Q&A: Going Ga Ga with Spoon's Eno
As Austin boys Spoon tour our fair country, I got a chance to chat with the band’s drummer and studio mastermind Jim Eno. The soft-spoken percussionist was upbeat and at ease discussing topics from knob twirling to latest release Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga to performing on Saturday Night Live.
…promoting what’s now your sixth album? That’s gotta seem like a huge event.
Yeah, it’s good. We’ve been doing this pretty much since March. It can get a little tiring, but the thing about touring is it makes your recording—we recorded for about five months; that can tend to feel like a bubble where you don’t get a lot of feedback. So, going out and playing the songs on the record is really rewarding—to basically make you feel good that your time in the studio was well spent. And if you think the record’s good and everyone’s singing along to it, then that helps you feel better about it.
Speaking of recording time, how’d you get into recording and mixing and doing all of that? [Eno runs Public Hi-Fi studios in Austin.]
By being around it and also sort of out of necessity because after A Series of Sneaks, we knew we had to do a lot of this stuff on our own. At the time I had a day job, so I was just buying recording equipment to try to push us through and get some stuff on tape. That turned into a crazy gear addiction.
How did that affect the evolution and production of your albums?
I think it has helped. This thing about having your own studio time is a blessing and curse because studio time is cheap, but the problem is that infinite studio time is also bad. You don’t have, ‘OK, we only booked up until next week—we have to be out of here by then.’ You don’t have those types of pressures.
I also hear from musicians I know that they will obsess over stuff that was probably fine and just kind of create a problem.
Yeah, totally. That’s a really good point. You try to recognize those points. One of the things is we always record to analog, so we were always talking about committing and conserving tracks and how we’re gonna do all that. With digital recording you could have thousands of tracks, and then you have to weed through all that stuff, and you lose the charm that you have from leaving any mistakes in the song.
By you collecting equipment and being a part of the recording process, you’ve kind of explored a better fidelity, but you’ve still expanded some playfulness or ear candy with each album. You’ve been able to experiment, and for you guys, that’s gotta be fun—that even though you’re doing analog, you still have these things at your fingertips that you probably didn’t have, or certainly didn’t have in the beginning.
Yeah, totally. We use a combination of analog and digital gear. We’ll still use Pro Tools if we need to, but we use it to do maybe a quick edit and then throw it back to tape. Or maybe if you record like three little guitar parts, you can combine some of the takes and then throw it back. For the most part, we’re trying to get solid, full takes. And as far as experimentation, Britt [Daniel, singer and guitarist] is really, really good at that—like sounds and creating weird things, and he’ll demo a lot, and we’ll recreate.
I noticed that on “Ghost.” With Ga Ga, I noticed you threw in more surprises. It was almost like you unwrap something, and, ‘Oh, wow!’ Fans or even new listeners would be surprised with it based on what they’ve heard before. So were you influenced to do that in any way?
We’ve always had little weird things in the songs. Kill the Moonlight had a lot of weird stuff—“Paper Tiger”—and we always tend to leave a lot of the noises and extraneous things in when most people would just edit them out. And for us, when you record on analog, you’re listening to these same mistakes over and over again. Like, for instance, a lot of the pre-song banter—talking and little noises and things—that stuff you’re listening to hundreds and hundreds of times as you’re overdubbing onto the song, so that becomes part of it in your head. So then when you go to mix, if you start pulling these little sounds out, it sounds empty.
In saying, ‘It’s new; fans haven’t heard that,’ I realized that’s because if you’re a fan you’ve listened to Kill the Moonlight tons of times, and you got used to it. That became normal. So then you hear Ga Ga, and you’re like, ‘Wow, that’s totally different.’ And you think, ‘Well, really they’ve been doing that, but now it’s a different step,’ which is a testament to you guys for reinventing yourselves every time and making it something new. A lot of bands can’t do that.
But exactly what you were feeling on Kill the Moonlight is how we are in the studio. Like, listening over and over again, and then it doesn’t sound as weird. It just seems to fit.
Yeah, and I remember it coming after Girls Can Tell, everybody was like, ‘This is crazy! What are they doing?’ And now it’s the same reaction. As far as working on “The Underdog” with Jon Brion, with a big name producer, did you have to adapt to his habits or techniques or was he cool with how you guys work?
He would totally adapt to us. One of the amazing things about him—there’s a lot of amazing things about him, but he would jump right in there, and so he’s incredibly talented and incredibly inspiring that he just makes everyone feel comfortable and want to create music. And you’re hanging out with him, and you’re charging this direction with an idea on a song—‘Let’s try this thing, this part’—and at a certain point, you have to make up your mind —does this make sense? Do we keep going down this path or not? And if one of us says, ‘Well, we don’t really think this is working,’ he doesn’t hold a grudge, he doesn’t take it personally. He’s just like, ‘OK, cool, yeah, I can see that. Let’s move on to this. How about this idea?’ He just doesn’t really take things personally, I guess is the best way to describe it.
That’s good because it is ultimately your baby. That’s wonderful to have someone that’s hands-on but also at least hands-off when it comes to an emotional connection as much as you guys should have.
I mean, he’s still passionate about everything, but he still wanted it to sound like us.
So sometimes maybe you guys are disappointed because something you really wanted to work doesn’t, and he can go, ‘OK, but let’s try this,’ and maybe get you off of that. That would be a good motivator to just keep going when you’re kind of down about it. Because like you said, sometimes you’re in a bubble, and sometimes it’s hard to get your mind out of there.
That’s the good thing about a producer is they’re supposed to pull you out of that. And Mike McCarthy’s great, too. We’ve worked with him so much. He’s probably the best engineer I’ve ever worked with. He has this uncanny ability of getting the sounds that are in Britt’s head on tape. That’s an unbelievably difficult talent. He’s just a great producer/engineer.
Do you have specific goals for songs—“The Underdog” could be in a movie right now and Britt composed for Stranger Than Fiction—or do you just flat-out create?
Well, Britt has done stuff like that. But we never think about that stuff when we’re recording, if that’s what you’re asking. We just look at it like we want every song to stand on its own, and we want to make sure that it’s different for us, make sure that it’s great. We’re not gonna put anything out that we’re not really happy with. There are some bands that you hear records, and there’s one or two good songs, and the rest you can tell are sort of just fluff, and we try to avoid that.
Yeah. No skippers is definitely a good thing. Now, how have the lineup changes affected the band’s creative process? I know you’re the only original member other than Britt. Has it been kind of a natural flow for you guys?
Yeah. Every lineup change that we’ve had has been sort of, this guy wants to go back to school, this guy got a better gig—sort of amicable splits that just, if you’re in a band for 12 or 13 years, those things are gonna change. So we just keep trying to put out good records and everything, and the guys that are in the band at the time help us out with that.
So you’re in the middle of a tour, and Saturday Night Live calls. What did you guys do?
We say, ‘Of course we’ll do it!’
And then you hang up the phone and freak out, right?
Yeah. There was a hint that we may get it, and when we got it, we were super excited, but you can’t turn them down and hope you’re gonna get another date. It just doesn’t work that way. So we had to postpone three shows. You have to do those things sometimes.
At the risk of sounding like a grade-school girl, was it awesome?
It was an amazing experience.
Luckily, Spoon won’t have to postpone the Dallas show because of Lorne Michaels or Amy Poehler or anyone at those 30 Rockefeller Plaza studios. They’ll hit up House of Blues with The New Pornographers and Emma Pollack Friday night. -- Merritt Martin