Spoon Man

It's a quarter past 9 at night, early by New York City concert standards, but headliner Spoon has already taken the stage at downtown's Webster Hall. The band is fiddling with its instruments, raising and lowering mike stands, taking preliminary swigs of beer--all the standard pre-concert stuff. It's not taking long, but the crowd is already restless.

Over the throb of Interpol on the P.A., anonymous voices begin calling out requests: "Lines!" "Pretty Girls!" "Mathematical!" Judging by the shorthand--the tracks' full titles are, respectively, "Lines in the Suit," "All the Pretty Girls Go to the City" and "My Mathematical Mind"--this is a crowd of serious Spoon fans, people who know the discography by heart as far back as 2000's Girls Can Tell. One lonesome voice even shouts a request for "Waiting for the Kid to Come Home," off Spoon's '97 EP, Soft Effects.

But there are some exceptions. And the exceptions are, arguably, the most exciting things going on in Spoon-land right now. Take the two underage girls near the back. With their lank, Mischa Barton hairstyles, miniskirts and Keds, these appear to be a couple of the brand-new fans Spoon earned from its appearance on the soundtrack of The O.C. Then there are the frat-boy types, thrusting beers in the air and chanting a demand for "I Turn My Camera On," the catchiest number off Spoon's brand-new LP, Gimme Fiction.

Longtime Spoon fans know these people weren't at any of the last New York Spoon gigs, the ones supporting 2002's breakthrough Kill the Moonlight. They're fans on the verge, appreciators if not yet true believers, and the leading edge, perhaps, of genuine mainstream success for the hardest-working indie band in America.

Tonight, at least, the signs for such success are auspicious.

"He's hot," remarks one of the O.C. girls as the stage lights throw Spoon front man Britt Daniel into high relief.

"Quiet," her friend replies. "They're starting."

This is the kind of offhand exchange most musicians start bands in order to inspire, the low-volume banter of cute teenage girls who like the tunes and the front man, too. But if Daniel has been holding out for this moment, he's not showing it. Not showing it tonight, playing a set list deep in back-catalog favorites, and not showing it when he peels free a few minutes to chat.

"Maybe there's pressure," Daniel says with a shrug. "But if there is, I'm not feeling it. You can kind of tell when things are moving in the right direction." Another shrug. Daniel pauses to reconsider the implied question: Is Spoon about to be huge?

"When people talk about this 'success,' I guess, that we're apparently on the verge of, I don't know exactly what they're suggesting," Daniel says. "I get the sense that there's this challenge, like this is our chance to sell a million records and if we don't, then..." He stops for emphasis. "And that's the part I don't get, the 'if we don't.' Because if we don't sell a million records, what's the deal? We're supposed to pack it in? That makes no sense to me."

Daniel insists that at no point during the making of Gimme Fiction did he succumb to make-or-break sweat. Indeed, Daniel claims that the biggest difference between Gimme Fiction and every Spoon record that preceded it is that this time around, he wasn't worrying about anyone's amusement but his own.

"I had to stop thinking about it," Daniel says, the "it" in this case referring, effectively, to everything and everyone in the world other than Britt Daniel. "That was the difference, the approach. Instead of writing songs to be understood by other people, I started writing songs that would amuse me."

Musical narcissism traditionally operates as a double-edged sword. Solitary, inward-looking artists are responsible on the one hand for some of the greatest albums in the rock canon and almost all of the unlistenable ones, too. But longtime Spoon fans needn't fear that Gimme Fiction is the band's rock opera, or its Bitches Brew-inspired "experimental" album, or anything other than the tight-as-a-drum material that has earned the Austin band a reputation as premier practitioners of back-to-basics songcraft.

"Mostly, it came down to letting the lyrics be," Daniel says. "Like, 'I Summon You'--that song's basically a private joke. I was dating a girl who lived out of state, and every so often I'd call her up and say that: 'I summon you.' Like being summoned to court. To anyone else, that's probably just a line in a love song. And that's fine."

If Daniel's nonchalance about the making of Gimme Fiction is invisible in the perfectionist production and arrangements, it's patently obvious in the album's loose-limbed feel. Where the pop on previous LP Kill the Moonlight was whittled down to the thickness of floss, most of Gimme Fiction sounds as though the songs were amplified layer by layer. Lead-off track "The Beast and Dragon, Adored" sets the tone, building from stately piano chords to the squalling, multitrack chorus and topped off by Daniel's anthem cry, "If you believe, they call it rock and roll!"

"I think of Moonlight as being my new wave album," Daniel says. "So I guess this is my classic rock album. But mostly, that happened by chance. Or luck. Or, I don't know, just because that's how it happened. Because we record in a nicer studio now, or because I write on the piano a lot..." Shrug.

The shrugs don't mean that Daniel doesn't take his music seriously. On the contrary, the songs he attributes to chance or luck are the ones he spends too much time cultivating in the studio, with the band and, most of all, when he's alone.

"If I'm in hard-core writing mode, where I go off by myself and work nonstop for a week," Daniel says, "I'll have a lot of ideas recorded, and I listen back just hoping, hoping that there's something there. It's never like, 'Today I'm going to write a hit record,'" he notes. "It's more like, 'Am I going to get lucky?'"

And Daniel says that even now, as he and his band get tipped for the big time, his luck continues to surprise him.

"Every once in a while, it hits you that you've created something real or special," he says. "That happened when I brought 'Mathematical Mind' to the band. I'd written it on the piano and thought that's what it was, me and the piano. But, for whatever reason, I introduced it to the band at the very end of practice one day, and right away they came in with the beat you hear on it now. It just took off.

"And that happened again," Daniel continues, "when I heard the first playback of 'The Beast and Dragon, Adored,' when the big burst of guitar comes out toward the end. That's, like, my all-time favorite 15 seconds of Spoon," he declares, before settling back into his more typical impassive state. "I was pretty psyched."

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Maya Singer