Interview: Spoon (actually just Britt Daniel)

A friend of mine once summed up Spoon's appeal by saying "I feel like they're on my side." That's as good a summation as any for Britt Daniel's songwriting, which takes some pretty perplexing interpersonal stuff and turns it into simple, yet sophisticated music with a wide appeal that never detracts from its intimacy. Daniel's been writing pop songs about love and other love-like emotions for over a decade now, but he's yet to write anything condescending, caddish, or cheesy; especially considering the output of his peers, his consistency in this regard is like Cal Ripken or something. 2007 finally gave Spoon the widespread commercial acclaim they've deserved for so long: Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga hit Billboard's top 10, and the band played "Saturday Night Live". I caught a few minutes of Daniel's time a month ago, as Spoon was preparing to play a set at South by Southwest, and we chatted about a Spoon-related internet rumor, "Arrested Development", Har Mar Superstar vs. the White Stripes, Feist's "My Moon My Man", and why Merge's Mac McCaughan should run for office.

Pitchfork: I guess I can start off by clearing up any confusion. This is not the Eric Harvey who plays keyboards in your band.

Britt Daniel: Oh, man. [laughs] That's too bad. I thought I was gonna have an easy one.

Pitchfork: You're playing one set at South by Southwest this year, right?

BD: Mmm hmm. On Thursday, yeah.

Pitchfork: Will you be sharing the stage with Del and Grupo Fantasma at any point?

BD: Almost. The Fantasma horns are gonna play with us. We played with them before, shows in Houston and Dallas. They're great. They played with Prince!

Pitchfork: You guys obviously have some experience with South by Southwest. Do you have an all-time favorite set?

BD: Let's see. Last year, I saw Public Enemy, and it was one of the best rock shows I've ever seen. I guess because we knew somebody that knew the stage manager, we actually got to be onstage, kind of behind them, at the back of the stage. It was insane; I never thought I'd get to see a Public Enemy show at all, much less one that know...they were at the peak of their game. It was just unbelievable how good it was.

Pitchfork: You've had as good a vantage point as there is to see how South By Southwest has exponentially expanded over the last decade or so.

BD: Well, it certainly has grown, you know? I remember it used to be that they were very protective, you could only play one set, and the conference didn't want you playing a party or any other kind of, anything. That mentality is definitely gone now, because it's expected that most bands that have a show on the actual conference will be playing two or three parties, or daytime things, or whatever. The daytime things have, um, gotten so big that you don't really need to have a wristband anymore to, you know, be satiated with music the whole week. And probably like 2000, 2001, there weren't that many daytime things; it's just gotten bigger and bigger. It''s just huge.

Pitchfork: I know you're always writing songs in your spare time...

BD: Well, I don't know about that. I try to be, but it's hard to get into the flow. I ought to be, maybe I should say that.

Pitchfork: On the tours that led up to Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, you guys played "Don't Make Me a Target" and "Rhthm & Soul" quite a bit. I know you're getting ready to go out on a quick April tour; are you going to try and test out any new stuff?

BD: We might have some. If it happens, it's gonna happen in the next two weeks, because we don't have any new stuff ready to go yet. I'd like to; I sent them (the band) a demo of one tune, and we tried it in Australia. It didn't happen.

Pitchfork: You tried it out live, and it didn't take?

BD: Yeah. I think that was my fault. It wasn't really working. It's hard being the guy that brings in a song, because you're very, you know, it can be something that you get too sensitive about.

Pitchfork: Sure. Do you always want to test out new material live before going into the studio?

BD: Yeah, that's always the ideal. But I recognize that there are some great things about not playing a song live, and just kind of piecing it together as you go. They both work, but you definitely get more of a band feel to a song if you've been playing a song live a bunch. You know what I mean by that?

Pitchfork: Yeah, I can imagine. How much did you notice "Rhthm" and "Target" coming together live?

BD: Yeah, they changed a little bit. More than anything with those, it becomes a thing where, when the whole band can play it as a band, you sound a whole lot more like, say Led Zeppelin when you go into the studio than like, uh...

Pitchfork: Steely Dan?

BD: Yeah, more Zeppelin than Steely Dan. It's a band unit.

Pitchfork: You mentioned in one interview last year that you hoped Rob [Pope] and Eric [Harvey] would stick around with the band for a while.

BD: Yeah, I sure hope so. I've pretty much felt that way about everybody we've played with, but there were times when being in this band was not something you could do for a living, and so we often parted ways with people because they couldn't keep going on tour because they were gonna go have a kid, or they had to go do their job. That being said, I think those are two special guys, and I-- shit, I hope so! I want to keep playing with them. I want us all to be the band, you know?

Pitchfork: Along that line, can you foresee maybe incorporating the two of them more into the songwriting process?

BD: Well, it's always been the sort of thing that either I'll do, or we...I'll either write the song alone and then bring it in and we'll work on how we're gonna present it as a band. It's always been like that. Occasionally, there'll be a thing where we'll actually come up with something as a jam.

Pitchfork: Like "The Fitted Shirt".

BD: Yeah, exactly. You did your homework! [laughs] That was something that just happened in a practice, and this riff came out and Jim started playing this backwards beat on it. It sat there for probably a year, year and a half with me thinking, "I know this can be a song, but I gotta find some way to sing on top of it." Which was kind of hard to do.

Pitchfork: Speaking of the band as a "full-time job," last year was your biggest yet; you hit the Billboard top 10! What was that like for you guys?

BD: It feels great. You know, I sometimes feel like I need to pinch myself. I feel extremely fortunate.

Pitchfork: When you saw the Billboard chart, was there any sort of celebration? Did you smoke a cigar? Buy a keg or something?

BD: [laughs] No, I don't think there was anything specific. I'm trying to think of where we were when we found out, and I can't remember. It was something that I never would have guessed...we would have debuted that high. It was certainly not why we do the music or anything, but it was a shock, yeah.

Pitchfork: The last couple of albums have included a few political-ish songs. Some people read politics into "My Mathematical Mind", for instance, but I think "Target" was a lot more explicit. Do you see yourself continuing down this songwriting path once the current guy leaves office, and might you consider lending a song to and/or writing one for a candidate for office?

BD: Sure...I'm trying to think of a candidate that I'd really like to see run. I don't know if we're gonna keep...I don't know what the lyrics are gonna be for the next record, but certainly when this guy is gone...he does provide me with a lot of emotion and consideration. A lot of thought. Hmm...I think Mac McCaughan would be a good president. I'd certainly lend him a song.

Pitchfork: Has he ever hinted at any political aspirations?

BD: I think it's gotta be in the back of his mind.

Pitchfork: How was "Saturday Night Live"?

BD: Yeah, I was gonna say earlier that, like the top 10, that was something I would have never guessed that we or I would have ever gotten to do. It was a blast-- instead of it being a thing where you're so nervous that you don't know what to think, they make you do this dress rehearsal, and you've gone in there a couple different days, by the time it was actually being filmed, it was like "okay, we're going back up on stage again, and I know what's happening first, and next." I actually did get to think to myself, "wow, this is going out across the country." And really just think, "wow. This is far out," and just kind of enjoy it.

Pitchfork: Did you get to take in any of the rehearsals or skits or anything?

BD: Yeah. We got to be there for all that. They do a rundown where they do the entire show exactly as it's gonna be on TV, starting at like 6 p.m. or something, and then they pull out some things and change some things. But basically, you've already done the whole show by the time it airs. You just do it again.

Pitchfork: Did you get to meet or hang with any cast members?

BD: Well, I got to meet Will Arnett after the show; I think he's married to Amy Poehler.

Pitchfork: Oh yeah, from "Arrested Development".

BD: Yeah. People on "Arrested Development" are the highest order of celebrity to me.

Pitchfork: Have you ever run across any other cast members? Jason Bateman? Michael Cera?

BD: He emailed me once.

Pitchfork: Michael Cera?

BD: Yeah!

Pitchfork: That's sweet. What'd he have to say?

BD: He emailed me at my gmail address and said something like "I think you're one of the coolest cats on gmail." Something like that.

Pitchfork: I guess he had something of a non-starting musical career, right? The YouTube series?

BD: I'm familiar, not with anything musical he's done, but I do remember he had an online show, like a series.

Pitchfork: Yeah, for some reason I only remember some musical or performance bits.

BD: Ah, maybe I missed those.

Pitchfork: How do you choose to pick what songs to play during your television appearances? You played the album-cut "Black Like Me" on the very high-profile Leno, for instance.

BD: I don't wanna keep playing the same song over and over again. It's just thinking about "what's going to be the coolest thing to play on this particular show?" The easiest thing to do is to play the single over and over again. We did that once with "The Way We Get By", we played that on all the TV shows for that record, and, well, we learned better.

Pitchfork: Did you get sick of it?

BD: It's not that I got sick of it, it's just that that song becomes a calling card, you know? I just think there's a lot more to this band than that one song. Just like, there's a lot more to our last record than "The Underdog".

Pitchfork: Sure.

BD: "The Underdog" almost didn't make it on to the record. When the radio people started telling me that was going to be the single, I kinda fought against it.

Pitchfork: How so?

BD: Well, I just said "you gotta be crazy!" [laughs]

Pitchfork: Well, it did seem a bit less like what we've come to expect from you guys.

BD: Yeah. It almost got left off the record. Not that I didn't like it, I just felt like it kind of didn't fit in, or something. In the end, I like the way that it kind of provides some diversity to the album. But yeah, I guess those radio people know what they're doing. If we would have wanted to make a stink about it, and really hold out, we probably could have, because that's the kind of label that Merge is. But they made some compelling arguments.

Pitchfork: And to a degree, can you see "Underdog" as maybe leading to some of Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga's popular success?

BD: Maybe. But, you know, any song could have done it, probably. People who bought the album that first week weren't buying it because of "The Underdog". They're buying it because they're fans of our previous albums. And, that was a lot of people. If you look at all the records we've sold to date, that first week was a big chunk of them.

Pitchfork: Yeah, you've developed a rather fervent fanbase, definitely. I don't know if you ever heard of this, but when Gimme Fiction came out, a really brief Internet rumor surfaced that said something like the album was meant to be played in reverse track order.

BD: Yeah, I heard about that.

Pitchfork: Oh yeah? What do you think when you hear something like that?

BD: I think that's wild! I'm kind of honored, to be honest. I mean, that was definitely not the case, but you know, that just reminds me of the kind of involvement I had with certain albums that were really dear to me. Or when somebody tries to match up Dark Side of the Moon with The Wizard of Oz or whatever. It's part of the lore of record-making. I don't know, I just think it's kind of special.

Pitchfork: How important is sequencing on your records? Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga ending with "Black Like Me" cutting off abruptly felt like a really appropriate way to end the record. How does your thought process work with sequencing? When you're recording or writing, do you ever think, "this is an album-opening song"?

BD: Yeah, I thought that about "Beast and Dragon" from the beginning. Then our producer said "well, no, it makes way more sense at the end." But I eventually convinced him. It doesn't happen all the time, certainly not for most of the songs. But I did feel like "Black Like Me" would be a good ender, even before we recorded it. "Vittorio E", I always thought that would be an end song.

Pitchfork: Much of the press that comes out every time Spoon releases a new record incorporates the word "consistency."

BD: Yeah, I hope that's consistency in terms of quality.

Pitchfork: Yeah, in terms of quality, but at the same time, there's a nebulous idea of a "Spoon sound."

BD: Yeah, I don't know what that is. I'm sure it probably exists, but it's hard for me to evaluate it, because I'm me. Occasionally, I'll hear a song and I'll think "that sounds kinda like something we'd do," but those are the only times I've felt that. The first time I heard "My Moon My Man", I thought, "Wow." And I love that song, and I never thought for a second that she was intentionally trying to rip us off-- she's certainly creative in her own way-- but I did hear it and think, "huh, that's kind of like, maybe we would have taken that approach."

Pitchfork: Yeah, I've talked to a few people who hold that same opinion.

BD: About that song specifically?

Pitchfork: Yeah. On the other hand, I remember a few years back a lot of critics were saying the band Robbers on High Street were kind of a "Spoon, Jr."

BD: Yeah, they're cool guys. I like them. To be honest, what I felt when I heard them after hearing that they were supposed to sound like us, I thought "really? So that's what people think we sound like?" That surprises me. But that's something that we certainly went through at the beginning, so I empathize.

Pitchfork: You guys seem to have gone through a few phases in your career, to over-generalize a bit. The first two albums were pretty explicitly rooted in a specific strain of post-punk.

BD: Yeah, I didn't think there was anything cooler than Wire and Gang of Four. That is kind of what I was shooting at for a couple of years.

Pitchfork: Then after Girls Can Tell, I feel like you've really balanced tendencies toward pop and experimentation quite well.

BD: Well, I'm never trying to be commercial or accessible, or saying "let's do this weird stuff, but at the same time we gotta do this safe stuff," you know? I never think about it that way. I'm usually way more pleased with the stuff that just kinda happens by accident and is no way a pop song. But sometimes the easiest thing for me to write is pop songs. They both come out of me.

Pitchfork: Do you have a favorite song you've written?

BD: not...for a long time, I'd say "Lines in the Suit" was my favorite song. I don't really know anymore.

Pitchfork: Oh, that was actually the first song I ever heard by you guys, from a CMJ CD sampler devoted to "up and coming Austin bands" or something. I don't know if you ever considered yourselves an "Austin band" or anything, but do you remember the point when you stopped and noticed "whoa, wait a minute, this is turning into something big"?

BD: Oh, I thought that we'd be something big when we put our first record out! [laughs] Because I'd been...I just thought...I'd been told a lot of great things about that record, but it was probably just people trying to sign us. But when did I see something based on reality, like "something is actually happening here?"

Pitchfork: Yeah.

BD: I think maybe the Christmas after Kill the Moonlight came out. I got some time off, and I was just kinda amazed that 30,000 people had bought our record. I couldn't fathom it; for so long things weren't working, and then everything was working. I just felt fortunate. Lucky.

Pitchfork: Moonlight had some great cover art, and your albums always have really suggestive, evocative imagery attached. What's the selection process like for choosing artwork for you?

BD: Well, almost always it's just been looking through photos, or art books, or images online. I always say I want a striking image. The only time we didn't do that is when we hired Sean McCabe to do the cover for Gimme Fiction. He took that photo himself, and I love that cover. I think it's probably our best cover.

Pitchfork: Yeah, talk about evocative. That shade of red in particular, I think, strikes a chord with people when they see it.

BD: Yeah, there's something about red, white and black. The Nazis and the White Stripes are on to something.

Pitchfork: Hopefully not the exact same thing!

BD: [laughs] Yeah! I assume so. But it is a powerful color combination.

Pitchfork: Speaking of them, do you still like Har Mar Superstar more? (referencing the "Small Stakes" lyric "I don't dig the Stripes/ But I go for Har Mar")

BD: You know I gotta tell you I probably don't. I really love the White Stripes. I can't remember at what point I started feeling like that. Maybe around Elephant. I do think that they're doing something special, and I'm a big fan. And I'm not afraid to admit it. I make mistakes.

Pitchfork: Okay, it's been a little bit since then, but I remember a cameo appearance you had on "Veronica Mars", back in early 2006, singing a certain Elvis Costello song appropriate in name, if not necessarily in theme, for the show. You even got in a few lines of dialogue. How did that come about, and how was the experience?

BD: I don't know how they picked me, but I was driving from Texas to Portland to move there, and one of my managers at that time called and asked "do you want to be on Veronica Mars?", and I think I said "what is Veronica Mars?" I quickly did some research. I think I felt at first that my knee-jerk reaction was to say no, but then I thought, "you know, I think this will be a hoot," you know, so I could say that I did it. It was fun! It was a new world for me, and it was a lot of fun. I didn't really understand the lines I was supposed to be speaking, but I learned something from it. I watched it, those lines I spoke, and it's painful to watch.

Pitchfork: Really?

BD: Well yeah, a little bit. I remember asking the director at the time, "who am I talking to when I say ‘what do I gotta do to get a cup of coffee around here?'" And I just didn't get it. But now, I think I know how I would have approached it. I would have gone manic or something.

Pitchfork: Maybe gone into a bit of a caffeine fit.

BD: [laughs] Yeah. That would have been better. Start banging things around.

Pitchfork: Personally, I thought you came across pretty believably.

BD: Oh, thanks.

Pitchfork: Is that anything you'd think about doing again in the future?

BD: Sure, if it seemed like a hoot.

Pitchfork: It's gotta be a hoot.

BD: Gotta be a hoot.

Pitchfork: At the risk of repeating a question you've gotten a lot over the past few years, any progress, news, or anything to say at all about the long-rumored solo album?

BD: Yeah, I'd love to do it. Just gotta come up with another half of a record or so; a record's worth of songs. It should be the easiest thing in the world to do, but sometimes it's the hardest, you know? I think it's gonna happen one of these days, and I've got a few songs set aside, but I don't know when.

Pitchfork: So, might this be the album that would finally be called Fish Fingers? (a title that Daniel's said in interviews he's wanted to name every Spoon album, but which has been vetoed by Jim Eno)

BD: Yeah, uh, I would be allowed. I'm not allowed when Jim's a part of it.

Pitchfork: Would you name it that just to spite him? Just to say, "There. Finally."

BD: [laughs] Probably not quite like that; I get asked about that a lot, actually.

Pitchfork: The title or the album?

BD: Both actually, but yeah, the title.

Pitchfork: Why the attachment to that? It makes me think of a line from "Penny Lane": "Four of fish and finger pie."

BD: [laughs] Yeah. I don't know, it just sounds weird to me. Somebody gave me a T-shirt with "fish fingers" on the back once.

Pitchfork: I'll let you get back to South by Southwest now, but quickly, anyone you're looking forward to seeing?

BD: I haven't gone through and looked at all of the shows yet, but I'm definitely going to be at the Handsome Furs show. I'm gonna see the Merge show. Maybe I'll talk to Mac about that Senate run.

Pitchfork: I think you'd make a good campaign manager, maybe.

BD: Yeah, I would! I'm pretty organized.

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