Rock stars for the thinking person, Spoon digs in on their ninth record, Hot Thoughts, their prominent SXSW residency, and why we can officially call them an Austin-based band again.
Spoon, from left: Rob Pope, Britt Daniel, Jim Eno, and Alex Fischel.
Spoon is the kind of band that people keep discovering, even though the Austin group started 24 years ago. So what keeps an indie-rock band growing and thriving on its smooth ride toward a quarter-century mark?
Just listen to their ninth album, Hot Thoughts, which drops March 17 on Matador Records. The 10-song record is a sonic playground. It’s Spoon’s first album since 2014’s critical smash, They Want My Soul, which debuted at No. 4 on the Billboard 200 (just as 2010’s Transference did before that), and it makes perfect sense as the next step in the band’s steady, two-decade evolution from scrappy Austin musicians to indie-rock gods. It’s why South by Southwest invited them to hold a three-night residency this year, a first for the 30-year-old fest.
It’s a long way from the early ’90s, when Britt Daniel fled Temple, Texas, at 18 to attend UT. “It was where all the cool stuff was happening,” Daniel recalls. After a stint in the band The Alien Beats with drummer Jim Eno (then a microchip designer for Motorola), the two formed Spoon, releasing their first full length album, Telephono, on Matador in 1996. The next 20 years saw label and lineup changes (with Daniel and Eno the two mainstays) as each album, starting with 2001’s Girls Can Tell, drew more and more commercial and critical success. The consistent praise earned Spoon the title of “top overall artist of the decade” in 2009 by review aggregator Metacritic.
In all, 2017 is shaping up to be a full-circle year for Spoon, from the return to Matador to the SXSW residency March 14-16 at The Main, the former Emo’s (playfully being referred to as Eno’s for the shows), where the band played many a gig over the years. Daniel is even calling Austin home again for the first time in a decade after living in Portland and L.A. While longtime bassist Rob Pope lives in Massachusetts and keyboard player/guitarist Alex Fischel is based in L.A., the brand-new (as in January-new) guitarist, Gerardo Larios, is also an Austinite and a longtime friend of Eno’s, who produced Larios’s band Money Chicha. “We’ve once again become an Austin-centric band,” says Daniel.
Daniel began working on the tracks that would become Hot Thoughts in January 2015. “Songs take a long time and a lot of developing,” says Daniel. His writing process is rooted in the demos he records and shares with Eno and the band. “Every now and then you get lucky, and there’s a song that comes fast and it’s ready to go. More often than not, it morphs a lot until you get it to a really good place.”
Asked about his goals for the record, Daniel demurs. “Intention is hard to define,” he says. “I know what I’m listening for, and when the band was working together, there were certain sounds that seemed futuristic to me. Like we haven’t done that before, and that’s the stuff we would gravitate toward.”
“Records have always been my deal...it is a thing, it holds a place, and it’s not going anywhere. You can always go back to it. That’s the kind of record I want to make: the kind that’s not disposable.” —Britt Daniel
Although founded on the polished, hand-clapped, controlled chaos of previous albums, Hot Thoughts spins on sonic surprises: disco flirtations, playful layers, and less guitar (no acoustic at all), from the eponymous opener to the closing soundscape instrumental “Us.” The band recorded half of Hot Thoughts at Eno’s home studio, Public Hi-Fi, and the rest in Cassadaga, NY, with producer Dave Fridmann, who also co-produced their last album. Says Eno: “Dave’s laid-back and super easy to get along with, but he also has amazing ideas. We’ve worked with some producers who feel like it’s their record as opposed to ours.”
Eno is a successful, sought-after producer himself, working with bands such as Phosphorescent and The Preatures; each year he leads a master class of sorts in his studio for a small group of music production students from Ohio University. But for him, playing the music live is the real test. “Touring makes everything that you do worthwhile,” he says. “You’re in the studio for a really long time to get everything the way you want it. Then you’re playing in front of people, and they’re singing along; it completes the whole circle of doing a record.” With new guitarist Larios in the fold, Spoon held a surprise show in January to try out some of Hot Thoughts in front of a sold-out, excited crowd at Antone’s.
“Once we start playing those songs for two months, it will be so much better,” says Eno. “We were at that point on our last tour where you get to this feeling that you’re simply unstoppable.”
Daniel’s also spent a good chunk of two decades touring, and is anything but road-worn. “I love being on tour; I like that way of life.” It cranks up again with the three SXSW showcases, which serve as the kickoff for the next tour. It’s a natural place for Spoon to start—the band has played the fest many times. “SXSW is a beautiful chaos,” says Daniel. “I embrace it. I like that there are more things to do and see than you can possibly do.”
Daniel, who lives about 10 minutes from Eno, acknowledges that SXSW is easier now that Austin is home base again. “I love being here. As soon as I know I’m coming back, I start thinking about what I’m going to eat first.” When recording, he and the band eat a lot at Ruby’s BBQ (though he favors the chicken and salad), Maudie’s Tex-Mex, and Madam Mam’s Thai food. For nightlife and live music, his standbys include margaritas at Takoba, honky-tonks The White Horse and Broken Spoke, bars like Hotel Vegas and Shangri-La, and Red River District music venues Beerland and Barracuda. Favorite local bands include A Giant Dog and Sweet Spirit.
Eno prefers to stay home with family, which includes his wife and two children. A coffee man, he hits Figure 8 and Houndstooth; for tacos it’s El Chilito and Tacodeli. “I don’t have a lot of free time,” says Eno, who is trying to wrap up production work for acts like The Bright Light Social Hour, Walker Lukens, and others before the touring begins. But the former microchip designer is not complaining. “I never thought I’d be doing music as a career, so any day I can wake up and pay the bills by doing music is a pretty great day for me.”
He and Daniel are also happy—and surprised—to be back with Matador, whose three partners include friend Gerard Cosloy of Austin. “I love those dudes,” says Daniel. “They haven’t done so well financially with Spoon—they’ve lost money on us every time they tried. I hope we’re going to break the cycle this time,” he laughs.
For Daniel, the touring, the interviews, even recording the radio station promos—it all comes back to making records. “Records have always been my deal. That’s why I listened to the Plastic Ono Band for the ten-thousandth time this morning. It is a thing, it holds a place, and it’s not going anywhere. You can always go back to it. That’s the kind of record I want to make: the kind that’s not disposable. I think that still matters to a lot of people.”
PHOTOGRAPHY BY DAVID BRENDAN HALL & Zackery Michael