A venue is the sum of its parts. Some are spit and sawdust, while some are beautiful, ornate places. The Shepherds Bush Empire always fell more into the latter category for me, at least if you were facing the stage. The place still has the music hall aura in the main room, and a certain level of grandeur. There was a definite sense of surprise then, as I shuffled up the back stairs to where the interview was to take place. Instead of a plush surround sofa, with a globe concealing cut glass decanters, we wandered into a room that seemed to be a disused staff canteen. There was the thinnest layer of dust on every surface, and the windows let in the dead grey light of the afternoon. I'll be honest. I'd expected more.
For Britt Daniel and Eric Harvey of Spoon, I sensed the veil had dropped long ago. During the first few minutes of our short time together, they told me of their schedule. Crossing borders, sleeping, waking and sleeping again and waking for customs. The ferry, said Eric, was a ghost ferry, populated by a very few truckers and an admirable number of bar staff.
We begin with the fan-boy questions, and move on to the general. Time ticks away surprisingly fast, and the gentlemen spark off each other. As the majority of the interview was facing backwards, looking at the history of the band from the very beginning, Eric is left idle some of the time. He remains in good spirits, and helps shape proceedings later on. But we start with Britt.
DiS: I've got an odd historical question for you. Britt, you worked a very long time ago for Origin Systems, who did the Ultima and Wing Commander series. Can you remember which games you worked on?
EH: [Chuckles] BD: Definitely worked on [Wing Commander] 3, which was the one with Mark Hammill.
DiS: Did you get to meet Mark Hammill?
BD: No. But that was the first one they did that was shot as a movie, and then you had gameplay, and then you had the movie part. So are you a big PC game fan?
DiS: From the 386 onwards, yeah.
BD: Wow. 386. That was a machine.
DiS: It wasn't the [Atari] ST though. The ST was better.
EH: I don't know what the fuck you guys are talking about.
DiS: You first met Jim in 1993. Do you remember your first meeting, what he was like?
EH: Do you remember what he was wearing?
DiS: Why not, throw that in there...
EH: Was he a good kisser? (Snickers) BD: He tucked his t-shirts into pre-faded light blue jeans... EH: (Laughs) BD: And he had these belts that I refer to as 'frat belts'. That was sort of his thing. He's come a long way! I remember he was very... you could throw curve balls at him musically, it wouldn't throw him. He could follow along really well, and I wasn't used to playing with drummers who would really know what was going on with a song.
DiS: He could improvise and fill on the spot?
BD: Other drummers would just seem like they were playing along. And y'know, you'd say 'remember, there's supposed to be a stop here'. That would throw them, you'd have to go through ten rehearsal before they'd get it. But Jim got it right off the bat.
DiS: You were in... what I've heard was a rockabilly combo called Alien Beats. If I stumble across that album, is it worth listening to?
BD: We didn't make any albums. We made one seven inch, and a demo tape. There was some good stuff. I wrote one really good rockabilly song called 'Under the Table'. Toni Price covered it.
DiS: Who's Toni Price?
BD: She's this bluesy, rockabilly singer in Austin.
DiS: In chronological terms, you went on to do the Nefarious EP, then Telephono, then the Soft Effects EP. How do you think the band develop musically over that period?
EH: This is illuminating... Do tell. BD: I think the main difference was that when I was writing the songs that were on Nefarious and Telephono, my big idea was let's play some songs that are loud and fast, that will go over well in small rock clubs. By the time we were writing the songs for Soft Effects I knew that these would be songs that would be on a record first and foremost, not played live first. That, for some reason, opened me up a little bit, I wasn't thinking about hard and fast.
DiS: You were thinking more about the songs rather than how they'd be received?
BD: I didn't necessarily think the songs on Soft Effects would be heard. When we were writing and recording that EP, originally all of those songs were going to be b-sides, so there was a bit of a 'throw away' quality to it, getting it done as fast as possible.
EH: Because you were writing songs for 'A Series Of Sneaks' at the same time?
BD: Well, they were going to be b-sides for the singles of Telephono, because when Telephono first came out, Matador was like "We're going to do this single now, then we'll do another single late summer, then another single in fall". But the second and third singles never happened, because... nobody cared. So they were like "Why don't you take those songs and make it an EP?"
EH: Did you think that they were better than the stuff on Telephono?
BD: Well, once it came out, yeah; but at the time it was just recorded real fast.
EH: They don't sound like the same [band]...
BD: I think also listening to Guided by Voices influenced it. I'd never listened to any Guided By Voices before Telephono, and then... it was all over what I was about.
EH: What did you feel like the influences for Telephono were?
BD: Pixies, and there were a lot of punk bands in Austin that I thought were great, like Sinkula, and Stretford.
EH: So did you have all those [Telephono] songs worked out like you were playing them live, or did you make them in the studio? Did you record it really fast?
BD: No, those were all songs we played live at the Hole in the Wall, and Austin Outhouse. It was recorded really fast.
DiS: How did you feel when you got that initial approach from Matador? They weren't quite as well known then, but they still had a stellar roster (Guided by Voices, John Spencer...)
BD: I was thrilled because they had all my favourite bands. EH: They were the label to be on at that point. BD: There was a moment where it clicked for me... like Pavement's on this label... I didn't really think too much about labels at that point, but then it started. I noticed that these bands like Guided By Voices, Pavement, Yo La Tengo, Liz Phair... all had that logo. So when I heard that the guy from that logo was at our show at SXSW and thought it was good... it was a vote of confidence.
DiS: I might have to rephrase the next question... Telephono didn't do especially well, but looking back on it as an album, does it still have a place in your heart? Or is it like the child you lock up in the attic and never let out?
EH: (to Britt) We don't play any songs from it. BD: It's kind of like the first child that you wish you could have not had. EH: (Laughs) Like the 'accidental' child. BD: Yeah.
DiS: Then you went on to Elektra. What were their original maneuvers prior to bashing out a countract? Did you have a manager, and how did they respond?
BD: We had a manager from when we were on Matador, and all these major labels came after us before Matador, and we chose to go with Matador; those all sort of faded away once the Matador record came out. But then this guy from Elektra started calling us, and he really pursued us for almost two years before we signed with them. He took us out to dinner...
EH: What's the sell for something like that? It seems like being on Matador at that time kind of would be better. What was the attraction?
BD: Thing was, he Matador record was doing phenomenally poorly, and the expectations for that record had been really high. Not only from us, after getting talked up by all these label people who wanted to sign us, but also the Matador people who thought it was going to do really well too. They gave us more money than they'd ever given anyone for a one off, and they thought it would do great and it did poorly. So the overall feeling was like "This is fucking going nowhere, what the fuck is happening? Maybe we should get on a major label". Plus, we'd spent all this money on lawyers fees.... we needed some money.
DiS: You went on to do A Series of Sneaks. By the time you'd finished it, did you feel like it was going to be huge?
BD: No, no. I felt like it had been really difficult to make, and I wasn't really sure that it had turned out the way I had wanted it to turn out. I knew I liked it more than Telephono, but felt it could have been better...
EH: Sonically or song wise?
BD: Well, more like production wise, because it had just been a real battle dealing with John Croslin at the time. I think it ended up turning out pretty good.
EH: It doesn't really sound like anything else... Did Elektra want you to work with a more big time producer?
BD: Well, we had made the record and even mixed it by the time we signed with Elektra. John really wanted to make it a more produced record, and I was against reverb and all kinds of digital effects. My response was to say no to all that stuff.
DiS: Which shows on stuff like 'Staring at the board'...
BD: Yeah. And that's why the record sounds completely dry and flat... which is cool, y'know, that's its sound.
DiS: I'm not going to ask you details about what happened after that, you got that off your chest a long time ago. I just wanted to know if you heard the Nada Surf version of 'The Agony of Lafitte'?
BD: Uh-huh, yeah. I thought it was really good. The guy's got a terrific voice.
DiS: On to Merge, and eventually on to Girls can Tell. This must be almost a stock question for you at this point, but by the time you started recording, did you feel you had something to prove? Was it a make or break record?
BD: I felt like we had nothing to prove, and nothing to lose. I wasn't sure that we would exist when we were writing the songs, and then I didn't know that we would finish the record when we were recording it, and I didn't know if it would come out as we were mixing it. And it was another year before we could find somebody to put it out. So I was just glad to be back in the company of bands who get to put out records.
DiS: It was the start of your working relationship with Mike McCarthy (who went on to produce Kill The Moonlight, Gimme Fiction and Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga). What were your first impressions of him?
B: We'd met him long before, back in '95 or something, and he made a terrible impression on me. He's really bad at first impressions. He still is!
EH: He wasn't good with me either.
BD: With you, the White Rabbits...
DiS: He's not really a people person, more of a tech guy?
BD: He's not really a people person... he loosens up and he does have a lot of humour to him. And I get him now, but....
EH: I just remember the first recording session I did with Spoon and Mike McCarthy. I mean I'd been touring with them a while, and I wasn't nervous or anything, but it was definitely my first experience like that. So I may have been a little nervous or aloof, and Mike McCarthy says to me "What's your deal, man? What's with the attitude?". I hadn't said a damn thing all day!
BD: (Laughs) Was that the session where he came in and wore sunglasses the whole time?
EH: I think so.
BD: I remember we had some rehearsals in Jim's old studio, and he just wore sunglasses and sat there like he didn't wanna be there.
EH: But I didn't know any better. I was like 'Yeah, he seems like a music producer....' (both laugh)
BD: He made a bad first impression (and we went on to work with John Croslin). But I think the thing that attracted me to him was, years later, when Jim and i had come up with a very early version of 'Girls Can tell', he was one of the few people who really thought it was good, and he really seemed to like it. Said it was the best thing he'd heard, not just from us, but from other people, in years. Him and Gerard Cosloy were the two people who really took to that record. So I was like 'Maybe I should give this guy another chance'.
DiS: Well, he did something right. Girls Can Tell was a hit. Was its success a vindication?
BD: For sure.
DiS: A relief?
BD: Yeah. It was a shock... it was unbelievable, like 'things are kind of working'.
EH: It's funny, because I never knew any of this stuff about Spoon before I joined the band [on Gimme Fiction]. My whole memory of the band was I remember hearing about a band in Texas, on Matador called Spoon. And then 'Series of Sneaks' came out, and I never knew about all that drama. It seemed like it became an issue later on.
BD: It wasn't front page news.
DiS: Anyway, cracking on... How important was it for you to be in the right place at the right time when Spoon began, and how important has Austin been for you generally?
BD: I don't think we were in the right place at the right time. EH: It became the right place later on. Austin was kind of an obscure place back then. BD: There was a good scene, but it wasn't a Mecca or anything. Especially before the internet, it seemed harder to get anything known or get any traction if you were in the middle of the country like that. SXSW was happening, but it wasn't really as big a deal. Once people knew that Matador was into us, then everybody started coming after us. That was really the thing, because they had such a great track record with these terrific bands.
DiS: I'll just skip this question... it's moderately offensive.
BD: Let's hear that one. It's probably a good one. **DiS: I can't, I can't.... EH: You shouldn't have mentioned it then. I hate it when people do that. BD: (Leans in to look at questions))
DiS: OK. I know is a question you might not be able to answer, but it's the sort of question people ask and answer on the DiS boards. Of the records you've put out, which are your favourites? Do you have a top 3, and would Transference be in there?
BD: I don't know. Definitely from Girls can tell on. That's five records. [On ordering in preference] It's easier for people outside the band to make those calls. To me, I fell like I'm very close to them, and know all the nuances very well, but it is from the perspective of a person involved in making it. Different ones are good for different things, but I'll never be able to perceive it from a listeners point of view.
EH: You were a little bit more anxious about how this one would be received than 'Ga Ga Ga' . Because on this one you put 'This is the hit' on the fricking album packaging... That was kind of a confident statement.
BD: Yeah... That was just because it was a cool logo. EH: (Chuckles) BD: Why did I seem more anxious about this one? EH: Probably because it was self produced. You didn't have that relationship with somebody else, no-one to tell you what to do or how things were.
DiS: On that note, you're often referred to as being the most critically acclaimed band of the last ten years by a well know review aggregation site...
EH: A well known... algorithm?
DiS: Yeah, them. Is critical acclaim something you give much regard to these days, or is it a faint amusement, positive or negative?
EH: Well, if you can't be total crap and sell a million records, you might as well be critically acclaimed and sell a few hundred thousand!
BD: I try not to pay attention to it, but it's hard not to. The more I do this, the more I try not to read any press because it can affect you, even if it's good. I would just rather avoid it altogether if I can.
DiS: Just out of curiousity, do you find setlists harder to put together now you have a lot of material to include?
BD: (Dryly) Yeah, it's really hard. Takes me forfuckin'ever. EH: (Creases up) BD: It'll take me a whole meal. (To EH) Do you want to write the setlist tonight? EH: Sure... Well for a long time you wouldn't let anyone else do it! BD: It wasn't even that I didn't want them to. I just felt like that was my responsibility.
DiS: How do you get a good balance between what the crowd wants and what you want to play?
BD: I just play what I want to play. EH: That's not entirely true. I feel obligated to play the hits, especially in places like last night, people in Paris hadn't seen us in five years. In America, you can kinda be just like "Yeah, we're gonna play our new record" and concentrate on the last one or two; kinda depends on what we're up to speed on sometimes. Songs sort of drift in and out of being well rehearsed. BD: If we're playing out in the middle of the sticks in Australia to a festival crowd that have no idea who we are, we kinda know there are certain songs that we should stay away from. EH: Well, your theory was that we're gonna play whatever the fuck we want on the Groovin' The Moo (an Australian touring festival). Groovin' the Moo we should have just played feedback for half an hour. BD: We probably would have got the same response. EH: (Laughs) It was a tough crowd. It was kind of a big frat party and we didn't deliver the right blend of what they wanted. They were much more inclined to what was on the other stage... what was that band called? Miami Whore! They were kind of Killers-ish...
(The PR comes in with the next interviewer, and I roll a couple of questions into one.)
DiS: Well this is the last question... How did the Ray Davies collaboration come about? Did you just get a phone call out of the blue?
BD: He still corresponds primarily through telegram... I'd done this article for Spin where you get to pick one of your heroes and do an interview with them. My picks were Prince, Robert Smith, Paul McCartney and Ray Davies. I was very pleased to get Ray Davies on the phone. We talked a couple of times, and he seemed to like me. So I wouldn't say it was completely out of the blue when we got the call. But I was over the moon.
DiS: Well, you can't complain. You got the title track and everything.
EH: (Smiles) It worked out well.