Rhythm and Bruises

Girls Can Tell that Spoon's Britt Daniel is an unlikely soul man

There are little bits of Daniel's record collection scattered all over Girls Can Tell. There's the etiquette lesson taught by Led Zeppelin on "The Fitted Shirt": "I long for the days they used to say ma'am and yes sir," Daniel admits, as "When the Levee Breaks" plays in the background. There"s spare groove that urges on "Take the Fifth," as Daniel pounds the pulpit like a thousand other soul-shouters before him. There's the awkward confidence Daniel sings with on almost every track, the kind of cocky shyness Jonathan Richman patented with the Modern Lovers almost three decades ago. But these are all just pieces -- glimpses, really -- of Daniel's influences. It all ends up sounding like Spoon. Of course, that doesn't mean what it used to.

"I mean" -- long pause -- "I don't think I was intentionally saying, 'Well, I wanna do something different,'" Daniel says. "But I knew that the songs I had written were different. And I wanted to go for a sound that had more space. Whenever you play distorted rhythm guitar, like chorded guitar, it just fills in a lot of space. I didn't wanna do that this time. There's lots of space, lots of whole notes being held out and stuff. So, yeah, I knew that I wanted it to be warmer. I wanted, on certain songs, for you to be able to hear the room that we were playing in, to hear that space, for us to add a lot of reverb and stuff -- the exact opposite of A Series of Sneaks, which was completely dry. We were afraid of reverb at that time, and I think it worked well for that record. But, uh, now we're more into it."

Before Girls Can Tell was finished, Daniel wasn't sure if there was going to be a we anymore, or anything left to get into. After A Series of Sneaks was abandoned by Elektra (Vapor Records later reissued the disc), Daniel didn't know if Spoon would live to put out another album. Everyone in the group was understandably discouraged by Elektra's rough treatment, and no one wanted to endure the confusion and compromises that come along with recording contracts. Somehow, they remained hopeful about it all. "I never was that optimistic about 'making it,'" Daniel told Magnet at the end of 1998. "But I still love music as much now as ever."

No, you da man: Spoon points the way to its best album, the newly released Girls Can Tell.
No, you da man: Spoon points the way to its best album, the newly released Girls Can Tell.

With that in mind, the band -- Daniel, longtime drummer Jim Eno and since-departed bassist Josh Zarbo -- started recording Girls Can Tell in May 1999. They laid down rough versions of eight of the disc's 11 songs during the next couple of months, until Daniel moved to New York, a summer vacation that spilled over into the fall.

"I was just subletting my place here," Daniel says. "A lot of people from Austin have moved up there. A lot of my friends had moved there. It's my favorite city. I'd always wanted to live there. I wanted to get out of Texas in the summer. Just sorta seemed natural."

When Daniel finally came back, work on the record recommenced, as the group added parts to some of the early eight-track recordings and completely redid others. An album was starting to emerge, but the band was still without a label to put it out. Enter Merge Records, the label owned and operated by Superchunk's Mac McCaughan and Laura Ballance.

"Our booking agent is pretty close with them; he books Superchunk, and he books a bunch of bands on Merge," Daniel explains. "I have a lot of respect for them as people and the bands they've worked with, so it sounded like a good idea. I mean, at that point, nobody else wanted to do anything with us."

The deal with Merge resulted in last year's Loveways EP (which features the excellent "I Didn't Come Here to Die" and four other songs), as well as the recent release of Girls Can Tell. For the moment, Spoon's future seems fairly secure, at least in their terms. Still, Daniel's extended stay in New York taught him that his own future doesn't depend on Spoon. For most of his career, a lot of people thought Britt Daniel was Spoon and vice-versa. He knows that isn't true. Not anymore.

"I didn't wanna stop doing shows [when I was in New York]," Daniel begins. "Obviously, the band wasn't up there, so I worked up a decent solo show. It's nice, 'cause you don't have to practice with anybody else, you don't have to ask anybody else. You know, when the band plays, the money goes to the band fund, but when I play solo, then, you know, I get a few bucks. That's nice. It's either really good or really bad. I find it a little bit more difficult to put on a really good show solo. Because it's just so much less instrumentation, it's less noisy -- it's all up to me, you know?"

Don't go looking for Daniel's solo album just yet, though. And it's not because he's stalling for time.

"I would do that, but I don't have any plans to do that right now. I've got a lot of stuff recorded that I've done solo. We'll just see how things go with Spoon in the next few months. I mean, I'm very, very proud of this record -- way more than I ever have been about a record -- so I'm very excited about being in this band right now."

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