Austin’s annual South by Southwest festival features a logjam of bands trying to woo industry insiders and demonstrate their viability to record label heads and marketing reps.
Standing out from the fray doesn’t come easy. So credit indie rockers Spoon for coming up with a novel way of getting some well-deserved attention. During this year’s fest, the band played a trio shows at old location of Emo’s, a favorite local venue. The band rechristened the place “Eno’s” for the event, taking the name from its drummer, Jim Eno. The group even curated the entire lineup of support for the shows.
“That was great,” says bassist Rob Pope in a recent phone interview when asked about the gigs. “Well technically, it’s not Emo’s anymore, but it was great to get back into that club, because I hadn’t been in there for years, and I had spent a lot of time in that place. It was awesome to be at SXSW because that’s just mayhem with so many bands there. We were lucky enough to be set up in the same venue for three nights in a row, not having to cart all of our stuff all over the city and play different venues. And we were able to select a bunch of bands to open up the shows. I think everybody had a really great time. I know we did, despite playing at one in the morning for three nights in a row. Everybody was kind of turning into vampires after a little while.”
The Austin scene, which features a vast network of people who play in bands or work in music, has helped nourish the band, which singer-guitarist Britt Daniel and Eno formed in 1993.
“There’s always amazing places to play down there,” says Pope, who joined the group in 2006. “And it’s been home base for the band for forever. It’s where Britt and Jim started the band. Jim’s got an amazing studio there, so we still do a lot of recording there when we’re making our records. If we’re all getting together to either rehearse or work on new songs, that’s typically where it happens 90 percent of the time. It’s a great place and an inspirational place. I think it does probably subconsciously affect the way our band operates and sounds.”
When Pope joined the band, it had already been signed and dropped by a major label, having put out A Series of Sneaks
on Elektra Records in 2002. That experience, however, didn’t deter Daniel and Co.
“Britt and I wound up having some breakfast tacos together, and chatted about what he was looking for in a guy and in a new bandmate and it seemed like a pretty good fit,” recalls Pope. “A month later we ended up rehearsing in my basement in [my hometown of] Lawrence, Kansas, and ran through a bunch of the catalog songs, because Spoon was playing a show there. A couple months later I was down in Austin and we were recording for the Stranger Than Fiction
soundtrack, and working on tracks for Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga
As a songwriter, Daniel explores power-pop chord progressions, alternating drawing from pop and post-punk.
“He’s a very hard worker and takes songwriting very seriously,” says Pope. “In all the bands I’ve played in and all the musicians I’ve played with, I’ve never been around a songwriter that is as obsessive about detail. He’s not willing to settle. He wants each individual component, each part, each melody, each thing that goes into the song to be the best that it can be. He works really hard, and sometimes he goes down a rabbit hole to try and find that. He spends a lot of time with headphones on, listening and trying to figure out what we can do to make things better.”
For its latest album, Hot Thoughts
, the band collaborated with Dave Fridmann, the producer famous for his work with the neo-psychedelic rockers Flaming Lips. In 2001, Mojo
magazine included the guy on its 100 Sonic Visionaries list and described him as "the Phil Spector of the Alt-Rock era."
According to Pope, he lived up to the billing.
“We’d been trying to get to work with him in some capacity, because we’ve been fans of his process and a lot of the records he’s made for years.,” says Pope when asked about Fridmann. “We finally got to work with him on [2014’s] They Want My Soul
. When he originally came on, we were just going to have him mix the record. As we got into it a little further, we wound up tracking half the songs with him, and then he mixed almost all the songs. As we started making those songs, and tracking with him, it was pretty obvious that everybody felt really comfortable around him. “
Pope says band members enjoyed working with so much in a limited capacity on They Want My Soul
that they wanted him to work them from start to finish on Hot Thoughts
“When They Want My Soul
came out, everyone loved the result,” says Pope. “The last big show for They Want My Soul
was in Buffalo, which is an hour away from him, so he came out to the show, and his whole family was there. He kind of pulled each of us aside separately, and was like, ‘Hey, let me know when you’re making a new record, cause I think we should make the whole record at my place.’ And that’s what we wound up doing. This time around, he produced and mixed all of it. We tracked a ton of it at his place, and tracked some of it at Jim’s place in Austin too. He’s wonderful to work with. He pushes the band in different ways and makes us go for crazier stuff and into directions we would not have gone into seven or eight years ago.”
The album opens with the jittery “Hot Thoughts,” a song propelled by jagged guitar riffs and fragmented keyboard fills. The band shows just how much it’s expanded its sound on “Pink Up,” a funky tune with a lengthy instrumental lead-in.
“Oh god — there’s all kinds of crazy stuff on that song,” says Pope when asked about "Pink Up." “There’s a lot of percussion, tons of French drums, really fuzzy bass at the end, there’s a lot of overly-effected keyboard, and there’s some bongos in that song. We haven’t worked up that one live yet, but it’s on our to-do list. That would be an awesome one to pull off. It’s one of my favorites on the record.”
The ominous sounding “I Ain’t The One” began as an acoustic ballad before the band added sonic textures to it.
“Britt told me he was trying to write like a loner, Johnny Cash type song,” says Pope when asked about the tune. “So it started out that way, and it worked, but it didn’t really seem like it fit on the record in that treatment. One night after a SXSW show a couple years ago, [Britt] and [keyboardist] Alex [Fischel] were hanging out at Britt’s place. Alex started playing the chords on piano, and trying to approach it that way. Once it started sounding good, they ditched the acoustic guitar, and I think they slowed it down a little bit. Then it was just a matter of getting all the parts to work and the arrangement to be cool. It started out in a totally different direction, btu that happens quite a bit with us. We’ll have one idea in mind, and then we’ll try it three other ways, and see which one is cooler. Sometimes we wind up yanking a section out of one approach and gluing it to another one, and that might work really well.”
Given the fickle nature of the music business, it’s a testament to Spoon’s staying power that the band’s persisted for more than 20 years.
“For us, the big thing is just making consistently good records, and trying as hard as we can to do that,” says Pope. “When we started working on this record, we wanted to sound hungry. We didn’t want to sound like a band that was happy with where we’re at, because we’re not.”
Spoon, Tennis, 7:30 p.m. Friday, May 12, House of Blues, 308 Euclid Ave., 216-523-2583. Tickets: $30-$40, houseofblues.com