How Spoon Deals with Being a Critical Darling
Spoon was once named the best-reviewed band of the '00s.
Jim Eno, drummer for indie stars Spoon, reveals some insider knowledge about the creation of "The Beast and Dragon, Adored," the opening track from their fantastic 2005 album Gimme Fiction. It's a peek behind the curtain of how the Austin-based band constructs an album. Once privy to the information, you may feel as though the shine has dulled a bit on the amazing trick that the track manages to pull off, but it also manages to somehow make the quintet, and the way it consistently has crafted quality records for more than 20 years, seem even cooler.
"When we were recording Gimme Fiction, ["Adored"] was the last song Britt [Daniel, frontman] brought in," Eno says, "which makes sense because he was referencing all the other songs. It was a cool one to get last on the recording side and to have it first on the record. Basically, it sets all the songs forward from that point."
From the outside looking in, Spoon has always appeared to be a critics' band. The quintet seems to make its next album in response to the reception of the previous one. Gimme Fiction, with its catchy rhythms and shimmer, is the tonal opposite of the stunning, rousing rawness of 2002's Kill the Moonlight. The band's sound then expanded with 2007's Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, adding tuneful horns to a mix that already worked well. Transference (2010) kept the music more internal, setting an introspective mood for the listener.
"One factor is what songs Britt brings to the table," Eno says. "We couldn't just approach a song with the 'super hi-fi' version of a poppy song if it isn't actually a pop song. It does seem like each album is a reaction to the previous one, but the caveat is it also matters what types of songs Britt is writing. Even in the case of Transference; even then the songs he was writing were in response to the previous record. It felt inward as opposed to outward."
It was after that 2010 release that the band decided to take a break. Daniel formed indie supergroup Divine Fits with Wolf Parade's Dan Beckoner and Sam Brown of the New Bomb Turks, and Eno has been a producer and engineer for bands such as !!! and Heartless Bastards.
"I was in the studio pretty much nonstop doing records," Eno says. "I really went at it because I love being in the studio. This was a time for me to work with a lot of different types of bands. I worked on some jazz records and pretty hardcore Latin records, too. The idea was just to try as many things as I could and hopefully some of those would influence some other projects. I do feel like a lot of records I worked on had to be done very fast. That helped focus things a little better than we usually do."
The time apart has allowed the band to bring forward their most satisfying album yet: They Want My Soul. The 10 tracks are a reflection of the band's past, whether referencing Daniel's middle school bully Jonathon Fisk (who was immortalized on the eponymous track from Kill the Moonlight) on Soul's title track or revisiting rhythms and riffs explored on previous albums on "Let Me Be Mine." The album got production help from Flaming Lips and MGMT producer Dave Fridmann, who adds a synth sheen to the proceedings. (Mike McCarthy had produced the band's releases prior to Transference, and Jon Brion co-produced the popular horn-infused anthem "The Underdog.")
"We're always trying to move forward, and a couple times we'll consciously try things differently if they sounded too much like some of the old stuff," Eno says. "I love when, lyrically, things shout back or foreshadow a record."
It's not only Spoon's self-awareness but the band's encyclopedic knowledge of music that continues to make things interesting. Daniel has been known to reference Van Morrison, Fleetwood Mac, and even Eurythmics when talking about what sounds influence his songwriting. They Want My Soul even features a cover of Ann-Margret's "I Just Don't Understand," which was brought to Daniel by www.rookiemag.com as part of the site's monthly "Theme Song" feature. "He was e-mailed two or three songs as options," Eno says, "He started working on the Ann-Margret song while we were mixing the record in Fredonia, New York, with Dave [Fridmann]. We're just literally sitting around trying to find something to do. I came in and played drums on it and Britt kept working on it. I hadn't heard the song before, and Britt said, 'It sounds like something the Beatles would do.' As a matter of fact, they did cover it."
A Spoon album initially draws in the listener with compelling cover artwork. The band wants the songs to live up to the promise of the art, looking at it from all angles before committing it to tape.
"I feel like we are always trying to find new or different ways to approach songs," Eno says. "I think that's the hard thing about having eight records. There's a lot of things we've done before and a lot of ways we've approached songs before. As a band, you try not to repeat yourself. Early on, it was the Beatles, Stones, and stuff like that. We're always trying to pull up different kinds of references, like on 'Inside Out,' we were using Dr. Dre's record 2001 as sort of an idea of how to approach [the song]."
They Want My Soul marks the band's departure from its longtime label, Merge Records. The band has signed with two-year-old label Loma Vista Recordings. Spoon had a well-publicized falling-out with Elektra in 1998. The label's A&R man, Ron Laffitte, quit his job four months after the band's album, A Series of Sneaks, failed to meet expectations. A week later, the band was dropped by the label. Given all the drama it's experienced in the past, moving on to a new label could seem to be a risky move, but with every album, Spoon's stock continues to grow more valuable.
"I feel like we have looked around at different labels pretty much every time we're done with a record, and it never really made sense [to leave Merge]," Eno says. "We never really found anything that would be a good fit for us. With this record -- because it was such a long break and we had done five records with Merge -- it seemed like a good time to try something different. When we talked with Loma Vista, they seemed like they would be a good option. We're still friends with all those Merge guys. Who knows what will happen in the future? It felt like the right label at the right time."
At the end of the day, Spoon is focused on crafting songs that are exciting and adhere to a rock 'n' roll aesthetic. The band has yet to miss the mark.
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