Spoon - Biography
By David Downs
Major alternative rock band Spoon flirted with major label stardom but found their groove outside the mainstream, crafting quirky, uncompromising guitar-driven post-punk since 1993 when Britt Daniel (vocals/guitar) joined forces with electrical engineer and drummer Jim Eno in Austin. The liberal, college town and democratic bastion in a the red state has a thriving, often-punishing music scene fed by annual independent musical festivals Austin City Limits and South By Southwest. Their earliest known solo work The Nefarious EP (1994-Fluffer) drew comparisons to Sonic Youth and the Pixies with their short, tight, spare songs. Wire, Can and Suicide were also brought up often in comparison, but Daniel says Julian Cope played an even bigger role in their development. Debut LP Telephono (1996-Matador) led to follow-up EP Soft Effects (1997-Matador). The band then signed to major label Elektra, who dumped them after their “30 Gallon Tank” EP (1998-Elektra) and A Series of Sneaks (1998-Elektra). In response, Spoon released “The Agony of Lafitte” EP (1999-Merge) and “Love Ways” EP (2000-Merge) before successful LP Girls Can Tell (2001-Merge) restored their indie credibility and prospects. The bold Kill the Moonlight (2002-Merge) preceded the stride-hitting Gimme Fiction (2005-Merge), which hit number forty-four on the the Billboard 200 and preceded their largest success Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga (2007-Merge) which hit number ten on the Billboard 200. Eno, Daniels, Rob Pop and Eric Harvey continue to tour and record.
Band centerpiece and vociferous lead singer Britt Daniel was born in Texas in 1971 to a neurologist father who liked the Beatles and the Rolling Stones who collected guitars. Raised in Temple, TX on a musical diet of Hall and Oates, The Art of Noise, and Frankie Goes to Hollywood, in high school, Daniels thought for a time that he wanted to be music critic. The Cure, The Violet Femmes, Led Zeppelin and the Doors resonated with him, as well as the Cocteau Twins, which was introduced to him by his girlfriend. She took Daniel's virginity and packed off to college, leaving Daniel to brood, button his shirt to the top button and paint his nails black; which was as goth as Daniel could get in conservative Temple, Texas.
Daniel moved to Austin in 1989 to attend the massive party college of UT, where he started playing guitar in his band Skellington. Daniel's fated turn to post-punk came during these years, with Wire, Gang of Four and Public Image influencing his sound. The Replacements' rawness led to Stink and a proper college rock education just in time to meet Jim Eno – a Rhode Island native who moved to Austin from Houston in '92 to design microchips for Cadence Designs Systems.
Eno sat in on drums for Daniel's band The Alien Beats, ultimately forming Spoon in 1993 with Greg Wilson (aka Wendel Stivers) on guitar and Andy McGuire on bass. Their composition style usually started with Daniel working on songs to some point, then bringing the rough idea or concrete song before the others, and rarely did they spontaneously write during rehearsals. Spoon debuted four-song vinyl EP “The Nefarious” in May '94, playing Hole in the Wall and getting their first press. "Idiot Driver" one of Spoon's earliest songs, was featured on the 1995 Austin indie compilation Peek-A-Boo Bicycle Rodeo (1995-Peek-A-Boo).
In 1995, Matador signed Spoon at the height of the alt-rock gold rush and the band settled in to record Telephono (1996-Matador). Produced by John Croslin and written mostly by Daniel aping The Replacements, the record was made for $3,000 and made it to the Billboard Top Independent Records thirty-five spot, but Matador was disappointed. The album sold all of 3,000 copies. Shows in Chicago drew fifteen people. Wilson left and McGuire followed, bringing in lawyers to get promised funds after a bitter split with the band. The Soft Effects (1997-Matador) EP was also produced by Croslin and recorded in August and September 1996 at Dog Land. But in mid-1997, Spoon bailed from Matador. Spoon added new bassist Josh Zarbo and made a major label deal with Elektra for two albums and an option for four more. The “30 Gallon Tank” EP (1998-Elektra) preceded A Series of Sneaks (1998-Elektra) but after it came out, the band says its Elektra representative stopped taking their calls and was soon sacked.
Spoon was dropped four months after they had been signed and Series of Sneaks sold only 4,000 copies. Daniel went public with their grievances and the press latched onto the drama of a rising indie band sabotaged by a major. Daniel added Charlie Watts on drums and wrote songs for Girls Can Tell.
The Love Ways (2000-Merge) EP found the band on solid footing for the first time in years. Girls Can Tell (2002-Merge) hit number forty-six on the Billboard Top Independent Albums chart after being recorded at Eno's house with standout tracks “Everything Hits At Once”and additional production by Mike McCarthy who had worked with ... Trail of Dead.
Kill the Moonlight (2002-Merge) did even better, hitting number twenty-three on the Billboard Top Independent Albums chart, featuring much more lush arrangements recorded from January to March 2002 in Austin. “The Way We Get By” combined piano stabs, Daniel's affected British vocal delivery, handclasp and tambourine. “Jonathon Fisk” a classic rock track led with uptempo guitar riffs and a driving drum line as Daniel detailed lead character Fisk, a bully from Daniel's public school days. Fisk became a fan and attended many Spoon shows. “Stay Don't Go” exhibits vocal beatboxing over reggae guitar playing on the downbeat, counterbalanced by over-cute lyrics in the second person.
Gimme Fiction (2005-Merge) retained the production team of Daniel, Eno , and McCarthy with extra production from John Vanderslice. Single “I Turn My Camera On” proved an instant classic, with its brutally simple almost punk-like bassline, trap kit drum line and Daniel in full falsetto vocal mode. “My Mathematical Mind” was the opposite in terms of sonic space, with a rumbling rhythmic piano melody filling every second of the jam. Fiction sold 20,000 copies in the first week of its release and 50,000 within a month, charting to forty-four on the Billboard 200 and number one on the Top Independent Albums chart. In 2006, at the Bumbershoot Music Festival, comedian David Cross spontaneously appeared nude and danced to the "The Beast And Dragon Adored." Fan Stephen King named "I Summon You" the best song of 2005.
Follow-up Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga (2007-Merge) was also recorded at Eno's studio with Daniel living there for five months. Longtime collaborator McCarthy produced every song along with Jon Brion of Fiona Apple, Aimee Mann, and Kanye West. “Rhthm & Soul” featured current keyboardist Eric Harvey adding a new melody to the band and Daniel in a lower, more authentic vocal range. Terrific tracks “Don't Make Me A Target”, “You Got Yr. Cherry Bomb” and “Don't You Evah” showcased a band finally comfortable in their own shoes, and it helped the album debut at an astounding number ten on the Billboard 200 and number one on the Top Independent Albums chart, selling 46,000 copies in its first week. The album also cracked the top ten list of Rolling Stone's Top 50 Albums of 2007 and made number seven on Pitchfork Media's top 50 Albums of 2007.
Follow-up EP “Don't You Evah” (2008-Merge) features the original version of the song performed by The Natural History titled "Don't You Ever" along with Spoon's cover "Don't You Evah" and six remixes, along with new Spoon song, "All I Got Is Me". Diplo, Ted Leo appeared as remixers and the proceeds of the EP generated went to the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition. In 2010 the band released Transference.
Daniel has many side projects. His early stage name was Drake Tungsten and spent part of 2006 writing the soundtrack to Stranger Than Fiction with Brian Rietzell. He also covered Sam Cooke's "Bring It On Home To Me" for the Portland charity compilation Bridging the Distance. Daniel produced I Love You but I've Chosen Darkness' 2003 debut, and has worked with Bright Eyes and Matador label-mates Interpol.
Spoon flirted with major label success yet found their home outside of the mainstream, crafting popular, quirky guitar-driver post punk in five albums, almost as many LPs and eighteen singles. Daniel and Eno's revolving crew thrived in the Austin music scene, but faltered when they tried to cash in their indie cred with major label Elektra. The fallout from the deal added fresh drama to Daniel's songwriting, and the subsequent music journalism about the band. More is yet to come.