How Spoon stripped down its sound and made a bigger noise

Spoon with Sons
of Hercules
9pm Fri, Sep 29
White Rabbit
2410 N. St. Mary’s

A few months ago, Britt Daniel did something that made him uncomfortable. He went back and listened to two nearly-decade-old records made by his band Spoon for a possible Merge Records reissue. The records, the group’s 1996 debut album Telephono and the following year’s five-song EP Soft Effects, came well before most of the Austin quartet’s devoted cult jumped onboard, and Daniel himself wasn’t sure he even wanted to see them reissued.

“Listening to Telephono kinda made me cringe a lot,” he says. “Listening to Soft Effects , which was done maybe six months later, was something that I thought really stood up well. So it was hit-and-miss.”

Although Telephono’s spiky, punk-rock drive reveals considerable promise when approached with 10 years’ hindsight, it’s easy to understand Daniel’s uneasiness. The album defines the period when detractors (and even some fans) viewed Spoon as a skilled-but-derivative Pixies-wannabe band. And the spare textures, off-kilter beats, and splashes of organ and piano that currently set Spoon apart from their indie-rock brethren had yet to emerge.

“I just don’t think what I do now, that’s maybe a little bit unique, I don’t think I’d figured that out yet,” Daniel says. “I also was just running on a lot of teenage adrenaline, or something. That’s cool with some people. Some people know how to channel that correctly. I just don’t know if I was channeling it correctly.”

Spoon’s steady creative ascendance was very nearly sabotaged after the band signed wth Elektra Records and released the outstanding album A Series of Sneaks in 1998. Four months after the album’s release, label A&R man Ron Lafitte dropped the band, and Sneaks, which should have been their breakthrough release, fell out of print for nearly four years.

The Elektra debacle would have broken many bands, and even Daniel sounds somewhat amazed that he persevered.

“There were some rough moments,” he says. “I look back at it now and think, ‘The band started in 1994, and other than local shows and feeling good about the records ourselves, we didn’t really have any sort of approval or acceptance.’ Nobody was buying our records until 2001 or 2002. It took a long time to get any payback.

“The records were the thing that kind of kept me going. I thought they were good and that was the reason we kept at it. But it does help when you’re not worried where the rent is coming from.”

Instead of second-guessing himself, Daniel further explored his own quirky vision, born out of a weariness with standard alt-rock rhythms and production strategies. The Spoon that emerged in 2001 with the tuneful pop masterwork, Girls Can Tell, was a band that had learned to master musical space, seduce listeners by drawing them in, and create a meter-stretching, body-moving form of head music. As Daniel is quick to point out, tracks such as “Small Stakes” or “Take the Fifth” weren’t soul music by any stretch, but they were white rock with a soul influence, much like the Pretenders’ “Brass in Pocket,” or the Beatles’ “Got To Get You Into My Life.” When wedded to Daniel’s natural gift for songcraft and urgently raspy wail, Girls Can Tell sounded remarkably fresh next to the dime-a-dozen emo-pop bands flooding the marketplace.

On many tracks, the lead instrument for this guitar-dominated band was a plunking piano or a chilly, Zombies-like organ.

“I could always just sort of poke around on it,” Daniel says of his piano playing. “I’ve gotten a little bit better. We would always use it sparingly. I think there were maybe one or two songs on the first album that had just a little bit of piano in the background. On the second album there’s none. But by the third album, I’d had a revelation that it was cool.”

The critical acclaim and growing popularity that greeted 2002’s Kill the Moonlight and last year’s Gimme Fiction have allowed the band to prosper on its own terms, but have also made the stubbornly private Daniel conscious, for the first time, of an audience’s expectations. When told that writer Jonathan Franzen abandoned fiction after the success of The Corrections, because his hyper-awareness of an audience’s preconceptions gave him writer’s block, Daniel says he understands the feeling.

“When I thought nobody absolutely was going to hear it, nobody was listening, it was easier to not think about it so much,” he says. “You can find ways to get back in that frame of mind, but you have to be more self-conscious about it.”

Disciplined and rigorous about his work, Daniel wears a suit and tie to recording sessions to help remind him that something serious is underway. It’s a habit he picked up from Girls Can Tell producer Mike McCarthy.

“He’s a very sharp-looking guy,” Daniel says. “I always liked when he would come into the studio and he always looked put-together. And it made me feel like this is an event, we’re here professionally. It just made it more exciting, like someone working the board at a Motown session. I just liked that, so I started doing that too.”

Daniel moved to Portland a year ago, but returns to Austin about once a month to work with the band. Sessions for their next album (which he estimates will come out next May) have included tracking at drummer Jim Eno’s Austin studio and some work in Los Angeles with uber-pop producer Jon Brion (Fiona Apple, Kanye West). Daniel says the band encouraged Brion to indulge his love of esoteric sounds: “We recorded the sound of him knocking over an upright piano, and he totally humped this Mellotron until it played the “Star Spangled Banner” as done by Jimi Hendrix. We let him get wild.”

Bassist Joshua Zarbo recently left the band on amicable terms, and Daniel says the group’s upcoming show at the White Rabbit — their first in San Antonio in seven years — will feature Rob Pope, formerly of the Get-Up Kids, on bass.

And why did it take so long to bring Spoon back to SA? Daniel says it wasn’t for lack of effort on his part.

“I love San Antonio,” he says. “In fact, whenever we have a family get-together, I’m always suggesting we have it in San Antonio. But we never seem to play there, because people always say you can’t really play there. Even the people we work with say it’s kind of a pain setting it up. But this time I was adamant: ‘We’ve played Dallas twice and we’ve played Houston twice on this record, and San Antonio is the closest, and the place I want to go the most. So make it happen.’”


Since 1986, the SA Current has served as the free, independent voice of San Antonio, and we want to keep it that way.

Becoming an SA Current Supporter for as little as $5 a month allows us to continue offering readers access to our coverage of local news, food, nightlife, events, and culture with no paywalls.

Join today to keep San Antonio Current.

Scroll to read more Music Stories & Interviews articles

Join SA Current Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.