"It makes me feel really good," songwriter/frontman Britt Daniels says of the almost embarrassing accolades. "I've been on the other side of that coin, and it sucked. I know this one is good, so if we got bad reviews it wouldn't kill me, but I think that when we put out our first album, for instance, and we got sort of mixed reviews, it made me evaluate what I was doing. Did I want to be in a band? Was this really worth it? Am I doing good music? Should I have other priorities?"
The album that elicited this lukewarm response was 1996's Telephono, and Daniels presumably answered those questions yes, yes, yes and no. Even after getting booted from Elektra's roster just four months after releasing A Series of Sneaks, Daniels and his two bandmates, Jim Eno and Josh Zarbo, kept soldiering on sans label, starting work on the new record in May 1999. Spoon finished Girls Can Tell, a pleasantly succinct record that buries nervous tension under sunny hooks, in early 2000, but with no record deal the group had plenty of time to fine-tune its songs.
The lack of deadline pressure afforded Daniels welcome breathing room. "When I started writing these songs, I didn't know if they were going to come out at all," Daniels muses. "I was just writing songs to write songs, and I think that probably helped me be a little less inhibited. Also, when we were working on it, it was just the first time that I believed that what I was doing was good, and it gave me a little bit more confidence to do things that I normally would've been afraid to do maybe on the last record or the one before that."
In addition to enjoying creative freedom, Daniels was fortunate enough to toil without concerns about studio expenses. Eno, using money from his day job, assembled his own recording studio. "The fact that Jim had a little bit of money to spend meant we had access to this really incredible-sounding, but very cheap to the band, studio," Daniels says.
Early last summer, Merge Records, a label owned by Mac McCaughan and Laura Balance of Superchunk, agreed to get the album out to the people, concluding Spoon's frustrating search. During its completely independent interval, Spoon threw its fans a few bones in EP form. One was 2000's Love Ways, which was actually recorded after Girls Can Tell was finished. Another is 1999's The Agony of Laffitte, so named for Ron Laffitte, who served as the band's A&R slut during its brief stint at Elektra. "I think our manager was happy we got to put it out without a lawsuit," Daniels says. "That was a concern for him and our lawyer, but I don't listen to those guys."
He does, however, listen to his friends and fellow musicians, which is how he heard that Laffitte, now reportedly working for Capitol Records, might be wooing his Austin, Texas, neighbors and Merge labelmates ... And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead. "The guy that's sort of acting as their manager [Mike McCarthy], the guy who produced their record, he was the guy that produced Girls Can Tell, so when Laffitte called him up, it probably came up that his reputation was not 100 percent solid around these parts." When supporting The Agony of Laffitte, Daniels toured solo with only a boom box -- Spoon hasn't toured as a band since its tussle with Elektra. The first leg of shows on its Girls Can Tell tour pairs the group with its bosses in Superchunk itself. "I only knew them from talking to them on the phone before going on this tour, really," Daniels says. "I guess it's a really different situation because they're label people that are in a band, but most times when you work with people at a label there's a limit to how well you get to know them personally, even though you hope you know what they're like. Seeing those guys day in and day out, you get to know them a little bit better."
After the tour concludes, it might not be long before Spoon offers fans and music writers another full-length over which to drool, especially given that the ostensibly new Girls Can Tell has been on the shelf for some time. "I've thought about it in sort of general terms," Daniels confides. "My favorite bands tend to be ones that put out records every year, and I'd love it if I could write songs that fast and still do something that was quality. I don't know if that's possible, but that's sort of what I've been thinking about lately." As for whether he'd allow a major label to get its talons on his next platter, Daniels does have a stipulation: "They'd have to pay us a lot of money."