Cover Story

Merchants Of Soul: A Trip To Chipotle And Outside Lands With Spoon

The self-imposed break was at least in part to lick their wounds after Transference’s chilly reception. “That was a bit of a blow to us,” says Pope, the bassist who joined Spoon in 2004. But it was just as much about catching their breath. “For me and Britt, since 1992 or 1993, it’s just been write-record-tour, write-record-tour, write-record-tour for seven records,” Eno says. “That’s a lot of stuff just crammed in there. And I was lucky, I get a little time off because Britt writes the songs.” Daniel headed back to Portland, found a new girlfriend, and chilled for a few months. When his old friend Dan Boeckner of Wolf Parade came through town to play a show, they decided to team up for a project that would become Divine Fits. Meanwhile, he opted to get out of Portland after “a few things happened,” though the only specific reason he’ll mention is the gloomy weather. “I wanted to go to a big city, and I wanted to go somewhere I could make noise at my own place,” he says. “I couldn’t really do that in New York,” so he moved to sunny Los Angeles and focused on making the Divine Fits album.

Playing with a new group of musicians was a good way for Daniel to refresh his perspective while continuing to flex his creative muscles. Soon, though, he felt himself longing to play with Spoon again. So in early 2013, while still staring down months of Divine Fits tour dates, he called up his old bandmates and told them he wanted to make a new record. “I was super excited,” Daniel says, “and I think the whole band could feel that.” Spoon fit in a handful of shows and got together for occasional jam sessions while Daniel wrapped up his responsibilities with Divine Fits. But they didn’t properly reconvene until last fall, when they entered the state-of-the-art L.A. studio Sunset Sound with the aim of making an outgoing, upbeat record that would slay at festivals.

The man for the job, they thought, was Joe Chiccarelli, a Grammy-winning producer whose clients range from the White Stripes to Morrissey to Jason Mraz. The original plan was to record the album in two halves, both of them with industry pro Chiccarelli, and have visionary weirdo Dave Fridmann (the Flaming Lips, MGMT) mix each session at his woodland studio in Cassadaga, New York. It quickly became apparent to Spoon that Chiccarelli and Sunset Sound, with its front desk, interns, and slick corporate setting, were not the right fit. Daniel says the band had no ill will toward Chiccarelli, but the sessions in L.A. didn’t turn out to be the creative give-and-take Spoon would have preferred.

Meanwhile, ever since Janet Weiss told Daniel about her experience recording Sleater-Kinney’s swansong The Woods with Fridmann, Daniel had been itching to head to Fridmann’s Tarbox Road Studios himself. Weiss had praised Fridmann’s attentive approach and the collaborative nature of his sessions as well as his friendly character. There was also this: “He asked her what she wanted the record to sound like, and she said Axis: Bold As Love by Jimi Hendrix,” Daniel remembers. “And I was like, that’s exactly what that record sounds like!” His desire to work with Fridmann only increased after the producer’s involvement in Daniel favorites like Low’s The Great Destroyer, MGMT’s Oracular Spectacular, and the Flaming Lips’ Embryonic. When some time opened up in Fridmann’s schedule, the choice was clear. “After we did the first half with Joe,” Daniel says, “we decided it might be cooler to work with Dave for the second half.”

Despite Daniel’s excitement and reciprocal anticipation on the producer’s end, on paper, Spoon plus Fridmann seemed like an odd match. Spoon’s compact rock songs are usually crisp and often minimal, whereas Fridmann is best known for wild, maximal outbursts of psychedelic sound. Eno was conscious of that tension. “I didn’t know how it would work,” he says. “It’s sort of, ‘Take Kill The Moonlight and cross it with Soft Bulletin.’ I just can’t imagine what that would sound like.” Furthermore, Daniel doesn’t usually like to hole up and make a record; he prefers to be able to come and go as he pleases, to keep on living life in the midst of recording. Going out for dinner and drinks after a long day of recording was not possible while snowed in at Tarbox in the dead of winter. “It was a hard way to make an album,” Daniel remembers.

It turned out to be the right way. “Dave was a little more our style,” Pope says, noting that he wasn’t sure Spoon would end up with a great record until the band arrived at Tarbox. Adds Harvey, “[Fridmann’s] studio was one of the most inspiring environments I’ve been in. It was like this Wonderland log cabin in the woods.” Spoon were looking to try something new; Eno says they rejected anything that sounded “too Spoon” in an attempt to not repeat themselves. Fridmann’s influence was good for that: “He likes to try to throw out a lot of bizarre ideas that we wouldn’t think about,” Daniel says. Thus, eight albums in, Spoon found themselves still pushing the limits of what a Spoon song can be. One such instance was the creation of “Knock Knock Knock,” one of Fridmann’s fondest memories from the sessions. “Britt was just furiously flailing at his guitar and three of us were on the floor manipulating guitar pedals trying to come up with ridiculous sounds,” the producer recalls. “It was really fun. They were very adventurous and really interesting — really never a dull moment. They were always pushing to find out what could happen next.”

That’s the side of Spoon the public doesn’t see. Despite their reputation for meticulousness, behind the polished exterior they are experimentalists at heart. “I think even at their core that’s fundamental to them,” Fridmann says. Then, same as Daniel, he compares Spoon to the Stones, that archetype of vaguely menacing rock ‘n’ roll cool. “I was talking with Wayne [Coyne] about the Rolling Stones the other day about how ridiculous and sloppy some of their stuff is, but how particular it is at the same time. It’s just wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, trying every different kind of possible way of doing this song. And then all of the sudden it’s right. And so you as the listener get to hear just the final right part of it. But most bands don’t have a documentary made about them like the Rolling Stones did so you can hear them doing ‘Sympathy For The Devil’ wrong 1,000 times before you get to hear them doing it right.”

Spoon left Cassadaga with an album that, despite its ominous themes, is overflowing with life. The time off paid off: They Want My Soul sounds refreshed and refocused, the band forging ahead into new territory 20 years into their career. It is a Spoon record through-and-through, yet it’s also a Fridmann record, rife with bold colors, big sounds, and pioneering flourishes. As Daniel puts it, “Even the songs that are a bit more experimental, like say ‘Inside Out’ or ‘Knock Knock Knock,’ are still bigger-sounding experimental as opposed to introverted experimental.” Those songs — a glassy keyboard shimmer and a snarling psychedelic hall of mirrors, respectively — are unlike any previous Spoon songs. So is “Outlier,” a massive swell of sound that could pass for Primal Scream if not for Daniel’s trademark vocal grit, though “Outlier” dates back to an early jam session by Eno and Harvey well before Fridmann got his hands on the record. Had the band not disappeared for a while, we might hear it as “just” another landmark Spoon album in a long career of them. “I think it easily fits in with the best stuff we’ve ever done,” he says. “And to be doing that eight albums in I think is pretty unusual.”