It's not easy fronting a band that's the darling of the rock press. Just ask Spoon front man Britt Daniel, who's busy collecting five-star accolades for his group's latest effort, Gimme Fiction. The love that critics heaped upon Spoon in the wake of 2002's Kill the Moonlight helped make Fiction, which arrived in May, one of the year's most eagerly awaited discs. Daniel felt under the gun to create a worthy follow-up, so the positive reception Fiction has received comes as a major relief.
"There was pressure on myself, not pressure from a label or anything," Daniel tells New Times. "I thought that the last two albums were really good, and so when I started writing new songs, I found myself feeling like, 'Does this measure up?'
"That kind of awareness can present a sort of psychological battle for you," he continues. "It's not the best frame of mind to be in to be creative. To be creative, you really need to be not thinking about the past, not thinking forward, just in the moment. There's a feeling -- you just know whether it's working or not."
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Spoon is working especially hard these days, but with the anxiety surrounding Moonlight's follow-up behind him, Daniel feels exuberant -- as exuberant as it gets for a leader known for his meticulous approach to making music.
The Austin, Texas, band spent more than three months in the studio crafting Fiction, a Fleetwood Mac-ian amount of time in the indie-rock underground, where whole albums are sometimes tossed off in a weekend. The Mac comparison may be apt in other ways as well -- rumors circulated that the Fiction sessions were fraught with frustration and internal struggles galore.
The band rehearsed and then tossed dozens of songs, and heavy editing was standard operating procedure as the group struggled to make Fiction its greatest achievement to date. Early versions of tracks such as "Sister Jack" and "My Mathematical Mind" weren't deemed up to snuff, and lost songs such as "Landlord" will probably never see the light of day. Relations between Daniel and his bandmates (drummer Jim Eno and a revolving cast of bassists and keyboardists) were at an all-time low.
"It's not a Jimmy Buffett kind of vibe," Daniel deadpans. "It does get tense, but I try to make it so it's the least amount of tense that it needs to be. Whenever you have creative people or people with their own agendas trying to be creative, there's going to be conflict. And we've gotten better and better about it, I think. But there were still moments on the making of this record where we clearly weren't seeing eye to eye."
It wasn't the first time. Daniel pulled the plug one week into the initial sessions for Kill the Moonlight because he didn't think the songs were ready yet. But hard work and second-guessing yielded rich dividends -- Moonlight proved to be Spoon's most adventurous effort yet.
Nonetheless, experimentation is still relatively new to Spoon, though nail-biting precision and control-freak mentalities have always ruled the roost.
"We were so afraid of being uncool back then," Daniel says of the Moonlight sessions. "We thought reverb was uncool. We thought solos were uncool. We thought piano was uncool. I think all of that is just sort of early naiveté and insecurities. So we managed to get past that. The best bands are the ones that keep learning what they can do as they go along, and I keep trying to learn what we can do differently."
That wasn't always the case. When Spoon debuted with Telephono in 1996, it was just another run-of-the-mill alt-rock band that was overly enamored of Wire, and The Pixies. An ill-fated union with Elektra Records didn't help matters -- the label reportedly found Spoon's 1998 album, A Series of Sneaks, so boring that the group was dropped mere months into its contract. But the band rebounded mightily.
Daniel's creative turning point came four years ago as he was penning tunes for Spoon's third full-length, Girls Can Tell. Instead of the usual indie contrivances, Daniel let his instincts run free, filling the record with starkly rendered songs about hand jobs gone awry and the difficulties of finding a proper-fitting shirt.
"I guess it's just been about becoming more and more willing to stick our necks out," he says. "At first, I was very unwilling to say anything vulnerable in a song. Around the time I was writing the songs for Girls Can Tell, I decided it was okay to do that and really jumped right into it headfirst."
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Of course, it doesn't hurt when the press is swooning on the sidelines. Girls proved to be Spoon's critical breakthrough, with even stuffy tomes such as Time magazine suddenly raving about the group's "brilliantly minimalistic" sound.
"Honestly, I don't think it was the success of Girls Can Tell," Daniel says. "It was really just about doing it longer and longer and getting in touch with what kind of records are the most effective. But, yeah, it didn't hurt that we were being cheered on at some point. But I really feel like the turnaround for us musically was before Girls Can Tell, and we weren't necessarily being cheered on at that period of time, when I was discovering that I wanted us to sound a little bit more Motown."
No one will mistake Gimme Fiction for What's Going On, but it's still Spoon's most confident record. By juxtaposing art-school ruckus against Daniel's restrained passion, songs such as "The Beast and Dragon, Adored" solidify the band's sound and transcend its past. The track that has everyone talking is "I Turn My Camera On," an icy funk number for which Daniel adopts a breathy falsetto and gets in touch with his inner Prince. It may be Spoon's finest hour, if only because Daniel seems truly untethered for the first time.
"I do feel like I know what I'm doing, for the most part, and I trust that my instincts are the right ones," he says. "Then if something goes wrong, then I have no one else to blame but myself. My job only bothers me when things aren't going right. And then it can be overwhelming."