At the end of next year, Spoon will have been a going concern for a full quarter-century, and for everything they’ve achieved, there’s plenty left on the bucket list.
Earlier this year, they scored through another item from it, playing for the first time at London’s iconic 100 Club. The inevitable sweatstorm that ensued evoked memories of their early days in Austin, Texas, long before they’d hit one of the most scintillating runs of form in rock history.
Spoon are in town to talk about Hot Thoughts, their ninth studio album. It follows 2014’s They Want My Soul, a record that, in the build-up, had threatened to kill the momentum that the band gradually and assuredly had been working up since Girls Can Tell in 2001. That LP, and every one since, had been met with unequivocal acclaim from the critics, and each shifted more copies than the one before it.
They Want My Soul, though, arrived fully four-and-a-half years after Transference - as far as their fans were concerned, it might have become a case of out of sight, out of mind. It was their first, too, since their unimpeachably successful ten-year partnership with Merge Records ended. To compound the sense of uncertainty, their first-choice producer, Dave Fridmann, was only available to helm the second half of the record. Joe Chiccarelli took the lead on the first few tracks but, by the group’s own admission, didn’t manage to draw the very best out of them.
That wasn’t how it sounded, though; They Want My Soul was a triumph, arguably their finest to date, all groove-driven bluesy swagger. At that point, you began to wonder if anything could derail the run Spoon were on - not extended lay-offs between releases, not the intra-band tensions that had begun to bubble during touring for Transference, and not a studio state of play that was less than ideal. In December 2009, as the noughties drew to a close, Metacritic ran back over thousands of the decade’s album reviews, with the intention of figuring out who, according to the critics, was the best artist of that past ten years. Spoon took gold.
Even then, though, it’s worth remembering that what Metacritic’s algorithmic nature doesn’t take into account is the fact that the staggering stylistic diversity of the five-piece’s post-2001 output makes their consistency all the more impressive. There’s a clear throughline, probably thanks to the sheer tightness of Britt Daniel’s writing, that characterises every record as very much a Spoon record. Accordingly, it’s never seemed to matter which set of clothes they were playing dress-up in: whether it was the art-rock posturing of Gimme Fiction, for instance, or Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga's taut polish. Spoon have spent twenty-odd years driving home the point that it’s possible to be singular shape-shifters.
They continue to make the case with Hot Thoughts, which takes its predecessor’s spacier moments and blows them up. If "Inside Out" provided the first atom of the idea for this record, "WhisperI’lllistentohearit" splits it, to irresistible effect. The blues that ran through "Rent I Pay" and "Do You" have mutated into hook-sinking funk - see "First Caress" and "Can I Sit Next to You". In places, a juddering weirdness has set in - not least on "Do I Have to Talk You Into It" - but the group’s hallmarks remain; Daniel’s rasping delivery, the clever interplay between the guitars, Jim Eno’s balance of function and flair behind the kit.
“‘Inside Out’ is kind of where it began,” recalls Daniel, although not before a giddy blow-by-blow of their 100 Club exploits. “I knew I loved that track; it was atmospheric and had some soundscapey bits, but with this heavy beat - it was essentially a pop song. Early on, I had this other song called 'Own Your Mistake' that I’d written on the acoustic guitar. I worked on it a lot, got it sounding really good, brought it to the band, ran through it - and then suddenly realised I didn’t want to go down that road. Like, “guys, an acoustic ballad, really?”
Any possibility of a return to the relative simplicity of They Want My Soul was nixed, then: “I love rootsy albums, but not this time. Maybe a couple down the road.” Daniel had plenty of ideas, anyway, having begun writing in early 2015, a year that Spoon spent most of on the road. “I got started in January; we had a little bit of time off, and I went to Melbourne. We were headed there in February anyway to play shows, so I had a free flight, and it made sense to take it early because I’d just gone through a breakup, and the distance kind of helped. The first week was weird, just sort of lonely, but eventually I settled in and got used to that vibe and was able to really get down to work. We toured until November, and by February of 2016, we were recording again.”
In a lot of ways, Hot Thoughts actually sounds like an album that came together on the road; it doesn’t really do poise or precision, simmering every which way instead with nervous energy. What it never quite does is overflow; the trick is to experiment without giving in to excess, and Hot Thoughts continues the rich Spoon tradition of keeping things feeling trim, exercising their exploratory whims in a way that contains them without subduing them.
The title track is a prime example; purely on a superficial level, it comes over every inch like a song that’s had everything but the kitchen sink thrown at it, to the point that it’s almost schizophrenic. The strings swell, then explode, and the guitars flit between chime and crunch, all underpinned by a fluctuating structure that’s a long way off verse-chorus-verse. On paper, it should be so busy as to be crowded to the song’s detriment, but actually, what we get is an infectious, tongue-in-cheek dance-rock stomper that never sounds overthought.
“I never really look at how many different ways there might to be approach something,” Daniel explains. “I piece things together until they feel good. ‘Hot Thoughts’ started out one afternoon when I was working at home; I programmed a beat on a really old drum machine, and got an organ sound going - because I was by myself, I had to stick it down with masking tape to keep it playing. I played celeste over the top and recorded it to my phone. It sounded great, but it was just a groove, and it sat on my computer for a year before I thought, “I’ve really got to write something to this.” I got lucky, because it happened pretty fast.”
Key to the album’s cohesion was the fact that Dave Fridmann handled production duties from start to finish this time around. The New York veteran of the glory days of The Flaming Lips and Mercury Rev had been on the group’s radar for a long while, but it wasn’t until now that they were finally able to pin him down for the entirety of an LP. “I’d been asking to work with Dave for years before I’d even met him,” says Daniel. “There were maybe three years where we’d chased him without success, and then as we were gearing up for They Want My Soul, he offered to mix it - he was too busy already to produce it too. We’d decided already that we were going to make the album in two halves, just to make it more manageable and less daunting for ourselves, so we did those first sessions with another producer, then took it to Dave to mix. I think maybe that’s when we won him over.”
By the time the group were ready to break ground on the second half of the record, Fridmann had been freed up. “He came to us and said, “something’s fallen through.” He was very nice about it - you know, “maybe I could do some production here, but I don’t want to mess up what you’ve got going with the other guy.” The thing was, we weren’t really loving the situation we had going with Joe; we got some good things done, but it just didn’t feel like the best fit. The stuff we did with Dave felt a lot more expansive and creative. Just more original.”
Fridmann’s known as a straight talker and it seemed that he was well sold on Spoon during those sessions, so much so that when the band played a show in Buffalo in June 2015, the nearest that touring musicians tend to get to Fridmann’s home in remote Cassadaga, he turned up and told the group in his typically matter-of-fact style that he wanted to return to the desk for Hot Thoughts. It was, as Daniel puts it, “an easy call”, and recording was duly split between Fridmann’s Tarbox Road Studios and Eno’s own space, Public Hi-Fi, back in their native Austin. As Fridmann doesn’t work away from his own place - “he’s good enough that people battle through the snow and the woods to get to him” - that meant that he wasn’t omnipresent during the making of the record.
"I know some bands need to focus and that’s why they do stuff like that, but we really need the distractions, because we’re plenty focused." - Britt Daniel
“That suited us, though,” shrugs Daniel. “For two reasons. One, Dave was working on a lot of other projects at the same time, so working straight through wasn’t really an option for him. Two, we don’t do well in an isolated situation, where we’re trapped in a house in the middle of nowhere. I know some bands need to focus and that’s why they do stuff like that, but we really need the distractions, because we’re plenty focused. It was good to spend a week up there and be very insular, and then go down to Austin to work during the day and then go out for a drink with our friends at night. And, also, get a good cup of coffee. At Dave’s place, it’s a ten minute walk to the nearest gas station, let alone anything else.”
The process and release of Hot Thoughts has also had Spoon doing an unusual amount of looking backwards - or, rather, coming full circle. As their twenty-fifth birthday approaches, they’ve re-signed with Matador, the label that put out their debut album Telephono all the way back in 1996. That first stint was ultimately ill-fated, ending in mutual disappointment, but after self-releasing They Want My Soul, the band were ready to rekindle ties with their old imprint at a point in time where both sides have blossomed so improbably into major indie rock figures.
“It’s interesting, right?” laughs Daniel. “Back when they did our very first record, it didn’t do so well, and they’d be the first to say that we were all quite frustrated. The expectations were a lot higher than we could reach, and we parted ways. Our second album, A Series of Sneaks, we did with another label, and that was an equally frustrating experience, maybe more so. After that, we had a long partnership with Merge. I’d always thought if we could’ve been successful with anybody, I’d want it to be Matador, and they’re in a different place too, now that they’re part of the Beggars Group. We didn’t owe anybody else a record this time, so it felt like the perfect place for a fresh start.”
"I didn’t get into music so that I could then get into film, or end up as an actor, or take off as some kind of superstar and sell a line of clothes." - Britt Daniel
That things seem to have ended up coming back around in such a neat loop for the band is striking, and is bound to seem like a good place for reflection on just why it is they’ve managed to last as long as they have; as Daniel brings up that long run with Merge, he takes pride in mentioning that their sales figures bucked industry trends every single time. On a personal level, though, the reasoning behind Spoon’s endurance is a little bit more romantic.
“I just always wanted to make records and be in a band,” he says. “That always seemed like the best job to me, and we’ve managed to do it successfully - well, enough that it can be our only job, and where we do pretty well in America. It never crossed my mind to do something else; I didn’t get into music so that I could then get into film, or end up as an actor, or take off as some kind of superstar and sell a line of clothes. I probably could do some of those things now, but really, I’d rather just make the best music that I can. Nights like last night, at the 100 Club - I haven’t gotten over that side of it yet.”
The obvious question would be about the degree to which the band’s lavish track record of critical adoration has contributed to their staying power - surely it affords them no end of creative freedom? It is the obvious question, too, although perhaps not in the way Daniel thought it was going to be. “When you started asking that, I thought you were going to take it to where it normally goes, which is, “when you’ve had that sustained success, does that put a lot of pressure on you? Do you get tense and anxious about being as good again?””
“Nobody seems to get that the opposite is true. You feel liberated. You think, “I did that and I did it well, so why not try something else?” Making Hot Thoughts, I felt really confident and positive, in a way I don’t remember feeling in a long time. I really felt like we were on a roll and, you know, that helps - after all, we’re just trying make these records as close to classic as we can.”