It's a cold, early January evening, and Spoon frontman Britt Daniel is cozied up in a dimly lit corner of a New York hotel lounge. He's in typically good spirits, but he pauses and makes a face when the term "indie rock" comes up in conversation.
"I grew tired of that label a while ago," he says as he anxiously ruffles his hair. He speaks slowly, looking in the air for the right words. "If you're talking about the spirit of independent record labels, I'm totally into that, but it seems like a lot of times people use the term 'indie rock' as sort of a genre typified by a lack of effort, a lack of putting yourself out there. It seems middle-of-the-road to me, like people mean 'junior-level rock & roll.'"
Spoon, by Daniel's definition, are not indie rock. The long-running Austin group, known for acerbic yet warmly endearing pop-rock songs like "The Underdog" and "Got Nuffin," has always strived for greatness. The band members endured a sour major-label experience in the late Nineties, documented on the single "The Agony of Laffitte," which targeted their former A&R rep, Ron Laffitte. But they went on to find success on the indie label Merge and revenue by placing songs in movies and commercials. By the late 2000s, they began putting out a string of albums that charted in the Top 10.
Although Spoon are far from second-class rock, Daniel clarifies his perspective a couple of days later. "I've never really fantasized about being as big as U2," he says. "But maybe if we were as big as Coldplay, I would."
As their profile has increased, Spoon's work has only grown richer – and weirder. Since 2001, when they broke into college radio with their catchy, guitar-centric art-rock LP Girls Can Tell, they've gradually radicalized their sound with piano (2002's Kill the Moonlight), percussion (2005's Gimme Fiction), horn embellishments (2007's Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga) and, most recently, keyboards and a flirtation with breakbeats (2014's They Want My Soul). Their latest – Hot Thoughts, which they made with producer Dave Fridmann (Flaming Lips, Sleater-Kinney) – shows off the band's ability to balance hooks with experimentation; nearly every member of the group plays keys, which range from fuzzy to cutting, and the last track is five minutes of sax expressionism.
"When we first started out, we were writing songs that were intended to go over well in bars, so that we could impress club owners enough to get a weekend gig," Daniel says, reflecting on Spoon's beginnings in 1993. "I'd been in two bands before that couldn't get weekend gigs. When we started using keyboards on our records, it was uncool. Previously, we'd wanted to be like Guided by Voices and Pavement – I didn't hear them doing that."
Daniel & Co. challenged themselves this time by recording songs with as little guitar as possible – even if they wrote them on the instrument – coming up with keyboard-saturated numbers that rocked hard enough to steer clear of New Wave territory. The chilly "I Ain't the One" was originally a Johnny Cash–inspired acoustic "mythic outsider, tough-guy kind of song" until Daniel rethought it after a night of drinking and smoking weed. "Do I Have to Talk You Into It," whose lyrics stemmed from a clash Daniel had with a producer, has a cutting chorus worthy of Trent Reznor. "Shotgun," written after one of Daniel's friends insulted him, is a galloping, synth-imbued invitation to throw down. "I can be surly sometimes," he says with a laugh. In total, Daniel describes the album as the "future of Spoon."
Elsewhere, the group dabbled with in-studio improvisation ("Us" is a saxophone solo with most of the original music removed), sex jams (the title track, inspired by a man hitting on Daniel's girlfriend by telling her she had beautiful teeth – "I thought that was such a unique angle for hitting on my girlfriend") and narrative storytelling (the slow-building "WhisperIlllistentohearit," whose refrain, "Someday you won't be so alone" is sung from the perspective of Daniel's father). "I'm not married and don't have kids," Daniel says of why he wrote the latter song. "So it's like something he would say to me. But I don't feel so alone. I feel good."
Many of Daniel's lyrics are personal and he plays his cards close to his chest when discussing them, especially those inspired by arguments. By and large, though, he's happy. He lives in L.A. and keeps a house in Austin. His girlfriend, a photographer, lives in New York. He loves traveling and says his favorite part of being in a band is touring.
The band's success, beginning around the time of Gimme Fiction, has also helped him get closer to his family in recent years in unusual ways. "I'd see my family at Christmas and all of a sudden my uncle wants to talk to me about the band," he says with a laugh. "It seemed like a legit thing to him. He knew I was in a band the whole time, but now it's, 'Oh, he's doing something.'"
Nevertheless, he's humble about the band's success; the first time he spent any real money was in 2003 when he bought an acoustic Gibson J45 guitar for $1,700. "I remember thinking, 'This is an extravagance that I never would have had otherwise,'" he says. "I played it on the last tour. It's a good one." Still, he doesn't revel in success.
At one point during conversation, Spoon's "All the Pretty Girls Go to the City" comes on over the restaurant PA. Daniel pauses mid-sentence and points up. "Maybe you've heard this before," he says with a laugh. Is this a regular occurrence for him? "It's pretty normal," he says with a laugh. "What I find most amusing is when I'm like, 'The percussion is us,' but I'm not sure what song it is. Like, 'I know that's Spoon but I don't know what song it is.' It's cool."
The new album's edgy lyrics and refigured musical approach are all part of a progressive agenda Daniel and his bandmates have. "I want to make something as different as possible every time we make a record," he says. "It just has to be great, and it can't be the same thing."
Part of Daniel's interest in expanding the band's sound, especially in such a blunt way on Hot Thoughts, came from the inspiration of two of his favorite artists – both of whom died last year. "Other than the Beatles, if I had to pick anyone that has affected me that I could point to consciously having affected our songs, it would be Prince and Bowie," Daniel says. "To lose them both in one year was just ... heavy."
He learned of Bowie's death in the middle of the night, when he'd gotten up to pee. "I remember actually saying out loud the word, 'No,' kind of heartbroken," he says. "I couldn't sleep the rest of the night." He was so grief-stricken he attempted to record a cover of Bowie's "Never Let Me Down" that night.
When Prince died three months later, it hit him even harder than Bowie's passing. He says he was "dead" to the news for hours. "I'm a lifelong Prince fan," he says. "I got 1999 when I was 11. Although he wasn't making records as good as I would have liked anymore, he never lost what he could do onstage. He was the greatest performer of his generation. Watching Prince was like watching God's love. There's nothing else in my life that I've ever seen like it. It was superhuman."
His fandom hasn't quelled in the months since the artist's death, either. "At some point in the year, I bought a box of 160 Prince CD-Rs of unreleased music on eBay," he says. "A lot of it is live, but it's the best stuff from '80 through '86.
"I learned a lot from Prince's songwriting tricks," he continues. "Prince knew that to put an exclamation point at the end of a song, it'd be good to scream at the last chorus. Even if you sang the chorus a certain way every time before then, if you get to the third one, you better be screaming. Then there's what he did with synthesizers. He was doing horn parts on a keyboard, kind of bringing it into the future. He could take a very traditional R&B song and make it sound like the future. I see some parallels to this record with that, especially 'Pink Up.' For the end of that song, we were going for something like the end of 'Purple Rain,' that melancholy, tense ending."
Years ago, around the release of Kill the Moonlight, Daniel told an interviewer that his goal was to "add to the history of great rock records." That's still the case, he says. So how does he know he's capable of such a feat when he feels that Prince was not recording music that was up to snuff? "Maybe we're more humble or we have a better bullshit detector," he says. "Or maybe we haven't had the success of that magnitude that makes it more difficult to see what's good and bad. If you have the success of Prince throughout the Eighties, it's amazing, but it's got to be a mindfuck."
Recently Daniel's listening tastes have focused on music by his peers, such as Thee Oh Sees ("they put out records incredibly fast, and they're all pretty fucking good," he says), and older artists like Bo Diddley, Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry and Muddy Waters. "Does that make me an old person?" he jokes. Nevertheless, it hasn't stymied his interest in creating something new.
Progressivism, it turns out, is a mission that extends well beyond Spoon for Daniel. A few years ago, he formed Divine Fits with members of Wolf Parade and New Bomb Turks to explore different, rock-focused musical horizons and it was then that he met Alex Fischel, a musical foil whom he brought into Spoon's ever-mercurial lineup to play keyboards and guitar. (Drummer Jim Eno is the band's only other founding member, a feat Daniel chalks up to both musicians keeping their egos in check. "You can't get your feelings hurt when you're in the process of being creative," he says.)
The pair recently embarked on another musical adventure together last year, when they collaborated with EDM's dastardly duo, Jack Ü team Diplo and Skrillex, at an opulent Malibu mansion "owned by a guy who made porn," according to Daniel. They'd hoped Diplo would punch up Hot Thoughts' funky "Can I Sit Next to You" but also ended up jamming for 20 minutes with Skrillex.
"He worked so fast," Fischel says, seated at a diner table with Daniel and Eno. "There was one point where the computer glitched out and he just yanked out the audio interface and just kept going on another machine. And all of a sudden, he just goes, 'Bah! Bah!' just sampling his voice into the laptop microphone and he made a melody with that. It was like he had Tourette's or something."
"I didn't know what the fuck he was doing with that, 'Bah!'" Daniel says, as they both laugh. "Then shortly after you'd hear it in the song."
Although that recording has yet to see the light of day – Daniel is eager to see what Jack Ü do with it – it dovetailed into some of Spoon's more adventurous experiments on Hot Thoughts, namely the saxophone-imbued closing track "Us," which Daniel describes as a total surprise. It was originally a standard instrumental that he thought needed an experimental edge "to bring people into this world."
He brought in Ted Taforo, a friend of Fischel's who played sax, and let him improvise layers upon layers of sound on it. "I don't say this lightly, but it was pretty magical," Daniel says. "It took the song to a place that I completely hadn't been expecting. I thought, 'Those saxophones are so great, I'm just going to listen to them by themselves.' And I did, and it was emotional. I thought, 'Maybe, that's the song.' So we threw out almost everything he had played to and started over from there."
"Us" has since become Daniel's favorite track on Hot Thoughts. Even though the rest of the record is chock full of catchy, radio-ready pop rockers, he jokes that the "future of Spoon" may take a cue from his experiment. "'Inside Out' was the last song we wrote for the last album and it was the most forward-thinking," he says, referring to the keyboard-imbued single, which foreshadowed Hot Thoughts. "So maybe 'Us' is going to be the next direction, because that's the most forward-thinking track on this one, probably."
He pauses. "Or at least, it's the most out-there. I don't know where it's gonna go next time."