Rough-Edged Perfection

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Download Jim Eno of Spoon: Audio Interview (mp3, 3.4 MB).

An Interview with Spoon’s Jim Eno

spoon.jpgWhen Spoon was finishing its 2001 album Girls Can Tell, the band didn’t know what to do with “Chicago at Night,” which would close the record.

In an interview last week, drummer and co-founder Jim Eno told this story about what he and guitarist, singer, and chief songwriter Britt Daniel decided to do: “I never would have tried this, but Britt and I were so young, and we were just like, ‘Oh yeah, let’s do it.’ We had to turn all the mixes in for mastering. ... We have these two versions, and we like different things about each version ... . So Britt says, ‘Why don’t we use the left side of this mix and the right side of this mix?’”

So Eno broke out Pro Tools, put the left channel of one mix with the right channel of the other, and time-compressed one so they were the same length.

It was a moronic idea — a simple-minded, jokey cop-out.

And you can hear the strangely spectacular results on the record.

Listen to the song through headphones, and then listen to each channel independently. The two versions are built with similar parts, but the emphases are different. The right side is dominated by the keyboard line, while the left is bass-heavy with a more active guitar. Daniel’s vocals are more forward to the right.

The funny thing is that if you didn’t know the backstory, you’d probably never notice it.

“Chicago at Night” isn’t the pinnacle of Spoon’s genius, but it’s a good illustration of it. The quartet is wildly experimental within the confines of the guitar-pop song, and its attention to detail is nearly legendary.

The other critical component of Spoon’s music is that every element feels essential, and the songs are nearly universally lean.

While Spoon had one famously bad foray into Major Label Land, it has for most of its 14 years been steadfastly independent, and it’s slowly gathered an audience without sacrificing its credibility. Since getting dumped by Elektra after one LP (1998’s A Series of Sneaks), the band has been on an astounding winning streak, with a series of critically beloved indie records, each selling more than the last: Girls Can Tell, Kill the Moonlight (2002), Gimme Fiction (2005), and Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga. The latter debuted at number 10 on the Billboard charts and was recently named the 2007 selection for Entertainment Weekly’s “Indie Rock 25” project. Four of Spoon’s songs were featured on the soundtrack to the 2006 Will Ferrell vehicle Stranger Than Fiction, and Daniel co-composed the movie’s score.

Of Spoon’s most recent album, Pitchfork raved: “With Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, Spoon have once again found a gray area between the poles of pop accessibility and untested studio theorizing ... . [T]he band has also managed to create yet another wonderfully singular indie-rock record, unafraid of unfettered passion or self-sabotage, and which affirms a shrouded, hybrid style as unquestionably theirs.”

Drawing obvious inspiration from the Beatles, Spoon embraces studio experimentation in the service of approachable songs. The band’s records are both labored over and casual, radical and conventional.

The goal, Eno said, is to make each song distinct. “We don’t like repeating ourselves, so we like to make things sound different,” he said. “And we also want every song on the record to stand on its own.”

Although Spoon works in the pop-rock idiom, Eno said that the music is rarely safe, even though it goes down easy. “When I listen back to our stuff,” he said, “it’s still exciting and ballsy to me, when it comes to the sounds we’re using and also the way we mix stuff. I don’t think it’s slick or conventional. There are guitar solos that blare out of nowhere.”

Not to mention flamenco guitar and koto — both on Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga’s “My Little Japanese Cigarette Case.” Nothing in the song foreshadows these flourishes, and that freewheeling spirit is part of the Spoon charm. The choices might not be intellectually defensible, but they work.

“We try different arrangements of songs, but once we get things pretty settled as far as how we want to approach them, we’re constantly trying ideas that don’t work,” Eno said. “Over the course of a month, every time we would work on the song, we would whittle down these parts more and more ... .”

The flamenco, for instance, was reduced on the final track to the a solo that lasts 20 seconds. The koto accents at the end of the song are even more sparse.

“When you’re making music, it’s hard to know when something is right,” Eno said. “But when you feel that it’s right ... it’s just a feeling that the amount of stuff we have on it works ... to keep interest and to generate excitement as the song goes on.”

One odd element of Spoon’s songs is that despite the care lavished on them, they’re often adorned with mistakes, studio chatter, and the like. It almost sounds as if the band is trying to offset the studio polish with crude touches.

Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga was recorded over five months at Eno’s studio — he said the band worked on the album 12 hours a day, six days a week — but “Eddie’s Ragga” opens sloppily, and “Don’t You Evah” features background chatter.

Eno said that tension — between studio perfection and rough edges — isn’t conscious. “We record on analog tape, so every time we do overdubs on the song, we’re hearing the chatter and we’re hearing the noises at the beginning of the song,” he said. “So over five months they become part of the song. So it sounds very weird when you take them away, and you can’t create that sort of cool sound by being forced. It’s spontaneity that just happens to sound cool.”

Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga opens with the escalating agitation of “Don’t Make Me a Target,” and even the climactic cacophony of its instrumental break is spare.

By most accounts, it’s the first “political” song that Spoon has ever recorded. Daniel sings: “Here come a man from the star / We don’t know why he goes so far / And keep on marching along beating his drum / Clubs and sticks and bats and balls / For nuclear dicks with their dialect drawls / That come from a parking lot town.”

Even in these blunt judgments, Daniel’s lyrics are elusive, and Eno was hesitant to say what other songs on the album are political. “I don’t know if I’ve ever heard him say which ones specifically,” the drummer said. “Whenever you talk to Britt about stuff like that, it’s sort of, ‘You should form your own opinion about the songs ... .’

“I don’t know what half of our songs are about.”

The anxious keyboards of “The Ghost of You Lingers” — from whose sound the album draws its name — are only augmented by intertwining, echoing vocals and occasional bursts of electronic noise.

The album then settles into mostly classic forms for its remainder. “You Got Yr. Cherry Bomb” recalls Motown with its horns and rhythm track, and “The Underdog” is similarly smooth, but the sweet sunniness of its horns, backing vocals, hand-claps, and other percussion are undercut but its lyrical attack on complacency and comfort: “Get free from the middle man / You got no time for the messenger / Got no regard for the thing that you don’t understand / You got no fear of the underdog / That’s why you will not survive.”

Eno said that song marks the first time since Girls Can Tell that Spoon has employed a co-producer other than Mike McCarthy — in this case, Jon Brion.

The band has long wanted to work with other producers, Eno said, but it hasn’t found the proper fit. “We haven’t tried too many people, but we’re just very on-the-same-page with Mike,” he said. “And he sort of knows us so well that it’s streamlined, and he’s an amazing engineer, so if we have a certain sound that we want to hear, he can always get it. He’s great with space, with stripping stuff down.”

He’s certainly good at emphasizing percussion outside of the drums, and Eno said those are typically Daniel’s contributions. “A lot of times they’re on his demo, or a lot of times he’ll hear stuff as we’re recording,” he said. And in addition to his songwriting, singing, and guitar skills, Daniel is “an amazing tambourine player,” Eno said.

Spoon hopes to have a new record in summer 2009, Eno said, but that target might be hard to hit. “When the record company requires six months’ setup, and you tour for a year, that’s only six months to do an entire record” once the band gets off the road, he said.

And what tricks might the band try the next time around?

Eno said, probably jokingly but perhaps not: “We’re thinking about taking Britt and swinging him around the microphone — an old John Lennon trick. ... Next record we’ll try that.”

(This article originally appeared, in slightly different form, in the River Cities’ Reader.)

One of the things I like about this band is they make it seem like it’s really easy to go into a studio, play around with everything and come out with a pop-rock gem. The New Pornographers might be the only other group who do it as well or better, but Spoon gets stronger with every album.

Neat article. Yeah, I really don’t think they know what half of their songs are about. I do like “ga ga ga ga ga,” though.

are they still making albums?

Yes. One is due to be released this summer .

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