Alex Fischel of Spoon: The 13th Floor Interview

Austin, Texas-based band Spoon has just released their ninth studio titled, Hot Thoughts. The veteran band, led by Britt Daniel is down to a four-piece after the departure of guitarist and keyboard player Eric Harvey.

Fortunately, they have, on board, guitarist and keyboard player Alex Fischel.

The 13th Floor’s Marty Duda spoke to Alex Fischel just as the band touched down in Australia for a brief tour. They discuss the new album and working with eccentric producer Dave Fridmann.

Click here to listen to the interview with Alex Fischel of Spoon:

Or, read a transcription of the interview here:

AF: We’re doing a couple shows. We just got here yesterday. We had one in Sydney, and one in Melbourne, and then Britt and I are going to do a couple duo shows – kind of like an in store record deal.

MD: Unfortunately, you’re not making it over to New Zealand, huh?

AF: No, not on this trip, but hopefully on the next one.

MD: What are the shows, that you and Britt do together, like?

AF: They’re a bit more intimate. We try to make it a bit more than just sitting down with acoustic guitars or a keyboard; we bring a drum machine and a couple other songs. A lot of the songs: we come up for new approaches that are exciting to play as a two piece, instead of just a little folk rendition.

MD: So you managed to miss the South by Southwest conference this year, huh?

AF: No, we were there, actually!

MD: Oh, you were there; so, it’s been busy then…. What did you get up to during it?

AF: We played a bunch of shows. We did a little residency at a venue called Emo’s…. We did three nights in a row there; where we picked the bands that played and played every night at 1:00, and then did a couple other shows, aside from those. Britt and I did a couple of those duo shows.

MD: Which bands did you pick to play at the gigs?

AF: There were a couple awesome bands that we picked: The Giant Dog and Sweet Spirit; Hamilton Leithauser played one of the nights; we had Chick Chick Chick play; we had The New Pornographers play.

MD: Do you live in Austin?

AF: I actually don’t. I live in LA. I spent a lot of time in Austin.

MD: I was just in Austin for the Austin City Limits Festival, last September or October, and it seems the town has grown immensely since the last time I was there, which was about ten years ago.

AF: Yeah, it has. I’ve been going there for about five or six years now, and every time I’m there, I feel like something new is going up – there’s another crane putting up a high-rise, or something.

MD: How does that affect the music scene there?

AF: It’s hard to say, for me, because I don’t live there. It’s definitely making it harder for artists to live in the city, because rent prices are going way up, and I know some venues are having to deal with noise complaints, because some of these buildings have gone up near venues that have been there for a while; so, it’s a bit tricky.

MD: It sounds like Auckland, actually.

AF: Oh, really?

MD: Yeah. We have a rent crisis going on as well, and buildings are being built all over the place; it’s happening all over. Now, we should talk about Hot Thoughts: it’s just been a few days since it’s been released, right?

AF: Yeah, it came out on the 17th.

MD: And you guys are getting work with David Fridmann, who, I believe, produced a few tracks on the previous album as well, right?

AF: Yeah, he did half of the last record, but… while we worked with him on it, we realised that we really liked working with him. He lives up in upstate New York, near Buffalo; so, on the last tour, we played a show in Buffalo, and at that show, he came up to us all and said, “Just so you guys know, if it’s not clear, I really would like to make the next record with you guys,” which was really nice to hear, because we wanted to make the record with him; so, it worked out perfectly.

MD: What is it about his way of working that fits in with what you guys do?

AF: He’s a little trouble maker in the studio. He pushes for things to be weird; and that’s really exciting: to have somebody like that around, that’s not pushing for things to just sit normally and sit well. He definitely wants you to push the envelope a little bit, and making sounds a little fucked up.

MD: How do things get weird in the studio?

AF: He really knows how to use his gear well. For example: on this one song, WhisperI’lllistentohearit – it’s the second song on the record – basically, what we had were two different versions of the same song, that we really liked, but we needed to find a way to connect the two – we wanted to use both of them, but we wanted to make it so that they transitioned into each other – so, basically, Dave said, “Okay, Britt, go to the guitar effects cabinet, and pick ten pedals that speak to you,” and Britt went and grabbed ten pedals, and Dave said, “Alright, cool! Give me thirty minutes,” and thirty minutes later, he made this really mangled, messed up sound, that transitioned the song from part one to part two; and without that sound, it wouldn’t work. That’s a great example, I think, of him making something messed up that works perfectly.

MD: The difference between this album and the previous one is that the band is now a four piece, rather than a five piece, right?

AF: We actually got a new member for the shows – he joined on about two months ago, I’d say – and we started gearing up to start playing shows. His name’s Herrardo.

MD: But he didn’t take part in the recording of the album?

AF: No, he didn’t.

MD: I assume that that must have had some effect on your role in the band and in the recording process – being the fact that Eric wasn’t there, and the two of you did similar things previously.

AF: Yeah, I definitely felt a bit more hands on, in the process of making the record. The first time I got together with Britt, to work, it was just the two of us, and he was doing South by Southwest in 2015. We got together late one night, at his place, and we worked on what would become I Ain’t the One – it was an acoustic guitar song, and we figured out a way to re-approach it, and make it sound a bit different.

MD: It sounds like that particular track starts rather sparse – with just the keyboard and Britt – and then goes into this lush thing.

AF: I think we were recording that night, when it was just written on a little, handheld, digital recorder, and I think we snuck part of that into the actual track.

MD: Is your relationship with the rest of the band different, because of the fact that there’s the four of you working on this record, as opposed to the five?

AF: No. I’d say everyone’s relationships have stayed the same. Everyone gets along pretty well. Everyone likes each other. We have fun.

MD: I was just reading some reviews, and somebody described this album as your “fun” album. Would you look at it like that?

AF: Yeah, sure. I think it’s fun. I had fun making it; and if that translates, then that’s great.

MD: Elsewhere, somebody else described it as “funkier and freer” than your previous records. Is that an apt description?

AF: I’d say that’s also true, yeah. With a song like Us – the last song on the record – that’s like a free jazz song, and then you have a song like Can I Sit Next to You, that starts off with a funk guitar rhythm; so, I’d say they’re both accurate.

MD: What were the beginnings of that final track, Us? Where did that come from? It seems very different from everything else on the record.

AF: Yeah, it is. Basically, the intention was to have a sax player come in and play just on the intro of the song. He came over to Britt’s place, and he heard the song once, and he said, “Okay, I’m ready…” so, Britt opened up a track for him, and he played all the way through the song, and then he said, “Okay, give me one more track,” and then went through the song again and harmonised and played with the track he had just done; and that was it. He was like, “Okay, cool. I’m done;” it took an hour, I think. And what ended up happening, Britt muted everything else that was on that track, and just listened to the saxes – and they sounded so good – and got the idea that, “Maybe this is the song, and we base everything off of that,” which was a cool thing to do. It was definitely a new approach, and it was definitely like using the studio as an instrument as well, because you’re starting from something that somebody did, and put layering on top of that.

MD: It’s a pretty wild way of working. I assume a track like First Caress was put together completely differently.

AF: Yeah! Actually, I wrote half of that song. I wrote the music, and then I sent that over to Britt – I’d made a little demo of it at my house – … and he said, “This is great, except it’s not in a key that I can sing;” so, I redid it in a different key, sent that over to him, and he wrote lyrics and redid the melody a bit, and sent that back to me. That was a real cool experience; to hear his take on it. It was great, and that’s how that ended up.

MD: Since you started the song, was it always your intention to have it be this throbbing, disco-like thing?

AF: Yeah, definitely.

MD: Is that something that is near and dear to your heart, or were you just experimenting with that sound?

AF: I think my mum always listened to disco when I was growing up. It’s embedded within me, whether I like it or not.

MD: Do you spend much time dancing to music, or listening to dance music, in that way, or did you just feel like making it?

AF: Sometimes. I was boxing for a bit, and I would listen to disco, sometimes, when I was jumping rope or warming up.

MD: Do you do much boxing anymore?

AF: I don’t have time right now. It’s the kind of thing where, if you take a break and you don’t stay conditioned or in practice, and you come back, then you’re wrecked. It’s the kind of thing where you’ve got to really keep up with it. I started leaving town more and more often to finish these recordings and start touring, and every time I did boxing, it was just brutal; so, I gave up, unfortunately.

MD: Maybe you’ll be able to get back to it after you get off the road. You’re supposed to stay in shape on the road as well, but I assume that’s a different kind of being in shape.

AF: Yeah, I try to go for runs, or something like that.

MD: What are the shows shaping up to be like? How are they turning out?

AF: So far, so good. It’s been really cool playing all this new stuff. The response has been pretty great; so, I think it’s shaping up pretty well.

MD: Do they seem to fit in with the older stuff? The band itself has been around for quite a while – you’ve been in the band only for four or five years – it has quite a legacy to draw from.

AF: Totally! When we started getting together to work on this show for this tour, we sat down – Britt and I – and discussed what songs would fit with this new record, and if a song didn’t fit, is there a way we can play it that would maybe make it fit; so, we catered to the record when we went to pick the older songs. Some songs we’re not going to be playing, some songs that we didn’t feel like could fit, we’ve readdressed and tried to put them in this world, and then there were some that we thought fit well with this record; and we just played as we were.

MD: And do you keep the fans in mind when you’re making those decisions as well, as to what folks want to hear, or what they might want to hear, if it was presented to them?

AF: You do, a bit, but you also want to make sure that you’re content with what you’re doing as well, and make sure that you feel good about it too. There’s a bit of that, but you want to make sure that you’re looking out for yourself, and making sure that you’re doing something that feels good to you.

MD: When you’re done touring this part of the world, what happens next, with the band?

AF: We’re only going to be here until Saturday, but then we’re going to go home – we’re going to have a week off – and then we’re going to start gearing up for, I think, a proper US run; do some more rehearsals, and then get going on that, and then take off from there.

MD: You said you had a new member… Herrardo. Where did you find him?

AF: Jim had recorded with him before – Jim runs a studio in Austin; he’s a producer – and he produced some stuff that Herrardo was playing on. He’s a killer keyboard player and guitar player; so, when we were looking for someone, he came to mind. He’s a good dude.

MD: Cool! It sounds like it’s all happening. Thank you for taking time to talk to me. Enjoy your time in Australia. Next time, come to New Zealand.

AF: Yeah, we’re planning on it next time; we’re definitely planning on it.