MAGNET Classics: Spoon’s “Girls Can Tell”


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.

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MAGNET Classics: Built To Spill’s “Perfect From Now On”


The making of Built To Spill’s Perfect From Now On
By Steve Klinge

The story of Built To Spill’s Perfect From Now On is a tale of imperfections. At least that’s the way Doug Martsch sees it. He scrapped the album twice before finally settling on an acceptable version, and when he finished it, he thought he’d never want to hear or play those songs again. And when he went back to listen to it in 2008, to perform it for the All Tomorrow’s Parties festival, he hated it. At first, at least.

But Perfect is, indeed, perfect. Eight long songs, dense with guitars that come in waves and crescendos, guitars that are clear and precise even when they’re crackling with distortion. It’s also full of accessible melodies and real songs, not just thin ideas on which to hang extended guitar jams. Released in 1997, Perfect From Now On was Built To Spill’s major-label debut—back when the jump from an indie to a major had cultural, ethical and existential meaning—and it still sounds like a revelation.

Perfect was Built To Spill’s third album. Prior to forming BTS, Martsch released two LPs while in the Boise/Seattle band Treepeople, and he had collaborated with K Records founder/Beat Happening leader Calvin Johnson for a pair of albums as the Halo Benders. Martsch envisioned BTS as a loose project rather than a regular band, and the lineup continually shifted in its first few years. The debut Built To Spill album, 1993’s Ultimate Alternative Wavers, came out on C/Z Records and featured long, experimental tracks with melodies that only occasionally asserted themselves. Its follow-up, 1994’s There’s Nothing Wrong With Love, was radically different, focusing on compact, tightly structured songs like “Car” and “Twin Falls” (later covered by Ben Folds). That album, produced by Phil Ek, caused a post-Nevermind major-label feeding frenzy for Built To Spill.

“After There’s Nothing Wrong With Love came out, there was a lot of label interest in us,” says Martsch. “We went on tour, and it became obvious that we were more than just a local Boise band at that point.”

Martsch came to the attention of Joe McEwen of Warner Bros. on a tip from Mike Johnson, then the bassist for Dinosaur Jr.

“Mike’s a real music guy and a record collector,” says McEwen, who was then the senior vice president of A&R at Warner, and had gotten to know Johnson while at Sire Records. “We had Charlie Rich and O.V. Wright in common. Mike told me, ‘There’s this guy in Iowa, he’s like a John Lennon-type,’ I remember he said that specifically. ‘He records for this little label, and he’s great.’ I took Mike seriously. I think There’s Nothing Wrong With Love had just come out. So, I sought it out—it’s not like you could look it up on the internet back then—and coincidentally, he was playing in a little club in New York City … I think it was Under Acme. I went and introduced myself. He had a song on that album, ‘Car,’ and I thought, ‘Boy, that’s great, I just love that.’ I thought, ‘That’s special; this kid knows how to write a song and really craft.’”

Martsch’s deal with Warner assured him a lot of creative control and a budget to work with (not to mention health insurance for his young family), but the songs he was working on were not the compact ilk of There’s Nothing Wrong With Love. Instead, he was building expansive, taut epics out of fragmentary guitar lines, something that combined There’s Nothing Wrong With Love’s melodic side with Ultimate’s breadth and scope. It’s an album of guitar heroics, in the lineage of Television, Dinosaur Jr and Sonic Youth. David Bowie, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Butthole Surfers—these were some of the artists Martsch was thinking about at the time. The suite on side two of the Beatles’ Abbey Road and the extended structures in classical compositions were especially influential.

“Like most musicians, I assume, I have a wide variety of tastes,” says Martsch, who sees Perfect as a logical evolution of what he had been playing. “Most of it was just a natural occurrence, things I stumbled across playing my guitar, making up songs. There’s a lot of weird, long songs, and I was influenced by a lot of other bands that had long, weird songs—that’s nothing I came up with. And maybe part of it was a little bit of a reaction to being signed to a major label. My main worry at the time was that they were going to try to really promote us, and I didn’t really want that to happen. I wanted us to grow at our own pace. I wanted to sign to the label because I wanted to get some money and not have to work. But I didn’t really want to be part of the major-label music machine. Too many bands that I loved signed to major labels and subsequently made records that I didn’t think were very good. In a way, it was to make something that would let Warner Bros. know that we were going to do things our way and didn’t want to be stars or anything. We just wanted to make music.”

The “we” there is ambiguous, since BTS was officially Martsch himself at that point, although producer Ek and Martsch’s wife Karena Youtz—as sounding board and business manager, respectively—were central to the process for both There’s Nothing Wrong With Love and Perfect From Now On.

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MAGNET Classics: Superchunk’s “No Pocky For Kitty”


The making of Superchunk’s No Pocky For Kitty
By Eric Waggoner

The sky above them was full black. Great quarter-ton animals lurked in the vegetation along the roadside, just out of view. And Jim Wilbur, of all the awful things, had begun to cough up blood.

Late night, early April 1991, somewhere on Highway 101 along the Pacific coast. Bassist Laura Ballance was at the wheel. Guitarists Mac McCaughan and Wilbur, who was developing an increasingly ugly case of bronchitis, were seated nearby. Drummer Chuck Garrison was tucked in the back, way up in the van’s small makeshift loft space, sound asleep. The night rolled and rolled and rolled past the windows as the band pushed ahead to the next show, at Portland’s Satyricon.

Superchunk, then only 18 months old, was in the middle of a good year. Its debut, released on Matador six months prior, was getting solid press and a strong response on tour. Anchored by single “Slack Motherfucker,” Superchunk was a half-hour of criminally catchy noise that would come to mark an artistic shift between ’80s hardcore and the ’90s indie-rock boom. Call it post-punk that, at the time, skewed way more punk than post.

The support tour to this point had been a series of manageably spaced hops—three weeks on the road, three weeks at home, two weeks on, a week off, and so on. But this leg was more ambitious. A western trajectory through the southern states hooked north in California, carrying the band up to Olympia, Wash., after which it was able to double back through the Midwest and stop for four days in Chicago, where the band was booked to record the second release in Superchunk’s three-record contract with Matador. The quartet had been writing and rehearsing new material for weeks, on and off the road, developing ideas in McCaughan’s kitchen, expanding them backstage before shows, running through new songs at the houses of the fans who hosted them along the way.

Ballance remembers that tour being exceptionally difficult. The band didn’t know quite what it was doing yet, and everything it was doing, the band was doing on a starvation budget. So, in the middle of the tour, for some reason—Ballance doesn’t remember why, except they had the day off and figured the trip would be pretty—they decided to push nonstop from San Francisco to Portland, not knowing they were committing to nearly 700 miles of driving. What began as a leisurely diversion stretched unexpectedly far into the night. And they were somewhere on the Redwood Highway, deep among some of the oldest living trees on earth, when the bull elk appeared.

The thing was huge, Ballance would later say, taller than the van. It stepped unhurriedly out into the road, directly into their path. And then it just stopped, completely blocking the northbound lane and fixing Ballance and Co. with a strangely baleful glare.

There was nothing else for it: Ballance stood on the brake pedal. The van’s nose dipped sharply, and everything and everyone inside was hurled forward. Poor sleeping Garrison was launched from the loft space and caught air all the way from the back, clean over the center benches, landing hard between the front seats. The vehicle quaked to a stop, van and beast somehow unharmed. Superchunk, now wide awake and with hearts hammering, took up the road once again.

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MAGNET Classics: The Shins’ “Chutes Too Narrow”


The making of the Shins’ Chutes Too Narrow
By Ryan Burleson

It’s the summer of 2003 and James Mercer is hallucinating, or something close to it. Perhaps he’s just dreaming intensely, surreally, but it’s hard to tell the difference when the songwriter is running on this little sleep. Hands reach from walls. City streets become flush with existential dread. Anxious, tired eyes grow pink and dim. Such is the case for a bounty of reasons, each of them buttressed by high stakes: Mercer is in the midst of making one of the most anticipated follow-ups in indie-rock history, he’s wracked with fear of missing his deadline, and he’s wary of disappointing the label that played a significant role in his band’s rise, not to mention the fans and critics who identified so strongly with that band’s debut, Oh, Inverted World. To add insult to injury, he’s short one song. So, while the world sleeps, Mercer trudges out to his van to write so he doesn’t wake Dave Hernandez, his temporary host and bandmate.

On one of those sleepless nights, the nervy songwriter penned “Young Pilgrims,” a wry, pointedly strummed acoustic number from which the title of the album in question is drawn. “I fell into a winter slide,” he sings, “and ended up the kind of kid who goes down chutes too narrow.” His delivery is semi-playful, but Mercer’s unease is palpable: “I know I got this side of me that wants to grab the yoke from the pilot and fly the whole mess into the sea.” Forget Garden State’s influence for a second: The Shins’ improbable, long-running appeal is more attributable to Mercer’s ability to blend humor and despair in a way that makes it nearly impossible to decipher which is which than anything a Zach Braff script could grant them.

“There was a song called ‘Mild Child’ that I’d written for the record, and we began recording it, but I just couldn’t figure out how to produce it,” says Mercer. “I’d lost a song, and I couldn’t put out a record with nine songs. So, I stayed up late and wrote so I’d have material to record in the morning. I wasn’t sleeping and was having real anxiety. It got to the point where I would fall asleep, but the dreams I would have just seemed like hallucinations. There was all this stress. I’ve never experienced it in my life. I wasn’t even having normal dreams with a plot.”

Producer Phil Ek, whose roomy studio aesthetic has become synonymous with bands like the Shins, Fleet Foxes and Band Of Horses, remembers a portion of this scene. “I was originally just brought in to mix Chutes Too Narrow,” says Ek. “It was started by James in Portland, and they’d already done a bunch of the record in his basement. He sent me a couple of songs, like ‘Kissing The Lipless’ and ‘So Says I,’ which were for the most part finished. Or I thought they were finished, because I was supposed to mix them. But we got into the studio up here in Seattle and realized that it wasn’t done at all, so I ended up doing a bunch of production stuff with them as fast as we could, because they were on a little bit of a deadline.”

Ek recalls that everyone—including, and most importantly, Mercer—relaxed once Sub Pop co-founder Jonathan Poneman and others from the label stopped by the studio to hear portions of Chutes. “They were like, ‘This is amazing. Just do whatever you need to do,’” says Ek. “They knew it was great and more stuff needed to be done, and it was no big deal. They just said, ‘Finish your cool record, and we’ll all be good.’”

We know that proved to be an understatement, of course. According to Stuart Meyer, the Shins’ A&R rep during their years at Sub Pop, Oh, Inverted World had already sold 100,000 copies by the time Chutes Too Narrow was released in October 2003. So that Chutes sold 15,000 copies in its first week probably wasn’t a huge surprise. But what no one could’ve possibly realized at the time was that the Shins were quickly becoming the flash point for a broader shift in entertainment fashion, and advertising toward “indie” sensibility. Which is to say, what Main Street, Hollywood and Madison Avenue have come to think of as indie.

It’s worth quoting great critic Nitsuh Abebe at length on this point. Writing for Pitchfork at the turn of the decade, he said, “I don’t know quite when it happened, but at some point a certain vague strain of ‘indie’ dropped its last vestiges of seeming weird and became a commonplace … When those I’m-a-Mac, I’m-a-PC commercials came out, I even saw some ad critic describe Justin Long’s Mac guy as an ‘indie type.’ Why? He’s just a young middle-class-looking white guy with a haircut. And soon enough, any film, book or cultural product that came anywhere near a certain sensibility—anything anyone would describe as ‘quirky’ or cleverish or tender—fell in the indie bucket, too: Garden State with its hilarious Shins scene, Wes Anderson movies, Dave Eggers (??), Juno, Zooey Deschanel’s general existence, private colleges, button shirts, the internet, IKEA, Miracle Whip, literacy, you tell me. The sensibility used to seem rarer, and then, I suppose, half the people attracted to it grew up and got creative jobs, and now it floats everywhere. So, huge swathes of 20somethings, like anyone with a college education or a Mac or a strummy guitar record: indie, apparently?”

That the Garden State quip was listed first in Abebe’s series is telling. Because for all the indie-fication of the modern world that the other examples are partially responsible for (Miracle Whip lol), the scene Abebe’s referring to was arguably indie’s (and the Shins’ for that matter) true Trojan Horse moment. “What are you listening to?” Zach Braff’s wounded character asks. “The Shins. You heard of them?” replies Natalie Portman’s salve. “You gotta hear this one song—it’ll change your life.”

Garden State eventually topped $36 million in box office receipts, and its soundtrack, which featured the Shins’ “New Slang” and “Caring Is Creepy,” was awarded a Grammy. Suddenly, it wasn’t uncommon for, say, the aesthetes and the athletes at your local high school to share a modicum of musical taste, a trend that continues today thanks in large part to Pitchfork becoming the Bible of Cool for such far-flung demos as ambient music fans and Beyoncé fanatics alike.

The timing of Garden State’s release and surprise success proved to be impeccable for the Chutes Too Narrow album cycle. The film hit in August 2004, just as the Shins were winding down from nearly a year of touring on the heels of the album’s October 2003 arrival. Probably road-weary, the band nevertheless booked another tour just to take advantage of the increased attention.

“We were getting requests from colleges for the first time ever,” says Mercer. “We’d never played colleges, you know? And so then we went out and decided it’d be smart to meet these new fans and establish a relationship with them, so we did a whole ’nother cycle. It was like another record had come out.”

Amazingly, the Shins weren’t part of the original Garden State script treatment they were shown. The band was just going to be part of the soundtrack. But the hard work of Sub Pop’s then-licensing lead Shawn Nolan, who’d pitched the band to music supervisors at Scrubs, had obviously paid off. Ten years removed and Braff still seems to be a fan—he licensed the Shins’ “Simple Song” for his most recent Kickstarter-funded film, Wish I Was Here.

“The soundtrack was a million-seller and just totally hit a nerve,” says Sub Pop’s Meyer. To be sure, even minor success in any creative field is enough to write home about. But the notoriety the Shins enjoyed was to some extent bigger than what they could conjure themselves in a vacuum—pop culture is littered with great artists who existed at the wrong time and place. Still, the conceit wouldn’t have worked if the Shins weren’t, well, special.

Producer Ek also remembers that time fondly, having not only produced portions of Chutes, but also touring with the group as its live sound engineer. “It’s fun to see a band transition to a different level, watching them go from a band that some people knew—they were already indie darlings—to being a band that a lot of people knew,” he says. “And they were excited and were delivering it, and the songs were so strong and so engaging.”

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MAGNET Classics: Pernice Brothers’ “Overcome By Happiness”


The Making Of Pernice Brothers’ Overcome By Happiness
By Michael Pelusi

The trinity ball is a 56-year-old tradition of Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland. During the celebration, held after the last day of classes, thousands of students don formal wear, enjoy live music and unwind to commemorate the end of a long school year.

In 1999, Northampton, Mass., group Pernice Brothers played the ball, along with Supergrass and others. The band members have very particular memories of the event. “The cream of British society sends their children to this school,” says guitarist Peyton Pinkerton. “And there were people shagging up in trees. All dressed to the nines, mind you.”

“We were playing ‘Wait To Stop,’” says bassist/producer Thom Monahan. “We’re standing in front of 1,500 to 2,000 drunk Irish kids in formal gowns, all dancing wasted-as-fuck to that song. We always said that was the make-out song.”

When reminded of the event, frontman Joe Pernice can at first only say, “Oh my God.” He continues with a memory of the song’s creation. “When the lead guitar comes in on ‘Wait To Stop,’ we really wanted it to have a ’70s slow-dance vibe to it. We were imagining it being in Carrie. Real ’70s slow-dance sadness. And it was really fun when it happened. There were kids slow-dancing to it. It was awesome.”

How many of those soused, swaying, spit-swapping Irish kids knew that a year prior, that band onstage had released that song on one of the most masterfully, sadly beautiful albums of their—or any—age, 1998’s Overcome By Happiness (Sub Pop)? Or that beforehand, the band’s frontman was doing most of his performing at a kitchen table?

“I definitely think Joe is one of the most underrated, incredible songwriters,” says Monahan, now an in-demand producer (Devendra Banhart, Vetiver) in L.A. “He’s fucking amazing. I do not think that that guy has gotten his due.”

“Anybody who creates such quality material in such a short amount of time, it always astounds me,” says Sub Pop head Jonathan Poneman. “And Joe was really on a roll.”

Pernice shrugs off this kind of talk. “I don’t feel like, ‘Oh this record is so great, it should be heard by millions of people.’ I promise you, I’ve never felt a sense of entitlement.”

Before the Pernice Brothers, there were the Scud Mountain Boys, Pernice’s prior band. They specialized in an especially moody brand of alt-country. They played Pernice originals with titles like “Fiery Coffin” and “Grudge Fuck,” as well as irony-free covers of Glen Campbell’s “Where’s The Playground, Susie” and Olivia Newton-John’s “Please Mr. Please.” They were initially a rock band named the Scuds, until they started informally gathering around a kitchen table to play country songs. Once rechristened, they started bringing the kitchen table up onstage.

“The Scuds were these dudes who were always playing these late-night jams at this house ’round the corner down this really shady, wooded little road,” says Monahan, who had just moved to Northampton in the mid-’90s. He wound up recording their 1995 album, Dance The Night Away, ushering in a 10-year collaboration with Pernice. “I happened to have an eight-track, and I just dragged it into (guitarist) Bruce Tull’s house, and we did Dance The Night Away,” he says. “It was fairly romantic, I gotta say; windows open, rainstorms blowing through in the middle of takes.”

Monahan found about Pernice’s prodigious writing ability when the two became roommates. “He was always writing,” he says. “Joe and I were living together in this apartment. Joe would always be playing songs in the kitchen. It was just ridiculous. He was just churning them out. I’d wake up in the morning and he’d be playing some song he’d written. I’d be like, ‘God, another one!’”

For their final album, 1996’s Massachusetts, the Scud Mountain Boys had landed a contract with Sub Pop, thanks to the enthusiasm of the label’s East Coast rep, Joyce Linehan, who lived in the Dorchester neighborhood of Boston. But Pernice was already a little restless. “We were a certain genre of music, just by what our skill sets were and what we all liked to play as a group,” he says. “And I just wanted to do more than that.”

Enter Bob Pernice, brother of Joe. While not a professional musician, he still played guitar and occasionally sat in with the Scud Mountain Boys. Pernice Brothers first joined forces as a band to record a handful of songs with Monahan and some other musicians at Bob’s house. Two songs, “Jimmy Coma” and “Monkey Suit,” came out as a Sub Pop seven-inch in 1997. These songs, Bob Pernice says, were “straightforward rock.” It wasn’t quite the sound Joe Pernice had in mind. “I think he was gravitating towards something a little bit more complex and refined,” says Bob. “Maybe (the seven-inch) was a stepping stone.”

According to Joe, “I wanted to do something that had a full orchestra, a lot of piano-based stuff. I wanted the guitars to have less of the country twang.”

The seeds of the Scud Mountain Boys’ demise had been planted. Not that it was a decision that came easy to their soon-to-be former frontman.

“I struggled with it,” Joe admits. “The Scud Mountain Boys, those guys were my closest friends. These guys are your closest friends, the music’s pretty good, and you just made a record that’s been really critically acclaimed, and you could probably build on that. I contemplated not doing it, because I thought, ‘Jesus I’m giving all that up, just for what?’ To take a crack at making this kind of record when I don’t even know if it’s going to work? At the end of the day, I just had to go with what I really wanted to do and not worry about any of that other stuff.

“And I’ll tell you what: It was not only a turning point in my musical career, it was a big turning point in my life, because I grabbed my balls, as we say, and I did it. I just thought I had to do it. And I risked this other thing, and I risked friendships, and my friendships certainly suffered for a long time. So, it was a big risk, but I had to do it because I knew I wouldn’t be happy just doing the Scud Mountain Boys anymore.”

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