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EXCERPT: An Oral History Of Spoon

In the last 21 years, Spoon has gone from great white hype to major label trainwreck to “the most consistently great” band of the last decade according to Metacritic. Algorithms can tell. The lion’s share of the blame and the glory rests squarely on the shoulders of singer-songwriter-guitarist Britt Daniels. Spoon is essentially a one-man band that’s had 11 members come and go or stay the course since 1993. MAGNET got all Spoon hands back on deck — the exiles and the mutineers, the ex-girlfriend, their first fanboy, the men who recorded their albums and the inimitable Gerard Cosloy — for this at-times-uncomfortably-candid oral history of the beast and the dragon adored.

BRITT DANIEL (Spoon singer-songwriter-guitarist, 1994-present):
I grew up in Temple, TX. Population: 45,000. There weren’t a lot of Velvet Underground fans around town. My dad was really into music and when I was finally allowed to run the record player, that kind of sorted out a lot of boredom. But it was a long time before I was allowed to. I was in a band called The Zygotes in Temple when I was in high school. But that was mostly a cover band: lots of Doors, lots of Zeppelin, Cure and Ramones. Then I moved to Austin for school and Skellington was the first band. I also performed and recorded solo under the name Drake Tungsten. Then there was a country/rockabilly band called Alien Beats. That’s where I met Jim.

JIM ENO (Spoon Drummer 1994-present): I only knew him as a bass player in this rockabilly-country band. So he asked me to go over there and check out some of the songs he was writing and I was pretty blown away. His songs were pop, but weird and angular too.

ANDY MAGUIRE (Spoon bassist, 1993-1996): I answered an ad in the Austin Chronicle looking for a bass player. The band clicked very fast, we were playing out within a month. Jim and Britt were willing to work very very hard to get what they want and that was very attractive.

I think we had our very first show booked on a Friday night. We all got together Thursday night and tried to think of a name, and Britt had put on one of the cards, “Spoon,” after the Can song.  I think if we would have known it was gonna stick 20 years later, we might have thought a little harder about it.

GERARD COSLOY: I remember my girlfriend and I were killing time between “official” SXSW ’94 events and stopped at the Blue Flamingo to see a more metal-ish combo that had been recommended.  We saw Spoon instead. Other than making a mental note to give the charismatic vocalist plenty of shit for wearing sunglasses in a dark room, I thought they were awesome.

ELEANOR FRIEDBERGER (vocalist, Fiery Furnaces): He used to wear sunglasses on stage because he didn’t want people to see him looking at his hands when he played guitar.

BRITT DANIEL: Eleanor was my girlfriend at the time. Anyway, Gerard Cosloy is the kind of guy that would would go see punk rock bands play in a drag queen bar because that’s more interesting to him than seeing Beck who was playing that night two doors over at Emo’s, you know. He didn’t come up to me, but someone told me that he liked us. The next year he invited us to play the Matador showcase at SXSW. And then after that happened, all these labels knew that we weren’t signed to Matador, and a couple months later we had Interscope, Geffen and Warner Brothers all trying to sign us. Which, for a band that was having difficulty getting weekend gigs in our hometown was fucking exciting.

ANDY MAGUIRE: It was a bit of a bidding war. They all took us to dinner.

I remember I ordered eggs benedict for the first time.

ANDY MAGUIRE: Tensions were high, Britt was only 22, and it got pretty heavy, people were telling him he was a genius and it kind of went to his head. I had more experience, I was 10 years older than him but he didn’t want to listen to any advice, so one day they sat me down and told me they were replacing me and I walked out. And then I got a lawsuit filed against me. They sued me for leaving the band after they fired me and they lied and told everyone I quit. They just lied openly to their friends, even his ex-girlfriend, she said to me ‘no, no you sued him’ but she worked for a lawyer and looked it up and came back to me and said ‘Oh my god, he lied to me.’ Nobody really won. I mean, it killed the first album, it was a really stupid move.

JOHN CROSLIN (Spoon producer 1994 — 2000): First album was recorded in my garage. Had an eight track one inch machine, a fairly crude set up. But it was a blast. They were a great band for that set up because they were pretty minimal.

Telephono was basically just our live show. We would just record it after work for 3-4 hours a night. That kind of deal. It was good, fun. It felt pro.

SEAN O’NEAL (Senior Editor, ONION AV CLUB): Freshmen year of college, I started the first Spoon fan site. It was called The Sort Of Official Spoon Web Page, and it was hosted on a school server and had this mile-long URL with like a million tildes, so it was impossible to find.

ELEANOR FRIEDBERGER: I remember Britt and I took a trip to New York together and we went to the Matador office and he was very nervous about that. He loved that label, it was the epitome of cool at the time and he was very nervous about living up to that. I remember getting a margarita on Broadway at some Mexican  place downstairs from the Matador office to steel himself before we went up.

BRITT DANIEL: I loved Gerard and I loved Chris and they were putting out all my favorite bands’ records and I thought, if we could get to be half as big as Pavement or Guided By Voices, I will be very very happy, and things will work out in the end. Even though that record sold like less than 2,000 copies in its first year and was deemed very much by us and by the label as a failure, I think it was a good move.

JIM ENO: I think it was closer to 1,300, I think I found a SoundScan from the year after it came out. I think it was about 1,300. That blows my mind now—to be out on Matador and only sell 1,300 copies. And we toured a lot on that record, too. We did two tours with Guided by Voices.

BRITT DANIEL: Yeah we did so many tours on that first record. I don’t know what the people that managed and booked us thought, but they were sending us through North Dakota, Mississippi, Alabama. It fucking sucked, you know. It was not a fun experience. A lot of shitty nights opening for really shitty metal bands, you know. We played for the bartenders many many times.

JOHN CROSLIN: I filled in on bass for a few tours after Andy left. Telephono had just come out and nobody was there to see Spoon, nobody had heard of them. Some shows there were five people in the audience.

GERARD COSLOY: They had the very dubious “next-Nirvana” tag hanging around their necks without ever asking for it. Things got kinda hype-y (through no fault of theirs) and I think most sensible people were suspicious.  And to be very fair, it should also be said that not everyone at the record label was totally behind those guys.  In those days, we employed a publicist — an otherwise very talented and insightful person — who upon being told by a journalist, “those guys kinda suck”, would’ve been apt to say, “yeah, I know what you mean.”

ELEANOR FRIEDBERGER: The first time I saw Spoon was in the  student union at UT. I was a freshman I think, and I wanted to see them play with my boyfriend at  the time, and as he said, ‘Oh they sound so much like the Pixies,’ and I had never listened to the Pixies, I didn’t even know what that meant exactly.

BRITT DANIEL: There’s always like one storyline about an album or about a band that everyone apes and that was ours: Pixies rip-off. The first review that I saw for that record was in Rolling Stone and it was two stars out of five, and it was all just about the Pixies. And that kind of set the tone for the whole thing. Yeah, that wasn’t super fun. I’m not saying it wasn’t valid, you know, I love the Pixies. The cool thing is that the next record we made, Soft Effects, is still one of my favorite ones we ever did. That’s where we finally found a little bit of an identity.

GERARD COSLOY: Felt like a big creative leap to me — really the first time those guys started using the recording studio as an instrument (a tradition they’ve built on considerably since).  But there was little reaction to speak of at the time, there was so much negativity stemming from ‘Telephono’, it was super hard to get people to give Spoon a second chance.

JOSH ZARBO (Spoon bassist 1997-2000; 2002-2007): The deal with Elektra was signed after we had recorded almost all of A Series of Sneaks. So that record was pretty much made with Matador in the rear view mirror and Elektra not yet happening. I think Jim Eno financed that record completely.

JIM ENO: I was basically paying for the recording, since I had the day job. Near the end, it got a little hairy. It was kind of like, “I think I’m gonna get paid back for this… hopefully.’

I don’t know why he never gave me credit for it but I came up with the title, because he used to drive around town because he would take these secret shortcuts everywhere.

BRITT DANIEL: Most of the major label offers that had been around a year before were gone, but this guy, Ron Lafitte, hadn’t been around the first time through, and he was really big on signing us. Matador had just done a deal with Capitol so they wanted to keep working with us. So we had to choose between those two. Elektra offered us a lot of money — $250,000 — and we were in a lot of debt, and it just kind of seemed like, try something else with this other system that we haven’t tried or go back to the system that didn’t work which is paying us like a fifth of the money. It was one of the hardest decisions I had made, certainly at that point. But we went with Elektra.

JOSH ZARBO: I remember playing the Noise Pop Festival in San Francisco, that’s where I met Ron LaFeat for the first time, the A&R guy. He seemed like an A&R major label guy, and I mean that in a nice way and I mean that in a sense like he seemed like he had his shit together and he was definitely ruling the band. I remember we were backstage and somebody from Bimbo’s came back to ask us if we needed anything and he took out a gold Amex card and said, ‘Get these boys anything that they want.’

Weirdly, he stopped returning our calls after we signed.

JOSH ZARBO: Things seemed like they really changed, it went from this guy telling us we were the greatest ever, to now kind of keeping us at arms length. I think that right away we saw that we weren’t a priority. After we signed, we were all in New york or something and we went up to Elektra at the Time Warner building and they took up to like the 27th floor or something and we could kind of tell they were going to show us that they were really behind the record, but really what it was was a hastily arranged pizza party.

BRITT DANIEL: A fucking pizza party.

JOSH ZARBO: It was like, ‘Oh fuck Spoon is here, lets order 20 pizzas.’ We were coming in and [Sylvia Rhone, then-president of Elektra Records]  was like, ‘Where the pizza? Why haven’t we gotten the pizza yet?’ And thats something me and Brit used to laugh about a lot. She said to me, with like a Brooklyn accent or something, she said something like, ‘I think we could have a lot of fun together,’ and I didn’t know what to say. I was just a 24 year old musician, you know? I wasn’t primed for Time Warner building and meeting CEO’s and stuff.

BRITT DANIEL: One time, I actually called her because I was told, “call Sylvia and invite her to the show in New York,” so I did. I waited on hold for… I was at a McDonalds, like, at the pay phone calling her, like, two days before we came to New York, sitting on hold for, like, I don’t know, 10 minutes or something. She finally came, I was like, “I just wanted to let you know that we’re playing.” She goes, “You’re on the road?” And I said, “Yeah, we’re going to be playing in New York at Brownies in 2 days, we’d love it if you’d come.” She goes, “Oh, I know about it,” but she didn’t come. They never released a single, they never made a video, it was never released overseas, and then he quit. A Series Of Sneaks sold something like 2,000 copies and within four months of it coming out, we were dropped. MORE

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