The Way They Get By
Spoon kills again
Britt Daniel is at least an hour late, as opposed to Spoon's better half, stickman Jim Eno, who is 10 minutes early. When Soundgarden's song title finally arrives, just after the apparently unrock & roll hour of 11am Saturday morning, his normally furtive glance is filled with squinty red suspicion. In no time, he's being cryptic about how many utensils are in Spoon's personnel drawer (Josh Zarbo is back on bass; Kevin Lovejoy is the touring keyboardist), and who played piano on the new CD. "Eggo Johanson," repeats the cranky singer to the latter query.
Who's "Eggo Johanson"!?
"He's just gonna step in," mumbles Daniel. "He played tambourine on the record."
So, "Eggo Johanson" is you?
But not "not necessarily." [Pause, laughter]
"All right, I want to strike this part of the conversation," fusses Daniel, Eno still laughing. "We didn't talk about 'Eggo.'"
Oh yes we did, and about Kill the Moonlight, Spoon's Tuesday offering, their second album for Chapel Hill's Superchunk indie Merge Records, and fourth full-length overall. Recorded in its entirety at Eno's home studio. A killing nightshine filling the space between last year's warm, ripe Girls Can Tell, and the duo's career high noir, 1998's A Series of Sneaks, recently reissued on Merge with bonus tracks "The Agony of Laffitte" and "Laffitte Don't Fail Me Now," Spoon's major label kiss-off.
"You coulda given me a wake-up call," yawns Daniel at Eno.
Austin Chronicle: How does Kill the Moonlight extend Spoon's musical vision?
Britt Daniel: It's really hard for me to describe things like that, I just know that when we set out to record it, we wanted it -- in a very basic, and not good way of describing it -- to be more like Series of Sneaks. I wanted it to be a little bit weirder than Girls Can Tell. With Girls Can Tell, we wanted to make a classic pop record that wasn't too out there. Just a song, two seconds of space, then another song.
AC: Was stripping back Girls Can Tell a response to the sonic jangle of A Series of Sneaks?
Jim Eno: We really don't go about recording that way. It's basically Britt writes the songs and then we do to it what's needed. There's an overall idea of how the record should sound, but really, it's on a song by song basis.
BD: [On Girls Can Tell], I was trying to write songs like the Everly Brothers -- not that I pulled that off -- or Motown, Sixties soul stuff. I can't write that way, but that's where I was coming from. Those pop-soul records are the ones I go back to over and over and over again. I want to write songs that sound more classic rather than A Series of Sneaks, which my parents would definitely not like.
AC: Did that carry over onto Kill the Moonlight?
BD: Not as much, 'cause it wasn't as new to me.
AC: There's a good bit of keyboards on Kill the Moonlight. Was that you?
BD: Yeah, I did almost all of them.
JE: "Eggo" did.
BD: Oh, yeah. "Eggo" did.
AC: Has playing the piano affected your songwriting process?
BD: Not much, except for the first two songs on the album were written on piano, and those are the only two I've written that way. Writing on the piano establishes the song into a certain direction. When you're writing on an acoustic guitar, the strumming gives it a different feel.
AC: Both those songs feel like Austin; "Small Stakes" and "The Way We Get By," about people being complacent.
BD: Yeah, definitely -- "Small Stakes" in particular. Whenever I go to New York, I get that feeling you get there -- that everyone is trying to be something big. You have to strive hard just to exist in New York. That gave me the idea to write from that mind frame of someone who's dealing with much smaller stakes.
AC: Would the band be "bigger" if it relocated to, say, New York?
BD: Not at this point. I mean, we're doing all right.
JE: I think we're doing really well. I question what location has to do with it, really. I like being in Austin for touring, because you can do East Coast or West Coast in two weeks.
BD: There was a long time when we were making records that nobody seemed to be listening to and we weren't making money on the road. It's pretty cool that both of those things have turned around. And I don't mean "make money" on the road where we come home and buy a house. I just mean we used to go out and lose money on the road, and now we don't.
JE: We don't have to take tour support anymore.
BD: Which is a good thing, because Merge doesn't provide any. It's the first label we got to that didn't provide it, and we finally turned it around.
JE: It was six years before we even broke even on the road.
AC: Your songwriting seems very confident these days, Britt.
BD: I went to Connecticut last summer and lived in a town where I didn't know anybody, and did nothing but write all day so we could put this record out this year rather than waiting two years. I went and lived in New London, and didn't go out a single night I was there. Actually, I went out the last night.
AC: What part does Jim play in your songwriting process?
BD: I take the songs to a certain level, then we get together, and they become Spoon songs.
JE: It's sort of a compromise. Usually Britt will have an idea of where a song should be rhythmically, so I want to know what he's thinking. I like to hear the songs without anything on them, so maybe I'll come up with something he hasn't thought of.
AC: What's Kill the Moonlight, the title, refer to?
BD: It's the name of a futurist manifesto. In Italy, from about 1900-1920, there was a movement called the Futurists. There was a little pamphlet decreeing what they believed in. I didn't read it, I was just looking for titles. We almost called it Bring It.
AC: Characterize the albums. Telephono, Matador, 1996.
BD: Live show. When I think of Series of Sneaks, I think summer of '97, hot as fuck, working at Music Lane all the time.
JE: I think of tension.
BD: Total tension.
AC: Is that what makes the album so compelling?
BD: I think it's a weird record, because it was a compromise. We weren't happy with how it was sounding. I know [producer] John Croslin wasn't happy with the things we were making him do. And I think that, usually, when you compromise in music, you don't end up with a good thing. But somehow people like that record. I mean, I like it. At the time I wasn't happy with how it came out.
AC: Girls Can Tell.
BD: We discovered reverb, man!
AC: Kill the Moonlight.
BD: Hard to say at this point. It feels a little weirder. To me, it feels like our most out-there record. We're essentially a rock band, we're not an experimental band, but ... [Trailing off]
AC: You guys ever hear from your old A&R guy, Ron Laffitte?
BD: I heard this great story about the Faint. You know that band? They're on Saddle Creek, which put out our Laffitte single originally. They were being courted by Ron Laffitte. When they were in New York, Ron and the president of Capitol Records took them to dinner, and as soon as the two of them walked up, the band handed Ron a copy of The Agony of Laffitte. By the accounts I've heard, he went white. The president of Capitol Records was like, "Oh, what's that?" And Ron didn't have anything to say throughout the entire evening. [Laughter all around] We owe those guys a couple rounds of drinks.
Spoon plays the Roky Erickson benefit at the Mercury, Sunday, Aug. 25.