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.

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.”

As they always do, Spoon made They Want My Soul with their own money rather than accepting an advance from a label. It’s one of the ways they maintain that stubborn independence Daniel prizes so much. Still, for five records straight that process has been a formality; they’ve always returned to Merge, one of the world’s biggest and best indie labels and the company that helped pull Spoon out of a tailspin at the turn of the century. The backstory has become the stuff of indie-rock legend: After Matador, another titanic indie label, released Spoon’s 1996 debut Telephono and 1997’s Soft Effects EP, Spoon made the jump to major-label Elektra for 1998’s A Series Of Sneaks only to find themselves dropped four months after the album came out. Daniel famously responded by writing “Laffitte Don’t Fail Me Now” and “The Agony Of Laffitte,” a pair of songs spitting venom at Elektra A&R man Ron Laffitte, who the band believed had betrayed them after pledging his loyalty. Had Merge not stepped in to help Spoon dust themselves off and move forward with 2000’s Love Ways EP, the band might have ended right there. In the ensuing 15 years, Spoon have become one of the label’s flagship bands.

Considering Spoon’s horrific experience with the major-label system and their long, fruitful partnership with Merge, it was shocking to hear that They Want My Soul would be released on Loma Vista, a label that, when the deal was announced, was part of Universal Music Group. Last month, Loma Vista shifted allegiances to the independent Concord Music Group (with UMG still handling distribution), so They Want My Soul still technically came out on an indie label. In some ways that makes the breakup with Merge even more surprising, but in truth Spoon were rekindling a relationship that dates back even earlier. Loma Vista founder Tom Whalley tried to sign Spoon in 1995 when he was working for Interscope, and when Spoon were shopping They Want My Soul two decades later, he was still interested in working with them. “I think he’s a real fan, a big-picture music guy,” Daniel says. As for Merge? “We love Merge,” Eno says. “They put out five of our records. They worked super hard and we worked super hard on all those, and we’re really proud of them. But it really did feel like with the break and the type of record this was, that maybe if something good came along, we should try to do it.”

As if to quell doubts about their loyalty to independent music, Spoon announced the Vinyl Gratification program. Daniel says he’s constantly asked to kick bonus tracks and rarities to big-box retailers and digital music vendors as part of marketing deals, and he wondered why he couldn’t extend similar benefits to the little guy. “The places where I like to go buy records are always being left out of that,” he says. Thus, fans who pre-ordered They Want My Soul on vinyl from independent record were immediately issued a limited-edition 10-inch containing three songs from the album. Spoon found other creative ways to promote They Want My Soul, such as a “mystery mailer” program that involved sending prizes to random fans and culminated with a creepy interactive musical theater event at New York’s McKittrick Hotel the week the record came out. If that sounds more like something those fearless freaks the Flaming Lips would do, well, maybe Spoon aren’t so predictable after all.

***

Thirty-two days after our Chipotle date, I am riding in a golf cart with Daniel, Alex Fischel, and Spoon’s tour manager, Mike. We are in Golden Gate Park, speeding away from San Francisco’s Outside Lands festival toward some secret forest enclave where a local radio station has been hosting intimate acoustic sessions for contest winners. When Daniel and Fischel step onto the makeshift stage, they notice a drone hovering behind the audience, capturing their performance on film, which mostly thrills them and only creeps them out a little. They play three songs from They Want My Soul: the Ann-Margaret cover “I Just Don’t Understand,” with Daniel strumming an acoustic guitar and Fischel doing Little Richard things on his keyboard; “Inside Out,” with Fischel playing pensive keys and Daniel belting it out with extra sensitivity, as they did for a recent web-only Tonight Show session; and “Do You,” with both guys on guitar, locking into those dense chord progressions Spoon occasionally employ when they’re latching onto a brisk groove.

On the golf cart, I ask Fischel how being the new guy in Spoon is working out for him, and after Daniel unleashes a brief flurry of jokes about “minimal hazing,” he warmly notes that Fischel is especially good at meeting new people. When Fischel balks at that notion, Daniel enthusiastically assures him, “You’re one of the best!” as if the thought of Fischel not clicking in Spoon was never even a consideration. The others seem to have taken to Fischel too; Daniel says it took them only a few hours to understand Fischel’s appeal as a musician and a person. “Once they met him, everything was just awesome,” Daniel recalls. “It’s never been easier.” Harvey later refers to Fischel as “our new kid brother,” a fitting description considering the broad grin and childlike energy he brings to every performance.

Spoon had been inviting a rotating cast of fifth members to join them on stage anyhow — Deerhunter’s Bradford Cox, White Rabbits’ Stephen Patterson, Jessica Dobson, and others — so they figured they might as well bring somebody on board full-time. Plus, as Pope notes, an additional member added to the sense that this was a fresh start for Spoon. With a fifth musician came new ideas and new possibilities. It was just a matter of choosing the right person for the job, and after their tenure together in Divine Fits, Fischel was someone Daniel could trust. As a result, Daniel’s career is now deeply intertwined with Fischel’s. He’s is the only guy besides Daniel who plays in both Spoon and Divine Fits, and as Angelenos they’re the only members of either group who live in the same city. (Eno lives in Austin, Harvey in Dallas, and Pope in Brooklyn; Divine Fits mates Dan Boeckner and Sam Brown live in Sacramento and Columbus, respectively.)

Later, once we’ve returned to the backstage area, I find Daniel and Fischel in the trailer watching Slipknot videos on YouTube. Daniel says he’s trying to learn the difference between Slipknot and Godsmack. I don’t realize at the time, but he’s probably scoping out the competition: They Want My Soul will go on to debut at #4 on the Billboard 200, one spot below Godsmack’s new 1000HP. Fischel recommends they watch notorious goofball Nardwuar’s interview with Slipknot. “Who’s Nardwuar?” Daniel asks. They load up the clip and cackle, then move on to Nardwuar’s encounter with the Wu-Tang Clan. Under a tent just outside the trailer, Pope and Harvey are entertaining old friends with beer and snacks from the trailer. Eno is playing the part of the cool rock ‘n’ roll uncle, showing off his souvenir liquor bottle (presented to Outside Lands performers in a miniature guitar case) to his grade-school nieces. The Flaming Lips are in the next trailer over, so Wayne Coyne is under the same tent munching a salad in his trademark leisure suit, getting ready to put on a bodysuit depicting the human muscular system with a handful of tinsel dangling from the crotch. He’ll later hobnob with Harvey about recording with Fridmann and borrow the flowers out of Spoon’s trailer for use in the Lips’ psychedelic stage show. It’s all very chill and a little surreal.

The casual demeanor continues up the staircase and onto the stage, where a crowd of thousands awaits. The members of Spoon stroll loosely to their instruments and ease into “Knock Knock Knock” in front of a humongous bluish banner depicting They Want My Soul‘s album cover. From there they skip across the discography to 2007’s “Don’t You Evah” and 2002’s “Small Stakes” and circle back through the years. As they bounce between new and old songs, the fresh material already feels classic, and the classics sound fresh. There is an internal diversity to the set — even among the new songs, ballsy rocker “Rent I Pay” deploys a three-guitar attack while the hip-hop-informed keyboard float “Inside Out” features no guitars at all — yet it’s all part of the same unified continuum. They’re decades removed from the scrappy kids kicking out hyperactive post-punk, but you can make a case that Spoon are still aging into their glory days.

They’re playing the part of conquering heroes today, budding rock ‘n’ roll legends performing indelible music for an ocean of people. Daniel trades grinning glances with each bandmate throughout the show. At one point he launches into a magnificent leap, legs kicked backward, guitar pointed skyward. During a rollicking run through “The Underdog,” Eno tosses his shaker what must be 20 feet in the air and back down into the arms of a sound engineer who looks like Ben Folds. Everyone is having a blast, which is typical of Spoon concerts these days.

“I’m loving doing these shows,” Daniel says. “I think in the last few months we’ve done some of the best shows that we’ve ever done. I know that to be true. So I think this one’s got some legs to it.” They Want My Soul certainly seems primed to keep the band on the road much longer than Transference did. More importantly for Daniel, the new album already feels like a landmark addition to Spoon’s canon. As ever, he’s utterly confident about that. “I’ll always say that the most important thing is the records you make, the songs you write. Doing those shows is just sort of the payoff.” He cuts himself off: “Well, the payoff is making a great record you can live with for the rest of your life and feel fucking amazing about. We’ve done that.” Again.

[Britt Daniel photos in New York by Ryan Muir. Spoon photos in San Francisco by Moses Namkung.]

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