Inventive Indie 

Spoon: How to reinvent yourself and win new friends

When Spoon released its 1994 debut album, Telephono (Matador)--which was largely written off by critics as a less-than-imaginative Pixies ape, and virtually ignored by record buyers everywhere--few would have guessed that 10 years later, the band would be considered one of the most inventive bands in indie rock.

But, with five full-lengths and a few EPs and singles now under its belt, each one arguably better than the last, the Austin, Texas, band has carved out a rather comfortable niche, gaining new fans every day while inspiring critics' jaws to drop. It has become a model of a band ignoring market trends and following a muse that has rendered it unique in an overflowing vat of indie rock bands, many of which are currently enjoying some semblance of commercial success for the first time. With the release of its latest album, Gimme Fiction (Merge, 2005), hopes are high for Spoon to join those ranks.

The band, which revolves around singer/songwriter/guitarist Britt Daniel and drummer Jim Eno--its only consistent members--followed up Telephono with the Soft Effects EP (Matador, 1997), which led to the band making the jump to major label Elektra. A Series of Sneaks was released on that label in 1998, and found the band finally coming into its own; even as critics were still penning apologies for having previously written the band off, and Spoon was touring to promote the album, Elektra pulled its tour-support dollars and eventually dropped the band from its roster. The band found its comeuppance in the form of a 7-inch single released by Saddle Creek, which lambasted its Elektra A&R rep Ron Laffitte via two songs: "Laffitte Don't Fail Me Now" and "The Agony of Laffitte."

While Daniel never gave up on creating music during that period, he says, "There was a time after A Series of Sneaks when I didn't know that anybody wanted to put out my records." The band set out to create something different for its next album, which it recorded on its own to shop to labels. While Daniel maintains that the progression "happened kinda naturally," he also concedes that there was a conscious effort to strip the new songs of "distorted rhythm guitar, which I felt was being overused."

The resulting album, 2001's Girls Can Tell, was somewhat of a revelation. Released on Merge, Spoon's home to this day (despite Daniel's earlier fears, he says "A few labels were interested, and I was glad that Merge was one of them"), the album was a breakthrough in both technique and fan base expansion, and its follow-up, 2002's Kill the Moonlight furthered both causes.

With those two albums (not unlike Kraftwerk, which coaxes grooves from an assemblage of antiseptic parts), Spoon began engaging in a distinct minimalism based around choppy, staccato chords--played on piano as often as guitar--with a Wire- or Jam-like economy. Paired with Daniel's soulful vocals, which were finally brought out front where they belonged all along, the effect was taut and electric, creating a musical tension only sometimes resolved, but ultimately satisfying. In essence, Spoon applied to rock music an idea that Miles Davis had introduced to jazz: The space around the notes is just as important as the notes actually being played. By that point, Spoon was simultaneously inventive and accessible; it had finally become unique.

In the ensuing years since Kill the Moonlight's release, a lot has changed for bands of Spoon's stature. Bands who toiled away on indie labels for years before signing to a major have since gone platinum (here's to you, Modest Mouse), and even indie labels themselves have had successes previously unfathomable (e.g., Spoon's Merge labelmates the Arcade Fire garnering airplay on commercial radio stations and MTV). So, it's no surprise that Merge is looking to promote Spoon to that same level with Gimme Fiction, the band's latest album, which was released last month.

Having realized that shifting musical trends and innovative means of promotion (not to mention an arsenal of acts that deserve widespread attention) can now pop the previously impenetrable bubble of the mainstream, Merge is putting a relatively healthy budget behind Gimme Fiction. "It makes sense for them, too, now," Daniel assesses, "because Kill the Moonlight did so well. They wouldn't have done that if this was our first record on Merge. They didn't do that for Girls Can Tell."

But this time around, a video has been shot, and ads for the album are inescapable in music rags; so far it seems to be paying off. Gimme Fiction sold 19,000 copies in its first week of release, while Kill the Moonlight took three months to sell 17,000. While Daniel reports that sales have fallen off each subsequent week, he deadpans that the numbers could rise again if he "start(s) dating someone famous, or get(s) in a fight, a shootout." And, like any current indie band looking to up its profile, Spoon's songs have soundtracked episodes of The OC.

"I've never seen it, but I hear it's kinda like 90210," says Daniel. "I'd like as many people as possible to hear the music. We always just go in and make the best album we possibly can. I think the trouble is when bands try to cater to what's selling at the moment."

On the somewhat dark Gimme Fiction, Spoon again caters to no one, and has managed to incorporate just about every aspect of its past while forging ahead into still new territory. As with its last two releases, piano again shares equal time with guitar on songs like album opener "The Beast and Dragon, Adored," whose lyrics--"When you don't feel it, it shows they tear out your soul / When you believe they call it rock and roll" could be interpreted as a statement about the power of music; Daniel, though, says rock 'n' roll is used here as a metaphor for personal confidence. Either way, it draws its power from the juxtaposition of empowering lyrics and an ominous piano figure.

Daniel, who tends to tread in lyrics that are less than obvious, starts "The Two Sides of Monsieur Valentine" with the uplifting line "Every morning I've got a new chance," but completes the couplet with a trademark abstract curveball: "I want to land the part of Eddie in The Stranger Dance." (Don't bother looking up The Stranger Dance on IMDb--it doesn't exist.) And the album's focus track, "I Turn My Camera On," is an addictive exercise in reductionist disco, with a sexy falsetto from Daniel cresting the pulse, while "Sister Jack" splits the difference between the British Invasion, the tense but joyous new wave of the late '70s, and jangle-pop.

Just as Gimme Fiction has translated into accelerated sales, Spoon has graduated from smaller clubs to what Daniel calls "big clubs" on its current tour. Indeed, the last time the band played in Tucson was in support of Moonlight, at Club Congress (Daniel also performed solo last year at Solar Culture), but this week, Spoon will perform at the Rialto Theatre, one of the bigger venues on its itinerary. Of the current tour, Daniel reports, "Every show so far has sold out, and I think we've done like 12," but he's realistic about expectations for the Rialto show. "(The Rialto) is really big. That one's not gonna sell out."

When he's told an awful lot of people seem to be anticipating Spoon's local performance, he jokes, "I hope there's like 1,500 of them."

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