Live Music’s New Normal
What's better for a band: gigs at big, sponsored festivals or the old, thirty-shows-in-thirty-days touring model? Divine Fits, the supergroup fronted by Spoon's Britt Daniel, debates.
This past March, Spoon’s Britt Daniel stepped onto the big stage of ACL Live at the Moody Theater, where such artists as Bruce Springsteen, Green Day, and Jay Z have played extravagantly hyped SXSW concerts.
This gig was part of SXSW too, but Daniel wasn’t playing with Spoon, and this show was not extravagantly hyped.
The Tuesday night showcase was something called “#EVOKE13,” co-sponsored by the social media companies Mass Relevance and Klout, and headlined by Cirque du Soleil. Also on the bill: DJ Sam Spiegel, comedian and Nerdist podcaster Chris Hardwick, and Divine Fits, the relatively new group Daniel co-fronts with Canadian Dan Boeckner.
Backstage, in Divine Fits’s dressing room, one of the Fiji water bottles that is part of the band’s spread (sandwiches, Patron, Negro Modelo) has been topped with a red clown nose.
“We’re opening for the circus,” observes Boeckner, his tone both acidic and amused. “[Like] Spinal Tap and the puppet show.”
Divine Fits—which returns to Austin this Sunday and the next one for the Austin City Limits Music Festival—is a supergroup of sorts: Boeckner’s last two projects, Handsome Furs and Wolf Parade, made six albums between them for the eminent Seattle indie label Sub Pop, while drummer Sam Brown has been a member of numerous Ohio punk bands (V3, Gaunt, New Bomb Turks) and collaborated with RJD2, the composer of the opening theme to “Mad Men.” And Spoon, of course, is as prominent an act as Austin’s rock scene has ever nurtured. Its seventh and most recent record, 2010’s Transference, debuted at number four on the Billboard album chart.
But though those resumes help open doors, the band (which is rounded out by keyboardist Alex Fischell) can’t take its audience for granted. Divine Fits have been hustling to be heard and seen like any other band with a first album. The “#EVOKE13” appearance was the second of eight SXSW shows the band would play over five days, including another on that very night.
“That’s one of the things that’s been invigorating for the guys,” says Ben Dickey of Constant Artists, who manages both Spoon and Divine Fits. “They’re having to work for it. There is that excitement of being able to take it person to person, one by one, and really building something.”
How and when Divine Fits get to play their shows as a new band reflects the modern reality of how fans get to musicians now: as one part of a bigger, sponsored whole, with the traditional, thirty-shows-in-thirty-days, get-in-the-van-or-bus model giving way to scattered gigs and many, many festivals. Since SXSW, sixteen of Divine Fits’s 21 gigs have been at festivals, including Austin City Limits. For certain-sized bands (all but the biggest and the smallest) for six months of the year—pretty much between SXSW in March and ACL in October, with Coachella, Bonnarroo, Pitchfork, Lollapalooza and many others in between—the festival circuit has a virtual monopoly on fans’ attentions and discretionary income.
The obvious upside to this is reaching more eyes and ears while putting much less mileage your body, and sometimes earning higher guarantees. The downside, of course, is not all your fans in any given region come out for a festival, and you also have to play for people who don’t like you and would rather talk over you than be won over.
So it was at SXSW’s #EVOKE13: a half-full room of people mostly waiting for the circus. When the most enraptured Divine Fits fan in the room might be the person holding up an iPad to take video, that’s not an ideal situation. But the band still played a crisp and pounding show, perhaps defiantly inspired by the sterile atmosphere and too-short set list. The dynamic between Daniel—blonde, black-suited and white-shirted, cooly diffident—and Boeckner—dark-haired, tattooed, sporting a sleeveless t-shirt, warmly manic—is irresistible, particularly during set-closer “Shivers,” a cover of the Australian band the Boys Next Door (Nick Cave’s first group in the 1970s), which inspired Daniel to near-Townsendesque feats of guitar leaping.
“That was amazing!” Chris Hardwick said afterwards, outside the dressing room—even if he didn’t speak for everybody.
“Do you know what this band is called?” one person in front of me turns around to ask late in the set.
“Divine Fits,” answers the female half of a middle-aged couple on my right, just as Daniel stepped up to the mic to apologetically announce that they could only play one more. “Thank you!” yelled her male companion. Send in the clowns.
* * *
Divine Fits came together unexpectedly when Spoon went on a planned hiatus from what had been an almost-constant songwriting/recording/touring cycle since at least 2005.
“We weren’t planning on taking this long a break,” said Daniel, a Temple native and University of Texas graduate. “But after touring Transference for a year, I wanted to take some time for myself to sort of recharge. I think that’s natural. We’ve been going at it pretty hard for a long time. And then when I was doing that, that’s when I had this conversation with Dan: he told me that Wolf Parade was breaking up, so it just sort of came together. There’s very few people I’d want to back up, y’know? But Dan’s one of them.”
Whether you’re a fan of Spoon or a fan of Wolf Parade, it’s fun to see the bond between the two musicians, reveling in all the novelty and hunger of a new relationship. The two are a great contrast with each other: Daniel is intense and reserved; Boeckner is more of a showy Iggy Pop/David Johansen type. Boeckner’s presence brings out a more playful side in Daniel, who sometimes seems relieved to be able to spend half his time on stage as the animated sideman.
“Dan has a way with words and he’s a great showman, so I can lean on him in that way,” Daniel said. The two of them take equal pleasure in performing on each other’s songs, and Daniel, forever the guitarist/singer when in Spoon, takes even more pleasure in playing bass.
“It’s more instinctual to me,” he said. “I’m less in my head when I’m playing it and it’s more something that comes naturally. It’s been one of the best things about playing with this band, I don’t have any pedals for the bass guitar, I’m not singing every song, so I get up there and I can actually focus on what I’m doing.”
“It’s been interesting to watch,” Dickey said. “Britt’s a very driven person, so seeing him in a different kind of circumstance, where he gets to share the spotlight—I think for a lot of frontmen who have done their own thing for as long as Britt has, that would be tough to adjust to. But I think for him it was something he was genuinely excited about. And, he loves playing bass too.”
The band’s ACL shows mark a sort of end to Divine Fits. They’ll almost certainly return, having not only established themselves as viable band, but because the friendship and collaboration simply isn’t done. But it’s almost time for Spoon to reemerge. Daniel has been writing songs for the next album, and the band has been playing and recording at drummer Jim Eno’s studio in Austin, on and off since spring. Spoon’s eighth record should be finished by the end of 2013.
“The writing and recording of a record is pretty intense and to be doing some of these shows with another band [while I’m making a Spoon record] is something I’ve never gone through before,” Daniel said. “I think it’s a good thing. though. I go through this intense work writing alone and then I have a few days with Spoon, then I go write alone, and then I have a show with Divine Fits. So it kind of breaks things up. Keeps me jazzed about each part of the process.”
* * *
Mere minutes after their #EVOKE13 set ends, Divine Fits head to “Viceland,” a pop-up venue near the Austin Convention Center, where they’re headlining a show put on by backpack-maker Jansport and VICE magazine. It promises to be a better bill (with Japandroids and Wavves) and better vibe, but for one thing: Jansport had moved all the bands off of a larger indoor stage to a makeshift outdoor set-up, because, well, backpacks are an outdoorsy thing and that better served the brand. This created a decibel limit for the band’s PA, plus the show ran late, meaning that the set, originally scheduled to be one of the few full-length SXSW shows that the band would do, got cut nearly in half.
Daniel notes that, because of the way SXSW has evolved from a three-to-four day event where you play one showcase for exposure, into a ten-day behemoth where companies pay bands to help them get exposure, this will be the first time in nearly twenty years that he will come to SXSW and not lose money. But the punk rocker in Boecker is still chafing at the situation.
“What it boils down to is, you have these events that are corporate sponsored, you are playing music for a group of people with (companies) attaching their brand to it and the music part gets lost in the translation,” Boeckner said. “The important thing, which is you being onstage and connecting with the audience on an emotional level, or a physical level, or whatever, that has the potential to get squashed.”
“That is a nice color though,” Boecker said backstage before the show, looking over the assortment of free backpacks that had been laid out on a table outside the band’s dressing room trailer. “I’m taking one just on principle.”
What is further frustrating for him is if the show goes badly, the band is the one that fans hold responsible for a bad time, not the sponsor. But in the end, even after starting a half-hour late, at 1am, with a set list that Boeckner jokes can “metaphorically fit into a Jansport backpack,” the Viceland show is great, the band alchemizing its frustration into onstage energy, the crowd in the front row singing along. In the end, you never know which show is gonna pop, and all the other stuff is just the toll you have to pay to get to make music professionally in 2013.
“And I don’t think it’s a heavy toll, either,” Boeckner says. “I’m excited to play shows. I still can’t believe that I make a living and get to pay my rent and take my fiancee out for dinner because people want to pay me money to hear me get up and play guitar and sing stuff that I wrote. I mean, that’s ridiculous.”
At the end of the night, while still at Viceland, Boeckner and Brian King of Japandroids (a fellow Canadian/Vancouverite) have a drunken, rambling conversation about whether they’d rather play a festival or a ticketed club show, which, for them, at least, isn’t really much of an argument. For Boeckner, a headlining, ticketed show is always the winner: people pay their money to see you specifically, you give them what they paid for, there’s a real connection.
“There’s so many festivals,” Daniel offers. “I don’t know if that’s a good thing–it’s a different thing. I mean, I understand why festivals are successful, I understand what’s cool about them and what’s good about them but in terms of, just, apples for apples, I’d much rather play a club show.”
And yet, the conversation ends with Fischell and Brown saying how cool it would be to play the Austin City Limits festival. “I bet we can make that happen,” Daniel says.
(Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that Spoon recorded an episode of “Austin City Limits” at ACL Live at the Moody Theater, but that 2010 performance was at the show’s previous home on the University of Texas campus.)