What do you do when you finally make it? Most artists are perpetually scraping by and innovating just to get by, and when you finally break through that barrier and find yourself no longer a struggling artist but a successful one, where do you go from there?
Britt Daniel is one of those few artists. Now 41, Daniel started his band Spoon in his early 20s and then built the band into an indie rock juggernaut. Daniel has what all musicians strive for — a creative outlet that provides a living. Spoon sells out venues across the country and was named by the review-aggregating site MetaCritic as the most critically acclaimed band of the early 2000s. Daniel has the freedom to do whatever he wants. If he wanted, he could probably make consistent, good-to-great Spoon records for next decade or two, continue to sell albums and tickets and merch and enter his elder years as a venerated indie-rock figure, living comfortably for the rest of his life.
Instead, Daniel formed a new group. He shelved Spoon for the time being this past year and has teamed up with Wolf Parade/Handsome Furs frontman Dan Boeckner to form Divine Fits.
“I just wanted to have a new experience and do something I hadn’t done before,” Daniel says. “When this idea came up I had just finished a long year of touring with Spoon. I was starting to write songs again, but I wasn’t really sure what. I didn’t really have a big agenda in front of me. I don’t know. It just seemed like the right time to try something else, to find something else. I’m going to go make a Spoon record again and that’ll be fun; I love playing those songs, I love playing with those guys, but I wanted to build something from scratch again.”
The pairing of Boeckner with Daniel isn’t necessarily intuitive, but now that it has happened it seems like it was a long time coming. (Given that Spoon covered Wolf Parade’s “Modern World” on their 2010 tour, it was also, apparently, not-so-subtly foreshadowed.) Spoon’s brand of carefully considered minimalist rock matches nicely with Boeckner’s loose, raw songwriting mentality. Divine Fits (rounded out by New Bomb Turks drummer Sam Brown and keyboardist Alex Fischer), is all over the board stylistically, dipping into the sounds of New Wave, blues, synth-pop and punk, but underneath all of it is the deliberately sparse songwriting that marked Spoon’s and Wolf Parade’s respective styles. Upon listening, the album is very clearly the product of its creators. Boeckner and Daniel met in 2007, Daniel says, before a Handsome Furs show.
“He’s just a really friendly guy, real talkative; it was easy to get to know him,” Daniel says. “We just tried to stay in touch; we would try to hang out whenever we were in the same town.”
The two kept in touch, and in 2010 Daniel invited Boeckner to join Spoon on stage at a Radio City Music Hall concert.
“It was fun having him up there. It was fun having him backstage. It was a blast,” Daniel says. “That maybe gave me an idea about it. A couple months later … he mentioned that Wolf Parade was winding down, and I said, ‘We need to start a rock band.’” The two started recording ideas and sending them to each other. Daniel sent some instrumental tracks to Boeckner, and Boeckner laid down some vocals on top, birthing “What Gets You Alone,” now the third track on the group’s debut album, A Thing Called Divine Fits.
However, not all the tracks on the album were a product of collaboration.
“Some of it was a lot more collaborative, some of it was just the same as always,” Daniel says. “[‘What Gets You Alone’] was a song that I wrote the music for and was having trouble writing words for it, so I sent it to Dan and asked, ‘Can you write words?’ So that was pretty much a collaboration. And then some of it was jams, the band riffing on stuff spontaneously, and then I’d go back later and put vocals on it. Some of them were songs that Dan brought in, and I’d help him with a part of an arrangement idea.”
Starting a new group is a relatively risky venture for a musician. The last time Spoon came to Denver, the group sold out the Ogden Theatre so fast it added a second concert, which then subsequently sold out. This time around, Daniel and Divine Fits are playing the smaller Bluebird Theater, and tickets are still available. But getting out of his comfort zone is what seems to be driving Daniel on this project.
“It does feel different. I’m very aware of it being a new thing,” Daniel says. “Especially the first few times we did it, I didn’t really know what it would be like. I thought it would be good. I had this general feeling that it would be good and I would enjoy it. I knew what Dan was like on stage, and I had a feeling it would be really good.
“But when we actually started doing it for the first time, and I saw what it was like playing with Alex and what it was like playing with Sam, and to have this sort of group camaraderie that really came together once we were on stage together, that was cool and it was not something that I could have predicted.”
Touring with Divine Fits is a new experience for Daniel when you consider that Divine Fits only has 10 original songs and one cover recorded. The lack of material makes for shorter sets, too, with Divine Fits playing 13 songs or so per concert versus 20 or more with Spoon. (With Spoon, the challenge is to “whittle” down 19 years of material into a 25-song set list, Daniel says.) The group has been covering a variety of songs by various artists, from the Rolling Stones to Tom Petty to Wipers. One cover stands out though, and that’s R&B singer Frank Ocean’s “Lost,” a seemingly odd choice for a minimalist rock band to cover.
“The first time I heard it, Dan played it for me and he said, ‘This sounds like an R&B singer doing a Spoon song,’” Daniel says. “So I kind of listened to that with that reference point. It did seem like something rhythmically, arrangement-wise and spacial-wise, that I would do. I didn’t really think about covering it though until much later, until someone suggested it to me.”
Perhaps the strangest thing about covering “Lost” (and the song absolutely does sound like an R&B version of a Spoon song) is that the song came out in 2012. In this era of strict copyrights you just don’t see many artists covering songs that came out in the past decade. It’s almost coming full circle from the early days of rock ’n’ roll, when artists would cover each other’s hits with impunity.
“I think any song that’s a great song is potentially a great cover,” Daniel says. “In the ’60s they used to cover current songs a lot more often. That was a cool deal. I like the idea of musicians sharing a song, making something into their own, and the song sort of morphing. It happened a lot more often in the past.”
Speaking of the past, Daniel has a surprisingly sharp memory of past shows. Spoon hasn’t played the Boulder Theater since 2005 or 2006, but Daniel remembered eating at a Nepalese restaurant close to the venue (probably Himalayas, which moved to North Boulder) and a group of hardcore locals.
“For awhile there whenever we would play in Denver or Boulder, there were this group of youngsters that would come to all our shows,” Daniel recalls. “I don’t know, they were just funny people. You would look out in the audience and they would be there. I don’t know, they were Boulder’s approximation of New Wave-looking? They were cool, we ended up being friends with them.”
Whether the same group will follow Daniel from Spoon to Divine Fits remains to be seen. But Daniel is willing to take that chance, to walk away from the immense success of his past to strike out on a new venture. Most music fans are skeptical of groups like this — even if supergroups are extremely successful, they rarely stick together for long — but Daniel and Boeckner are adamant that the group is for real.
“The idea was to put together a band, not a record, so we’re going to keep on doing it,” Daniel says.
Divine Fits plays the Bluebird Theater Friday, Dec. 14. Achille Lauro opens. Doors open at 8 p.m. 3317 Colfax Ave., Denver. Call 303-322-2308.