|Photography by Eleonora C. Collini|
“For this record we really wanted to go into the future”, Spoon frontman Britt Daniel immediately tells me as soon as we start talking. The two of us and the rest of the band are in a Kensington hotel suite with a stunning view on Hyde Park and enthusiasm is in the air. The Austin five-piece have just played a mind-blowing (to say the least) intimate show at the legendary 100 Club the night before as a part of an European warm-up tour in promotion of their ninth record.
Hot Thoughts is still indie-rock at its core, but new different sounds have been incorporated, ranging from dance-rock and dirty funk, to drum’n’bass and disco. There are also more dramatic orchestral arrangements and less guitar, no acoustic guitar at all. “I had been working on an acoustic ballad, ‘All your mistake’ for quite a while and I knew it was good, but that seemed too rootsy and old-fashioned, and that is not where we wanted to go”, Daniel explains. “We like that kind of stuff too, but this time we wanted to make something more futuristic.”
Lyrically, Daniel feels that his sources of inspiration have also shifted. “I think we are writing about different things now. For example, ‘Pink up’ was written from the perspective of a society menace. As for ‘I Ain’t the one’, the initial idea was a Johnny Cash type of song, as I wanted to write from a loner, tough guy point of view. That was actually another song I had to change because it was originally on acoustic guitar, but it wouldn’t have worked out that way.”
Like for all previous Spoon records, most of the new songs evolved out from initial ideas Daniel recorded on demo and then put on the table to work on with the rest of the band, but this time one of the tracks, 'First Caress' was written by the no-longer-a-secret weapon keyboardist Alex Fischel, who came on board in 2013. “I made a little demo and put gibberish on top, then sent it to Britt and he came up with all the lyrics. We changed the vocal melody a little bit, and we brought it down a couple of keys”, Fischel tells me.
We all joke that is because Daniel’s voice is too low. “I love my voice, but I wish it was a little higher”, he admits. Apparently, at a Spoon show with Yo La Tengo a while ago they wanted him to do 'Christine' by Souxsie & The Banshes and he was trying to discuss taking it down a couple of keys, but the band thought it was because he wasn’t feeling secure singing that high. “It wasn’t that, I really just can’t sing that high!” he specifies.
The new album was recorded both in Austin in the studio of drummer and co-founder Jim Eno, and in Cassadaga, NY with producer Dave Fridmann, who has also co-produced Spoon previous full-lenght They Want my Soul. “Dave is so good at achieving that new, unique sound bands are after, and he knows so much about all the different equipment that somehow he pulls out stuff just like that”, Eno points out. Daniel agrees that his contribution in defining Spoon sound is essential. “He has great ideas, he can suggest a melody or put a sound effect on a song that makes it come together like he did with ‘Knock Knock Knock’ [from They Want my Soul], where he created a horror movie effect. And the funny thing is that sometimes he doesn’t even know where that stuff comes from. He cooks up a lot of things like a mad man, then he has to trace them back and figure out what happened.”
To me, all Spoon album covers have always contributed to the appeal of their music. The artwork of Hot Thoughts, a colourful cross section of a human head, is no exception. “It is as if you could see inside that person, see the bones, the skull and these warm colours that represent hot thoughts”, Daniel explains. He found that image on a friend’s Instagram page. “I didn’t even know that she was a painter. When I saw it I thought that looked like a record cover.”
Daniel and Eno founded Spoon in 1993, and despite all the line-up changes (latest of which the departure of long-time member Eric Harvey, recently replaced by Gerardo Larios), if anything their music has got better and better over the years, but back then, they really couldn't imagine still making music together so many years later. The band’s journey from obscure indie darling to festival heavyweight didn’t exactly happen overnight and it took them years and many difficult moments (including being dropped by major label Elektra) to finally gain the recognition they deserved. “I think the lowest point for me was when we played at a Christmas party at a Mexican restaurant in Austin”, Daniel recalls. “Jim had a job, but I was so poor that going out for a Mexican meal was a luxury, so it was so great to have a Mexican restaurant offering us 200-dollar worth of restaurant credits if we played at their Christmas party…. but it was such a bummer gig!”
Eno felt that the turning point for them was during the recording of the 2000’s EP Love Ways. “While Britt and I were working on a track, I ran the tape machine we’d borrowed, I hit the rewind button, the tape rewound and it snapped in two! We had no idea where it snapped, which was the worst thing that could happen because we had some great stuff. I then put the tape back together, rewound it, hit play and it was going in a song end, then the next song started… it basically happened to cut right between two songs! I felt that we had reached the bottom and were finally going back up.”
Hot Thoughts also represents Spoon return to Matador Records, who released their debut album Telephono in 1996. Back then, they had many major labels taking them out to dinners and trying to sign them, from Geffen, to Interscope, to Warner, but they chose to go with an indie label instead. “We decided that if we could ever be successful with anybody that would be with Matador as they had put out many great records and we just really liked those guys”, Daniel recalls. “And it was kind of the same thing this time too. We are both in a different place now, so we thought we should just try it again.”
For Daniel, playing shows is the most rewarding part of being in a band. “We all say that all it matters is making a record that documents what a band is, and that is what will live forever, but playing shows is hard to beat.” On the other hand, Eno, who runs his own studio in hometown Austin, thinks the recording process is also very gratifying, and he loves producing so much that now he also runs masterclasses for music production students. He first got invited to run a class at the University of Ohio, and then for two years in a row the same professor has invited five students down to his studio for a week to assist while a band is recording. “It is very good because the University pays me, I pick the bands, we record their music for free and then I just give them the songs for them to use if they want, while the students get to see real sessions”.
"Hot Thoughts" is out today via Matador Records.
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