Britt Daniel still has vivid memories of a few shows at the Austin City Limits Music Festival that felt like a turning point for his band Spoon.
Though the band didn’t play the very first ACL Fest in 2002, they were booked each of the next three years. These were crucial times for the festival, which started coming into its own just as Spoon was turning the corner on its unlikely journey from the indie underground toward the top of the charts.
As he stood onstage at Zilker Park, Daniel realized that “we probably were playing to more people than we ever had before. Just looking out and seeing a sea of people — that was unusual. I guess Austin City Limits was the first time we ever really had that experience.”
The Zilker masses were a hometown visualization of the groundswell that was rising for Spoon all across the land. While the band’s 2001 and 2002 albums “Girls Can Tell” and “Kill the Moonlight” — their first records for Merge after an ill-fated 1998 major-label outing on Elektra — had sold respectably on indie-label terms, the band made a big leap with 2005’s “Gimme Fiction,” which topped the Billboard independent-label chart and reached No. 44 on the all-inclusive Billboard 200 chart.
Things only heated up from there. Spoon’s 2007 album “Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga” debuted at No. 10, prompting an appearance that October on “Saturday Night Live.” In 2010, “Transference” made it all the way up to No. 4, selling more than 50,000 copies in its first week alone.
All of which seems to set Spoon up for a major career milestone with “They Want My Soul,” which comes out Tuesday on Loma Vista Recordings. To put it bluntly: Will it be a disappointment if the new album doesn’t debut at No. 1?
Daniel, speaking by phone last week as the band prepared for Chicago’s Lollapalooza festival, humbly laughed off the notion. “No, it won’t be a disappointment,” he said. “You know, I really have no idea of how it’s going to do. Because it’s been so long since we’ve put out a record. It’s such a different world now.”
The long break
It’s true, indeed, that the four-year gap between “Transference” and “They Want My Soul” introduced a lot of uncertainty about the future of Spoon. Daniel, who was living partly in Portland, Ore., when “Transference” was recorded, spent much of the past couple years in Los Angeles launching Divine Fits, a new project with Wolf Parade/Handsome Furs frontman Dan Boeckner, New Bomb Turks drummer Sam Brown and keyboardist Alex Fischel.
Their 2012 album “A Thing Called Divine Fits” was warmly received by critics and fans and sold reasonably well, topping out at No. 54 on the Billboard 200. Daniel and Boeckner shared the songwriting and singing, while Daniel stretched out as a musician by taking on the role of bassist rather than playing guitar.
Drummer Jim Eno used the down time to dive head-first into production work at Public Hi-Fi, the recording studio he’s gradually built up from a modest Tarrytown garage space into a world-class, two-story facility. His extraordinarily busy schedule included producing records for the likes of Heartless Bastards, The Relatives, Telekinesis, !!!, Har Mar Superstar and Black Joe Lewis, not to mention working as an engineer on such high-profile local projects as Alejandro Escovedo’s 2012 disc “Big Station” and Spanish Gold’s recent debut album “South of Nowhere.”
Eno also started a record label, also called Public Hi-Fi, to put out projects that he thought might otherwise not find a home. So far, he’s issued an album by Hammond B3-centered band Dupree and singles by Sondre Lerche and Dana Falconberry that are branded as the initial installments in a “Public Hi-Fi Sessions” series.
Starting a label was “a pretty natural progression for a producer and someone that owns their own studio,” Eno told former American-Statesman writer Peter Mongillo last year. “It’s harder and harder to get labels to put out music; everyone’s really budget-shy.”
Spoon’s other two members pursued outside opportunities during the down time as well. Bassist Rob Pope, who joined the band in 2007 after the departure of longtime member Joshua Zarbo, did a record and a tour with his former band the Get Up Kids in 2011. Multi-instrumentalist Eric Harvey, who joined in 2004 after Spoon’s music became increasingly reliant on keyboards, released a solo album in 2012 called “Lake Disappointment.”
Back in Action
Daniel played at last year’s ACL Fest with Divine Fits, but by then, he was ready to reconvene with Spoon. Although he lives part-time in Los Angeles, “I spent most of the last year in Austin, because we were recording much of the record there, and then we were rehearsing,” he says. “I’m really more in Austin than anywhere else, honestly. These days, I don’t get a chance to miss it.”
The Divine Fits detour ended up having a direct effect on Spoon when Daniel proposed to his bandmates that they bring Alex Fischel aboard as a multi-instrumentalist. “I knew how good he was, and I knew what it was like being with him onstage,” Daniel says. “And when Spoon had been doing the tour for ‘Transference,’ we were bringing in what we called a fifth man for most of the shows, or at least all the big ones — somebody to play percussion and/or guitar and/or keyboards.
“So when we all got back together after not having played together for so long, I brought up the idea that maybe now is the time to bring on the extra guy. I’m not sure if initially everybody was crazy about the idea. But once they met Alex, everybody kind of got why it was a really great idea. And it’s working out really well. It just helps us kick the show from good into great more often.”
Bringing in a new band member turned out to be just one of many new approaches Spoon embraced when they reconvened. On all their previous albums, they’d worked with Austin producers Mike McCarthy or John Croslin (or, in the case of “Transference,” done it themseves). For “They Want My Soul,” they enlisted two well-traveled outside producers: Joe Chiccarelli, whose long list of credits includes everyone from My Morning Jacket to Jason Mraz to the Strokes to Alanis Morissette, and Dave Fridmann, known for his work with the Flaming Lips, MGMT and Mercury Rev.
“Jim and I produced the last record ourselves,” Daniel recalls, “and a lot of what that meant was, I would be up in Portland working in my basement setting up the mikes, recording parts, and deciding whether they were good enough all by myself. And at the end of that process, I thought, ‘You know, I really didn’t like that as much as working with people.’ So I really wanted to work with a producer this time.”
Chiccarelli, who’d done some work with Divine Fits, expressed interest in working with Spoon as well. Daniel sought out Fridmann based on the recommendation of Wild Flag/Quasi drummer Janet Weiss, as well as his fondness for many of the records Fridmann had produced in recent years.
They ended up doing sessions with both producers, yielding mixed results, per Daniel’s assessment. “First we recorded with Joe, and Dave mixed it. The recording with Joe was a little more difficult than we would’ve liked. We left on good terms, and I have to give him credit for a lot of good ideas. But we butted heads a little bit more than we were comfortable with.
“So then we switched gears and convinced Dave to produce the rest of it. He produced and mixed the second half, and that worked a lot better for us.”
The end result nevertheless holds together well as a cohesive album, and it clearly benefits from the production input compared to “Transference,” which could have used an outside ear. The early singles “Do You” and “Inside Out” — the former produced by Chiccarelli, the latter by Fridmann — both are instantly catchy pop numbers that rely significantly on keyboard textures, yet without straying too far from the indie realm.
The guitars crank out more offbeat, angular noise on the title track, which features the record’s most intriguing lyrics. “Card sharks and street preachers want my soul,” Daniel sings to a hummable melody that belies the desperate disillusionment in his voice. “Upsellers and palm readers want my soul.”
Probably the biggest and most surprising change Spoon undertook in the process of making “They Want My Soul” was deciding to leave Merge Records, the North Carolina indie that had been their label since 2000, for the major-affiliated imprint Loma Vista. Once a relatively small but highly influential label, Merge — started in 1989 by Superchunk members Mac McCaughan and Laura Ballance — lately has reached heights few indies could imagine, garnering a Record of the Year Grammy in 2011 for Arcade Fire’s “The Suburbs” (which beat out the likes of Eminem, Lady Gaga and Katy Perry).
Loma Vista, initially associated with the Universal label Republic Records, shifted to the Concord Music Group last month. Its relatively small roster includes Soundgarden, St. Vincent, Rhye, Little Dragon, Cut Copy and Damian Marley.
“It just kind of felt like if we were ever going to try to do something different, that now was the time,” Daniel says. “We had taken a long break, and we were trying new things all across the board — adding people, and working with producers we hadn’t worked with. It just felt like a good time to try a bit of everything.”
Partly it was a matter of who asked. “Tom Whalley, who owns Loma Vista, is a guy that tried to sign us 20 years ago,” Daniel noted. This was before the band had even signed its first deal with Matador Records, which released Spoon’s 1996 debut “Telephono.” “He was trying to sign us with Interscope back then,” Daniel said. “So I’d known him a long time, and I think he’s a legitimate fan.”
Asked if there were things he thought Loma Vista could do that Merge couldn’t, Daniel responded, “Maybe, but they’re not that interesting. I know, for instance, how many Facebook likes my band got last week because there’s that level of detail in the progress of the band and the record. Whether or not that’s actually beneficial, we’ll have to see.
“It’s certainly not the advance, because that was no bigger. But it’s sort of the infrastructure and the push” in promotion and marketing where a major-affiliated label may have some advantages, he suggests.
Spoon did time in the major-label ranks once before, releasing 1998’s “A Series of Sneaks” on Elektra before getting dropped when their A&R representative Ron Laffitte left the label. The band subsequently recorded a couple of songs, “The Agony of Laffitte” and “Laffitte Don’t Fail Me Now,” venting their bitterness.
“The main problem that we had with our experience at a major label was that there was a guy who kind of let us down; that’s what those songs were about,” Daniel clarifies. “They weren’t songs about the label, they were about this guy who we really felt said one thing and then did another.
“But I have never been of the opinion that only good music comes out on indie labels, and that major labels have bad artists. That’s just not the case.”
Asked if he has regrets about leaving Merge, Daniel downplays the notion that it’s a full departure. “Our whole catalog is still there,” he points out. “We just turned in a song for a 7-inch series they’re doing for their 25th anniversary. I’m still in touch with them, and I feel like to some extent we are still working with them. But it was just time to try something else.”
Return to Zilker
Whatever happens with the album, Spoon’s bread and butter through the late summer and fall will be made on the festival circuit. Saturday’s Lollapalooza began a two-month stretch that includes shows at San Francisco’s Outside Lands, Portland’s Musicfest NW, Philadelphia’s Made in America Festival, the Hopscotch Music Festival in Raleigh, N.C., Boston Calling in Massachusetts and Supercrawl in eastern Canada. They finally arrive back in Austin for ACL Fest in early October, playing at 7 p.m. Sunday both weekends — opposite the Replacements, likely a bit of a bummer for many Spoon fans. Daniel hinted that the band would perform between the two weekends as well, though specifics haven’t been nailed down.
“With the festivals being what they are, that’s a huge chunk of income that really wasn’t there 10 or 15 years ago,” Daniel says. “And they do pay much better than normal gigs. If anybody’s running the music business right now, it seems like it’s the festival promoters.”
He seems genuinely happy that his hometown plays host to what he considers one of the best music fests. “I love the location,” he says of Zilker Park. “I think the field is beautiful, and I love that it’s in the middle of the city. That just makes a big difference to me. When it’s so much trouble to get into and get out of a festival, or when it’s out in the middle of nowhere, it’s a lot less appealing.
“I like that you can walk out of the festival and go down to Chuy’s, or get on a bike and bike to your house or your hotel or wherever. That makes a big difference to the enjoyability. And it seems like it’s always been a pretty artist-friendly festival as well.”
If Spoon hasn’t quite reached “old guard” status at ACL Fest just yet, there’s no denying that after 20 years together, they’re not the new kids on the block anymore, either. Some festgoers no doubt will flock to Zilker for the likes of Chvrches, Broken Bells and Sam Smith. Daniel takes a realistic view toward growing older in a youth-oriented indie-rock landscape.
“All you can really do is try to make yourself stand out,” he says. “The way that we do that is by working really hard on our records, from the songs to the sound of them. And then figuring out how to do a really good live show.
“I know that’s the basics, but if you don’t have that ‘new shiny object’ thing going for you, then I feel like all you can do is either make a lot of obnoxious noise, and/or just make sure you’ve got really good quality.”
Spoon at Austin City Limits Music Festival
7 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 5, and Sunday, Oct. 12
Zilker Park, 2100 Barton Springs Road