A Night With My Favorite Band: Spoon
Kelly Conaboy is the former editor of Videogum (R.I.P.) and current writer for The Hairpin. She’s written about her favorite band here and here and sometimes on Twitter. We sent her to hang out with them in NYC.
It was a cold night for hot thoughts. And also, inside the bar where I met Spoon, a loud night for hot thoughts. We were there in early January to discuss Hot Thoughts, the latest addition to Spoon’s canon of perfect albums (speaking objectively), coming out on Matador in March. A college football game was on all of the TVs and, in an act everyone agreed would be fruitless, Britt Daniel decided to ask the bartender if he might turn it down. One has to wonder if this ability to see possibility in even the most hopeless of situations is what makes Spoon capable of reaching such aural heights tirelessly, again and again, like just crazy nonstop. “Optimism is the faith that leads to achievement,” Helen Keller said. But was she right?
Returning from his act of derring-do, Britt had an announcement. The bartender had agreed to turn the volume down — “one notch.”
Anyway. Why’s Spoon on Matador now? Good question. The band’s career began on Matador in the mid-’90s, but quickly turned to Merge and stayed there — save for Matador’s European release of Gimme Fiction in 2005 — until their last album, 2014’s They Want My Soul. That one was on Loma Vista. So why the return to Matador? “You know, honestly, I didn’t think we would be working with them again,” Britt said, “but we’ve always stayed friends with them. And they made a very compelling argument that we should do it again. So, here we are. It’s pretty great. I really like those guys. Of all American labels, they probably put out more of my favorite bands than any others. They have an amazing track record, and they’re good dudes. And they know how to drink.”
Spoon started working on the album, produced by Dave Fridmann, last February, recording half in Austin and half at Fridmann’s studio in Cassadaga, New York. The album — guitar-light, synth-heavy, seductively catchy, and honestly somewhat spooky even if you’re very brave — sounds exactly like Spoon, but different. Like Spoon wearing a funkier outfit than you’d expect to a weird sex party, but they’re only going to the party out of curiosity, to see what the vibe’s like, and then they’re gonna leave.
I asked what they were listening to while recording it and Rob Pope made a face at me that was like, “Oh, god. This question?” (It’s possible I was reading too much into the face, I was very nervous.) (He was so nice.) (Was that question really bad?) (I’m embarrassed.) Anyway the answer is: a lot of burned CDs. Thee Oh Sees, Talking Heads, and a lot of David Bowie’s Lodger. “The Bowie loss was fresh,” Rob said. Luckily he was still talking to me.
Britt explained that at Fridmann’s studio, “basically a cabin in the woods,” the only audio equipment in the common area was a boombox. “So we ended up listening to the same burned CDs over and over again, and one of them was Lodger.”
Alex Fischel: “I think we have a nice little stash of CDs there now.”
Britt: “Yeah, I stashed them with the weed.”
Alex: “[Fridmann] also has a giant Blu-Ray collection.”
Britt, Rob, and Jim Eno: “LaserDiscs.”
Alex: “Oh, yeah, LaserDiscs. So we hid all of our stuff in certain LaserDiscs.”
Britt: “Like High Noon.”
Alex: “Yeah, like High Noon.”
Jim: “You guys are giving away all your secrets. Now any band that’s recording at Fridmann’s…”
Britt: “We’re gonna have to move it.”
Lodger, funky and great if not unanimously beloved, is an appropriate choice at least for its opening track, “Fantastic Voyage.” A somewhat hopeless plea for decency in the face of an unstable leader whose access to nuclear weapons may bring about humanity’s end, Bowie ends the song singing, “And it won’t be forgotten, ‘cause I’ll never say anything nice again. How can I?”
Spoon’s social media output has grown increasingly, and deservedly, political in the past year. Britt told me they all contribute. “Nothing like having an impending fascist bully boy become our president to get us feeling political.”
We're not even going through the motions of democracy anymore. https://t.co/pJfdNBrfnF
— SPOON (@spoontheband) February 1, 2017
I asked what their mood was like, and if the current political climate made them feel differently about their position. “Yeah, there are different priorities now,” Britt said. “I think someone ought to write a book or a movie or something about what the mood in this country is between November 7th and January 20th because it’s just, it’s not like anything I’ve ever gone through. You feel like institutions and rights are about to be on the chopping block. You don’t know exactly what’s coming, but something is coming. And it’s a really creepy place to be. You know, I wonder sometimes if we’re overreacting in our assessment of what this motherfucker can do.”
“I don’t think so,” Alex offered. “It’s scary what he’s capable of at this point.”
“The fact that we have underestimated him over and over and over again,” Britt said. “You feel a little reluctant. And so I fear the worst. I wonder, though, are we the other side of the coin for those gun nuts who started buying all the guns when Obama became president?”
There was a moment of silence.
“—Ya know what I mean?” With murmurs of acceptance, he continued: “I hope we’re overreacting. Because those people were overreacting.”
(A few days into Trump’s first week, he would message me: “I think it’s now fair to say we weren’t overreacting.”)
Britt asked where I was on election night, which is a kind-of funny question that everyone is always asking each other now. “Kind-of funny” in a morbid way, because decency prevents you from openly comparing the question to what asking the question inherently compares it to, and because pretty much the answer is always “at a party.” At a party, I said. “I was at a party, too.” “I was at a party, too.”
Britt: “I bailed, I was at my brother’s house. I told my brother’s wife her party sucked and I left.”
Alex: “When they called Florida I took two Ambien and I went to bed. And then the next morning there was that brief second when you woke up and it was just a normal day. 20 seconds later you’re like, ‘FUCK!’”
Jim: “For me it was like, I looked at all my notifications and it was like…he wins Pennsylvania…he wins North Carolina, and you’re going down…and he gives his victory speech.”
Rob: “I had to get a two-year-old girl out of her crib the next morning realizing, oh, this motherfucker is going to strip away all of your rights.”
We talked about Trump for a long time and it was not a very “light” topic of conversation, and that is my bad, but it’s also Michigan’s. “Do you think ‘Tear It Down’ is going to become an anti-Trump anthem?” I asked jokingly and somewhat rudely, in attempt to steer the conversation back to where it should’ve been before I steered it toward Trump on purpose but also by mistake, speaking in retrospect. Britt fake laughed, ”ha-ha.””
The song — a jaunty, piano-heavy pop number (but cool) that contains one of the most satisfying verse-to-chorus transitions I’ve heard outside of a One Direction album (meant in the best possible way) — is a bit heavy on unintended border wall allusions. “Let them build a wall around us,” Britt sings in the chorus, “I don’t care I’m gonna tear it down.” He continues, “Oh! It’s just bricks and ill-intentions, they don’t stand a chance, I’ll tear it doo-oo-ooown.” Heh.
“Yeah, the funny thing is,” he said, “I thought that was gonna be old news by the time the record came out. Because I wrote that song quite a while ago. I thought, maybe this sounds a little timely, but by the time the record comes out it won’t be, surely. Unfortunately… that is not the case.” Indeed. My only condolence to Spoon would be that at least their name is not very similar to Kellyanne Conway’s.
The song is one of a few that are, in my opinion, a bit dancier than Spoon’s songs have been in the past. I’m not a music “expert.” I’m just a simple Spoon fan trying to find a way to speak with them about their music while extremely nervous in a very loud bar. Would they say the album is, um, dance-y — dancier?
“I didn’t think that,” Britt said. Damn. He didn’t think that? “I guess. Which songs are dance-y?”
We went around the table tossing out some of the album’s dancier songs: “Can I Sit Next To You,” “Hot Thoughts,” “Shotgun,” “First Caress.” See?
“We did actually try to make a dance record once, that ended up becoming Gimme Fiction, which is not a dance record.” If it’s not a dance record, I asked, what was the band’s intention with Hot Thoughts?
“At one point,” Britt said, “Alex and I were talking about it, and we wanted to do a futuristic record. The best we could come up with. I think that maybe the last song we worked on on the last record was ‘Inside Out’; that’s also probably my favorite song on that record. I think that sort of informed where we went with this one, in terms of having not a lot of guitars. What do you call that, is it new wave? We need to have a word for it, because we keep getting asked.” I agreed that new wave seemed appropriate.
“All right, new wave. Or future wave!” Hm. I disagreed that “future wave” would be appropriate. Alex chimed in, “There are all these wave things right now. Vaporwave, I keep seeing that.” “We’ll be vape wave,” Britt laughed. “It’s vape wave.”
It’s vape wave.
Spoon albums are made of tiny, favorite moments: a specific distortion, a phantom noise, a faraway yelp, that part when the music comes in, that part when the music drops out, that one harmony right there. Hot Thoughts doesn’t disappoint in terms of these tiny, favorite moments, and my personal favorite comes at the end of “I Ain’t The One.” As the song ends, the lingering keyboard muddies into feedback that pops up irregularly, louder and louder until it abruptly cuts out. It’s scary! I love it. I asked how it happened.
“That was on a demo of that song,” Britt said. “A totally unrelated demo that we’d forgotten about. And we worked on this new version of the song. And when we went to mix it our producer, Dave, through that ending from the demo onto the main version. Which was cool. Nobody would have thought to do that.”
“Do you think when he heard it he took stock and was like, ‘I will use this’?” Alex asked. “Yes. It makes sense; it’s totally up Dave’s alley.”
“He said he was looking for some sort of outro,” Jim said, “or something to hammer it home.”
“It’s scary,” Alex said.
He’s right. It’s scary! I love it.
Similar to the tiny, favorite moments, Spoon albums always contain some sort of line where you hear it and think, “—what?” Be it a reference to Garden State, or a hearse, or the White Stripes. This one’s got one about coconut water, in “First Caress,” that I cannot help but fixate on every single time I hear it. “Coconut milk, coconut water, you still try to tell me they’re the same. Who am I to say?”
“They’re not the same,” I said to Britt.
“They’re not the same,” he agreed. “And some people say they are. And who am I to say?” Huh. Fair enough.
“That was a line, a real life line that just kind of — it sounded cool, and I think Jim at one point was just like, ‘Do not take that line out. You’re not gonna take that line out, right?’” “Because sometimes I hear a new demo,” Jim said, “And a line’s different. So sometimes when I’m listening to a song I’ll be like, ‘Hey man, leave it. I love this line… DON’T change it’” “Usually, though, you don’t tell me until the line is gone.” “Really?” “Yes! Usually, you don’t say you like it until it’s gone. And then you’re like, ‘Hey, by the way, you need to go back to that line.’” “Well, I don’t want to pick out every line I like and email you, you know?”
In my final moments with Spoon, I asked about my favorite song: “Metal Detektor.” It’s a little known fact, Britt told me, that “Metal Detektor” is one of two songs Spoon recorded themselves, on cassette, for A Series Of Sneaks. The other was “Staring At The Board.”
Jim: “And they were both in your apartment, right? I did the drums in your apartment on that.”
Britt: “Huh. I’d thought that you did the drums yourself, but you’re probably right about that.”
Jim: “I remember lugging my drums over there.”
Britt: “Regardless, it was the first time Spoon recorded Spoon. Those two songs.”
Well. Good job, Spoon. On this, and that.
I love you!
Hot Thoughts is out 3/17 via Matador.