Spoon's journey from obscure indie darling to festival heavyweight probably happened overnight for everyone but Britt Daniel and drummer Jim Eno, who have both spent most of the last decade perpetually on the brink of breaking out—complete with a famously brief, dark stint on Elektra—only to have success snatched away from them time and again. Major label or not, Spoon got the last laugh by turning out some of the best albums of the decade. Now, the breakout success that always seemed just around the corner has finally caught up with the band, which has garnered a reputation as one of the most respected groups working today. The A.V. Club recently spoke with Daniel to get the backstory on Spoon's sixth and newest album, his "lonely" writing process, and why he's burned through so many bass players.
The A.V. Club: The party line on you guys is that you're frighteningly consistent, and the new Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga seems unlikely to dissuade anyone. Are you incapable of making a bad album?
Britt Daniel: Well, that's high praise. But you know, I don't really think our first record [Telephono] is exactly a work of brilliance.
AVC: The title—is it "G-A-G-A" or "Ga Ga"?
BD: [Rapidly.] Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga!
AVC: What happened to calling it Trouble Minx?
BD: Oh, you know. The whole thing about naming an album is that it's got to be something that everybody's happy with. And to be honest, I didn't really know what Trouble Minx meant after a while.
AVC: Did the idea of calling it Fish Fingers come up again?
BD: [Laughs.] I just know by now not to bring that up with Jim. He can't stand anything with the word "fish" in it. I did get "fish" in a song title on the bonus EP, though: "Tasty Fish." He can't argue with me about that. If I write the song, I get to name it.
AVC: The advance copy of Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga had to have been one of the most copyright-protected records ever. You couldn't play it on a computer, it had a skull and crossbones on it—
BD: Really? A skull and crossbones? And yet it still leaked two months ahead of the release.
AVC: So are you extra-wary of people leaking your music?
BD: I have mixed emotions about it. You know, the idea that somebody out there is that eager to hear it in advance can only be a good thing. But growing up, I always liked that system where "release day" was a big thing, and for bands I really liked, I'd know that date. It'd be on my calendar, and I'd go to the record store that day. Sitting down and listening to the record for the first time was a real event. I wish it was still that way, but that's not the way the world works any more.
AVC: How did you decide on the cover art for this one?
BD: It's a picture of Lee Bontecou in her studio in the '60s, and when I saw that image, I just thought it would make a good cover. I don't really know what those sculptures are that she's made, but they're kind of fascinating to look at and try to figure out.
AVC: Is there some parallel there to the way you write songs?
BD: Sort of. That's one way of looking at it. She's looking at her artwork and self-evaluating. Mostly, it's just a striking image, and that's what I always look for before I consider the meaning.
AVC: You have a knack for finding obscure artwork like that. Is that a hobby of yours?
BD: Yeah. Especially around record-release time.
AVC: A lot of the song titles have spelling mistakes. A nod to Prince, maybe?
BD: No, it's not a tribute to Prince. They all have different reasons for the mistakes. "Don't You Evah," that's just the way that I've always said it, and I just thought it was funnier. "Yr." [in "You Got Yr. Cherry Bomb"], it's that punk-rock way of writing "your," like "Kill Yr. Idols." And "Rhthm And Soul" was just an actual typo that someone pointed out, and I just said, "Well, I guess that's the way it's gonna be."
AVC: When it came out, you described Gimme Fiction as "woolly." What's this one?
BD: Woolier. It's got more wool. It's more mammoth. [Laughs.] I don't know. I think it's definitely a rougher presentation than the last one.
AVC: One thing that really stands out is the inclusion of mistakes—guitar fumbles, studio chatter, coughs.
BD: Right. I just think that's more exciting. When people used to cut records live, there were mistakes all the time that stayed in. It was part of the charm. You're kind of missing something if everything is all doctored-up and clinical. So when we hear a mistake that sounds interesting, we make a point to keep it.
AVC: What were some of the new things you tried with Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga?
BD: We're hardly the first band to use it, but the electric harpsichord was new for us. We recorded koto on a couple of songs. I bought a bass harmonica, which we'd never used before. Whenever we're working on a song and it feels like something we might have done before, we always try to push it in a different direction. That's about as specific as it gets.
AVC: You've called that period when you're really working on a song "trenchwork."
BD: [Laughs.] Sometimes it feels like that, yeah.
AVC: How long do you spend digging for that one sound that will make a song special?
BD: If I was talking about that, I probably meant getting the lyrics and arrangement together, or getting some instrument that's going to tie the whole thing together. That can take months, or it can happen really fast. And then sometimes you work on something for months and you realize that it's just not going to work, and it's a piece of crap. It can be very frustrating.
AVC: Is it different now, working in Jim's studio, knowing that you aren't burning money?
BD: It definitely helps. Especially considering that a few albums back, there was no way we could have afforded to go into a nice studio and spend tons of time there. Getting Jim's place was a coup.
AVC: How much of an influence did working as a sound designer for video games have on the way you make music or record things?
BD: You know, it probably did have some influence, because what I was doing was creating sound effects, and I got to know how to use digital audio software, and how to combine and manipulate things to get them to sound the way I want them to. Hmm… Nobody's ever asked me that before. But you're probably right.
AVC: How did you decide who was going to produce what song with this record? Did you know, for instance, that you wanted Jon Brion to do one song and Mike McCarthy to do another?
BD: Well, we thought when we started the record that it would be all Mike McCarthy again, but when we were ready to go last summer, he was still finishing up the …And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead record and also working on Patty Griffin's record. So he just didn't have time, and we didn't want to stop. So we found a couple of producers that we liked that we had heard might like us. We did "Cherry Bomb" with Jon Brion and didn't really like the way that turned out—not because of him, I think we were just approaching it wrong. We actually tried "The Underdog" with Mike in rehearsals. But Jon handpicked "The Underdog" after I sent him the demos.
AVC: "The Underdog" is one of the more surprising songs on this record. It actually sounds almost like a Van Morrison song.
BD: Yes! You're the first person to say it. It always seemed like a Van Morrison song to me, and I've said it in a couple of interviews, but no one's picked up on it yet. When I wrote the song, I had the chorus and few ideas, sort of the strummy feel of it, and it seemed like a Van Morrison song to me and then later a Paul Simon song, so I always pictured there being horns on there. It was one of those difficult ones to figure out how we were going to put it together. Then I heard this song by Ray Davies on the Thanksgiving Day EP that had him playing with the Jools Holland Orchestra, and there are horns on that song that make it sound like it's a celebration, and I decided "That's the sound I want for 'Underdog,' Pitting this pretty pissed-off lyric against this horn part that sounds like a fiesta."
AVC: When you say, "You got no fear of the underdog / That's why you will not survive," are you the underdog, or are you the one in fear of the underdog?
BD: I'm not the underdog, but—Well actually, I guess I've been the underdog. To me, it always felt like I was talking to "the big guy," you know, the big guy in the government, and trying to tell him about some things he didn't seem to be aware of. I just think that's a pretty arrogant group of liars we've got up there, and they don't really consider the abilities of their opponents.
AVC: Do you usually have someone in your head that you're singing to?
BD: Not always, but, like, for the songs about love, I usually do. And this is the first time that we've had what I would call semi-political songs, and definitely on those I do. I also thought "Don't Make Me A Target" was pretty political, and that people would get that immediately, but nobody ever seems to get it.
AVC: This is your first album without Josh Zarbo on bass. Was that strange at all?
BD: No. I mean, Josh only played on a couple of songs on Gimme Fiction and a couple on Kill The Moonlight, and usually it was me playing bass. On this record, though, it's mostly Rob [Pope]. And I did a couple of songs, and Jon Brion plays on "The Underdog."
AVC: What is it about your band that burns through bass players?
BD: I think that part of the problem was who we had as our bass player. I mean, [Josh] is a terrific guy and I love him, and he's still a great friend to everybody in the band. But we played with Josh for about 10 years, and he quit a couple of times, and there were times where I could just tell that he was not that into being in a rock band. He went back to school to learn bass more, and that's kind of where his head is at. That's just him, and you have to respect him for that. But that's why there's been that rotation. I honestly think we have a good chance of keeping on with this guy and with Eric [Harvey, keyboards] from here on out.
AVC: Do you and Jim keep the new people at arm's length, just in case they don't stick around?
BD: [Laughs.] No, it's hard for me to keep people at arm's length. Well, actually, people probably wouldn't agree with that. But no, I want it to be the full-on full deal. I want to have a great time with these three guys, and I want it to be like hanging out with your bros. Which is what it is. It's a great time.
AVC: Speaking of departed bass players, this is also your first album working with a female singer since Andy Maguire left. What was that like?
BD: It was cool. We recorded "Rhthm And Soul" twice, and the first time, I did the harmony myself in a falsetto. We were re-recording the song over at Trail Of Dead's studio, Mob House, and we started talking about how, this time, we should use a girl on this part, because it sounded silly with me singing the high part. About 10 or 15 minutes later, Yasmin [Kittles] walked in.
AVC: Were you familiar with Yasmin's reputation as the "karaoke queen" in Austin?
BD: Oh, was she?
AVC: She used to host a karaoke night over at Beerland, and she even had a karaoke public-access TV show.
BD: Huh! I didn't know that. It was just a thing where she walked in and we asked her if she wanted to sing on this song, and five minutes later, we had a microphone set up and we were recording it. If it didn't sound good, we would have just found someone else, but it sounded great.
AVC: It seems like you do those kinds of favors for your friends a lot, even the non-musical ones. The video you did for "The Underdog," for example, features a lot of cameos from Austin scenesters. Is that important to you, keeping this bridge between your rock-star profile and your personal life?
BD: You know, I don't even think about having a "rock-star profile." But sure, I always think, "Wouldn't it be great to have your friends along for the ride?" I just feel like me, you know? I've always been me, and I feel like the same guy. It surprises me when people expect me to be anything other than just a dude. I'm just a dude.
AVC: How have your connections with those Austin friends changed since you moved to Portland? Do you still consider Austin home?
BD: Well, Portland's my home, because that's where my file cabinet is. But I was in Austin probably more than I was in Portland last year, working on the record for so long. I haven't had much of a chance to miss it, because I'm there all the time.
AVC: You tend to isolate yourself when you write, renting houses in remote places and so on. What effect do you think that has on your songs?
BD: Mostly, it allows me to go through a period where I really concentrate and get in a flow. Sometimes the whole process can be daunting, and when you're away from it, thinking about going back to it is especially daunting. If I go away for a week, I can be working on 10 songs at once, just jumping around to each one. I can get a month's worth of work done.
AVC: Is it ever a drain on you emotionally?
BD: It's always an intense time, because I'll specifically go somewhere where I don't know anyone and I'm isolated. The first day or two that I'm there, I'm usually really lonely and feeling kind of dark. Then I get used to it and it becomes kind of fun, having that be everything I do.
AVC: How often do you try to write?
BD: I tried to write something this morning, actually. [Laughs.] For about 45 seconds. I tried singing the lyrics to [David Bowie's] "Joe The Lion" to this acoustic song I just kind of made up. I recorded it for 45 seconds and then just said, "Ah, this sucks."
AVC: When you know it's not happening, do you stop for the day, or do you try to force it?
BD: Sometimes, like if it's like last summer, when I really needed to crank some stuff out, I'll keep going even if it feels like I'm hitting a wall. And that can suck.
AVC: How many songs do you end up throwing away?
BD: A lot. Although it's pretty rare that I'll get completed, finished lyrics to a song and feel like it's done, and then decide that it's not worth doing. Usually, I can tell along the way—even if it's something I've been working on for a couple of months—that it's just not going to work. Maybe I'll come back to it a few months or even a year later, or maybe it's just gone. We're putting out an EP with the first pressing of this record that has a bunch of songs like that, that have good stuff in them that for whatever reason I couldn't finish, plus some demos of songs that I did finish, and some interludes that I wrote.
AVC: Do you still put songs aside for a possible solo record?
BD: Yeah, I've got a couple of songs set aside. There's one called "Telephone My Heart," and one called "New York Kiss." Those are pretty much done.
AVC: What makes you decide to keep songs for yourself?
BD: In the case of "Telephone My Heart," it's already recorded and I did everything myself. And Jim didn't really like that one, so I guess it's gonna be a solo song.
AVC: You said once that you would often kickstart your creative process by listening to a Wire song.
BD: [Laughs.] That must have been a long time ago.
AVC: It was. Do you still do stuff like that?
BD: Sometimes to get in the "musical mood," I'll just turn on music really loud, or go drive around and listen to music, or learn a song that I really like on guitar or piano. That gets me in the right frame of mind to proceed. It probably isn't Wire these days, though.
AVC: What would it be?
BD: [Laughs.] I knew that question was coming. Let's see… King Tubby. The Kinks. A.C. Newman. LCD Soundsystem. I bet you like that record.
AVC: Why would you assume that?
BD: [Laughs.] Because you look like that guy! And you've got to put that in there, okay? Parts like that make the interview better. But anyway, I love that record. It's probably my favorite record of the year. For some reason, I never really wanted to hear them. I never listened to the last one. I just thought I wouldn't like it for some reason, and boy, I was wrong.
AVC: Let's talk about the Spoon dress code.
BD: Is there a dress code? Well, let's just say I never thought it was cool to wear shorts onstage.
AVC: But you also get dressed up to record?
BD: Not every day, but yeah, sometimes that gets me in a good mood. Mike McCarthy is really the one that started that. He would show up for even our daily sessions wearing nice slacks and a tucked-in shirt and a nice coat and nice shoes, and it felt like we were going to work, you know, like we were being pro. It just made it a little more Motown-era or something. And then I started copying him.
AVC: When you first started playing, you used to wear sunglasses onstage. Was that because you were uncomfortable in front of an audience?
BD: Actually, I think I wore sunglasses because I thought it was cool, and then I realized that it's not the only way to be cool. Of course, I still wear them if we're outside and it's real bright. But I think I saw Ben [Hotchkiss] from The Real Heroes, and he was in a band called The Duckhills where he wore sunglasses onstage. I thought, "Wow, this guy looks awesome." It made a big impression. And of course, I was really into Lou Reed.
AVC: For the longest time, the press has referred to you as "underrated" and "criminally overlooked." Do you still feel that way?
BD: No. The press has been pretty good to us ever since Girls Can Tell. I think we're one of the best bands making records today, and do I think we should be selling more records than Maroon 5? Yeah, because I think we're better. That's if it were a just world. It's not a just world. Actually, why don't we put The Bravery in there instead? No, let's not use The Bravery. Who's a good band to use?
AVC: Linkin Park?
BD: Yeah! You can't get any worse than Linkin Park. Let's use that.
AVC: How did it feel being held up in that XM Radio commercial alongside Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, and Ludacris?
BD: It felt ludicrous. It was pretty out of control.
AVC: So far, you've only been a part of advertising upscale things, like Jaguars. Is there anything you wouldn't let them use your music to advertise?
BD: I wouldn't let them use our music for Hummers. That's pretty upscale, isn't it? I just think they're obnoxious.
AVC: What was the first time you realized you'd made the jump from small clubs to big festival audiences?
BD: I remember driving up to a show in Denver on the Kill The Moonlight tour, and there was a huge line. I think the previous time we'd played in Denver, we played to 40 people or something. And so I was like, "Whoa! Something's going on here." And [tour manager] Ben [Dickey] was like, "Yep, something's going on here." [Laughs.] And I was like, "Really? Why are people coming to see us all of a sudden?" And he said something obnoxious like, "Because you're gonna be huge." I've always remembered that moment.
AVC: Ironically, now that you're no longer on a major label, it seems like you're headed toward major-label levels of success. Would you ever consider going back to a major label?
BD: My problem was never with the major label, it was with the guy who we put our trust in and then wouldn't take my phone calls once we'd signed to a major label, who then quit.
AVC: You're referring to Ron Lafitte at Elektra?
BD: Yeah. And I like where we're at, and I like what we're doing. I'm very happy and I feel very fortunate. The opportunity [to jump to a major] has come along, but it was nothing that seemed as good as staying on Merge. For me to even consider it, it would have to be a pretty nutty proposal.
AVC: You've been a very vocal proponent of "believing" in rock 'n' roll in your songs. Do you think rock 'n' roll is in danger?
BD: No, I don't think it's in danger. I think there are lots of people that believe in rock 'n' roll. It's real easy. You just find some friends to play with and then you can feel it. I think that happens all the time. To be in a band and be playing in a room really loud, even if you never play a show, that feeling is really addictive and pure.
AVC: Can you see yourself ever stopping?
BD: I don't have any intention to stop. Rock 'n' roll is my main concern.