Britt Daniel on Spoon's new album, Prince and a quarter century of indie life

The co-founder talks staying young, getting old, learning from the masters and the emotions behind "Hot Thoughts"

Published July 8, 2017 2:00PM (EDT)

Spoon (Matador Records)
Spoon (Matador Records)

Conventional wisdom says that bands have a limited shelf life, at least where hitting the studio is concerned. Although groups can tour for decades on the back of early hits, dredging up the creativity needed to create engaging new music seems more difficult as acts age.

One of the major exceptions to this rule is Spoon. The Austin, Texas-formed band is celebrating 25 years of existence next year, and has maintained a relentless pace of sonic innovation throughout this time. After beginning life as a noisy indie-rock band (see 1996's wiry "Telephono"), Spoon moved on to dabble in nervy new wave (2001's "Girls Can Tell"), snappy funk-rock (2007's "Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga") and ragged electro-soul (2014's "They Want My Soul").

Spoon's latest LP, "Hot Thoughts," is yet another leap forward. Synth-heavy and atmospheric, the album exudes a sense of unease and dread that feels resonant with modern society. Look no further than the final song, a five-minute instrumental called "Us," which boasts smoky saxophone, mournful and thundering percussion, and a sound somewhere between abstract jazz and sultry electronica.

As per usual, in the coming months Spoon has a slate of TV show appearances and tour dates on tap. "We’re going to play some venues that my mom will appreciate," says vocalist, guitarist and co-founder Britt Daniel. "I’m going to get her to come out and see us at the Hollywood Bowl and Red Rocks, maybe."

Salon reached the musician in London, where he shook off some post-nap grogginess to talk about capturing creative inspiration and how Spoon has persevered.

In general, what were the biggest differences for you as the songs on "Hot Thoughts" were coming together?

I could just feel that the songs were real solid. I could feel that we were pushing out and doing some things we hadn’t done before — I mean, [there's] a song like "Us." Often, those left turns happen by accident, and you gotta be chill enough, cool enough, to not think, "Oh, that’s not what I was planning, let’s do it again," and instead just say, "Oh, that thing I was planning was not nearly as good of an idea as those accidents that just happened." And so you go chase that accident and see where it can lead you. That song "Us" is a good example of that.

It’s like you’re still being nimble and open to those moments. You’re not saying, "This is not what we do."

Right, right. Yeah, you can’t do that. You’re going to start making records that are boring. I’ve just seen it too many times where bands get successful and then, for whatever reason — maybe because they feel like they have money — now they can throw money at everything and make it happen. People start making bad records. The thing is, you can never throw money at writing songs or throw money at making a record. You [have] to do the hard work yourself. You’ve got to get inspired.

There’s so much talk this year about mid-career bands, or bands that have released a lot of records. And people are like, how do you stay engaged? Do you find it harder to stay engaged now? What is driving you?

I think inspiring music begets inspired music. So what I try to do is listen to the greatest stuff, whether that is new or old. I hear from these people who say, "I’m making a record, so I don’t want to listen to anybody else’s stuff." You know, "It’s just all gotta be me." To me, I think that you get reacquainted with some CCR [Creedence Clearwater Revival] record that you haven’t listened to for five or 10 years, and you realize you’re back in the presence of this greatness, right? You just kind of re-experience all of the genius bits and all of the soul that went into those records.

That makes me feel inspired. It makes me feel like, "Okay, I want to go do something." When rock 'n' roll was so new in the ’60s and was all of a sudden popular, it’s no surprise that there were so many great records happening, over and over again. If you were to be able to hear new Beatles records on the radio, wouldn’t that be inspiring for all of these other artists? Or Motown records?

Two of your heroes were Prince and David Bowie. Is it an odd experience for you, still being an active touring musician when they’re no longer with us? That’s really been on my mind recently, as I've been surveying their catalog and their career.

Yeah. [Pause] It’s weird to see them… it’s emotional for me to see them pass away. In a way, you feel like this presence, this spirit… well, in a way, the spirit really still is there, you know? But in a way, I feel like I got used to the spirit of Bowie always being [there]. Like, this person will always be there. But you can still reach his spirit on the records though. That’s important.

It’s true, though. You always take them for granted. It’s like, "Oh, he’s always going to be there."

I had no idea when I saw Prince the last time that that would be the last time. If I had, I would have made sure I got up to the front. Instead, I thought, "Oh, I’ll see Prince again next year sometime."

When did you see him? Which tour?

The last time I saw him was 2013. He played a one-off show during South by Southwest. It was a show put on by Samsung; it wasn’t an actual South by Southwest show. I heard Prince was playing, [and] it was the hardest ticket to get. I did finally manage to get a ticket, and I showed up and on the marquee it says, "A Tribe Called Quest and Prince," so not only was Prince playing, but A Tribe Called Quest was opening. It was insane. It was just an amazing night of music. And of course, that was the last time I got to see [A Tribe Called Quest's] Phife [Dawg] as well.

What have been your biggest musical takeaways as you survey Prince and Bowie, either on this current record or just kind of in general?

I think the best artists are showing you moods that you can experience, moods that you can live in. Those artists, in particular, were so great at creating the mood and a unique mood per song. Showing you some kind of sound world, or just world, that no one else has shown you before. When I listen to [Prince's] "The Ballad of Dorothy Parker," I definitely get that. This is a different world, you know? The words, the music, the chorus, everything, is just combining into this thing that is just beautiful and beyond human.

It’s its own universe — on all of their records and all of their songs, that’s what sticks out to me.

Yeah, it’s also just amazing to listen to those records and think about how quickly those records were being made. How everything was just happening for this one brief period of time. It’s just a truly inspired moment, say for Prince, maybe ’80 through ’87, just such an inspired moment. Everything he touched was just magic.

Absolutely. And you think about how much he evolved too in that short amount of time. You get on a creative streak like that and you’re envious, because so few people get on those, and so few people can sustain that as well.

Right. And you know what? I felt like I was on one of those trips this time. To get back to your question about what was different about it and what was I going through, I really felt like there were times in the few years before where I would work on music, I’d write songs and I’d think to myself, "Remember when I got all of those songs in a row during that one two-month period? I really want to get on one of those rides again." And it finally happened this time, while I was writing the songs for this record, where stuff just kept coming and I knew it was good. I knew it was going to make the record. I was on a good roll.

Now, I haven’t written a song in six months, so I’m off the roll. You know, I’d be wise to keep going, but it’s just the way that the music biz works these days. It’s hard to keep… my attention was needed elsewhere. It’s hard to just keep writing and being in that intense place when it’s time to go and do shows. And the way everybody makes money now is shows.

Is that different than when you guys started out, then? How does that compare to earlier in your career?

Well, we weren’t pulled away very often when we started out, because we weren’t that popular. So when I’d made that first record, "Telephono," and that came out, I remember I was writing [1997's] "Soft Effects" [EP] and recording it. ["Telephono"] came out in April; we were working on ["Soft Effects"] in June and July, because we didn’t have anything going on, you know? [Laughs] Nowadays, it’s not really like that. Maybe if we had had more success with them, the same kind of thing would happen. It was really around [2002 LP] "Kill the Moonlight" or [the 2005 LP] "Gimme Fiction" where we became successful enough that we could go out and make money doing shows, instead of losing money doing shows. And then when that happened, things started moving a little slower.

It is true when you look at your catalog — there’s stuff in ’96, ’98 and then it’s 2001 and 2002, and then there’s three years, fou years sometimes in between records.

Right, yep, yep. "Girls Can Tell" and "Kill the Moonlight" was the last time that I was able to kind of stay in that headspace for such a long period of time, and those records came really fast.

Is that difficult for you as a songwriter? Conventional wisdom says that when you’re creative and you’re on a hot streak, you’ve got to hold onto it.

Yeah, it is hard to get back into that hot streak. Sometimes you just don’t find it. Sometimes you’ve got to go work on some older material and sort of shape it up into something. Or sometimes you’ve just got to wait, or sometimes it’s going to be frustrating. It’s hard to get into that hot streak.

[Pause] I don’t know, I felt a lot of positivity at that moment [making "Hot Thoughts"], just in terms of what the band had done the year before, the kind of shows that we were doing. We started working with some different business people. Everything felt really good and positive and that added... I think that helped.

The kind of shows we’re doing these days, it’s so satisfying to do this kind of show. I’m hoping that’s just going to carry me, you know? It helps me believe. [Laughs]

You guys are turning 25 next year. Bands don’t seem like they last that long anymore. To what do you attribute your longevity?

I think everybody kind of wants to keep doing it. Not everybody — I shouldn’t say everybody. But most people who get into the position where they can make records want to keep doing it. There’s the occasional person, like my friend, who's now a painter and used to be in that band CSS. She doesn’t want to do it anymore. She doesn’t miss it. But I think that most people want to stay there, but the reason that we’ve been able to is... I don’t know, I mean, just because I look for those inspired moments. I look for the happy accidents, and we never put out a half-ass record.

Absolutely. Because Spoon has always been willing to try new things, with new sounds, and evolve, you don’t get stuck. I feel like with a lot of bands, either fans want them to continue doing the same thing, or else they feel pressured: "Well, we were successful with this, we need to do that." You guys have never been like that. You look over your entire catalog and it’s really interesting looking at where you started to where you are now.

Yeah, it’s almost not the same band; it’s such different people that made our first record than the one now. But there it is. Still with the same name. I don’t know how much sense it makes, but that’s where we are.

It’s a matter of, I guess, do people associate Spoon with just you, is it you and [co-founder/drummer] Jim [Eno]? That’s an argument that I think music fans have. You know, what is the true essential band? At what point can members go away and it’s not the same band anymore?

Yeah, it’s up for debate, right? It’s always different with every band. But somebody’s got to maintain a spark, or else you might as well just pack it up.

What are the biggest physical and emotional differences for you touring now, as opposed to touring maybe 15 years ago when you really started?

Physical differences… yeah, when we couldn’t give away tickets to our shows. We would end up losing money — or come back after living very, very frugally with a couple of hundred bucks at the end of the tour. I mean, yeah, you can’t get a hotel room, you certainly couldn’t get a bus. The size of [concert] rooms is a physical thing. They’re much bigger now. [Laughs] And that’s not always good! It’s harder to connect with people in a huge room, you know?

Emotionally, I don’t know, I feel more… When I was younger, especially starting out this band, I was very distant. There were a lot of cool rules we lived by. At some point, maybe around "Girls Can Tell," I started opening up a little bit more, letting down my guard and seeing the beauty in showing vulnerability or love or other moods other than just being cool. [Laughs] We don’t always do that, but we have found a way to do that at times.

This last record, that song "Us" makes me feel real emotional, and it doesn’t have any words. I mean, that one sounds to me like it’s the arc of a relationship, the way that song unfolds. That’s the way I think about it as I hear it. I love that tune.

Would you guys ever consider doing an instrumental record?

That would be easier. It would sure be easier. Yeah, lyrics are hard.


By Annie Zaleski

Annie Zaleski is a Cleveland-based journalist who writes regularly for The A.V. Club, and has also been published by Rolling Stone, Vulture, RBMA, Thrillist and Spin.

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