The frontman of the beloved Austin indie-rockers—who’ve just returned with their eighth album, They Want My Soul, and recently hit the road with Arcade Fire—talks girl groups, long hiatuses, and literary heroes. (If you missed them this summer don’t worry; they’ve got a ton of dates left, including multiple festivals.)
EW: It’s been four years since Spoon last made a record. I know you’ve been working on other projects, but what’s been happening for you life-wise in the meantime?
Britt Daniel: Life wise? That’s a tough question. You’d think it’d be the easiest one, right? When we finished that last tour in November of 2011—it was at some festival in Germany—we kind of just said, “Well that’s the last show for awhile, and who knows what’s going to happen.” And we were all a little ground down at that point. It had just been too long that we were touring that record. So we went our separate ways without really saying anything. And I took three or four months of doing nothing really. I got a girlfriend and I just chilled. Which is the first I’ve done that in…I don’t know, it might have been the first time I’ve done that by choice. And then I met up with Dan [Boeckner], who’s an old friend of mine. He was doing a show in Portland and he was there for a few days. We talked about starting a band and we…started a band.
So when Divine Fits was kind of winding down on that last record, was there a specific moment when you thought, “Okay, now’s the time to start working on a new Spoon record”?
I was really eager to start working on the Spoon record. Everybody got together and played some songs that I had, but I still had a lot of touring left to go with Divine Fits. And so I said to the band, “Why don’t you guys get together without me and write some music?” And I think they were a little skeptical about how that would go down, but they did anyway and they came up with three or four songs, you know, just music.
And they probably came up with more than that, but I remember three or four of them I really liked that I tried to work on. And there was this one that became “Outlier,” the sixth song on the record. And so I think that was a good thing to have in our back pocket, the fact that we had a good tune, even if it didn’t have words yet—I still had to put words to it—but we knew it was a good track. And I think that everybody liked that it wasn’t another song by me. It was a song that they had contributed to and everybody could feel invested in.
You mentioned that people were skeptical. Why do you think that is?
Because I’m hard to please. And I think that very often, I mean, they probably just thought that they would work on this stuff for a long time, they would come up with something that they liked and then they would give it to me and then they would never hear from me about it. It’s not because that was the history—we’ve never done anything like that before—but I’m usually the catalyst for things like album art, or songs, or recording starting. So it just was a little outside of our way of normally working.
What for you personally has changed, from a writing perspective and from a production of the records perspective, over the course of putting out eight Spoon albums?
The biggest change from the first record is that the first record was our live show, which was supposed to go over well in small bars. That’s what the songs were written for, to do that. And then after we recorded that album and we got to a place where we knew we could actually put some records out, then we started coming up with different types of songs. I started writing for records. That was the biggest change.
For this record, the biggest change was that we worked with Dave Fridmann for the first time. We did 4 records in the 2000s that were coproduced by us and this guy Mike McCarthy in Austin, and then we did Transference, our last record, which was just produced by me and Jim [Eno, Spoon’s drummer]. This time we not only used a producer, we used a name producer for the first time. And a guy who very much had his own sound. And I think that his “everything distorted, everything as loud as possible, really heavy compression” sort of sound is something that we haven’t really delved into before.
How did bringing him to the table change your process in the studio?
We did the record in a weird way. We decided to do it in two halves. Originally the idea was, we’ll record half with Joe Chiccarelli and Dave will mix, then we’ll take a little time off and then record a second half with Joe and Dave will mix that. And the reason for this is that Dave didn’t have time to produce us. He said, “Well, I can mix but I don’t have time.” But once we got to the end of the first round, we just loved working with Dave so much and it had been sort of difficult with Joe.
We’re on good terms but it was a little hard. We felt like we were butting heads quite a bit. So we kind of just kept angling at Dave, like, “You sure you don’t have time to do this?” And lucky enough he had some project that was booked for January and February that dropped out, and so he wanted to do it. So we just sort of changed courses. I really feel like you can hear that variety on the record, and I feel like it ended up being a good thing. The second batch songs are a bit wilder. I think they’re kind of wilder songs, to begin with, but the recordings of them are a little more out there, and I think that the record needed that.
You have a cover on the record of “I Just Don’t Understand” which has really interesting origins with Ann Margret and John Lennon. Tell me about coming upon that track and what got you interested in it, and the process for putting it on the record.
I had never heard—well, I’d probably heard the song, but I didn’t know it, and didn’t remember having heard it before. So this website, Rookie, they have a music editor there who’s a friend of mine, and she asked, or Tavi asked her to ask me to do a song for them. And the theme that month was—I don’t know if it was 60s girl pop, or girl groups, or 60s whatever—but she gave me a big list of songs that might be good ones to cover. And one of them was this “I Just Don’t Understand.”
Actually, I learned all the songs she gave me. I did one-take versions where I’d sing it into a little digital recorder, and that was the one that just felt good. And that’s usually a good way to tell: can you busk it well? And I remember thinking as I recorded it, this sounds like something John Lennon would like… It’s a pop song, but it’s more of a dark pop song.
For some reason it hit me as something that John Lennon would like or he would like singing. And then maybe a week later I found out that [The Beatles] had recorded that song on the BBC. So I felt like I’d made some magical connection, you know? Which was really awesome for me, because I like John Lennon so much.
We recorded it ourselves in Dave [Fridmann]’s second studio when he was mixing our record—we used two mics and did a really rough version, me and Jim. And as we were putting it together, I was like, “This is too good for Rookie. I want this to go on the record.” So then I had to go back and record another song for Rookie. That was a whole other process, but I really like how it turned out. It’s a real good performance song. When I say that, I mean like when Led Zeppelin would perform a song really well as opposed to it being a produced song. It’s got a good vibe to it. It’s got a good swing.
You guys are definitely a touring band. That’s a huge part of the Spoon identity I would say, at least on past records. What is road life like for you, and how do you cope with the rigors of it
I really enjoy it. The most carefree time in my life is when I’m on tour because when you’re on tour it gets kind of like being a hunter-gatherer. You can just take care of the essentials like, “I need to get a shower, and I need to get some food, and then I need to get to the sound check, and then I need have dinner three hours before the performance, and then I need to take a nap.” There are certain things you’ve got to do and you don’t have time to do all the stuff that I’m doing this week like talking to press, or writing a thousand emails, or making plans for this or that, or figuring out where the UPC code is going to go on the back of the vinyl [he picks up the Lazaretto vinyl from a nearby desk]. Oh look, he doesn’t have one here at all. How the f— did he get away with that?
That kind of thing can’t enter into the conversation, you know? And I really like that. It’s just a blast for me. It’s a great frame of mind. I’ve thought about it a lot, and I think that’s why Bob Dylan is on what he calls his “Never-Ending Tour. I think he just likes living that way. And I really like it, too. The problem is, that records are more important. If I was just going to have fun and somehow it could sustain itself, I’d tour for all the time.
There’s a character called Jonathan Fisk who first appeared on [2002’s] Into the Moonlight, and the name pops up again in this record. For the uninitiated, who is Jonathan Fisk?
Well, Jonathan Fisk is a made up name but it’s a real person who I had a lot of run-ins with in my younger years in middle school in Temple, Texas. I was just thinking about this the other night—my inclination when I’m walking around and there’s a big group of people that are blocking the sidewalk and it’s nighttime, I kind of flinch.
I don’t think about it really, but I thought about it the other night and I was like “why am I getting uptight about this?” and it’s because when I grew up I was constantly being harassed and beaten [laughs]. Not beaten, so much, but hit, you know?
Yeah, hit. And this was a guy who was all about fighting after school, which is not something I was really that excited about, but I did join him in that a couple of times and not do so well. So when I was writing the song “They Want My Soul,” I started vamping on soul suckers in general, like, “Who are these people that suck my soul?” And I was thinking it’s, you know, religious pretenders, it’s up sellers, it’s people who front, it’s Jonathan Fisk, it’s educated folk singers, you know? All of them sort of stealing a different type of soul.
So do you see a narrative continuum in the songs that you’ve written, because this character has popped up again?
Sure, it’s the reemergence of a character from a song in 2002, and it’s kind of a cool thing. It’s a lost art.
Like a Tom Joad kind of a thing, this character popping up again and again?
Is that what Tom Jones does?
Tom Joad, from The Grapes of Wrath.
Oh, Tom Joad. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Yeah, like that. [laughs]
You used to do a lot of solo stuff under the name Drake Tungsten. Will we ever hear from Drake Tungsten again?
Probably not, I’d probably just do it under my own name. There was about 18 months in time where I was using that name.
The internet has a long memory for that.
Yes, it sure does. I always also see that I was in this band called Golden Millennium [a 1999 “glam rock revival group,” says Wikipedia], which had two gigs and was very much not my project or band, you know? Some friends were doing this thing, and so I said, “Sure.” And yet, people ask me questions about Golden Millennium, and I’m like “I don’t know anything about Golden Millennium. I barely remember those shows! I remember somebody putting some makeup on me, but that’s about it.”
It’s like someone being like, “When you were five, you played with Play-Doh for half an hour. Do you want to talk about that?”
So you are still living in Austin then?
Well, I’ve been in Austin more than anywhere else in the last…I mean, my file cabinet is in LA, so I say I live there. But I’ve been more in Austin than anywhere else in the last year.
Is it still a cool place to live? Still suitably weird?
It is. You can get suitably high there. I love it. I think that it’s changing for sure. A lot of money is getting pumped into that place, the downtown is changing, but I think if anything, it’s better. There’s still some old Austin. You can still go to house parties, you can still get tacos for $1.50, but there’s also all this other stuff. But you don’t have to participate in it if you don’t want.