Stories Behind the Songs: Spoon's Britt Daniel reveals the secrets behind the band's biggest hits
Greatest-hits albums are generally anathema to indie rock. But if anyone’s earned the right to one, it’s probably Texas music royalty Spoon. Nearly 25 years after they recorded their debut, Telephono, in an Austin garage, the band rounds up a dozen career highs and delivers one new track, “No Bullets Spent,” with Everything Hits At Once: The Best of Spoon (out July 29). To celebrate, they’ve also embarked on a summer-long tour with Beck and Cage the Elephant.
Frontman Britt Daniel, 48, sat down in the New York offices of his longtime label Matador Records to talk about the bad real estate, messy relationships, and un-micable instruments that gave the band their most memorable songs.
“The Way We Get By” (2002)
I went to New London, Conn., for the summer simply because I knew someone who had an apartment there and I wanted to get out of Texas. It was pretty random. It was a lonely summer, and I was trying to write all the songs for Kill the Moonlight. I got a lot of them done, but we still needed more and our recording date was coming up soon, so I kind of felt under the gun.
By then I was back in Austin in this terrible shitty studio apartment, and I would get my Casio keyboard because that was all I had — sit on the floor and just hammer physically on the piano as an exercise. I feel like I got lucky that way, as opposed to having my feet in the sand like Brian Wilson or something. And somehow I came up with that [sings] duh-duh-duh duh-duh-duh-duhduh. The words I said first were actually “that’s the way we get back.” I sat there for a while on the floor like, “So what would this song be about?” And I couldn’t figure it out so I changed to “get by” and then the whole list sort of came: “We do this, we do this, and that’s the way we get by.”
[On having the song used in the Will Ferrell movie Stranger Than Fiction and on shows including Shameless and The O.C.]: We were hustling you know, we were scrambling to exist as a band and to pay rent. [Drummer] Jim [Eno] always had a job, but I didn’t — just stuff like substitute teaching and temp work. So when someone wanted to offer us actual money to put us in a TV show and we knew that we weren’t going to get played on any kind of radio station in town, then yeah, we were fine with that. [Laughs]
“I Turn My Camera On” (2005)
This was written on the same floor, same shitty apartment, a couple years later. [Laughs] What brought that one on was my ex-girlfriend, Eleanor Friedberger. We’d been sweethearts for maybe five years off and on, and she was now at this point dating Alex [Kapranos] from Franz Ferdinand and I saw their song “Take Me Out” come on MTV, and I was blown away by it. I thought it was great.
I’m not sure if it was the fact that she was going out with him, but for some reason I felt really compelled to write a song sort of around that same groove: [singing] Eh-eh-eh-eh-eheheh. So I sat down with a guitar and just started playing around with it and made it my own thing. The first words I sang were “I turn my camera on,” and I didn’t know what that meant but I loved it. It happened real fast. Put some xylophone to it and Jim came up with this sort of upbeat hi-hat to it, put on falsetto, and it felt like a hit.
“Don’t You Evah” (2007)
This is actually a song by the Natural History, a band from Brooklyn, and I met the singer, Max [Tepper], literally crossing a street. He was so winning, such a great personality, that I ended up not being weirded out that he wanted to talk. [Laughs]
I knew he was working on an album at the same time we were and sometimes it can be lonely, so we were talking. He sent me some ideas of songs he was working on including “Don’t You Evah” and I put down some ideas for it. And for a couple days that was my favorite song, I loved it — his version, my percussion.
Then that band sort of broke up. By the time that I came back to the song they didn’t exist anymore, and I’m not sure if they ever put the song out. But when we were working on Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga we needed a few more tunes, as we often do, and I was like “I know this one is a hit.” It’s such a great song. So we covered it, and it became one of the biggest songs we did after “The Underdog.” And the [Natural History] guys get some royalties, yeah.
“I Summon You”(2005)
Same apartment. [Laughs] I moved right after Gimme Fiction came out, to Portland. But yeah, I was in that pretty dark, very small apartment for a long time.
I’d started dating this girl, we had this magical beginning of a relationship, but when we met she was already planning on moving away. We had maybe six weeks together before she moved, and it wasn’t an easy place to get to. We were still dating but not seeing each other as often as we’d like, so that was something I would say to her — “I summon you,” instead of “I miss you.”
I had “I summon you” written down on a piece of paper kind of haphazardly. And this was a thing where I wrote down not a verse or a chorus, just a big sequence of chords — I had to write it down because it was so convoluted. So then I had this big list of chords I put down on acoustic guitar on four-track, came back from lunch, and just started ad-libbing and got lucky with that first line, “Remember the weight of the world/It’s a sound that we used to buy.”
And as often happens, the really good songs happen fast, and the rest of the time you’re kind of struggling trying to figure out why it won’t happen again.
“Everything Hits at Once” (2001)
I wanted that one from the beginning to be stripped down. I had this realization around then that if you didn’t write to chords then you had this sort of flexibility of where the melody could go, you’re not specifying whether it’s a major or a minor chord, you’ve just got this root and you can go anywhere with your vocal on top of it. So that’s where that one started, just with a single note where I wasn’t playing anything on top of it.
At first the lyrics were totally different, something about riding on the MTA, and my producer said, “Those aren’t good enough.” I like it when producers say that, you know? I haven’t had one do that lately, but it’s good. It gets you to a better place.
And because the whole idea was not to have chorded instruments, we added a kalimba, which is something we had never had before. But on tour we just played it on guitar. It’s almost impossible to mic a kalimba, did you know that? [Laughs] Oh, and I remember I came up with the drums in the shower.
“Inside Out” (2014)
I wrote that on piano. It was just the chords and a melody, and I remember singing it for my girlfriend and at the time and she was not impressed. I was like “Are you kidding me? I know this is f—ing great!”
And then it kind of just existed as this piano vocal song for a long time. I knew something was good about it but we were making I Want Your Soul and I didn’t want to have just a vocal and piano song on there, it felt we had done that too much already. So we put a beat to it that was sort of stolen from this Dr. Dre song. Then we used that kick-snare pattern and Alex [Fischel, keyboards and guitar] came up with the idea of a harp sound on a keyboard. Then it sounded like something we’d never done before.
Lyrically, it was literally drawn from physics — time gets distorted when there’s intense gravity. I had just read that somewhere, and I was reminded of this intense relationship that I was needing to get out of: We have this intense gravity between us and it’s causing us to stay together, even though it’s not the right thing.
“The Underdog” (2007)
I didn’t think “The Underdog” was going to be a single — we almost didn’t put it on the record because it was the outlier. It was the one song we didn’t do with Mike McCarthy, our producer. We did it with Jon Brion, and not on tape but digitally, which we were really weirded out by at the time. It was so strummy and happy, at least in mood, compared to the rest of Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, which we were trying to make kind of dubby and reverb-heavy. I didn’t think it fit, but once we did put it on there, the radio person at our label said “That’s gonna be the single.” We were flabbergasted but she was right. It became one of the biggest songs we’ve ever done.
“No Bullets Spent” (2019)
It’s about an oppressive master and fantasizing about the easiest way to deal with that. [Laughs] But yeah, I wrote it last summer in New York and there’s this record Get Nice, basically an EP that we put out for free with Ga Ga Ga Ga — it was like a bonus disc, but it’s a full 13 songs. There’s a song on there called “Dracula Cigarette” that I love that’s instrumental and I thought, “Maybe I should just write a song to that,” and that’s what “No Bullets Spent” became.