15 Years Ago: Spoon Soar Into the Top 10 with ‘Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga’
Britt Daniel knew something was amiss as Austin-based Spoon was preparing to record the follow-up to 2005's Gimme Fiction.
"We were about to start recording and all of a sudden I started feeling like 'Holy shit, we are not ready,'" he told eMusic. "So instead of going down to Austin to record, I rented this house in the middle of nowhere in Oregon, somewhere there'd be no internet and you had to drive like 20 minutes to get to a town. It was a pretty creepy place."
Such isolation helped spur his creative process; it's something of a strategy – however organic – that Daniel has employed several times.
"Mostly, it allows me to go through a period where I really concentrate and get in a flow," he told AV Club. "Sometimes the whole process can be daunting, and when you're away from it, thinking about going back to it is especially daunting. If I go away for a week, I can be working on 10 songs at once, just jumping around to each one. I can get a month's worth of work done."
This way of working is creatively promising, but it can also prove emotionally draining.
"It's always an intense time," he told AV Club, "because I'll specifically go somewhere where I don't know anyone and I'm isolated. The first day or two that I'm there, I'm usually really lonely and feeling kind of dark. Then I get used to it and it becomes kind of fun, having that be everything I do."
The songs he completed on his getaway would form the bulk of Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga. Released on July 10, 2007, the LP was Spoon's first to reach Top 10 album, a critically lauded release and a fan favorite. A number of its highlights still make the band's live set lists.
Watch Spoon's Video for 'The Underdog'
Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga was also Spoon's first to feature multiple producers: Daniel and drummer Jim Eno were joined at different times by Mike McCarthy, who had co-produced their previous three records, and Jon Brion, who had helmed albums by Aimee Mann, Fiona Apple and Rufus Wainwright, to name a few.
"We thought when we started the record that it would be all Mike McCarthy again," Daniel told the AV Club, "but when we were ready to go, he was still finishing up the And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead record and also working on Patty Griffin's record. So he just didn't have time, and we didn't want to stop."
Brion's involvement with the record had something of a false start, but eventually things worked out.
"We did ‘[You Got Yr.] Cherry Bomb' with Jon Brion and didn't really like the way that turned out – not because of him; I think we were just approaching it wrong," Daniel said. "We actually tried ‘The Underdog' with Mike in rehearsals. But Jon handpicked ‘The Underdog' after I sent him the demos."
The record's first single, "The Underdog," comes out of the gate sounding like a long, lost outtake from Van Morrison's His Band and the Street Choir, an entirely intentional circumstance, according to Daniel.
"When I wrote the song," he told AV Club, "I had the chorus and few ideas, sort of the strummy feel of it, and it seemed like a Van Morrison song to me and then later a Paul Simon song, so I always pictured there being horns on there. It was one of those difficult ones to figure out how we were going to put it together."
Hearing a track by the Kinks' Ray Davies backed by the Jools Holland Orchestra gave Daniel an epiphany. "There are horns on that song that make it sound like it's a celebration," he explained, "and I decided ‘That's the sound I want for "Underdog," pitting this pretty pissed-off lyric against this horn part that sounds like a fiesta.'"
Listen Spoon's Video for 'Don't You Evah'
The album's second single, "Don't You Evah," is actually a cover of the song "Don't You Ever" from the second album by the Natural History, a New York-based indie band whose frontman, Max Tepper, was friends with Daniel.
"I was writing Gimme Fiction when Max, the main songwriter, was writing his next record," Daniel told Rolling Stone. "And so we would trade tapes, just to hear what the other person's thinking about or working on. And he sent me a few songs, and I think I liked all of them. But ["Don't You Ever"] was my favorite."
Label disputes meant the Natural History's version of the song still hadn't been released two years later, as Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga was beginning to take shape.
"When I was writing songs for the next album, I had ‘Target' which was a holdover from Gimme Fiction," Daniel told Playboy. "I had ‘The Underdog,' but I didn't have enough tunes. And I remember thinking, ‘I know this song that's a hit which basically no one has heard.' I brought it into a rehearsal or song prep. It was easy to get something going with that song because the bass is such a great riff and it happens throughout the whole song. Hypnotizing bass line."
The version of "Don't You Evah" that wound up on Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga contained a little slice of studio humor in the song's opening. McCarthy had been giving Daniel no small amount of grief over the "talkback" microphone, the mic that enables an individual in the control room to communicate with the musicians in the studio. Daniel decided he wanted their exchanges recorded for posterity.
"Normally that kind of thing doesn't go to tape; it just goes to my headphones," Daniel told eMusic. "Mike was being more grumpy than usual that day, and Jim [Eno] and I have this running joke where we like to record Mike without him knowing it. So I kept saying ‘Record the talkback,' but I could tell they weren't listening to me, so I just kept saying, ‘Okay, record the talkback. Can you record the talkback?'
"I think if we'd run out of tracks on the tape we would have just recorded right over it, but when we listened back to it an hour later we were like, 'That's kind of funny,'" Daniel continued. "All of that to me is just a representation of what it's actually like to make a record: You end up with all these different little pieces. I love all that stuff."
Listen to Spoon Perform 'Don't Make Me a Target'
The album-opening "Don't Make Me a Target" aims high ("This song is essentially about talking to the Big Guy in charge," Daniel told eMusic, "asking him to not make things any worse"), but took a lot of patience to complete – a year between its initial composition and completion.
"There's something about setting a song aside for that long – when you come back, you can hear exactly what you were doing wrong," Daniel said. "I knew there was a good song here, there were just some little tricks with getting from verse to chorus and chorus to verse that we weren't really doing so well. There were a lot of questions about how many words to throw in there, how long the wait should be before the chorus, things like that."
"You Got Yr. Cherry Bomb" stands out for the tension between its soulful, up-tempo arrangement and its lyrical melancholy. Completing the song was difficult, to say the least.
"We tried this one I don't know how many different ways," Daniel told eMusic. "We recorded it three times, and it was one of those songs we really struggled with. At one point we had a kind of ‘space rock' arrangement – which is a cool version and the people who heard it were like ‘Ah, I still like that version better.'"
Daniel resolved the song's arrangement issue in a most unexpected way. "I did a writing trip out [to] the coast of Oregon by myself for a week," he told Rolling Stone, "and listened to The Best of the Supremes as I was driving out there, and I was like, ‘That's got to be something there.' So I kind of made ["Cherry Bomb"] more [like] that kind of group."
The arrangement's Motown-ish flavor cannot conceal the air of heartbreak that permeates the song. "That central image of the ‘cherry bomb' came naturally," Daniel told eMusic. "Sometimes lines just come to you while you're singing, and you're not sure where they came from. I came up with the cherry bomb being representative of a need to blow out this romantic flame. Breaking up – or being broken up with – can be pretty devastating. This song is saying ‘You need to blow out that flame; we lost it long ago.' It's actually a really sad song."
Listen to Spoon Perform 'The Ghost of You Lingers'
The album's title is intriguing, albeit in a nonsensical way. After allegedly almost dubbing the collection Trouble Minx and Fish Fingers, Daniel turned to one of his own songs for inspiration.
"The title came from the piano part on 'The Ghost of You Lingers,'" he told eMusic. "I'd done a demo for the song, but didn't have any words for it yet, so I thought ‘What am I going to call this song?' So I called it ‘Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga.' After a while, it started to bring to mind to me the ideas of repetitiveness, and also a sort of Dada aspect. Plus, it's just a bizarre, funny title."
That piano part is the insistent core of "The Ghost of You Lingers," and the skeletal instrumentation is a jarring difference from the band's typical, fully formed sound. Daniel revealed to eMusic, however, that there is more than meets the ear.
"That main riff is not just a piano," he noted. "There's a lot of instruments in there playing the same chord at the same time. On the demo it was just piano, but when we started doing it we tried it about 15 different ways, pulling different sounds in and out each time. We just kept doing that till we found the way that sounded coolest."
The sparse sound of the track is a deliberate effort to mirror the song's desolate essence. "It has the most creepy and most emotional feeling," Daniel said. "Being that emotionally direct, it's not as hard for me as it used to be. It used to not feel natural to me at all, but as I grew up I realized, ‘I like it when other people do that, so why not open up a little?' It's okay to express vulnerability, you know?"
"The Ghost of You Lingers" was the first song Spoon leaked to blogs, in advance of Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga's release, specifically because it differed so significantly from their usual output.
"When there's a band that's been around for a while and I hear them doing something I've never heard them do before, that kind of excites me," Daniel told eMusic. "It gets me way more intrigued than, say, hearing a song that sounds exactly like the record before. That was the thinking here: Put something out there that will make even people that know us say, ‘Hey, this is exciting.' The problem is that the very next day, the whole album leaked, so that kind of killed that plan."
Listen to Spoon Perform 'Black Like Me'
Daniel has mixed emotions about album leaks. He sees the positive and negative aspects of fans wanting a record immediately.
"You know, the idea that somebody out there is that eager to hear it in advance can only be a good thing," he told AV Club. "But growing up, I always liked that system where ‘release day' was a big thing, and for bands I really liked, I'd know that date. It'd be on my calendar, and I'd go to the record store that day. Sitting down and listening to the record for the first time was a real event. I wish it was still that way, but that's not the way the world works any more."
Like many writers, Daniel keeps a notebook handy, jotting down ideas as they come to him, referring back to them as inspiration or need dictates. Such was the case with "Black Like Me," which closes Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga.
"'I'm in need of someone to take care of me tonight.' That was the starting point," he told Rolling Stone. "I had that lyric for a while, just jotted down in a notebook. I'd moved to Portland by then."
The line became the song-opening lyric: I believed that someone'd / Take care of me tonight / As I walk into Dorian's / Can you see it in my eyes? / My boots are on the mend / And they ain't walking home. The reference to Dorian's was Daniel providing a bit of local flavor, a shout-out to a business in his adopted hometown.
"It's where I would get my boots fixed," he told Pitchfork, "repairing the heel and all the things that you do if you have one really nice pair of boots and you're wearing them every day. I knew I wanted to say, ‘As I walk into' – blank – ‘can you see it in my eyes?' So I went through a number of places that I go, and Dorian's made the most sense and also sounded the best. It just went from there: ‘My boots are on the mend …'"
The song also shouts out Spoon's audience – or, more accurately, a segment of that audience. "The line 'All the weird kids up front' is something that a tour manager had written to me, right before we went on," Daniel told Rolling Stone. "He was like, ‘lot of weird kids up front,' which I loved. It became this grand finale for the song: ‘All the weird kids up front, tell me what you know you want.' … It's a back-and-forth with the audience, a moment where everybody came together."
Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga debuted at No. 10 on the Billboard 200 album chart and eventually sold more than 300,000 copies in the United States.