All the Poets (Musicians on Writing): Britt Daniel




IT’S HARD TO FATHOM now, but for years, Spoon — the taut, wiry band led by Britt Daniel — struggled to break out of its role as coulda-woulda-shoulda underdogs. Since 2002’s Kill the Moonlight, though, Spoon has been among the most consistently strong and inventive groups in indie rock. Originally a minimalist group grounded in punk rock, Revolver, and the Pixies, Daniel and company have gotten more complex and unpredictable over the years; these days they sometimes perform as a keyboard-driven quintet.

Daniel, who divides his time between Los Angeles and the group’s homeland of Austin, Texas, also sings for the group Divine Fits. 

Spoon will appear on July 17, at the FivePoint Amphitheatre in Irvine with Beck and Cage the Elephant. Everything Hits At Once: The Best of Spoon — the band’s first LP since Hot Thoughts, from 2017 — comes out on July 26.

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SCOTT TIMBERG: How much have books of any kind — novels, histories, or poetry — influenced the music you make and the songs that you write? Or is that something that is separate from your life as a creature of rock ’n’ roll? 

BRITT DANIEL: I think it is more separate than the other way around. As I think of things that I’ve read that have influenced songs, the first one that comes to mind is “Inside Out,” but it was from reading a Wikipedia page. [Laughs.] I was reading about the gravitational time ventilation and the theory of relativity, and that kind of became a song. I had this bit on piano that was a really pretty tune, but I didn’t know what to sing on top it; so, I read that and there came a song. But I do read a lot. 

Were you into science as a kid? Is that a longtime interest of yours?

Why was I reading that one page? I guess I was into science as a kid. I was more into music, but I think I just happened upon this. And there was just something about the theory, which was that the higher the gravity, the faster time passes. Another way of saying it is that time gets distorted when there is intense gravity, which is the way I put it. To me, it just sounded poetic in and of itself — thinking about the gravity that you feel toward people that you love.

Yeah, I guess you don’t have to be into science to have your mind blown by that. [Laughs.] It’s an amazing thing to try to understand.

As I think about Spoon, I realize that your songs leave me feeling that I don’t really know what’s going on. I don’t know who Sister Jack is; I don’t know if it’s the Beast or the Dragon who’s Adored; I don’t know who’s trying to Make you a Target. But they work in a strange way; they create an impression that’s effective. They don’t have an obvious narrative or a clear logic to them, but they add up in some other way. That’s part of why I wondered about your reading. You know, where is this guy coming from in terms of language and ideas?

There are a few songs that are more direct, but sometimes there is just a main, general idea. A song like “Rent I Pay” was just an expression that my brother used. My brother would say, “That’s the rent I pay,” meaning that’s his burden, basically. I thought it was poetic, and I kind of wrote about that. It was true life. But then the verses, I guess you can say, are a little more abstract.

Sometimes it’s wordplay. Sometimes I don’t know where it is going. And I’ve read Paul Simon say the same thing — obviously a man of many great songs. Some lyrics are direct, but sometimes he kind of just follows where it leads him. I get a first line and just see where it goes.

It’s funny; I’m not a huge Simon and Garfunkel fan, but, by coincidence, I picked up Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme on vinyl yesterday. That’s a very “literary” record, the way Dylan was literary in the ’60s.

I can tell there are ideas, and I can tell there is something behind your songs, but it’s not coming out of a novel or a poem quite as clearly as with some others. You know, those ’60s people were not trying to hide their influences. They were name-dropping Whitman and Rimbaud and people like that. Patti Smith would quote a French poet in the middle of a punk song.

When did you become a serious reader of any kind, whether as a kid reading Dr. Seuss or as a teenager getting in to the Beats? When did it hit you? 

Yeah, there was the Dr. Seuss phase, for sure. Maybe that lasted longer than usual. [Laughs.] Well, in middle school I would read fantasy and sci-fi — a lot of sci-fi. 

Was it something like Tolkien, and Dune, and Asimov — that kind of stuff?

Yeah, all that kind of stuff. And, at some point, I remember reading Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell — that and Catcher in the Rye were sort of moments early on where I suddenly wanted to read different types of things. It wasn’t all sci-fi anymore. 

Yeah, I think for a lot of kids those are gateways.

Yeah, it is amazing. Orwell is one of the greats.

So that launched you into more of the realistic kind of novel than the Tolkien fantasy?

Yeah, I guess so. I remember there being this turning point where I was just obsessed with both of those books, and I was, you know, growing up. [Laughs.] It was appropriate. A lot of what I read is nonfiction — a lot of music-related nonfiction. And, back then, there was this thing called The Trouser Press Record Guide. It was so great and essential. I would just read it straight through. I wouldn’t look up this or that band; I wanted to read about every single band, you know? It was that good. And that got me reading … And, well, it turned me on to a lot of music, for one thing.

I know you started Spoon in Austin, but I think you grew up further from a place with good clubs and so on. Is that why you needed to depend on books and magazines to know what was happening in music?

Yeah, I grew up in Temple, Texas, and there were definitely no clubs. It was a period where you could actually get the NME at the bookstore in Temple. Now that kind of blows my mind. There was The Face Magazine, NME, Melody Maker, and you could get all that stuff. So there was a way of keeping tabs. You’d get a radio station or two from Austin. It was a little over an hour to get to Austin. 

How long of a drive was it to get to a Tower Records? Or any good record store?

Yeah, same thing: about an hour. Believe it or not, there were little patches of things that made it through to the Hastings Records and Tapes at the Temple Mall. There was some buyer there who was really into the Cramps — I remember a lot of 4AD stuff — but it was patchy. For instance, I had never heard of Wire when I was growing up. I didn’t know that Lou Reed was in the Velvet Underground. [Laughs.] I knew who one was; I knew who the other was. A lot of mysteries out there at that time.

There are musicians who grew up in the hip part of London or Greenwich Village, and they are drowning in this stuff. But a lot of people that I speak to, like Jeff Tweedy, who talked about being on — what he felt like — was the edge of the world, or Mac from Superchunk, who was somewhere in Florida where there wasn’t a hip, Anglophile kind of culture. There’s a lot of people like that, and I was in the same boat, had to make a pilgrimage to a big city to get a cool record or even an obscure book or magazine.

It was a thrill too. It was a part of what made you obsessed with it. You know, I still have dreams where I go to a record store and find some record that I didn’t know existed, and I find it, and I’m like, “I didn’t know there was another Julian Cope record,” and I’m thrilled, you know? That’s remembering what it was like to go down to Austin and suddenly there was so much music that you couldn’t even imagine.

Let’s go back to your reading. So were there other record guides, band biographies, or music histories that turned you on?

Yeah, sure, tons of them. The last music book I read was probably Springsteen’s book, Born to Run. Those things are just so fun to read if they are done well. There is this great book on Prince, Dance Music Sex Romance by Per NilsenIt’s out of print.

I’ll look for that. It sounds like a good one.

It’s so good. And you get a picture for how crazed this guy was with his schedule. You’ll love it. I just got this David Roth biography, but I haven’t read it.

David Lee Roth from Van Halen? 

Yeah, I’m going to read it. You know that guy Nick Kent? He does really good music writing.

Yeah, does he have anything new? He has a book called The Dark Stuff.

That’s the one I know, yeah. I’ve read a lot of Beatles books — Revolution in the Head. It’s unlike any other writing on the Beatles. It’s so on the money. He has a way of almost bridging, like, music theory, and his criticism is so right on.

Are there other books about the Beatles that you like? 

I did like that one that came out by Bob Spitz. That was sort of a big deal when it came out about five years ago. That was a good one. There was also one that was by the engineer, Geoff Emerick.

You are thinking of Here, There and Everywhere, yeah. I like that one too.

I liked it because I’ve read so many books on the Beatles, but in that one I was reading a lot of stories that I hadn’t heard. Even in that Bob Spitz book they are rehashing stories that you’ve already heard or providing some additional details. But Emerick had tons of new stories. And what’s also interesting is his take on the Beatles themselves. He definitely had his favorites. [Laughs.] He was not a big fan of George.

I associate your band with punk rock and post-punk a little bit. Do you have favorite memoir or anything in that category?

Yeah, there is a great post-punk book called Rip It Up and Start Again. Have you heard of that one?

Yeah, that’s a great one. Simon Reynolds, the author, lives here in Los Angeles.

It covers so much ground. I mean, it goes all the way up to Frankie Goes to Hollywood, which I never would have thought of them as post-punk. But, you know, he makes the links. That was such a magical time in British music: ’78 to ’84.

As an American who got into new music — as opposed to ’60s music — right at the end of that period, I never really thought of post-punk as a unified thing. But Reynolds makes the case that it has things in common, like the rhythm section coming out front — like what you hear in Gang of Four and XTC — the production is very influenced by dub and other non-rock styles. He made that period hang together in a way that hadn’t for me before. He definitely changed the way I thought about it.

I haven’t read that in a while, not since I was in Portland, but it is a great book.

That’s right, you had a Portland chapter. When we talked about it before, you said the lack of sunlight eventually did you in.

Yeah, it was such a great period of time, but then I found myself a little unmotivated simply by the weather. I’d come down to Los Angeles and feel like my spirit is soaring — let’s do everything.

So these days, do you read novels, poetry, histories, that kind of thing? 

Yeah, I do. But I do read a lot of nonfiction. Aside from that, I read The Quiet American; I reread that recently — the book by Graham Greene. I’d never read The White Album by Joan Didion before, but a friend gave me that for my birthday — that blew my mind. I had never read her before.

Well, especially having some L.A. life, reading Didion is so eye-opening.  

Right, everything happens on Franklin. [Laughs.

What about other kinds of nonfiction that you dig? 

Have you ever read Obedience to Authority by Milgram?

No. Tell me about it. 

It’s a book about these experiments that they would conduct where people would go in for an experiment thinking that they were being tested for one thing, but then they would make the subjects think that someone in the room was being physically harmed, or that someone just outside the room was being physically harmed. So it was a test to see how people reacted. If they had been instructed to continue on with this test, would they continue on, or would they help the one person who seemed like they were in need? It’s a pretty fascinating book.

You know, I think that it was inspired by Nazi Germany and wanting to test and see why that was happening — why do people just follow orders?

Right. Capacity for cruelty, and empathy, and things like that. Interesting.  

So you’re in Los Angeles right now. You find that as you are getting ready to write a song that you like working in L.A. so that you can kind of isolate yourself? It’s a big city, and it’s loud and distracting. But if you’re in the hills or something, you can sort of clear your head a little bit and concentrate on that fantasy world that writing often comes from.

Yeah, that sounds exactly right.

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Scott Timberg is the editor of The Misread City: New Literary Los Angeles and author of Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class.

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Featured image: “Britt Daniel performing live” by Jkorn91 is licensed under CC BY 4.0.


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