Spoon’s Britt Daniel: My Life in 15 Songs – Rolling Stone
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Spoon’s Britt Daniel: My Life in 15 Songs

Singer-guitarist looks back on two decades of industry drama and lightning-strike creativity

Britt Daniel

Britt Daniel talks about 15 great Spoon songs, from "The Way We Get By" and "I Turn My Camera On" to deeper cuts.

Oliver Halfin

“I like greatest-hits albums,” Britt Daniel says. “The first record I ever heard by the Cure was Standing on a Beach. The first record I ever had by New Order was Substance. That’s the way I found those bands, and then I went backwards.”

Spoon, the lean, wily rock band that Daniel has led since 1993, are not the most obvious choice for a compilation of that kind. They have all the hallmarks of an albums act, known more for their consistently excellent long-players than for any hit singles as such. (Quick, name the best Spoon album. Bet you said Kill the Moonlight or Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga — unless you’re truly wild, in which case you picked Transference. Now think of their biggest song. Harder, right?)

This year, though, with a summer tour opening for Beck and Cage the Elephant approaching, Daniel challenged himself to put together a beginner’s guide to Spoon. The result was Everything Hits at Once: The Best of Spoon, the compilation they released in July. “It’s not really a completist’s greatest hits,” explains the singer-guitarist, 48. “It’s more like the cream of the crop.”

For this feature, Daniel chose a different set of 15 songs to tell the story of how Spoon went from unknown Texas noisemakers to major-label flame-outs to one of the most acclaimed rock acts of the last 20 years. “There are worse things to talk about,” he says, settling into a chair at his label’s downtown Manhattan office.

Britt Daniel of Spoon performs live at the inaugural Mile High Music Festival on July 19, 2008 at Dick's Sporting Goods Park in Denver, Colorado.

Lyle A. Waisman/Getty Images

“Mountain to Sound”

(Soft Effects EP, 1997)

That’s the first song that I feel real proud of. We’d been a band for about three years. The idea behind that EP at first was to make some B sides for a potential single. Then the album [1996’s Telefono] came out, and it didn’t do so well, so we didn’t need another single. But in the meantime, we had these songs we’d been throwing down very loosely, without any kind of pressure. Something about that made them by far the best thing we’d ever done. We recorded this one on 4-track, because we’d been touring with Guided by Voices. Jim [Eno] says that when he listens back to it now, he can tell he didn’t know the drum part. We were figuring it out as we went along.

Britt Daniel of Spoon

Barry Brecheisen/WireImage

“Utilitarian”

(A Series of Sneaks, 1998)

The riff is basically “Jean Genie” backwards, which is in itself a rip-off of Bo Diddley. We were trying to let a little soul creep into this record by removing the distorted electric guitars where we could — trying to make it less, I dunno, alt-rock. Which was probably a bad move, career-wise, because we were heading to Elektra right then. We made the record on our own, funded it on our own, and then they wanted to put it out. We had our reservations about that. Not in terms of cool factor; we were smart enough to know that great records can come out on major labels or indies, and bad records could come out on both. It was more that we’d seen friends who’d gone through that system and been carelessly spit out. But at that moment, it felt like it was the best, maybe even our only choice, because we were starting to be in debt.

Britt Daniel Spoon

WireImage

“The Agony of Lafitte”

(Non-album single, 1999)

So we put the record out on Elektra, and then we got dropped. That hurts. It felt like we’d been kicked in the stomach. And we felt that our A&R guy, Ron Lafitte, had not done us right. He wouldn’t take my phone calls. It was bad — all our potential fears coming true. Maybe we would have been wise to split up then. But I guess we liked playing shows, and I liked writing songs, so we kept going. There was one tour that we had already set up, opening for Harvey Danger, where we went out and lost a ton of money. On that tour, our friend Hunter, out of the blue one day, said, “Oh, the agony of Lafitte.” I mentioned that to another friend, Brad, who said, “Yeah, Lafitte don’t fail me now!” We thought, these titles are too good to not write songs for. So that’s what we did. It was cathartic. And it gave us our first bit of notoriety, which paid off by the time we put out our next record, two years later.

Britt Daniel of Spoon

Michael Buckner/Getty Images

“Anything You Want”

(Girls Can Tell, 2001)

I started this song the summer that the Elektra record came out [in 1998]. My girlfriend, Eleanor Friedberger, and I had gone to Chicago, where she’s from. By the time I got around to writing lyrics, she had left and she was living in England. We were both young and not really sure about how to break up. It was this long period of heartache and longing. The lyrics, I think, are still pretty great. The best part is at the end: The whole time we’ve been in this widescreen satellite view, and then all of a sudden it zooms into “When you were 19 and still in school/Waiting on a light on the corner by Sound Exchange,” which was this record store in Austin right by where she lived.

I have nothing but great feelings about Eleanor. We were off and on for maybe four or five years. This was before Fiery Furnaces, so she wasn’t doing any music stuff — and then she became this amazing musician. We get to hang out every now and then. She stays at my house when she’s in L.A. When I play this song now, I don’t relive the heartache. I think, “Fuckin’ A, this is a great song.”

Britt Daniel

Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images

“The Fitted Shirt”

(Girls Can Tell, 2001)

I moved to New York in the summer of ’99, after we made the first version of Girls Can Tell. Lived here for about six months. We still had our manager and lawyers from the Elektra days, which was good of them. They were trying to get people interested in the record. Nobody was interested. I came back from New York, we finished the record with our new producer, Mike McCarthy — and still we couldn’t get anyone to put it out. It was disconcerting, to put it mildly. Those were the lean years. I’d been a substitute teacher in Austin, and in New York I was working temp jobs. Just scrounging around for any work I could get.

This song started as a spontaneous riff from rehearsal. I played it on guitar, no intention to it, and then Jim started playing drums. I’m doing one thing in one tempo, he’s doing another thing in another time signature — sort of like “Kashmir.” It existed as 20 seconds on this white Type II cassette tape that I’d pull out every now and again and try to sing something. Months later, I started singing “You’re Looking Fine” by the Kinks on top of that riff, and something about those syllables worked. And because I was newly obsessed with the Kinks, I wrote a type of lyrics that I’d never done before: writing about one small, distinct thing, with a sense of nostalgia.

Britt Daniel Spoon

A.J. Finmann/WireImage

“The Way We Get By”

(Kill the Moonlight, 2002)

When Girls Can Tell came out on Merge, it was the first time that it felt like things were happening. I remember we sold 1,200 copies in the first week, which was almost as much as we had sold of all of A Series of Sneaks. Still a very small number, but to us it meant a lot. We wanted to follow it up as soon as we could.

I wrote some of the next record in New London, Connecticut. I had this tradition of liking to go away from Austin for the summer, just because it’s so oppressively hot. I was up there by myself writing for three months straight. It was a pretty lonely time. When I got back to Austin, “The Way We Get By” and “Small Stakes” came together real fast, right when we were about to record. I had this cheap Casio keyboard, I think it was from the Eighties. I’d sit on the floor of my apartment and just hammer at it. There was something about being on the floor and banging that keyboard. Brian Wilson liked to have his toes in the sand when he was writing, but that wasn’t going to work for me. I’m very thankful to the people that lived upstairs from me.

Portrait of Spoon.

Paul Natkin/Getty Images

“Small Stakes”

(Kill the Moonlight, 2002)

That’s another one written on the floor with the Casio keyboard, maybe the same week. I think I was ripping off the song “I Gotta Walk” by Julian Cope — riff, riff, riff, then it goes up, then back down to the riff, and that’s the whole song. It’s kind of an awkward chord change. I liked that it wasn’t a pop song. When a song comes really fast, that’s the greatest thing. The rest of the time, you’re wondering, “What did I do to make that happen?” Busting up my brains trying to figure out how to get back to that zone. It’s a magic spot you’ve got to happen into.

AUSTIN, TX - MARCH 18: Britt Daniel and Spoon perform at  La Zona Rosa nightclub as part of the South By Southwest Festival (SxSw) on March 18, 2005 in Austin Texas. (Photo by Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images)

Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images

“I Turn My Camera On”

(Gimme Fiction, 2005)

At that point, Eleanor was dating Alex [Kapranos] from Franz Ferdinand. One day I had the TV on, and his song came on, “Take Me Out.” Maybe there was some competitive feeling going on there, I don’t know. I do remember thinking, “Wow, I want to write a song with that groove.” So I sat down right there on the floor, this time with an acoustic guitar, and those words came immediately. I didn’t know what they meant, but I thought it was funny. The song has definitely got more of a funk thing than we’d done before. I’d always wanted to do a song that was falsetto, because I love Prince. I was like, that’s one of the ingredients for an undeniable single. And finally it happened.

Guitarist, Britt Daniel of Spoon.

Annette Brown/Getty Images

“I Summon You”

(Gimme Fiction, 2005)

We wanted to follow up Kill the Moonlight quickly, the way we’d done before, but it just didn’t happen. Maybe part of it was realizing that people were going to be watching. Somehow that did my head in a little bit. I worked and worked for a year on tunes, and I wasn’t coming up with the magic stuff that I wanted. This one came fast, though. I didn’t think I was writing a song — it was sort of an exercise. I sang one line, rewound, listened again to that one line. “What next?” By the end of the afternoon, I’d written all the words. There’s no verse or chorus. It’s unpredictable.

That first line set the tone: “Remember the weight of the world, that’s the sound that we used to buy, on cassette and 45.” It felt like longing and nostalgia, simple as that. “I summon you” is something that I was saying to my girlfriend at the time. She lived a long way away — not 800 miles, but maybe eight hours away. I remember thinking, “I just wrote something that I could be singing for the rest of my life. It’s that good.”

Spoon's Britt Daniel performs on March 17th, 2007.

Jack Plunkett/AP/Shutterstock

“The Underdog”

(Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, 2007)

We almost left “The Underdog” off that record. For one thing, it was the one song that was produced by someone other than Mike McCarthy. We did that one with Jon Brion. I think he reached out to us [about working together], and I was skeptical, because I thought he was one of those L.A. Beatles guys, like Michael Penn. But we really enjoyed working with Jon. We tried a few songs with him. That was the only one that ever came out.

The vibe is sort of a Van Morrison thing, like “Jackie Wilson Said,” or something off Bridge Over Troubled Water. It’s a strummy, happy tune, whereas the rest of Ga Ga Ga is more dubby and dark. It didn’t really fit in. But we were talked into keeping it, and it became the biggest song we’ve done, I think.

Britt Daniel and Spoon perform on August 5, 2007 in Baltimore, Maryland.

Tim Mosenfelder/Corbis via Getty Images

“Black Like Me”

(Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, 2007)

“I’m in need of someone to take care of me tonight.” That was the starting point. I had that lyric for a while, just jotted down in a notebook. I’d moved to Portland by then. The line “All the weird kids up front” is something that a tour manager had written to me — right before we went on, he was like, “lot of weird kids up front,” which I loved. It became this grand finale for the song: “All the weird kids up front, tell me what you know you want.” “Yeah!” It’s a back-and-forth with the audience, a moment where everybody came together.

Britt Daniel Spoon

Skip Bolen/EPA/Shutterstock

“Trouble Comes Running”

(Transference, 2010)

This song started out as a reggae thing — I’d just heard Sister Nancy for the first time, and there was a version like that. Then at some point I was like, “That’s not going to fly.” So I moved it over to guitar, and it started sounding like the Who, and I liked that. The band was all in Portland; nobody lived there but me, but we would sometimes rehearse up there at the Crystal Ballroom. I brought my 4-track [cassette machine] over there, and we went over the song once or twice. Jim was playing like a madman. We tried redoing it later in a more hi-fi way — I think we even tried it with Jon Brion — but nothing beat that early version.

Transference was the first record where the reviews were a little more mixed. Some people didn’t get it, or they knocked the demo quality of the tunes. We had a tough year. We did a lot of touring in Europe for that record, and we’ve never done well in Europe. It became a bummer by the end. Everybody was a little bitchy at that moment. I remember on that last European tour, we had the option of setting up more shows for the spring, and I was like, “No, I think I’m going to take a break.” That’s when I called up Dan Boeckner. [Ed. note: Daniel and Boeckner went on to form a new band, Divine Fits, who released an album in 2012.]

Britt Daniel and Spoon perform in Philadelphia on August 31st, 2014.

Charles Sykes/Invision/AP/Shutterstock

“Rent I Pay”

(They Want My Soul, 2014)

I never thought Spoon was going to break up, but I didn’t know how long we’d be on hiatus. When we got the band back together [in 2013], we hadn’t hung out in a long time. We ended up having a lot of rehearsals in Austin, some of which were more successful than others. This was one of the songs I brought in. It was a waltz with a walking bass line. We played it for a second, and then we were playing “One Man’s Ceiling Is Another Man’s Floor” by Paul Simon, and we forgot about it. Maybe six months later, we had a lot of They Want My Soul done, but I thought we needed an “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” kind of song — a heavy, slow groove. So I started playing this one, and by straightening it out into 4/4, all of a sudden I loved it. I tried to sing it like John Fogerty. It was a good way to come back after Transference, because it’s just a pure rock song.

Britt Daniel and Spoon

Barry Brecheisen/Invision/AP/Shutterstock

“Inside Out”

(They Want My Soul, 2014)

I love this one. It sounds different from anything we’d done before. A lot of that was Alex [Fischel], who was fully in the band by that point, and what he can do on keyboards. I wrote the song on piano, played it for my girlfriend at the time. She was not impressed, but I was like, “Something is happening here.” That piano part ended up being what Alex played with the harp sound. The lyrics are a combination of that law of physics that says “Time gets distorted when there’s intense gravity,” and how that related to this relationship I was in, and what that meant in a breakup. That relationship gravity that pulls people together.

Britt Daniel of Spoon

Invision/AP/Shutterstock

“No Bullets Spent”

(Everything Hits at Once: The Best of Spoon, 2019)

I wrote this last summer in New York, right after we got off tour. We have this record called Get Nice! [originally released in 2007 as a bonus disc for Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga], and it has an instrumental on it called “Dracula’s Cigarette.” I was like, “I’m going to write a song to that track.” And I did. But it proved difficult to play as a band, and it felt too one-dimensional. So one day in December, I rewrote it with the groove that you hear now. I like that I’m soloing on it — it’s been a long time since I soloed. We’re not making a record right now, but we wanted to put out one song that was really good. We recorded a few, maybe four tunes, and this is the one that seemed like it fit best at the end of a greatest-hits comp.

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