Austin-based indie rockers Spoon have been cranking out earworms since the mid-’90s. Their reliably catchy guitar-driven singles have been featured in movies and TV shows ranging from The Simpsons to this summer’s Spiderman: Homecoming, and they even claimed the title of Metacritic’s highest-rated band of the ’00s.
That isn’t to say Spoon’s sound has stagnated. Hot Thoughts, the group’s ninth studio album, features heavy synths, maracas, and peppy piano riffs, and concludes with an extended saxophone solo.
“The me that started this band would be very surprised to hear this new record in its entirety,” songwriter and vocalist Britt Daniel tells the Straight from his home in Austin. “I mean, we were all about bass, guitars, and drums, you know. That was it when we started out.”
But positive reviews and high concert turnout suggest that these sonic departures are working. Spoon’s music seems to fit naturally into the background of whatever moment it’s playing in. Hot Thoughts dips in and out of a number of musical eras—there’s familiar early-2000s indie rock on “Can I Sit Next to You”, improvisational jazz on “Us”, and ’70s David Bowie–style piano on “First Caress”. Given all this musical time-travel, it’s a bit surprising when Daniel says the only overarching goal was to make a work that wasn’t necessarily rooted in the here and now.
“We had this vague notion that we wanted the record to sound futuristic,” Daniel says. “I’m not even sure if we used those terms literally, but that was sort of on my mind.”
This vision dictated which songs made the final cut. One acoustic ballad was thrown out because it didn’t fit the vibe. The same considerations were taken into account when building the set list for the band’s ongoing tour.
“At this point we can’t try to play every song we like, because there’s just not enough time,” Daniel says with a laugh. “We felt like we kinda created a sound world with this album. It’s a record that goes off in a couple places into this atmospheric, soundscape-y kinda place. And we thought what songs from our catalogue would fit into that world.”
Daniel isn’t sentimental about letting go of older fan favourites, particularly because he’s noticed audiences are most receptive to songs from the last two albums.
“Honestly, the newer songs get more response and that’s probably a good thing,” Daniel says. “I mean, that’s better than the opposite.”
As for how Spoon’s kept it interesting all these years, Daniel’s best explanation is that as a songwriter, he moves toward things that sound right.
“I just start singing what comes to me. That’s usually a good place to look,” he says. “And that’s something that happens without a lot of intention, you know. Usually I’ll record that, I’ll listen back, and I’ll go, ‘Did anything good just happen?’”
Spoon’s decades-long success streak indicates that Daniel’s freeform songwriting approach delivers the goods. Late on Hot Thoughts, the poppy, Bowie-influenced “Tear It Down” features the bouncy hook “Let them build a wall around us, I don’t care, I’m gonna tear it down.” It’s not clear if Daniel is singing about breaking down metaphorical walls that block creativity, or perhaps a certain president’s proposed Mexican border wall. But it’s a catchy hook—and whatever it means, musically, it feels right.
Daniel isn’t really about definitions, anyway. He’s reluctant to summarize Spoon’s musical identity in a few words.
“Why do I have to define it?” the singer asks incredulously. But when pressed, he gives it a try.
“When I get in a cab and the guy sees I have a guitar and he asks what kind of band are you in, I always say rock and roll.”
Spoon plays Malkin Bowl on Saturday (September 2).