Britt Daniel has a week in New York City, and he has spent a solid portion of it in a sunny public relations office nestled in SoHo. The walls are adorned with records, band posters, backstage passes and magazine covers -- everything from the Beastie Boys, Bob Mould, LCD Soundsystem, Jack White, Arcade Fire and of course one of Daniel's bands, Spoon.
The Spoon frontman is preparing for the release of the band's forthcoming album "They Want My Soul." The record comes out on August 5, and is Spoon's first in four years. In terms of Spoon, four years is just a short blip in the band's 20-year history -- a history that has taken them through all corners of the music industry.
And even with a dearth of Spoon albums, Daniel has been busy recording and touring with his other project, Divine Fits.
Seated in a rolling office chair, Daniel exudes a smart yet affable nature, and a passion for music. It manifests through his boyish awe of the surrounding musical artifacts: He rolls over to examine a band poster, fiddles with a stray album on the desk and at one point puts on a plastic Batman mask. He is especially enthusiastic about the promotional roll-out for "They Want My Soul," Vinyl Gratification. Vinyl Gratification begins on July 15, and is a valiant effort to get folks to visit their local record stores and give fans the same instant gratification that a digital release might provide. Pre-order "They Want My Soul" on July 15, and instantly get a 10-inch 45RPM record with three songs from the upcoming album.
Salon spoke to Daniel about his personal relationship with record stores, the future of the music industry and the making of the latest Spoon album. The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Have you had a chance to see the Taylor Swift Wall Street Journal op-ed about the future of the music industry?
No. Should I look it up right now?
You should definitely look it up; not right this second. But definitely read it. It was very interesting, it was sort of --
What’s the take?
Her take is that she’s optimistic because she’s an optimist, and the industry can’t be dying because people are still buying her records.
Well, people will still be buying records – people will still be listening to records, whether or not they’re buying them is a different point.
But I wanted to maybe get your take. Why is Vinyl Gratification and getting people to local record stores important to you?
It was really a matter of me just… When we get into the planning stages, once we were done with the record, then I moved into this whole different gear. It’s not creative – not creative in the same way. But I start trying to think of ways we can put our own spin on whatever, and it always bothers me – for several albums it’s bothered me – that you have to do these things for, they’ll remain nameless, but bigger sellers of albums, like give them exclusive tracks or give them bonus discs. They all want something to give them a leg up on whoever else is selling the record.
I don’t really care who sells it; I just want people to hear it, I want a lot of people to hear it, I don’t care how they do, except for the fact that I would prefer, I would love –- It bothered me that over and over we were giving these things to these entities that I feel don’t need a break necessarily. And I feel like the record labels and the record stores themselves could stand a break and yet nobody’s giving it to them, and I don’t know, it just seemed like a cool spin on the idea of these instant gratification things that are such a big deal these days.
Yeah, I agree. I was really interested in it because I was reading through the frequently asked questions, and it was like, you should go to your local record store more often and I was like, “yes, that’s probably true.” I hope there are more people out there who think that way, who have like memories. My mom is big into music, and what we did for Mother’s Day one year is we drove to Long Beach and went to Fingerprints and that was the big thing.
So you have a cool mom.
Did you ever have any moments like that? Maybe going to Waterloo in Austin?
Yeah, I used to go to Waterloo. Waterloo used to have a separate building for vinyl; they called it the Vinyl Annex and they had little booths you could go into and you would bring a record you wanted to hear – any record in the store – they would put it on behind the counter and it would play in the booth, and that’s how I heard a lot of records that I decided to get because I liked their cover, or I’d heard something vague about the band, or I heard an interview or something.
I remember hearing "Skellington" by Julian Cope there for the first time and being completely blown away that Julian Cope was doing this acoustic – a totally different sound than I was expecting. I wasn’t sure that I wanted to buy the record and I ended up naming a band after this album, ya know. So there ya go. I remember meeting Alejandro Escovedo for the first time when he worked at Waterloo records and the Vinyl Annex and asking him about the Walker Brothers and him just really taking his time to tell me all about Scott Walker and what the best records were, what the history of this guy was, and you can’t get that on iTunes, ya know.
I always wonder “what was the influence behind an album, of course, or a book,” but behind something like Vinyl Gratification where you’re really encouraging people to get their instant gratification from a piece of technology that is more solid -- not digital.
Yeah, the real idea is just that I think having record stores is cool. And we mentioned this in the liner notes of our last record. Buying records in record stores is cool. I mean, it’s just a fun thing to do. It used to be a thing to do like going to the movies or the arcade or whatever.
Going to the record store was something I used to do with my dad, when I’d go visit him on weekends and we didn’t have anything to do. We’d go to the record store. So I don’t want to see that go away. It’s already gone away to much of an extent.
I just kinda happened upon this idea and I just thought, this would be a good way to at least send some of the people who are going to buy this record to a record store to do it. And pre-orders are such a big deal now because the first-week sales are what everybody looks at, the way you chart is talked about. It’s this big deal. I don’t really care how many people buy it the first week, but all these people in the industry do these pre-orders so you can shoot that number up and prove something. And if we were going to do that, I wanted to try to find a way to do it via record stores.
Vinyl Gratification is the first “program” that I’ve seen that’s like this, but it would be cool to see other bands use this model. But I know that Rough Trade, at least the one in Brooklyn, sometimes on the day that an album’s released you can go and see the artist perform and the cost of admission is buying the record. But it always makes me laugh because there goes ticket sales, so it’s a trade-off.
Well, it’s better than nothing because we’ve played in stores for no money and without a stipulation that you buy the record, so it’s a step up from nothing.
I was curious about that. Good to know.
Yeah, you don’t get paid for those things. But it’s fun to do. It’s a good first-week-of-release thing to do, to just kinda get people in a town to think about you.
To remember, “oh yeah, this album’s coming out. I’m excited.”
Yeah, and I don’t know if you’ve ever been in that situation where you knew a record was going to come out at a certain point, and you waited for that day and went to the store and got it on that day. But that was something I used to do, and it was part of a process that made it kind of magical. And I’m not going to say I never listened to an album before it came out, one way or another, illegally or because someone gave it to me.
But that was a really special part of loving an artist was being that dedicated to it. I remember Prince used to put out a record every spring, and so around the date I got it, so when "Around the World in a Day" came out, I had to get it that week, and definitely when "Parade" came out, I got that day of, I got "Sign of the Times" day of, and I got "Alphabet Street" the day of. And that was kinda when the magic ended, but it was something that I looked forward to every year.
I feel like some bands are still trying to keep that magic by doing, I mean Arcade Fire does like, they’ll do a random YouTube video with just the date, and you start to build that hype, but it’s less just about the date and it’s more about all these other things.
And they’re smart like that. Why not get people thinking about it and looking forward to it?
That’s kind of what Vinyl Gratification is. Is it just in New Jersey? Or is there one in New York?
I don’t know. I thought Other Music was going to be a part of it, but I don’t know if they are. It was one of the ones that, when we were talking about record stores we wanted to hit up, I mentioned Other Music because I always go there in New York. I don’t know if it is part of the program, but have you looked online?
Yeah, it didn’t come up.
Oh, that sucks. Yeah, there’s like three places in Austin.
But it’s not July 15th yet so it’s like maybe --
It’s a thing where the stores had to opt in. We gave them all, or hundreds of them, the option of opting in. It’s sort of, well, it’s too much of a pain in the ass to do this; I can’t do this for every record that comes out but I’m surprised at how many have.
Yeah, there were a lot!
Why don’t you tell me how this album came about? I like to hear how the sausage is made.
(Britt Daniel puts on a Batman mask that was lying around) Yeah that’s a good way of putting it. Well, I’ll tell you what, the sausage is made like this. (Wearing Batman mask) “Me and Robin get together…” Well, I don’t know… the songs usually are written and demoed by me. And either I get really lucky and I come up with a hot-shit demo that we just kind of build on or imitate. But more often than not, I have a song --chords, words, some melodies -- and I bring it to the band and say, how are we going to do this as a band.
And from there, we’ll try any number of ways. Maybe first we’ll try it like the demo was and then we’ll try changing time signatures, make it faster, make it slower, play it like The Supremes or play it like The Misfits. Is that kind of interesting?
Yeah, that’s awesome. I’m trying to imagine Spoon as The Supremes, which is really great.
“You Got Yr Cherry Bomb” was supposed to be like The Supremes or some kind of Motown something.
But this one, when I was staring at maybe the last three or four months of touring for Divine Fits, I started talking to the band and saying, “Hey, why don’t you guys get together and get us started on this process because I would love to get us started, but I can’t because I’ve got to do these shows.” I suggested they get together to write some music that I would put words on top of, and they did. We’d never written that way before, I think they were a little skeptical that it would work, but it really did work, and that song “Outlier” is one that Eric and Jim wrote the music for. Basically, when you listen to the record the drums, bass and the electric guitar are all from that little thing that they did. We literally just copied them and built on top of it, and then I cut it up and moved it around a little and put some words on it, but yeah, that was some fun sausage making. But there are also songs that we wrote the way we normally do, which is me writing alone.
I’m always interested in who writes what. I mean, I know it’s on the album and you can see who… but it’s fun to listen and kind of think how it all comes together and how different bands do different things, like how in The National, Matt will write the lyrics but they’ll all sit and play together and just argue through the whole process.
We got together maybe five or six times for maybe three or four or five days apiece before we started recording and there were a lot of times where nothing came of it. Or we would play these games to sort of spur us to come up with music, and they were fun games but maybe they didn’t necessarily work. And then sometimes we knew we had a song, like “Rainy Taxi” was a song we had from pretty early on. I knew the words were good and the melody was good but we didn’t know how we would play it. So we played it first, we called it minor-Kinks; it was sort of like a minor-chord Kinks song, and then we did Neil Diamond's “Solitary Man,” and then we did sort of like a death metal sort of version which was really cool, and so we recorded that version, and we thought this is all really good except the drums and bass are too of that genre, so lets erase those, re-record those and keep everything else, and then that’s how we kinda got the song, as it stands.
That’s really interesting to hear.
Yeah. It’s great when you can just happen upon it immediately. That’s amazing. But it just doesn’t usually happen that way. You usually have got to work at for a while, try a bunch of different ways before you’re like, this is the one. This is the one we want to put on the record.
Were there any particular things that you were listening to or books that you were reading that sort of influenced you?
The last person asked me this too and I didn’t know how to answer this one, like, non-musical things that I was experiencing at this time, and I told her I’d have to get back to her. Let me see if I can think of anything. Well, watching a lot of "Kroll Show." Have you seen that show?
Yes, I have.
I love that show.
They have ads for it on the subway that people actually think are real.
"This is my niece Denise."
That’s my favorite sketch in the show.
Yeah, me too. That’s some good acting, that character. And I’ve seen those pictures.
The dad school sketch – I’ve heard people be like, "this is absurd" when they see the poster.
I met him once and he was telling me about those posters actually and how he fought to get them in there without a real link to the show, and so I’ll have to tell him that people were already saying that that was fucked. So people were saying, what the fuck is this?
Did touring with Divine Fits change anything?
Well, Alex from Divine Fits is now in Spoon so that was a big thing. I mean, I think that doing the Divine Fits album and starting the band with Dan -- I knew it would be a good thing, but it ended up being a good thing in so many ways I wouldn’t have expected. I mean, when we got back to Spoon, I knew that I wanted… I knew that we needed to bring some kind of… we were playing with a fifth man on a lot of the tours for "Transference," like in random places. And I think if I hadn’t taken that time away, I wouldn’t have come up with the idea of, let's really add a fifth guy. And I know the guy who could do it, it’s this guy Alex who I’ve been playing with in this other band. That never would have happened if we hadn’t taken a break. So it was good in a lot of ways, and once we got back together everyone was really eager to do it, there was none of the… we were burnt out. But a break that long will surely get you eager to do it again and to do it in a better way.
How do you decide what’s a single?
Well, the label and the radio people definitely have input on that, and there are different types of singles, like there’s the song you put out first, like "Rent I Pay" was the first song that we put out there but it’s not worked to radio so there’s different levels of it. But yeah, if it’s going to be a song that’s pushed to radio, then I let the radio person pick it because she knows what’s going to work. We’ve got a good person, a lady who, for instance I didn’t think that “The Underdog” should even go on “Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga.” And when she said that’s the song that we should pick for radio I was like “Are you fucking kidding me?” I could not believe it. It just seemed like nonsense. It was so not like the rest of the record. And when we play it live it feels not like the rest of the songs we play. But she was right. It was a hit for whatever reason. She knows what she’s doing.
Four years is long in terms of today’s world, where everything feels very immediate, but in the band’s history that’s not really that long.
Yeah, it’s a fifth of our history.
I remember what I wanted to ask you about record stores, I mean it was more about labels, but Merge is in their 25th year and they just released this 24-minute documentary on Google today.
Yeah, it’s pretty interesting. And I think another Merge artist covered a Spoon song.
Oh, it was the Eleanor Friedberger cover of “Trouble Comes Running”?
You guys have been on a big label like Elektra, and also on Matador and now on Loma Vista. You guys have been in like every stage of the changing music industry. What’s that been like?
Well, mostly we’ve had really good experiences if you look at the big picture. I mean we had one very bad one around 1998. And that’s memorialized in songs.
But it was great working with Merge, especially hooking up with them when we did because, first and foremost, they were the first label that made anything happen, that gave us any success, where we felt like this system, this thing we’re doing of putting out a record is not a total failure. The first two records we did felt like that. The third one was the first time I felt like, we sold 1,200 copies the first week, which is almost as much as we’d sold for the first year of the record before, how is this happening on an independent label when it wouldn’t happen on Elektra? Somehow they figure it out and we figure it out but they definitely figured it out. And they’re just great people who are in bands.
They get the creative process?
Yeah, yeah, they’re not heavies. They’re never heavies.
Wait, what does that mean?
Well, I think the danger of working with any entity as a band, but especially a record label, is that they’re going to try to make you do something you don’t want to do, or you’re gonna feel like you need to do it to keep them happy with their end of the bargain. And I got suggestions from Merge but it was never a situation where, “You don’t do this suggestion, you’re an idiot, your records not going to work.” They’ll always figure out some way to do it. And usually their suggestions were very smart and you didn’t have to search too far to find common ground on what you wanted to do together in terms of promoting the record.
What is it like after you record a record, and then you have to do all of the promotion? Does it take away from the creative process?
Some of it’s a pain in the ass, but some of it’s fun to do, like the Vinyl Gratification. When we thought about that, the first thing we heard was this was not going to be doable. I love the idea, but I’ve heard it’s going to be difficult to happen. And then when you overcome that and find ways to make it happen then that’s a blast. But it does take a lot of energy, and that’s energy you could be using to write songs.
But because I want the whole presentation to have a good vibe and to be done the right way, there’s got to be a moment when I’m not writing songs and paying attention this other stuff. It’s just a different world. A different frame of mind.
Some people, like David Byrne, think that people are going to stop making music because it’s not a viable job/income anymore. That’s simplifying it but…
I don’t think that’s going to happen but – I mean it’s definitely hard, and the reality is that artists don’t make much money, if any money at all, from making records. They make money from doing shows. And I pointed this out a couple months ago somewhere, I can’t remember what interview it was, but I think that’s part of why it takes so long for records to come out these days, because bands – in order to survive – spend so much time doing shows, and to do a lot of shows takes a lot of time. And this artifact of making a record kind of gets pushed to the side.
Whereas I get the impression in the sixties the record label wanted you – the more records you put out, the more shots you had at getting a hit single and you could put out a single every three months. I think that was even the case in the eighties really, but it was just a different situation. I don’t think that albums are going to go away. I know that’s the way even the most singles-driven artists like to put out their music, and I think they matter to everyone who buys music really, almost everyone who buys music thinks albums still matter. I think it’s maybe some journalists who see it dying, but I don’t think that’s going to go anywhere.
What about the Internet and stealing music, or having more people listen to your music. Spoon has gone though this change…
I don’t know, you’ve got to find a way to work the system. I never was of the Metallica camp that said that people stealing your record was gonna kill your band. I think that if the music is good enough, it can’t hurt for anybody to hear it. And sometimes people don’t have money to buy a record. I’m not saying they should steal. I don’t feel good about it. I don’t steal records.
And I like holding a thing, call me old-fashioned, but this means a lot more to me (holds a record) than knowing that an album is in here (points to iPhone). Ya know?
Do you have a favorite song or one that particularly holds a lot of meaning for you?
Of yours, from this new album.
Yeah, on this album my favorite song is “Inside Out.” I think it’s got some good lyrics; I don’t know if I could pinpoint exactly what everything means but I don’t want to and to me it’s my favorite one because of the overall soundscape, what that melody and what those chords evoke. That feels magic to me, and that’s the way I feel about the best Beatles songs…
What are your favorite Beatles songs?
I’m not saying it’s as good as the best Beatles songs, but that’s the way I think about music that really touches me the most is, “Wow, there’s some kind of magic in the overall impression of the sounds that gets to me.” And if you can marry that with good lyrics than that’s even better, but it’s never lyrics first for me. Favorite Beatles songs, I don’t know… "Here There and Everywhere," "Glass Onion," "You Can’t Do That," so many. Every record has several gems on it. There are so many great eras too. "I Am the Walrus."
So you say lyrics are sort of secondary? I ask because you’re the lyrics writer…
Doesn’t matter. A bad lyric can ruin the song for sure. But it’s pretty rare when the lyrics matter more than anything else to me and basically I think of Bob Dylan, maybe some Elvis Costello songs. Luckily for both those artists they also write some really great music, but those are probably artists that are like, wow, I’m going to sit down and listen to this song for the words and let them paint a picture in my head and that’s going to be the thing I’m getting off on.
But mostly it’s the soundscape and what emotions the sounds bring out, for most artists, for most bands, for most records. And so that’s always the way that, while I’m making a record, the first thing you gotta do is please yourself. That’s how you know if something’s good or not, if it’s pleasing you. And that’s pretty much how I judge it. Is this soundscape doing it for me? Even when you have a great song that has great words and the melody’s there and you have some demo that’s whatever, that’s not enough, I gotta know that the overall track, the vibe of the whole thing is going to work. So that’s where sometimes we go through three or four or five different versions of a song trying to find that special way of doing it.
I’ve never heard this before, so I like that you guys really identify, I’m gonna play it like, what did you say?
Like The Supremes.
Yeah, and I think you mentioned the Kinks, like minor-Kinks.
Yeah, that’s we called it, minor-Kinks. I gotta go back and listen to that version. We used to do that a lot. We would, after we brought out a record we would start putting out on our site previous versions of the album. We haven’t done that in a while. We should start doing that again, because there’s a lot of good ones for this record that are just completely different takes on the songs.
Do you ever play different versions when you play shows?
The "Rain Taxi" we did on the BBC was kinda different.
Yeah, I wasn’t sure because it was acoustic.
Yeah, that was an early version of that song, that was the “Instant Karma” version. I guess it’s not “Instant Karma” because it doesn’t have piano but… that beat (taps out beat with feet).
I saw you guys at Street Scene in San Diego, what was that, 2008? And then at 2010 at Coachella. You guys put on an awesome live show.
What’s it like to translate music to a live setting? Are there any nerves there or is it just a rush?
Well, there’s always nerves before a show, but the harder part is… even though you can put the song on the record and the record is coming out, that doesn’t mean that you can play it as a band well, because very often you don’t record the song that way; it’s pieced together in the studio, or you do the drums first and then everything else. So some songs… especially on “Transference,” we never ended up playing some of my favorite songs because we just couldn’t. There wasn’t a live way to do it that was really great. I really like “I Saw the Light” on that one, and I think we played it live once because we could never do it, we could never get it right.
Are there any songs that you’re tired of playing?
Usually if we’re tired of playing them we stop playing them because we’ve got so many songs. Right now, I like all the songs we’re playing. We stopped playing “Sister Jet” because we got tired of that. Haven’t played that in a while. I think that was actually a single, so to stop playing that was kind of a big deal. We don’t play anything off the first album anymore. We brought some of the songs back for a couple tours. It must have been 2008, 2009, and they went over about as well as the first time we played them, which is to say not very well at all. They’re just not great songs.
It’s really cool because you kind of have bits and pieces of time in an album and can hear the change.
Yeah, there’s definitely a progression. Yeah, I feel like the first thing we put out where it was actually a premonition of who we were going to become was the “Soft Effects” EP, and a series of things after that were also a little bit more the album before it. And eventually with “Kill the Moonlight” we came back to what I for whatever reason view as that "Soft Effects" thing where it’s jumping between different kinds of songs and really expansive colors that we’re working with.
That was used on "The OC."
Yeah it was. And in "Stranger than Fiction" right?
Did you feel that that song kind of launched you guys?
From “Girls Can Tell” through “Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga” everything was a much bigger step from the one before in terms of how many people heard it and bought it. So yeah, it was a big step, and I remember when that record had been out for three or four months, and I was staying at my uncle’s house for Christmas and kind of taking stock of it for the first time, like, wow, we sold 40,000 records? That’s insane! I’m going to keep doing this. Somehow this is working and I’m not going to have to stop making records. Which is what I thought was going to have to happen for a while.
Good balance of resilience and talent...
Well thanks. Resilience, yes.