How Spoon went back to the beginning on ‘Hot Thoughts’

You know a Spoon song when you hear it: Britt Daniel’s streetwise vocal prowling set against strutting grooves and spiky rasps of keyboard and guitar.

But even within that recognisable sound, the Austin, Texas quartet have stretched and evolved over the years, accommodating bleary experimentation and snarling post-punk misanthropy as much as timeless rock ‘n’ cool. Their songs swing from robustly muscled to thrillingly stripped back to surprisingly poppy and tender, but always with Daniel and drummer Jim Eno locked into a close musical partnership that feels downright intuitive by this point.

With this month’s Hot Thoughts, that core duo have worked together across nine albums. But they didn’t really find the audience they deserved until about halfway through their discography. Talking on the phone ahead of Spoon’s latest Australian tour, Eno admits, “It’s been a pretty gradual career for us” and airs his hopes that they find new fans again with this record.

Balancing both new and long-established Spoon earmarks with the warm production hand of Dave Fridmann (The Flaming Lips, Mercury Rev), Hot Thoughts should do just that. The keyboard-blurred title track is layered for mesmerising effect, while ‘Do I Have to Talk You Into It’ is classic frayed-nerves Spoon and ‘Can I Sit Next to You’ adds a groggy dance impulse. And the band explore more than ever on the six-minute centrepiece ‘Pink Up’ and the jazz-warped closer ‘Us’.

Interviewed on the eve of the South by Southwest festival taking over the band’s hometown, Eno talks about standing the test of time, returning to their original label and valuing enthusiasm above all else.

Do you try to see many bands yourself at South by Southwest?
I have five [Spoon] shows and four recording sessions [scheduled], so I’m probably not gonna see anything. We’re curating three nights at this club called Emo’s, so I’ll show up a little early so I can see some of those bands.

I know you’ve done Spotify sessions for Courtney Barnett and Jagwar Ma. Do you follow much other Australian music?
I also produced The Preatures’ record [2014’s Blue Planet Eyes]. For Jagwar Ma, I got a list of bands to record and I’d heard them on Sirius XMU. Same with Courtney Barnett: I was a fan of hers before I did the session. I saw that she was at South By Southwest, and she was my first pick that year. I don’t follow too much Australian music, but I really love what’s coming out of there.

You’ve been with Spoon from the start. How does it feel looking back on it after nine albums and two decades?
I feel pretty good about it. I never thought I’d be able to make my living doing music, so it’s pretty great and fulfilling to be able to do that. I always thought it would just be a hobby, so I feel really lucky. Also, when Britt and I started the band, we never thought it would be around 20 years later. It doesn’t feel like 20 years, but I guess it has been.

Spoon are back on their original label, Matador, for this record. Does that feel like coming full circle?
I think so. The way we’ve always done every record is we would record it and then shop it around and look for the best label. And ever since we were on Matador, we’ve been keeping in touch with them. They’re friends of ours. And they’re one of our favourite labels, so we’re psyched to be back.

I do feel like a couple things have changed. We’re a much different band since then, and they’re a much different label. They’re in the Beggars [label group] now, so that’s a big help for us because they have a really good international [reach]. We’ve never really had an international push like that before. We’ve always just had the US, and then some other label doing all the other territories.

Putting aside money, what are you looking for when you shop around for the best label?
The biggest thing is enthusiasm, because you can’t manufacture that. They have to be excited about it, or they’re not really gonna work your record. And that’s one of the things Matador really showed. They were easily the most enthusiastic label that we talked to. It’s pretty cool to have them so excited about it, 20 years after they put out our first record.

How do Spoon songs usually gestate, starting from the demo process?
Most of the time Britt’s writing all the songs, so he’ll share the demos in various forms. Sometimes he’ll bring a fully fleshed-out demo to the band, and we’ll just go in and record it. Or there are other ones that we work up more as a band.

“The biggest thing is enthusiasm, because you can’t manufacture that. The label has to be excited about it, or they’re not really gonna work your record.”

For certain albums you’ve been the band’s producer too. What’s your role in that now?
Well, Britt and I co-produced [this one] with Dave Fridmann. I feel like it’s a team: we all have certain roles that we’re good at. We work a lot at my studio too. Dave doesn’t really travel, so [the band will] fly back to Austin and do about half the time here at my studio. It’s sort of like all hands on deck.

When I talked to Britt about the last record, he said you were only going to mix that album with Dave but ended up recording half of it with him. Did that make him a natural choice to do this one, just because you found him so easy to work with?
Yeah, exactly. Easy to work with, great engineer, great sounds, great technical producer. But also, he sets up an environment that’s really comforting and calm. Which is great, because that means it’s going to be really creative. You feel really good about things. When we were working with him on They Want My Soul, it was pretty obvious we would do another record with him.

Also, he came to one of the shows on that tour and said, “Just so you know, I really wanna do the next record.” So again, his enthusiasm. I guess we’re really into people who are enthusiastic about our music.

I often think of his production as being really expansive, but this one seems more intimate. Was that something you were going for?
I don’t know, that’s hard to say. One thing about Dave is that he makes sure it still sounds like Spoon. It’s not a Dave Fridmann record. The other thing is that we work on every song individually. So it might be like, “Hey, let’s make this song a kickass rock song,” like ‘Do I Have to Talk You Into It’. And that works. But then there’s ‘I Ain’t the One’, where you want that intimate part that grows into a more menacing middle part.

I feel like a lot of it was based on moods that fit those songs. We also didn’t really want it to sound like rootsy. We didn’t want acoustic-guitar-based songs. We wanted it to be futuristic sounding, or how we think the future would sound.

Could you give an example?
Well, the first one would be ‘I Ain’t the One’. Britt wrote it on an acoustic guitar, but he didn’t want acoustic guitar on the record. And it just wasn’t coming across well that way. So he got together with Alex [Fischel, keyboards and guitar] after a show: Alex pulled up a [keyboard] patch and came up with a really cool demo based more around Wurlitzer [electric piano]. And that’s the basis for the direction of that song.

An example of a more futuristic song would be either ‘Pink Up’ or ‘First Caress’. I feel like ‘Pink Up’ sounds futuristic because the keyboard sounds really, really interesting and there’s a lot of different new sounds that come in that sound very odd and interesting to me. On ‘First Caress’, there’s a verse keyboard part that sounds very futuristic. It has to do with the glide of the analog synth. Basically what a glide is – if you hear a low and a high note, it doesn’t jump immediately to the other note. It sweeps up into it. That part sounds like a cool Talking Heads sound.

‘Pink Up’ reminds me of ‘Outlier’ on the last record, where it’s spacey and has a lot of time without vocals. Is it nice to break things up that way?
Exactly. We like varied records and we like different sounds, so it’s fun for us to do that.

Has the live show changed much since your last time in Australia?
The live show is feeling really ridiculous to me right now: we have a really great new player [Alex Fischel] who plays great guitar and great keyboards. Live he’s playing most of the Hot Thoughts guitar solos, so he’s got that kind of feel. And he’s doing the main guitar part on ‘Can I Sit Next to You’. So I think we’re hitting a really good stride right now.

Again, after 20 years, is it interesting to look back on how members have come and gone through different eras of the band?
I don’t know … not really. (Laughs) I would just say that we’re always trying to get better. We’re always trying to put out better music and have a better crew. We’re spending a lot of time with each other, so we want to have fun. You’ve gotta have the right people.

Lead image: Zackery Michael/supplied

Hot Thoughts is out now on Matador/Remote Control. Australian tour dates below.

Spoon 2017 Australian tour:

Wednesday, March 22 – Red Eye Records, Sydney NSW [6pm, limited capacity]
Thursday, March 23 – Metro Theatre, Sydney NSW
Friday, March 24 – Polyester Records, Melbourne VIC [6pm, limited capacity]
Saturday, March 25 – Croxton Bandroom, Melbourne VIC

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