When Spoon’s most recent album, Hot Thoughts, was released earlier this year, a common critical talking point was that this was their “dance record.” Spoon had become known for its economy and ability to make two or three instruments sound like all you could ever want on a track, but the Austin-born band — founded by front man Britt Daniel and drummer Jim Eno — had been slowly adding layers to their sound over their two most recent records. Hot Thoughts is certainly a more electronic record than anything else they’ve released thus far, but is our collective memory so short that we’ve forgotten the maraca-shaking shimmy of “Don’t You Evah,” off 2007’s Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, a song so catchy it made this tiny robot dance?
The world in which Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga was released, like so many things anymore, feels small and almost comforting. In my little college-y corner of the world, it was a peak era in which an ostensibly “indie” record, helped by a pre-streaming blog culture, could feel like a blockbuster. Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga was summer-defining in a way few rock records get to be anymore. I remember going to see Daniel & Co. at the Henry Fonda theater in Los Angeles (a show that was somewhat perversely opened by Kool Keith, much to my delight) and watching the arms-crossed crowd eventually loosen up get their ankles moving in their sockets, as per Daniel’s instructions on “Rhthm and Soul.” The album’s singles, particularly the Jon Brion–produced “The Underdog,” became sneakily ubiquitous earworms.
Spoon has always excelled at making the kinds of songs that feel as if you’ve always known them upon first listen; accessibility has never been a problem for them, even in their more far-out moments. But their sixth album felt particularly ready to conquer the world. Their previous full-length, 2005’s similarly big-time Gimme Fiction, the closest thing they’ve ever done to a concept album, was wall-to-wall hooks; it was also rife with apocalyptic imagery, general spookiness, and purposefully obtuse references, in between all-time-great lovelorn weepies. Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga took the twitchy minimalism they had gotten down to a science and injected it with a swingy, Motown-inflected soul, primarily in service of bittersweet songs about breaking up and feeling lonely and tearing your hair out over George W. Bush. In other words, it’s a major crowdpleaser.
The album’s official anniversary was this past July, but Merge Records just announced a remastered vinyl to be released on October 20, 2017. In honor of the anniversary, and because talking about anything that happened in 2007 is always a nice break from reality, I sat down with Britt Daniel for a extremely freewheeling chat about commercial appeal, the trickiness of writing political pop songs, and how one casually goes about pronouncing Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga. I also started things off with a hot take that admittedly might not have that much of an audience in 2017.
My favorite song off of the album is “Finer Feelings.”
That’s cool. Not a lot of people pick that one. I know my mom liked that one a lot.
Well, like so many Spoon songs, I don’t really know what it’s about, but I know what it’s about for me.
Well, the chorus is kind of self-explanatory, isn’t it? “Sometimes I think that I’ll find a love, one that’s gonna change my heart …” Well, “I’ll find it in Commercial Appeal” is maybe a little specific, but Commercial Appeal is the name of the newspaper in Memphis. And the song mentions Memphis. I just thought that was such a bizarro name for a newspaper, right?
It’s just a regular newspaper? That sounds like a Penny Saver type thing.
Yeah, it’s a regular newspaper.
The Memphis Commercial Appeal.
Well, I did not internalize that song as being about a newspaper in Memphis.
Yeah, and that’s the cool thing about it. It’s me singing it as a singer, as a “rock guy”. For many of the people that I work with that is the goal: commercial appeal.
Or the dreaded thing to avoid. For cred’s sake.
Yeah. I never wanted to avoid it. Well, I shouldn’t say “never.” But it’s been a long time since I wanted to avoid it.
Well, I feel like this album and [2005’s] Gimme Fiction were the two most overt moves into “commercial appeal.”
Definitely the next one [2009’s Transference] wasn’t.
For some reason the timing of those just felt right. But it’s an interesting period of “indie rock” to think back on. I was reading a recent piece where someone was comparing — sorry, how do say Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga for short?
Oh, for short?
Like, if you just want to refer to it casually.
Uh … I mean, sometimes it’s written as “G5.”
Oh my god, that makes it sound extremely …
Or I guess, “Ga.” I guess maybe people would call it “Ga.” But I don’t know, I don’t usually shorten it. It’s Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga. How long does it take to say, really, you know?
It’s just an unusual thing for the mouth to do.
I get asked a lot of questions about how to say it.
Well that feels fairly self-explanatory.
Well, people ask whether there’s a stress on a certain syllable, or …
Ga GA Ga Ga GA
Well, anyway. This was actually in a review Craig Jenkins wrote of the new Arcade Fire album. He was referring to [Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga] within this mid-’00s period where there was a growing influence of funk and rhythm in rock. It was a weird pocket of poptimism that existed within this thing still called “indie rock.” You could be excited get out and to dance to a song that wasn’t necessarily going to be on mainstream rock radio or at the club or whatever.
I’m trying to think of why that was. I guess when our first record was very much rock, and didn’t have much soul to it, and the second one probably, too. And then at some point, to me, if there was any formula at all, it was get out of the distorted rhythm guitar. Which to me, took up a lot of space. It was the sound of alt-rock. And to me, that was the way you get to something that’s a little more classic, something that’s starting to get soulful. Because then you’re focusing on the bass line. And you’re focusing on the drums and the vocal. And the guitar is going to be more of a twiddly thing, or maybe it’s going to play a little riff. It’s not Nirvana taking up all of the space.
Maybe that’s how it came about. That, and I always thought that Prince made the best singles. So whenever I was writing songs for records, I was like, “I’m wanna make that song a single. That song’s gonna be a single, and that song’s gonna be a single.” So many of them, it was like, “Here’s how we’re going to make this song a single.” We’re going to have one instrument that’s sort of the focus, and then we’re going to have it be about the beat.
You have a direct Prince call-out in “Finer Feelings,” too.
It’s like “Pop Life,” the —
Oh, yeah! Totally, totally. How did you know that?
I mean, I love “Pop Life.” And I love that part in both songs.
You mean, where [the song] goes away?
Yeah, and you have the crowd sound. It feels like the song floats away for a second, then comes back down to earth. Among friends!
Yeah. I always loved that, too.
What is the recording, or the concert sound in that song?
It was something from a sound-effect library, and we found it online. It was a combination of them, there are maybe three going at the same time. One of them is me playing piano, and then … it’s in the liner notes, I remember, because we had to credit them in order to use it for free.
I totally would have guessed it was some obscure concert bootleg recording.
For me it always felt like a carnival, or something. Like all of a sudden, you’re on a ride.
The other thing that will always place this album in time for me is that when it came out, a lot of the conversation around it was “Oh man! Shots fired at George W. Bush!” Which just feels so quaint now.
Right. “The Underdog”?
I mean, “Don’t Make Me a Target,” wasn’t that also on this record? That was also a George Bush thing. It’s funny, because on maybe about half of the interviews for [Hot Thoughts], they’ve said, “You’ve never said anything that’s been in any way remotely political.”
[Laughs] Yes. “Why’d you do it this time on ‘Tear it Down’?”
What? Was “Tear It Down” even meant to be political at the time it was written?
I knew that it would be taken that way. The way that the lyric came up was not. But as soon as I wrote the lyric, that day, I was like, “Oh, this is going to be viewed as topical.” Because it was before [Trump] had won the primary, but the whole wall thing had happened by then.
God, I forgot how early in the narrative the Wall entered the picture.
Yeah, very early.
But yeah, “The Underdog” didn’t have the discomfort around it that makes so many people put “political rock” in scare quotes. Again, it probably helped that you could theoretically dance to it.
It’s a tricky task, writing about anything political. Once the election happened last year, Janet Weiss, my friend from Sleater-Kinney and a number of other bands, got in touch with me. She was making a compilation of anti-Trump songs that would come out on Inauguration Day, and she wanted me to be on it. And it did come out on Inauguration Day, and I did try to write for it. But I never could get it together. It’s hard to address that stuff straight on.
It’s a very different part of your writing brain to access, I would imagine.
[The AV Club’s] Sean O’Neal even gave me a title: “Agent Orange.” Which at the time, I hadn’t heard anybody use that term. Now it’s kind of more common, right? So I thought that was pretty good. But I still couldn’t come up with a good way to approach it. I didn’t have a lot of time, for one thing. But yeah, I couldn’t do it.
Would you revisit it on a future record?
Yeah, sure. “Agent Orange” the song, or the Agent Orange the subject.
It’s gonna be hard to do that …
… to even know what’s going to be relevant in a year or two?
Yeah. And that was my thought. That by the time this song comes out, that mentions the wall, it’s gonna be a long-forgotten issue. And it will be dating itself.
That one’s stuck around, though.
Yeah. That issue is very timely.
Did you find it easier to write about Bush?
I guess, evidently, I did. But I had longer to do it. By the time the election happened [Hot Thoughts] had just finished. We had just mixed it. [With Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga] I came up with a couple good phrases, when I was just abstractly coming up with lyrics, that I got lucky with, and that I could glom onto and turn into a song. That’s really what it requires. I mean, I think I was just lying in bed, and thinking directly about the president, and one of my arguments in my head, I just wrote down. And then that happened to work as a lyric. And it later ended up working as a lyric with music. But I always found that, for me, personally, when I say, “Okay, I’m going to sit down and write something political,” then that’s when it’s … it’s a harder task. You’re gonna get real heavy-handed, real fast. Or I am, at least.
I’ve got a lot of respect for people who can sit down and write a song and do it with a lot of intention. But for me, often it comes about in a very non-direct way. Springsteen seems really good at that.
Do you have a personal favorite song on the album?
On Ga Ga Ga?
Yeah. I’m solely going to refer to it as G5 after this, by the way. It’s too good.
Well, look, I just called it Ga Ga Ga, so maybe that’s what it should be.
Isn’t it named after the piano on “The Ghost of You Lingers”? It’s supposed to be like, onomatopoeia for that sound?
I don’t know, that’s what it says on Wikipedia. [Imitating piano sound from “The Ghost of You Lingers”] Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga …
Oh! Yes, yes. That’s where the name of the album came from. I don’t know, my favorite one … I really do like “Ghost of You Lingers” quite a bit. Let me think …
[Daniel proceeds to try to list all the tracks of Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga in order from memory. It is not as easy as it sounds. There are a few faltered first attempts.]
No, okay, I can do it, I can do it. “Cherry Bomb,” “Don’t You Evah,” “Eddie’s Raga,” It ends with “Finer Feelings” and “Black Like Me,” and then before that is “Japanese Cigarette Case”…
I know of at least one you’re missing.
Oh. “Rhthm and Soul” is number five.
That was the one I was thinking of.
All right. [he gets out his phone.]
“Japanese Cigarette Case” is also up there for me.
Oh. “The Underdog” is the one I forgot. [Laughs.] And that’s the only one that was recorded by Jon Brion, and we almost didn’t put it on the record.
Why was that?
Well, because it felt different for us. It was the only one that was recorded digitally and not on tape, and it was the only one we didn’t record with Mike McCarthy. And I thought it was pretty good, but I didn’t think it was … Definitely when the Merge radio lady said it was going to be the single, I was surprised.
That was a very peak Jon Brion time. It felt like everyone wanted to work with him. Did you ever see his show at Largo?
Yeah, I’ve seen maybe three of them.
If you want a Bush story, I saw him the day after Bush 2 got reelected. It was a real downer night. Everyone was depressed, especially him. But we had these tickets and were like, “Well, we gotta go!” I basically spent the day crying on the phone with my mom and then went to see Jon Brion.
It was a dark day. I remember, as I was figuring out that night that he was winning again, I was devastated. This girl I had just started dating was doing a conference in San Antonio, and I had driven down to San Antonio to hang out with her, and I couldn’t snap out of it. We were supposed to be having fun and … she thought I was very weird for giving a shit. Now she’s more political. But she does remember it that way, that she thought I was really … she didn’t get it.
I don’t know why I didn’t know he won until the morning. I wonder if I just went to sleep because I was feeling secure about it … I just remember waking up and being horrified.
I remember, I was setting an alarm all through the night to get up and check, like every two or three hours.
Oh, that’s just torture.
And she was sleeping next to me, so …
Okay, I can see her side now.
Oh, so I was supposed to tell you my favorite song.
Right. After the memory test.
I like “Ghost of You Lingers” quite a bit. I like “Black Like Me.” I mean, it’s a real good record! We remastered it this week, and I wrote to the Merge people and said, “This is a damn good record.”
Are there any songs that have aged for you in unexpected ways?
Like, I think differently about it now than I did at the time?
[Long pause.] Not really.
It’s just a good record!
I don’t listen to it that much. But when I did listen to it for the remaster, I was surprised by how much I liked it. And I remember really, really liking it when we finished it. But that’s usually the case with my records. I feel real proud of them, in that moment.