The medicine goes down
Britt Daniel, the brainchild behind the Austin band Spoon, is a rather serious young man. That becomes obvious when he reminds this interviewer that I reviewed a tape by one of his previous bands.
"You gave us a bad review," he says, fixing his pale blue eyes upon me.
"Did I pan you?" I ask, remembering instead that I seemed to like what his band, Skellington, was doing. "Yeah," answers Daniel, still staring right at me, his terseness almost a challenge.
Spoon drummer Jim Eno jumps in. "What Britt calls a bad review and what other people call a bad review are two different things."
"It wasn't that bad...." Daniel admits. "It was mediocre to bad. You at least got the right influences. You at least said I sounded like I had been listening to Lou Reed."
I'd now like to credit my constructive criticism for making Spoon's debut album on Matador Records, Telephono, so damn good. But that would be a lie.
What is true is that Telephono is probably the smartest rock-pop (as opposed to pop-rock) record out of Austin since the demise of the Reivers (nee Zeitgeist). The Reivers' guitarist and songwriter, John Croslin, produced the album and currently is doing fill-in duty as Spoon's bassist; it bears mention that the band's only serious competition for the rock-pop crown in Austin is the Croslin-produced Wannabes.
Filled with driving rhythms and guitars that flash with the crackle of an electrical fire, Telephono reminds you of Television's Marquee Moon, sans the soaring Tom Verlaine-Richard Lloyd guitar duels. Daniel will admit to such influences as Lou Reed and early Cure, and some listeners compare Spoon to the Pixies, although Spoon's attack is probably too linear to make that reference stick. What does stick is Spoon's independence from current trends.
"We went to Europe, and every reporter there asked us if we listened to a lot of new wave," explains Daniel. "We'd never been asked that before, but they consistently asked that. I thought that was cool...It's a decent thing to be compared to."
Spoon also capitalizes the "P" in power trio, in a parallel yet different way from rock's last great capital-p trio, Nirvana. Much like Kurt Cobain, Daniel is a composer who, underneath it all, has a rare knack for the eternal pop hook.
Maybe that's because--again, like Cobain--Daniel originally hails from one of those classically middle-American cities where hipness isn't readily available over the counter. For Cobain, it was the logging town of Aberdeen, Washington; for Daniel, it's the central Texas wasteland of Temple.
"We weren't really that educated. Like in middle school, I thought Duran Duran were new wave," he admits. "Then in high school, I started listening to more underground stuff, though there weren't that many places to find out about it."
Daniel also was weaned on his father's favorites: the Beatles and Elton John. "Mostly the Beatles, though, is what I listened to a lot when I was growing up, for which I thank [my father]. But he's really confused and thinks that Paul McCartney is the cool one."
By his later high-school years, Daniel was playing guitar and making pilgrimages to the record stores in Austin. "I was in a cover band in Temple the year before I came to Austin [to go to the University of Texas]," he says. "At that time there weren't any original bands in Temple. So people were nuts about us because we were just a band, even if we were just playing all covers. People didn't even realize they were covers; they knew they were covers, but the difference between us and a real band was not that big."
Though Daniel seems slightly embarrassed by it all, his past reveals a musical grounding--growing up with classics and learning how to play popular songs written by others--that many underground rockers are sorely lacking. Once he became involved in the Austin scene, its effects were obvious.
"Maybe I sat through too many bands that had some songs that were good, but the songs went on too long. That's what I was thinking about when I started the band," he reflects. "Maybe that means I sold out--even before I started the band--because I was already thinking about the audience.
"I'd had it with being in crummy bands in Austin that nobody came to see. I thought that if I was in a band that had short songs, and we had a girl in the band [bassist Andy Maguire, who quit earlier this year], people would come to see us. I was limiting myself by making the songs short so people wouldn't get bored."
Not that the tactic worked, mind you. "We wanted people to come to our shows, but they didn't. I dunno. Maybe it's because we're not...maybe we're more appealing on record.
"I don't think that's it; I think we're a good live band," he continues. In fact, since going on tour with Croslin playing bass, Spoon has become quite a stirring live act.
"I think it's probably because we didn't fit in with the musical camps in Austin. There's a garage-rock camp, and a Trance [Syndicate]-band camp. And every once in a while somebody comes along like Sincola who isn't in either of those, but it's rare. So that's my guess why there wasn't a big hype."
But even if Spoon didn't become the next big thing in the "Self-Indulgent Live Music Capital of the World," it did catch the ear of one of today's maestros of hip, Gerard Cosloy, the combative co-owner of Matador Records (home to the likes of Pavement and Liz Phair). "I had heard that Gerard had heard us at an anti-South by Southwest show in 1994, and liked us," recalls Daniel. "We sent him our 7-inch [The Nefarious EP on Fluffer Records], we sent him our demos, and I sent a solo tape to him. Finally, he called and said, 'If you are ever in New York, let me know so I can set up a show for you.' So it was sorta like that for a while. He came and saw us whenever we were up there."
Meanwhile, Spoon had started recording an album on eight-track in Croslin's garage. Though the setup was technologically simple, Daniel says, "I think we really did indulge ourselves. We spent a long time recording this record. We spent four months recording, and maybe like five months mixing. That wasn't like eight hours a day, that was at night, some of it in between a record John was doing with the Wannabes. But still, there is an element of broadness to it, and I think there's also a lot going on on the record. It's not just guitar, bass, and drums. There's a lot of instrumentation and a lot of sound effects."
It also was good enough to convince Cosloy. "Once we had the rough mixes of this album, we sent those to him, and after about a month or so, he made us an offer," says Daniel.
So without the usual Austin fanfare, Spoon landed on one of today's trendiest labels, and has been out on tour opening shows for labelmates Guided By Voices. How did the band pull that off?
"I think the reason why things are happening for us on some level is because we were real dedicated, and primarily we had good songs," Daniel notes. "We worked real hard at recording a good record and finding good people to work with businesswise."
It's all been part of a continuing education. "I got better at telling what was a bad song and what was a good song. I got hooked up with more serious dudes," he concludes. "But we're still learning a lot.
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