Spoon: Fortress Of Solitude

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Spoon is America’s most unsinkable rock band, a juggernaut of near-flawless albums and iron-clad hooks. Behind it all is singer/guitarist Britt Daniel, alone with his broken heart, self-doubt and relentless pursuit of perfection. By Corey duBrowa

Why am I down here dicking around with my pedals? I shouldn’t be doing this. I’m killing the moment.

Britt Daniel genuflects before 2,500 or so fans, mere moments away from one of the most important sets his band has ever played. As he adjusts his guitar knobs in a last-minute effort to get the sound right, this is the thought roaming through his head. That and, “Are my father and stepmother comfortable?” (They’re out there somewhere in the frothy, capacity-plus crowd.)

Scattered across the outdoor stage at Stubb’s BBQ in Austin, Texas, on the final night of this year’s South By Southwest festival, Daniel’s band—drummer Jim Eno, keyboardist Eric Harvey and ex-Get Up Kids bassist Rob Pope—busies itself with final preparations for tonight’s gig. Spoon is the last group between the rapidly swelling audience and its date with Iggy Pop and his reformed Stooges, the eagerly anticipated headliner for tonight’s Esquire magazine showcase. Earlier this evening, the line to get into Stubb’s backyard wound up, down and around three city blocks, and it’s now clear that hundreds of people seeking a way inside—even with the venue’s laissez-faire approach to calculating fire-safety-compliant maximum capacity—will instead be turned back at the gate.

In keeping with Esquire’s glittery reputation, the VIP crowd has already made the prologue to Spoon’s show something of a my-parents-are-away party for the rich and semi-famous. Ex-Smashing Pumpkins guitarist James Iha slouches at the bar, ordering a drink and looking bored beyond belief, answering questions from the well-meaning bartender as if manning the drive-through window at a bank. Spider-girl Kirsten Dunst and her new boy toy, Razorlight singer Johnny Borrell, are chain-smoking in the corner, staring fixedly at one another as if there was no one else in the place. Austin homeboys Lance Armstrong and Matthew McConaughey have appeared. And there’s R.E.M.’s Peter Buck, arm-in-arm with wife Stephanie Dorgan, owner of the Crocodile Café in Seattle (the place where this story ends, two months later). All the while, some random garage band plays a blaringly bland variety of Southern-fried rock a la Kings Of Leon—right down to the muttonchop sideburns—which is somewhat ironic considering that the Kings themselves have just wrapped up a set outside.

From this surreal set of tabloid images, a realization emerges: Although Stubb’s amphitheater is packed with ardent admirers in Spoon’s hometown, the sweaty, semi-clothed crowd surfers are clearly Iggy’s people, politely acknowledging Spoon’s set while biding their time in anticipation of the main event.

Daniel, his Gibson hollow-body guitar slung low, swaggers into the rolling groove of “Don’t You Evah,” one of three songs Spoon will play tonight from its forthcoming album, Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga. The band moves through its one-hour set like a shark silently and effortlessly circling its prey. Spoon’s spare, linear sound gives the impression of complete control and little wasted effort, whether toying with the catch-and-release tension of “The Beast And Dragon, Adored” from 2005’s Gimme Fiction or the slinky new “Rhthm And Soul,” which features backing vocals provided by actress/Amy Winehouse look-alike Yasmine Kittles. (More on this connection later.)

Even the barrelhouse keyboard hook to “The Way We Get By,” a song from 2002’s Kill The Moonlight also heard in last year’s underrated Will Ferrell movie Stranger Than Fiction, leans more toward “precision” than “party.” Along the way, Daniel sheds his black military jacket and works in some between-song banter about Public Enemy, which performed last night as part of the SXSW festival. “Did you guys see those S1Ws? Insane!” Merge Records, Spoon’s label, will later post a completely incongruous photo on its Web site of Daniel hanging out backstage with Flava Flav.

Spoon heads for the turnstiles with another new song, the George W. Bush-baiting “Don’t Make Me A Target,” before wrapping up its set with a rousing take on Gimme Fiction’s ominous “My Mathematical Mind.” Then, just as efficiently as they took the stage and worked it for the alcohol-sodden crowd, the four members of Spoon walk off, allowing the shirtless, occasionally pants-less Iggy to assault the gathered throng with old favorites (“No Fun,” “1969”) and new, uneven material from underwhelming comeback album The Weirdness. By the time the Stooges have invited the audience to crash the stage for final number “Fun House,” it’s clear their buzzsaw sound (marred when bassist Mike Watt’s amp appears to implode mid-set) and group interplay are secondary to the creation of the perfect environment in which to behold the almighty aura of the Ig in the flesh.

Across the street from Stubb’s, there’s a raging after-party in progress at what is euphemistically called a “green room” but functions as more of a safe house owned by the venue’s booker, Charles Attal. Strangely, the only person who appears even remotely responsible for the place is the silent door guy letting people in and out. Musicians, managers, scenesters and other assorted characters wander through at will, passing by the living-room foosball table on their way to the kitchen to grab a beer. There’s a pay-per-view boxing match on a big screen in one of the bedrooms, opening act Paolo Nutini is being carried around on the shoulders of one of Stubb’s bouncers (evidently on the way to his next stop for the evening; Nutini’s shoes have gone missing, and he’s refusing to walk any further), and three-fourths of Kings Of Leon are downing beers by the fistful. Buck patiently explains why R.E.M. played a cover of “I Wanna Be Your Dog” during its recent induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (“The Stooges should be in there already; we played it in protest”), while Daniel stands near the fridge—alone, naturally, with nary a bandmate or friend in sight—fretting over his set and wondering whether Spoon really delivered the goods. As it happens, Daniel lives in terror of letting people down, and in his view, tonight was not one for the ages.

“It was a little rough,” he says regretfully, taking a pull at his beer. “When someone first suggested that we should open for the Stooges at Stubb’s, I was psyched. Can you imagine a better show? But once we were onstage, there was so much anticipation for the Stooges.” He pauses. “Obviously, there wasn’t that kind of wall-to-wall intensity when we were playing. I understand; people grew up on this music and thought they’d never get to see this band again. So it was cool, but it definitely wasn’t a typical hometown show for us.”

And with that, Daniel stalks off into the night.

No time to be fancy or cute; these are gonna have to be “speed mixes.”

Type Foundry Recording is a deceptively large, cozily appointed studio facility in an industrial corner of Portland, Ore. Surrounded by metal-sided warehouses in an upstairs location accessible only by what appears to be a converted fire escape, the 3,000-square-foot studio is easy to miss and has the distinct aura of a place where serious people get down to serious business, as evidenced by the wall-mounted CD inserts of all the artists whose albums have been created here, including M. Ward, the Decemberists and the Thermals. On this otherwise nondescript, rainy afternoon, that’s precisely what’s going on inside as Britt Daniel rolls up his sleeves and goes to work.

Clad in Oregon-issue winterwear—dark sweater, dark utility trousers, dark Converse sneakers—Daniel is hunched over the studio’s main mixing board with a set of earphones on. The skeletal, piano-based strains of a demo of his new “My Little Japanese Cigarette Case” streams overhead. Lounging on the control room’s hand-me-down sofa is one of the studio’s four partners, Norfolk & Western frontman Adam Selzer, who occasionally offers technical advice.

In this elegiac, demoed version of the song, falsetto vocals fly in and out of the mix—sometimes overlapping or harmonizing, more often echoing off of one another with delay effects—and the tune’s heartbroken core is revealed in a way that’s never approached on the finished product’s more up-tempo arrangement. Through the addition of a few lyrics and a bridge Daniel will later excise from the altogether more cryptic album track, it’s obvious what we’re listening to is a break-up song: “I’ll always want you/My Japanese cigarette case/Since I saw you in the flesh/I knew my life was a mess … Oh, I’m never gonna see you again/I tell myself it’s over/Yet I want you back again.”

Daniel recently split with the longtime girlfriend he followed to Portland two years ago, and Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga is consequently littered with the relationship’s nuclear fallout. (The album’s improbable title is taken from the name of an early demo of “The Ghost Of You Lingers,” another somebody-done-somebody-wrong song.) Despite the emotionally fraught content of the track, he remains focused on plowing through the mixing chore, given he has the studio for only one day and nearly a dozen tracks to mix down for use as b-sides and import singles.

Calling Daniel “obsessive” is like labeling Jimmy Buffett’s outlook “78 degrees and sunny.” When it comes to his music and band, there’s no detail too small for Daniel to sweat. Over the course of the afternoon, he’ll play back the track a dozen times to ensure the disorienting, ping-pong vocals he hears in his head—and in his earphones—are as closely replicated as possible. He moves on to an acoustic recording of the Jon Brion-produced “The Underdog,” breaking out a yellow legal pad full of meticulous notes documenting the four-track demo tapes he stores in a white box for safekeeping. Each of these tapes is numbered and corresponds to flurries of handwritten thoughts that help him decode the tracks later.

“I finally broke 100 with this record,” says Daniel of the tapes that go all the way back to his earliest recordings, made 18 years ago. “A star means it’s worth listening to again. An X means it’s not worth listening to again.”

“It can’t all be wedding cake/It can’t all be boiled away/I try, but I can’t let go of it,” Daniel’s voice pours urgently out of the speakers, insistent in its distinctive, scratchy-throated cadence, pitched halfway between Kurt Cobain’s howl and Prince’s cooed come-ons. This song, too, provides evidence of the emotional trauma that sits just beneath the surface of nearly every track on the album.

“I felt really desperate, to be honest,” says Daniel. “We broke up while I was making the record, and when I was listening to some of the rough mixes over Christmas, I immediately thought, ‘Yes, this is exactly how I feel right now.’ I don’t know that I’ve ever really had one of our records hit me like that.”

It’s a time-worn cliché that emotional hardship produces the best work of an artist’s career. Spoon’s 13-year overnight success story proves Woody Allen’s old saw about perseverance (“80 percent of success is just showing up”), and the band has often done its most compelling work with its back against the wall.

Born in the coastal Texas oil town of Galveston in 1971 and raised a few hours north in Temple’s hill-country environs, Daniel arrived in Austin in 1989 as a freshman at the University of Texas. In between classes, he started a band called Skellington (after the Julian Cope album of the same name) and eventually ended up with a degree in radio/television/film and a lengthy DJ stint at KVRX, the student-run station. Through a mutual friend, he met drummer Eno, a former microprocessor designer and the only other band member on every Spoon album. The two ended up playing together in the rockabilly-influenced Alien Beats before trying their hand at collaborating on the songs Daniel had been writing since his teens.

Daniel and Eno’s full-length opening salvo as Spoon—the name came from a Can song, necessitated by “a show we booked on a Friday, so we sat around Thursday night and just picked one,” laughs Eno—was the Matador-issued Telephono, which ended up selling only 3,000 copies despite the fact that Spoon’s hard-charging, Pixies-influenced post-punk sound had also attracted the attention of Geffen, Interscope and Warner Bros. By the time the band had finally gotten over its major-label misgivings and signed with Elektra in 1997, it had been through a prolonged legal wrangle with bassist Andy McGuire for a share of songwriting rights to Telephono. (McGuire ended up with a third of the album’s royalties and advance money instead.)

As Daniel and Eno regrouped with new bassist Josh Zarbo for 1998’s lean, angular A Series Of Sneaks, it was clear that Spoon’s tenure on Elektra would be a stormy one. First, the band’s manager, Pat Magnarella, who was also working with the Goo Goo Dolls at the time, told Daniel that his new batch of songs had “taken a real step backward” and fired Spoon. Then Ron Laffitte, the Elektra A&R rep who had championed the band, left the label, and Spoon found itself dropped a mere four months after signing, its major-label debut instantly relegated to forgotten status.

“At the time, you could find that record in just about any cutout bin in America,” says former touring bassist Roman Kuebler, who currently fronts the Oranges Band. “It was sad.”

“Britt has a long, particular memory about that era,” says band manager and Post-Parlo Records founder Ben Dickey. “He and Jim call those ‘the Locust Years.’”

Two years passed before Daniel and Eno finished the material that eventually became Spoon’s Merge debut, Girls Can Tell, which, when paired with the near-simultaneous release of the Love Ways EP, documented the evolution of the band’s sound toward a sparer, more pop-oriented style. Daniel’s songs were slowly revealing more of who he was, albeit in sly, non-obvious ways: “1020 AM” and “The Fitted Shirt” reflected obliquely upon the impact of loss (Daniel’s paternal grandfather had died that year, and the funeral proved a watershed moment), while the album’s closing track, “Chicago At Night,” showed an uncommon emotional depth and a spooky way with atmospherics and studio technique.

Girls Can Tell caught the attention of critics and established expectations while Spoon’s comeback took shape over the next several years with the minimalist Kill The Moonlight and the darker, more expansive Gimme Fiction. As the group began to fill increasingly larger venues, Daniel’s self-assurance grew. Suddenly, Spoon became “one of the handful of bands you must pay attention to whenever they release something new,” according to Greg Glover, co-owner of the Arena Rock label and host of Portland’s KNRK Alternative Mornings program, one of terrestrial radio’s most influential indie-rock shows. “I don’t think they’ve ever made a bad record.”

After this period of relative success and progress, the unraveling of Daniel’s personal life has formed yet another setback. “It was hard,” Daniel says of his split with his girlfriend, his voice heavy with regret. “It’s still hard.” A long silence ensues before he picks up the conversation. “What was the question again?” h says, laughing at the obvious nature of his evasive action. “We both had our problems, like most break-ups, probably. Being in Austin for five months recording certainly didn’t help any. I would have come back here a lot more often if we hadn’t broken up, but we did, so I just stayed away.”

Overhead, an unreleased track called “Dear Mr. Landlord” wafts by, its repeated motif (“Be a man, kid/Do what’s right”) reminding Daniel of his emotional tumult of the last year, his move to Portland and his effort to pick up the pieces. “We tried and tried, but we just couldn’t make it work,” he says. Daniel’s precise meaning—the relationship or the song?—is unclear, and his words hang in the air conspicuously until he explains further: “You can tell I was just learning the song when we cut this.”

Outside, the rain pours down on the studio’s corrugated roof, sounding like the roar of the ocean as Daniel clamps his headphones on and buckles down to work.

Good evening and welcome to the acoustic show by the guy who can’t really play guitar worth a damn.=]]]]]]]]]]]

For most musicians, confidence is an elusive thing. No matter that he’s done dozens of them over the years, solo shows are always among the most nerve-wracking affairs Daniel willingly tackles. “I’m in my room practicing,” he texts from his hotel prior to the evening’s show. “I need the practice.”

Daniel is something of a text-message addict, having dispatched a series of quirky observations from the road during Spoon’s recent tour. “Just saw Wesley Clark at 15th and 5th, all alone, hailing a cab”; “Bob Barker just sat down across from me here at DFW”; “Just played Tufts University. Worst onstage sound I’ve ever experienced. Afterwards some German (?) guy told Rob, ‘Your new lead singa is not as goot as the olt one.’”

Daniel has agreed to headline a muscular dystrophy benefit concert and now stands alone at the foot of the stage inside the Crocodile Café, peering out into the darkness. Various plastic bugs and rubber snakes hang by their threads from the ceiling, alongside a giant glow-in-the-dark arrow pointing toward a devil’s mask. The smallish room is filled with admirers, many of whom have had their albums signed or snapped camera-phone photos with Daniel earlier in the evening.

“For those of you who faced the dilemma of whether to go to the Velvet Revolver show or come here tonight,” cracks Daniel, “let me assure you that your money is going to a much worthier cause.”

Even with a recent 10-shows-in-10-days East Coast tour behind him, Daniel’s work ethic remains almost Amish in its inexhaustible appetite. His acoustic guitar strapped high to his chest, he proceeds to knock out 25 songs in an hour and change, with a set list covering the entirety of Spoon’s career and a great cover of “I Am The Key,” an obscurity by cultish Liverpool pop outfit the La’s. In contrast to his typically enigmatic persona, Daniel—either despite his nerves or because of them—is clearly enjoying himself, fielding requests (“Do you want to be witness to a disaster? I really don’t know that one!”), tossing off one-liners and gleefully taking risks he’d usually avoid with Spoon. There are a few flubs, some timing miscues with the boombox playing beats behind him and occasional flashes of brilliance, such as the set’s final song, Kill The Moonlight tightrope walker “Paper Tiger,” which Daniel sings with nothing but the naked beat ricocheting off the walls. Suddenly, the song ends, and the assembly stands there transfixed, clapping, but not yet making a move to leave.

Winding down after the show, Daniel sits in the Crocodile’s tiny dressing room, having just performed his one self-described stupid party trick: removing a beer cap with a plastic water bottle. “(Merge’s) Mac McCaughan taught me that, and it’s the single best thing I’ve learned in the last decade,” he laughs.

A tall, beautiful woman is practically throwing herself at Daniel as he goes through the motions of making small talk. She brazenly asks for his home address (“I moved here eight years ago,” she explains. “The allergies in Portland almost did me in”) and all but climbs in his lap, at one point telling him, “You’re not as tall as they say,” despite Daniel’s thin 6’2” frame towering over hers. For his part, Daniel politely concludes the discussion, acting as though he’s seen this movie before and arching his eyebrows conspiratorially as she leaves.

Reconciling the playful, relaxed version of Daniel with his more inscrutable public persona is part of Spoon’s mystery and mischievousness. At one point, Pitchfork posted more than 15 different stories about the band over the three-week period in which Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga was still being called Trouble Minx, Stroke Their Brains or It’s Frightening, depending on the source. Entertaining anecdotes pour forth about Daniel’s various antics over the years. A former tourmate remembers a late-night episode at New York’s LaGuardia Airport involving Daniel wheeling himself around in a courtesy wheelchair, acting as if he had a speech impediment and asking a hapless Au Bon Pain cashier if the restaurant granted handicapped discounts. Another details a late-night call to a friend during which Daniel pretended to be despondent in order to extract some intimate personal information from his victim, then revealed that he had obtained a police scanner and rigged the phone to be played to an audience of friends who listened to every word on Daniel’s car stereo.

As alluded to earlier, Daniel encouraged Eno and Pope to propagate a rumor at South By Southwest that bandmate Harvey and British singer Amy Winehouse were an item. When confronted about the veracity of the story, Daniel casts doubtful glances and sidesteps the question.

“That was Yasmine Kittles,” admits Harvey, chagrined that the story still has legs. “We were hanging out backstage like a couple of starstruck teenagers while Iggy walked around in a towel. I’m pretty sure Amy Winehouse was outside on the Kings Of Leon’s tour bus, arguing over who wore the tightest pants.”

“Britt has successfully put a little bit of old-fashioned mystery back in this thing,” says producer Jon Brion, who met Daniel when Spoon played a show at Amoeba Records in Los Angeles, next door to the studio where he and Kanye West were recording. “Spoon is the antithesis of your usual indie-rock, three-minute great white hopes for commercial victory. What they’re doing is classic; it just happens to be in the rock idiom. Britt reminds me of Neil Young in that I can hear him fully committed to following his whims, making the kinds of records I’ll still want to hear 10 years from now.”

Given the serious-minded nature of the band’s body of work, “Spoon” and “whimsy” are hardly the most intuitive combination of words in the Encyclopedia of Modern Rock. If anything, Daniel’s quest for discovery and sense of reinvention rivals that of Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy. Both bands are releasing their respective sixth albums this year, have shared a manager (Tony Margherita) and have pledged allegiance to the vinyl LP, sequencing songs to reflect an a-side and a b-side. Both carefully select album artwork that shapes perceptions about what’s inside—Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga sports a moody black-and-white photo of American industrial artist Lee Bontecou—and have even recorded different songs titled “Reservations.”

“We’re all a bunch of perfectionist assholes,” laughs longtime Spoon producer Mike McCarthy of the comparison. “Spoon tries to outdo themselves every fucking time, and for it to survive, to grow, it has to continue that way. Britt works harder on his music than anyone else I know. He’s at it daily.”

True to his pointillist attention to detail, Daniel has been laboring on a solo record for so long that he now characterizes the project as “completely self-obsessed and non-existent.” Even with Spoon, it’s difficult to know when the music is finally ready for prime time.

“We worked on ‘Target’ as a song for Gimme Fiction,” he explains. “I wrote the original riff in 2004, and we probably did it 10 or 15 different ways—the verse, the chorus—before I took a year off from it. It was like putting a puzzle together that we couldn’t get exactly right. Later, it became obvious to me what needed to be pulled out, what wasn’t working. Every song has to have some kind of unique angle to me. In my mind, I think there should be an element that makes a song a single. Like Prince’s ‘Kiss,’ where you hear it and your first reaction is, ‘That’s a fucking hit.’ For me, that’s always the driving thing.”

With the dark, dazzling Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, Spoon has saved its best work for a time when more potential fans seem poised to embrace the band than at any other point in its history. Given Spoon’s previous jousts with fame and its attendant downsides, the sense of déjà vu must be profound. Yet Daniel remains guardedly optimistic about the future.

“I’m always surprised with each step getting better or easier,” he says. “We’re doing all the same stuff we’ve ever done: touring, putting care into the recording of the album, thought into the presentation. I don’t know. Maybe now’s finally our time?”

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One Comment

  1. Posted March 29, 2011 at 3:23 pm | Permalink

    This article is great! I can see why it’s a MAGNET best. Spoon is the only band I can rely on to have the best records! I don’t even have to listen before I buy. they are definitely the MOST underrated rock band out there.

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