We’ve Got A File On You: Britt Daniel

Oliver Halfin

We’ve Got A File On You: Britt Daniel

Oliver Halfin

Spoon's frontman on their greatest hits, Bowie, Mayor Pete, a new album, and more

We’ve Got A File On You is a new reboot of an old-school Stereogum franchise. Once called Annotated Media Guide, these are interviews in which artists share the stories behind the extracurricular activities that dot their careers: acting gigs, guest appearances, random internet ephemera, etc.

It might be hard to believe, but Spoon have now been releasing music for close to 25 years. Initially, the recent announcement of a greatest hits compilation might’ve seemed a little odd. These guys still feel in the midst of a lengthier-than-usual prime, their oft-mentioned and absurd level of consistency ensuring they have staved off the kind of downslope career trajectory at which aging rock bands once started to issue singles collection upon singles collection. But, even as they work on a new album — even as you might be tempted to say Spoon in fact released one of their finest albums this decade (that’d be They Want My Soul) — a good amount of years have passed: A quarter century is a long time to be around, and it might require a bit of summation for the uninitiated.

That said, we haven’t really gotten a lot of “greatest hits” compilations from the indie bands who defined the genre’s 21st century arc. With Spoon, like many of their contemporaries, you wouldn’t even call these songs hits by the traditional radio domination metrics. Spoon are sort of a strange case. At this point, they are legacy indie artists, yet you could make several arguments for where their “peak” occurred depending on how you define it. Some fans might still love Kill The Moonlight the most, while some might locate Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga and its broader reach as Spoon’s key achievement, while others might prefer the band we’ve seen this decade, having steadily climbed upward while patiently building one of the most bulletproof rock discographies in recent memory.

But that’s part of their longevity. Spoon never had one precise breakthrough moment. They didn’t exactly spearhead any one micro-genre or scene in the past couple of decades, but instead plugged along as reliably as their impeccable rhythmic sensibility. And along the way, those songs seeped into the culture, appearing in TV shows, and movies, and commercials. The band interacted with pop culture through cameos and quiet collaborations. They became one of the foremost artists of their genre, of their time, with slow-burn, stealth hits — songs and moments that became a much bigger part of the era than their chart placement might suggest.

In the lead-up to the compilation and their tour with Beck and Cage The Elephant, we sat down with Spoon frontman Britt Daniel to look back at a lot of those key tracks, and various moments in which those songs did sneak into the atmosphere along the way. In the course of it, we touched on the story of Spoon’s career, and also the little side tangents Daniel has embarked on through the years, from David Bowie covers to Veronica Mars cameos.

“The Underdog” (2007)

STEREOGUM: This has become one of the most ubiquitous Spoon songs. It’s been used in a bunch of stuff, from Horrible Bosses to Spider-Man: Homecoming. When you know Spoon’s music will appear in something, do you avoid checking it out or are you curious to see how it’s been used?
BRITT DANIEL: I haven’t seen Spider-Man. I did see Horrible Bosses, because that’s maybe the only time that the director who wanted the song in the movie asked me to come screen the movie with a few others. So, what did I think? I thought it was cool. I love that director [Seth Gordon], because he did the Donkey Kong documentary [The King Of Kong: A Fistful Of Quarters]. I was psyched because I was a fan of his work. But generally, what do I think when I see something that goes by? It’s usually a surprise, like I’ve forgotten. I do approve or disapprove [the syncs], but I often forget about them by the time they come out. I remember the Shameless one, for instance: I wasn’t really familiar with Shameless when the offer came through but by the time it aired I was familiar. It’s weird. Sometimes I’m not expecting it. Generally, that’s cool. I guess it means we did something right.

“I Turn My Camera On” (2005)

STEREOGUM: You’re about to be on tour with Beck, but you’ve also joined him onstage before to play “I Turn My Camera On,” another one of Spoon’s signature songs. The thing I remember from back then — it still felt like a novelty, or an outlier, an indie band using a dance or disco beat like that. I remember thinking of that as “Spoon’s weird song” at the time, though of course it’s not that strange and you’ve made much more groove-oriented albums since. A song like that, it has taken on such a life over time, to the point that it became the hit you played with Beck. What did you think of it when you first wrote it?
DANIEL: When I wrote it, I just wanted something with that bass groove, “duh-duh-duh,” super simple and about that BPM. I had heard a couple other songs like that, and I thought I liked that. That was the only design I had really. I put that down on a 4-track, put some xylophone down on top of it, sang these words “I turn my camera on,” which I didn’t really know what it meant but I loved it. But I wasn’t sure where it was going. Then when [Spoon drummer] Jim [Eno] heard the song he put the upbeat disco thing to it. I was like, “OK, that makes sense, I wasn’t expecting that.” Once we had those two things together, we put it together pretty fast. What I thought, with the falsetto on there, was “This is the fucking single.” So, it doesn’t surprise me that it is one that the masses may know better than the others.
STEREOGUM: Sometimes you get a gut feeling about songs like that?
DANIEL: By the time we recorded it, yeah. First instinct, it was weird but I liked it. By the time we recorded it I was like, “We got this in our back pocket.” Then we went and made the rest of the record. I did feel like it was a single. I remember Merge wanted “Sister Jack” to be the first single and I was like, “Are you kidding me? It’s gotta be ‘I Turn My Camera On.'” It sounds like a fucking single. It’s the most like Prince we’ve ever sounded.
STEREOGUM: It was also in a car commercial. You’ve had a couple of those. At a certain period in time, the idea of these indie bands popping up in places like that would’ve been a bit of an oddity. What are the things you’ve thought like, “I don’t want to do that.”
DANIEL: There was a Hummer commercial that came to us that we declined. If the US Army came to us, we’d decline it. It does happen. If it’s a TV show, it’s gotta be something that, in some way, is pretty offensive to our tastes or sensibilities [for us to decline]. A TV show is fairly innocuous. I know that we have turned a couple TV shows down when we didn’t like the scene, when we didn’t like what it was going to represent in the scene.

Singing Elvis Costello’s “Veronica” On Veronica Mars (2006)

STEREOGUM: How did this come about?
DANIEL: Oh, you’re gonna put that one on there?
STEREOGUM: Would you rather that video be forgotten?
DANIEL: Sort of. Here’s what I remember about that. They asked me to do that karaoke scene, and they gave me an instrumental track to sing to. I gave them a version that was me singing more softly. Once I was about to go up and do the scene, I thought, “I’m going to be standing there on a karaoke stage, I’m not going to be singing timidly or like I’m sitting on my bedroom floor.” So I made this new version where I’m singing at the top of my lungs. When I shot the scene, I sang it to that version of the song. When the TV show came out, they used the original. So, I’m standing up there like a madman being very full-force. I wouldn’t be hurt if you just talked about the song but didn’t include the video.
STEREOGUM: Did that compel you to not do more cameos like that? Did it weird you out to see it in final product form?
DANIEL: I think it was just an oversight. I had told them, as I was there that day, here’s the version, here’s the version, but somehow it just didn’t make it and when it aired it was the wrong one. No, I would do that kinda stuff again. I think it was an unfortunate fluke.

Stranger Than Fiction Score (2006)

STEREOGUM: Another foray into visual world. As far as I can tell, this is the only time you’ve worked on a score like this.
DANIEL: I’ve done some very small stuff, I’m not even sure if it came out. But, yeah, that was a major motion picture.
STEREOGUM: Was that something you wanted to get back to ever?
DANIEL: I’d like to do it. Whenever it’s come up again, it’s been right before I was heading out on tour or right as I was finishing a record. People would come to me and say, “We want something that sounds like the Stranger Than Fiction soundtrack,” and I’d say, “Well, you’ve come to the right person but I just can’t do it right now.” So it hasn’t happened again, but I’m down.
STEREOGUM: Spoon has such a reputation for sharply-written, hook-filled songs, and obviously interstitial film score music can have that but … I was also thinking about the Hot Thoughts track “Us.” Has there been any kind of counter-intuitive process over the years, to learn to write outside your normal punchy, direct mode?
DANIEL: Not over the years. I knew “Us” was not a pop song. It was a happy accident that we ran with, because I thought, “We have never done a song like this, it’d be cool to have an end-credits song on this record.” The process for making the songs on Stranger Than Fiction was totally different, I was working with this guy Brian Reitzell, and he had a recipe from the director. “This song has to be 45 seconds, it has to be in this mood, it has to move up right here towards the end.” It was so laid out for us, so I just brought in a bunch of melodies I had that I had never done anything with. Little scraps. We went to the studio where we had all kinds of magical instruments, and turned it into these things. I’ve never worked like that again, it’s a cool way to work.

“The Way We Get By” With Mayor Pete (2019)

STEREOGUM: It’s been sorta funny how indie music taste has crept into the political discourse. You’ve got Mayor Peter playing “The Way We Get By” on piano before an event. I know you tweeted about it too, but were you surprised, amused –
DANIEL: Oh, I got a big kick out of it. That morning I got an email from Mac McCaughan saying, “I know you’ve seen this but I gotta point it out to you just in case,” and I was like, “No, I have not seen that.” It blew my mind. It happened right when he was coming to mass awareness. It was a little phenomenon there for a couple days, my inbox started filling up.
STEREOGUM: Did your streaming numbers go up?
DANIEL: I didn’t look, but I’m sure the smart people I work with did.
STEREOGUM: There’s a whole history of politicians that musicians don’t like taking their music for rallies and such. Was Buttigieg a situation where you were like, “This person’s all right.”
DANIEL: For sure, yeah. I had a bit of an awareness of who he was before that happened. I was all for it.

Covering “The Clampdown” For Beto (2018)

STEREOGUM: You did a couple events for Beto O’Rourke, too.
DANIEL: We did about four.
STEREOGUM: At one of those you covered “The Clampdown.”
DANIEL: That was the big one, yeah.
STEREOGUM: And it was because he’d referenced that song in a debate.
DANIEL: He said Ted Cruz was “working for the Clampdown.” He mentioned it in passing. I got a kick out of that. Maybe about a week later I was like — I love the song, we’ve covered the Clash before, but never this song.
STEREOGUM: What other Clash song have you covered?
DANIEL: We covered “Hateful.”
STEREOGUM: That does ring a bell now. So, when you were giving those interviews before, it was hopeful. It was during the race. I’m assuming you got to know him a bit. Are you pulling for him in this crowded Democratic field now?
DANIEL: I’m pulling for any human being who is up against him. No point in doing damage to one of your potential saviors, right?

Divine Fits – “Would That Not Be Nice” (2012)

STEREOGUM: I feel like Dan Boeckner once told me you were going for an AC/DC riff with this song.
DANIEL: Well, yeah, eventually. He came up with the bassline, and that was the first thing we had to latch onto. I don’t think that was AC/DC. But when I started adding my guitar it was maybe in that direction.
STEREOGUM: This song is one of my favorites out of anything you’ve done.
DANIEL: I love it too. I haven’t gotten to play it in a long time.
STEREOGUM: Well, that was my inevitable followup. In that same interview, Dan had also talked about this masterplan: reunited Wolf Parade album, second Operators album, and a second Divine Fits album. So, the others have materialized …
DANIEL: So when are we going to get around to the Divine Fits?
STEREOGUM: Is it something you’d like to revisit?
DANIEL: I would, at some point. I miss those dudes. Alex [Fischel] is now in Spoon. So that’s great, but I don’t get to see Dan and Sam [Brown] enough.

“Hot Thoughts” (2017)

STEREOGUM: Every Spoon album is a little different. Some little aesthetic decisions, some songwriting decisions, tweaking the throughlines so no two albums sound exactly the same. That being said, I feel like Hot Thoughts was more of an assertively different direction. With some hindsight, do those songs feel like they were a liberating moment creating a new way forward, or a left turn from the main path?
DANIEL: I don’t know. I don’t think the next album will sound like Hot Thoughts. We keep calling it rock ‘n’ roll. I don’t know exactly what that means. Hot Thoughts was a rock record, it just didn’t have a lot of guitars on it. I don’t think we’ll make that same sound again. At least not on this next one.

“No Bullets Spent” (2019)

STEREOGUM: So this is the new song on the greatest hits.
DANIEL: I solo in it. I do two guitar solos. But don’t worry, they’re 10 seconds or less. The song is sort of a story/parable thing about an oppressive minister and fantasizing about how to get rid of him in the best way.
STEREOGUM: Is this one of the political Spoon songs?
DANIEL: I don’t know, you’ll have to tell me.
STEREOGUM: There have been political Spoon moments — or songs responding to the atmosphere — along the way. This era would be the first time you’re writing new music during Trump’s administration. It’s a weird thing. At first it was all anyone wanted to talk about, then everyone got exhausted, and the idea of “Trump era albums” –
DANIEL: Everyone is sick of talking about Trump.
STEREOGUM: Of course. So, having written some songs in that vein before, do you find it impacting your writing this time around?
DANIEL: I try to not let it, just because it’s a subject that’s well-covered. It’s hard to not notice the guy. Its hard for that to not affect your thoughts sometimes. But, yeah, it’s not going to be an album about Trump.
STEREOGUM: “No Bullets Spent” sits at the end of the collection. Is it positioned that way as recapping the arc that’s on the greatest hits, or is it a hint of what’s to come?

DANIEL: I would say it’s a hint of what’s to come. We recorded three songs that were contenders, all songs we’ve been working on since we got off tour last summer. This new one, “No Bullets Spent,” was written in New York. I was here for, I guess six months. We did three new songs, and some of those will end up being on the record as long as they stand up quality-wise. We just thought which of these three sounds like it’d be the best at the end of this compilation, and that was the one.

STEREOGUM: How far along are you with the album now?

DANIEL: We’re maybe almost halfway through. The only thing is that we’re going to be kinda busy coming up. If we didn’t have a greatest hits record that we’re promoting, and this tour, then it’d be out a lot sooner.

Covering David Bowie (2016)

STEREOGUM: In 2016, you did a lot of Davie Bowie covers. There was “Rebel Rebel” with Sleater-Kinney, “Never Let Me Down” … and my personal favorite was when you performed “I Can’t Give Everything Away.” I was obsessed with that song, I thought it was so powerful it wound up being the last song on his last album. Obviously he’s an artist that’s been covered a lot. But was it daunting or heavy to take that particular one on?

DANIEL: I just found it to be a very, very moving song. I can’t remember why that ended up being the one Alex and I did. I guess I must’ve really just loved it. You’re talking about the Mexico City show? We did a Prince song as well.

STEREOGUM: They both have been crucial artists for you. Not to, uh, wish ill upon anyone, but are there other artists you think would have that effect on you, where you’d want to keep returning to their songbook after they’re gone?

DANIEL: I’m sure that there are. It’s funny how those things really make themselves clear once you lose someone. I do remember saying to a friend, maybe two months before Bowie died, we were talking about this and I said, “Honestly if I had to pick one artist where I had to say I grabbed this from or grabbed that from the most, it probably has been Bowie.” When he was gone, it was a big one. It was heavy. I remember at the time feeling I couldn’t imagine anyone that would bother me as much as Bowie passing, and then Prince died. It’s kind of hard to predict. Maybe if Paul Simon, if we lost him. It’s weird, the music becomes even more powerful once we’ve lost them. McCartney, that’ll be a big one. Bruce Springsteen, that’s another.

STEREOGUM: I don’t even want to put that out into the universe. But Spoon covering Bruce Springsteen would be great regardless.

DANIEL: I guess we haven’t. Divine Fits did. “Hungry Heart.”

Ray Davies – “See My Friends” (2010)

STEREOGUM: Another forebear thing, you guys backed up Ray Davies in 2010 —

DANIEL: That’d be one that would send me reeling.

STEREOGUM: The nature of that album was he had a bunch of collaborators redo old songs with him. And there’s some pretty serious heavy-hitters on that. Springsteen, Metallica … was that surreal to get the call to do that?

DANIEL: Yeah, a little bit. I had just done a cover story in SPIN with him about the Kinks. I think that’s the only reason it happened. I must’ve made a good impression. Even that having happened, it was totally surreal. We went over to England, a few days early before tour, to do it. Unforgettable. I sang some. The song he picked … the original version is so good, it’s hard to come up with another version that was … sometimes adapting songs to another style or arrangement is a piece of cake, something comes right to you. But it didn’t really for us. So he brought in an idea and we did it in a day. I wish we had another day to work on it, but, you know.

STEREOGUM: What was he like?

DANIEL: He was super nice. Why shouldn’t he be? We’re there helping make his record, for no money. But he was super cool, super supportive. Told us some stories.

Covering CCR’s “Run Through The Jungle” For Fargo Season 2 (2015)

STEREOGUM: You contributed this to the second season of Fargo, a kinda rough solo acoustic rendition. How did that come about?

DANIEL: I knew the music supervisor. She’s a friend of mine from way back, from before she was a music supervisor, from Austin. I guess they were doing covers at the end of every episode of that season. She brought up CCR, and I brought up “Run Through The Jungle.” I recorded it on a little handheld in my kitchen, and that was it.

STEREOGUM: This, Stranger Than Fiction, the little gap between Transference and They Want My Soul — were there ever moments where you toyed with doing a full-fledged solo endeavor?

DANIEL: No, I definitely wanted to do something else [between those albums]. I wanted it to be a band, but I wanted it to be a band where I wasn’t the only singer, and that’s what we did [with Divine Fits]. Dan was honestly my first choice. I just always loved hanging out with him, I loved his voice, I loved his songwriting. I just thought that’d be a kick, that’d be so much fun to be able to do an album with him, and it really was. I had people I work with, in business, telling me, “Just make it a Britt Daniel album.” I just didn’t want to do that. I might do it at some point.

STEREOGUM: Do you generally gravitate more towards the band structure than the solo songwriter thing?

DANIEL: Bands are cooler, aren’t they? I could see myself doing a solo record. But it’s not what I wanted to do then. I always wanted to have bands.

“Got Nuffin” (2009)

STEREOGUM: I have vivid memories of Hugh Laurie driving a car into a house to this song.

DANIEL: I don’t remember that one. I’m sure I approved it, but …

STEREOGUM: When They Want My Soul came out, everyone reaching to create a narrative for Spoon kinda said, “Here’s this super consistent band who maybe last time had a slight misstep,” referring to Transference. That was this overriding press narrative at the time and it kinda drove me nuts. I had sort of peripherally listened to Spoon when I was younger, but the moment I really got into the band actually coincided with Transference.

I realize that’s a bit of a contrarian take, but “Got Nuffin” remains one of my favorite Spoon songs as a result. It’s the only one from Transference on the greatest hits, and I was curious how you feel about that chapter in the context of everything now years later.

DANIEL: I’m glad we did it. It was maybe not the wisest career move. It was where we were at creatively and attitude-wise. We kinda just couldn’t believe how big things had gotten with Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga. We couldn’t believe how successful it was. We loved it, we loved the ride. But we didn’t want to keep making the same record over and over again. We had made four records with Mike McCarthy, from Girls Can Tell to Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga. We knew we could do that. We knew if we did that it would turn out to be a certain type of record. We could make it good if we put enough effort into it, but we wanted to, you know, try something else.

I forgot about this until recently. We were talking to Mark Ronson about making the record after Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, so imagine him producing Transference. We talked to him quite a bit. He sent back some notes on “Written In Reverse,” and I think he heard “Trouble Comes Running.” But his schedule was so insane that we got frustrated with waiting for him and we said, “We’ll just start doing it ourselves.” It very naturally went to this area where we were doing it ourselves and we perversely thought, well, if we’re going to do it ourselves we’re going to do it exactly how we want and if we’re going to fuck up, we’re going to fuck up in a way that’s gonna be interesting.

STEREOGUM: When you say Transference wasn’t the great career move at that moment, were there times since when you regretted that? Part of the reason I brought up those syncs and everything before is that there’s this kinda sneaky way Spoon is bigger than being one of the big indie bands. Your songs are kinda flitting around in the atmosphere. But it could’ve plausibly gone further.

DANIEL: Yeah, it probably could’ve. If we had waited and made it with Mark Ronson and made Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga #2, then I’m sure it would’ve gone gangbusters. But it didn’t happen that way. There’s a lot of people who are hardcore Spoon fans where their favorite Spoon album is Transference. And some people hear it and think, “What the fuck were these guys doing?” And that’s fine. I like it when artists have the strength and courage to go do different types of records. It makes them more human, more whole.

We did not enjoy that tour as much. It started out great. We put the record out in January. By September through December, we were not getting along so well. That’s really why we ended up taking a break for so long. I was a big part of that, it was mostly my fault probably. I just was grumpy. I wanted to have different experiences.

“Inside Out” (2014)

STEREOGUM: When I first heard this, it was a strange Spoon song. But it’s become one of the standards. I feel like this is one of the tracks I just hear around all the time. Was that one of those “I Turn My Camera On”-type situations where you knew what you had on your hands, or did that surprise you?

DANIEL: By the time it was done, yeah, I knew it was a real special one. It took a second to get there. The first version of that song is just me on piano and it’s not too different from maybe “The Way We Get By.” Just very simple piano and vocal. But by the time we got it to what it wound up being, that was the first one I wanted to play for people. I felt real good about it. I didn’t know if it was gonna be a hit or anything. Turns out is our most-streamed song at this point.

STEREOGUM: And that’s so cool that it happened with this spaced-out ballad. The tones of it are different to me — more nocturnal, bluer — but I felt like it also kind of prefigured some of the more experimental sonic territory you went to later.

DANIEL: It was the first time we worked with Dave Fridmann, who had a big hand in the sound of “Inside Out” and Hot Thoughts. Fridmann and Alex were really what allowed that song to happen.

“Everything Hits At Once” (2001)

STEREOGUM: Why is this the earliest song on the greatest hits vs. having something from Telephono or A Series Of Sneaks?

DANIEL: We talked about several ways of doing this greatest hits. My first idea was a double album, a really long thing that went from the first album on. There were several cuts from every album and B-sides and rarities. In the end, that didn’t really seem to make the most sense for the kind of greatest hits we wanted to do right now, which was a single disc … something that’s more like, some of these greatest hits that turned me onto the Cure, or Substance by New Order.

STEREOGUM: Is it weird to be putting together that kind of compilation when you’re right in the middle of working on a new album?

DANIEL: Yes, it really is. Usually, you do all of the writing and/or the recording and you start moving on to all of these other business things like album art and promoting and touring. But we’re kind of doing it all at the same time right now. It’s a trip.

STEREOGUM: Is the greatest hits timing circumstantial or was it a conscious notion like: We’re going to put a line in the sand. Here’s Girls Can Tell through Hot Thoughts, and whatever happens next is something else.

DANIEL: It was never about a line in the sand. It was an idea we talked about all the way going back to Gimme Fiction. Talked about it, put it aside for a long time, then it kinda came up again maybe three years ago. I took it upon myself to make that first tracklisting, which was nothing like what this ended up being, but that was the catalyst for how this came about. Then we were working on it, and this tour got offered to us, and it was like, well, we should probably get it out before the tour. It was going to happen, but it might not have happened right in this moment.

Spoon - Everything Hits At Once

Everything Hits At Once is out 7/26 on Matador. Pre-order it here.

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