In early 2015, when US musician Britt Daniel popped up in suburban Collingwood, Melbourne, no one noticed. That’s not surprising. The leader of the long-adored, indie-rock band Spoon isn’t quite the kind of star who can pout on a dilapidated porch in Brunswick and make headlines. What is surprising is Daniel, a native of Austin, Texas was in Melbourne at all.
“I lived in Melbourne for three weeks,” says Daniel over the phone, a month out from the release of his band’s ninth record, Hot Thoughts. “That’s where most of these songs started – maybe five or six made the record.”
The trip wasn’t a random retreat. Spoon was weeks away from playing a show in Melbourne after releasing the 2014 album They Want My Soul. Daniel also wanted to start writing new songs, which would eventually become Hot Thoughts. But he was touring some personal ruins. “At that moment I had just broken up with a long-term girlfriend,” he says. “The last time I’d been to Australia was with her and this time I was staying right around the corner from a restaurant we would go to. It was a little harsh and lonely. But after five or six days of that I got really into it. It felt like I locked myself away on the other corner of the earth.”
Despite its last three records debuting in the US Top 10, Spoon has never been a household name. Led by Daniel’s fastidious approach to writing and recording, Spoon’s best music sounds like the collateral ephemera of a song playing in the margins. Guitar, bass, drums and keys are signposts, but their sonic placement can seem scrambled. Incidental sounds reveal themselves as hooks, melodies arise from production quirks, and traditional pop songs actively deconstruct under Daniel’s drawling, poetic non sequiturs. The accumulative effect can easily evade anyone without the inclination to put it together; for fans, it’s like discovering you’re the missing piece of a puzzle.
Hot Thoughts is more of the same, and yet not – this time around the band’s creative feints are still there, but the whole sounds more spritely and lurid. “It’s a different vibe,” says Daniel. The first key to that vibe is the wholesale embrace of producer Dave Fridmann (Tame Impala, Flaming Lips, MGMT). “Our records sound so much better now that we work with him,” says Daniel. “We were always afraid of making ‘big’ records in a way that radio commercial bands would ... But he does it in a very interesting, artistic way and he’s a good foil.”
The second change is personnel. Hot Thoughts is the first Spoon record in 13 years that doesn’t feature multi-instrumentalist Eric Harvey. According to Daniel, Harvey’s quiet departure between records was mutual.
“I guess we both moved on,” says Daniel. “It was just time for us to do different stuff.” Auxiliary member Alex Fischel was promoted to full-time, which introduces a complex layer of synth-work to the music. “Before Alex got in the band, if I couldn’t play the keyboard part then it wasn’t going on the record,” says Daniel. “And I’m not the greatest player. So now he’s here we have a bigger palette. He’s all over the record, he’s a huge part of the sound and it’s a bit of a new direction for us.”
The third new edge is perhaps Spoon’s most surprising. Rarely a band for taking a public stance, the recent ascension of Donald Trump has Daniel feeling politicised.
“There’s a song on the record called Tear it Down,” says Daniel. “The kernel of the idea was just the words ‘tear it down, tear down the wall,’ but at the time it made sense with the situation [regarding Trump’s threats to build a wall on the US-Mexican border]. My concern was by the time the record came out, it would be irrelevant. That Trump would be a long-forgotten shitstain, and we would never have to hear from this motherfucker again. But sadly it’s more relevant than I would have liked. It’s a dark time here, y’know.”
The rub is Spoon is big enough to have Trump supporters in its fanbase. On the cusp of a new album to promote, this introduces a new dichotomy for Daniel. “We’ve made a few posts about Trump on Twitter and Instagram and I have noticed there’s a few people who have been honest and said they’d like us to shut the fuck up,” says Daniel. “But I don’t have any intention to. It’s a pretty unusual dialogue for a band and its audience to have and it’s not one we’re super-familiar with. I’ve never really felt like it was our responsibility to do anything politically. In a way we still don’t. But I feel more motivated now than ever before to call shit as I see it.”
Perhaps that’s why Spoon is beginning the tour for Hot Thoughts where it began – in Australia. “Australia’s one of my favourite places in the world,” Daniel says. “I don’t really know how to express my affection for it exactly, but if feels like a different, amazing world I get to come to every year or two. And it’s still there and I get to experience it all over again. It really does feel like another life.”
Spoon plays Thursday March 23 at The Metro Theatre in Sydney, and Saturday March 25 at the Croxton Bandroom in Melbourne, supported by Mike Noga and Band. Hot Thoughts is out now.