Spoon's Tricky Balancing Act
It’s a matter of simple gravity: Given enough time, every band releases a disappointing album. There’s no shame in it. Nothing lasts forever, and even the greatest musicians eventually lose their muse or make a misstep. This century, though, no band has defied that gravity better than Spoon, the deconstructionist Austin, Texas, indie-rockers on an eight-album hot streak. Even as some of the more prominent indie acts of their era have stumbled (see: Arcade Fire), Spoon have cruised along with one solid record after another, making it look almost too easy.
To be sure, there’s nothing easy about it. While the band projects a certain carefree swagger, thanks largely to singer Britt Daniel’s hangdog yowl, they work meticulously to make each record feel as fresh as they do. It’s a tricky balancing act: Every album sounds singularly like Spoon, yet feels somehow different from the ones that came before.
“I feel like we work really hard at that,” says drummer-producer Jim Eno, who along with Britt Daniel is the core architect of the band’s sound. “When you have nine records, you really don’t want to repeat yourselves. It’s a really difficult thing to do. Each time it’s, ‘OK, we’ve done this before, we need to come up with something new. We don’t know what it is, but we need some stylized element to make this new and exciting.’ We spend a lot of time on that.”
The band’s latest album, Hot Thoughts, their first for Matador Records since their under-the-radar 1996 debut, Telephono, is even more of a shakeup than usual. Brisk and beat-heavy, it’s noticeably busier than the last few records and a good deal funkier (the rhythmic clap of the title track is right out of a heyday dance-punk album). Flaming Lips collaborator Dave Fridmann produced it, and he brings his signature maximalist scale to the record, but the sense of tinkering and the manipulation of sounds are all Spoon.
Perfecting those distinct sonic twists requires a fair amount of trial and error, Eno says. He cites the breakdown of massive strings that cut through “Can I Sit Next To You” as an example. Keyboardist Alex Fischel came up with that part on a plucked instrument.
“We were trying to make it more exciting, so it would have more impact, and it ended up becoming this string part,” Eno says. “There’s probably about 20 different layered tracks of strings for those string parts—some are descending, sliding at different rates. We wanted to make it more grandiose. I had this thing where when we were mixing it; I was like, ‘The strings aren’t loud enough because they’re not parting my hair!’ I wanted the sound of the speakers to come and just part my hair, you know?”
And that’s what ultimately distinguished Spoon’s records: Not a single sound goes unconsidered. “Even something as simple as a piano sound,” Eno says, “there’s like an infinite number of piano sounds you could get. Is it a dry sound? Is a ringy sound? Is it a grand piano or an upright? Is there reverb or no reverb? Do you add delay to it? Is it a pitch vibrato? There’s so many things you can do—even just for that one instrument—that may make it work.”
Eno says the band’s latest obsession has been trying to bring that same drive to one-up themselves to their live show. “With every record we’ve been working harder and harder on our live show,” Eno says. “One of the things we worked a lot on with this record is transitions between songs, having these little sonic transitions. We’re trying to make the moments between songs more exciting to give the set more of a flow and make the show a little bit more of an experience. I feel like we’re pretty unstoppable right now.”
Spoon play the Pabst Theater with Twin Peaks on Wednesday, Sept. 13 at 8 p.m.