Pop Culture Press
by David Pyndus
Before Gimme Fiction unfolded like a bestseller this past spring, Spoon played a benefit for Southeast Asia tsunami victims, appearing alongside some of the most noted Texas singers. Sharing a stage with cosmic scribe Willie Nelson and other Austin songwriters, Spoon rode its own wave with aplomb. Not that the band didn’t belong on the star-studded bill, especially considering the charitable nature of the event, but many in the beard and ponytail crowd wondered just what Spoon would dish up. “It definitely felt like we were playing in front of a very big crowd of people who’d never heard us before,” says Spoon front man Britt Daniel. Bassist Josh Zarbo agreed: “It was really strange. I had a lot of fun looking out at the audience where the front rows were like ‘Who the hell is this?”
The downtown Austin Music Hall was crammed past capacity with fans who had waited in a meandering snake of a line for hours before doors opened. Willie was the first sign on for the hastily arranged benefit, followed by Dixie Chick Natalie Maines, Joe Ely, Jon Dee Graham, Alejandro Escovedo, Patty Griffin and Country Music Hall of famed Ray Price. The event sold out six hours after being announced.
While the venue was standing room only, the backstage milieu included a smartly dressed group of Hill Country women, who patiently waited behind a bank of sound monitors to hear country legend Ray Price croon “For the Good Times,” “Night Life” and other hits of the past. The ladies did not realize that the 79-year-old Price had cancelled at the last minute due to illness.
Benefit organizer Michael Hall, ex-Wild Seeds, was busy juggling stage logistics, and noticed the group of women as Spoon took the stage to play. “I was backstage and there were about six ladies, perhaps in their mid-sixties, all waiting for Ray Price,” Hall recalled, “and Spoon was playing and all the women were just rockin’ out.”
“That’s exciting,” says Zarbo. “You can’t always play to the masses that have been converted. It’s good for everybody.” Unaware of the backstage buzz they’d been generating, Spoon played a fervent set, including the bracing new “My Mathematical Mind,” a highlight of its current live show. “One of the ladies was pounding her leg up and down,” says Hall. “They were all really into it.”
Reassessing the one-off performance, Daniel dismissed it as sub-par, though his perfectionist streak is well documented. “I was pretty disappointed in myself, so as soon as we were done I just cleared out of there,” he says. “Maybe I would’ve met Willie…”
Zarbo also did not meet Willie, contenting himself to listen from the sidelines. “I was happy to be able to play to that audience,” he says. “We were humbled to be asked, and we were thrilled to do it.”
Employing a write your own rules ethos like few American bands (Wilco, another band known for overcoming a major label conflict, comes to mind), Spoon, formed by Daniel and Jim Eno, is also one of the most meditative groups working. Daniel writes and sings meticulous songs, oft times with fuzz and reverb, but sometimes with just piano accompaniment. He and drummer Eno then handcraft the melodies into delectable sonic morsels.
Eno, who co-founded Spoon after playing with Daniel in a rockabilly-styled band in the early ’90s, is an electrical engineer whose high-tech colleagues may not fully grasp that they share an email server with a musician of such exacting and percussive chops. Though he abandoned a longtime position at chip designed AMD in 2004, he promptly took another engineering job, and apparently logs online when the band tours to keep up with company business. “He does work a lot when we’re on the road, still,” offers Daniel. “He stays in touch, but I don’t know how he does it.”
Spoon is victorious on a level notable for a band without certified radio hits or major label financing, preferring instead to record in Eno’s small home studio where its output can be controlled. Gimme Fiction, the band’s fifth full length, begins with a trifecta of lustrous songs, including the party funk of “I Turn My Camera On,” whose thump reverberates against Daniel’s sustained falsetto. The thumbing of thick bass in lock with Eno’s drum on top of an arching guitar riff is remarkable for its minimalist disco sound. Perhaps because “I Turn My Camera On” is the most un-Spoonlike song on the album, it was the first video and a single in the UK.
“To me, there is a sound that a good single has, and I thought personally that song had that sound more than any other song on the record, explains Daniel. “It doesn’t mean it’s the best song on the record. It just sounds more like what I picture a single sounding like.”
Critics often compare “Camera” to a sublime Prince track or Mick Jagger’s cocky “Emotional Rescue” but Daniel tires of such critical shorthand. “I guess it’s about even,” he sighs of just comparisons. “I see the same thing over and over again.” Daniel is right. “Camera” — which is as Bee Gees-inspired as anything — is not the creme de la creme of Gimme Fiction, though the novelty of the song did garner some radio airplay. “Some of the best singles are very minimal,” he adds.