Artists from elsewhere — whether William Faulkner or Ornette Coleman or David Hockney — have been coming to Los Angeles for decades, and for all kinds of reasons. For some, it’s the energy of the city’s music scene. For others, it’s Hollywood money, or at least the hopes of it. For still others, it’s the dream of alienated provincial kids finding like-mindeds.
For Britt Daniel, lead singer of now-sorta-L.A. band Spoon, who open a Hollywood Bowl show headlined by Belle and Sebastian on Sunday, it came down to something simpler. The Texas native was enjoying living in Portland, Oregon, but something was missing: The sun was not nearly often enough in view.
“A lot of it’s personal or weather-related,” a relaxed Daniel recalls by phone. “It really does make a difference to my head space. In Portland I’d wake up with a lot of work in front of me and think, ‘I just want to drink.’ And that can work for a little while, but it’s not a good, sustained way to work.”
Daniel has been coming and going from Los Angeles for about a decade now — he sometimes visited from Portland for a few days when he needed the “motivating” powers of the sun — which makes his band something like what Pavement was in the ’90s: a multiheaded beast with members in several different time zones.
The band’s deepest roots are in Austin — though there is nothing conventionally twangy about this group, which grew up in the shadow of alt-country. Jim Eno, the band’s drummer, co-founder and resident dial-turner, is still there, where he runs a renowned music studio, Public Hi-Fi. Rob Pope is the band’s longtime bassist, and Alex Fischel is the group’s keyboard player. The group recently added a native of Mexico City, now living in Texas, Gerardo Larios, who is — in a job title strange to contemplate for a band known for stripped-down minimalism — the group’s other keyboard player.
At an invite-only KCRW show at Santa Monica’s Apogee studio in March, Spoon proved that, despite the distance and various extracurricular activities — Daniel and Fischel were in indie supergroup Divine Fits, Eno produces tons of other bands — this group is tighter and more focused than it has ever been.
“We’ve just made it more of a show this time,” Daniel says. “We’ve focused on the way the songs move together, blend together — the transitions. The whole idea [is] that you’re going to see a show that’s not lackadaisical or haphazard.”
One thing he does not want, apparently, is to be a typical indie-rock band. “What does indie rock mean? It sounds like it means low-effort. The music of slackers.” It’s a startling comment from a band sometimes seen as embodying indie, who have released most of their albums on iconic independent labels Matador and Merge, and whose song “Small Stakes” is sometimes taken as the style’s melancholic anthem. But one thing is clear from the recent shows and new LP, Hot Thoughts: “We are not slackers.”
Spoon's music remains as cryptic and abstract as ever. But whatever they are saying, man, do they mean it.
Truth be told, Daniel’s move to the Southland was not entirely solar-inspired. When he realized that Powell’s and coffee culture were not enough to make up for gray skies, he knew he wanted somewhere big, and somewhere he could operate a home studio. Buying a loft in Brooklyn and refurbing it seemed prohibitively expensive. “I looked at a few places in L.A. and thought, this is an easy call. Beautiful, lots of space. And you can make noise, you know.”
The city’s rich musical history didn’t hurt. “I think of Prince recording all of those classic records at Sunset Sound Studios No. 2; I’ve recorded at Studio 1. The Doors were really big for me for a while. X, Black Flag … there are so many. Great music town. I love the architecture, the feeling of Old Hollywood. I can feel the old world when I’m there.”
Daniel, who is far friendlier and more engaged than his reputation suggests, still comes across as an introvert, and apparently the city’s isolation — the best or worse thing about it, depending on one’s temperament — suits him. “It’s a big city, and I’m in the middle of the city. But I can do my own thing and sort of sequester myself at my house in L.A. It’s why I’ve taken to it as being the writing spot.”
So while Daniel spends a bit more of his time these days in Austin — and in the last year alone Spoon have performed across the United States and in London and Mexico City — the City of Angels “is always the place I go back to.” He wrote most of Hot Thoughts and 2014’s strung-out They Want My Soul here, as well as the bulk of the Divine Fits LP, though he generally went elsewhere to record.
Spoon have been working this record hard, and Daniel describes himself as excited to be alive while so much great music is being made, always searching for inspiration from new bands as well as old. (He floats the notion that The Beatles’ Revolver and the year 1966 were perhaps the apogee of Western culture.) He’s split between admiring obsessive control-freak auteurs such as Stanley Kubrick — taking “years to do everything, from picking the monkey costume to being involved in the font on the poster” — and realizing how damn hard the work of making great records is. Sometimes, he says, he fantasizes about letting other people handle it all — not even writing his own songs. “I’ve been doing it DIY all this time, and I want to make a record called YDI — 'You Do It!' You know what I mean?”
A few years as a kind of punk-nasally interpretive singer could do wonders. “That way I could concentrate on finding the best margaritas in a certain city, and just show up at night and put down some tracks. That would be great.”
Spoon play the Hollywood Bowl on Sunday, Aug. 6, with Belle and Sebastian and Kristin Kontrol.