Photo by Heather Kaplan
I’m a longtime subscriber of Britt Daniel‘s music. I’ve listened to Spoon’s Gimme Fiction so many times, I feel like I could do justice to a number of its tracks on guitar or bass or, hell, even drums. My girlfriend’s even more enthralled with Daniel and Spoon, and the two of us argue consistently on what’s his best album with the Austin collective: She says Girls Can Tell, I say Gimme Fiction, and both of us are probably wrong. So, when news came through the wire that Daniel was working alongside Dan Boeckner – the one slice of Wolf Parade I adore most — and calling the outfit something clever like Divine Fits, I was pretty enthralled myself. But I’d be lying if the idea of this being some sort of indie rock supergroup didn’t cross my mind or wasn’t even minutely responsible for that excitement.
Yet Divine Fits isn’t a supergroup, or at least they don’t act like one.
Earlier this month, I caught only their fourth show ever at Chicago’s Schubas Tavern. I had only heard two cuts off their debut album, A Thing Called Divine Fits: “My Love Is Real” and “Would That Not Be Nice”. The whole night was unique in that I’d be discovering these songs live. Much to my surprise, both Boeckner and Daniel appeared comfortable, habituated, and animated. Boeckner’s veins threaded around his neck as he assaulted the microphone, while Daniel thumbed through bass lines as if that was always his thing to do. Sweat dripped down Boeckner’s face as he observed the scene, stating: ”Weve been doing these hometown shows and this is the first one where were not from and it feels good.”
Photo by Jeremy D. Larson
Feeling good is a big part of this power trio, which also includes Sam Brown of New Bomb Turks. For over a decade, Boeckner has stepped in and out of projects like Atlas Strategic, Wolf Parade, and The Handsome Furs, while Daniel has led Spoon through seven studio albums. Divine Fits is exactly what its name implies: a perfect state of emotion. There is no leader at the helm, the album’s songwriting is split right down the middle, and it’s an amalgamation of ideas. “To me, thats one of the coolest parts of this band,” Daniel explains. “One of the fun parts and new experiences of this is that all those duties are spread around. Its a lot more fun for me.”
I spoke to Daniel twice last week and both times he sounded relaxed, pleased, and excited for things to come. It could be that this is a necessary tangent for the Spoon frontman. The band’s last outing, 2010’s Transference, wasn’t exactly Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, and the response by fans and critics alike made that quite clear. Granted, it contained one of Daniel’s most frantic and raw performances to date (“Written in Reverse”), especially amidst charged lines like “All I know, is all I know,” but altogether something was missing.
“There are a lot of things that naturally get focused on me,” Daniel admits. “Thats cool. I understand why it happens and I definitely like writing all those songs, but its fun to be in a project where I can do some of that, or be the guy whos backing someone up. I love what Dan does. If Dan wasnt as great as he is, maybe it wouldnt be so easy for me to play backup to him. Hes awesome and I love the process of added responsibility there.”
Continued on page two…
The two’s chemistry dates back to a number of shows The Handsome Furs shared with Spoon, including a 2010 performance at New York’s Radio City Music Hall, where Boeckner was a guest of the band. When Wolf Parade went on hiatus in 2011, Boeckner called up Daniel and they discussed the idea of putting something together. And so it goes: In August of 2011, Daniel headed out to Los Angeles, and Boeckner followed him six months later to become his new roommate, creating a situation that would be “very brotherly.”
“We definitely got to know each other,” Daniel adds. “I mean, we knew each other already and we were buddies but, you know, there’s something about living together and also working together every day that became more educational.”
That connection isn’t only reserved for the stage, though. A Thing Called Divine Fits excels from that rare companionship, and it’s something that I find hard to ignore with each listen. I don’t think I’m alone, either. Since it started streaming in full a couple of weeks back, a few writers have noted how different yet essentially whole Boeckner and Daniel’s vocals sound. Stephen Carlick of Exclaim.ca said it best in his interview with Boeckner, where he called the album a “product of two strong songwriters meeting each other halfway” with a ”perfect blend of both songwriter’s aesthetics.”
Photo by Heather Kaplan
Produced by Nick Launay, whose resume includes everyone from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Arcade Fire to Talking Heads and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, A Thing Called Divine Fits is a taut exercise in reconfiguring the way one experiences New Wave. Album opener ”My Love is Real” dances over Kraftwerk-inspired rhythms, showcasing a sleek sense of minimalism. “Would That Not Be Nice” feels like a lost Robert Palmer classic: a chic, sexy thumper that has Daniel singing to Cleopatra, crooning about Minneapolis, and wishing “that you were just strange.” While “For Your Heart” is a looming, dangerous driver that wraps Boeckner with the sparkly wiring of early New Order.
“We didnt talk about any themes or lyrics,” Daniel explains of the songwriting process. “I think things just honestly came together. In the end, he would say, ‘I didnt realize I was writing about this and this.’ It became clear to him after the fact.” Lyrically speaking, it’s quite an adventurous album. “Civilian Stripes” references Moscow’s Tverskaya Street, album closer “Neopolitans” explores the world of dreams, and “The Salton Sea” is, well, pretty self-explanatory. A lot of it comes across as writings from two hopeless romantics, but there’s enough bitterness to keep things in perspective.
It’s the sort of ambitious, energetic material young songwriters tend to put on their debut album, which again, is a nice tangential experience for veterans like Boeckner and Daniel. “Im doing a lot of things I havent done in a long time,” Daniel earnestly admits. “More than anything, it feels like a new experience to me.” There’s a lot of stuff Daniel appreciates right now. He finds it a relief to be co-writing songs, which goes hand in hand with his recent statements about the future of Spoon; he thrives behind the bass guitar, an instrument he regards as his “calling”; and he enjoys playing nothing but new material in smaller, more intimate locales, as he watches for patterns and how the crowd might “applaud after certain things.”
Photo by Heather Kaplan
I can’t help but appreciate that approach and I tell him how I think it’s all working, even at the risk of coming off like some rabid fanatic. On paper, Divine Fits is just another experiment from two all-stars in the indie community, but that’s an unfair assessment. In recent years, “supergroup” is a queasy term best reserved for bullshit publicity stunts like team-ups between Mick Jagger and Joss Stone (see: last year’s beyond-awful Super Heavy) or predictably failed attempts at subverting a genre through power (e.g. Audioslave, Velvet Revolver). Divine Fits is more or less another New Wave outfit, but a really good one. Granted, the genre is so smothered in recycled ideas today that some might consider Daniel’s outfit another pair of boots in the long, tiring march, but I’d like to believe otherwise. I’d like to think they’re doing something that works here. So much of music’s success depends inherently less on ideas and more on chemistry and I’ve seen and heard both from Divine Fits and that’s more than enough for a ringing endorsement. Looks like New Wave has a few more years ahead of it.