Spoon’s Britt Daniel on Backing Beto O’Rourke, and Why He Won’t ‘Just Shut Up and Play’
‘I’ve seen Democrats and the left be energized in a way that I’ve never seen in Texas before, and I’ve been voting in Texas a long time.’
Over the course of nine largely perfect albums, Spoon front man Britt Daniel has established himself as the most unflappable man in rock, effortlessly cool and collected and always ready with a sharp one-liner. But speaking on the phone from Brooklyn, he admits that this wasn't always the case. While growing up in the small Texas town of Temple, the man who wrote “Don’t Make Me a Target” often felt like had a bullseye on his back.
"People were making fun of me for the way I dressed, people were harassing me because I was into a certain type of music. I wasn't into metal, wasn't into country music, wasn't into football," he says with his characteristic nonchalance.
“That was present on a daily basis. You never didn't expect that somebody wasn't going to want to fight you when you went to the mall.” Growing up in such a stifling environment makes it all the more surprising to Daniel that people in his state are jazzed up about, of all things, a Democrat running for Senate.
But that's just the effect that Beto O’Rourke seems to have on people.
Daniel has been doing a number of town halls with O’Rourke as well as Get Out the Vote rallies, and was shocked at the recent turnout in Temple, a small city between Waco and Austin whose biggest feature is the interstate highway running right through it.
“The room was packed. I honestly didn’t know there were that many Democrats in Temple, Texas. There probably weren't when I was growing up,” he says adding that this seems to be the case at every O’Rourke event he participates in. “There was a mania out in Dallas, and this is Dallas, Texas. You don't think of it as a liberal hotbed.”
As the official Texas GOP Twitter account recently pointed out (much to the Internet's delight), before O’Rourke went into politics (joining the El Paso City Council and later the House of Representatives), he played bass in a punk group called Foss, alongside Cedrick Bixler-Zavala of At the Drive-In and The Mars Volta fame. Though Spoon was starting up around the time Foss was active, Daniel said they never played together in Texas. That said, “we’re told that we met. He and I have talked about this. I was going out with a lady who was friends with, I guess his roommate, and apparently, we went over to his house and hung out in Brooklyn,” Daniel says. “I don’t know if it was the late ’90s or early 2000s. So I’ve met him before, but I don’t really remember that.”
Daniel currently lives in Austin and says he’d heard about O'Rourke for a while “from people that I talk politics with in Texas,” and when the congressman announced he would run against Ted Cruz for the Senate seat, Daniel offered to play a benefit.
‘“The first one I played was this outdoor barbecue baseball game thing in Austin,” he recalls. “That’s where I really got to know what he was like as a candidate and some of the issues he stood for.”
He is especially impressed with O'Rourke’s stance on income inequality and that “he wants to do something about the cost of higher education—all these kids that are starting out life with a mortgage around their neck and nothing tangible to show for it,” he explains. “I also just think no matter what your politics are you want to be able to believe in your elected officials, and I do believe in this guy.”
It perhaps doesn’t hurt that “the first time we met was on stage in Austin at that baseball game. It was my birthday, and we did our songs and then he walked up on stage with a cake and led everybody singing the song,” Daniel says. “It was very, very sweet of him to do that. Every time I’ve done something for him, he's been super appreciative. He seems to not take that for granted.”
Around the time Spoon’s 2007 album Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga was elevating the group’s mainstream profile, Daniel would admit in interviews that he had misgivings about being considered a “political” artist, even as he now admits that anthems like “Don’t Make Me a Target” and “The Underdog” were “inspired by the Bush administration that we thought was so terrible back then.”
While the indie-rock audience tends to be largely liberal, he is aware that some music fans don’t like it when their favorite artists take political stances. “There's going to be some that say, ‘Shut up and play.’ And, you know what? I understand it. I’ve thought ‘Shut up and play’ when I’ve watched certain artists, even ones that I believed in, even ones that I shared the opinion with, because sometimes it’s just not done well,” he admits. “Sometimes it seems like it’s done out of ego. Some protests are better than others. But everybody’s got one life and I feel like this is something I want to talk about.”
In addition to the events Daniel has done, Spoon also brought the voter-registration group Headcount out on tour, and the band has used its Twitter profile and interviews like this one to encourage people to vote.
“We post information about when and how you can change your address, how you can register, or how you can make sure that you're registered,” the front man says. “I’ve actually had friends say to me, ‘Well, I thought I was registered to vote, but I saw that thing on your Twitter feed, and I actually did check and I wasn’t, so then I got re-registered.’ This shit does work.”
Like many of us, Daniel doesn’t really talk about politics with his parents, noting that his mother “is one of those people that will ask a lot of questions and won’t say how she voted,” he remarks. “I can’t imagine her voting for Clinton, but I know she also doesn’t like Trump.” But unlike some East Coast liberal types, he wasn’t completely shocked by Trump’s win. “I didn't think that it was impossible,” Daniel says. “I did go to what I thought was going to be a celebratory party that election night, and it was one of the worst parties I’ve ever been to. I told my sister-in-law, ‘Your party sucks.’ I got in my car and drove home.”
In these Trumpian times it is not exactly easy for liberals to be optimistic, and Daniel is aware that most polling shows Cruz ahead of O’Rourke. Nevertheless, he is encouraged by what he has seen on the ground.
“I’ve seen Democrats and the left be energized in a way that I’ve never seen in Texas before—and I’ve been voting in Texas a long time. It’s been over 20 years since anything other than a Republican won a statewide election. So to see people fired up, there’s definitely momentum there,” he says. “I think that speaks to what kind of candidate Beto is and his belief system and the way that he speaks.”
So even if O’Rourke loses, Daniel says he has no intention of giving up—or shutting up—any time soon.
“You have to stay optimistic, because to not be optimistic is self-defeating, and I refuse to be self-defeating. I’m just going to keep working for it.”