‘Kill the Moonlight’ at 20: Spoon’s breakthrough remains one of their most distinctive albums
Nearly 10 years into Spoon's career, things were finally going their way. After releasing an underwhelming, Pixies-ish debut album on Matador (1996's Telephono) and having a disastrous major label experience recording and releasing their fantastic but not-exactly-commercial second album A Series of Sneaks, the Austin band found themselves back on an indie label Merge Records who got what they were about and trusted their instincts. Spoon's first album for Merge, 2001's Girls Can Tell, was a critical hit, sold decently, and started to get them noticed on commercial alternative radio.
"Things didn’t feel like an unmitigated disaster, basically, so that was cool," Britt Daniel told Under the Radar in 2014. He said the positive response to Girls Can Tell made him feel energized and excited for the first time in a long time, and he didn't want to wait to make a new album. With no tour booked and no real festival season in the US back then, Daniel rented an apartment in New London, CT and started writing songs and demoing them on a Portastudio 4-track cassette recorder. Daniel liked the way the demos sounded -- heavy on drum machines and cheap Casio synth piano -- and that heavily shaped the direction of their fourth album, 2002's breakthrough Kill the Moonlight.
Kill the Moonlight felt like a mixture of A Series of Sneaks' Wire worship and the Kinks influence of Girls Can Tell boiled down to a dry pot, the bare essence. The album opens with the arresting "Small Stakes" that's initially just Daniel, electric piano and tambourine, with drums rolling in at the end like distant thunder. The rest of the album follows suit, with Daniel's raspy voice, dripping of attitude, leading the charge with only the barest instrumentation. Every sound is distinct -- the pounding piano, slashing guitars, crashing drums, reverby handclaps, occasionally beatboxing -- and almost hermetically sealed from the others, all easily identifiable.
The album's production, by Daniel, drummer Jim Eno and Mike McCarthy (Trail of Dead, Heartless Bastards) is somehow enormous and intimate. "Stay Don't Go," "Small Stakes" and "Stay Don't Go" sound like they were recorded in a closet with all the members of the band playing on top of each other, and the listener in there too, but with 30 foot ceilings. Dubby touches, owing a lot to late-'70s post punk, keep you rapt, with echoing guitars zooming between the speakers like a passing bullet train, making you wonder, "what did I just hear?" There is not a sound or a second spared on this 12-song, 34-minute album.
The album also has some of the hookiest Spoon songs to date, including first single "The Way We Get By" which was used so memorably early in the first season of FOX's The OC, (a show which regularly broke indie bands), the storming, Damned-quoting "Jonathan Fisk," "Don't Let it Get You Down," and "All The Pretty Girls Go to the City." Daniel and his guitar were rarely separated on stage -- he wielded it like a weapon or an extension of his arms -- but keyboards and lots of electric piano, drive much of Kill the Moonlight. (The album credits Eggo Johansson as pianist and tambourine player, but that was just Britt in joke pseudonym form.) It was an unusual move for a group, genre and era still known for guitars but Spoon were an indie rock band bucking up against conventions.
"I don’t want to name too many names," Daniel told Under the Radar in that 2014 interview (though he did mention Pavement), "but what most indie rock bands at that time were doing seemed lazy. That’s what indie rock was—lazy. We wanted to make a record that was not lazy and was not afraid to show that we wanted to put some creativity and ideas into this thing. It’s not something that we sloughed off in our garage in two days."
Not two days, but still pretty quick. Kill the Moonlight was recorded mostly in a six week period during the hottest months in Austin, summer of of 2001. "Britt and I were sitting in that room for hours during the daytime, hallucinating from the heat while making that one," producer Mike McCarthy told Tape-Op in 2009. "That summer was seriously hot — 100-degree days every day. When we mic'ed anything we had to turn the air conditioning off while recording. We were buzzed and nodding on iced green tea. We were very focused though — no distractions."
The heat and the short time frame, really more like a month as Jim Eno's 16-track tape machine went down for two weeks, added to Kill the Moonlight's immediacy. McCarthy made Spoon do take after take of "Jonathan Fisk," to the point where Daniel and Deno got angry, but that's what ended up making it such a white-hot firebomb. "Back to the Life" is equally explosive, opening with maniacal laughter from Brit that sounds like he's been pushed over the edge, overdriven acoustics rustling up against cracking drum machines and synthy strings that sound like they're melting in the heat.
Kill the Moonlight cemented the Spoon sound that they continued to tweak and often improve, whether it was brilliantly going big (Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga), sophisticated and synthy (They Want My Soul) or embracing pop (this year's Lucifer on the Sofa), but they were never more unique than on Kill the Moonlight.