Sunday, October 09, 2005

Interview: Jammin' With Spoon's Jim Eno

Here's another Tablet interview that never made it to print, although it was posted to the website at one point. It isn't a great piece, but I do believe Spoon is a great band, and I'm happy to do what I can to get the word out. Since this 2004 interview, I caught the group live at the Showbox and, a year later, they released Gimme Fiction (sadly I missed their tour in support of it). Anyway, the new album is on par with the fine Girls Can Tell, but not as good as the stellar Kill the Moonlight, one of my all-time favorites.


It’s fun to say you were into a band or album before everybody else. To be able to proclaim, once your faith has been vindicated, "I was into them from their first album" or "I saw them open for [some-band-or-another] before they had released a thing." Take, for instance, the White Stripes. For those who were hip to their 1999 debut on Sympathy for the Record Industry, I salute you. My introduction to the band, on the other hand, was via 2001’s White Blood Cells. Although initially released by Sympathy, it was re-released by V2 the following year and the hype machine soon kicked into high gear. If anything, though, I prefer this year’s Elephant, a major label release all the way, even if it doesn't sound like one (it's more wide-ranging than White Blood Cells). The Spoon story follows the same trajectory--but in reverse. For my money, both bands are equally good, although the comparison stops there, as they certainly don't sound much alike.

As with the Stripes’ first album, there are only so many people who heard Spoon's 1996 debut on Matador, Telephono (let alone 1994's "Nefarious" single), at the time of its release. If you were one, you were definitely ahead of the curve. You were also part of a fairly exclusive group as it led to Spoon’s deal with Elektra, which released 1998's A Series of Sneaks. Alas, despite the major label backing and positive reviews, the record didn't go anywhere and, a few months later, the band was dropped. Fortunately, they made a good record; Sneaks was no sell-out by any stretch of the imagination. And that may have been part of the problem; Elektra didn't know how to--or want to--promote the spiky little recording the band had delivered. Which isn't to say the label didn't get behind it, just that their efforts were half-hearted at best and Sneaks was doomed from the start. Spoon could have broken up at that point--it's what a lesser band (one only concerned with commercial success) would have done--but instead they went back to the studio and issued the more accessible Girl Can Tell, which would be released by Merge in 2001. Why they didn't make a record like it for Elektra is a mystery to me, but I'm glad they didn't as Merge got behind Girls in a big way and a lot of people heard and loved it, to judge by all the top 10 lists it showed up on at the end of the year. Then, in 2002, Merge re-released Sneaks, so now it's more readily available than if Elektra had retained the rights to it (how's that for revenge?). The US version even includes a 1999 single Spoon recorded for Saddle Creek about the Elektra debacle ("The Agony of Lafitte" / "Lafitte Don't Fail Me Now").

Which brings us to Spoon's latest and greatest CD, Kill the Moonlight. Released by Merge in 2003, it has brought them a bigger, more enthusiastic following than ever before. In a sense, it reminds me of Elephant in another way--the band takes more chances than on previous recordings and most pay off. Ironically, they've also been able to promote it in high profile ways usually only associated with major label acts--an installment of Austin City Limits, along with appearances on Late Night With Conan O'Brien and Last Call With Carson Daly. Not too surprisingly, Spoon sings Merge's praises whenever they get the chance.

I spoke with drummer Jim Eno in June, in advance of Spoon’s second US tour in support of Moonlight. Along with singer/songwriter/guitarist Britt Daniel, Eno is a founding member of the group and they record their albums in his garage-based studio. (Bass players have come and gone over the years.) As I didn’t have access to a tape recorder, I've recreated a portion of our hour-long conversation via memory and some hastily scrawled notes. The first thing I asked Eno was whether he had grown up in Austin, where the band has been based from the start. He said he didn't and nor did Daniel. Eno grew up in Rhode Island, whereas Daniel grew up in Temple, rather than Austin, Texas. Eno then went to school in North Carolina. I told him I was surprised to hear he was from the East Coast as he does have a bit of a Texas twang. This surprised him, although he admitted that once he moved down South, he did consciously try not to sound like too much of a Yank (I'd say his efforts have paid off).

After asking Eno about his favorite cities to play, I added, "You're under no pressure to say Seattle." But he admitted that Seattle is, in fact, one of Spoon's favorite touring destinations. "Seattle audiences have been really enthusiastic," he noted, and singled out the Crocodile Café for making the band feel so welcome (it's too bad, then, that Spoon's gotten too big to play there anymore). "Clubs usually kick out a band when they're finished playing," he explained. The Crocodile, on the other hand, would allow them to relax awhile before packing it in for the night. He also mentioned San Francisco, New York, and Chicago. "No small towns?" I asked. "Not really," he replied, "although we'll be playing Lawrence this tour." He explained that Spoon usually only tours for two weeks at a time, so it's just not possible to hit the smaller cities.

I next asked Eno about his favorite drummers. Interestingly, he didn't mention Charlie Watts--I thought all drummers were supposed to cite Watts --although I do hear Exile on Main Street Stones in the way Eno’s drums and Daniel’s keyboards bounce off each other. Instead, he mentioned Mike Joyce of the Smiths and Pete Thomas of the Attractions. Spoon has often been compared to Costello, so I couldn't resist mentioning it's a comparison I just don't hear. I figured it was something they had grown tired of hearing anyway, but Eno seemed a little disappointed (it wasn't meant as criticism, although I do love Costello). It makes sense to me in theory, just not in practice. To my mind, Daniel's songwriting approach has more in common with Ray Davies or Paul Weller, circa All Mod Cons, than to Elvis, with the possible exception of "Pump It Up" (a song Spoon could really do justice to live). I suppose Daniel does sound a bit like Costello, though, in terms of his singing. "I think you sound more like a cross between the Jam and the Who," I stated, and Eno said he liked that analogy. "But I can see the Attractions in terms of your approach to rhythm," I acknowledged, and he liked that, too.

So then I asked who he would like to meet if he could meet anyone in the world--musician, author, actor, etc. "Stephen Street," he answered immediately. "He produced Morrisey's Viva Hate." "Really?" I asked, figuring he would have been more likely to say Costello, Davies, or Colin Newman (Spoon has also often been compared to Wire and A Series of Sneaks is a play on Wire’s A Serious of Snakes). "Why Street?" I asked. "He's gotten some really great sounds out of the bands he's produced," Eno explained.

"So, of all the people you have met," I asked, "Who were you most excited about?" "Hmmm, I'm still in 'work mode'," Eno laughed. "We're going to have to get back to that one..." This led, naturally enough, to a discussion about work. "I've read that you and Britt have day jobs. That still the case?" "Yes," Eno acknowledged. "I don't consider myself a full-time musician." "Really?" I asked. Spoon has kept pretty busy these past few years for a bunch of "part-timers." "Do you work five days a week?" I asked. "Yes," Eno answered. "And you work as an electrical engineer?" "Yes." "What about Britt?" "He does some editing." Daniel also keeps busy with extra-curricular music endeavors like the Drake Tungsten solo project, collaborations with Conor Oberst, etc.

We returned to the previous question. "I've thought of an answer," Eno decided. "But it's a place, not a person." "That's okay, " I said. The answer was London's Abbey Road, where the Beatles did most of their recording. "I mastered a record there, " he explained. As it turns out, Eno may be closer to a full-time musician--or "music person"--than he was willing to admit at the time, since he also records bands in his studio and has worked with the likes of Tobin Sprout, John Vanderslice, and Sally Crewe. "So, you're pretty much working all the time?" I asked. "Uh, yes," he laughed.

Note: For more information about Spoon, please visit their official site. Fuzzy picture of Eno taken by Daniel's "watchcam."

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