MAGNET Classics: Spoon’s “Girls Can Tell”

Spoon

The making of Spoon’s Girls Can Tell
By Corey Dubrowa

Here’s what it nearly was:

An album called French Lessons, a title enthusiastically endorsed by Merge Records’ Laura Ballance (whose label championed and ultimately released it under a different name). Another record with an alternate mix, additional tracks and entirely different running order. Or: lucky to be released at all, given everything Spoon had endured via its one album issued on a major label (1998’s A Series Of Sneaks on Elektra), only to be almost immediately, unceremoniously dropped. (More on that story later.)

What it is not: the band’s best-selling record (that would instead be 2007’s Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, which debuted at number 10 on the Billboard 200, and at last count was hovering somewhere near the 400,000-copies-sold zone). Or even Spoon’s most critically revered record (according to Metacritic, that plaudit belongs to spare and slinky 2002 album Kill The Moonlight, which clocked in with 88 points of a possible 100 for a band the site would later declare “the most consistently great” of the last decade).

So, in the final analysis: What exactly is Spoon’s 2001 gem Girls Can Tell? On this point, a whole chorus of voices finds much upon which to agree.

“I remember people coming to our shows for the first time in six years of being a band,” says Jim Eno, Spoon’s drummer, sometimes recording engineer and the only other band member besides frontman Britt Daniel to appear on every one of its albums. “Crowds started slowly getting bigger, and they had an energy and excitement we hadn’t seen before. We played in front of about 10 times more people than any show we’d had in NYC to that point. It felt like a victory.”

“There are two things I wanted to accomplish with Britt on this album,” says Girls co-producer Mike McCarthy, who would go on to help the band record its next three albums—and whose debut appearance here helped shape the stripped-down “less is more” sound that became Spoon’s stock in trade. “I thought Britt was a star poet, a voice for a generation. And he has the most awesome, uniquely original and instantly identifiable voice. What’s special about him is the sound of that voice and what he’s saying. We also had an unwritten law back then: Every part had to be critical to making the song happen. If it wasn’t, it was gone. You can get more creative because there’s space in the recording.”

“I have a really distinct memory of listening for the first time to (leadoff track) ‘Everything Hits At Once,’” says Eleanor Friedberger, the ex-Fiery Furnaces singer and Daniel’s on-again/off-again girlfriend throughout the period surrounding Girls Can Tell. “It’s so radically different than anything he’d done before. Like he’d totally embraced Fleetwood Mac. I remember Britt listening to Tusk over and over again, and when I heard that, it was like, ‘OK, it has sunk in completely—it’s working.’”
“It’s the record where the band becomes interested in the discrete units of sound that together comprise a pop song,” says critic Camden Joy, whose 2000 Village Voice essay, “Total Systems Failure,” provided an early clarion call trumpeting the band’s (to that point mostly unheard) greatness. “There’s a willingness to fuck with conventional recording techniques; the certainty of simplicity. They were a clenched-fist band, but here, the hand is opening, and they only became more this way.”

And finally, a word from its creator. “My whole kick around Girls Can Tell was classic songwriting and that the song is what comes first,” says Daniel. “It was less about gimmickry or studio trickery, which I felt Sneaks had plenty of. I was listening to a lot of oldies radio, and I had this cassette of Elvis Costello’s Get Happy!! in my car. I really got into it and started asking, ‘Where did this come from—it kind of sounds like the Supremes.’ I started listening to that and Motown more, and it all led back from there. You can take this (base) and add some punk to it, you know? I was getting genuinely interested in the Kinks, in a classic era of songwriting. And what I was doing before that certainly wasn’t working.”

Lean, but luxe. Desperate, but deliberate. Stylish, but streamlined. Girls Can Tell remains the band’s sentimental favorite, a record born of desperation that nevertheless created the sonic template that would define its sound, and to which the group (whatever its configuration would later become) would hew from that point forward. It is the record that made Spoon Spoon. And a validation of the singular, stubborn talent of singer/songwriter Daniel—a sign from the universe that the sound and vision he had been carrying around in his head had an audience, one that would only grow in proportion and passion in the years that followed. Girls Can Tell is the sound of Spoon stripped to its most elemental, essential chassis—which in turn created an identity ensuring that it would stop being compared to the Pixies and Wire, and would instead become known as the next decade’s most consistently great recording act.

“And now that song’s been sung/It’s just the cost of what’s been done/The cost of taking a walk with you” —“Take A Walk”

For a brief moment—four months, to be exact—Spoon was signed to a major label and made a terrific, underheard album called A Series Of Sneaks that came out in May 1998 and then promptly sank without a trace.

Suddenly, Spoon wasn’t on Elektra anymore. Spoon wasn’t on any label anymore.

The band had its beginnings in the proto-hot Austin scene of the mid-1990s. Daniel attended college there at the University of Texas, finished his degree in radio, television and film, and hooked up with full-time electrical engineer/part-time drummer Eno, first in a rockabilly trio called Alien Beats, and then in an altogether more punk-influenced outfit, Spoon (which took its name from a song on a Can album). The group recorded some early singles and caught the attention of Matador’s Gerard Cosloy at 1994’s South By Southwest festival, ultimately signing with the label for its first album (1996’s Telephono) and an EP (1997’s Soft Effects), which laid the groundwork that brought the band to Elektra’s door after a short bidding war for its services.

But Elektra was neck-deep in one of its most successful periods as a label—Missy Elliott, Third Eye Blind, Busta Rhymes, the Wu Tang Clan’s Ol’ Dirty Bastard and Metallica (and ironically, Spoon’s heroes, the Pixies) were all signed to the imprint during the 1990s and racking up hit singles, massive album sales and extensive radio play. Ron Laffitte—the A&R rep Elektra had deployed to reel Spoon in from Matador for a “firm three-record deal”—must have realized shortly after the release of Sneaks that Spoon simply wasn’t going to stack up to such fierce internecine competition for funds and attention. When he exited for a similar job at Capitol, Spoon was dropped, and its wilderness period began.

“There was no good way of looking at it at the time,” says Daniel, the pain almost audible. “It didn’t seem like anyone would give a chance to a band that had left a great label like Matador and then gone to the major-label system and been booted out of that in less than four months. We very likely would be breaking up; I was super broke, no money. There were no grand designs for Spoon. But somehow I kept writing songs; not thinking about the next Spoon record, but more like, ‘We have some shows on the books and I’m writing about things that are actually happening.’ If we had been wise and taken advice from the few people who gave a shit at the time, we would have changed names or started a new band. But I was like, ‘I don’t want to change the band name because this was the band that made these recordings.’ It was all a bit stubborn.”

One of those who made it clear that he did care, at the time, was producer McCarthy, who was going through his own personal upheaval and looking for a fresh start. “Since my kids and my ex had moved to Massachusetts, I was like, ‘Fuck it, I’m gonna move to New York,’” he laughs of that uncertain time. “Britt had moved to New York—he was subletting a loft in Williamsburg when it was still a ghost town—and we kept running into each other at parties. We talked about music, worked on some things on the four-track in his loft, and when I eventually got the call to go to Austin and work with them on an album, I said yes.”

As it happens, Daniel—along with drummer Eno and bassist Joshua Zarbo—had already been busily self-recording the songs he had been writing, as well as working on a few of these with local producer/guitarist John Croslin (“Me And The Bean,” “Chicago At Night”). That version of the album included different songs (including two recorded by Duane Barnes—“The Agony Of Laffitte” and “Laffitte Don’t Fail Me Now”—that very candidly documented the failed Elektra relationship while simultaneously signaling a new acoustic sound leaning closer to traditional rock elements than to punk), a different running order and a significantly different mix than what we now know as Girls Can Tell. The album’s identity at that point was raw and slightly ragged—much like Daniel himself, who was desperate to continue to put out records, and thought he had already blown his chance.

“I was working temp jobs in New York at various places—the longest one I held was at Citibank,” says Daniel. “I would leave at lunch hour and walk to this phone bank at the Marriott in Times Square where it was quiet and I could be heard, and would make calls to my manager and lawyer to find out what was going on. Every week, it was the same thing: ‘Maybe you should change the band’s name.’ Or, ‘We’ll find you a new producer to work with.’ There was never any good news.”

For a band so far down on its luck, good fortune came in pairs in 1999. First, Daniel was able to convince his friends at Omaha’s Saddle Creek Records to release the “Laffitte” songs as a concept single. “That was one of our savvier moments, really. Saddle Creek wanted there to be more, but I was like, ‘No man, just these two,’” says Daniel. “I wanted to make this point, you know? Those songs are so different than anything on Sneaks; you would have thought it was more of a punk, fuck-you kind of statement. But instead of turning it all into a slogan, it was more like, ‘This was my experience.’ Personal. The single gave people something to write about for the first time and not only made us sympathetic, but it was a bit of a stunt. And we needed a stunt for anyone to take notice, write about us and stop saying we sounded like the Pixies.”

The other stroke of luck was Spoon’s pairing with McCarthy, a sympathetic pair of ears with a stubborn streak equal to Daniel’s. The two headed back to Austin and essentially moved into Eno’s on-the-cheap home-recording studio, located in the garage next to his house (which ultimately evolved into his other part-time pursuit, Public Hi-Fi Studios). “I was paying child support,” says McCarthy. “Britt was desperately poor, eating mac and cheese every meal. Jim had his daytime semiconductor job. We didn’t have endless hours to work on the record. Britt and I would work on songs during the day in the garage studio, and then Jim would show up after work at night, play the drum parts and give his two cents.”

Desperate times called for desperate measures. But for guys with nothing left to lose, the freedom to do whatever they wanted without the pressure of a deadline or a label boss in their ear created the moment that would come to define them.

“If there’s anything you want/Come on back ’cause it’s all still here” —“Anything You Want”

At this point in its story, Girls Can Tell takes a decided turn—from the record it was before the band started woodshedding in Austin to the record it became once that approach began to yield something … more.

“Our agreement was that, initially, to get some comfort going on, I would do some overdubs and put some mixes together for the tracks they’d already recorded,” says McCarthy. “It wasn’t exactly what I wanted to be doing. ‘The Fitted Shirt’ was a great performance, but Jim had used two mics on the drums, and I was like, ‘What do I do with this to make it sound good?’ I was using all kinds of esoteric combinations of EQ and compression to just get it to sound like something. ‘Lines In The Suit’ was the one song they had completed by themselves, and it was so great, I just left it as it was.”

A quick spin through the album that, at that point, was called French Lessons gives a sense of where Spoon was headed. Directionally: Daniel’s insistence on lyrics of a more personal stripe and a sound guided more by Costello and the Crystals than the Clash (“Girls Can Tell” was the title of a Phil Spector song first recorded by the Crystals, and then the Ronettes, in the early ’60s) was resulting in a set of songs that sounded like little else in the Spoon catalog. But the early recordings were rough, raw and not quite as punchy as McCarthy’s finished product would ultimately become. They were a guitar band without an ounce of Clapton; a classic-rock trio, but with a punk-informed backstory.

“It was made in a very chaotic and ragtag way,” says Eno. “Songs would be started on one format, like one-inch tape, dumped into a computer to save, then recorded back to a two-inch tape machine. Mike came in and took control, helped us push forward to finish it.”

“I remember when we came up with the solo section for ‘Everything Hits At Once,’ it felt like, ‘For us, that’s a thing—we’re actually going to do a solo here?’” Daniel laughs about the mellotron break in the album’s opening cut, played by his friend Conrad Keely from …And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead. “That’s pretty trad. But then again, I was into going to trad places. I remember not knowing how to write a solo, then figuring out, ‘This song is in F-sharp minor—here are the notes to that chord.’ I labeled the notes on the keyboard so I could come up with a melody. I’m not Jon Brion, you know? I could barely play keys to begin with. And I remember feeling before then that piano was not cool. There was no way it was going to make an appearance on a Spoon record, and if we were going to use it at all, it was going to be something textural. It was all part of that Supremes revival I was feeling.”

In point of fact, Spoon didn’t even have a piano during the recording of the album; once the group decided to add it, Daniel would take the band’s four-track and sneak into the University of Texas music department building during off hours, recording his parts on one of the program’s resident pianos, and then transferring the final tracks back to McCarthy’s eight-track master tapes. This DIY approach was not only the hallmark of a band operating without a net; Spoon was open to new experiences, new sounds and new ways of working that were more in keeping with its punk roots than those of a major-label band. And it was working.

“With Girls Can Tell, we realized that all instruments can be used on a recording,” says Eno. “Previously, we may have felt like having a piano or harpsichord on a song wasn’t cool. But all of our favorite artists used those instruments, so hey, we can, too.”

The new songs Spoon was tracking with McCarthy were resonating, and filling out the thin earlier version of the record with a raw, real freshness that pointed toward a different kind of future state for Daniel and his band, albeit one that required some occasionally unorthodox measures to capture the sound it was seeking. One example: During recording, Daniel lost his paternal grandfather, who had grown up around him in Temple, Texas. The loss stung—and when Daniel sat down to marry the “nursery-rhyme melody” (played predominantly with a harpsichord) he kept hearing with lyrics that captured the essence of that loss, some different approaches were required to get “1020 AM” exactly right.

“Jim and Britt came up with this drum idea at the end, and we needed to do it in Jim’s house to get that echo to it,” says McCarthy. “The only way to get the sound we were hearing, that resonance, was to record it in his house (rather than the garage studio), where there were hardwood floors. So, we were running mic lines from the studio through his kitchen window and into his living room. Jim’s wife and kid were out shopping and he’s like, ‘Let’s hurry up and get this done while they’re out!’”

“We were doing a lot of that out of necessity,” says Daniel. “All we had was a tom, and we wanted it to sound like a tympani. We had been listening to Pet Sounds and wanted that kind of sound. Or the kalimba. I thought it was a cool sound, slightly like a xylophone. But I guess Mike was hearing more of the African sound of it, and didn’t like it so much. He would make me go into the closet in Jim’s garage studio. If you wanted soundproofing or privacy, you had to go into this tiny closet, which had a shelf all the way through it. If you wanted to be alone, you had to sit under the shelf and close the door, then sit down Indian-style. It was like being in a cage.”

What emerged from these sessions was essentially a before-and-after picture of Spoon; and the “after” version is what finally captured the attention of a label. A really good one, as it so happens.

“I was into (early Spoon track) ‘All The Negatives Have Been Destroyed,’ and I think two or three separate people sent me Girls Can Tell in various forms (demos, etc.),” says Merge Records’ Mac McCaughan. “Their booking agent, their publicist and friends of the band were all saying, ‘You have to hear this new record!’ And it was as good as advertised.”

But before Merge could issue Girls Can Tell in 2001, the label suggested a quick primer introducing the band’s new sound—and since the album was already in the can, Daniel quickly reconvened the band to put down the 2000 five-track EP Love Ways, which hinted at the stylistic shifts the band had in store. “Jealousy” was a piano-driven Motown fling (with an obvious bite in the bridge from the Crystals’ “Then He Kissed Me”); “Change My Life” was darker, a distant cousin of Girls Can Tell’s “Chicago At Night” but with edgier, more aggro guitars. All of a sudden, Spoon had arrived.

Touring—which had always been something of an uphill battle in front of small audiences in the past—was clicking. When Girls Can Tell hit store shelves in early 2001, it quickly sold more copies than the band’s entire back catalog combined. Radio was responding.

“I was stunned by it selling,” says Daniel. “We put out so many records, or had been doing it for so long without a lot of good stuff coming back to us. I mean, working with Matador was a thrill to me, and it meant so much to be on the same label as Yo La Tengo or Guided By Voices. But it didn’t count for much in the real world. We had always lost money on the road until Girls Can Tell. It’s the first time we came home with a little money left in our pockets.”

And it set the stage for everything that would follow: the addition of piano to the band’s arsenal led to the ridiculously simple, but catchy compositions (“The Way We Get By”) that marked Kill The Moonlight. Daniel’s softer, occasional dalliances with falsetto vocals set the stage for the breakout success of Gimme Fiction’s “I Turn My Camera On.” Its stories of heartbreak (“Anything You Want,” a pointillist depiction of Daniel’s romantic split with Friedberger) and loss (“1020 AM”) presaged an entire album dedicated to these emotions, 2007’s Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga. It included a cover, John Clayton’s “Me And The Bean,” that would point the way to future obscure compositions (“Don’t You Evah”) that would find their way into the band’s repertoire. “Chicago At Night” began a tradition of closing Spoon albums on a strong, if darkly twilight, note. And the sonic experimentation the band was navigating with McCarthy would give it the confidence to explore the abstract statements that later emerged on Transference and They Want My Soul.

It also made clear Daniel’s commitment to the album as his preferred form of communication, right down to the artwork (a needle on a vinyl record, which turns out to be the Fall’s This Nation’s Saving Grace, artfully blurred to avoid detection). “I’ve always said albums mean more to me personally than songs,” he says. “An album of songs has more of a place in my life and heart than any one song. You get to the end of an album and go, ‘There’s a reason I’m listening to this whole thing as one volume.’ And people say that to me a lot about that record; more than any of the old Spoon albums, it’s the one that meant something to them. I’m always surprised. Because it’s not the biggest seller, not the one that got the most accolades. But people make more of an emotional connection to that one than all the others. It’s more emotional to me, certainly.”

Put more simply: You can’t get to the rest of the band’s catalog and sonic development without first linking this to the groundwork laid down by Girls Can Tell.