Interview: Spoon

Before the start of Spoon‘s summer tour, I got the chance to chat with Britt Daniel — the singer/songwriter/guitarist of that amazing group. Here’s what transpired:

Still working on the record?
Still working every day.

Is it officially NOT completed yet?
It’s very much not completed. But it’s gonna be good.

The press I got from Merge said you have spent the last six months in the studio writing and recording.
No, not really in the studio. But I’ve definitely been writing. I’ve been writing for like a year. We’ve spent some time in the studio but not a ton.

So it isn’t a case of you spending all your time in the studio perfecting the imperfectable?
I hope not.

I’d read a couple of interviews where you’d said in the past when you’re working in your own studio, that the temptation to just keep working on it is there.
Yeh, that’s true. That’s why deadlines help.

Is there a deadline for putting this out or getting it to Merge?
Um, there’s not really a hard deadline. We want to put it out as soon as possible. I kind of wish it was out now, already. But the longer we work on it — if we finish it in September, it will come out first of next year.

Merge had said there was a tentative release date in January and I didn’t know if that was their imposed deadline because of their schedule.
Well, that’s what we would like to do. If it’s not going to come out this year then hopefully January will be when it does come out.

Why go out on a tour right now?
We just have a good time going out. And when we were looking at our schedule in March, we just figured around June we would need a break and it would be a good time to go out and have fun for a little while.

Have you been working with Mike McCarthy again on the record?
No, we haven’t worked with him.

Are you doing it all again yourselves in Jim’s studio?
Um, yeh, most of it has been done that way, yeh. I mean, we’ve recorded a bit elsewhere but Mike’s recording the Trail of Dead and we’ve done some recording at Jim’s on our own.

Is that where you’ll finish up and mix it yourselves?
I don’t know. I don’t know. Lot of unknowns with this record. I wish I knew more to tell you for sure.

I think the universal opinion is that your sound kind of changes with each record. Is there something you’re doing differently on this one than you did on Kill the Moonlight?
Mmmm… Hard to say at this point. I really don’t know how it’s going to turn out. The mixes have so much to do with how the record ends up sounding.

Have you changed the way you write from a Series of Sneaks to Girls Can Tell to Kill the Moonlight?
Yeh, the writing process has definitely changed. I’m trying a lot of different techniques now. I always used to write with — start off with a melody and chords and plug in lyrics later. And I’ve just broadened my way of writing to a bunch of different techniques at this point.

I know for Kill the Moonlight you moved to Connecticut just to write the songs. Is that kind of how you work where you plan a time to write? Or are you cranking out songs all the time and just gather them together when it’s time to make a record?
Well, I’ve been cranking out songs for a while now. Pretty concentrated for the last nine months. But I didn’t move this time. I mean I have gone away from Austin a few times, but I didn’t do a big move like I did to Connecticut last time.

Does that help, to move?
Yeh, sometimes it helps because you know, it can be… I’m sure you know when you’re in your hometown everybody wants to go to lunch and hang out at night and before you know it a month’s gone by and you haven’t been very productive.

In that way, I guess it’s like you’ve got to approach it like just doing a job.
Yeh, but it’s a pretty good job. I think anybody who wants to– you always have to mindful of your productivity if you want to be productive. I guess there are exceptions to that– I wish I was one.

How did the widespread critical acceptance of Kill the Moonlight feel?
Well, it was better than the alternative. I mean mostly what I kind of felt like happened over the last two records was that people kind of got it for the first time. People heard the records for the first time. Not to say we didn’t have some pretty intense fans before Girls Can Tell came out, but it was a totally different experience to put out a record and feel like “wow, people have heard it.” Instead of, “why can’t I find it?” It was just a totally different experience.

Do you think something happened within the band that changed those records?
I think a lot of it could have been totally independent of what those records sounded like. I think a lot of it was just a matter of people gradually, very, very slowly finding out about the band. And finding out by word of mouth and people sharing records as opposed to something where it develops a lot faster like getting on the radio. That said, I do think that we did change. I started writing different types of songs and we went for different types of production. I think we became a much better band on those last two records.

Were those the first recordings you’d done where you sort of handled everything?
Well, we’d handled more of it. Because Mike was there for all of Kill the Moonlight and about half of Girls Can Tell. But we were doing it at Jim’s. Yeh, you’re right. We were doing it at Jim’s place and kind of engineering it as well. We had more to do with it for sure, but I wouldn’t want to claim those were done totally by us because Mike had a huge part to do with it.

I meant independent of all the gossip of the big record company problems and things like that.
Yeh, but we always made our records before we were signed. The only record we’ve ever made knowing what record label it was going to come out on ahead of time was Kill the Moonlight. ‘Cause for Telephono we weren’t signed at all. We had no idea if anybody would want to put it out. And when we made A Series of Sneaks it was totally done before we decided on Elektra. So we’ve never really had that angle of meddling. But the difference is we were always recording at other people’s studios and with the sort of more formal producer/band arrangement.

And on their schedules, I guess…
Yeh. Where as these were really just made at Jim’s house, the last two.

You’ve put out a lot of EPs, often in between albums, is there a plan to do anything like that to tease the new album?
No, not really for an EP, but I bet… You know, there are no plans at all. But I bet that what will happen is that we’ll put out a single before the album comes out. People usually like to do that. I’m kind of more focused on doing albums than Eps at this moment.

I mean Eps are really fun to do…

Those were just sort of fun things to do?
It was kind of… you know, I don’t really know what our reasoning was behind them, but I guess just to get something out there. That would be easier to get out than doing a whole album. I guess that’s the point of Eps. When I think about the Eps we’ve done, I really only consider the Loveways EP and the Soft Effects EP. Not the singles that have a bunch of b-sides on them. It’s liberating to do those because you just kind of feel like, “well, let’s just throw this together.” And I think you can kind of feel that in Eps. But at the same time, it’s not an album, and they don’t sell like albums and they don’t get written about like albums. So in a way, you also feel like, “well, those songs just kind of came out and nobody heard them.”

Definitely, Spoon has a reputation as making albums. Are there kind of touchstones, big landmark records that you guys think about when you’re doing that?
Of some of our favorite albums? Yeh, totally. 1999 by Prince. It’s all about albums to me. Or Sandinista. Or Revolver. You know. That’s the thing that matters the most to me is albums. Even more than individual songs, you know.

So is there a conscious effort to put the songs together for the best album and make the sound whole that way?
Well, the sound doesn’t necessarily have to be whole because I think you can go different places in one album and have it work. Although it is kind of cool, you know an album like 1999, where it feels like there’s one sound throughout that whole thing. I know what you’re talking about about that. But usually it’s just the best collection of songs.

Well, I think, in terms of that Girls Can Tell to me had it’s own sound, where Kill the Moonlight it sounded like a cohesive album but the songs were all over the map.
It kind of pulls together somehow.

Do you let the songs dictate how the whole process is going to go? It sounds like from what you’ve told me at this point that you don’t have an idea beforehand of what you want?
Yeh, we never sit down and say ok we want this record to sound like this. Except for maybe in the most vague terms. Like I know that when we started making Kill the Moonlight, I felt like I wanted to be a little more experimental than we had been on Girls Can Tell. But that didn’t tell me anything specific.

What’s the process for recording once you’ve got a song? Do you and Jim arrange it together before the recording or do you do a lot of demos?
Well, I usually will demo the song on my own and/or will bring it to the band and we’ll learn it as a band. One or the other. Because they’re either going to be kind of band songs or more produced songs.

So there definitely is a distinction in your mind as what’s going to go where?
Yeh, it just seems like some work out better in one way or another. You can just tell “Jonathan Fisk” is going to be a band song. “Stay Don’t Go” is going to be more of a produced thing that we’ve never been able to play live.

Are there some songs from Kill the Moonlight, other ones, that you haven’t played live?
Um, we’ve never played “Don’t Let it get you down” just because I don’t really like that song very much. I think we’ve played all the other ones.

Is there a lot of the new material that you’re playing on this tour?
Yeh, we have quite a few songs that we’re ready to play that we’ll be playing on the tour.

Is there a feeling of road-testing them?
Yeh, that’s come up. It’s not as much testing them as songs will develop a little bit. You know, we don’t do improv or anything but kind of the way you play the songs individually, it will change over the course of a tour. And I think that it’s kind of cool to put that perspective on it before you record.

Is there a reason why Spoon tours infrequently or at least in small doses?
We’ll tour a lot more when the album comes out. We did tour quite a bit when the last one came out, but I think we only came to Nashville once. On the coasts, we hit those more often. But I don’t know, everybody’s still got jobs. Except for me.

There’s no other reason behind it?
I guess just jobs and sanity. I wish… we will tour a lot when the record comes out. As for this year we haven’t toured much just because we were working on the record.

But there’s no disinterest in playing live?
Oh no, touring is like the most fun part of being in a band as far as I’m concerned. It’s the most carefree part.

You’re sort of regarded as a studio band — you make great records.
That’s the most important thing, yeh.

That’s a good attitude to have.
Yeh, I mean unless you’re going to be String Cheese Incident, then it’s all about the live show. But I’ve always been into the kind of bands that are “records first.”