Spoon's Hot Thoughts Remodels the Locals' Art-Funk

Britt Daniel and Jim Eno talk about the rise of R&B in the band's sound

Merchants of Soul: (l-r) Alex Fischel, Rob Pope, Britt Daniel, Jim Eno (Photo by Cambria)

"You don't understand," declaims Britt Daniel urgently. "We told people we're on at this time. They may not get to see us!"

"That's too bad," smirks the smaller, snottier singer for rival Austin punks sharing the bill.

My own 8-month-old DIY outfit the Hormones is headlining tonight's alternative South by Southwest showcase at the Blue Flamingo. A drag bar no bigger than a walk-in closet at Seventh and Red River, it's recently begun hosting young/loud/snotty combos. Currently, I'm watching the singers of two local bands on my carefully assembled bill, the Motards and Spoon, thumping their chests at each other over who's going on when.

Down the block at Emo's front room on this muggy Thursday night, there's zero line for a solo act named Beck – currently blowing up with a freak hit about being a loser. His opening act downstairs on the club's big stage? Some down-on-his-luck country singer that hard rock and hip-hop süper producer Rick Rubin is helping: Johnny Cash.

Meanwhile, Miss Laura, the stout lady running the Blue Flamingo, looks to be having a grand mal seizure as the two frontmen escalate. She's freaking out because the situation's her fault after having booked 10 acts other than the four confirmed by yours truly. Set times screwed all to hell, no one taking money at the door, a short-circuiting P.A., men's room toilets overflowing: Welcome to punk rock 1994.

"At that point, I'd been in a couple of Austin bands that couldn't get weekend gigs," recalls Daniel today. "That's when people go out. I could get gigs on a Monday night at the Back Room; I played a lot of 'alternative nights' there. But I had this idea when Spoon started that it'd be louder, more aggressive, faster.

"When we started, I thought nothing was cooler than Wire. I thought that was the ultimate. I loved the Pixies, the Velvet Underground, and I loved the first Jesus & Mary Chain record, Psychocandy."

All this was audible when experiencing Spoon 1.0, bassist Andy Maguire locking in with Jim Eno's emphatic drums and guitarist Greg Wilson's pulsing power chords and feedback-drenched leads. Daniel stood in the middle, all Lou Reed-y in his black sunglasses, ramming an acoustic guitar through a fuzzbox while barking edgy, neurotic verse. Find it documented on Spoon's full-length debut, 1996 Matador Records bow Telephono.

"Somehow we came to the attention of one of the greatest record labels in the country at that point, very much by chance," explains Daniel. "[Matador majordomo] Gerard Cosloy came to that anti-South by Southwest showcase at the Blue Flamingo. And if I hadn't prevailed over the Motards over the running order of bands that night, I've often thought it might have been several years before we'd have had any contact with Matador."

SXSW 2017

Two dozen SXSWs later, dance club Plush now occupying Blue Flamingo's spot, a veritable throng of music industry badge-holders and their noncredentialed counterparts wind down the block from the entrance of the former Emo's, renamed "Eno's" for the three consecutive nights Spoon's headlining. Their ninth LP, Hot Thoughts, arrives the same week on Matador after a 21-year hiatus from the label. The band celebrates by curating a trio of official festival showcases, hosting hand-picked local acts and playing a different set every night.

I'm reviewing the whole thing, but can't get in the first night, so I text Britt Daniel anxiously about being waylaid outside.

Britt Daniel, March 14, 2017 @ 10:25pm
They're not letting badges in?

Tim Stegall, March 14, 2017 @ 10:26pm
I was told to wait in line like everyone else.

Britt Daniel, March 14, 2017 @ 10:26pm
I can maybe get you in just let me know.

Britt Daniel, March 14, 2017 @ 10:27pm
I'm not there but hold on.

Britt Daniel, March 14, 2017 @ 10:28pm
Lemme text the tour manager.

Britt Daniel, March 14 @ 10:32pm
Go to the alley and the tour manager will meet you there. There's an entrance from the alley that goes straight into that east side yard where the porta-potties used to be.

That first performance, as well as the following pair, bottles the length and breadth of Spoon's musical journey up to this point. Backlit and swathed in dry ice like Eighties goth superstars, the band samples its historic arc. From their previous album, 2014's They Want My Soul, "Do You" and "Rainy Taxi" match their staging with dark, tight guitar pop, while "You Got Yr. Cherry Bomb" from 2007's Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga resembles the Cure gone Motown. 2005 breakthrough hit "I Turn My Camera On" rides a sexy soul groove.

If Hot Thoughts has a spirit animal, it’s Prince.

In fact, most of the material derived from the new Hot Thoughts works a similar vein: Pure, grade A, lover man groove.

Jim Eno driving Spoon relentlessly, it's thrilling to witness anew Britt Daniel's transformation into one of modern rock's great focal points. In 1994, the singer hid behind oversized shades, and while shadowy lighting and showbiz fog obscure him here, he's never less than magnetic. The smallest gestures enthrall, whether playfully mussing his hair, or suddenly jack-knifing from a crouched position. Daniel's a master class in the sole purpose of any frontman – mesmerizing the audience.

Something else becomes readily apparent over the Eno's stand: Spoon loves dub reggae. Soundman Jeff Byrd acts as Lee "Scratch" Perry at the same stage where Johnny Cash transformed Austin forever, clearly isolating various elements – vocals, drums – to be fed through echo and reverb. Daniel plays his vocal phrasing off Byrd's delays.

On ensuing nights, Hot Thoughts crashes dub through tracks like "Pink Up." The album rocks trademark Spoon jaggedness on the piano-driven "Do I Have to Talk You Into It," pumping steam engine groover "First Caress," and solo sax closer "Us" verges on jazzy. For the most part, however, Hot Thoughts remodels the Austinites from indie rock mainstay into an elastic R&B outfit plying cerebral art-funk.

The Rhythm Method

Britt Daniel, April 23, 2017 @ 11:58pm
You're welcome to come by our rehearsal at Soundcheck on Tuesday if you'd like. We'll be there all day in the big room.

Soundcheck Austin at the Austin Film Studios complex sequesters elite musicians preparing for tours in a comfortable, highly professional, aircraft hangar-sized facility.

Britt Daniel, April 23, 2017 @ 12:33pm
We'll either be going over lights or rehearsing or shooting the shit, one of the three .... If you'd like, we can say 2:30pm.

Tim Stegall, April 25, 2017 @ 12:49pm
Hey, Britt. It's probably going to be closer to 3 before I get there. I'm coming from Oak Hill and I have to catch three or four buses to get to you.

Britt Daniel, April 23, 2017 @ 12:55pm
I'll be glad to send you a ride on Spoon. Want me to send you one? I'll be getting there around 2 hopefully.

Sure enough, a brand-new Ford Fusion arrives before the appointed hour and soon Daniel, bassist Rob Pope, and newest members Alex Fischel and Gerardo Larios, both on keys and guitars, are welcoming their audience of one. Spoon's ensconced at the facility between legs of the Hot Thoughts tour, testing musical transitions and lighting cues. Everything's set up as onstage: elaborate lighting panels behind the band, full P.A., and a road crew to massage it all.

At one juncture, Pope tests out a new echo unit, putting into full effect Spoon's dub ethic. Daniel pinpoints the band's discovery of Jamaican sound mystic King Tubby (1941-1989) during the recording of Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga. Difficulty attaining a sample by Clash adjunct Mikey Dread only cleared up when Daniel called him personally.

"Jeff Byrd and I were both getting into dub at the same time," says the bandleader. "He approached live mixing differently than anybody I'd worked with before. He would get guitar pedals and send things out from the board through them, like drums or, often, my vocals. He would try to make it sound fucked up, so we really got used to that. There were a lot of times I'd get offstage and people would tell me, 'That guy's as much a member of the band as you are.'"

SXSW 2017 was a slight return for Byrd after a nerve-shredding 2009 tour led to his exit. No Soundcheck for him, either. Instead, he's out on the road already with fellow locals Explosions in the Sky.

"That's interesting," remarks Eno as Pope continues testing his echo pedal. "Is that a tap tempo unit?"

As a recording engineer/producer himself, counting Alejandro Escovedo, the Strange Boys, and Phosphorescent among his credits, Eno's fascination with sound is well documented (revisit "Everything Hits at Once," Aug. 1, 2014). His rhythm remains a cornerstone of Spoon's recorded legacy, from Telephono's bashing through to the slinky grooves of Hot Thoughts, immediate high point in a discography remarkably absent of lows (see "SXSW Platters," March 17). He's Charlie Watts to Daniel's Keith Richards.

“We were listening to things like Marvin Gaye,” reveals Eno. “And Britt, in his songwriting, finally said, ‘Screw it – we can have a piano on this song!’”

"A lot of it has to do with the songs Britt writes. It also has to do with my drumming," reflects Eno during a break, admitting his love of Ringo Starr, which can be heard in the same sort of slow tom fills that mark later Beatles recordings. "When you play simple beats and simple fills, they're more powerful. Like in punk rock, most of the time they just play super-fast, but when they keep it simple, it's more powerful.

"I also feel Britt has a really good sense of rhythm and rhythmic toughness. All his songs have that feel, as does his guitar playing – very angular, very tough and rhythmic. We talk about rhythmic approaches. We get together as a band and try things out. Even on demos he brings them in with a drum machine on them. I may play a beat similar to what he programmed, but once we record, we add a little twist to them I feel is mine."

Spoon added big twists beginning on 2001's Girls Can Tell.

"We were listening to things like Marvin Gaye," reveals Eno. "And Britt, in his songwriting, finally said, 'Screw it – we can have a piano on this song! We can try these other things that may not seem right, but it's what we like.' We definitely loosened up, made music a little more true or real to us.

"The first two records, Telephono and A Series of Sneaks, didn't do so well [commercially]. We didn't have anything to lose, so that's an easy time to make a change. 'Let's do something truer to us.'"

Eno's the one Spoon member not named Britt Daniel who's hung in there from day one.

"It's still fun," he nods. "You listen to Hot Thoughts and it's a great record. It's killer to still be a part of it."

A New, New Power Generation?

In five hours, Britt Daniel will catch a flight to begin Hot Thoughts' next tour leg. Presently, he's posted up before an ancient Fender Rhodes electric piano at Austin's vintage synthesizer shop Switched On. The singer plucks out chords as warm as the Wednesday afternoon outside.

"Around 2001, I started messing with keyboards," he mentions almost dismissively. "I sometimes write on them. I can't really play. This is why we have people now who do that live."

Los Angeleno Alex Fischel came to Spoon from Divine Fits, the band Daniel formed as a breather from Spoon in 2011. Gerardo Larios, a longtime world musician around the Texas state capital, joined the band through Eno's production of his band Money Chicha. The results are Spoon's most keyboard-oriented disc.

"A lot of those songs were written on acoustic guitar, but got converted to keyboard riffs," confirms Daniel. "Alex and I would get together and figure out ways to play these things so that they wouldn't bore us for the next two years."

Half of Hot Thoughts originated locally at Eno's Public Hi-Fi studio, the rest in Cassadaga, N.Y., with Flaming Lips/Mercury Rev producer Dave Fridmann, who worked on They Want My Soul as the first outside producer the band ever employed. If Hot Thoughts has a spirit animal, it's Prince.

Spoon at SXSW 2017 (Photo by David Brendan Hall)
Jim Eno driving Spoon relentlessly, it’s thrilling to witness anew Britt Daniel’s transformation into one of modern rock’s great focal points.

The late dynamo's preternatural mojo fuses the new LP in the hormonal songwriting and chanky rhythms that mark most cuts, including the title track and "Can I Sit Next to You." In spelling alone, "WhisperI'lllistentohearit" declares its inspirational fealty even if it's one of the LP's rockers. The minute we climb into Daniel's 2010 Audi in search of barbecue, his stereo pours out the Purple One as he hands me some of the 160 CD-Rs of unreleased Prince tracks Rolling Stone reported he ordered off eBay last year.

"I was at Hut's Hamburgers, having lunch with one of my oldest friends when he died," recalls Daniel. "A couple texts came through and I had to turn my phone off. I wasn't going to be able to eat otherwise, not going to be able to do anything. I was hoping it wasn't real. When I turned on my phone 45 minutes later, there were 45 texts for me. I guess people knew how much he meant to me."

Prince proved a constant in Daniel's life after he "adopted" a copy of 1999 at age 11.

"A friend left it at my house and never came back for it," he grins. "The first one I bought was Purple Rain. I liked those records, but I became obsessed over the next couple of years or so. When Parade came out, I was at the record store that day. When Sign o' the Times came out, I was at the record store that day.

"I was there the day Lovesexy came out, and that was the first time I said, 'What!?' I didn't like that one."

Many years later, Spoon opened for Prince in Portugal, on a bill also featuring the National. The headliner arrived well after Spoon's set and wouldn't grant either opening act an audience. His performance blew Daniel away.

"I've never seen a performer like him. He was the greatest I'd ever seen. He brought something to a live show that was spiritual. He was all about everybody feeling loved.

"I love that. It's a very rare performer who can do that, who can bring everyone together and feel that all-encompassing love."

Success & the Single Spoon Man

"When we started out," reflects Daniel, a forkful of brisket paused, "we were all about punk rock. That music started out about freedom and rebellion, but at some point there became rules to it. We tried living by those rules for a while, or at least I did, but at some point, I said, 'Yeah, but I love Marvin Gaye too, and I've probably listened to Prince more than anybody.'

"Why not use those things I thought might be considered uncool or whatever?"

After 10 years living in Portland, then Los Angeles, Daniel, 46, now splits his time between L.A. and Austin, though mostly here. He owns both his residences, has health insurance, and pays into "something like a 401(k) every year." He's certainly done better than anyone who simply wanted to play weekends at the Blue Flamingo.

"There were a lot of years where I was getting by on $5,000 a year. Like '98, '99, 2000, 2001, and 2002 were very tight. Around 2004 and 2005, when we started flying in to do these big festivals and coming home with some money in our pockets, I remember thinking, 'I can move away from Austin.' I never did, but I remember how fortunate I felt and I still feel extremely fortunate.

"Growing up in Temple, I dreamt about making records," he continues. "That seemed like the coolest job. I don't even know if I was thinking about playing shows. It was all about writing songs, making records. Nowadays, the most immediately fun thing I do is shows. I love it. The fact that I get to leave today to go on a tour of the Southeast United States? I'm over the moon about that.

"We haven't done a proper tour in a long time. We've just been flying around from place to place, doing TV shows or playing three nights in Mexico City, two nights in Australia. Which is fun, but I want to get back to a tour mindset."

Having very religious parents, Daniel never took music for granted.

"My mom didn't really ban music," he says. "My folks were split up, so Mom would worry about me. My dad would ban records, though. Like when that Frankie Goes to Hollywood song 'Relax' came out, he knew what it was about. I was not allowed to listen to that, even on headphones."

Perhaps Spoon's new indie soul is as much a rebellion against Daniels' fundamentalist Christian background as the angular punk rock upon which the band first announced itself. As good as the songs were decades back, only with Girls Can Tell (2001), Kill the Moonlight (2002), and Gimme Fiction (2005) did Daniel come into his own rhythmically, sonically. Hot Thoughts leaves that triptych in the digital dust.

Daniel fits in his skin better these days, too. He's still tall, lanky, blond, and stylishly disheveled, but now there's a commanding confidence the twentysomething Britt lacked, all sharp edges and uptight posture. Gone are the thrift store threads in favor of a more designer-oriented, put-together look. Relaxed, erudite, Britt Daniel's become a man, not a man-child.

"But yes," he smiles, "I was obsessed with records and the radio, and at one point I was obsessed with MTV. To be able to make records is the best."

Spoon tops local talent at ACL Fest 2017 in Zilker Park, Oct. 6-8 and 13-15.

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Spoon, Britt Daniel, Jim Eno, Divine Fits, Matador Records, Rob Pope, Alex Fischel, Gerardo Larios, Public Hi-Fi, Dave Fridmann, SXSW Music 2017

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