The Four Secret Weapons of Spoon's 'Hot Thoughts'
New members, guest spots, a cabin in the woods and a Hall of Fame icon all add inspiration.
Published Mar 16, 2017When Spoon emerged from a brief hiatus with their eighth album They Want My Soul in 2014, the band seemed remarkably re-energized. Approaching their 20th anniversary, they still had their iconic rock swagger, but with an added psychedelic current that surged to the surface in choice moments.
Their ninth LP, Hot Thoughts, out March 17 on Matador, marks a full realization of the experimentation that They Want My Soul hinted at, with full tracks immersed in dub and free jazz alongside Spoon's evergreen brand of sharp, hooky rock. In a chat with Exclaim!, lead singer Britt Daniel enthused about their evolution, stating "I don't think that happens with every band that's around as long as we have [been]. I think a lot of good things came together at once and we were able to make this record that goes in different directions."
Part of the band's drastic change is a result of some key contributors and inspirations, new additions to the band's circle whose impact can be heard all over the new record. Daniel identified four key figures who greatly influenced the sound of Hot Thoughts.
1. Keyboardist Alex Fischel
Daniel met Alex Fischel in 2012 during Spoon's hiatus, when Daniel and Dan Boeckner (of Wolf Parade and Operators) had teamed up to form Divine Fits. "Handsome Furs played one of their last shows with a band Alex was in," remembers Daniel, "and Dan described to me watching Alex play the Nick Lowe song 'I Love the Sound of Breaking Glass' — just this cacophony of bizarre sounds and playing that Alex took to the approach of that song."
Boeckner and Daniel recruited Fischel to bring those unorthodox synth textures to Divine Fits. Though that group went their separate ways after one album, Daniel brought Fischel and his myriad sounds to Spoon during the recording of They Want My Soul.
Now on board for the whole process with Hot Thoughts, the keyboardist's presence has impacted the way Daniel conceives songs. "I would write a song in the traditional way that I do. Sometimes I'd be on acoustic guitar, and sit on that demo and think, 'Do I really want a song with acoustic guitar? No!'" he shouts emphatically. With Fischel, Daniel says, "We'll come up with a completely different way to play these chords and for me to sing these words." Hot Thoughts is the first Spoon record without acoustic guitar.
2. Producer Dave Fridmann
Legendary rock producer Dave Fridmann is another holdover from They Want My Soul and, like Fischel, joined the process partway through. For Hot Thoughts, the veteran best known for his work with the Flaming Lips, Mercury Rev and MGMT, was part of the process from the beginning, adding his signature psychedelic flourishes.
"I don't think our records have ever sounded as big until we worked with him," says Daniel. "We might have been a little bit wary of sounding big, because to me, for a long time, 'big' records meant 'big, dumb, alt-rock records that were made for the radio.' And that turned me off. But he has a way of making things sound big that still feels dangerous and like it's off-kilter and could explode or fall down on its face at any moment.
"There are [drawbacks] like the fact that we've gotta go to upstate New York in the middle of the woods in the middle of the winter — that's not my favourite thing. But he knows that and makes it worth it, because he's skilled as a person who can bring everyone together and keep us all on the same page and focused," admits the singer. "I can't think of anyone else I'd rather work with."
3. Saxophonist Ted Taforo
Hot Thoughts is filled with dramatic departures from Spoon's stomping rock — such as dub-tinged "Pink Up" and piano ballad "I Ain't the One" — but none more than album closer "Us," an instrumental track featuring little more than duelling saxophones and clattering percussion. According to Daniel, the song initially bore little resemblance to the final product. "I had this song that was kinda long and it had a few words — but not many," he recounts. "I thought, with this long song, we should have some sort of saxophone introduction to set up the vibe."
But guest saxophonist Ted Taforo got carried away. "Instead of just playing the beginning, he played all the way through the song," remembers Daniel. After the first take, "he said, 'OK, let me have another pass,' and he played all the way through the song again, this time harmonizing with himself and playing in time with his original take. It was remarkable. I felt like I had just witnessed something when we got to the end of that. And then he was gone! He was probably there for half an hour."
Taforo's enthusiasm inspired Daniel to completely overhaul the track. "That night, I remember sitting on the floor of my basement. I turned everything off other than the saxophones, everything he had been playing to, and just listened to the saxophones, put some reverb on there, and it was unreal! It was unbelievable. Parts of it actually made me feel pretty emotional. We basically threw out most of what he played to, and then built up the track again with the saxophones as the starting point."
"I'm a lifelong Prince fanatic," Daniel gushes. When the band was stuck attempting to flesh out dub-influenced "Pink Up," the crew turned to the Purple One for guidance. "We actually listened to the end of 'Purple Rain' a bit for that one. Once the real song is over, it goes to this unsettled but trippy place. I think we used that as a reference point."
Shortly after Spoon began recording, Prince died at age 57 of an accidental fentanyl overdose. "We were in Austin and I went out to lunch with a friend," remembers Daniel. "I think I got about 30 texts during that meal. That's how I found out. I just came over the studio and everyone was outside and everybody was just…" His voice trails off and he sighs.
"I'm still sad about it. It was too early. There was so much more music there. And he never lost it as being the greatest performer of his generation."
It's no coincidence that Hot Thoughts is Spoon's sexiest record, from the breathy opening of the title track to playground tensions of "Can I Sit Next to You" and electro-disco of "First Caress." Regarding the unusually sexed-up nature of the record, Daniel admits, "I usually don't recognize the influences until someone tells me about them. But I'm sure that [Prince's death] had some effect."