Critical darlings annoy me. When I've been told that I should love a band, I find it difficult to do so. While I can admire their greatness, it takes me longer to find a personal way into the music of, say, Yo La Tengo, or Guided By Voices. Not so with Spoon.
Luckily for me, I discovered them long before the endless stream of glowing reviews began hounding me to love them. I loved them already. It doesn't hurt that they are record industry jiltees, underdogs who are still in search of the commercial success they so obviously deserve.
Formed in 1993, Spoon has just released its third CD, Girls Can Tell, on Merge Records. Reviews have been unanimously positive, which is nothing new. What is new (and welcome) is that the CD appears to be selling well.
I was in the audience the first time Spoon played Toronto in 1998. In fact, frontman Britt Daniel quipped that I must have been about a third of the audience that night. Nevertheless, the audience was many times larger the second time Spoon played Toronto, again at the Horseshoe Tavern, in April. I was fortunate enough to grab Daniel for a few minutes during sound check.
James McNally: This is the second time in Toronto for you guys. Is it the second time in Canada?
Britt Daniel: No, we played Vancouver a couple times. Maybe three times. No maybe just twice. Twice.
JM: But not a lot of travel in Canada. I guess it's harder to get up here.
BD: Right. Yeah.
JM: The last show that you were here, it was actually at the Horseshoe, you played with The Murmurs and, I'm sure you recall it, their audience…
JM: Split, right after their set, and that left you to play for about 20 people.
BD: Yeah. That sucked.
JM: And you played a great show, actually, which was great, because the people that were there really wanted to hear you. You said to me after, I talked to you, I talked to all of you, because I was just so desperate for you not to give up on Toronto or give up on everything else, but one of the things you said at that show was that you felt the band needed a gimmick. I think Jimmy's Chicken Shack was a rap-rock kind of thing, and The Murmurs have their whole thing, and you were just very down on that kind of music and you said that it's not possible for someone to just be a rock band anymore. Do you still feel that way?
BD: I think a gimmick helps a lot. Yeah. That said, we've had a lot more success, way more success on this album than either of the two that came out before and Merge has a staff or four or five people, so that's cool.
JM: You're definitely in a different spot than you were the last time you were here.
JM: How close were you guys, you were talking about packing it in. You actually were very honest at that time. I'm not saying necessarily the band, but did you ever think personally of not making a go of it in music anymore?
BD: Yeah, there was a long period of time where I thought music is fun and I love it but I have to do something with my life because I can't live in this shitty apartment for the rest of my life. I have a degree, but it's pretty much a worthless degree, and I had somewhat of a career but I got out of it. And I was just thinking that eventually I'm going to have to go back to school, I'm going to have do something, because as much as I love music, it's not paying the bills. In fact, I couldn't even find anybody to put out this record for a while.
JM: That particular gig, was that put together by Elektra? It just didn't seem like it was the right…
BD: Oh this show that we played last time?
JM: Yeah, last time with the Murmurs.
BD: I don't know how that came about. Now that you say that, I think it was something that Elektra threw us on at the last minute. They wanted us to come up here.
JM: Well, so did I, but it felt like it was sort of thrown together…
BD: Well, I wanted to, too. But I think there was some weird thing where somebody at WEA Canada, or something, whatever it is, said that, at the last minute, we might not have even found out about it until we were on the tour, said that we could do this show in here and Elektra will pay for your boarder fee, so go ahead and do it. And normally we didn't play shows set up by Elektra. We have our booking agent. But, you know, it could have been a fun night, if we would have played first. The fact that we were on last…
JM: Merge is obviously doing something right. What are they doing right that other labels weren't doing?
BD: Well, for one thing, I think there's just more of an awareness of the band now. People have sort of slowly slowly figured out that Series of Sneaks is a good record. So I think we have a lot more going for us no matter what label we would have put it out on. But that said, I think Merge are just good, honest people. We hired a good publicity team. We've never had an independent publicist before, and we have one this time. And I've noticed way more press for this album than any other one we've put out.
JM: I just want to go back a little bit. You formed the band in 1993, with Jim. How did you guys meet? Was it at school, or something like that?
BD: We were in a band before Spoon, called The Alien Beats. And I played bass in that band, and he played drums. And it was sort of like a rockabilly band. So I thought this guy Jim is pretty cool, he can play rockabilly but I don't know if he can play rock.
JM: So you just met him through other connections in that band?
BD: How did I originally meet him before that band? Yeah, somebody else in The Alien Beats brought him in to a recording one time when we needed a drummer and he ended up being the full on drummer.
JM: He's obviously the most steady member of the band. Are there plans to bring in a permanent bassist again? Or a keyboard player?
BD: Well, sure. I mean, if these guys want to keep playing with us, they're welcome to. It's hard because, and we still get along great with the last bassist we had, he just played some shows with us in Texas, and actually, I just talked to him on the phone today, so it wasn't a matter of not getting along with him, it was a matter of it's hard to do this band, especially when there's very little reward for this bass player, he didn't write the songs, and there's no money. He just told us there's no way he's going to be able to tour.
JM: Too expensive. Speaking of that, do any or all of you have day jobs?
BD: Yeah, we all do.
JM: And no plans to give those up for a while, I guess.
JM: What do you do, can I ask?
BD: Right now, what I do is I do contract work with this dot com in Austin. It's a job I can do at home.
JM: I heard Jim does that too.
BD: He designs chips, computer chips. He's an electrical engineer. He's way more skilled than me.
JM: You've toured a couple of times with Guided By Voices. How did that come about, and what's it like, considering their reputation as a party band.
BD: Oh, it's always fun. It's always a total party when we play with them, backstage. Nothing can compare to the amount of rock and roll partying that goes on. It's pretty cool. And most importantly, they're just an amazing band, so it's fun to be able to watch them every night.
JM: Did you get to know them when they were on Matador?
BD: Yeah, we did two tours with them in 1996 and that's when we got to know Bob, and we've played a lot of one off shows with them over the years, so we know all their lineup, all the guys in the lineup. They might come by here tonight.
JM: Do you consider yourselves a good live band? Do you consider yourself better live or on record?
BD: Oh, it's more important to be good on record. And I think we're better on record. And I never really thought we were much of a live band until this year. Last night's show excepting, we've done some really good shows. I think we've really gotten a lot better.
JM: Is it the new material, too?
BD: I think it's for one thing, it's being able to go out and really really digging every single song that we're playing. When we went out on Series of Sneaks, we were playing a lot of Telephono stuff that I wasn't really wild about anymore, and even some of the stuff on Series of Sneaks, I wasn't into playing. And playing with a keyboard player just makes it so much better. It's just a matter of we believe in ourselves a lot more now. I feel like we have the songs and we have the right people to play with, whereas before those two things were lacking a little bit. And so when you feel that way, when you feel that confidence, it's easier to do a better show.
JM: I've got a question about one of your songs, Fitted Shirt, it refers to your father. I'm not sure how personal the song is, but I read an interview somewhere where you said that he objected to some of the swearing on Telephono, and that you never sent him anymore of your music.
BD: That's true. He didn't even get this new one.
JM: So he hasn't heard the song?
BD: He's heard it now. I know he's heard it, because my little brother has a copy of it. And I think at one point, I did give him the rough mixes but that was because he was really bugging me about it.
JM: Your dad?
BD: Yeah, he really wanted to hear it. He's always been supportive, but yeah, when Telephono came out, he flipped out, said that I was an embarrassment to the family because there was the F word on it. This is a guy who has no problem going to see an R rated movie or whatever, but when his son is singing songs…
JM: I want to talk about the songwriting process. How easy or difficult is it for you? Do you write on the road? Do you have to be at home? Has it changed over the years, the way you write songs?
BD: I can't write on the road in this band, because it's nonstop, we never really have any time to rest. I'm friends with these guys in Fastball, and I went on tour with them, I wasn't playing I was just hanging out with them for a few days, and I wrote tons of songs. Because they had so much down time, they were being carted around, they don't ever touch their equipment except when they're on stage. So, I think if we were in that kind of situation, I could write on the road, but I don't expect to be in that kind of situation.
JM: I read another interview that came about around the time that you were recording Series of Sneaks, and you listed a bunch of tracks that you'd recorded. And I'm not sure if these are just joke titles or if these were actually songs that didn't make it. Can I just ask you about them?
JM: "Dude Be Cool"
BD: Yeah, that wasn't a song.
JM: "My Urban Counterpart"
BD: That was maybe going to be a song title, but I think we ended up just calling it "Reservations."
JM: "We Must Eat Some Things" (laughs)
BD: That was never a song.
JM: So, these are… Were these just things…
BD: I think I was just joking around.
JM: "Vegetable Staticks"
BD: That was maybe going to be an album title, but Jim didn't like that at all.
JM: "Card Serology"
BD: That's…uh (laughs), what do you call it when you take all the letters from one word and make another word?
JM: So that's something else. Uh, I'm not going to try to figure it out now. So is there a lot of unreleased stuff out there that you have?
BD: There's not a lot. I have a lot of songs that are in halfway done mode.
JM: You'd rather not put them out until they're done?
BD: There's no point in recording them until they're…
JM: Have you got a backlog, do you have plans to record this year?
BD: I want to record this year. I have to write a bunch of songs.
JM: So there's nothing that you're sitting on right now?
BD: Well, there's a couple things. There's some things that are sort of in progress. Maybe just one tune that we could play tonight, if we wanted.
JM: Do you do that, usually?
BD: No, I haven't taught it to these guys, but I think they could learn it real fast. It's very simple.
JM: A lot has been written about Austin, the Austin music scene. There's a lot of great bands in Austin. Do you feel that's helped your career a little bit, or hurt it? Do you feel like there's a certain Austin influence or sound?
BD: We definitely don't have any kind of Austin sound. I think it's been good, if anything, to have been in Austin just because there are so many places to play, so many great people to play with. I think it's as good a place as any to start a band. It's one of the best.
JM: I was at the SXSW Interactive part this year, but not the music part. I realize you guys play that every year. Do you do it more for fun, or do you consider it a good showcase, or has it got too big for that?
BD: We're definitely not too big for it. It's a fun thing, we just do it because we're there and it's easy to do. It's not like CMJ where you have to save up money and buy airplane tickets. There's no point in not doing it. I think it's probably a ripoff for a lot of the bands that do spend a lot money to come down and play.
JM: Critics have always really loved your stuff. I haven't ever read a bad review, actually. Maybe there are some, but I haven't ever read one. Why do you think that hasn't, to this point anyway, translated into commercial success? Do you think it's been a lot of the label changes, or do you think there's something else?
BD: I don't know. I don't know how, you know, it's just a matter of some things capture the public's imagination and some things don't. And some things would if they were force fed upon people, and some things do because they're force fed upon people. We've never been force fed upon people.
JM: On the other hand, I think your music is very, I don't want to say commercial in a bad sense, but I think it's very accessible.
BD: Yeah, I think so, too.
JM: This album, especially. Have you been getting any kind of radio support, or anything like that?
BD: Well, college radio. We did well on the U.S. college radio charts.
JM: Just for this album, or for everything?
BD: Just for this album. We did Top Ten for Series of Sneaks, but that was pretty much bought by Elektra. But this one, we got to number 4, which was "Wow." That's one of the things that's most disgusting about music in America, and about radio in America. It's that a lot of things that would appeal to people, that would appeal to a mass level of people, will never get that shot, because the people who control, that are in positions of power to do something about it are so scared of doing anything that's…they think that if it doesn't sound like this that people are going to run away from it. But I really don't think that's true. I think with a band like us or a band like Guided By Voices…
JM: I think a lot of it might be just having that "Indie" label hung on you. It ghettoizes you a little bit.
BD: But those people are fucking morons. And unfortunately, they'r running the music industry.
JM: This brings us to the whole Napster issue. I don't know if you have an opinion on that. Do you think that, for instance, a band like yourselves, has it helped you, has it hurt you?
BD: I think if anything it's helped us. I've met a lot of people who've said we found out about you on Napster. When our record came out, it was featured on Napster.
JM: So it helped you?
BD: Yeah, yeah. We're all for it.
JM: I know that because this album was recorded, most of it was recorded a year ago, that it was out there. People had CD-R's or something, and most of the people that I know of who know about the band were just eager to hear it, and as soon as the thing came out, they wanted to buy it. They weren't trying to rip you off. It was just sort of getting it out there. Do you think that for bands that don't get as much press or radio play, that it's actually a good thing?
BD: I think it's a great thing for bands like that. I don't think it's really a bad thing for anybody unless…I mean, there's gonna be exceptions, but I think for the most part, it's a promotional tool.
JM: You've recorded a lot of your own material. I read that you financed a lot of your recording. Has that been out of your own choice, or out of necessity?
BD: Well, it's been out of necessity.
JM: Have you got any dreams of working with a certain producer or engineer, like a Steve Albini, or someone like that, who you've always wanted to work with?
BD: Yeah. I mean, if Brian Eno wants to work with us, he should…
JM: (laughs) I heard an interviewer ask if he was related to Jim.
BD: Yeah, he gets that a lot. Yeah, I mean there's not a lot of them. I think that we do a pretty good job on our own. Especially this last one, I like the way that it turned out a lot.
JM: But if you had a choice?
BD: In my wildest dreams? If there were certain people that we could work with, yeah, I would work with Brian Eno, or I'd work with Daniel Lanois. I'm sure there are a lot great producers that I'm forgetting, but I'm cool with how we do it right now.
JM: What are you listening to right now, in your van, what kind of music are you into?
BD: Somebody downloaded the new Radiohead, so we're listening to that. A lot of Kinks, a lot of Motown, Beatles, the new Guided By Voices is really good. What else did I bring? Rediscovering Julian Cope.
JM: This is all stuff that you listened to when you were younger. Not that that's bad…
BD: Yeah (laughs). I'm trying to think, I know that there are some new things.
JM: Do you still do covers? Are you doing any Wire or Kinks or BeeGees covers tonight?
BD: The only cover we know right now is Lowdown by Wire, but that's just because this band is fairly new, the bass player and the keyboard player. We did learn a couple of Guided By Voices songs today, just in case, if Bob comes down. I think Jim wanted to ask him if he wanted to sing with us, if he came down.
JM: I found online that you were part of a BeeGees tribute gig. What did you sing?
BD: I did "How Can You Mend a Broken Heart?" and, maybe "Holiday." I'm not really sure. I learned "Holiday." I learned three.
JM: So they were a big influence on you?
BD: Well, they were one of the first, when I was eight years old, they were huge to me. And I still think that they've got a lot of great songs.
JM: Finally, what would you be doing if you weren't making music?
BD: Trying to make money.
JM: So you're not doing the music for money, I guess?
BD: I'd be trying to do something to make my lifestyle easier.
Setlist from Toronto show, 1998 (Horseshoe Tavern)
Setlist from Toronto show, April 2001 (The Opera House, w/GBV)
Setlist from Toronto show, April 2001 (Horseshoe Tavern)
Setlist from Toronto show, November 2001 (Massey Hall, w/Cake)
Setlist from Toronto show, September 2002 (Horseshoe Tavern)
Setlist from Toronto show, June 2005 (The Opera House)
Setlist from Toronto show, November 2005 (Phoenix Concert Theatre)
Official Spoon site
Ed Marzbani's Spoon site
Thadd Day's Photo Archive