If the world’s leading scientists conducted a study where they attempted to break down Spoon’s sound into its most essential elements, what would be left in the centrifuge?
My personal hypothesis consists of two things: The eternally cool songwriting style of frontman Britt Daniel, and the drum sound of Jim Eno, Spoon’s secret weapon.
Science talk aside, rhythm is such a key element of what makes Spoon songs tick, and Eno has always been the benevolent king of that particular court.
Benevolent, because he’s not firing off solos, needlessly changing the tempo or doing anything to make it about him—while Eno has a booming presence, his parts are always precision-tuned to helping the rest of the band groove, rip, or veer in the unexpected directions that Spoon songs sometimes take.
But when Eno does step into the spotlight, when you notice him for the first time, you realize that it’s hard to imagine what Spoon would sound like without him behind the kit. The cracking thunder in the back half of “The Way We Get By,” that teeth-rattling intro to “Rent I Pay,” that immortal beat in “I Turn My Camera On”—all prime examples of that special sauce Eno adds to the Spoon formula.
When I spoke to Eno, he was a week out from flying to Mexico for Spoon’s co-headlining performance at Wilco’s Sky Blue Sky. With the band’s 10th album, Lucifer on the Sofa, then only a month away from release, I asked him to reflect a bit on the band’s incredible journey thus far.
“It’s hard to put it all in words. I mean, I definitely didn’t think we would put 10 records out and be together for this long,” he said. “The idea that I’m able to do music for a living is always insanely rewarding and humbling.”
If you aren’t familiar with the way Spoon almost instantly failed, then came back from the brink to build one of the most celebrated discographies in indie rock, allow me to offer the CliffsNotes version of their near-30-year career.
Phase 1 started around 1994, when Daniel and Eno formed Spoon in Austin after the previous band the two were in, The Alien Beats, split. Initially, their future seemed bright—after releasing their first album on Matador, they signed a major label deal with Elektra and released their second album, A Series of Sneaks, in 1998.
Things quickly soured. Sneaks didn’t sell well, and just a few short months after it was released, Spoon were abandoned by their A&R rep and dropped from Elektra within the same week. They nearly called it quits.
Despite that rough start, Spoon reemerged in 2001 with Girls Can Tell on Merge Records, which essentially rebooted their career and ushered in an incredibly lucrative and creative Phase 2. Over the rest of that decade, Spoon released five great albums and watched as their fanbase and stature in indie gradually grew, eventually performing on SNL, and cracking the top 10 of the Billboard 200 in 2007 with Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga and in 2010 with Transference.
Currently, Spoon are in the middle of Phase 3, which began when the band returned from a hiatus in 2014 with the confident and dazzling They Want My Soul, and continues with the imminent Lucifer on the Sofa.
Having laid out this segmented history for Eno, I asked him what he feels has defined this current phase of the band so far.
“I feel like one of the main driving forces behind, say, Phase 3, is the realization around the Transference time that we were not having fun anymore. That’s why we needed to take a break. We had to regroup, and try different things,” he said.
Transference, the band’s seventh album, while championed by hardcore fans, received a mixed critical reception upon its release—its moody sound and raw recordings contrasted sharply with the gleaming hooks and hip-swinging momentum of 2007’s Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, the band’s breakthrough.
“I think we all realized it should be fun. We should have fun when we’re recording, we should enjoy touring, so we need to do everything possible for that to happen.”
One recent development that’s helped rekindle that sense of rewarding collaboration was Daniel’s move back to Austin, which Eno said brought back a sense of spontaneity that the band hasn’t had since the early years. In those days, Daniel would drive over to Eno’s to work on classic songs like “The Fitted Shirt” in a studio space the drummer built in his garage.
Over time, Eno collected more and more gear to convert that garage space into a fully functioning studio that the band could record in to save money.
Around the time of 2005’s Gimme Fiction, Eno tore down the garage space to make way for Public Hi-Fi, the two-story Austin studio he owns (and operates, when not touring the world with Spoon).
Over the years, Public Hi-Fi has recorded sessions with clientele ranging from Arcade Fire and The Shins to Lady Gaga and Justin Timberlake.
With a state-of-the-art studio open and their primary songwriter back in town, Spoon settled into Public Hi-Fi a few years ago with the intent of recording an album that harnessed the power of their live shows.
“Something we learned in recording Hot Thoughts and then the subsequent tours was, when you play a song live a lot, the songs tend to take on a new sound. You can take it somewhere you hadn’t thought about in the studio,” said Eno. “We found that a lot of times, our versions live were getting better than the recorded versions.”
In that spirit, Spoon played the material on Lucifer on the Sofa over and over and over to give the songs the chance to morph and evolve into the massive final forms fans would hear both onstage and in the studio.
“The familiarity of the track as you play it more helps you become more out of your head-so you can try things in the moment,” explained Eno.
It’s not hard to hear. From the drop-D metal band riff of “The Hardest Cut,” to the full-blown anthem of “Wild,” to the way “Feels Alright” immediately snaps into a strut thanks to Eno’s sick beat, Lucifer sounds like Spoon harnessing a synergy they’ve honed through decades on the road.
While thrilling, this straightforward approach may disappoint some fans who look to Spoon for the left-turn moments on their albums—those “Ghost of You Lingers,” “Paper Tiger” and “Us” displays of studio experimentation.
While Eno said the more grounded approach was intentional to keep the songs playable on tour, he noted that there was still some sonic trickery the band and main producer Mark Rankin packed in for close listeners.
“We try to create a really fun and exciting collaborative environment, because that’s how good ideas happen and great recordings are made. Everyone has to feel comfortable and excited about what they’re doing,” he said.
For example, the album opens with a cover of Smog’s “Held,” transforming Bill Callahan’s meditative original into a guitar-revving monster.
To maximize the band’s turned-up version, Eno suggested smashing together two takes of the band playing the cover, one in the left channel and one in the right channel, with the bass track right in middle.
The result is a beast that rivals other Spoon guitar epics like “Don’t Make Me a Target” and “My Mathematical Mind.”
For other songs, like “Wild,” no studio manipulation was needed. “I love that track. It’s one of my favorites on the whole record,” said Eno. “I don’t know, it’d be hard to fuck that one up, I guess.”
While Spoon’s focus on rehearsing closely together until the songs were ready yielded great results, that process came to a screeching halt in March 2020.
“I never would have thought that there would be something that would just destroy the music business instantly,” said Eno. “We’re in a 20-by-20 room with one air conditioner and it’s an airborne illness, we can’t all get together.”
While the band waited on an all-clear to return to the studio, Daniel kept writing. “When we picked back up, we had all this new material to work on and we just went right back in. I feel like the record is probably better for it,” said Eno.
Beyond this new material, Eno said he was just happy that he could reunite with his bandmates. “It was like high school summer camp. I love hanging out with those guys.”
As Lucifer’s Feb. 11 release date quickly approaches and Spoon prep for an East Coast tour of the U.S. in the spring, Eno said the band’s commitment to fun has held, and he’s excited for whatever future phases may hold.
“Right now, I don’t feel like I did in Phase 2, and I feel pretty excited,” said Eno. “Y’know, I’m really psyched about going out on the road and playing these songs. And for this record to come out. So … continue Phase III.”
Lucifer on the Sofa
is out this Friday, Feb. 11, on Matador Records.
Reed Strength is a writer based in Birmingham, Alabama, and is one third of the Proof of Sound podcast. He once successfully got Jim Eno to point his sticks at him after screaming his name incessantly while he tried to soundcheck at Shaky Knees. Sorry, Jim! If you still want to, you can follow him on Twitter @ReedStrength.
Listen to Spoon’s 2008 Daytrotter session below.