Britt Daniel. Photograph by Peter Yang
Should you find yourself in West Hollywood in the next couple of days and happen upon Spoon front man Britt Daniel—he of the original hip bedhead, well-fitted shirt (pronounced “fi’ed”), and permanent expression of determined bemusement, like he gets a joke you won’t—he’ll most likely be coming to or from a recording studio. If you’re a Spoon fan hoping that means a follow-up to 2007’s Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga is imminent, don’t.
“I’m in LA right now doing some demos with Jon Brion,” he said in short phone call, referring to the producer best known for soundtracks to idiosyncratic films (see Magnolia) and for having his completed version of Fiona Apple’s long-awaited last album rejected by the artist for being, some would say, too cool.
“We’re writing together, which is different for me. I’ve never gone somewhere to write with someone. I wrote some things once with Miles Zuniga [of Austin’s Fastball], but that was more, ‘We need a verse, now a chorus.’ This is doing things with individual sounds, things that could become sections of songs.” In fact, Brion’s trademark is a playful sprawl, which seems at odds with Spoon’s purposeful sparsity. But the collaboration worked to a strong end on the one song Brion produced for Ga, the horn-driven, standout first single “The Underdog.”
“Jon plays every instrument. He has strategies for putting everything together. He calls this throwing paint against the wall. It’s coming up with ideas.”
But it’s not expected to produce a full album anytime soon. Daniel plans to convene the band in early March in a studio in Portland, his home-away-from-Austin for the past four years. He predicts he might have a half a record’s worth of songs ready by then. And he might like how they sound with the band. Or he might not.
So the next long-player won’t likely come before 2010. It’s a typically long stretch between releases that leaves the Spoon Army to sift through dribbling tidbits to figure out just what the band is up to. Occasional remixes of other acts’s songs by Spoon’s nucleus, Daniel and drummer Jim Eno, point to the artists that satisfy their famously picky tastes. In Daniel’s case that has been Interpol and Feist, and in Eno’s, the Apostles of Hustle. The YouTube clips of cover songs in Spoon’s live sets give looks into their iPods and influences. In recent years those choices included Destroyer, Sam Cooke, and Paul Simon.
Simon is the perfect touchstone for making sense of Daniel. They both create deceptively simple, meticulous pop songs. They share a preoccupation with rhythm that doesn’t always announce itself, and write lyrics big on personal detail that often resist interpretation. And they have a tendency to take their time. After the one-two punch of 1972’s Paul Simon and 1973’s There Goes Rhymin’ Simon, Art Garfunkel’s former better half has gone as long as seven years between releases. Spoon has yet to make fans wait that long, but Ga is starting to feel like a good while back.
When Texas Monthly first gave meaningful space to Spoon in April 2004, we titled the feature, “Spoon At a Fork.” Our thinking was that the band was poised for something big, and the thought proved right. The album they were recording at the time, Gimme Fiction—which itself wasn’t released for another year—sold 150,000 copies, nearly twice its predecessor, 2002’s Kill the Moonlight. Then Ga doubled Gimme and is now at 300,000 and counting. No, those aren’t the kind of numbers Joe Walsh referenced when he bragged about gold records hanging on his wall, but Spoon operates in a different world. The band’s artist-friendly contract with indie-label Merge, their home since 2000, puts more money in their pockets per unit. And as declining record sales have redefined the music industry—according to the New York Times, sales were down 45 percent from 2000—street cred has become the better measure. That, Spoon has.
Eno, whose day job designing computer chips once funded the band, has quit that day job, and the studio he built in his backyard for Spoon is now one of the hotter recording spots in Austin. Ben Kweller tracked his new album there. Charlie Sexton is recording Edie Brickell there right now. And Eno’s latest solo production credit, the debut LP of Austin neo-garage-soul outfit Black Joe Lewis & the Honeybears, is set for a March release on Lost Highway.
Daniel just finished producing Columbia, MO, dance-rock band the White Rabbits. And he scored a Will Ferrell movie. And Spoon played SNL. And its song “I Turn My Camera On” appeared in a ubiquitous Jaguar commercial. And the New Yorker’s Sasha Frere-Jones provided the ultimate pop culture seal of approval (“Well Suited”). And they’ve become, as the old saw goes, big in Japan. Literally.
Now they’re working on a new album. Daniel gives a hint at the pace. “We recorded two songs last fall, one that’s pretty good and one that’s not. One’s a rocker that [Austin producer] Mike McCarthy tried to make sound like Joy Division. The other is kinda middle of the road, a song we tried to make new wave and probably shouldn’t have.
“And I’ve got a song I just wrote about Dabney Coleman. I’m a big fan of his, of his old show Buffalo Bill. I was telling a friend of mine how I write songs, and he knew I was a fan of Dabney’s so he said, ‘Okay, write a song about him—and do it in a day.’ Because the hardest part for me is always putting an end to something. But a deadline means you have to wrap it up, you have to find a way to make it work.”
Yes, yes. A deadline. Quite right. In a later email about a possible release date for the record, Daniel wrote this, “Not soon. Not to be cryptic but that’s all I know.” And then, in an apparent effort to dial down the crypticality, he added this working title: Me and Matty Pickles.