A reign­ing in­flu­ence

Spoon front­man Britt Daniel has been a Prince su­per­fan since he heard ‘1999’ at age 11

The Washington Post Sunday - - ARTS & STYLE - BY AL­LI­SON STE­WART

Af­ter Prince died in April of last year, Britt Daniel bought a mam­moth col­lec­tion of un­re­leased Prince songs off eBay. The fi­delity wasn’t al­ways great and its ori­gins were ques­tion­able, but to the Spoon front­man, a Prince su­per­fan since he was a pre­teen, it was ev­ery­thing. The set, housed on a whop­ping 160 CD-Rs, con­tained tracks from 1980 to 1987, ar­guably Prince’s peak record­ing years. Daniel would lis­ten to it all the time on the drive to the stu­dio to record his band’s lat­est al­bum, “Hot Thoughts.”

Con­ven­tional wis­dom holds that when the his­tory of Spoon is one day writ­ten, “Hot Thoughts” will be re­mem­bered as the band’s Sex Al­bum, even if it’s sexy only in com­par­i­son with Spoon’s other al­bums. “Hot Thoughts” is oth­er­wise dif­fi­cult to pin down; it’s a dif­fuse, ex­per­i­men­tal mix of synth-y rock, pop and funk. Could there be a con­nec­tion be­tween the mild-man­nered, vaguely steamy funk of “Hot Thoughts” and all those hours spent lis­ten­ing to boot­leg Prince?

“It’s pos­si­ble,” Daniel says po­litely, on the phone from a tour stop in Copen­hagen. He has heard the “Hot Thoughts”-as-sub­con­scious-Prince-homage the­ory be­fore, but to Daniel, who loved Prince be­fore he loved al­most any­thing, ev­ery al­bum is in­flu­enced by Prince. “That’s prob­a­bly an un­der­state­ment, not just for this al­bum, but for ev­ery one I’ve made,” he says. “The way I al­ways used to think about record­ing was, ev­ery song on the record, let’s make it a sin­gle. I was think­ing this a lot around the time of [Spoon’s 2002 al­bum] ‘Kill the Moon­light’ es­pe­cially. Let’s make ev­ery song spe­cial in the way Prince makes a song spe­cial. He’d find a cer­tain in­stru­ment or a cer­tain thing about the song and strip it all back down to that one thing. From the be­gin­ning, I’ve al­ways been pretty taken

with him.”

When Daniel was 11, a friend left a copy of Prince’s 1982 al­bum “1999” at his house. “The first thing I no­ticed, I liked the songs on the ra­dio, but my friend came over and played me the deep cuts that had all the dirty words on it. ‘Let’s Pre­tend We’re Mar­ried,’ that blew my mind. I’d never heard any­thing like that. And of course as a kid, you grav­i­tate to­ward that, you want to hear that part over and over again. You want to get away with lis­ten­ing to it with­out your par­ents walk­ing into the room.”

Af­ter that, Daniel bought ev­ery Prince al­bum on re­lease day. “I re­mem­ber when ‘Pur­ple Rain’ came out, think­ing: ‘Okay. Ehh, well, this guy.’ I thought he was great, but I didn’t think he was a su­per­star. It seemed weird to me that that guy had his own movie, but then that movie came out, and that made him huge. When ‘Pa­rade’ came out, I went to the record store the day it came out, the same with ‘Sign o’ the Times.’ The first one I was a bit dis­ap­pointed in was ‘Love­sexy.’ ”

Daniel, 46, be­gan play­ing gui­tar in high school and made his way through a se­ries of bands be­fore form­ing Spoon in 1993. He learned early on that to love Prince was not nec­es­sar­ily to want to em­u­late him. Spoon has been known to cover Prince’s “Un­der the Cherry Moon” and his early clas­sic “Par­tyup,” but they oth­er­wise leave his mu­sic alone. “It’s not en­tirely in my wheel­house,” Daniel ad­mits. Prince songs, like Bea­tles songs, aren’t flex­i­ble, living things; they’re vast, im­mov­able ob­jects that don’t leave much room for any­body else. They can only be ad­mired.

“A lot of me ap­pre­ci­at­ing Prince is me ap­pre­ci­at­ing him purely as a fan,” Daniel says. “He does a lot of things I know I wouldn’t at­tempt to do. I’m not go­ing to do a dance at the solo of ‘Lit­tle Red Corvette’ and do the splits; I’m just not made that way. I’m too gan­gly at this point.”

Daniel al­ways did love Prince’s which he em­ploys spo­rad­i­cally through­out his own cat­a­logue. “I kind of al­ways had it in the back of my mind that if I do a song where it’s all falset­tos, then that’ll be a hit. When I was get­ting to the end of writ­ing songs for ‘Gimme Fic­tion’ is when I wrote ‘I Turn My Cam­era On.’ Some­how that one made sense to sing that way. From the very first mo­ment I was singing it, it was falsetto, and it was — kind of — it was a mi­nor hit.”

Prince’s work ethic seemed su­per­hu­man to Daniel. He worked ABOVE: Britt Daniel and Spoon’s lat­est al­bum, “Hot Thoughts,” might one day be re­mem­bered as the band’s Sex Al­bum. BE­LOW: Daniel and Spoon per­form at the Fore­cas­tle Fes­ti­val in Louisville this month. cease­lessly, did ev­ery­thing him­self, di­rected his own videos, de­signed his own cloth­ing and light shows. Dur­ing his peak, he was record­ing at least a song a day, his mu­si­cal evo­lu­tion vis­i­ble in real time. He left a vault full of un­re­leased ma­te­rial, some of it now in Daniel’s pos­ses­sion. Daniel’s new CD-R col­lec­tion may be unau­tho­rized, but Daniel fig­ures Prince wouldn’t mind. “My guess is that Prince is a guy who didn’t give any thought to what hap­pened af­ter he died, so he didn’t care.”

Spoon was deep into the record-falsetto, ing of “Hot Thoughts” the day Prince died. Daniel heard the news at lunch. “I showed up at the stu­dio and saw ev­ery­body, and I just shook my head. I thought, I don’t know how we’re go­ing to get any work done to­day, and we didn’t. I had this idea we were go­ing to record a Prince song, then it started hit­ting me what was go­ing on, and I just took off.”

The last time Daniel saw Prince live was in 2013, at a Sam­sung-spon­sored club show at the South by South­west fes­ti­val in Austin. It was one of Prince’s marathon gigs, and Daniel was pretty tired; he left be­fore it was over. “I don’t feel good about that,” he says. “He was amaz­ing. It was a nice, small room, it was a great way to see him. He was danc­ing; it was a full-on show.”

It was also the last time Daniel saw the show’s open­ing act, A Tribe Called Quest, whom he also adored; Tribe MC Phife Dawg died within a month of Prince. “If some­body comes to town, you got to go see them,” Daniel says. “Who knows how many times you’ll get to see them again?”

Daniel isn’t sure that Prince ever knew Spoon ex­isted, even though the band opened for him at a show in Por­tu­gal in 2010. “It felt like a nor­mal show,” Daniel says. “When we played, he wasn’t there, and when he got there, we were cleared out of the back­stage. We weren’t al­lowed to come any­where near; bar­ri­cades were set up. But I did get to see the show from 15 feet from the stage, and it was like watch­ing God’s love.”

The best Prince shows were tran­scen­dent like that, Daniel says. “He would make it a spir­i­tual mo­ment, and I think he knew that was the most pow­er­ful thing he could do. At the end of the show, it would get to a more spir­i­tual place, and ev­ery­one in the room could feel it. To him, it was all about God and love. I don’t know how you ar­gue with that.”

“I did get to see the show from 15 feet from the stage, and it was like watch­ing God’s love.” Britt Daniel, on a 2010 Prince show

Spoon per­forms at Mer­ri­weather Post Pavil­ion on July 30.

“A lot of me ap­pre­ci­at­ing Prince is me ap­pre­ci­at­ing him purely as a fan,” Spoon’s Britt Daniel says.

ZACKERY MICHAEL

AMY HAR­RIS/INVISION/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

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