Thug Life: Spoon's Britt Daniel interviewed
We find a rare moment in Spoon's touring schedule to talk to Britt Daniel about Hot Thoughts, dealing with fame and how to keep touring interesting after 20+ years
Spoon have been pegged as a 'consistent' band for years – Metacritic even ranked them as the best overall band of the last decade thanks to their consistently high reviews – but that isn't to say that they just regurgitate the same reliable formula on each record. Each of their nine abums has featured a certain amount of tinkering with the Spoon sound to produce something fresh, but at the same time, unmistakably the work of only one band.
Hot Thoughts is perhaps the most experimental leap the band have ever made, largely eschewing their traditional rock set-up in favour of more keys and electronics, as well as a bit of saxophone, darbuka and saz. Catching up with lead vocalist/guitarist Britt Daniel the morning after a show in Tennessee, he sounds chipper and upbeat, though perhaps a little sleepy. “I'm not into electronic music per se, so I thought 'how can we use electronic instruments but not make an electronic record? How could we be a bit more more futuristic, but not one of those DJ bands, not one of those “whoa whoa whoa” bands?'” Daniel says of the songwriting process that went into Hot Thoughts.
Most of the new album has already had an outing on their recent tour, but the experimental nature of some songs has occasionally been challenging. “We haven't learned how to play Pink Up live yet,” Daniel bemoans, about a track that includes a coda which almost veers into sound collage territory with glitchy effects, strings and darbuka: “It's gonna take a little work, but I think we can get it.”
Hot Thoughts was written and recorded over 2015 and 2016, its long gestation period indicative of the hectic Spoon schedule. “If I was wise, I'd be writing all the time... but I don't have enough time,” he explains, going on to say how the next album usually starts to come together towards the end of the previous one's tour. “This time I actually did get quite a bit done, I went to Melbourne when we had a month off in the middle of our touring cycle, which is quite unusual, and got a lot of songs started there.”
Spoon have always relentlessly toured their new material, usually taking between one and two years to circumnavigate the globe and show off their latest achievement. “[Touring] naturally appeals to us, we get a day off, day drink, find a good restaurant... we hang out more now, play a few songs before a show, it makes everyone a little more in touch with the music – it keeps it fun, honestly. Plus, there's free drinks; it's hard not to have fun when there's free drinks every night.
“Maybe that's the secret, that none of us have stopped drinking,” Daniel muses, “so many of my favourite artists stop drinking and it seems to coincide with [them having] less fun or worse records.” But a real commitment and dedication to the music appears to be what drives Spoon: “Touring is the absolute easiest/funnest part... [but] to me, the reason that a band exists is records... that's how you score, not just one night, but the documents of what you've made.”
The band are just finishing up the first leg of their touring schedule for 2017 and have a little break before heading out again on a run that will take them all the way into November. Starting and ending in Europe, with a lengthy stint across North America in the middle, Daniel outlines the main difference between touring the two continents: “I guess there are slightly more attractive people in Europe.”
But beyond the beautiful crowds, Daniel is excited to potentially see a bit of good weather on this side of the Atlantic; “usually our European tours are in November or February so we never see the sun – our last tour we literally saw the sun once – but this time we're coming in the summer so it's gonna be a whole different deal.” We tell him that they'll probably be fine on the continent, but that our summers here are unreliable. He chuckles and pauses for a second, “I like how you call them 'unreliable'.” We're not sure he's ready for the British summer...
Spoon have been coming to the UK for years, but, surprisingly, Hot Thoughts is the first of their albums to chart here. That, coupled with their UK TV debut on Jools Holland in April signals to Daniel that they've “made an opening”, something which they'll hopefully be able to capitalise on when they visit in June and November.
“My first memory of playing in Scotland is that they didn't have margaritas there,” Daniel remembers with a certain sad nostalgia. “We played at Nice N Sleazy, which was cool... it was right on a street where people seemed dead set on getting obliterated.” A point which nicely encapsulates the differences and similarities about Scotland's biggest city then and now; while you'll have no problem finding a margarita these days, there'll still be no shortage of drunken revellers on Sauchiehall Street. Playing in the slightly more refined settings of The Art School later this month, it's perhaps a fitting upgrade in line with their maturing sound. But as Daniel asks us to repeat the name of Sauchiehall Street, and its close proximity to The Art School, it's clear that the band still have plenty of the rough and ready edge that's always tinged Spoon's music.
Spoon are most closely associated with Austin, a city that's become famous as a liberal, progressive haven in the heart of the American south. Two of the biggest musical examples of these labels are South by Southwest and Austin City Limits, both of which are regularly attended by Spoon (they even curated a three night event at SxSW this year, as well as performing themselves). But the band aren't from Austin, with Daniel hailing from Temple, TX, about an hour's drive north of the state capital.
More traditionally Texan, Temple provided a background against which Daniel could rebel. “I think I was reacting to a life that I didn't find particularly inspiring," he laughs. "I saw a lot of people living lives that were a bit mundane and I was always searching for something else... which led me to music that was, oftentimes, underground or hard to find,” which ultimately led to Austin becoming the band's birthplace and base.
“You certainly know you're home [when playing in Austin], the guestlist's bigger, there's family... it's often more stressful... but people there have been incredibly supportive for a very long time.” And as a result it's the place where Daniel's indie fame is more prominent: “I'm certainly more recognised there, for better or worse...” But with any level of fame comes new challenges:
“Last night we played a show in Knoxville and there was this lady there, she kept talking about how 'we didn't need a restraining order for her,' and I was like 'the more you say that, the more freaked out I get,' then she started talking to Rob (Pope, bassist) about his kids, citing their names... and we were like 'you gotta get out of here, you gotta go...'
“I think we can handle ourselves at this point... maybe in the future we can hire some people; hire some thugs,” Daniel jokes. But beyond this anomalous encounter he radiates genuine warmth and excitement when discussing what Spoon has afforded him: “I've been doing this for a long time and I've got to make a bunch of records, I don't have to have a job... it's a good life... even if we can't hire thugs.”