Spoon: Revenge of the Underdog

Fifteen years on, Austin's indie-rock perfectionists finally break through

Drummer Jim Eno, Singer/Guitarist Britt Daniel and Bassist Rob Pope of the band Spoon perform during the 2009 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival Presented by Shell at the New Orleans Fairgrounds and Racetrack on April 24, 2009 in New Orleans, Louisiana. Credit: C Flanigan/FilmMagic/Getty

When Spoon frontman Britt Daniel moved to a new house in Portland, Oregon, a couple of years ago, he spent a full six months trying to decide what kind of couch to buy. "I didn't know what I liked, so I was kind of educating myself on it," says Daniel, who studied design magazines on the tour bus before deciding he liked furniture with "short legs and square shoulders."

Daniel, 38, makes his aes­thetic decisions carefully, and then follows through with relentless determination. That trait led him to choose a real­ly nice sofa — and also to push Spoon to become the most rhythmically inventive and consistently tuneful American rock band of the 2000s. Along the way, they helped establish a new middle-class definition of rock success — with the sup­port of indie label Merge Rec­ords, Spoon experienced the kind of slow and steady growth in which hit-hungry majors lost interest long ago, while pick­ing up movie and commercial placements (Stranger Than Fiction, Jaguar) instead of plat­inum albums.

Daniel quit his last day job, as an online copy editor, in 2000, and with 2007's Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, Spoon finally hit the Top 10, squeezing onto main­stream radio with the buoyant, horn-boosted "The Underdog." But the band feels under no ob­ligation to repeat that feat with its new album, the rawer but still seductively melodic Transference. "I would hate being in a situation where I felt like it was expected,"says Daniel, "or there was even some kind of subtle or unmentioned pressure."

Still, he doesn't need external expectations to push him­self and the band hard. "I know how things should sound," Daniel says in his perpetual­ly amused drawl, steering his lime-green 1974 biodiesel-converted Mercedes through sleepy midmorning streets in Austin, the band's home­town. "And if they don't imme­diately sound that way, then I'm gonna keep working until they get there." Daniel has a long, forceful nose, a slow, sar­donic grin and reddish-blond hair that's been bed-headed for roughly two decades. He warms up slowly, but eventu­ally becomes friendly and un­guarded — he seems like he'd be a lousy acquaintance but a good close friend.

Daniel is a big Stanley Ku­brick fan — and Spoon's songs sometimes seem to share the clinical precision of the direc­tor's films. "Britt is crazy detail-oriented," confirms keyboardist Eric Harvey, sipping a beer in a heat-lamp-warmed courtyard of an Austin hotel. "There's a lot going on in duder's head."

Bassist Rob Pope smiles. "He'll get as specific as 'I want it to sound really tough-sounding, like the bass line of an early Cure record,' some­thing that detailed."

The group's founding mem­bers, Daniel and drummer Jim Eno, both started playing music relatively late. Eno, who admired the tasteful, play-for-the-song ethos and unconven­tional technique of U2's Larry Mullen Jr., R.E.M.'s Bill Berry and the Smiths' Mike Joyce, didn't start drumming until his junior year of college in North Carolina. He majored in elec­trical engineering and land­ed a series of lucrative day jobs designing microchips while he honed his drum chops — even playing in Compaq's official cor­porate big band in Houston.

Daniel had wanted to make records for a living since he was eight, when he discovered his first favorite band, the Bee Gees, via the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack and its disco-fied follow-up, 1979's Spirits Having Flown. "Still a great record," he notes. "It's no coinci­dence that those were my favorites — I think you have the same taste your whole life."

Around that time, Daniel's parents went through a trau­matic divorce — his dad, owner of those Bee Gees records, went to Dallas, leaving Britt and his four siblings with their overburdened mom. Then, as an arty kid in the rural, jock-infested town of Temple, Texas, he faced what he remembers as a "dark and lonely" early adolescence — his 2002 song "Jonathon Fisk" is about a kid who used to beat him up. So Dan­iel didn't get around to actual­ly learning an instrument until he was a black-nail-polish-wearing, Cure-worshipping junior in high school — one day, he picked up a "Beatles for easy guitar" book and taught him­self the chords.

Eno, who looks like a hip Michael Dukakis, first crossed paths with Daniel in an Aus­tin studio in the early Nineties. They played together in a rootsy band called the Alien Beats (Daniel was the bassist), then broke off to form Spoon — which Daniel simply wanted to be a "loud rock & roll band."

Spoon had a rough Nineties. Despite criti­cal acclaim for their early music, the era's alt-rock boom passed them by — in what's be­come one of the all-time great major-label horror stories, they were dropped from Elektra within weeks of releasing their first album for the label, 1998's Series of Sneaks. "We call them the locust years," says Eno, wincing at the memory. "We pretty much toured from 1994 to 2001 in front of no one. We'd play in a town, have 20 people the first time, 40 people the second time and 15 people the third time! How depress­ing is that?"

After the major-label deal fell through, Eno refocused on his day job, which fund­ed Spoon's continued record­ing. Daniel — whose radio, TV and film degree left him with little to fall back on — nearly fell apart. Blaming himself for signing to a major label in the first place, he moved to New York, started temping for Citi­bank and told friends he was considering law school. "I was very, very broke and very un­sure of what I was going to do with my life," says Daniel. "There was some panic. Thank God I found out about drugs then, because I don't know how else I would have gone through it otherwise."

He started smoking weed for the first time since a nasty freakout in high school, and coincidentally or not, his songwriting changed: Spoon's Nineties work blended in with the pre­vailing guitar-rock style of the era, but Daniel's new songs were far more distinct. "I was feeling very vulnerable and willing to express it," he says. "And I was getting really into oldies radio and the Kinks at that time, and I stopped being afraid of doing things that would sound tradi­tional or whatever."

It took Spoon months to find a new deal — Daniel has often thought it would have been smarter to have renamed the band and started from scratch. Nonetheless, with the spare, piano-enhanced Girls Can Tell — recorded in Eno's garage — Spoon found their niche: enig­matic lyrics, film-noir ambi­ence, slightly askew classic-rock melodies and sharp grooves — suggesting a Ray Davies who grew up in Texas listening to Prince, Bowie, the Pixies and Elvis Costello's Get Happy.

Girls Can Tell began a se­ries of collaborations with the ambitious Austin producer-engineer Mike McCarthy, who was steeped in vintage-rock sonics and worked with fellow locals ... And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead. Eno and Daniel describe themselves as "Type A" personalities, and McCarthy was a third: He be­lieved Spoon were capable of making classic records, and he was willing to drive them nuts to get there. He once pushed Daniel through a hundred or so piano takes — afterward, Eno found a piece of paper by the keyboard that Daniel had covered with the words "Mike Mc­Carthy must die." As Eno and Daniel's studio skills grew — they've each produced albums for other bands — so did ten­sions. McCarthy and Spoon's quest for vintage-pop perfec­tion reached its peak with six months of grueling sessions for Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga — which Dan­iel was determined not to re­peat this time.

After working briefly with Fiona Apple producer Jon Brion — who had produced "The Underdog" — Daniel and Eno ended up producing Transfer­ence themselves, with Daniel attempting to defeat his own perfectionism in the process. "I wanted to leave in the mistakes whenever I could stand them," says Daniel, who nevertheless ended up taking the record­ings back to his home in Port­land and tweaking them in his basement for a month.

Daniel writes and records sober, but finds he's often best at evaluating his work when he's stoned. And for the band's relatively loose live shows, a few beers are mandatory for every­one except Eno. "Britt has got to do that just to turn off some of those mental functions," says keyboardist Harvey.

"And I think sloppiness and mistakes are also encouraged," adds Pope.

Harvey laughs. "I didn't get that memo."

Daniel, who's had his share of therapy, describes himself as something of a somber dude — "I'm not wired to be an up-with-people person." He's still working on his relationship skills — he mutters something about "girl trouble" one night — but success and time have begun to brighten his outlook. "Got Nuffin," the second-to-last track on Transference, is the most hopeful Spoon song ever: Over buzzing guitars that re­call his earliest music, Daniel yelps, "Got nothing to lose but darkness and shadows."

Daniel knows the song is un­characteristically optimistic. "The first lyrics I wrote for it were about that feeling I get when me and the band meet up in some place like Portugal — it's a brotherhood thing," he says, looking up from his breakfast taco. "It's a good kind of family — the kind of family I always wanted to have."