Spoon singer and songwriter Britt Daniel talks about how film has moved him and how he’s more energised than ever by the band’s visuals.
Like most kids of the ’70s, Britt Daniel was raised on Star Wars and Disney.
“Disney movies were the only ones my parents would take me too,” Daniel explains. “There wasn’t a movie theatre in Temple, Texas so we would go over one town to see it. It was a big occasion for us. I remember going to see Star Wars and it was huge for me too, I was kind of terrified at the start of it but, you know, I like being terrified.”
I’m talking to Daniel as he’s preparing to tour Spoon’s latest record Lucifer on the Sofa. Ten albums down, the band he founded thirty years ago has turned in a career-high record by leaning into Daniel’s songwriting and doubling down on everything that’s made Spoon one of leftfield rock ‘n’ roll’s most interesting propositions. But we’re here today to chat about movies and music videos and Daniel is remembering his favourite films.
BEST FIT: Let’s talk about Raiders of the Lost Ark. You were ten when this came out?
BRITT DANIEL: Yeh and I was finally allowed to go and see movies [without my parents]. There was a Cinema 6 in Temple so there were always six movies playing there and I didn’t have a clue what it was going to be about but I remember walking out just fully mesmerised. I think that the historical aspects of what that movie had really did something for me. The fact that it was set in the past but there was history and historical figures that I didn’t know of. Religion was a big part of it too; I grew up in households that were very religious. Clearly parts of it were also not historical – and so the combo of all that really got its hooks in me.
I think a lot of kids wanted to be archaeologists after watching that movie, or go and fight Nazis.
I think knew what Nazis were from the word and I think I would probably would have recognised the flag, but I don’t think I’d seen Nazis portrayed before. And my mind was blown, you know, cos it was scary as fuck; there are some truly, graphically horrifying moments in that movie, especially for a 10-year old…
The face-melting scene is probably one of the most graphic things a young kid can see in a movie that’s meant to be made for them.
Yeh but it was also funny, and it was nonstop action. I went and saw Raiders of the Lost Ark five or six times.
BEST FIT: Did you see Blue Velvet in the cinema when it came out?
BRITT DANIEL: No. By some mistake that same cinema was one of the few theatres in America that showed Blue Velvet in its opening week but I did not see it there. It was absolutely a mistake that it came to Temple at all, you know, and I didn’t hear about it until the next week when it was sent away. There was no business at all for art films in Temple, Texas.
So I’m guessing you eventually watched it on VHS?
Yeh it came out in video in the spring. I missed it in the theatre, but an older friend of mine had seen it and she told us that she’d never seen anything like it. And it was full of nudity and depravity and bizarro violence and sado-masochism. And that really turned her on, which turned us on. And so it became something that was whispered about.
It’s definitely a movie that introduces a lot of very dark themes in a way they hadn’t been covered before.
Yeah and I think I remember seeing A Clockwork Orange right around the same time. They definitely showed a level of darkness that you didn’t experience in normal cinema, that’s for sure. But I watched it with a bunch of friends, and then I taped a VHS to VHS copy, you know, as one did back then. And the picture was super fuzzy, the sound was terrible. But I watched it over and over again.
It must be different watching it at 18 to seeing it decades later?
The thing I did relate to as a kid was really the stuff about the dark underbelly of a small town, this small-town life that was both fascinating and familiar to me: an all-American town that felt like something from the ’50s during Reagan’s ’80s. To see something like that get turned upside down in a world of gangsters and violent sex and chopped-off ears and drug-huffing? It just really hit close to home. It was something I didn’t recognise and I certainly hadn’t been familiar with any of that stuff – but maybe by the time I was 40, I might have had a few experiences with that kind of thing!
BEST FIT: You’ve spoken in interviews before about your love of Solaris and in particular the incredible music Cliff Martinez made for the movie.
Yeah I love that soundtrack, it’s fantastic. And while it’s obviously ethereal and spacey, it has some kind of form to it. It sets my mind in a dreamlike state and when I was watching that movie, for the first time, that soundtrack struck me in a way that I don’t think any soundtrack in a movie has before. I felt like I was perhaps more engrossed in the soundtrack than the visuals. It really did something to me, it hit me personally. And when I later was writing songs, a couple years later, I would use the formula that I saw in that soundtrack.
You’ve said in interviews before that you tend to start with a blank slate when you write songs rather than draw on other material to inspire you?
Sometimes it happens that way. I have a big notebook of lyrics over there, I have some music over here and then I’ll try to try to fit in where the two could could possibly match up. But sometimes it’s just based on syllables… you just start writing.
I don’t know if you’ve seen that scene in Get Back where Paul McCartney is writing “Get Back” but it’s very much like that, where he’s just losing himself in a trance and just sort of singing some syllables. And he gets on one syllable he likes, finds a word that he likes, and he just keeps doing it over and over again.
Every songwriter I’ve talked to about that documentary is completely obsessed with it!
It’s an insane document that I can’t believe that the world has. And the fact that you can see The Beatles struggling with songs? That’s really reaffirming as a musician, because every musician has been through that.
It’s a much richer and fascinating story than the original Let it Be documentary; it made me realise exactly why they had that withdrawn.
Yeah, Let it Be was just a drag. They were limited by what they had, in terms of, you know, the audio and the video and how they could link it up. And there was just so much less footage than then Peter Jackson ended up with. It reads as as though they’re just having a miserable fucking time.
What is it about a video like “March of the Pigs” that’s so groundbreaking for you?
Well to give you some context, I was more of a rock guy than an industrial or lectronic music guy. But the moment I saw this video, I became a fan of Nine Inch Nails. Why? Because it made me it made me feel fucked up!
I love that it was all one take. I love that the mic kept getting thrown and hitting the floor, and you could hear that. I’ve never seen anything like that in a proper video. I love that the cameras were just moving around in this completely fucked-up way and barely kind of hanging on. I love that they were an electronic band by most definitions and they had that sound but they were clearly able to play all of it live. It was just a revelation to me what they were doing with this format.
This came out in 1994, which Rolling Stone have called the greatest year for mainstream alternative music. You’ve got things like Tori Amos’ Under the Pink, the first Oasis record, Vitalogy by Pearl Jam.
What this video reminds me of is that there was a piece that I read about Nine Inch Nails at that time. And I’m paraphrasing it from a 20-year old memory or whatever, but it went something like: “you can just imagine the smiles of all the major label executives excited about good clean alternative music just slide from their faces as they listen to Nine Inch Nails.” That would have been the time of The Downward Spiral. I love that that there was something too clean about where music was going and Nine Inch Nails were making it a point to go in the opposite direction.
There’s a big moment in that Netflix documentary The Defiant Ones where Jimmy Iovine’s talking about Nine Inch Nails and hearing them for the first time and that he saw the future in Trent Reznor in the same way he saw that in Dr Dre.
Which is fine to say that in hindsight, right? That guy will will tout himself for sure! To me I remember thinking Nine Inch Nails felt like the the most fucked-up version of like… The Cure meets 1999-era Prince. And add to that some kind of depravity that you’ve never witnessed before in a pop band?
The song, and that whole album The Downward Spiral still holds up too. It’s lost none of its power.
Just watching that drummer play that beat at the top, you know, it drills into me as a musician what a completely fucked up beat that that song has. I know non-regular beats and weird measures and I was in the bands that used those but this was next-level stuff and the fact that this guy was pulling it off flawlessly and doing it live in this video? It’s just amazing.
At what point for Spoon did music videos become significant?
I actually made our first video for about 60 bucks myself. I was volunteering at a local access TV station and helping to make shows and stuff. And so I edited together a video that was completely fucked up – as in unwatchable… or maybe might give you rickets or something?! It was not a good video, but strange. Once we signed to a label, I went through a phase where I just kind of let someone else take over. We made a few bad ones that way, you know, to start with.
You’ve said that the video for “Do You” was the first time you ever understood a treatment for a Spoon visual.
Yeh I’d read about 500 of them before that for various songs and I remembering thinking holy shit, that’s a good treatment. I just wish there was more of the end of that video because the end is the best.
With all the giant kids in the background-
Yeah, that’s where it gets really good and terrifying.
Did you enjoy doing videos in the early days of the band?
I enjoyed the ones we made that were more low key. We made this video for a song called “Jealousy” with our friend Peter Simonite. It came from just talking about what do we want to make a video out of? And I said, “well, last night I was I was laying on my bed and my girlfriend was laying on the ground, and I was looking at her while I was upside down, and she was upside down from me. I was looking at her mouth and thinking, ‘mouths sure do look weird when they’re upside down!’” And Peter goes, “okay, let’s make a video out of that!” And so that’s what the video became: my mouth upside down, and a slow zoom out. And there was shot on the floor of a restroom of the bar that I spent a lot of time in at that moment called The Hole in the Wall. That that was a fun one, you know, and Jim pours a beer on me! Those low-concept, low-budget things were always just a little bit more fun.
But after almost three decades in this band, haven’t you become a bit jaded by the experience?
No, I’m more excited about it now than I’ve been in a bit – because I’ve liked the last two (“Wild” and “The Hardest Cut”). There have been times when I’ve felt frustrated with videos because if it wasn’t being done by me and my friend Peter on the floor of The Hole In The Wall, then it tended to be a bigger budget affair! And you bring in someone to direct and it has to be done in one day. And then it’s kinda out of my hands.
You know with making a record, I know how to make a record good, and I can spend an extra week if I need to, to fix up a song that didn’t work or something. With videos, there’s so much money involved, and there’s someone else’s vision involved and so I felt at times… it very well may turn into something that I’m not too thrilled about, and it’s out of my control, you know.
But the last two videos we made, I thought they went really well. We’re about to make another one now for “My Babe” and I’m kind of excited about it. You know, I’ve recently started getting some Super 8 film and renting cameras and it’s a new thing for me.
Tell me about the video for “Wild”
Brook Linder was the first director and he brought in another guy, Ben Chappell and they ended up directing it together. There really wasn’t too much of a treatment for it though. I was talking to Brook about what the song was about – living one life, but hearing the call of another – and we tried to come up with this world where the video walks the line between reality and imagination. Some of it’s shot on location, some of it’s shot in front of a projection of the same locations with me walking in front of that projection. I wanted there to be some kind of aspect of not quite being sure what you’re witnessing on this shot or that shot.
I just feel like it has a good energy, the cut of it has a very similar energy to the song and maybe the fact that we shot it on film, I think it’s the first video I’ve actually gotten to do on film. And I don’t want to go back. It just makes everything look amazing, you know?