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Spoon’s Britt Daniel Would Prefer to Let His Songs Do the Talking

The reserved frontman talks about trying to turn his brain off, his relationship with his dad and which lyric makes him emotional. Just don’t expect him to get all mushy about it

A Spoon song is a tightly constructed little gem, its sturdy hook and flawless musicianship something to behold. There are so many good Spoon tracks, and some new ones just arrived: The band’s 10th album, Lucifer on the Sofa, is like their others in that it’s taut and efficient and just plain terrific. And, as always, the record is guided by Britt Daniel, the group’s frontman and principal songwriter. At a time when indie-rock is mostly on the margins of popular music, Daniel and his group have been fairly major for two decades. They risk being taken for granted because they’re so reliable and unassuming — it seems like they could bang out one of these gems every couple of years until the end of time.

Daniel, who turned 50 last year, is a font of stellar tunecraft, but like his songs he’s also somewhat coiled. When I speak to him from his hometown of Austin, it’s clear he’s not given to opening himself up to an interviewer — he doesn’t write lyrics in a straightforward, autobiographical way, and similarly he keeps himself at a bit of remove. Get Daniel talking about tempos or concept albums, and he’s happy to speak his mind. But when the subject turns to anxiety or his father, who I learned wasn’t a fan of Obama, Daniel is more reticent, preferring to keep a healthy barrier up between himself and his public life. In fact, he’s the first person I’ve ever interviewed who asked me what my response to my own questions would be — maybe he was being friendly and curious, but also maybe he was trying to deflect a little so he didn’t have to answer himself. 

Not that Spoon, or Daniel, are cut off from their feelings. Starting with their 1996 debut Telephono, the band has managed to honor rock’s roots while demonstrating a willingness to push boundaries — and on recent records, Daniel’s biting, angular voice has found room for some vulnerability, displaying a tenderness that wasn’t always apparent on his earlier albums. Spoon doesn’t write traditional love songs, but on something like Lucifer on the Sofa’s “Satellite,” a moody, melodic number, Daniel finds ways to reveal his heart without laying it bare. “I see angels above you,” he sings in his distinctive bark, “but I know I love you more.” 

Still, Daniel doesn’t make it easy for outsiders to peek inside his psyche. He’s done a fabulous job of maintaining his privacy, largely avoiding the sort of gossipy scandals that affect other musicians. He’s never been married, never had kids — he’s one of those celebrities who doesn’t even have a “Personal Life” section on his Wikipedia page. Around the turn of the century, he dated the Fiery Furnaces’ Eleanor Friedberger, but for the most part his romantic affairs have been a mystery. He’d rather listeners just focus on the songs.

Still, Daniel was game to talk about not believing in guilty pleasures, making fun of Garden State and having a hard time being in total silence. A few times during our conversation, rather than respond, he would simply say some variation of “I dunno, you’re making me think.” I took it as a compliment — reticent he may be, but as you’ll see, he never stops thinking. 

For this new album, you’ve mentioned wanting to get back to basics — including making the record in Austin, which you hadn’t done in a while. But I also wondered if putting together Spoon’s 2019 greatest-hits collection had an effect. Did revisiting all your old songs make you think about how Spoon used to sound?

I did go and listen to all those records, every single record we’d done — I listened all the way through to figure out what we were going to put on the greatest hits. And, yeah, maybe it did do something. I mean, the thing that I keep thinking is that we were reacting to what it was like playing the Hot Thoughts songs live and how, when we just played them as a band and let them develop that way, we liked those songs more [than how they sounded on the album]. So that was on the forefront of my mind, but you’re right: Maybe in the back of my mind, what was going on was that prep. And [the new album] sounds more like an early Spoon record, I guess.

I’m always curious how bands wrestle with the idea of making a record that sounds “classic” to them. You want to get back to something, sure, but you also want to feel like you’ve evolved as a songwriter. 

When we’re making a record, lots of times we’ll have different ways that we can play various songs. We can play it upbeat. There was a version of “Rainy Taxi” that was kind of… it was basically metal. “Do You,” that one started out with a sort of bouncy beat, kind of like the beat on [“Don’t Make Me a Target”], and that was the way we played it for a long time. It was kind of like the beat on “The Way We Get By,” that same kind of Kinks-y [sound], and the producer, Joe Chiccarelli, loved us playing the song that way. But I just said, “Guys, we’ve got to do better than this. We’ve done it too much — I know we can do better.” Everybody loved the way it was, but we pushed toward finding another way so that we just didn’t tread the same ground. 

I do think that is something we’re thinking about all the time. But the other blueprint for this record was just to make a straight-up rock ‘n’ roll record. And if someone says that’s retro, that’s fine — but that’s just the record we wanted to make.

Sometimes when I talk to guys in rock bands, they almost sound apologetic about it: “Yeah, we’re making a rock ‘n’ roll album — but we’re trying to make it more current!”

[Laughs] I think that’s the formula for a bad record: “We’re trying to bring it into the contemporary.”

You’ve spent a lot of your life in Texas. When something like Greg Abbott’s anti-trans bill comes up, do you find yourself having to defend the good aspects of Texas to people on the outside? 

Not a lot, but it comes up in interviews every now and then. There’s a lot of Republicans that aren’t big fans of Greg Abbott — a lot of lifelong Republicans. [Pause] I’m going to stop there. [Laughs]

You’ve said that “Lucifer on the Sofa” on the new album is about you dealing with anxiety. Do you write songs as a way to combat anxiety?

Yeah, it happens. And it happened a lot [during] the thick of the pandemic, during the lockdown phase. Working on music was the one thing that, if I could go get lost in it, I would feel normal for a while. I did it as often as I could. It was the thing I turned to to feel all right every day, and it really did work. So I got a lot of stuff written from it.

What, other than music, do you turn to? Meditation? Therapy?

I took TM in 2011, so I’ve got that. And a little bit of all of the above were helpful.

How easy was TM for you? Some people have a tough time getting into that headspace.

It’s hard to turn my mind off, and I know that. One of the things that they tell you is to empty your mind of all thoughts — that part’s a little tricky for me. But the physiological effects of calming down, slowing down and occasionally completely turning off my mind help a lot. 

When you’re on stage, is your mind racing? Or are you actually able to turn off the thinking part of yourself?

I’d say 95 percent of the time I’m in the moment — and then occasionally something weird happens, but there’s no point in dwelling on it. I feel like any accident that happens on stage or any faux pas or mistake, it’s really a moment to take advantage of. And I’ve been in audiences enough times and witnessed that happening that I know what the audience is feeling — they’re not turning against you, they’re in fact rallying for you. So I got it pretty straight at this point. 

I’ve been doing this a long time, and there were times early on when I’d get hung up on this or that on stage — whether it was the performance or something that was happening in the audience or people talking, whatever it was. Eventually, it gets to where it just kind of rolls off you, those kinds of moments. I just feel like there’s no good going to come from you sitting there and analyzing and fretting.

Your dad’s a neurologist — was he able to help with any of this?

I always found what he did to be really interesting. And I guess I heard about concepts — stress, anxiety, panic attacks — more in-depth as a kid than I might have otherwise. I am not a neurologist, but I think it helped me out as a kid to understand. He was very big on us talking about what we were feeling — I’m not saying we always did that, but at least he was pushing for that.

That’s nice to hear about your dad — a lot of fathers and sons have trouble connecting on feelings.

We have certain things we bond over — and certain differences, for sure. But we both like Bill Murray, we both like ZZ Top, we both like the Beatles, and so those are things we can connect on. It’s easy to steer the conversation that way. I don’t think he loves Greg Abbott, but if [a conversation] started out on Obama — he hates Obama — then I might steer it toward Bill Murray.

That’s gotta be hard, having to gingerly talk around the things you know you don’t see eye-to-eye on.

I’m not going to convince him of anything. I know him well enough to know that.

Is Spoon your dad’s kind of music?

No, not at all. I think it became more his kind of music. I’ve never turned my dad onto an album that he didn’t know anything about, which is a little frustrating. He’ll tell me it’s because I’m such an expert at music and that I have such in-depth knowledge. But really, Steve Miller Band? I would’ve figured he would’ve liked that.

Is there music he tried to turn you onto that didn’t stick?

Sure, and he turned me onto a lot of music that I did love, for sure. That was my education, musically, from birth to eight years old, with the records he was playing. And then I started listening to the radio.

That’s a good segue to “On the Radio” from Lucifer on the Sofa. It’s a song about loving listening to the radio. Do you still turn to the radio to keep up with what’s going on music-wise? Or have you moved on to Spotify or whatever?

Honestly, it’s mostly radio. There’s a room in my house where the radio is on at all times, and I find out about a lot of music that way.

Are you someone who needs that background noise?

Yeah, it feels good to me. Just having that radio on in the house, it kind of feels a little bit less… I don’t know, a little bit more like there’s a party going on. There’s awareness of the world outside of this particular building existing, and that feels good.

You’re turning 51 next month. How was being 50?

Didn’t think about the age very much. It feels remarkably similar to 49. When I think about this last year, what I think about is finishing the record, working on the artwork for the record — some things that were going on personally in my life with my girlfriend and my family, the record getting delayed. [Laughs] It’s those kind of things. And then going [back] out on tour — being in a place where I had thought, “Will we ever go on tour again? Is that really ever going to happen?” and then feeling, “Holy shit, this is the most amazing thing in the world — I can’t believe it’s happening again.” That was my year.

So your birthday isn’t an opportunity to do some mental inventory? You don’t do a State of the Union with yourself?

Only time I can remember doing that was 40 — having a moment where I wanted to really focus on that, but I don’t know why that year.

Were you happy with your report on yourself?

It was less of a report on myself as much as it was a “I want to mark this and know that this is happening in my mind.” I had an afternoon alone — I remember I went out to dinner with some friends, but I had several hours alone and I just marked it. 

You’ve said that you were a sensitive kid growing up in Temple, loving bands like the Cure that weren’t popular with your classmates. But was it also a point of pride that your taste was different?

Music was everything. It was a way of sort of finding people that were similar to you, expressing your identity and being able to hone in on your own concept of self. 

I wonder if having clearly-defined taste helps as a musician, too.

That’s one of the things that I feel like I’ve been lucky with: It’s never a question to me whether I like it or not. I know if I like it, and I know if I don’t like it. Every now and then, somebody will ask me, “What’s your guilty-pleasure record?” or “What’s your guilty-pleasure band?” And I’m just like, I don’t have any — if it’s not cool to like Bee Gees singles, then I don’t care. I know they’re great.

It helps a lot with making music. If you’re making a record and you’re not really sure if you like this song or that song — and you’re trying to make it for someone else, like “A radio person would like this” or “This fan that I know that sits right in the front row will like this,” those kind of considerations will confuse you. It helps to just have an internal barometer about what works.

You have these great lyrics where you’ll make fun of, say, Garden State in “Outlier.” But is there ever a moment where you’re recording and think, “Wait, I may run into that person at some point, maybe I shouldn’t say this”? 

Naw, it’s too good — it’s too good. You can’t shut off those parts of yourself. When you actually come up with a lyric that might make some people laugh and it might piss some people off, then it’s probably the right lyric. And, I mean, with Garden State it’s easy because that’s a film — I don’t work in the film world primarily.

I just feel like songs always to me were a thing that you didn’t have to defend. That was the root of them — it’s art. It’s the same thing if you made a movie or wrote a book — you wouldn’t have to defend the characters. So for people to get confused that, like, every song is supposed to be an expression of this individual who wrote it, I can’t help them.

What I find interesting about your lyrics is that they’re not deeply autobiographical, but they’re also not the Randy Newman thing where they’re about these thought-out fictional characters. They reside somewhere in between.

Yeah, they’re all little expressions of me. There have been times when I’ve had songs in mind that were more sort of stories or characters — like “The Two Sides of Monsieur Valentine.” But a lot of times, the lyrics just come from a page. Sometimes they’re written at the same time as the music — a lot of times, I write the music and I have a piece of paper over here on the side and I’m just trying to combine them. You end up with this thing that I didn’t sit down to write a song about, but here we go.

You’re not someone whose personal life is all over the tabloids. You seem to have your own life, and then there’s the music you put out. 

The references to my own life [in my lyrics], it might be something that you may not pick up on — you’d have to really cut me open or read the biography to know these little details. And I don’t know that it really matters which ones are part of my life and which aren’t.

Early in Spoon’s career, you were dropped from a major label, which could kill other bands. That’s a long time ago now, but do you still harbor any of those old fears of “Oh man, what if this is our last album?”

I’ve never worried about that. Whether there will be a label that wants to put out our record? That doesn’t hit me. It crosses my mind that maybe I may not want to [keep putting out records], or that maybe it’s time to do something else. 

I remember very clearly, after A Series of Sneaks, we got dropped and we put together the first version of Girls Can Tell — and then I went to New York to be a temp for a while. We tried to get that version of the record [for] somebody to want to put it out. And nobody was interested. We sent it to a lot of people, and we had a pretty high-powered manager and lawyer — I’d go talk to them on the phone at the phone bank at the Marriott Hotel in Times Square, where I knew that there’s this one floor [with] a ton of phones and there weren’t a lot of people around. It was kind of quiet, and I didn’t have a cellphone, of course. But I’d go there every week, once a week, and they’d all say, “Nothing’s happening, maybe it’s time for you to change your [band] name.” 

And at that time, I thought, “Maybe I’m not going to be in that group of people — that club — that gets to put out records anymore.” I didn’t like that — that was what I really wanted to do, and I felt like I’d kind of blown it. But we just kept working on that record, and we kept having local shows when I got back to Austin, and eventually something happened.

You’re not married and you don’t have kids. Is that a surprise at this stage of your life?

No. I guess there was a time, when I was younger, where I thought, “Oh, probably when I get to 30, I’ll feel like that will make sense.” So when I turned 30, it did surprise me that I had no desire to do that. That was sort of the first reckoning — like, “Wait a second, I thought this is where this would start making sense.” [Laughs] It still didn’t make sense to me. I don’t know, at this moment, I still just got other things I want to do.

But I do have family — I just don’t have kids. In terms of, like, an extended family, [I’ve got] parents, brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, friends who I’m closer to than anyone.

When I interview bands that have worked together for a while, they’ll sometimes talk about the fact that, as they get older, it’s harder to still come up with really great rock songs. The mid-tempo songs become a little bit easier, but the rock songs…

[Laughs] I know what you’re saying. 

I’m curious why that made you laugh. Do you recognize that problem? Or do you see it happen to other bands? Because you guys seem to still have your fastball.

I’ve never heard anybody express that, but I think it’s a truism. A lot of artists tend to slow down, whether that’s slowing down from mostly fast to medium or mostly medium to slow. But, yeah, I’m glad you noticed there are still some fastballs.

Recent songs like “Astral Jacket” or “Inside Out” are softer, so it’s not like you resist those. But do you feel like your fastball is still as good as it ever was?

Yeah, I do. But BPM, the tempo of songs, is something that I think about a lot. If I just pick up an acoustic guitar and I’m just supposed to write something in 10 minutes, it might be that the first idea that came to me is sort of mid-tempo. Maybe that’s 110, 120 BPM. But I just notice songs having more impact when they’re sitting around 70 or when they’re sitting at around 180. Maybe it’s a detail that’s excessive, but that does cross my mind. You can write [too] many mid-tempo songs — it’s good to spice things up.

The reason I bring this up is that some guys in bands can feel like the hard-rocking songs are an expression of how macho they are — being able to keep writing those becomes a test if they’ve still “got it” as men.

Well, “Inside Out” is a good example — I think that’s around 90, that’s relatively slow. But it’s more like a hip-hop-groove kind of beat. I don’t really place any characterization about masculinity on tempos.

You have such a distinctive voice. Did it take a while for you to get comfortable with it?

I started liking it around Girls Can Tell — that was when I started feeling like I was in control of it. I wish I had a little higher range, but other than that, I think it’s got some character.

What does being “in control of it” mean?

I mean aware of the effect, the vibe, that the vocal contributes to a song. Anytime you’re making a song, the song [is] the notes and the chords and the words — and then there’s also just the sort of feeling of the song, and that sometimes means even more, just what kind of mood it puts you in. I felt like I finally could understand around that time if I sing soft like this — or if I sing hard like this — what’s that going to do? I guess I didn’t really know how to sing soft before that time. It was more, if I was going to sing soft, it was like Jonathan Richman soft, and that’s not the same effect.

I think especially in recent years, you’ve done this cool thing of introducing more vulnerability into songs like “Lucifer on the Sofa” or “Out Go the Lights,” but the rough tone of your voice serves as a counterbalance. It never gets too mushy or sentimental. 

Yeah, you don’t want to get mushy — you can go over the top with the drama. Basically, you’re making a little movie, and if you can express some kind of character in that voice that maybe cuts against the vulnerability, then that’s a good trick.

Something I really respond to in your guys’ albums is that, I wouldn’t say that your heart is not on your sleeve, but there’s always a bit of a reserve. You’re not gushy in that way. Is that just your personality? Are you close-to-the-vest in terms of emotions and feelings?

Uh, I don’t know. I’ll have to think about that one. [Laughs]

Do you like being asked personal questions like this? 

It’s that sometimes… You just mentioned “Out Go the Lights,” and there’s a line from that song that when I came up with it, I listened back the next day, and it was… extremely emotional for me to listen to that line. I don’t know that anybody has ever picked up on that, or that it’s emotional to them. I doubt it — I sincerely doubt it — but it meant something to me because I knew what it was about. And so it did feel mushy to me, but I don’t know that it was expressed in [a mushy way]. It’s more for me, I guess?

What’s the line?

“You always look good that way / You with the one-two punch from Illinois.”

I’ve always loved that line. But because it seems like you write in code, I figured it had a special resonance for you — only you know what it means.

Yeah, it means a lot to me, but I’m trying to think if I could express [what that is]. I don’t know, I mean, I guess maybe what you’re asking is, “Are these songs for everyone? Are they sometimes just for me?” And I guess sometimes they’re just for me. People can choose whether or not they go for that or not. It sounds like even though you didn’t know what that line meant, you liked it. But it’s just weird — sometimes there might be a line that I write that somebody gets a lot of emotion out of, and for me it didn’t really mean the same thing. But who’s more right? Neither one of us.

But do people ask you, “Why don’t you write more directly about yourself?”

Plastic Ono Band: Would that be writing more directly [about] oneself? There’s bits of me in just about every song. But is there one song that you can say, “Hey, this is about me, and it’s about this particular thing”? I’m rarely that overt.

Because you know how albums are marketed: “This is his divorce album,” “This album is about such-and-such.” Spoon albums don’t come out into the world with a narrative attached to them.

I think a lot of that is bullshit a lot of times. It’s something that’s thought up afterwards — it’s a way to have a story, and it’s going to please a lot of publicists. But I just can’t bear to do it.

You’re not making concept albums.

Yeah, the concept of this one was, “There’s not enough great rock ‘n’ roll records out there — make a great rock ‘n’ roll record.” That’s the concept.