And Lucifer Makes 10: Cheryl Waters & Spoon in Conversation

Cheryl Waters
photo by Oliver Halfin

If you’ve tuned into the Midday Show on KEXP over the years, you’ve grown accustomed to the voice of Britt Daniel. Regular listeners know within the opening lick of a Spoon track that a second is soon to follow (and sometimes a third, if I feel so inclined!)

Over two decades ago, as a young DJ on what was then KCMU, I fell in love with a Texas rock band and their bold, erratic initial releases: 1996’s Telephono and 1998’s A Series of Sneaks. However, it wasn’t until their third studio album, 2001’s Girls Can Tell, that the rest of the world started to catch on. 

I was overjoyed with Spoon’s newfound popularity in the early 2000s, as well as the major stylistic changes on Girls Can Tell toward classic rock and new wave. Yet I wanted listeners to know that this was a band who had put in the work, shifting their sound across the genre spectrum while still managing to sound cohesive. I began playing an early track and newer release in tandem, hoping to demonstrate their breadth and skill.

Fast forward to 2022 and I’m still spinning a double dose of Spoon on the airwaves, however as of today I have 10 full-length releases to choose from. Lucifer on the Sofa is the band’s latest addition to the catalog, out on Matador today. The homecoming record saw the band returning to Texas roots on the precipice of the COVID-19 pandemic. A warm slice of rock ‘n’ roll pie, this is a record made for remembering the good times and togetherness.

I sat down with Britt to learn more about capturing these songs, in addition to a startling new collaboration, and our mutual love and admiration for community radio.

KEXP: Lucifer on the Sofa is so vibrant and immediate, it feels like a pure rock 'n' roll record. Tell me about those early days in the studio together, and how you captured that live sound.

Britt Daniel: We started out in 2019 with some songs, and then we ended up going on a summer tour with Beck. During that tour, we came to the conclusion that... wow, we like the versions we play of these Hot Thoughts [their 2017 LP] songs so much better than the album versions. Not every song, but some of them. We played "I Ain't The One" on TV one night, and as soon as I walked off stage, I was like...'damn I just wish we had this version of the song before we recorded it.' There was something that was happening when we actually played the songs, because when we recorded Hot Thoughts, it was much more of a pieced together record. It was a record that we were writing as we were recording it. You end up with a very produced record that way. So the idea this time was, let's hash it out in a room as a band. Then we hit record.

Lucifer On The Sofa reminds me of records I listened to when I was young. In the "olden days," when you weren't able to record at home like you are now, studio time was really expensive. Bands would tour for years before they even got into the studio for the first time. By the time they made it, they'd be super tight and solid as a unit, and they'd be super prepared because they had a limited time booked in the studio. How do you compare how you can make a quality studio recording at home now with unlimited time to fuss over and tweak things? Some of those records turn out great for sure, but the energy, I feel like it's different.

It is a different energy. It takes a lot longer to do it that way, to do it the new way, not really knowing what you're going to do. I think there's something to recording on computers, and the ability to copy and paste. It's just that simple thing of being able to line everything up perfectly that makes the music just a little bit too perfect. There's something I think adds up when someone who's not involved with the recording listens back. They can kind of tell it was made in a way that was not like the records you were talking about, when a band would learn the music, play it on the road and then go in and record it real fast.

How much time did you all spend rehearsing these songs?

Each one of them, weeks. Months. We were working on this record over a long period of time, and the pandemic made that stretch out even longer. In March of 2020 we thought we were just about done with the record, and then suddenly we couldn't see each other for months. I ended up being alone and writing a lot more songs that I was like, 'these guys have got to get on the record,' because they're better than some of these other ones. It took its time evolving and being ready to be released.

Getting interrupted as you were, having been so far along toward finishing up the record, did you have to fight the urge to tinker with what you had already captured in order to maintain that live sound you were going after?

Yeah, you do have to resist the urge to perfect things. I think something we've always done is look for accidents. Things happening that we don't expect to happen, that are just great. Always on the lookout for that.

Your home state of Texas seeps through this entire record. You moved back to Austin in 2019 after a long period away. Lucifer on the Sofa also saw the band returning to Texas to record for the first time in over a decade. Before the pandemic shut things down, you were really soaking up the energy and the vibe of the city, while making the record as well. What were those first few months in Austin, and in the studio, like?

They were great, and that was the design, instead of making the record as we did the last couple. Most of the last couple of records were made at [producer] Dave Fridmann's studio in upstate New York. He records out in the woods. You're out in near isolation for weeks at a time, about 20 miles from the nearest coffee shop. This time we said, 'let's go make a record in Austin, let's do it in a place where we can be a little more social and take in some of the energy of the city.' It was great, and it worked.

There was a night I remember Alex [Fischel] and I went to Stay Gold, this bar in downtown Austin that no longer exists. Sabrina Ellis from A Giant Dog was doing a solo show there, and our friends White Reaper were doing a show across town. They finished their show and they came down, and it was one of those great nights where everybody keeps coming together. A lot of drinks were had, and a lot of fun was had. Two o'clock came, we had to leave, and Alex and I came back to my place and took a song that we had had all this trouble with trying to figure out a vibe for. Suddenly, with this kind of end-of-the-night energy, it worked for the first time. It was a different approach that we took, and that song was “Astral Jacket.” And that's the vibe you hear on the record.

The last song on the album, title track "Lucifer on the Sofa," is such a beautiful and moody song. It sees you wandering the deserted streets of Austin. Tell me about that song.

That's the one song we almost left off the record. It doesn't sound like the other ones, it doesn't really have the same directive. It's the one song we did with Dave Fridmann this time, although we didn't see him. We just recorded it in Austin, and then we would send Dave stuff. He would say, 'go try this, and then take that back, and try this.' We'd send him some sounds, and he would alter the sounds. That was his way of producing the song.

I didn't want to not have it on the record because it was of a moment. I really love the song. I figured out you could put it at the end and kind of cheat that way, then you're allowed to put it on the record. It's that moment where the colors change and this song sends you off into the stratosphere with a different vibe.

"The Hardest Cut" was the first song you shared from the record, along with a riveting video which made an immediate impact with listeners. We couldn't hear it enough, and I couldn't stop watching that video, even though it gave me the willies.

Yeah it's a little creepy.

It is so creepy in the most wonderful way. I just love the vibe of that song. How did it come together?

That was a song that Alex had the chords for. He came in with these chords and a little bit of a melody and I said, 'let's play it.' I've always wanted to do a song with the beat of "Run Run Run" by The Who. I put that groove on his chords. Then I came up with that riff you hear at the beginning of the song, that was a stroke of luck. Then we kind of had it, just those three elements. I still had to write some words to it, but that was where it all started.

You and Alex do a lot of songwriting together, and it sounds like you have a great chemistry and working relationship. However, I saw that Jack Antonoff has a co-writer credit on the song "Wild," which is one of my favorite songs on the record. He's known for his work with some major pop artists. I'm curious to know how that collaboration was.

It was good. It was one day, it was one afternoon, really. That song was started a long time ago. Some people I work with biz-wise had suggested I try writing with people. I don't really do that much with strangers, but I tried it out with a few people. Not much of it really came to anything, but I did spend an afternoon with Jack Antonoff. He came over to my house and we came up with the music to "Wild." It was chords and a little bit of musical elements and a beat. But I never could come up with words for it, it just didn't come naturally for some reason. It didn't come early at least, and I kept coming back to the song over the years. Finally, when the pandemic happened, I had lots of time and so I messed with the song a bit. I changed the key and made it a little faster, and then all of a sudden it started happening. That's why he gets a credit, it started a long time ago with me and him one afternoon.

You kick off the album with a smoldering version of Smog's song "Held." [The Smog album] Knock-Knock was on constant repeat for me when it came out in 1999.

It's a great record.

It's such a great record, I return to it all the time. I play it on my show, still to this day. I know you performed that song for a while in the mid-2000s. What drew you to that song and inspired you to revisit it now, almost two decades later?

I think the first thing I was drawn to was the riff, but also the lyrics. These lyrics about opening yourself up to vulnerability and a love connection for the first time. That appealed to me, it was something I was going through then. I related. It's just a fantastic, beautiful lyric, like so many of his songs have. We played it live for a year, year and a half, it was in our setlist, but we never recorded it. Then somehow it fell off the set list and I forgot about it. Then we were jamming one day, when we were trying to figure out what to do. We played a bunch of covers and we played this one. When we played it, I moved over to bass and suddenly it was like, 'ah! Maybe this isn't just an exercise, maybe we should actually record this thing.’ And we did.

Then you put it right at the beginning, too.

That's because of the sonics. It felt good, it has all those cool sounds at the top. It sounded like a first song to me, with all that studio chatter and the weird, accidental noises. I just like when a record starts with something like that.

Those little accidents, you've talked about them before, how they stand out and demand to be included in a finished product. That's something I personally enjoy about live radio.

Really? So like the accidents that happen on live radio? The nature of it being in the moment?

Exactly. KEXP is unique in that we have human beings programming 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, and those human beings are not infallible. Quite often we'll make mistakes on the air and we'll get an immediate reaction from our listeners. We'll be embarrassed and they'll say, 'that's what I love about the station, the humanity of it.' Knowing there's a beating heart on the other side.

There's something to be said for a radio station where it's just normal people. Music lovers, and they're talking about music.

You've included an ode to radio on this record, the track, "On the Radio." Tell me about listening to the radio on your hometown stations growing up in Texas. Why is radio so important to you?

It was super important to me, especially as a kid. Now I love radio and there's a room in my house where I have the radio on all the time. I leave it on because it feels, to me, like there's a party going on, like there's always something happening in the house. I just like that feeling. That's sort of what it was like for me when I was a kid. I spent a lot of time alone in my room. At some point I was given this clock radio, and I just can't tell you how important that clock radio was. I would get lonely, I'd feel like I couldn't relate to people in the house, or I couldn't see anyone outside of the house. But this thing gave me a way of realizing that the world was still going on out there. Things are happening, and that was really comforting. To hear a DJ who's out there and talking, it felt like they were talking to me. It made me feel a lot less lonely and it's a big part of growing up for me.

They are talking directly to you. I do try to think of one person when I'm talking on the air and feel connected.

Do you have one person you think of in particular?

When I started as a brand new DJ 28 years ago and I was trying to get comfortable on the microphone, I actually would put up an 8x10 picture of someone so I could train myself to be talking to one person. It really does come through in the warmth of your voice when you are not thinking, 'I'm talking to the masses here, right?'.

Speaking of the masses, you just played the Sky Blue Sky Festival in Mexico with Wilco and a great lineup of other musicians. I know you love playing live and vibing with a live audience, you have such a dedicated fan base. Can you describe how it feels to be performing again?

Unbelievable. We did a bunch of shows, the first back was July 1st, 2021 in Austin. There was that moment where it felt like the world was right again. That was a really far out experience, no concern about COVID for a second. But then it came back. We still went out and toured in September and October, and we had protocols. It's still a lot of fun, and you still have the essential part of it, which is connection. It's this thing where everybody's feeling the shared experience of music. That part has not changed, and I love it. That part's still there. 

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