Spoon's Britt Daniel Explains How He Made 'Gimme Fiction,' Track By Track
I knew for the first time that people were paying attention and that probably made me a lot more picky, which made the songs take longer. It was the hardest album we'd done.
By the time Spoon released Gimme Fiction in 2005, the Austin, Texas rock group was already a decade into its career with more than a half-dozen releases. But none of the band's previous work felt as polished or as remarkably inspired. Gimme Fiction is at times brooding and cryptic. There's apocalyptic imagery, evangelical Christians, a pre-social media commentary on people who hide behind cameras, and at least one song inspired by Prince. There are also a lot of uncertain observations and enigmatic tales entirely up for interpretation. But as Spoon frontman Britt Daniel tells us in this track by track look at the album, the best songs are a mix of the intentional and the unintentional, planted at the nexus of carefully orchestrated moments and happy accidents.
To mark Gimme Fiction's tenth anniversary, Merge records is releasing a deluxe, re-mastered version of the album along with a bonus disc of early home demos. (An extra disc of bonus songs is available for download if you get the physical version). It's a surprisingly open book that pulls back the curtain on Spoon's creative process, exposing the roughest edges of each track in their earliest stages. Below, you can hear two versions of every song on the album — the demos alongside the final, re-mastered songs — and read more from Britt Daniel about how these incredible songs came together.
1. The Beast And Dragon, Adored
"I remember it was spring of 2004. At this point it was getting toward the end of the writing process and we had done some recording with [John] Vanderslice and [Scott] Solter and we had been beating around the bush for a long time. And I knew we were about to start recording with Mike [McCarthy], the producer of our choice. So I was starting to relax a little bit, like, 'Okay, this is finally going to happen.' I also feel like that when you're getting toward the end of the writing period it's easy to tell what the album needs. You can think, 'What's something that can really tie this all together?' And right off the top, when I started writing this one, it was a bit soulful but really slow and then it got loud, and it always felt like an opening song to me.
"The title came from the name of this tapestry I saw in one of my grandmother's art books. It was called, 'Apocalypse: The Beast And Dragon Are Adored.' And it had a real creepy picture of people worshiping a dragon and weird looking, multi-headed beast. I grew up around a lot of talk about the apocalypse. I guess it was tied to the world events of the time. I was definitely on the lookout for apocalyptic events because of my upbringing, because it was something I always heard about in church. It was fairly common."
There's a clip from an Eleanor Friedberger song you can barely hear in the left channel at the beginning of the song. "I had dated Eleanor when she was in college and Spoon was just started out. And she was my longest running girlfriend. We were broken up by this point, but she was still very much in my heart. So I just thought it'd be a cool little shout-out. I didn't know if she would ever notice it or not, or if anyone would ever notice it. And nobody ever did. But the fact that she was singing, 'The hardest thing I've ever done,' made it even more poignant to me."
2. The Two Sides of Monsieur Valentine
"I was drinking a lot [at the time] and that was the very first idea that led to this song. It was this sort of thing where I was singing, 'Every morning I pick up the cans.' I didn't really want to write about that. But it kind of had a little snippet of an idea with some urgency. The vocal over those chords felt urgent, so I liked it. So I kept working on it. And the words didn't come forever. Somehow I came up with this idea of 'the two sides of Monsieur Valentine,' but I didn't know what that meant, exactly. Then I came up with the whole idea about the Duchess and the Duke and a play I called The Stranger Dance, and this whole world. And eventually it became really colorful and cool. But it took a while. I'd get an idea and think, 'What kind of sense can I make of this?' Often it's a combination of the intended and the unintended. I went down this path about the two sides, didn't know what it meant, then asked, 'What can this mean?'
3. I Turn My Camera On
"This song is about emotional distance, maybe. The idea of instead of engaging with the world you're holding a camera up which, a) puts a camera in front of your face, and b) puts some distance between you and the outside world. And you're sort of documenting the world. It was one of the last songs I wrote before we started to record, but it was the first song we started with. So once we had this basic track, I thought, 'Okay, we have a single for this record.' The words that rang true to me were the, 'You made me untouchable for life and you wasn't polite.' I was thinking about people in the past who might have led me down that path. I don't think I'm untouchable. But sometimes I've felt that way. [But this song] was in falsetto, it was a dance-y, soul approach that we don't do very often."
4. My Mathematical Mind
"I remember sitting on the floor in this cheap rental in Galveston, Texas — I rented this house for a week about a block from the seawall in Galveston — and playing this cheap keyboard plugged into a tiny amp with a piano setting chosen. And I'd come to Galveston to work on the ideas for some of the songs I had that weren't coming together. And I was just sort of goofing off and came up with this riff that reminded me of a Vince Guaraldi kind of low note thing. Repetitive little riff. I thought the riff was cool and I sang on top of it, and I thought the whole thing was very cool but had limited potential as an actual song. I thought maybe it could be a weird little B-side. And I wasn't picturing drums to it or anything. I thought it'd just be this weird little thing with vocal effects. Later I was rehearsing songs with the band and near the end we were about to give up and I said, 'Well, I've got this other thing. It's kind of strange.' So I started playing it in front of the band and Jim [Eno] had this take on it that I completely wasn't expecting. He put on this John Bonham style half-time beat. It was real heavy. Then the bass player started doing something that was very straight forward. Then all of a sudden we had this rock song. And as soon as I heard that I thought, 'Wow.'
"The thing that disgusted me about [talk of the apocalypse] was that these people actually seemed excited about it. Like, 'This is the end and won't it be great? Then we can all go to heaven!' And that just drove me nuts. And so while I grew up with that perspective, my suspicion was that an evangelical Christian and dumb-ass like [President at the time] George W. Bush was also probably excited about the apocalypse. So I wanted to write a song about how bringing about the apocalypse should not be considered cool. It's not okay. I'm not looking forward to that. And these things you're doing on the world stage are dangerous and regrettable."
5. The Delicate Place
"I remember the guitar solo on this one was supposed to sound like the guitar solo introduction to 'Temptation' off of Around The World In A Day by Prince, which I was listening to a lot then. It's this weird delaying thing. We went through a lot of work to get that. Basically I'd come up with this guitar line and set it on infinite delay, and then we'd roll the tape. Then we'd come up with another guitar riff, put it on an infinite loop, then punch in where the other one took off. And it was very technical but something I was very proud of at the time. The song is sort of grossly sexual. I had the title first then tailored the lyrics to it. 'I'll hold it for you if you hold it for me.' And looking and seeing obvious mating holes and all that stuff. Not too much more to it."
6. Sister Jack
"[This] song felt very straight-forward to me. Venturing on power pop, which I'm not exactly wild about. So I said, 'Okay, if we're going to do it this way then when we get to the solo it cannot be a guitar solo.' I thought it probably can't even be an instrument. It's just gotta be this sound collage. That pulled it together for me. This one started out as a piano ballad. That's the demo you hear. It's real pretty. I'd forgotten about that version. And I'd tried maybe ten different versions. But somehow we took it to this one that felt like it was sort of based on 'And Your Bird Can Sing' by The Beatles — I was very obsessed with Revolver at the time. Revolver and Prince's Around The World In A Day.
"The ending [time signature] was in nine. That came about because we didn't have an official ending. It was probably going to end up that we just fade it out which can be boring. Sometimes it's exactly the right thing but often it feels like you're giving up. And so I think we were working with John McEntire [of Tortoise] and he said, 'So how's it going to end?' And we ended up trying a fade out where we go to a different time signature or different number of measures. We tried it at six, then seven. Eight is normal. And then we tried it at nine and he liked the nine."
7. I Summon You
"The lyrics came fast on this one. It felt playful. It was one where I wrote out a very ridiculous, very long, non-repeating chord sequence that I'd never be able to remember other than by writing it down. So it got to where I had maybe six chords, and then I'd play it through again and think, 'Well what chord would be interesting to go to here?' Then I'd write that down and have seven. Then I'd play through it again and think, 'Okay, now what chord?' But they weren't repeating. They were just following a weird intuition for wherever I thought they could go. That came pretty fast. I went and had some lunch and when I came back, I started working on lyrics and they came really fast. I think sometimes, when writing a song, the first line is the most essential. If you can get a good first line, then the rest of it will come easy. You have a direction and a mood for it. And the first line [on this one], 'Remember the weight of the world, it's the sound we used to buy,' just came out of the blue and it all came fast after that without intention.
8. The Infinite Pet
"This one's not my favorite. I remember a friend of mine was out to dinner with Robyn Hitchcock and someone said something about a pet and he said, 'Oh, the infinite pet.' And my friend told me how he had said this out of the blue. And so years later I wrote this song just from remembering that that seemed like a cool little phrase. Later, when I met him, I told him about it, that I'd written this song called 'The Infinite Pet' based on something he'd said at dinner one night and he had no idea what I was talking about. We just had this cool title and then you just try to make something out of it. It kind of felt like we were talking about some sort of mysterious something or other, but I don't know what."
9. Was It You?
"[This one] came fast, too. When something lucky happened, it was usually after long bouts of nothing good coming. And this one was one that I'd had this little idea with just an acoustic guitar and the two main verses and it was maybe 60 seconds long and I'd never tried anything with it. Then at the end of a long day where I'd been trying to write a song and nothing good was coming, I thought I'd just start drinking. I don't mean I got plastered. Just something to change the mood. I just had a couple of beers. And then all of a sudden I was feeling a little lighter. And it became a lot more fun. So, last ditch effort I figured I'd throw out an idea I had lying around. And instead of making it an acoustic song I thought I'd turn it into a drawn-out dance thing. And somehow it just happened. There was the thing I'd been hoping for all day.
"I like the demo a little more. I think it's just grittier and more direct and urgent. The album version is way more laid back and sort of spacey. And the demo version is a little more funky and on top and aggressive. You might like the version on the album more because it's what you heard first. But the version I got hooked on was the one on the demo. And we never even tried to record it that way."
10. They Never Got You
"I think this was a really good song that we didn't do as well as we could have. It should have been done with a lot more soul. I had that bass line that could have gone a bit more Motown. It feels a bit stiff to me. I think it's a good song. The words are vulnerable and interesting. It was the first of two songs inspired by the words of [the metal band] Danzig. 'They Want My Soul' was a play on 'I Want Your Soul' [from the song 'Evil Thing']. And I'd read this interview where [Glen Danzig] was talking about the Misfits and how 'those guys never got what the f*** I was trying to do!' And that made me think of how I felt about my real first band in Austin, which was called Skellington, and how nobody was really as in to it as much as I was, and nobody really got what I was trying to do. And it also made me think of growing up in Temple, Texas where three of the guys in Skellington were from and how nobody really got me there. But this feels like a [John] Lennon solo album song to me. Like something off of Plastic Ono Band, where he's realizing some things and has come back to say, 'F*** You.' It's a good song. But we could have done better."
11. Merchants of Soul
"I was happy to work Ralph Reed into [this one]. I liked the drums. This was another one where Jim came up with something I wasn't expecting. It was sort of about me and an imaginary wild night on the town with Ralph Reed Junior. It was a predecessor to 'They Want My Soul.' It's a weird little song and a weird one to end the record with because it doesn't tie anything together. And it doesn't feel like an ender. A lot of our records, the last song really makes sense. On Gimme Fiction this one was like, 'Well, here's this thing.' But this is what I mean about intentional versus unintentional writing. Sometimes a song requires both. But often the best stuff comes when you're just letting go and you'll make sense of it later. That was the case with this one. I'd really gotten to a thing where I was able to come up with bizarro lyrics that went anywhere I wanted to go. And that's where this one went, and most of 'I Summon You' and some of the other ones went as well."
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