SO JUST WHAT IS A ROCK STAR, anyway? The term is universally recognized—can there be a better night out than one that begins with rock star parking and ends with partying like a rock star?—but its meaning falls into the know-it-when-I-see-it category. A rock star has a specific appeal, partly danger, partly sex, and partly that most intangible of qualities, cool, and it grabs enough people that he gets to ignore the rules the rest of us play by. But the magnitude of the fans’ response is as important as the attitude that attracts it, and you can’t be a rock star without both. So though Elvis Presley was a rock star, Elvis Costello is not—too few fans. George Jones is; George Strait is not—too little danger. Bill Clinton enjoyed both, but George W. Bush doesn’t, nor does he want to; he came by his fans precisely because he’s not a rock star. (Poor Al Gore has no place in the discussion.) So where is the line? Do you have to have as many girls faint at your head fakes as John or Paul, or will Ringo’s numbers suffice? Do you have to change outfits as many times per show as Britney Spears or just as often as David Lee Roth?
Britt Daniel, the cagey, sometimes caustic leader of the Austin band Spoon, claims to have no idea. "I don’t know how you define ’rock star,’" he says. "But I’m pretty sure water doesn’t leak into the trunk of his Mazda whenever it rains." Don’t be fooled. Daniel may not be in a position to trade his hatchback for a Humvee, but a beat-up Mazda better fits his image anyway, an anti-style of rumpled corduroys, wrinkled Arrow dress shirts, and permanent bed head. That’s how he looks in line at a taco stand in Austin and onstage at packed 1,500-seat venues on both coasts, playing multi-night stands for hip kids who follow his every herky-jerk toe tap as though he were a Liverpool moptop himself. His music, simply irresistible pop the first time you hear it, is deceptively complex and aggressive underneath, as Buddy Holly might have sounded if he’d listened to nothing but Prince in high school. It has seen the top of the college radio charts in the alternative-music bible CMJ, along with being featured on last year’s two new television phenomena, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and The OC . And last September Time magazine, spotlighting current trends in a special "What’s Next" issue, titled its Spoon piece "These Guys Just Might Be Your Next Favorite Band."
But Daniel and Spoon have more than buzz on their side; they have timing, hitting their stride just as the record business enters a new Golden Age for Indies. After a decade of major-label mergers and declining record sales, the music industry is now dominated by five mammoth majors that have no patience, with their ears or their wallets, to give acts without hits time to develop. But when the mainstream narrows, the margins widen, and that’s where the indies operate. Small, self-financed record labels have always been the best alternative to the majors’ flavor of the fiscal quarter, and now that the Web gives world-wide reach and cheap recording software allows garage bands to make CDs without leaving the garage, the indies’ job is easier than ever. Their exponentially lower overhead lets them survive on fractional sales and still, believe it or not, get more money to the artists. So a band like Spoon actually had a bigger payday selling 65,000 copies of their last CD on tiny Merge Records, of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, than they would have had selling a million at a giant like Universal. What all this means is that a major-label deal—and the kind of five-million-units-or-bust measure of success that goes with it—no longer has to be the dream. In fact, if you’ve never even heard of Spoon, Spoon doesn’t care. Perched as they are as everybody’s favorite indie act, they are the new rock stars.
BRITT DANIEL, 34, LOOKS LIKE a nerdy college kid working on his homework. He’s sitting Indian-style on the floor of a small recording studio in the garage of Spoon drummer Jim Eno, deliberately using his long index fingers to press out a low, two-note piano riff on an electric keyboard. It’s the middle of January, and the band is recording their fifth album, which they hope to release this fall. Specifically, they are working on a song called "The Breaks" that Daniel says may or may not wind up on the finished record. The part he’s playing bumps along— ba dum ba-dum, ba dum ba-dum —through the length of the song, undergirding another piano part he’s already recorded. The only other ingredients are a bass guitar played by Spoon member Josh Zarbo, which shadows the bass line played by Daniel’s left hand, and Eno’s drums, a slow, swinging pound to the kick drum and snare that would signal a waltz if it were played in a dance hall instead of this garage.
"What are you going to do with the new piano part?" asks Eno while Daniel, unhappy to have missed a slight variation in rhythm on a transition from a chorus to a verse on the first take, waits for the tape to rewind so he can make a second pass.
"I’ll either use it with the other left hand," says Daniel, "instead of the other left hand or not at all."
You shouldn’t read into that exchange that Daniel is winging it, that he’s flying by the seat of his cords. Of all the hallmarks of Spoon’s sound present in "The Breaks"—the rudimentary riff, the quiet space left in the music, and the way Eno’s steady rhythm holds it all together—the primary quality of a Spoon record is that it sounds exactly the way Daniel heard it in his head. While that may not seem like the best way to describe a record’s sound,