Spoon - Britt Daniel on Kill the Moonlight
Speaking with Fists
Dec 30, 2014 Web Exclusive
It's easy to forget now—especially after a decade as one of indie rock's most critically and commercially successful acts—but Spoon was once synonymous with bad luck. Signed by Matador, their 1996 debut Telephono established them as a band with endless potential but not a lot of listeners, selling only a few thousand copies. Major label Elektra still decided to bet on the band's potential and signed them for 1998's A Series of Sneaks, another commercial dud that led to the band's dismissal only four months after the album's release. Girls Can Tell, their 2001 return to the indie rock trenches with Merge, expanded their audience but offered little evidence that Spoon would ever be more than a cult band. Time was running out on their "next big thing" status.
Kill the Moonlight was the moment everything finally came together. A lean 12-song, 35-minute album also released on Merge, it was elemental in all the right ways. Built around simple guitar and piano hooks and Britt Daniel's raw-voiced howls, few albums have sounded quite so urgent, as if the band was fighting for their lives on every track. In a sense, they were, and Daniel is a magnetic presence as a result, pouring his frustrations into instant anthems such as "The Way We Get By" and "Paper Tiger." This time around, listeners would notice, and Kill the Moonlight marked the start of a five-album run that continued with 2014's They Want My Soul, each release further cementing their status as one of their generation's most reliably inventive bands. Recalling on that moment of transition, Daniel reflects on the mindset with which he approached those songs, the album's enduring resonance, and how he'd like to see it given the proper reissue treatment.
Matt Fink (Under the Radar): When you think back to making Kill the Moonlight, what stands out to you as being memorable?
Britt Daniel: It was done quickly, and the turnaround was real fast. We put Girls Can Tell out in February of 2001, I think, and we were done with Kill the Moonlight a little over a year later, which was pretty fast, considering any other record we've done. [Laughs] The one before came out in early '98, and it took three years for it to all come together. I think about how when Girls Can Tell came out it was the first record that came out that felt like it was making some traction and that people were listening to it. Things didn't feel like an unmitigated disaster, basically, so that was cool. That inspired me and made me want to get something out quickly, and we did a little bit of touring, but no one was asking us to do festivals. I'm not sure how many festivals there were then, but there wasn't a whole lot to do, so I was able to go up to Connecticut to this town called New London, where I didn't know anybody, and I just rented an apartment and wrote all summer.
That pushed things along quickly. And then the other thing was that our producer, Mike [McCarthy], he only had six weeks to make the record with us because he was so busy with Trail of Dead. They were really successful then, and they were putting out records on Interscope, and he didn't have much time for this band that could barely pay him. So that was a short period of time, and it got shortened even more because Jim [Eno]'s tape machine was down for two weeks, and we were repairing it. So everything got squished into this small window, and in a way, I think that helped the sound. It helped concentrate my efforts. [Laughs] I think it did effect the sound. We also made it on 16-track, and even then you usually recorded on 24-track or ProTools, so 16 was a very small amount of tracks.
Do you think having so little time to work on it infused the album with the energy that it has?
Maybe, yeah. I think there was some real urgency there, and there was also a real lack of budget. I think the two of those combined. I remember a lot of nights—or weeks of nights—saying, "I can't do anything. I'm just going to stay at home. I have to set aside this girl I might be interested in, and I've got to set aside hanging out with friends or drinking or going to see my mom. Nothing else can have a priority now." It might have been the first time I felt that intensely about making a record.
Was that an enjoyable record to make or was it so pressurized that it wasn't that much fun?
Well...parts of it were enjoyable. When I came up with those demos for "Paper Tiger" or "Small Stakes" or "The Way We Get By"—those were peak creative moments that were super fun. And those demos ended up being what the songs were on the record. We re-did some of them, but that was when all of the great ideas came together. They came together real fast.
Was the vision for that album there pretty much from the start?
I remember thinking I wanted it to be a little bit noisier and weirder than Girls Can Tell. Girls Can Tell was definitely a turning point for me as far as writing songs from a more vulnerable place, and also writing using the piano. Before that, the idea of having a piano on your record seemed, to us, really uncool. Then something happened before making Girls Can Tell where I was listening to a lot of oldies radio, and I was listening The Supremes and Elvis Costello, and I was like, "Oh, we can use this thing in a cool way." So it still had some of the elements of the more vulnerable songwriting and the more classic instrumentation, but I wanted it to feel a little weirder and more "New Wave," for lack of a better term.
It's interesting listening to the record, because it's hard to place it in any sort of era. I wouldn't know if it was made in 1969 or 1977 or 2002.
That's cool, yeah. A lot of things were changing. I really think gaining our first bit of success and what that was like gave us a lot of confidence and a lot of urgency. I think the combination of those two, and it being so new to feel those things, really pushed us into this direction that was really strong and felt like a real left turn from what we'd done just a year before.
Looking at what was coming out in music at the time, it doesn't seem like there were many bands going in that direction. It was only a couple years after the garage rock revival stuff, but I can't think of any records that came out in 2002 that sound anything like Kill the Moonlight.
Right. I remember we designed this shirt that said something like "indie rock" and it had a slash through it, like the Ghostbusters symbol. First of all, the idea that indie rock is a genre is nonsensical—but it seemed to me that [indie rock bands] didn't want to show that they cared or wanted to try very much. That's what I got from the last couple Pavement records. I don't want to name too many names, but what most indie rock bands at that time were doing seemed lazy. That's what indie rock was—lazy. We wanted to make a record that was not lazy and was not afraid to show that we wanted to put some creativity and ideas into this thing. It's not something that we sloughed off in our garage in two days.
It seems like that record fits more in the canon of classic rock records, whether that'd be The Stones or The Kinks or Elvis Costello. It fits more with those records than it does with Interpol or the other bands that were making records at the time.
Right, right. I liked the Interpol record, but, yeah, it was different than the Interpol record. By the way, we never made that shirt. I sent the idea to a couple people, and I was advised that that would not go over well at our shows.
[Laughs] That was probably wise! Looking back, was there any particular moment when you started to realize that Kill the Moonlight was breaking through in a way that the other records hadn't?
Yeah. There were a couple moments. I remember doing a show in Denver—I think we played at the Bluebird—and I remember thinking, "This seems like an awful big room to be booked into." We played Denver quite a few times on the records before, and we would play in these rooms that held maybe 150 people, and they were far from packed. So I remember we went and did the soundcheck at the Bluebird, and then we went back to our motel. Then, as we were driving back, I saw this huge line, and I was like, "What is happening? This is insane." And we sold it out. We sold out every show on that tour. That made me feel so validated, after having put out so many records that seemed not to be reaching anymore and that were dismissed. It felt good. The other thing is I remember going home for Christmas and thinking, "Wow. This record has sold 40,000 copies." That just seemed insane to me, and the record had been out for four or five months at that point. I don't know why I had been assessing things on Christmas; maybe it was the first break we'd had. But I remember thinking, "This is brand new."
I looked at some of the press that came out around the time that Kill the Moonlight was released, and it seems like writers were fairly obsessed with the idea of Spoon being this band that had been treated badly by a major label and had never broken through. The dominant narrative really was that you guys were underdogs.
It was actually a helpful narrative. I think when did that "Agony of Laffitte" single—I didn't even come up with the titles, but the titles were hilarious. And it was like, "Well, we have to do this, because it's going to be a release for us. We can get some emotion off our chest about this whole scenario, which was quite emotional for us." And to make light of it and be somewhat vindictive against this guy [Ron Laffitte] we thought had done us wrong. That was the intention, but it ended up being this focal point that people could write about. We became this poster band for what was wrong with the major label system. I don't know if we would have gotten that tag if we hadn't exploited the fact that we had gone through the wringer with that system. In retrospect, it was a good move. [Laughs] It was the first time that someone had something to write about us other than "White guys from Austin, Texas, making college rock" or whatever.
How much did you use your experience with a major label as motivation to prove them wrong?
I didn't think I was going to prove them wrong, in that I didn't think we were going to start selling enough records that we'd prove to Elektra that they made a big mistake. I didn't think that was going to start happening, but I was angry about the situation, and if I could drag that guy's name through the mud while, at the same time, poking fun at the situation and poking fun at us for having done it, I was into that. I was definitely angry, but I just didn't think they'd necessarily made a mistake in that we were going to go on to sell however many records we went on to sell. But we would have gone on to make a profit for them.
Do you think that anger that you felt toward the label is apparent in the writing on Kill the Moonlight?
Maybe. I'm trying to think what songs seemed angry. Maybe "Small Stakes." "Jonathan Fisk" sounds angry, but I don't know that it is, really. I think the angriness came out in the urgency of making another record and proving to ourselves that this band could exist and wasn't going to be a failure.
How about the imagery in "Jonathan Fisk" of being picked on by a force larger than you?
[Laughs] That's true. I think I came up with the name first, and then I was like, "What does this name mean? What could it represent?" Then I thought I could write about this guy, who was a real guy, who would harass me after school and stop me from walking home and want to fight. That's how it came about. Then there were a couple good Damned lyrics that I stole and put in there.
So I read that guy ended up becoming a big fan of the band, too.
Yeah. [Laughs] He did. I haven't seen him in a while, but there was a time when I could count of him being at pretty much all of our Austin shows. He was one of those guys who was into metal in middle school, and I liked some metal but I was more into New Wave. Somehow that represented what was the conflict between us, because I was looked at as gay. That's the way it came across to people in Temple, Texas. Maybe they also didn't like my personality, but I don't think my personality was very loud, and that wasn't one of their problems. It was always "You're a fag!" and that I was a pussy. Whatever it was. So, anyway, he was a metal guy, and by the time he got to college he was into The Cure and he became real liberal. He was an interesting guy. I think he was still angry, but he wasn't angry with New Wavers or who he perceived of as homosexuals anymore. Maybe he wasn't so homophobic. I know he didn't like George Bush. I remember talking to him about that. He seemed to have a transformation.
Do you think he appreciated having a song with his name out there?
Well, it's not his real name. I came up with a name that made syllabic sense, and then I thought "What can this be about?" and I wrote it about him.
I assume he knows the song is about him.
I don't know. We never talked about it. If he read as much press about us as I did, he might know who it is. But I don't know if he read that much press.
So when you wrote "The Way We Get By" did you know that would be a memorable song?
Yeah. I don't know if I go up an octave, but something weird happens in the chorus where it goes up, and it hit this note that was the right amount of higher energy and going against the chord that gave me this feeling that it was really solid. I knew it was good.
From what I read, it sounds like that song came really quickly, too.
Yeah, it did. I've gone back recently and looked, because when I was writing then I'd put down an initial idea on a four-track cassette, usually on just one track of it, and then I'd go back maybe 10 minutes later and make another demo that fleshed it out. And then I'd go back and do another demo that fleshed it out even more. So there are three or four steps for "The Way We Get By," from almost nothing to almost what the record became, and it probably happened in one or two days. I was working on a four-track, so I got real happy with the sound of the song with just a piano and a drum machine and a voice. So it didn't need much more. I didn't get into the studio and think it needed more, because it sounded great just there on the four-track.
Listening to that song, I'm not sure exactly what the main sentiment is-whether you're celebrating a sense of defiance and directionlessness or whether you're poking fun at that mindset.
I think I was celebrating it. I think I was seeing myself as the person who was enjoying it. I didn't break into any mobile homes, and I actually never really liked that lyric. Jim told me that lyric should stay, and I had doubts about it. I still wish I had changed it. So not everything that's in that list [is true]. It became one of those list songs. You've got this syllabic pattern, and then this "and that's the way we get by," and you fill in the blanks with "we do this, we do this, we do this." It became really easy. But, yeah, I do think it was a pretty rough and tumble time, as far as I go. I was fairly penniless, and I was living between two people's places, living in this or that person's house and then getting out and living with a girlfriend. It was that kind of thing. So I think I was probably celebrating the aspects that I did like. We didn't have money to go buy fancy drinks. We'd go to a show and then hop out and go out to our car and do whatever we did in the car and then go back into the show. It was just cheaper that way. That's where the first line came from.
It seems like that kind of defiance can become pretty universal for most people. I can see why it became a sing-along at the shows.
Yeah, that was the hit. I could tell that was a good one, even before I listened back to the tape. I was just putting down an idea, but I knew it was really good. Usually, even some of the best ideas, as they're going down, you have no idea. Give it an hour or two and go back and listen to it, and you'll be like, "Oh yeah. Something was happening there." But that song felt good right from the very first moment.
If you went back and listened to Kill the Moonlight right now, do you think it would sound differently to it now than it did 12 years ago?
Maybe a little. Stuff comes on inadvertently, or I'm out somewhere and something is on, and I hear the stuff still, and I really like the way that one sounds. Would it sound different from how I perceived it then, I don't know? Maybe. But I still like it.
One of the strengths of that record is that it's so timeless. You could put that on 50 years from now, and it will still sound fresh.
Yeah. It does sound good. And it's not the fullest record. It doesn't have a lot of low end, and there's nothing big about it. But it has this appeal and immediacy.
It is fairly elemental. It's only a 35-minute record, but it feels pretty epic.
And I think it's 12 songs. Twelve songs in 35 minutes—those are short songs.
Right. In the '60s that would have been pretty common, but in 2002 that was a short record.
Our new record has 10 songs, and I think it's 39 minutes. I don't know what that means, but something has happened there.
Do you think there will ever be an expanded reissue of Kill the Moonlight?
Well, there could be. I've got a lot of demos—a lot of really good ones. I don't know. No one has ever asked me if I wanted to do that, but I would like to. It's a good record. It deserves that kind of treatment.
One final thing I wanted to ask about was the whole Eggo Johansen thing. What was up with that?
Let's see...well, it was a made up name, and I think what I wanted was for Spoon to feel like a crew. We weren't making any money at the time, and our longterm bass player Josh [Zarbo] had quit, so we had hired my friend Roman Kuebler from The Oranges, just because he was always down to travel and we were buddies. But he couldn't keep doing it, because he was in The Oranges. So I liked this idea that I would make up this band, make up personnel, and the idea was that we'd have this crew and they would be permanent. And we'd go around and slay venues across the world. But, lacking that, I would at least make up their names. So I guess I gave him all the piano credits. I think I played all the piano on the record, minus "You've Gotta Feel It," which the touring keyboard played on. It was just a small step in the direction of mythmaking.
It's interesting that after the underdog narrative was put to bed with that record, Spoon has become a band with no narrative at all. You're just a band making great records, which is the hardest narrative to sell in this day and age.
Yeah, you're right. We've done some good shows, too, but it's fairly gimmick-free. Not to say that gimmicks aren't sometimes very good things.
In summary, was Kill the Moonlight a game-changer for the band. Was it a turning point?
Yeah, it seems like a game-changer in that it basically set up the success that we would see on Gimme Fiction, which was maybe three times bigger than Kill the Moonlight. I guess it was the first...everything was a step. Girls Can Tell and then Kill the Moonlight and then Gimme Fiction and then Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga and then Transference. Every one of them was a bit higher profile and sold a bit more records and played to more people, but with Kill the Moonlight I felt like I was thinking something was actually happening here. It is happening, instead of hearing that these label people think that it could happen.
[Kill the Moonlight was released in 2002 on Merge Records, which celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2014 with a reissue series and a festival in Durham, NC. Spoon's latest record, They Want My Soul, was released in 2014 on Loma Vista.]
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