It’s been over 20 years since a young Austin indie-rock outfit called Spoon released their debut album, “Telephono,” and in the decades since, much has changed about the band’s original hometown.
“One thing I remember about Austin, right when I moved here, is what a ghost town it was downtown,” lead singer Britt Daniel said in early July. In the early ‘90s there were scant housing options in the city’s center, and nightlife off Sixth Street was limited. Legendary Austin concert venue Liberty Lunch, located in what is now the upscale Second Street district, “felt like an outpost," Daniel said. "It felt like you were in the middle of nowhere.”
One night he forgot he was a starving musician and ventured out to catch a show by DIY punk icons Fugazi. “I remember standing outside Liberty Lunch as Fugazi played and me thinking $5 was just way too much money. I just can’t afford it,” he said with a laugh.
These days, Spoon ranks among the most successful music acts to come out of Austin. Daniel and drummer/producer Jim Eno are the two remaining original members, and over the span of nine albums their sound has evolved from the angular guitar rock of early days to include synthesizers and modern production elements that bolster their arsenal of catchy hits. A new collection, “Everything Hits at Once: The Best of Spoon,” is out July 26, and we caught up with Daniel to talk about the compilation, the band’s summer tour with Beck and Cage the Elephant, and his early days in Austin.
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American-Statesman: Can you talk about the process of putting together this greatest hits album? How did you decide what to include?
Britt Daniel: It was a process. It started out as a much longer record, and at some point we remembered the original idea, which was to make a greatest hits (album). You know, at some point we might put out a greatest hits that has rarities and B-sides, some kind of all-encompassing collection, but that’s not what we’re doing this time. This one is more for the semi-initiated. Those with a passing familiarity with the band or maybe who haven’t heard us at all. So we had to weed it down quite a bit ... I guess we put our heads together and tried to figure out what were the most immediate songs that would appeal to that group of people.
Were some of them really obvious, the fan favorites and the songs that get the biggest response when you play them live?
Yeah, and honestly, that was a good rule of thumb: if a song has lasted. If it’s several albums old and we’re still playing it in our set, that probably means it’s one of the ones that is one of those immediate tracks. So songs like “Inside Out,” like “Got Nuffin,’” like “The Way We Get By,” the songs that we just keep playing no matter how old they are, those are the obvious choices for this compilation.
You open with the song “I Turn My Camera On” which you’ve referred to as a song about documenting the world. Does this album feel like a scrapbook of the last 20 years or so of your life?
Yeah, a bit. I hadn’t thought about it that way, but I guess you could say it is. You know, I wrote all the songs except for one and spent a lot of time with these songs both in the writing and the recording of them. So they’re little documents. … When I was going about that first exercise of trying to figure out what songs should be on the record and I came up with that long list that was three discs long, I did listen to all the songs, and I remember moments, I remember what I was going for. ... A lot of them I hadn’t listened to in a really long time.
Was that process pretty nostalgic for you?
It was. There’s a record like our very first record, “Telephono,” it’s not one that I feel like I relate to the guy who wrote those songs as much as the others. The others I recognize me a little bit more. But even then, even with a record like that, listening to it the whole way through for the first time in, I don’t know how many years ... I kind of got this glimpse of, oh, yeah, that’s what I was going through there. That’s what we were shooting for. That was the bit where we were ripping off Echo and the Bunnymen. That was a bit where a PJ Harvey record had just come out and I was snagging the rhythm from it. And there’s sort of this frame of mind of being, whatever I was, 20 years old, writing those songs. It does sneak up on me.
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I’d love to hear any old Austin memories that surfaced.
A lot of the songs that are on this compilation were written on Hearn Street just north of where the Deep Eddy Cabaret is. That’s where I lived for maybe four or five years, and I wrote “The Way We Get By” on the floor in that studio apartment. I wrote “Camera On” in that same exact spot. I wrote “Underdog,” the lyrics to it, while I was lying in that bed. I do think about that place a lot. I drove by and looked at it recently. I was very lucky that I had upstairs neighbors who didn’t mind me shouting.
Can you talk a little bit about what the scene was like in Austin when you were coming up? What was it like being a young indie-rock outfit trying to break out in the '90s?
I didn’t know what indie-rock was, but people were obsessed with music. I met most of my friends through music, and that was all we did. Who’s playing a show tonight? It’s Tuesday night, where do we go? We go to the Blue Flamingo. There’s got to be somebody there playing. There’s always somebody playing at the Austin Outhouse or the Hole in the Wall or the Electric Lounge. There was no lack of enthusiasm. It was not a jaded scene. It was, we’re gonna have fun. We’re gonna hang out with our friends. We’re gonna have a party no matter where it is. It might be a house party. House parties were actually the best. That’s where I saw some of the best shows. I saw Glorium play a show that I’ll never forget at a house party. All of the Peek-a-Boo (Records) bands would play house parties, and that was a great moment. I’m sure it’s still happening, I just don’t get invited.
Your career kind of took off right as the music industry was going through a cataclysmic change. “A Series of Sneaks” came out in 1998; Napster debuted in 1999. What was it like trying to navigate a new system that nobody really understood?
Well, we were lucky in that as the music industry took a dive, that was exactly when our fortunes started improving. The two might be related. When we started out, the only way you could get played, the only way you could reach people was the radio and a few magazine articles and word of mouth. ... There were certain establishment opinion leaders and gatekeepers that kind of held all the cards. And the further we got along, the longer we stuck around, the more that seemed to open up. There was this thing called the internet, and you could find out about any band you wanted anytime you wanted to. NPR started being a bigger thing, and music blogs were a big thing, and that worked for us a lot better than when we were hoping to get on MTV.
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What does the set list look like for this tour? Is it a lot of songs from this compilation?
It probably will end up being. It’s a big lineup. It’s a great lineup, but there’s four bands every night so we’re only playing 45 to 50 minutes most of these shows. So with that kind of set time, set length, it’s harder to go deep, right? You don’t get as many opportunities to do B-sides, to put it one way. It will be a lot of the songs from the greatest hits. We have been working on new songs we were just recording here in Austin last week, so we’ll be working on new ones as we go along, too.