Spoon tune in to Radio Ga Ga

by Philip Brasor

Spoon always seemed to be on the verge of greatness. Each successive album from the indie-rock quartet since they formed in Austin, Texas, in 1994 has sold more than the one before. Critics, too, have been supportive — even in the ’90s when they were the tiniest of blips on the radar.

Last year the group’s sixth album, “Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga,” ended up on many Best of 2007 lists (No. 10 in Rolling Stone; No. 6 on Pitchforkmedia.com) and shifted a respectable number of units. If greatness hasn’t been achieved, it at least seems to be within reach.

Having taken so long to arrive, success is not an accident. Frontman Britt Daniel is very conscientious about the band’s direction and more musically circumspect than his peers. His songs are terse and efficient, austere in instrumentation and execution.

“We always had to start over and over again,” he says during a telephone conversation from his Portland, Oregon home. “That’s because we’d put out records that nobody liked or would listen to.”

Granted, Spoon’s first two albums, “Telephono” (1996) and “A Series of Sneaks” (1998), didn’t make much of an impression — but it wasn’t necessarily because people didn’t like them. The latter, in particular, didn’t have a chance to reach an audience. It was released on the major label Elektra, which immediately dumped Spoon and let the record die.

That was a traumatic experience for the band, and besides providing a topic for one of their best songs, “Laffitte Don’t Fail Me Now” (an unsubtle dig at their former A&R rep), it made Daniel rethink his music.

In those days Spoon was a post-grunge American indie-guitar band, influenced by Pavement’s use of sonic textures and angular ’80s British rock such as Wire. By the turn of the millennium Daniel was disillusioned with alternative rock and, in his own words, “went back to zero.”

But that didn’t mean he suddenly discovered his home state’s musical heritage.

“I was never into the blues or country, the styles identified with Austin,” he says. “Willie Nelson is a hero, but it’s not my kind of music. Growing up was more about British music, and since then it’s been more about that and black music.”

Spoon’s 2001 breakthrough, “Girls Can Tell” (their first on Merge Records), didn’t sound like anything on the market. Reductively produced to within an inch of its life, most of that album and its followup, “Kill the Moonlight,” could have theoretically been played live with only Daniel on vocals, drummer Jim Eno on tambourine and a tape of the potent piano fills that formed the songs’ melodic framework.

It was basically the same strategy James Brown followed in the mid-’60s when he invented funk with “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag”: intensify the beat and imply the melody by cutting everything back. “I’ve been a lifelong Prince fan,” Daniel says, citing Brown’s most inventive stylistic disciple. “He’s someone I got at an early age, but it took a while to get into anybody else, probably because none of my friends were listening to Marvin Gaye or Stevie Wonder or The Supremes.”

On top of it all was Daniel’s vocal style, which swings more than that of most current male rock singers. Though he claims to have no model, he will sing entire songs in falsetto and peppers his lyrics with the kind of truncated phrases that characterize classic soul, where the listener is invited to fill in the rest of an idea stifled by the singer’s inability to verbalize his emotions. “It’s a . . . It’s a . . . It’s a . . ” goes one Spoon chorus.

Daniel says he didn’t set out to make his latest album “into a soul record, but I suppose we did things that ended up sounding like soul, such as making the songs more about the bass or the beat.” He also hired horns for some cuts.

Another distinction of “Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga” is its thematic ambitions. The lead song, “Don’t Make Me a Target” is, as Daniel admits, his first message song, taking aim at fellow Texan George W. Bush and his ilk with their “nuclear dicks and their dialect drawl.”

“I never wanted to weigh in on a topic in that way before,” he explains. “It wasn’t something I was equipped to do. It’s easy to get pissed off about the news, but it’s different coming up with a phrase that sums up how you feel in a way that doesn’t sound like you’re preaching.”

The song mainly emanated from feelings of “worry and fear . . . and frustration.” And yet it’s buoyant, which points to another of Spoon’s distinctions: the way Daniel embeds lyrics with a negative cast into boisterous melodies and arrangements.

“That’s what I like about ‘The Underdog,’ ” he says in reference to another song on the new album. “It’s bitchy. But the music is almost celebratory.”

The same could be said about “You Got Yr Cherry Bomb,” a breakup song where the lyrics are sad but the music is ecstatic.

“Yeah, I don’t know how many people get it,” he says. “To me it’s got to have an emotional impact that’s separate from the lyrics. That’s how music connects to me in ways that movies or books can’t. Emotion is the key and I don’t think you can describe how that response occurs.”

Consequently, he didn’t find it difficult to write the score for the 2006 Will Farrell movie “Stranger Than Fiction,” the first he’d ever done.

“It’s easier to come up with a piece of music that expresses an emotion in a scene than it is to come up with an entire pop song from scratch. You never know where that’s going to come from exactly,” says Daniel.

Next he wants to start making “more extreme records.”

“I went to see Yo La Tengo last night and I was, like, god, I wish I could write songs like that,” he says. “Or LCD Soundsystem. I’d like to participate in all those different ways, but so far I haven’t. It would have to be somewhat deliberate.”

There are still frontiers to conquer with Spoon. They are just starting to gain a following in Europe and February will mark their first ever Japanese tour, a one-night stand in Tokyo.

After the band’s previous album, “Gimme Fiction,” was picked up by a Japanese label in 2005, “we tried to talk them into bringing us over,” Daniel says. “First they’d say, ‘We have to do some market research,’ and we wouldn’t hear from them for a month. Finally they said, ‘Our research indicates it’s not a good time for you to come over. ‘ ”

“Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga” is being distributed locally by another label, Fiveman Army, that’s obviously less risk-averse.

Daniel was here last summer by himself, though he can’t quite remember when: “It was June, or maybe July.” He appeared for “about 2 seconds” in a video for the Spoon song “Don’t You Evah” that was being made by Wired magazine in Akihabara.

“I got a free trip out of it,” he says. “I was just a tourist.”

Spoon play Feb. 6, 7 p.m. at Daikanyama Unit, Tokyo; tickets are ¥5,500 in advance (tel. [03] 3444-6751).

Merge’s best: from Arcade Fire to Lambchop

After an unhappy flirtation with a major in the late 1990s, Spoon signed to Merge, the North Carolina-based independent label founded in 1989 by Laura Ballance and Mac McCaughan of the band Superchunk. Their label has always demonstrated a knack for signing artists with worldwide appeal, and reigniting the careers of established artists who stagnated elsewhere. Here are some of the classics from their roster.

“Neon Bible,” Arcade Fire (2007): Having debuted at No. 2 on Billboard’s album chart, this became Merge’s top-selling release and something of a cultural milestone.

“69 Love Songs,” The Magnetic Fields (1999): Stephen Merritt’s 3-CD masterwork updated the pop sensibility of the Porter-Gershwin milieu for a post-AIDS romantic universe.

“In the Aeroplane Over the Sea,” Neutral Milk Hotel (1998): The crowning achievement of the Elephant Six collective, this shambolic opus repositioned psychedelic rock from music-for-stoners to music-for-children.

“On,” Imperial Teen (2002): The pansexual California rockers moved to Merge and made an album that was quirkier and more appealingly pop than anything it had done on a major.

“Nixon,” Lambchop (2000): Kurt Wagner’s mesmerizing meditation on the 37th U.S. president never mentioned him by name but suggested the era with musical references to Philly soul and Countrypolitan radio.

“Transfiguration of Vincent,” M. Ward (2003): Old-fashioned singer-songwriter with impressive guitar skills challenged Elliot Smith as indie’s reigning troubadour.

“Meadow,” Richard Buckner (2006): The most intensely poetic of the mid-’90s alt-country artists released his best in years after moving to Merge.

“Come Pick Me Up,” Superchunk (1999): The Merge bosses’ artistic sideline was always a singles band until this, the perfect guitar-pop album, complete with punk-rock string section and Jim O’Rourke’s imaginative production.