Music being the most abstract of the popular arts, it is hard to know exactly why some bands succeed and others fail. This much we do know: Spoon was once a band teetering toward failure. It was the late '90s, and Spoon was playing competent post-punk in the tradition of Wire and the Pixies. And in the post-punk tradition, the group was widely ignored. After a two-month affiliation with a major label, Spoon had its contract revoked. The band was deemed not only hopelessly uncommercial but also hopelessly uninteresting.
Lead singer-songwriter Britt Daniel had a degree in radio, TV and film from the University of Texas to fall back on, but as he says now, "What was I gonna do with that?" Instead of sending out resumes, he wrote two hysterically cathartic songs about Ron Laffitte, the A.-and-R. guy who signed and then abandoned Spoon--The Agony of Laffitte and Laffitte Don't Fail Me Now. Daniel kept on writing and shuffled the lineup a bit, and in one of those moments that make up for all the Limp Bizkits in the world, Spoon stumbled onto a sound of its own. Girls Can Tell, the 2001 reanimation of Spoon, was a brilliantly minimalist rock album about love (or the lack of it). It was hardened but not ironic, tense but not jagged, smart but not so smart that Daniel couldn't shout "Aw-right!" to get his point across. The songs were about small things--girlfriends, dads, girlfriends--but they contained a multitude of emotions, and the music was so melodic that listeners were reminded just how great rock could be.
Word spread, and 2002's equally good Kill the Moonlight enlarged the cult. As with R.E.M. in the late '80s, one senses that Spoon could be not just a distinctive band but the rare distinctive band that is also popular. Daniel is sequestered at home in Austin, Texas, adhering to a strict writing regimen in order to get a new album, Captured to Be Cooked, out by spring 2004. "I try to get up early, have some cereal, have a run and then don't talk to anybody for eight hours," he says. "It's really hard." Daniel has written 40 songs, but thinks only four of them will make the album. "There's too much going on in a lot of them. My favorite songs are minimal--We Will Rock You, Back in Black, Kiss by Prince. Those songs take on the world, but they do it with just a few instruments. I can't explain why," he says, "but that's really all you need." --By Josh Tyrangiel