue series. Check out the dates and the albums below:

July 24:
Telephono / Soft Effects EP

Aug. 14
A Series Of Sneaks / Girls Can Tell / Kill The Moonlight

Sept. 11
Gimme FictionGa Ga Ga Ga GaTransference

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