Awright!, or Constructing By Feel: An Interview with Spoon’s Britt Daniel

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By Zeth Lundy

Call it a threepeat and send Pat Riley a royalty check. Spoon‘s new album Gimme Fiction, out May 10 on Merge Records, is yet another installment in a streak of modern-day instant classics, following 2001’s Girls Can Tell and 2002’s Kill the Moonlight. Like Kill the Moonlight, Gimme Fiction is marked by a highly meticulous and creative approach to sound; this time around, little discrepancies run wild (snippets of studio chatter, tape reels rewinding, unadorned instrumental bloops) that give insight beyond the record’s curtain, as if you’re privy to the recording sessions while listening to the final product. Although the band’s influences are felt (McCartney bass vamps, Lennon vocal howls, and Ringo drum fills abound), the record’s sound is ultimately Spoon’s alone. Few bands are making records as consistently exciting and alive. Due to label and management decisions, as well as extensive touring and writing, it took the Austin, TX, band a bit longer than usual to release Gimme Fiction, but it’s well worth the wait. PopMatters recently had a chance to speak with Britt Daniel, the band’s chief songwriter, vocalist, and guitarist, about exactly what goes into making a Spoon record.

PopMatters: You guys have a really good sense of spatial arrangements in your songs. In my fantasy world, I imagine that you build up a ton of tracks and then tear a bunch of stuff down to the bare essentials—which is probably completely wrong. Are you conscious of the spacious arrangements?

Britt Daniel: I don’t think we’re conscious of thinking about a term called “space”, or “I’d like this song to be spacious”. It’s just sort of this feel that tends to work better. Usually I write the songs at home and then I bring them in to the band; when we play them as a band, that’s kinda how we figure out the feel of how they’re going to be presented on the record or live. It’s at that point that we’re trying to make them special. It just seems like having a lot of space around the notes… umm, if the song has so much rhythm guitar, especially electric rhythm guitar, it takes up a lot of space. It often tends to make it less special. So if we’re going to do something like that, it’s gotta have a reason.

PM: How do you go about deciding which songs to embellish?

BD: We make that decision on every song. Almost every time, the way that we first start out with a song isn’t the way that we end up playing it. When I first bring it in, it’s likely that we’ll try it one way, and a couple of practices later be playing it a totally different way.

PM: The reason I asked is because I’m thinking of something like “I Summon You”. There seems to be a lot of studio trickery in this album, just like the last one, but “I Summon You” sounds pretty bare: with the exception of a couple of other things here and there, it’s just guitar, bass, and drums. It seems to be the most effecting song… well, at least for me, that song has the most effect.

BD: Well, it’s more of an emotional song than most of the songs on the record, you know? And it has a pretty wild melody and chord structure. So once your brain gets around what that’s doing, it is way more complex than, say, “I Turn My Camera On”.

PM:: There are two songs that I want to talk to you about, specifically the construction of them. The first is “Sister Jack”. All of the effects and noises remind me of a moment in McCartney’s “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey”.

BD: Oh yeah?

PM: Either that or “Yellow Submarine”—it’s the same kind of concept.

BD: All of the sounds, like in the solo?

PM: Yeah, all the backwards noises… and at one point you hear someone—I think you—yell out, “Sister Jack!”...

BD: Yeah, I guess I can see that.

PM: How did you go about constructing that?

BD You know, what’s weird is that voice you’re talking about, that’s saying “Sister Jack”? It came from… umm, I was downloading all these sound effects, right? And then we had these sound effects CDs too. There was one sound effect file that I downloaded that was just this long list of hip-hop phrases, almost all of which you’ll be familiar with… like, sort of these things that get used in hip-hop records all the time. And that one—that “Sister Jack!” or whatever—is from that, but it’s not saying “Sister Jack”. It’s just that when you put it [laughs], when you put it in the record, it sounds exactly like it.

PM: What is it saying?

BD: I gotta go back and find it. It’s totally not saying “Sister Jack”. It’s just really bizarre how that happened.

PM: Did the song title come out of the sample?

BD: No, no, the song was written first. It’s saying something that sounds like “Sister Jack”, but then when you hear it in the context of the song, it sounds exactly like it. Just the fact that it was from this long list of hip-hop shout-outs is just really bizarre to me.

PM: What about “Was It You?” What strikes me most about that song are the recurring motifs of sound; there’s this perfect repetition of them all. How did you guys go about constructing that? Were you just playing it together and you each had your own line—

BD: There were some things that were random, like the looping beat sound [sings sample]—that kinda happened by accident. A lot of those delayed drum hits? Those are things that John Vanderslice and Scott Solter did when they were in with us a long, long time ago. That was the one song that we did not start with Mike McCarthy [co-producer of Gimme Fiction]; we started it with Scott and John before we did most of the recording. After those were done and the vocals were done, then I went back and sorta went in and placed sound effects the way that I had done them in the demo. It’s kinda meticulous, but somehow it made sense the way it was done on the demo, and then I just thought, “We gotta do it the same way again”.

PM: What were you guys listening to while you were recording this? “I Turn My Camera On” kinda sounds like the Clash covering Prince, you know?

BD: Yeah. Umm… what were we listening to… I don’t know what Jim [Eno, drummer and, with Daniel, one-half of Spoon’s core] listens to. He listens to music on his iPod and nobody else gets to know what it is. I know he brings his iPod in his car… I never know what Jim’s listening to. There were parts of making the record that I went through a pretty intense 1999 phase. And there was a big Revolver phase, where I would go to bed listening to Revolver on headphones every night.

PM: That definitely shows.

BD: Yeah. Those were the two records that I kinda became obsessed with at various times. I was listening to the Cure, the Clash, a lot of Prince, the Damned… you probably don’t hear that as much.

PM: How was recording with a string section? Was that your first time doing that?

BD: Yeah, we’d recorded a cello and double-tracked it before… but we got the girls from the Tosca Strings to come in and they got it immediately. I wrote out the part—I came up with a part and recorded it on a string setting on a synthesizer, and then I gave it to one of them, Ames [Asbell], and she transcribed it to actual notes on a page. Which was really kinda cool to see. I’d never seen my music written out like that before.

PM: You’re a really unorthodox songwriter, in that you don’t really employ the typical verse-chorus-bridge format. How do you approach writing? Is it something that you think about?

BD: Oh, I think about it a lot. [laughs] I think about it too much. I just usually try to do it on feel. Often when I try to plug in verse-bridge-chorus, and try to write it in order like that, or specifically say, “OK, now it’s time for the chorus”, it just very rarely works for me. The songs just don’t feel as good, and we usually end up discarding them. There are some exceptions: When I was writing “The Beast and Dragon, Adored”, I think I kinda knew once I had that first riff that “now we should go to the chorus”... and it would be cool to shout. That one kinda worked out. You know, usually when I’m writing I’ll just kinda put down some ideas without any structure, and then later go back and listen to them and say, “OK, now that could be this… that could be a verse, that could be a chorus.” Most of the songs just start being these sorts of freeform moments of trying to come up with melodies and just sorta feelin’ it. And then later comes the analytical part of “we could turn this into that”.

PM: “My Mathematical Mind” feels like just one giant verse, like a big pounding.

BD: Yeah, there’s no chorus on that, really. We kinda threw in that part where it changes and goes to the “You keep settin’ it up…”—that was sorta this break that we put in there because it was too much of that verse going on and on and on. That’s too much of that riff and it needed a little break, you know? When we started playing the song, it didn’t have that section; it felt like it was working, it was awesome with that beat and everything, but it just felt like it needed a little something extra, so I went home and wrote that part. The original idea for it was I just came up with that piano riff, which I thought was really tough, and then just started yelping on top of it.

PM: It sounds like that song probably kills live.

BD: Yeah, that’s a really good one to do live. When I wrote it, it was just piano and vocal. I’d been listening to the demo for awhile, and I thought, “This is really cool but it’s probably just gonna be a b-side or something that just I play on, ‘cause I don’t know how the band is gonna do it.” It wasn’t a live-sounding song to me at all; it was sorta just this weird little thing, maybe because it didn’t have any chorus or it was just this long chunk of a verse. But then I brought it in to the band and just said, “OK, let’s just try this” and they immediately started playing the beat that you hear now and I was like, yeah, that is it. But that was totally unexpected for me.

PM: I like how you always keep your runtimes very economical, and your sequencing is always really engaging. Obviously you still have faith in the concept of the LP as a cohesive statement. So what do you think of all the digital technology these days, and iTunes, and people absorbing albums in piecemeal?

BD: Well… [pauses] it’s gotta be done. People are gonna do it, and I do it too. I still think that there’s something really special about putting on one album at a time. I understand that it happens and I know it’s gonna happen and I know why it happens, but it’s a little bit sad to me that people don’t listen to music in the environment that they did where they had to put on a record and listen on two sides. You put it on, and it was such a hassle to go in and put that record on that you’re not gonna go flippin’ around a whole lot. You’re listening to it the way the band intended for it to happen. Some people don’t listen to music the same way, but I think that the people that are real music fans will listen to records that way, ‘cause they want to know what the band intended. And they’ll keep listening to them like that. The people that only listen to one song from a record and flip around that much, if that’s the only way they listen to music, they’re probably the kind of people that like music as something to drive to, you know?

PM: Spoon, more than a lot of other contemporary bands, has that… well, whenever I listen to your records, it has to be the whole way through.

BD: Well that’s cool, that’s the way I like to listen to records. And we want to make records that don’t have any filler. We just can’t do it. We can’t stomach putting out a song that doesn’t feel like it has something special to it. Some of the songs worked better on this record than others, but I think all of them have something commendable about them. Then again, I’m very much listening not as an outsider. [laughs]

PM: I just don’t agree with the concept that if you don’t get a CD with 80 minutes chock full of stuff, you’re getting ripped off. I think a lot of people get that impression these days.

BD: Yeah, I think with the advent of the CD, when you could make it longer, that started actually damaging the quality of what an album is. Just ‘cause you can make it longer doesn’t mean you should. The greatest Beatles records were all about 30-35 minutes, so that’s good enough for me.

Zeth Lundy has been writing for PopMatters since 2004. He is the author of Songs in the Key of Life (Continuum, 2007), and has contributed to the Boston Phoenix, Metro Boston, and The Oxford American. He lives in Boston.


Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/spoon-050415/