Britt Daniel
Flirting with the Muse*

By Trevor Wallace

(*Euterpe, the muse of lyrical song. Not to be confused with Calliope, muse of epic song and poetry and mother to that most unfortunate of mythical figures, Orpheus.)

“Its easier to drink on an empty stomach/Than eat on a broken heart,” Britt Daniel laments in “Figures of Art” off Spoon’s debut for Merge Records, Love Ways. Truer words have rarely been spoken, let alone put to music. But such is the nature of the band’s music, and, more specifically, Daniel’s songwriting. The blunt emotional trauma of heartache and loss reverberate through Spoon’s catalog like ripples on a lonely sylvan pond, laced with hope and disdain as the sun breaks through the trees to turn the pool into a shimmering jewel in the rough.

Contradictory, a trifle lofty, and possibly pretentious, but it’s often hard to put a finger on just exactly where Daniel is coming from. A haunting melody here, a jagged guitar break there, piano riffs and homemade tape loops all serve as a backdrop for lyrics ranging from the aforementioned heartbreak to drinking and drug use to the clothes Britt likes to wear and how he believes those around him should act. Not that he’s preaching, mind you, he just “longs for the days/they used to say/ma’am and yes sir” (“Fitted Shirt,” Girls Can Tell).

A friendly bed-headed blonde of the tall and lanky variety, Daniel cuts a pose tailor-made to get the college girlies all hot and bothered. And while some may credit Spoon’s success to the physical attributes of its singer, are (almost) five albums and a near-decade of success so easily explained away? Was Spoon invited to Carson Daly and Conan O’Brien as well as the Austin City Limits Festival (where they played twice—one set of Spoon material, the other as Bright Eyes band) simply because the singer is cute? Listen to one the band’s records, and decide for yourself if this is the case.

Born in Galveston and raised for the most part in Temple, Britt was young when he first realized music was what he wanted to do. “When I was six or seven, I [started] playing my dad’s records on my own,” Daniel explains around a mouthful of taco at Julio’s in Hyde Park. “I would just stare at those vinyl sleeves, and I always thought it would be the greatest if I could make one of these things.”

“I really got into the Bee Gees at first—and I’ve since come back to them. There’s some Bee Gees I like a lot,” he elaborates. “My dad was really into the Beatles, but he was more of a McCartney guy. I think he had one Lennon solo album, but he had all the McCartney ones.” Now listen to “Jealousy” on Loveways. The chorus hearkens to the Fab Four’s “Baby’s in Black,” a Lennon tune, sure, but the influence is still strongly felt.

Initially picking up the guitar as a teenager, Daniel finally wound up in Austin in the early ‘90s and wasted no time in putting together a band. By 1994, Daniel and drummer Jim Eno had the core of the band solidified. Within a year, Daniel had met two people who would prove instrumental to the band’s success. The first was former Reiver’s frontman, John Croslin. “I’d heard his name, read his name a million times. I had no idea what he looked like, because by the time I moved to Austin, the Reivers were just about to be finished. So I met him at a party,” Daniel reminisces. “He said he had just bought an eight-track, a huge one-inch eight, and we should come over and try some stuff out. That sounded like a great idea—we were flattered.”

The ultimate result of the Croslin sessions was Telefono, Spoon’s inaugural album and the beginning of their relationship with Matador records (a previous EP recorded on an answering machine had already been self-released). “Apparently Gerard [Cosloy], one of the founders [of Matador], saw us at an anti-SXSW show we played in ‘94. We played the anti- show because they wouldn’t accept us at the regular SXSW. It was at the Blue Flamingo. I think he’s the kinda guy that likes going to drag queen bars,” Britt laughs, describing his first contact with the person that would get Spoon off the ground. “He just went in to see what was going on.

“I heard that weekend from Jeff Tartikoff (one-time manager of both Daniel Johnston and Jad Fair) that one of the presidents of Matador was at the show and liked it. I was shocked because I’d just started hearing about Matador. They were putting out a bunch of great records.

“After that I sent the EP we put out on vinyl and stayed in touch. Once we finished Telefono, we sent Gerard a tape of that. I don’t think he wanted to…I think he was kinda sitting on it. But we started getting offers from major labels so that kinda got him in gear.” And even though the band is no longer on Cosloy’s label, he still does a lot of stuff for the band, mainly creating a near-mythical aura about Daniel in press releases and the industry rumor mill.

According to Cosloy, Spoon is banned from Wyoming. “He just made that one up. He’s still running with that. He was responding to someone on a bulletin board, and he mentioned that the governor’s wife had something to do with it.” And that’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the tall tales surrounding Britt. There was the dangling from a hotel balcony. “I wasn’t dangling. I was just kind of walking around on the edge,” he explains, quelling that gossip.

In more Cosloy hyperbole, it seems Daniel was recently nearly electrocuted to death. Smiling and shaking his head, he says, “I was fixing a TV. Those things carry a charge even when they’re not plugged in. I wasn’t aware of that, so I probably shouldn’t have been trying to fix it. After I shocked myself something severe, I e-mailed my good friend Sean in New York and was commenting on how stupid it was. So he posted something sarcastic on the Spoon discussion list about Britt Daniel executing himself, and everybody was… I started getting calls from relatives, actually, which was insane. So when Gerard was writing our most recent bio, he included that.”

And as for the story involving the transportation of underage girls across a state line at the encouragement of an overly adventurous road manager, perhaps its best to let some things go down in the annals of rock and roll mythdom. Why even give him a chance to debunk it?

With the release of Telefono, Spoon gained international attention and immediate backlash. “A Pixies clone band,” said some. “Spoon don’t do anything for me. They leave me cold,” whined others, but that didn’t stop Daniel and Co. from charging headlong to Elektra Records—where they were signed, released A Series of Sneaks, and were immediately dropped. “That’s it. We got dropped. Basically, we were dealt a shady hand by our A & R guy who promised us he was going to stay. We didn’t want to sign to the label if he wouldn’t promise he was gonna stay, because we knew there would be trouble. I mean the people in the college radio department loved us, the art department loved us, but other than that it was our A&R guy and noone else who was going to make things happen. He left for another label, and we got dropped that week.”

Undaunted and encouraged by higher quality songwriting, they no longer sounded like the flavor of the week. Britt’s songwriting was improving at an exponential rate. The band found a home at Superchunk’s label, Merge Records. Their debut for that label was Love Ways, a self-referring five-song thematic opus where the lyrics from one song are twisted and reused for another and approaches melodies familiar then pulls a U-turn and hits a new, thus far undiscovered hook. And with each record, Spoon experiments just a bit further. By the time Girls Can Tell was released in 2001, the band was making use of guest musicians playing such disparate instruments as marimba, vibes, harpsichord and viola.

While it’s true that Daniel’s influences are no longer worn on his sleeve, their presence is still certainly felt, showcasing his taste in music, especially that of art rock and post-punk. Spoon is, after all, essentially named for a Can song. “Advance Cassette” (Series of Sneaks), while sounding disturbingly like Memphis’ Grifters, highlights Daniel’s Jonathon Richman-like nasal howl. Or listen to “This Book is a Movie” (Girls Can Tell). One of the only Spoon instumentals, the song opens like a lost track from Wire’s Chairs Missing and ends in a very Marquee Moon rave-up, á la Television. From Wire to Television—whether viewed from a musical or appliance standpoint, it makes perfect sense. And there’s always the Suicide-esque “Small Stakes” on the most recent record, Kill the Moonlight.

Not that all of Daniel’s influences are so arty and obscure. Take “Someone Something” off the most recent album. Catchy and piano driven, the song lies somewhere between Badfinger and Summerteeth-era Wilco. Moonlight also contains some of the band’s most experimental material to date in the form of “Stay Don’t Go,” “Paper Tiger” and “Back to the Life.” Each employs loops and samples; the band makes use of laughter, coughing and “human beatboxing” as the core of each song. In fact, the latter could easily stand up next to anything done by Gorillaz.

Anyone see a pattern? No? Neither does Britt. Currently in the studio recording their fifth album tentatively titled The Beast and Dragon Are Adored, Daniel has no idea how the record will turn out. “The next one is turning into more of a ‘song’ record than [Moonlight] but we’ll see. I thought Moonlight was going to be a real guitar-heavy album, but it ended up very much not being a guitar heavy record. It’s fun to do stuff picturing people putting on the record and surprising them.” And the muse smiles mischievously.

Despite beginning their career as a way for John Croslin to figure out his new toy, Spoon now produce and mix their own stuff. “I have to be involved, or I go crazy,” Daniel says, true to his slightly control-freakish personality, to which he willingly confesses. “Mixing is such a huge part of the way a record sounds. I couldn’t imagine not being involved. There are some terrific bands, Radiohead for example, who aren’t around when their stuff gets mixed. I heard they do that because if they’re all there, they won’t be able to agree on anything.

“With that in mind, I guess it makes sense sometimes, but I can’t keep my hands off. I don’t think Jim could either. We do all our recording at Jim’s place, so its all hand made.”

Britt Daniel has a reputation about town. A reputation of arrogance, antisocial behavior, and basically being a downright asshole. Perhaps this view was deserved at one point, but no longer is Daniel a brooding, shifty punk. Smiles come more easily to him, and he is willing to have a genuine conversation with anyone who approaches him. This may come from “disliking myself less,” he theorizes. “[Though] I don’t know that Jim would say I’ve mellowed out.”

“I think lots of times when people seem unfriendly they’re actually not liking themselves very much or are really uncomfortable in their own skin—and that has definitely been the case with me a lot of my life. I’ve always wanted to be the kind of person that people think is a great person, you know? A loving person. And I think I am, but sometimes it just doesn’t…. Maybe I’ve just gotten better at expressing it.”
Perhaps the controlling side of his personality is mellowing with age, though Daniel himself will never admit to it. “When I come off stage and Josh (Zarbo, Spoon’s longest-lasting bass player) doesn’t critique my performance… Josh is the super professional musician of the band—we don’t have practices, we have rehearsals. So if I come off stage and he’s smiling, I know it was a good show.” Baby steps.

Despite Spoon increasingly becoming more of a group project, Daniel is still the primary songwriter. “When it come to the chords and the melodies and the lyrics, I do all that stuff at home. Then I’ll come in, and we’ll all kind of negotiate what the beat’s going to be, what the rhythm section’s going to be like…. Me writing a song used to mean, ‘OK, we play it, we hit on all fours.’ Very straightforward, but the longer we play, the more we want to have things be sparser or trickier. There’s more R&B to it now than when we started out.”

Standing shoulder to shoulder in the Parlor listening to Scott Biram’s swamp-bred caterwauling, this writer looks up and laughs at the vision before me. Tableau: Youngish punky kid with blonde spiky hair reminiscent of Billy Idol, studded choke collar, spiked bracelet and metal belt. His t-shirt: Spoon – Kill the Moonlight.

“[Spoon fans] rule,” smiles Britt. “And they seem to have very good taste in choke collars.”

In the midst of recording and on the veritable eve of The Beast and Dragon Are Adored’s release, Daniel still finds time to play a solo set in front of packed house at Beerland Sunday night. Armed with simply a guitar and boom box, he deconstructs and slaps back together both his own songs and a particularly tasteful Wire cover with aplomb. He’s in a good mood, having a blast, and it shows. So what does the future hold for Spoon?

“I don’t know. You’d think that I’ve been doing this for as long as I have that there would be, or probably should be, a goal because I’m devoting a good deal of my life to this band. I view it like this: I feel like we’re having fun and producing good stuff, so we should keep at it. It’s something that we should keep evaluating. And, as of the last two to three years it’s been a lot of fun. It wasn’t always this much fun, and I really like the records we’ve made since A Series of Sneaks. Or, rather all the records from Series on I think are really good.”

A slightly existentialist view to be sure, but perhaps that’s just the way Britt Daniel gets by.


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