Britt Daniel Explains How He Picked The Songs For Spoon’s Greatest Hits Album

Cultural Critic
07.23.19

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Greatest hits albums have become a relic in the streaming era. Not only have traditional compilations been made largely obsolete by playlists, but it’s become increasingly rare for acts to have enough creative longevity to warrant a hits package.

This is doubly true in the world of indie rock. So many of the most successful bands of indie’s ’00s-era prime — including The Strokes, The Killers, Interpol, and Franz Ferdinand — are essentially known for one popular LP that functions as a de facto greatest hits album. And then there’s Spoon, the exception that proves the rule, a band that frequently inspires fans to debate the merits of Girls Can Tell versus Kill The Moonlight versus Gimme Fiction versus Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga. Even beyond the ‘O0s, Spoon continues to go strong as one of the most consistent indie bands of the era.

While any of the aforementioned records could act as entry points for the uninitiated, Spoon’s frontman Britt Daniel has crafted his own primer for newcomers called Everything Hits At Once: The Best Of Spoon, which comes out Friday. With only 13 tracks (including the new “No Bullets Spent”), Everything Hits At Once is a snappy, bite-sized introduction, though inevitably some of the band’s greatest songs were left off.

Daniel recently talked about some of Spoon’s greatest hits, and explained why some lesser-known chestnuts didn’t make the cut.

“No Bullets Spent” (2019)

There’s a history of bands putting out greatest hits records and including a new track at the end. But how do you write a song that can hang with the best of the best?

Heaps of pressure on that song. I knew that was the assignment, to come up with a song that will fit on with the best songs that we’ve done over the course of nine albums. That’s a tall order.

I guess it was … the most sort of immediate song. There was sort of a ballad that we recorded. It maybe wasn’t the right song for a greatest hits. This one seemed like it was tougher. It would fit in.

The ultimate example of this phenomenon is Tom Petty writing “Mary’s Jane’s Last Dance” for his first greatest hits album in 1993. Then that song actually became one of his greatest hits.

I didn’t know that.

He called his shot.

Yeah, I can only hope. Another one I thought of was “Say It Ain’t So” on this Hall and Oates compilation that came out a long time ago. “Say It Ain’t So” is the new song and it’s brilliant. It’s fucking amazing.

How does it feel to have a compilation record? That can be a double-edged sword for artists. Obviously, you’ve had this great career, but you don’t want to put a capper on your career necessarily.

Well, I don’t think about it as a cap at all. I mean, Tom Petty didn’t stop making music at that point. I always cite Standing On A Beach by The Cure, which is the way I found out about The Cure. That came out what, in ’86 or something? They had plenty more left in them at that time. In fact, another greatest hits or two came out after that. Mostly, I just feel lucky. I’m able to do what I want to do. I get to do shows. I get to make records. What a life.

“Everything Hits At Once” (2001)

It was a very massive progression from what the band had been up until that point. We were trying to be Wire or Gang Of Four. Rhythm guitars were up front. With this song, the lead instrument is a kalimba, I think. It’s just a new era for us.

Is the fact that “hits” is literally in the title also push it over the top?

Yeah, I thought that was a good title.

How did you go about picking these songs? You have so many songs that people love, but not really any actual “hits.”

The compilation started as a much bigger idea. When I picked a bunch of songs, it ended up looking like a two or three record set. We lived with that for a while, thought about it, and we thought better of it. Maybe this compilation should be what The Cure was for me. Something for people who don’t really know the band yet. Just the cream of the crop, basically. So then you’ve got to narrow that down. There was a lot of debating, but we picked the ones that seemed to live on the most in our stage show. And then we also considered the flow of the record. What needs to come next?

I have a pick small bone with you: “Lines In The Suit” didn’t make the cut. That’s my favorite song on Girls Can Tell. How close did it come to making it?

Honestly, I love that song, too. I think that was my favorite song on the record when it came out. To me it lyrically summarized the spirit of where I was at the best. But … I don’t get a lot of requests for that song, I’ll put it that way. But it’s cool to hear you say that.

“The Way We Get By” (2002)

I didn’t picture the drum beat being like that. I was picturing it as being like “Dead End Street” by The Kinks. Sort of a kick snare, kick snare, kind of thing. Upbeat. Jim [Eno, Spoon’s drummer] heard a different thing. He heard it more as half-time, and in the end the song really benefited from it. It’s much tougher, and has more legs because it’s more a tougher shuffle than what I was picturing.

This is one of the more famous Spoon songs. Did you feel it was special when you wrote it?

Yeah. The very first time I sang that chorus I was like, “oh oh, what’s happened?” I was just sitting on the floor hitting a Casio keyboard, screaming and shouting in my apartment. Somehow I knew that when I got to that chorus I was like, “that is gonna work.”

What did you think of Mayor Pete’s rendition?

I loved it. I really only started following what he was doing a couple of weeks before that, and it seems like the country is going through the same thing. It was a moment for him. Playing that song during that moment was pretty far out.

“I Turn My Camera On” (2005)

I’d gone through a breakup. I used to date this lady named Eleanor Friedberger, who’s now a musician. She was in the band Fiery Furnaces. When we were dating she wasn’t doing music but she became this amazing writer and performer. Anyway, we had gone through a break-up. She was dating a new guy [Alex Kapranos of Franz Ferdinard], a new fella and he had a big hit. A big hit song called “Take Me Out.” and it came on my TV. And I got inspired to write something with the same sort of groove.

I just sat down and recorded the first thing that came to me. The songs that come really fast end up being the best ones. The rest of the time you’re kinda struggling otherwise.

This song always reminded me of “Stay Don’t Go,” from Kill The Moonlight. Though “I Turn My Camera On” is far better known.

I think it’s got essentially the same beat even though one of them is beat-boxed.

By the way, at the risk of sounding like a total whiner, I wish “Stay Don’t Go” had made the greatest hits record. Did it come close?

Yeah. When I made my first version that was on there, yeah, but it was just too long.

I also get a disco-era Rolling Stones vibe from this song. Was that in your head when you made it?

No, it was more about Prince. I sung in falsetto before but never as a whole song, and I always had it in my mind that I wanted to do that because it seems like a great element. It seems like an element that makes the song a single. It kinda gives you a leg up to working your way to being a single. I don’t know why. You know, like “Kiss” by Prince. There’s something about that that grabs your ear. It’s unusual.

Like “Kiss,” “I Turn My Camera” is also pretty stripped-down, like a demo.

Right. Minimal. Prince was so great at that. I think a lot of his singles were totally minimal. “When Doves Cry” doesn’t even have a bass line. “Sign O’ the Times” was a song that came out that was similar. Super stripped down. Just seems like a good ingredient.

“The Underdog” (2007)

I came up with the lyrics laying in bed feeling frustrated about politics. And that’s unusual because I don’t usually write lyrics first. But I had the lyrics and then I went and figured out on guitar what I could play to that lyric. I don’t know that I’ve done that more than two or three times.

We almost left it off the album. It didn’t seem to fit in to us. We were shocked when someone wanted to make it a single.

Why?

It was the one song we recorded with a different guy, Jon Brion. The rest of the record was recorded in Austin with Mike McCarthy, who had done the three records before. And it was done digitally, when we were hooked on tape at that point. It just didn’t seem to fit in. It was way more happy than the rest of the record is.

When this song first came out, everybody seemed to liken it to Billy Joel’s “Only The Good Die Young.” Did you take that as a compliment?

Well, he’s written a few great songs, and that album The Stranger is one of his best things. Maybe what they’re hearing is the strum pattern. I do see the similarity there.

I assume you would have been more offended if people compared it to “River Of Dreams.”

I like that song “Pressure.” Do you remember that one? I haven’t thought about that in a while. It’s a cool song.

It’s a very cocaine-sounding song.

Exactly. I think it had a cool video, too.

I noticed that Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga and They Want My Soul each have three songs on the greatest hits record, which is the most out of any album. Does that say anything about those particular records?

They have songs that did well. Songs that make sense for a greatest hits compilation. One of my favorite records we’ve done is Kill The Moonlight, but there’s only one song from it on the comp because it’s just kind of a weird record. It’s not super hifi.

It’s not about my preference. I think these songs represent the band as a whole for someone who may not know all about the band.

“Hot Thoughts” (2017)

I don’t have a lot of distance from that one yet. I remember I had that title sitting around forever. I set up a drum machine, and I taped down a chord on a keyboard so it just played forever. I used actual tape to tape it down. Set up the drum machine, set that off, and then I started playing the tune. It sat on my computer for years. Meanwhile, I had this title. At some point when we were at the studio one night and I know I needed more songs for the record, I tried combining the two and I got lucky.

I feel like the thing that people always talk about with your band is how consistent you are. There’s a lot of appreciation for the fact that your new stuff is always on par with the old stuff. How do you pull that off? What is your cheat code?

Inspiration. Thought. Determination. You know, I guess we’re fucking good.

Does it get harder with every album?

There’s always been periods where you feel like you don’t have it. Then you find it again. You usually find it when and where you’re not expecting. So I kind of wait until that happens. I just got to know that there will be times when I’m writing and writing and nothing that I love is coming. But stick around, keep trying. Somebody had this quote: “Inspiration likes to find you working.”

Have there been any specific moments where you got really frustrated and you thought, “oh I’m screwed, this is it”?

It happens to a degree on every record, but it happened in a big way on Gimme Fiction. That record took a long time to write. Maybe the longest. What had happened was we had been famously unsuccessful for a couple of albums and then with Girls Can Tell and Moonlight we had our first moment where people were getting it. So Gimme Fiction was the first record that I knew people were going to be paying attention. I think it got to my head a little bit, but eventually it came. Eventually, we got songs like “I Turn My Camera On” and “The Beast and Dragon, Adored” and “The Two Sides of Monsieur Valentine” which are among the best ones we’ve done.

Everything Hits At Once: The Best Of Spoon is out on July 26 on Matador. Get it here.

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