Standard Sounds

Beers with Britt Daniel

It can be tempting when talking about the band Spoon to wax rhapsodic, to reach for grandiose metaphors to account for the band’s rock solid catalogue, to say nothing of how a band entering its 20th year is churning out some of its best music yet.

But maybe the explanation just happens to be a simple one: they still work really, really hard at it. They still care. During a recent stay at The Standard, High Line, frontman Britt Daniel met up with Standard Culture at Lake Street, a Midwestern dive bar installed on the main thoroughfare in Greenpoint, Brooklyn by four touring musicians, one of whom is Rob Pope, Spoon’s bassist.

Daniel strode into the bar looking every bit the rock star — head-to-toe black, leather jacket, shades, the best disheveled hair in the business. In conversation, the thing that’s immediately apparent is that making music, and everything that goes along with it, is Daniel’s singular focus. It’s just what he does. If he’s not writing songs, he’s touring, or readying the album art, or making videos, or even starting a new band to reset his musical inputs. However, Daniel is most animated when talking about the music he loves. His love for certain bands, albums, and sounds is deep and abiding, and references to touchstones of classic rock and pop history are laced throughout Spoon’s discography like a bread crumb trail for those who also happen to care about these things.

A mere eight months removed from the release of They Want My Soul — Spoon’s warmly received 8th LP — Daniel has already begun writing for the next Spoon record. He recently returned from Melbourne where he started 50 ideas for songs. It’s a bit mind-boggling, the work ethic, but so far as one can tell, he would have it no other way.

Over beers, Daniel was exceedingly thoughtful about how he does what he does, the music he never gets tired of, and how Spoon has managed to retain the "spark" that so many bands lose. Afterwards, he hit us with two playlists of his favorite quintessentially New York and LA songs.

STANDARD CULTURE: It seems like you write non-stop.
BRITT DANIEL: It might seem like that, but honestly when I finish a record I take a breather from writing for a while. And then depending on how busy we are during the touring part, I can kinda push myself into starting again. It [writing] takes a lot of time. It really takes a lot of time. So when I’m spending the time by myself writing, they [the other guys in the band] can do things like make records and start businesses and stuff, but it all works out.

Is solitary writing your favorite part?
It can be ok. I’m having a lot of fun this time. Sometimes the making of the record is fun, sometimes it’s stressful. The touring is always fun. I tend to work on old ideas from the record before that didn’t get finished. This time I’m not doing anything like that. I’m just doing all new stuff. It’s a lot more fun.

Why is that?
I don’t know. I had the chance to go away and just write and come up with a lot of different ideas. I went to Melbourne for a month — that’s where I wrote like 50 ideas. And I looked at ‘em all and I was like, ‘This is so much more interesting to me than going back and trying to grind these things that are half-shaped into something that I’ll like.’ I could probably do it. But maybe it means something.

You’ve lived in a lot of different cities. You move around a lot…do you do that to reset?
Yeah, it’s invigorating. And if I can, then it feels like a shame not to. Certain times I’ve had a serious girlfriend and it didn’t make sense to do then. Certain times I’ll be busy making the record and you can’t really hop around then. So when you’re writing the songs, if you have the means...why not.

It seems like you guys make deliberate choices about what you do as far as touring and then going away.
Why do you say that? Sometimes we feel like…I was just talking to Jim [Jim Eno, Spoon’s drummer] and we keep getting offered to do festivals in places we just can’t turn down, like Mexico City. And even though we want to be done, I just can’t turn that down. We try to be smart about it. I mean, Arcade Fire goes completely away, doesn’t do any shows whatsoever, and when they come back, they come back big. If you’re Arcade Fire, there’s a lot of built-up tension when you finally come back out.

Did you feel that way this time?
I wasn’t sure how it was gonna go down. We were away for a long time, much longer than we would have liked. That was mostly due to how long it took for me to start a new band and make the record.

How have you been able to survive life on the road?
It’s fun for me. I get less healthy when I’m on tour. But I haven’t had a nervous breakdown yet. We definitely drink a lot on the road. To get ready for the shows. It’s just part of the life that we’re still participating in. Makes it all a bit more fun. I guess if you’re asking does that mean we’re able to stay in control, as opposed to some bands…we’ve never OD’d. We definitely put on a few pounds when we’re on tour.

Are there song types, approaches to albums, projects that still get you excited? Ones you’d want to try?
I love records where bands decide they’re going to go for something. It’s not something we’ve done, in very general terms. On Girls Can Tell, the general vibe was more about old-school songwriting and a little more soul. Those were elements we were very much doing. Kill the Moonlight was a little more like a new wave demo…dirty, minimal. We’ve never made an all acoustic or a dance record. I would love to, it’s just hard. You’re just trying to get any 10 or 15 songs that are great, and sometimes they don’t lend themselves to being dance songs. I admire bands that have done that and I’d like to do it at some point.

What are some songs you get back to again and again, songs you never get tired of?
“Tumbling Dice” by the Rolling Stones
“Get Innocuous” by LCD Soundsystem
Anything off 1999 — really anything by Prince in the '80s
“God” by John Lennon

What did you make of the New York Times story that compared your approach to music to molecular gastronomy?
What I took away from it was that he was saying that there was a lot of attention to detail. When I first started hearing the term “foodie,” I thought, “I’m a foodie – I love food, I’m obsessed with food.” But then I realized what it means: peanut butter pasta, and bacon and eggs ice cream, and shit like that. I’m not interested in that. I’m interested in basics. Basics done really well. You can combine genres just for the sake of combining them — it’s just not going to work. If that’s what you get from the title, I don’t want to do that.

What’s some music that you’re really into that people might not expect?
I’m really, really into Cocteau Twins. I love them. I’m obsessed with Solaris. I met Cliff Martinez once and got to tell him how significant it was to me. It just makes me feel like I’m in a dream state. At the same time, it’s not purely ethereal, it’s got some sense to it, some movement, and peaks and valleys, and really just interesting experiments that somehow add up to something that’s emotionally moving. It’s just one of the best examples of film music I’ve ever heard.

What was the jumping off point for your recent Letterman performance?
There was this Bob Dylan performance on the Grammy’s one year where he played on a big stage inside a box. They built a box made of these walls of fabric with a roof on it. And they had these harsh lights underneath him, which created these magic shadows behind him. It was maybe 2002. The song was “Cry a While”. It stuck with me. So I said [to our lighting designer], maybe we should go for the box this time. We didn’t pull it off again.

Spoon always has really strong album art. Is that something that you pay close attention to? How do you approach it?
It’s important to me. My favorite one is the Gimme Fiction cover. For that one, we were working with a guy who really got it. I spend a lot more time on it now than I did starting out. It takes a long time to put it together if you want to do it right. And sometimes I get more hands-on with it than maybe I should.

I mean, Jack White pays more attention to that stuff than anybody and he’s the best at it and it takes him a long way because the stuff he does is so memorable, and he has so many great ideas design-wise, and just conceptually. I think that shit matters. Sometimes it matters more than I’d like it to. It would be interesting if all I just to do was just write songs and sing them.

Given that Spoon has this reputation for consistency, do you ever think about why other bands drop off?
[LONG PAUSE] I’m very much aware of that. How come Prince could not make a wrong move between ‘80 and ‘87, and since then it’s been diminishing returns every time. I don’t know how to explain it. There’s only so much you can do — people change. You can only make the record that you are at that moment. Maybe it’s a matter of how hard you try. At some point I felt like REM gave up trying. Some bands, when people become successful, get more money, they try to throw money at problems, but you can’t do that with songwriting and making records. You can’t decide I’m going to spend half as much time by paying someone else to do it – you’re not going to end up with a good record. So we put ourselves through the ringer every time.

What do you do when you can’t write?
Oh, you know, live life.

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