"ESPECIALLY IN THE last year, every interview has been about how we got dropped," mopes Britt Daniel, the beleaguer ed singer-guitarist for Spoon. On the phone from a studio in hometown Austin, he's unable to veil his annoyance with pesky music journalists, who irk him only slightly less than the record-label employees whose actions have drawn him into this vacuum of insider-ish discussion about why a band so promising has stumbled so frequently.
Breakroom, Saturday, February 12
His attitude gives rise to the age-old chicken-or-egg quandary of the biz: Which came first, the embittered artist or the bumbling record label?
In Daniel's case, it's especially hard to tell. His troubles hardly began when Elektra released Spoon's 1998 major-label debut, A Series of Sneaks, only to pull the plug four months later. The Texas trio had previously sparred with the indie Matador, which issued and then—Spoon alleged—virtually ignored the 1996 full-length, Telephono. Despite its low profile, that record and a follow-up EP, Soft Effects, piqued the interest of A&R execs at a time when they were still signing acts with artistic premise as well as commercial promise.
Spoon seemingly fit into both categories. Telephono and Soft Effects brimmed with pulsating, two-minute rock songs seasoned with Daniel's intriguingly abstract lyrics, passionate drawl, and hook-heavy guitar riffs. One could almost hear the A&R weasels barking into their early-model cell phones to the higher-ups: "It's like if Nirvana took its Pixies influence and morphed into a more accessible Guided By Voices. Let's sign 'em."
Willing to play along, Daniel entered into negotiations with Elektra. A&R man Ron Laffitte and president Sylvia Rhone supposedly regaled Spoon with the usual promises about artist development and undying commitment. But Laffitte left the company and Rhone's memory proved short. Featuring exceedingly catchy tracks like "Car Radio" and "30 Gallon Tank," A Series of Sneaks sounded like a custom-made hit machine. It had attitude. It rocked. And then it was gone.
WITHOUT A LABEL and with its album out of print (it has since been re-released on the Neil Young-backed Vapor Recordings), Spoon continued to tour and even to record. Now here's where things get problematic again. Rather than allow the band to disintegrate or turn his back on the experience, Daniel meted out an unusual sort of revenge. Inspired by two friends who'd suggested sarcastic plays on Spoon's ex-A&R man's name, the band recorded and released a concept single about their failed relationship, "The Agony of Laffitte," backed with "Laffitte Don't Fail Me Now," on Saddle Creek, an indie label from Omaha. (The A-side includes zingers such as "It's like I knew two of you, man/One before and after we shook hands"; the flip's more succinct: "All that I want to know is are you ever honest with anyone?")
As acerbically funny as such a record could be, coming from Daniel it's in danger of sounding like sour grapes. But I'd argue that he's misunderstood; a talented songwriter should believe in his talent, and if he's wronged, then he should speak up for himself. And Daniel's not typically egotistical. Discussing the events leading up to the new disc, he reveals a trace of self-doubt.
"Sometimes I wonder what I'm doing with my life," he says. "Being in a band is fun, but I wonder if maybe I shouldn't go back to school."
Ironically, Spoon sounds less vitriolic and more assured than ever on the "Laffitte" songs. Daniel, who takes a break from recording to play a solo tour of the West Coast this month, suggests that the new album that he and bandmates Jim Eno and Josh Zarbo are crafting will maintain this progression. "We really have grown musically," Daniel says, earnestly embracing talk of Spoon's forthcoming record. Now if only he could find a label to release it.