Merchants Of Soul: A Trip To Chipotle And Outside Lands With Spoon
Britt Daniel’s Chipotle order: Soft tacos with chicken, mild salsa, cheese, and a side of guacamole. Lemonade to drink, but he opts for Coke on the refill. I order a chicken burrito and Diet Coke. It is July, and we are in the West Village. The line is long by Chipotle standards — about a 10-minute wait between walking in the door and placing our orders. We take over two small tables, which might be rude considering how busy the place is, though Daniel offers to buy my lunch and later refills my beverage like the Texas gentleman his parents raised him to be.
Why are Spoon’s lead singer and I indulging on upper-middlebrow Mexican fast food? Because Daniel loves Chipotle, and dammit, so do I. (He fell in love with the stuff after moving from Austin to Portland and noticing a sharp decrease in good Mexican dining options; I am from Ohio, so.) In a broader sense, we’re here because the release of Spoon’s eighth album They Want My Soul is imminent, and this is my chance to peer into the soul in question. Having gleaned no profound insights from Daniel’s choice of tacos over a burrito or a bowl — though I did always imagine him as a steak person — I move on to other observations.
Daniel is 43, but he could pass for 32. With his spiky mess of blond locks, he looks like a grown-up version of Calvin from Calvin And Hobbes who has traded his toy tiger for a guitar and his vivid fantasy life for a carefully constructed world of sound. Spoon has been his life since the early ’90s, when he and drummer Jim Eno joined forces after Eno showed up to a recording session for Daniel’s old band Alien Beats. (Eno, a former jazz drummer, could handle the beats in question like no drummer before.) Since then Spoon have progressed through a series record labels, aesthetic evolutions, and lineup changes — the current iteration includes bassist Rob Pope and keyboardist/guitarists Eric Harvey and Alex Fischel — always with Daniel and Eno at the center. Even when Spoon went on hold for a while at the end of 2010, Daniel started a new band, Divine Fits, and kept on rocking. He doesn’t really have hobbies beyond traveling and going out to eat; he says there’s a pile of unread books back home in Los Angeles (fiction, presumably), but in his downtime he always ends up writing songs and recording demos. Making music is all he’s ever wanted to do, and now it’s pretty much all he does.
Today he’s a sharp-dressed man as usual, sporting sunglasses and an open-collared, untucked dress shirt — a more casual version of the buttoned-up getup his father used to wear when Daniel was growing up in Temple, Texas, as described in Spoon’s great Girls Can Tell track “The Fitted Shirt.” He is much warmer and friendlier than I had gathered from his songs and band photos, both of which swagger with a snarling, detached nonchalance. That said, he is also not the type to spill his guts. Throughout our first conversation Daniel is as approachable yet elusive as the songs he writes, offering thoughtful insights and truthful tidbits without fully revealing what makes him tick. The title They Want My Soul is instructive: A lot of people want a piece of Daniel, and he’s determined to make sure they won’t get it.
I ask him who, exactly, is after him. “Soul-suckers in general,” he replies. He specifically references religious pretenders and upsellers, both of whom get mentions on the title track along with card sharks, palm readers, and “post-sermon socialites.” Daniel’s disdain for the religious hypocrisy he encountered growing up in the Bible Belt rears its head more than once on They Want My Soul. On the gorgeously shimmering piano groove “Inside Out,” he notably proclaims “I don’t got time for holy rollers/ Though they may wash my feet,” a phrase that echoes back to 2002’s “Jonathon Fisk” and its famous kiss-off, “Religion don’t mean a thing/ It’s just another way to be right-wing.” Tellingly, the Fisk character pops up again on “They Want My Soul.”
Spoon usually name their records before deciding on artwork, but this time they settled on the album cover — a creepy bluish photo of a ball of light hovering over an outstretched hand, chosen because it was “vaguely menacing” like the Misfits or Suicidal Tendencies — then tried out potential titles from there. They Want My Soul worked as a unifying theme because the album concerns itself with other sorts of soul-suckers too. They’re as specific as the nagging neighbor whose pitiful neediness haunts “Knock Knock Knock” or the aesthete in “Outlier” who’s too pretentious for her own good, or as broad as “everybody” in “Rent I Pay”: “Everybody knows just where you been going/ Everybody knows the faces you been showing/ And if that’s your answer, no, I ain’t your dancer.”
Daniel is fiercely independent, but not in a showy way. As Tom Breihan noted in his They Want My Soul review, Spoon’s leader is not the type to play nice or worry whether he’s pissing people off. He’s always been more concerned with making music that excites him than with keeping up with the sound of the moment. If you’re going to extrapolate anything from his unabashed love for Chipotle, it’s that he chose it over whichever hot new boutique bistro was getting rave reviews down the street. Even when Spoon were benefitting from indie-rock’s exodus into the mainstream, their music has never been in step with trends.
In spite of that, or maybe because of it, the band has amassed this century’s most universally appealing rock ‘n’ roll discography, idiosyncratic and exploratory but rarely at the expense of danceable rhythm and sing-along hooks. They’ve become known as the most consistent band in rock, a reputation that can be damning in a narrative-obsessed, Next Big Thing-riddled context. Whatever Spoon have lacked in short-term hallelujahs, though, they’ve compensated for in long-term goodwill. “If anything, it’s cool to have a reputation for being good,” Daniel says. “The Rolling Stones have a reputation for being good.” Spoon’s stacked discography seems primed to stand the test of time, same as the classic acts they’ve spent their career atomizing and rearranging.
Speaking of that: The notion of Spoon as genius musical scientists disassembling rock music and rebuilding it in their own image has come up repeatedly lately: see Dan Kois’ New York Times Magazine feature “Spoon, the Molecular Gastronomists of Rock” or Steven Hyden’s Grantland piece that compares Spoon’s musical approach to slightly tweaking your furniture arrangement in a manner that initially fucks up your feng shui. “Ten years later,” Hyden wrote, “you can’t recall this arrangement ever troubling you.”
Although he doesn’t go too deep when explaining his life or his lyrics, Daniel, who once wrote a song called “My Mathematical Mind,” will talk all day about the mechanics behind Spoon’s songwriting. Here at lunch he eloquently details the band’s practice of cribbing and altering parts of time-honored classics and revisits the process of workshopping tunes until their truest versions emerge. (“Rent I Pay,” for instance, began as a terrible waltz and evolved into a 4/4 crusher.) No matter how keenly you comprehend their technique, though, there’s no accounting for Spoon’s intangibles. In sports, they say you can’t teach speed. You can’t teach soul, either.
They Want My Soul is Spoon’s first album in four years in part because it had to be. Their previous LP, 2010’s Transference, was the first one Spoon recorded themselves and the first in a decade without producer Mike McCarthy, with whom they’d navigated from major-label refugees to indie-rock royalty over the course of four uniformly excellent LPs. (It’s telling that a case can be made for each one — 2001’s Girls Can Tell, 2002’s Kill The Moonlight, 2005’s Gimme Fiction, and 2007’s Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga — as Spoon’s high-water mark.) “We made four records with Mike McCarthy, and those were all great records,” Daniel says. “They were received well. They did well. But it got to be where we know we can make this kind of record.” Instead, Daniel and Eno produced Transference on their own, and they opted to make the weirdest, most inward-looking collection of their career, a lo-fi headphones record that felt especially dark and brooding following the vibrant, triumphant Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga. Despite generally favorable reviews, Transference was the first Spoon release in a decade that wasn’t met with universal adoration.
In a series of interviews weeks after my lunch with Daniel, his bandmates uniformly reject the notion that Transference was a dud. “I feel like everyone off of Ga times five was sort of expecting Ga times 10,” says Eno, whose dark hair and round face paint him as the yin to Daniel’s yang. “I think Britt was writing a more inward record, something that would take an idea and chew that idea and explore that idea linearly through the song.” Daniel says he was “on a high” while making Transference, and it sold 53,000 in its first week to debut at #4 — both career bests. But the album perplexed some fans and critics, and translating it to the live setting proved more difficult than usual. Not long into touring the record, Daniel brought up the idea of putting Spoon on hold for a while. “I started to think, ‘I don’t know if this record wants to be toured for a year,'” Daniel remembers. “There weren’t a lot of hits.” So in November 2010, after not quite a full year of shows in support of Transference, Spoon went on hiatus.