The Way They Get By

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Spoon Does the Math and Bangs Out a Minimalist Masterpiece...

Let’s get this straight from the beginning: I am mad about this band—have been ever since someone (can’t remember who but thanks a bunch) loaned me a copy of then-new Kill the Moonlight in 2002. It was love at first listen. I respond to understatement, real singing and songs that cleverly get to the hook, but the hook itself is essential. Spoon has all that, plus zero extraneous stuff—everything this band puts into a track is there for a reason. The band has taken what I love about music, from The Beatles to Marvin Gaye, and boiled it down to its essence.

On “My Mathematical Mind,” perhaps the most mind-blowing of its generally irresistible songs on the new Gimme Fiction, Spoon creates an anthem out of seemingly spare parts—a pounding piano riff, a crashing cymbal, electric guitar scribbles, a hyper-rhythmic vocal and Spoon’s secret weapon: a righteously old-school shaker. For this unconventional band, the traditional hand-percussion tools—shaker, tambourine and handclaps—are more than an afterthought. “When I handed in Kill the Moonlight,” says singer/guitarist Britt Daniel with a soft laugh, “I told our label guy in Europe that the record was all about lead tambourine—that it was a complex tambourine record.” And now there are two.

In 1998, four years after Temple, Texas, native Daniel formed the band in Austin with drummer Jim Eno (they’ve gone through several bass players), Elektra unceremoniously dropped them shortly after the release of A Series of Sneaks, inadvertently authoring the same storyline that later made Wilco’s former company Reprise the poster boys for major-label boneheaded-ness; Sneaks was apparently not the sort of one-listen alt-radio fodder A&R exec Ron Lafitte had envisioned when he signed the band. But unlike Wilco, who parlayed its rejection into media acclaim and eventual dramatically increased sales, Spoon sank back into indie obscurity following its brief flirtation with major labeldom.

Daniel might have felt burned by the Elektra experience, but he managed to outfox the major in one crucial regard—getting back the master. In fact, the band owns all its masters as well as its publishing, allowing them to make good money on every CD sold—that doesn’t happen in major-label deals. “Every band that works with Merge [makes money], depending on how many records they sell,” Daniel confirms. Moonlight has sold nearly 80,000 copies thus far.

Rather than giving in to bitterness, Daniel and Eno counterpunched fate with their creative breakthrough, 2001’s Girls Can Tell, the band’s first album for Merge Records under their mutually beneficial deal. The opening track, “Everything Hits at Once,” set the template for the mature Spoon sound: spare, propulsive, brainy and thoroughly infectious. Two years later, with Kill the Moonlight, the band perfected this sound; Gimme Fiction reveals additional facets, from the Prince-like refracted soul of “I Turn My Camera On” to the intimated grandeur of “My Mathematical Mind.”

How did Spoon reinvent itself so far into its existence? “I guess the only epiphany I ever had was between Series of Sneaks and Girls Can Tell, Daniel says of the critical juncture. “I realized there were no rules that I should play by. I felt like we no longer had to limit ourselves to being a guitar, bass and drums kind of band. After that, I started thinking to myself, ‘Do my favorite records play by those rules? Does What’s Going On play by those rules?’ There are all these great styles of music that I appreciate, and I don’t feel like I’m really taking advantage of everything I could—every instrument or arrangement idea—by sticking to just guitar/bass/drums rock songs. … Before that I thought it wasn’t cool to feature a piano, and I realized that was ridiculous.”

A driving force in Spoon’s sound, the piano simultaneously spikes the melody and propels the rhythm. The band has toured with a keyboard player since 1999, but the piano’s role was expanded on Kill the Moonlight; indeed, the record is unimaginable without it. So the addition of pianist Eggo Johanson for the recording sessions was a crucial move—even more so when you consider that he also supplied the tambourine parts. But who is Johanson, and does he play on the new record, too? “Eggo Johanson was made up,” Daniel says. “There, I shattered the wall of illusion. I didn’t have anybody to list in the credits, so I made one up. I just didn’t want it to be all about me, and I thought it would be funny.”

Like its two predecessors, Gimme Fiction was recorded primarily at Eno’s backyard Austin studio, Public Hi-Fi, which he’s outfitted with a Studer 24-track recorder and a vintage Neve board. Working once again with Nashville-based co-producer Mike McCarthy, Eno and Daniel have come up with another sonic tour de force, as the tracks practically explode from the speakers, especially “My Mathematical Mind”; “The Delicate Place,” with its stripped-down, amped-up Beatle-isms; and the post-power-pop of “Sister Jack,” with a veritable feast of hand percussion underlying its ringing guitars.

The tightest, most massive snare hits I’ve encountered since Led Zep’s heyday power Eno’s assaultive drumming. Daniel credits McCarthy for getting the jaw-dropping sounds, which were laid down—like everything else—in the only available space. “The fact that we can get such great sounds out of this one room is really a testament to Mike’s ability—he’s just a great engineer. When I say one room, I mean literally one room, the same room where the control room is.”

And the drums are a big deal indeed, because along with Daniel’s imaginative songs and deadpan vocals, a key element of Spoon’s sound is the grooves. Eno is a classic in-the-pocket drummer—he’s got Charlie Watts’ time—and he gets simpatico support from Britt/Eggo’s piano, bass, acoustic rhythm guitar, tambourine, shakers and handclaps, making for a rhythmically intoxicating totality. Spoon’s grooves are unusual because they seem at-once organically human yet so utterly precise that they must be machine-made. Assuming the latter, reviewers frequently refer to the deftly programmed drums on Spoon albums. But according to Daniel, “It’s all really playing,” he says. “It’s not reprocessed or quantized. Sometimes Jim will play to a click but not always.”

That makes Eno an equal partner in authoring the Spoon sound. “He comes up with a huge amount of those ideas,” Daniel acknowledges. “Usually I’m just writing the song, and then we kind of negotiate how it’s going to be played. The great thing about playing with Jim is that so often he will bring something to it that I hadn’t been thinking of, and that’s really what being in a band is about. … With ‘My Mathematical Mind,’ which to me is one of the standout songs on the record, originally I didn’t think it was going to be a band song. I’d written it just on piano, with that same riff. I told Josh [Zarbo, Spoon’s bass player] and Jim that I didn’t think it would work as a band thing, but … right away they came up with that beat. You know when something is working, and that was one of those great times. It was like, ‘Wow—that is good.’”

No band has employed the tambourine so effectively since The Beatles and Rolling Stones (and that was a long time ago). “Part of it has to do with the mix—we put it way up there a lot of the time,” Daniel points out, “That’s the difference maybe in terms of us versus other modern record makers. I always love how in Beatles records they were way up front. You really feel those things—they may not add to the song, but they’re adding to the recording, and that’s what making records is all about—just to be as effective as possible.” Or did he say “affective”? With Spoon, it’s both.

Daniel’s lyrics on Gimme Fiction are strikingly cerebral, full of non-sequiturs and deadpan humor. “To me, it feels like a more colorful record, lyrically. Instead of trying to be earnest—although that can happen as a sideline—I was just trying to amuse myself. I think you have to do that if you’re going to continue to be creative for a long period of time.”

When it comes to song structure, Daniel is far from a conventional writer. In “The Delicate Place,” for example, he uses a chorus-free structure employed so brilliantly by The Beatles, wherein the tag in each verse is the refrain. You don’t hear that much these days, any more than you hear foreground tambourines in modern recording. “People feel like they’ve got to have the verse set up the chorus and then have this big swooping hook. Sometimes that can work, but if you try to write a song that way every single time, it gets so formulaic, you know? Just go with what the song makes you do.”

The lack of predictable chorus hooks has made it difficult for Merge to pick a radio track, but Daniel feels there’s an obvious one. “‘I Turn My Camera On’ is the single. If you want to appeal to people who haven’t heard Spoon before, I think that’s the song. People really fall for a falsetto. It’s kind of the ‘Emotional Rescue’ of the record.”

There may not be a radio hit on Gimme Fiction—or anywhere in Spoon’s future, for that matter—but the 33-year-old working musician will happily continue at the level he’s already reached: “The fact that I can do what I really want to do and make a living at it is one of the greatest things I think you could ever hope for,” he says. “This is pretty much my ideal job. I’m not living in luxury, but I don’t have to worry about paying the rent at this point. … But the best part of being in a band is putting something on tape that we think is really, really good. That’s the ultimate, and if I don’t feel that about pretty much every song on the record, then I couldn’t release it.”

For Britt Daniel, doing good work is its own reward. Now that’s a concept we can all live with.