As Britt Daniel returns to Austin, Spoon revisits its rock 'n' roll roots

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As Britt Daniel returns to Austin, Spoon revisits its rock 'n' roll roots
© Photo: Oliver Halfin Spoon

Britt Daniel knew he wanted to record Spoon’s 10th album in Austin, Texas. After recording the band’s previous two albums in rural upstate New York, Daniel wanted to craft Lucifer On The Sofa in a place where he could “soak up the energy of the city” and recall the way Spoon used to record albums back in the ’90s.

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With a music career that spans three decades, and after nearly a decade away from the city, Daniel wanted to come home for some good old rock ’n’ roll in the violet crown of Texas.

After growing up in Temple—a small city about an hour north of Austin—Daniel made his way to the University of Texas at Austin, where he studied in the school’s Radio, Television, And Film department, specializing in audio production. There he started working for the student radio station, KVRX, and hosted variety shows on Monday nights from 7-9 pm.

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When KVRX went FM at the end of Daniel’s scheduled four years, he decided to take one class a semester just to stay in the studio, spinning “none of the hits, all of the time.” During a recent visit to the station’s library, which is filled floor to ceiling with stacks of records, the staff brought out two CDs Daniel had reviewed as a student, both Julian Cope records.

As Britt Daniel returns to Austin, Spoon revisits its rock 'n' roll roots
© Photo: Oliver Halfin Britt Daniel

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In the fall of ’93, not long after he finally left the hallowed halls of UT Austin, Daniel linked up with drummer Jim Eno to start a rock band. The two had circled each other in the music scene during school, and had previously been in a rockabilly group called The Alien Beats, where they mainly covered X songs.

Daniel says most projects during this time only lasted about a year and a half, and he expected this new project, which would eventually become Spoon, to run the same course.

Over the next decade, Spoon, would release their debut album, Telefono, followed by A Series Of Snakes, Girls Can Tell, and Kill The Moonlight. The band saw a revolving door of members, including Andy Maguire, who played bass for the band from its inception till 1996, and Josh Croslin, who stuck around for one year in 1996. The two constants were Daniel and Eno.

Although he spent the summer of ’99 in New York and took some time in 2000, Daniel did not leave Austin for good till 2005, when he followed a girlfriend up to Portland, to see if they could make their relationship work a little longer.

When the relationship ended after a year, Daniel stayed in Portland. He eventually moved to Los Angeles in 2011, and didn’t officially return to Austin until 2019, when he bought a home in one of the country’s hottest housing markets. The summer before, after a long tour with Cage The Elephant, Spoon decided to bring everything back to their roots, to live and record in the city that birthed the band.

They were also going back to their songwriting origins. Instead of focusing on building up demos, the band created space to hash things out and piece songs together before recording.

“This was much more like a record like when Spoon started out where we would play the songs for a long time at clubs and bars until we had enough money saved up to record,” Daniel explains.

Compared to Spoon’s previous two offerings, Hot Thoughts and They Want My Soul, the songs from Lucifer On The Sofa are faster and looser, with the kind of organic quality found on the band’s early records. Ambient sounds and voices sneak their way into the openings and endings of tracks, and synths take a backseat to Eno’s drums.

It’s a rock record influenced by acts like The Stooges, Fleetwood Mac, Black Sabbath, the Rolling Stones, Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Van Halen, Neil Young, and The Doors. Daniel explains that the band wanted to depart from the tidiness of Hot Thoughts, and imbue the songs with a sense of liveliness, as if they’re being played in front of the listener.

“It was just about making a record that was like, almost a record for good times,” Daniel says. “You know, a rock ’n’ roll record that made you feel good to put on and blast.”

Spoon had about five months of writing and recording in Austin before the pandemic shut down the music industry on nearly every level. But it was in the first few months of the pandemic that Lucifer On The Sofa really began to take shape. According to Daniel, the title track and much of the album would not exist without this confluence of the pandemic and his move back to Austin, which allowed new ideas to form while at the same time the band revisited older concepts, fleshing them out into fully formed pieces.

With “Wild,” for instance, Daniel had been working on the song for years, glimpsing its potential without being able to find the right words. “There are some songs that do end up being good you know, there’s some little kernel there that you got to kind of keep honing. You never know whether it’s eventually going to work out, but that’s what ‘Wild’ was,” Daniel says. “It was one of those songs where, ‘All right, I’m gonna devote another few hours to the song and who knows if I’m going to get anything.’ Over and over again.”

“Held,” the album-opening Smog cover, was in the band’s live repertoire in the early 2000s before fading into obscurity. “When we were having a jam, just working on ideas for the record, I said, ‘Let’s play that one,’ and I moved over to bass guitar. Suddenly it sounded really cool. To my surprise, it wasn’t just an exercise in trying to remember this song, it very quickly became really cool and had a lot of teeth to it. It felt kind of dangerous,” Daniel says. “And I said, ‘You know, maybe this isn’t just an exercise, maybe we’re gonna do this could make it on the record.’ That was just a happy accident.”

Living in the Live Music Capital of the World, Daniel is a frequent presence at Austin staples like Hotel Vegas, the Continental Club, and Far Out Lounge. While live music outings were paused for over a year because of the pandemic, in May 2020 the city’s venues began to open their doors once more for local shows.

It was after one of these shows that the song “Astral Jacket” came to life. Daniel and keyboardist Alex Fischel took in a gig by Sabrina Ellis (of A Giant Dog and Sweet Spirit) at the now-closed Stay Gold in East Austin. With friends in town the night went on until closing time. High off the electricity of the evening, Daniel and Fischel went back of Daniel’s place and jammed until the song came together in the early morning hours.

“We played the song in a different way that kind of had that kind of emotion, and that’s what you hear on the record,” Daniel says. “So I credit Stay Gold with that—and Sabrina.”

Austin itself has a strong presence on Lucifer On The Sofa. The music community keeps its arms wide open, and the city’s air of untamable rowdiness provides a bit of wildness and soul to the record. When the town’s 100-degree summer heat is added to the mix, it bakes these qualities into Lucifer On The Sofa like a kiln bakes a glaze.

“It definitely wouldn’t have been the same record making it like we did the last one, or the last two, or the last three. It’s really been a while since we’ve made a full-on band record in Austin,” Daniel says. “It’s an interesting idea. What would happen if you took the exact same songs with a different town and recorded them? We’ll never know.”

“Lucifer On The Sofa” was birthed from a solitary night walking the streets of downtown Austin, when nightlife was silenced by the coronavirus. In order to combat the worst, most self-indulgent version of himself, Daniel takes a walk through the small downtown, up Lavaca Street, past multi-use apartment complexes that are seemingly springing up through cracks in the pavement.

Even listening to the album can be put into the context of Austin. Daniel’s preferred method listening set up involves CDs and his car stereo, and whether the vehicle is in motion or parked in the driveway, letting the music envelop him. When it comes to driving around Austin, Lucifer On The Sofa is considered a “Lockhart and back” record.

“Get it on CD, burn it to a CD, put it in your car, go drive around,” Daniel says. “Drive out to the nearest town that’s about 30 miles away and then drive back. It’d be a good experience.”

For those not in the vicinity of Austin, Daniel says listen to it however you wish, but if you have the opportunity and the comforts of a car, plug it in and let it rip.

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