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: ‘OK. 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 falsetto, 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 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 recording 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.”