“It’s Rock n’ Roll,” says Jim Eno, drummer with American band Spoon, determinedly, when asked what sort of music the four-piece play. One man’s rock n’ roll, though, is another man’s indie pop, so it’s worth pausing for a moment to refine the definition. “If I was going to characterise it a certain way”, he continues, “I’d say rock n’ roll, but we tend to try to use space quite a bit. That’s one thing we’ve done from start to finish. A lot of bands like to put a lot of stuff, over and over, on every song. We may do that during the recording, but during the mixing we’ll try and strip it back down”. The Spoon maxim for making records is, says the softly spoken Eno, “only put on the record what needs to be on there to make the song better”.
It’s a formula (and I use the word advisedly) that seems to have worked well for the Austin, Texas based band, with their current album Gimme Fiction receiving rave reviews both Stateside and in Europe. It’s the band’s fifth album, which may come as a surprise to more recent fans of the band, as the trilogy of Girls Can Tell (2001), Kill the Moonlight (2002), and this year’s Gimme Fiction receive the lion’s share of critical attention towards the band.
At the heart of every great rock band there is, it seems to me, a dilemma. Different in each one’s case, but a necessary evil pushing the creative juices. The dilemma for Spoon is their ‘sound’. It is both defining and limiting. They are, like all great bands, instantly recognisable. Short, crafted songs driven by a tight interplay between rythm and lyricism. The band was formed by songwriter Britt Daniel and the self-same drummer Eno, who remain its creative pole while other members have come and gone. Gimme Fiction sounds like a band perfecting its art, and at the same time perhaps bringing a creative period to a close.
“I don’t look at this as a culmination of the three albums,” Eno is quick to point out, though. “I look at it as a progression. To me it’s a little thicker than Kill the Moonlight, there are still some stripped down songs, but there are multi-track guitars in there on some songs, making it more of a rock record, maybe. I don’t know,” he says, hesitantly. “It’s not like we had that idea when we went into the recording, it depends on the songs that Britt brings in, and how we approach them.”
Much has been made in the press about the three year hiatus between Kill the Moonlight and Gimme Fiction. Perhaps too much, keeping in mind that a touring band like Spoon will spend the best part of two years on the road, before turning their minds to a new album. The making of Gimme Fiction, though, wasn’t without its ups and downs. Initially the band planned on working with different producers, taking a break from the collaboration with Mike McCarthy, producer of albums for And They Shall Know Us By The Trail of Our Dead, and Adam Freedland, who worked on their previous two albums. While the band may have wanted to stray further from the formula they had established, the sessions weren’t entirely successful. “We’ve a very specific idea of how we want the records to sound,” Eno says, almost apologetically. “For example, we buy a lot of analogue gear for the studio. So, if you’re listening to stuff and it doesn’t sound how you expected it to sound, like ‘I wish that drum sound was tougher’ etc, then that’s a problem. There’s also personalities involved. I could be doing a drum take, and ask ‘how’s that?’, and maybe the guy producing says ‘it’s great’, when really I know it wasn’t good. You want a producer that’s at least going to raise the bar a little bit.”
And so, after a certain amount of experimentation, McCarthy was called in to co-produce with the band.”Mike McCarthy is a huge reason why our records sound as good as they do. He’s a great engineer, he gets great sounds. At the same time he’s a great producer, in the sense of giving help on lyrical ideas, vocal takes, drum takes, and this whole idea of stripping things down. He’s an important part, and maybe the last three records have had a common sound because of that interaction between the three of us.”
The resultant album is packed full of persistent tunes. It’s not breaking new-ground, necessarily, but it’s a foolish idea to presume that all great records must. Songs like The Two Sides of Monsieur Valentine and Sister Jack stress the things that make Spoon a band worthy of attention. William Faulkner once pointed out that, next to poetry, the short story was the hardest form to master because it requires a lean and essential approach. Such is also the case for the short song – if ill timed, being too short, it comes across as merely a starting point, an idea that would make a good song. If too long, as is the case with 90% of bands who stumble in search of a succinct ending, it suggests a lack of craft. Spoon play like a precision instrument, never outstaying their welcome nor shortchanging the listener.