Britt Daniel is the Peter Parker of indie-rock frontmen.
Never short of a rasping witticism on record, in person he’s polite and ponderous. A devil in a pair of Ray-Bans, but far from the smart-arsed sort who’ll interrupt your questions on a whim. In other words, he’s one of our all-time favourites.
Not just because of the Spoon albums of yesteryear. Kill The Moonlight and Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga rank as two of the noughties’ best records, but the brand new album They Want My Soul is pretty good too. Pretty damned good.
It’s adventurous by Spoon standards too. Opener ‘Rent I Pay’ would pass for a devil-horned anthem had Angus Young written it, while ‘New York Kiss’ is sweet and affecting in way you haven’t heard from Daniel before. After the self-produced and sometimes aloof Transference, They Want My Soul is a crowd pleasing return. If you’ve loved an album by this Austin, Texas outfit over the past 18 years, you’re about to go doolally for them all over again.
So what better time to fire off an avalanche of questions at Spoon's founding member? If you make it all the way through, you’ll even find out why Britt is ‘pissed off’ with Miley Cyrus. Honest.
How would you describe Spoon to someone who’s never heard of them before?
I have to it all the time to taxi drivers and friends of parents and things like that. I just say 'rock ‘n’ roll' and leave it at that.
How does that differ to when you were starting out and about to put out Telephono?
Yeah, I think we’ve changed. I don’t know how I would have answered that question back then. The one record that I’m not as keen on is the first one.
You say that a lot. When did that become your opinion?
I liked as we made it. Maybe within two or three years of it coming out... I just realised what we could do was so much better.
That happens to a lot bands when they record quickly or on the cheap.
They basically record their live show. To me it was the songs. I got a lot better and thank god I did. Everyone should get better the longer they do what they do, except sometimes they don’t.
I think we are some of the people who get better. I wish Prince could make a record that was a quarter as good as one of his records from the 80s, but I don’t think he will. He’s the greatest performer of our generation or any generation around him.
You’ve been releasing music for around 23 years now, Britt. What’s the longest you’ve gone without writing a song?
Sometimes I go quite a while if we’re touring. There’s probably been a time when I’ve gone six to nine months without working on things. When I get back into it it’s slow going. So I’ll be working on things but I won’t be coming up with a song every day. It takes a while to get back into it. Then it gets easier and easier and by the time we were finishing this record, the last two songs that I wrote and we worked on were ‘Rent I Pay’ and ‘Inside Out’ and we ended up putting those two first on the record. At that point everything came a lot faster. I think because I knew what kind of song I wanted to do.
Has there been a time when it’s been particularly hard to be creative?
It’s hard making every record at some point and you’ve gotta recognise that it’s gonna be hard and just put your head down and work through it. Sometimes it’s great when things come easy, but if you’re making a whole album there’s bound to be a time when you’re frustrated with one thing or another. Some bands as they get older... I don’t know what happens. They get more money or they get tired. They get used to throwing some bucks at something and making it easier, but you can’t do that with making a record.
How do you stop yourself from getting in that place?
Having high standards.
So what was the first song you wrote for They Want My Soul that was good enough to make the cut?
Probably the very first one was ‘Outlier’, which I didn’t write the music for it. Jim [Eno] and Eric [Harvey] wrote the music and it was an assignment to them while I was finishing up the Divine Fits touring. They handed me a hard drive with three or four songs, well probably more than that but I liked three or four on there, and worked on maybe three on them and ‘Outlier’ was one of the best.
The last album was self-produced so a lot of it was me alone working in my basement in Portland, where I was living at the time, and that got a little old. I realised during that process that collaboration was a good thing.
You’ve said ‘Rent I Pay’ is inspired by AC/DC. It’s one of the most caustic things you’ve done. You’re virtually screaming on it. What’s the key to a good scream?
Channel John Fogerty or Bon Scott. It helps that were recording that one with Dave Fridmann and it has that drum sound that’s making paint chip off the well.
It’s got a similar vibe to ‘Sister Jack’ too. It’s a simple chord structure repeated.
I do love songs that change when you go from one route to another if they’re done well, but I think they’re a hard thing to do well and I don’t want to fuck up a song by throwing in a change just to do it. I’ve worked with a lot of producers who want to do it. I’d love to do it when it works. ‘Black Like Me’ is a song where it worked. It starts out acoustic and then builds to when the drums come in and builds even more to these shouted back and forth vocals. If something is working, and I felt like ‘Rent I Pay’ was working then I feel like the best thing to do is to stick with that mood and make that it.
A lot of Spoon songs are quite unfussy.
Yeah, I think this might be our most flowery record. That’s what journalists keep saying to me and I attribute that to Dave Friedman, because we’ve never worked with him. He’s all about maxing things out, even down to maxing out all the levels. I think it’s super loud and everything’s hitting super hard. He’s always working with distortion and when you do that it’s bound to sound less minimal. We usually have a very crisp sound on our drums. With a song like ‘The Way We Get By’ there’s so much space.
Is that something you’re always looking out for?
It’s just the sound we gravitated towards. To me it sounds like a single if you have space and you can hear each instrument and they’re doing something well.
So you want every song on the album to be a single?
Kind of. I guess that’s true. I knew ‘Black Like Me’ wasn’t a single but we’re often looking for that one element that expresses the character of the song. It’s a sound or an approach that we haven’t done before. It would be cool if every song was a single. We do think about that a lot.
There’s a great moment in the middle of ‘Rainy Taxi’ where there’s a plinkety-plonk piano coda. Whose idea was that?
That was Alex [Fishcel]. He was with me in Divine Fits and I liked working with him so much that I brought home over into Spoon. It’s something he just did naturally, I don’t know why. The bridge is a big celebratory anthem part of a song and when we played it he’d just make the keyboards go crazy. It’s something I never would have thought of.
You’ve said you brought him in the band because, ‘He can solo’. Did you feel like that was something that was missing?
I didn’t feel it was missing, but we’ve used it to our advantage. I can do a rudimentary solo, but this guy can really play keyboards.
The way you come across is as a guy who really liked playing music and then rock ‘n’ roll became your job. Do you see yourself as a born musician?
How is that different to anyone else?
Going back to Prince, you can’t imagine him ever not being Prince - if you catch our drift. There seems to be a bit more toil to the Spoon story.
You know I think it took us a while to get really good. By the second album we were starting to sound more individual and definitely by the third one that was when we really started honing in on something that I really felt was ours. Something that even we hadn’t thought of before. But some of the best bands don’t make their best records first. Occasionally there’s that band that arrives fully formed on their first record like The La’s.
Was it good having that time to grow. Would you rather have had it the other way?
It made us appreciate things more. When we finally did start having success and I mean very small bits of success. It was amazing. I think if we’d come right out the gate and made a huge splash we may not be here right now. I think it’s pretty rare that a band can make its best record 18 years after its first one. It just doesn’t happen very often.
And that’s what you think about They Want My Soul?
I do. I do. And a lot of people think it too. Now here’s an example: R.E.M.. I don’t want to be what R.E.M. became, where it seemed like they were phoning it in for album after album. I know that they weren’t phoning it in for a while, you know? I don’t know their story. I don’t know what happened. That’s just my guess when I see bands that can’t do it the same way. Maybe they’re not comfortable with the pain it takes to make a great record.
How was it painful to make this one?
It just took a lot of time. It takes a long time to write really good songs and it takes a long time to record them well and it’s not something you can pay someone to do. I’m not saying that everyday it seemed like a job. This is the only job I’ve ever wanted and there are a lot of days when we were driving around in our rental car blasting out these songs and loving life. Whenever an inspired performance or and inspired lyric comes to you it feels like the best thing in the world.
So is that what you do, play your songs back to yourself?
Sometimes. But sometimes those moments don’t happen for a week, and when they don’t it always feels like they’ll never happen again and that sucks.
You said the new record is the best you’ve done yet. Do you think it’s going to surprise people?
Yeah. I think so.
I don’t we’ve ever done a song as ‘heavy’ as ‘Rent I Pay’ and that was the first one we put out.
Then the record dips into ‘Inside Out’. It’s quite subversive.
It is subversive, right. And I always like those unexpected changes when I’m listening to someone else’s record. The same thing happened with Kill The Moonlight. The last two songs we worked on were the first two on the record. I thought ‘Small Stakes’ was very non-commercial and weird and even abrasive in some ways. It didn’t have much of a melody to it and it didn’t have drums for most of it. So putting that right before the most singalong song on the record ‘The Way We Get By’.
What’s the closest thing to a ballad on the record?
‘Inside Out’ is probably the closest song to a ballad.
Do you ever think, ‘It’s time to write a slow one’?
I never think about it that way, but I started that one off with a very basic piano progression. Playing it on eighth notes because I can’t really play keyboards so great, with vocals on top. That’s all it was for a long time and it was good that way. It was strong but I didn’t want it to end up being... it would have been good but not as special. We ended up putting in these hip-hop drum beats and beautiful textures and keyboards and we really made it into something special. I really love that one.
What’s ‘Take The Fifth’ about?
It’s one of those songs where the real story is right around the corner but you’re not supposed to see it. There are some hints that something sinister is going on.
That’s your vibe isn’t it?
A little bit. I don’t like spelling things out too plainly.
You’d set aside ‘New York Kiss’ for a solo album and now it’s on They Want My Soul. What about ‘Telephone My Heart’?
We were working on ‘Telephone My Heart’ for this one. I don’t know if a solo album is going to happen. Probably not. Not anytime soon. After the last Spoon record I knew I wanted to do something different for a while and so I thought, ‘Maybe I’m doing a solo record.’
Once I knew that Dan [Boeckner] wanted to be in a band. It was like, ‘Okay. This is going to be a band. I’m going to do that. It’s going to be a lot more fun.’
So why put ‘New York Kiss’ on this album?
It had been sitting around for a while. I guess I was like, ‘Well, what else am I going to do with it?’
We actually tried that one with Divine Fits a couple times. It’s been a hard one to get right. At some point it was not what a Spoon song could be. I wanted it to be as dancey as possible in the way the first Arcade Fire record… the singles all kick on the one, two, three.
I wanted it to be like that the whole way through. Jim didn’t like that. I haven’t met many drummers that will do that without them cursing me.
What’s the first track on Spoon’s greatest hits album?
...At some point we were going to a greatest hits album, so I did write down a bunch of them. I didn’t come up with an order. It definitely wouldn’t be chronologically ordered. I think ‘Inside Out’ could be one, ‘Rent I Pay’ or ‘Paper Tiger’ or ‘Small Stakes’... ‘The Beast And Dragon, Adored’.
I’m trying to think of songs that would work good as a first song. There are certain songs that just have that quality. Three of the one’s I mentioned are first songs.
So when were you going to do a greatest hits?
It was back when we were working with matador in Europe. They had the idea of doing a greatest hits and we ended up parting ways before that happened. I was into the idea.
Maybe we’ll do it eventually. I think Greatest Hits records can be good. They can also be bad. That Pretenders singles record is fantastic. That first [The] Cure greatest hits, I think it serves a purpose. I’d heard about The Cure but didn’t really know them very well and the first thing I bought was Standing On A Beach.
You mentioned Kill The Moonlight and They Want My Soul as having come together in the same way. The album art is similar too.
It’s got a hand, right?
Was that intentional?
It really wasn’t intentional. We did a photoshoot where we shot all these different scenes and that was something we shot, but it wasn’t what we intended to be on the cover. What we intended to be on the cover was this sinkhole and a girl in front of it, we had all these things planned and it just didn’t work as well on the cover as something as iconic as a hand.
I noticed there a lot of hand covers coming out now. Interpol’s record has a hand on it; it’s a beautiful cover. Someone else, I think Blonde Redhead.
But your album is coming out first, so you’re trendsetters?
Exactly. It’s like when we put out a song called ‘Paper Tiger’ right after Beck put out a song called ‘Paper Tiger’ and I was bummed.
Well, Beck was really pissed with Arcade Fire because he wanted to call an album Rococco but then Arcade Fire put a song named that on The Suburbs.
And I wanted to call a record 10 Bangers at one point and now I’m totally pissed off with Miley Cyrus. A total rock record where every song is an absolute banger, but she’s gone and ruined it for me.
They Want My Soul is out now on Anti- Records.