“If everybody wants to listen to their music through streaming, we, as artists, have to find a way to play in that environment.”
Could the indie art-rock gods known as Spoon have come up with a better name for their electrifyingly great new album than Hot Thoughts? Not bloody likely.
On Hot Thoughts, their first studio effort in three years, which is out today in various formats via Matador Records, the Austin, Texas-based collective is firing on all cylinders. From the echo-driven joy of the title track to the percussive explosiveness of Do I Have to Talk You Into It to the funky kicks going down in Can I Sit Next to You, Spoon have figured out how to draw a literal map to the expressway inside your skull.
And we’re not kidding about that last statement, by the way — through Spotify, Spoon have indeed done that very thing via the Aura Reader app, which enables you to create your own customized skull cover art for the album based on your personal playlist.
Spoon again worked with producer Dave Fridmann (Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, The Flaming Lips) to get the right sound in the studio for Hot Thoughts. “We treat the recording experience like it’s really special. It’s gotta be unique, and it’s gotta be great,” Spoon drummer Jim Eno told Digital Trends. “And when we’re done with the record, we have to figure out how we’re going to present it live.”
Eno called Digital Trends from his home base in Austin to discuss the overall sonic template for Hot Thoughts, curating live local sessions for Spotify, and the ongoing importance of album sequencing in the streaming era.
Digital Trends: There was a bit of a change in the Spoon sound on 2014’s They Want My Soul once you brought Dave Fridmann into mix it and produce the second half of it. Was there a powwow with him beforehand about how you wanted Hot Thoughts to sound?
Jim Eno: Not really. Since we really liked working with Dave on Soul, we always felt it would be good to do another record with him. He was very adamant about being on board with doing it: “Just in case I’m not clear, guys, I really, really, really want to do this next record.” And we felt the same way. He’s amazing, and we sort of took it from there.
Was there a specific percussive feel you wanted Hot Thoughts to have?
Well, I’ve always been a “song” drummer. I always do parts that actually work with the song.
Your philosophy is just like Ringo Starr’s was with The Beatles: Always serve the song first.
“You can do a thousand fills in a song, and that creates chaos. If you do one or two, they really, really mean something.”
Yeah, yeah. I come from a simple rock and jazz background. I feel like the less you play, the more it means. You can do a thousand fills in a song, and that creates chaos. But if you do one or two, then they really, really mean something. I feel that helps the song and doesn’t get in the way of the lyric and a lot of the other content. That’s just how I like to play.
Among my favorite moments of yours on the record is how you come into I Ain’t the One a little bit after it starts, and then you have the shift in volume that comes in and out of it.
That was all drum machine on that one. And it’s cool; I don’t mind it. I learned a long time ago that I’m fine with me not playing on songs — that is, not physically playing on songs on many of our records. I feel if it works for the song, that’s the best thing to do.
That also makes the record more varied and more interesting to the listener. If it was just bass, drums, and guitar on every song — well, we can be a little better than that. We can be more creative. We’ve felt that way since probably Girls Can Tell (2001).
Is that also a drum machine I hear on Do I Have to Talk You Into It, or is that you pounding out that John Bonham feel? That’s a powerful moment.
Yeah, that’s me. That beat came from the demo, but I modified it a little bit. It was a placeholder drum machine. As you’ve noticed in a lot of my parts, I use flams to accent stuff — and that’s a good flam rocker right there.
Then we get all of the cool detail in Pink Up, with its ’60s vibe, the sibilant tambourine stuff, and the cymbal work going on in the back half of it.
That song came about in a very interesting construction based around a lot of what Dave Fridmann was hearing. We had a programmed Linn drum machine where we pitched the toms. It was fun doing that, and it sounded pretty cool, but it was Dave’s idea to get everyone in the same room: “Hey, everyone go in there and pick a percussion instrument that is basically ‘talking’ to you.” We did a lot of different passes for that one, and he pieced it out and staged all of it.
After we did the percussion, we took a 30-minute break, and what you hear on the record is pretty much what Dave came up with in those 30 minutes to an hour, and how he was hearing it. Pretty cool.
I love that. That’s the kind of thing I want to hear in a hi-res format. We got a 96kHz/24-bit download version of They Want My Soul. Are we going to get the same option with Hot Thoughts?
Yeah, I think so. We listen to hi-res all the time too, though I probably prefer vinyl. That’s what we normally listen to at home. We also travel a lot, so we listen to music on our phones, on the plane, and in the bus. I do listen to MP3s on my phone most of the time because of all of the storage limitations.
Sometimes, I tend to separate sonics from songs. But when you’re home and you’re just chilling, you want to have a relaxing time — so you throw on some vinyl.
That’s what I call appointment listening, where the album becomes your whole focus. Do you have any favorite albums you do that with?
Let’s see. I’m a big fan of [2007’s] In Rainbows, by Radiohead. That record sounds amazing. I just love all the songs. I also like a lot of jazz records, like [Miles Davis’] Kind of Blue (1959).
You curate playlists for Spotify, right?
Yeah, I do recording for Spotify. I’ve been doing it for about five years. There are a lot of festivals that come to Austin — South by Southwest, ACL (Austin City Limits), Levitation Psych Fest, Fun Fun Fun — there’s a lot of them. I had the idea that I would curate original content around these festivals, and Spotify was on board with that. I did about six sessions before I worked with a few bands at this last South by Southwest. I try to do a couple every year.
I love the session you did with The Shins.
Oh, that Shins session was great. Usually, James [Mercer] is working by himself with maybe one or two other people, but when he comes in with a six-piece band that’s been playing together for a year — I mean, that was a tight, tight band. It was pretty awesome to record them.
I was just looking at the numbers for Spoon on Spotify. Do You has over 20 million listens, and Inside Out has over 15 million. As an artist, how do you feel about streaming?
“Streaming service metrics are allowing artists to be more creative in the ways they reach their fans.”
Ah, well, I’m fine with it. I come from a high-tech background — I was a processor guy. I designed computer chips in my previous life. If everybody wants to listen to their music through streaming, we, as artists, have to find a way to play in that environment.
I’ve always felt we have to embrace it and try to see how it works. I’m not going to fight it, because it’s all going that way. The writing has been on the wall for the past five to 10 years.
I think that’s healthy. Besides, listeners have plenty of options for how we want to listen to Spoon music.
Exactly right. And we’ve done things like a “This Is Spoon” playlist, where we’re reaching out to fans who listen to us a lot — the highest-type streamers in certain cities. We’re embracing that sort of fan interaction.
We don’t discriminate as to how people want to listen to their music, whether it’s other streaming services, or whatever. It doesn’t really matter.
And speaking of playlist-related stuff, that Aura Reader app is a pretty interesting idea.
Someone at our label saw how Spotify captures these statistics about your songs and playlists, and they wondered if we could somehow map those into the Hot Thoughts skull album art, and show the “aura” of a playlist. Yeah, that was a pretty cool idea.
I also like how Spotify shares data with bands about what parts of the country and the world they’re being streamed the most, and maybe you tailor tour dates around that information.
That’s one of the great things about most any streaming service. Pandora offers that too — giving bands metrics they can fold back into tours, appearances, and giveaways. It’s allowing artists to be more creative in the ways they reach their fans. There are a lot of pluses around the digital side of things.
I like having choices like that. As I’m still very much an album-sequence kinda guy, I really like listening to Hot Thoughts in the exact order you’ve presented it.
That’s good to hear, because we spent a helluva long time sequencing this record. I’m glad you listened to it the way we intended it.
I get the reason why Hot Thoughts is the first track and Us is the last track, which brings me full circle as a listener. I know we all like to cherry-pick tracks here in the streaming age, but there’s still something valid about listening to an album in order.
Yeah — I wish we could take off the shuffle button so that you couldn’t shuffle Hot Thoughts as you listen to it. (both laugh)
You could probably disable it somehow. Or you could do what Prince did with his  Lovesexy album, where it was all programmed as one song on the CD. You couldn’t skip ahead to Alphabet St. even if you wanted to, unless you kept your finger down on the fast-forward button.
That’s a pretty cool idea. There was also that Sony Walkman with the tape in it that was sealed so you couldn’t get at it, where there wasn’t any fast-forward or rewind.
Right! I also remember listening to an advance of a Radiohead’s OK Computer (1996) when it was sealed into a cassette player. I’m glad sequencing is still an important thing to you guys. Maybe the vinyl revival also helps with that to some degree.
That’s a positive, definitely — listening to an album without skipping around. We work hard on that. We want to tell a story and have it mean something as you go through it. We’re not telling you there’s a specific story there, but you can definitely get a mood and a feel that’s above the feel of just one song. We just like doing it that way.
I like hearing where I Ain’t the One comes later in the record. Hearing it any earlier than that — like, say, where Whisper I’lllistentohearit is near the beginning — wouldn’t have worked for me. It wouldn’t feel right.
Oh, that’s cool, because it was first in a couple of our earlier sequences. (chuckles) But we didn’t think it worked. Once we put Hot Thoughts as the first track, the rest of the order started coming together.
There is a lot going on in all these tracks. We try to do that so that listeners will hear new things as they continue listening. We want people to listen to the full record, but who knows if they’ll actually do it? That’s the hope, anyway.