It begins with an apology because it has to. Before we can talk about his band's new album, Kill the Moonlight, before we can talk about anything else. See, I spoke with Spoon singer-guitarist Britt Daniel a few months ago, after a Friday-night gig at Trees. He was talking to a friend of mine, and when I walked by, she introduced me. He remembered who I was all too quickly: "Oh, you're the guy who called me an asshole in the paper." I tried to protest, since I was fairly sure I'd done no such thing, but I didn't do a very good job, too drunk and surprised to do more than stand there with a not-so-bright look on my face, trying for a smile that wasn't there. I said my goodbyes quickly and got out of there quicker.
I was wrong. When I got back to the office on Monday, I looked up the story Daniel was referring to ("Rhythm and Bruises," February 22, 2001). It was around the time Spoon's third album, Girls Can Tell, was released, and we'd had a pretty good conversation. The discussion strayed from its real purpose until it was just a couple of guys talking, not one end of the telephone providing the Q's and the other supplying the A's.
And when I wrote it all down, I called Daniel an asshole. (Actually, if you want to be technical, I said "complete asshole.") Didn't mean to, or at least, didn't mean for it to come out like that. But there it was. A year later, he didn't remember our pretty good conversation, only this. Can't blame him. If anyone was an asshole, it was me.
Spoon with John Vanderslice and The Signals
Rubber Gloves Rehearsal Studios
As for Daniel? Nothing could be further from the truth. When I get him on the phone again, a week or so ago, he even tries to give me a way out after my apology, an excuse for doing what I did. "I think that you meant to say that people thought I was an asshole." Then he laughs. "So who are these people?"
Daniel obviously knows some people don't understand him. He's always known it. It happened all the time when he was growing up in Temple and some of his middle-school classmates wanted to kick the crap out of him because he didn't listen to Iron Maiden or Judas Priest and that automatically meant he was gay and that was bad. It's happened since he moved to Austin to go to college and even more after he began playing with Spoon almost a decade ago, mainly because he doesn't talk much or doesn't talk about the right things or something like that.
"Sometimes, I think, you know, I kinda give off a bad impression," Daniel says, on the phone from his Austin apartment. "But it's just the way I look, or sometimes I'm shy. You know, shy people kinda get that sometimes. Almost every instance of when people think that someone else is an asshole, almost always, I'd say maybe 80 percent of the time, it's because those people they think are an asshole are actually just uncomfortable or shy or whatever. But maybe I am an asshole. I just don't think that the people that know me well, any of them, would say that I'm an asshole."
You get to know Daniel better after listening to Kill the Moonlight, and of all the things you might say about him then, that's not one of them. Could say he has low expectations (of himself, of life in general) because everything's easier that way ("Me and my friends sell ourselves short but feel very well/We feel fine," he explains on "Small Stakes"). Or that he wants "Something To Look Forward To" and "Someone Something" to connect to. Or maybe he's still the kid in Temple getting picked on after class ("Jonathon Fisk speaks with his fists/Can't let me walk home on my own," he sings on "Jonathon Fisk").
He might be all of these things, but it's just as possible that he's none of them. After all, he writes songs, not diary entries, no matter how heartfelt the result may be. Daniel may put his head and heart onto the page, but when he gets into a recording studio, it doesn't matter. Not if it doesn't sound good, not if it doesn't sound like a song that should be on a Spoon record. No matter what Daniel thinks about his songs when he's home writing them, no matter what kind of album he wants to make, he knows, in the end, that he's not the boss. The speakers on the stereo have the last word, and he never questions them.
"We recorded for a week in October, and we listened back to what we had done after recording for a solid week, and we did not like it," Daniel says. "So we scrapped almost all of that. And I went back and wrote some more songs. Some of the songs we just scrapped entirely; some of the songs we just scrapped the recordings and then recorded them over...We go in there with a sort of idea in mind: OK, this one's gonna be, like with Girls Can Tell, it was more of a traditional pop record. That's what we wanted to make. And this time we wanted to make it more rock and maybe a little bit more out there. But, you know, you go in with these ideas, and then you start listening to how it's recorded, and all that goes out the window. You just want to make the song as good as it can be on its own. All that stuff about where I'm coming from"--he laughs softly--"doesn't seem to matter when you play it back and you think, 'Oooh, this isn't working.' Then it's just, like, do anything you can to make the song stand up on its own."
Of course, he didn't always think that way. On Spoon's first two albums, 1996's Telephono and 1998's A Series of Sneaks, he and the band shied away from adding any ingredients that weren't on the recipe. The songs were good, some of them great, but it always felt as if something was missing. They filled in the blanks with Girls Can Tell, adding mellotron and vibes and piano, producing a record that brimmed with mid-'60s soul and late-'70s spunk, blue-eyed rhythm-and-booze for red-eyed nights and bleary-eyed mornings. Songs such as "Everything Hits at Once" and "Take the Fifth" sounded as though they were recorded in Memphis a couple of decades ago, with Al Bell cutting the checks and Booker T. & the MG's cutting the tracks. And the broader canvas gave Daniel plenty of room to paint a pretty (bleak) picture: "The end will come slow," he sang on "Believing Is Art," "and love breaks your heart."
Kill the Moonlight, released by Merge Records in August, continues Spoon's musical re-education, keeping the keys and adding saxophone (Matt Brown's buzz saw attack on "Jonathon Fisk" is one of the disc's highlights) and 12-string guitar and something called a dabouke. Drums only appear on a handful of songs, the backbeat occasionally kept by drum machines ("Small Stakes") and a human beat box ("Stay Don't Go"). And at one point ("Paper Tiger"), it sounds as though they recorded directly on top of an Aphex Twin song, Daniel's lyrics ("I will be there when you turn out the light") coming across as vaguely creepy when paired with the stuttering pulse following along just below the surface.
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"We just really work on that angle: How can this sound different? Or, how can this sound unique?" Daniel says. "It just seemed to make more sense to do drum machine or to do beat box or whatever on a few of them. It just seemed like it would be more fun to listen to. I think that if I heard this record at somebody else's house, I'd think, 'Wow, this sounds like fun. Sort of surprising.'...The more we have done this band, the more we thought, 'You know, let's just try everything.' Some of it won't work. I mean, a lot of it won't work. But you find the things that do."
With any luck, enough people will find Kill the Moonlight. It could, and should, happen, since a surprising amount of listeners--surprising to Daniel, at any rate--discovered Girls Can Tell. Daniel and the group (drummer Jim Eno is the only other constant) recorded the disc on their own, after being burned by Elektra Records; the label released A Series of Sneaks just before it released Spoon from its contract. (Merge recently reissued the disc, adding two songs, "The Agony of Lafitte" and "Lafitte Don't Fail Me Now," both aimed at the head of their former Elektra A&R man, Ron Lafitte. The songs were released earlier as a single and tacked to the end of the disc when Merge was looking for some bonus tracks. "It is ironic," Daniel says.) When they finished Girls Can Tell, they weren't sure if they needed a label to put it out or a reason to keep going. As it turns out, they found both.
"You know, 'I'm sick of living in this shitty apartment with trees growing in the pool. Maybe I need to go learn how to sell stocks and bonds rather than trying this music thing. Because people aren't liking what I do,' Daniel says, explaining where he was two years ago.
"Somebody asked me yesterday, 'What was your criteria you were looking for in a label?' And I was like, 'Well, that they knew who we were and that they would call me back.' And Merge met both of those qualifications, and they were the first," he continues, laughing. He pauses for a few seconds. "This is sort of a geeky story, but the first week that Girls Can Tell came out and we got our first week SoundScan, it had scanned more in one week than A Series of Sneaks had sold in a year. Which was, believe me, the shock of my life. I mean, I remember driving down the street after that happened and just being, like, I thought I was going to lose it. Seriously. It was very emotional, to feel like, wow, people are actually listening. They actually like it. I can't believe it. I've been working so hard for so long."