Few acts get to take over a venue for multiple consecutive gigs during the annual music conference, but there was a line going around the block each night for the Austin institution Spoon, which was commemorating the release of its ninth album, Hot Thoughts, and a return to Matador Records, the label that had released its first LP, Telephono, back in 1996.
Jim Eno grew up in Warwick, Rhode Island, went to college in North Carolina, and found his way to Texas while working as a designer in the computer industry. Within Spoon’s minimalist pop sound, the drums and percussion occupy a vital role, but one that by design weaves itself into the fabric of each song. Eno comes very much from a Ringo Starr mold in terms of his song-centric performances, but on repeated listens the texture and the sound of the drums prove to be as important as the grooves themselves.
A decade ago Eno tore down the original garage behind his West Austin home, where Spoon had recorded since the late ’90s, and in its place built a two-story recording studio that he named Public Hi-Fi. Working with an award-winning architect, Eno created a unique and practical space featuring construction details like adobe brick and earthen plaster walls for a unique vibe acoustically and visually, as well as a growing selection of vintage and modern gear. MD met with the drummer in the studio’s control room to talk about his work in Spoon and beyond.
MD: So, how did you come to the drums?
Jim: I started playing along with records on the radio when I was super-young. My parents got me a pair of drumsticks, and I would play on the couch. My dad took up upholstery because I would tear up the couches so much, and I would ask for a drumset every year for Christmas but never got one. My mom still feels a little bit guilty about that.
In college at NC State I did a co-op program. Every other semester you’d go and work someplace, and one semester I worked at IBM in Virginia. I had a roommate who was a guitar player, and we went up to D.C. and bought a drumset, so at nineteen or twenty I got my first kit. I think it was a CB700. After that I started playing in cover bands and learning how to play. I was so excited that I set it up right at the bottom of the stairs in the basement where we played, so you could barely get around it. I just wanted to play it so badly. I think the first song I played was “Sunday Bloody Sunday.”
MD: What were some other early influences?
Jim: I was really into the early U2 stuff, the Smiths, the The, R.E.M., Elvis Costello, Depeche Mode, the Cure—the early alternative scene. Later I got my first job, at Compaq in Houston, and I found out they had a big band that would play every week in one of the conference rooms. My whole thing was that if I could learn jazz it would help my rock playing, so I played big band and combo jazz for about two years, and I went to community college in Houston for combo and lessons and all that stuff. I was playing like six days a week, which was pretty awesome.
MD: So at some point work brought you to Austin, where you met [Spoon cofounder] Britt Daniel?
Jim: Yeah, I moved to Austin to work at Motorola, doing microprocessor design. I was in a couple of random bands, and through that I hooked up with this guy Brad Shenfeld, who was playing in a band with Britt, the Alien Beats. We were in that band for about two years, and then Brad went to law school in L.A., so the band broke up. Fast-forward ten years, and Brad is now our lawyer.
After the Alien Beats broke up, Britt asked if I wanted to come over and check out some songs he was writing, and a lot of those songs became the first Spoon record, Telephono. There were a lot of odd time signatures on that record. Things go from, like, six in the verse to five or something in the chorus, and I was just really into that. It was really good for a drummer. The thing was to play those songs without making them seem like they were in an odd time signature, because they were also pop songs. Britt wouldn’t do that to be tricky or cute or anything like that; it was just how he wrote melodies. “The Fitted Shirt” [from 2001’s Girls Can Tell] is one of those songs, and we’ve had people play that with us and they’ll play it in four. As soon as you hit that first odd measure the whole band is like, “Wait, what just happened?”
MD: There’s an early video on YouTube where you’re playing a Tama Artstar kit.
Jim: I probably used the Tamas on Telephono. I don’t remember what I used on the next album, A Series of Sneaks—maybe the same kit.
MD: The drum sounds gain a lot of character around Girls Can Tell.
Jim: I started using vintage kits, like a ’62 Rogers that I bought in Houston, and I bet I was using that on Girls Can Tell.
MD: How did you start to explore the sounds of the kit in the studio?
Jim: A lot of that came down to the producers we were working with at the time. John Croslin was going for more of a radio type of sound [on Telephono]. I like more round drums. I don’t like super-compressed snares, and I like to hear the thuddy Beatles sound. Mike McCarthy, who started producing with us on Girls Can Tell and continued to for the next three albums, really liked that sound too. So you can tell, like you said, that it was a pretty big shift sonically.
Also, after A Series of Sneaks I started buying studio gear, for many reasons. One was so that we could be as self-sufficient as possible. I was never going to quit my day job to just be a drummer in a band, because it didn’t make sense to me to just sit around while Britt was writing songs. I needed things to do during our downtime. I really loved being in the studio, so I figured I could start recording with other bands while Britt’s writing. It also helps me to sort of keep quality control on Spoon records, questioning the producer and steering it toward where I know Britt and I will like the final product.
MD: So in the late ’90s you started with a two-inch 16-track machine and Pro Tools 3?
Jim: Yeah. We’ve moved a long a bit since then. [laughs] I had a Trident 24 board, and we would rent a tape machine to start. When we started doing the Love Ways EP here in the previous studio, we would use the tape machine and then sync it to Pro Tools if we ran out of tracks.
MD: You currently have a Neve board. Has Rupert Neve ever come to check it out?
Jim: It’s an 8016, and he has. It’s from about 1969 or ’70. A broker in London had it, and it was in quite rough shape. Those 24 API mic pre’s and EQs are from Leon Russell’s console from 1975. I just put them in last year.
MD: What do you look for in drums and cymbals when tracking?
Jim: I always use pretty dark cymbals. I use Istanbul Agop pretty much exclusively, and I think they’re awesome. In the studio [I’ll sometimes use] a line called Xist. They’re really nice—sparkly but dark. For hi-hats I might use a pair of 15″ OM hats, which cut but are really dark and dry. [Bob Dylan guitarist] Charlie Sexton was in the other day and was like, “What the hell are these hi-hats? I want a pair!”
MD: How do you choose drums, and specifically snares, for a track?
Jim: The snare is the key; sonically everything comes off it. I prefer a pretty dead snare, tight and crispy. I have a drum closet with eight or ten snares, and I’ll be like, “Today seems like a good day for this guy,” and I’ll bring it down, tweak it up, and see if it works with what we’re doing.
I also have two snare drums I made. I use one of them live, and I used one of them on Hot Thoughts. I would buy a Keller shell and then get the edges beveled but do all the hardware and staining. I did one in the early ’90s in Houston. It’s a 5.5×14 with a very odd snare bed and weird edges, but it sounds really cool. For tracking I’ve been using more metal snares, maybe a Ludwig Supraphonic or a Jeff Ocheltree snare made of Paiste cymbals [the Spirit of 2002 model]. I use a Ludwig Black Beauty a lot too, but I have to not pull it out [too much] because it’s bit like crack, and I want to have things sound different. It has a very distinctive whap sound that sounds very much like a drum machine.
MD: Sometimes you’ll go for a very non-drum-like quality in the snare, like on “Rent I Pay,” from They Want My Soul.
Jim: That’s a tight room sound, with distortion from the close mic. That song wouldn’t work with a small, booth-style recording where everything was dead and dry and super-close. That’s probably the biggest concern: Does the kit work for how we’re approaching the song?
MD: Do you have any favorite dampening techniques?
Jim: Not really. I usually use Moongel, or maybe towels. As far as other tricks, I do a lot of cymbal stacking. There’s a lot of songs I’ve worked on where we tried to make it sound like trash cans, and that’s always a good way to do that. Istanbul Agop makes this cool Trash Hit cymbal that’s [partially] un-lathed and warped on the edge, so when you sit it on top of another cymbal it’s pretty cool because it doesn’t choke it and just sort of vibrates.
MD: Was “The Underdog” [from Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga] the only track you guys did with Jon Brion?
Jim: We did another version of “You Got Yr. Cherry Bomb” with him, but it never came out. He’s a super guy to work with. One of the horn players on “The Underdog” is Jason Freese, Josh’s brother.
MD: You teach audio recording a bit now.
Jim: I’m going to do this program again with Ohio University, where a few recording majors come down for a week in January and we do two sessions of live recording for a song, a basic tracking day, an overdub day, and then a mix day.
MD: You mostly tracked at David Fridmann’s studio for Hot Thoughts, but did any drums get tracked here at Public Hi-Fi?
Jim: I tracked “First Caress” here, in the booth. We were working on it and weren’t sure if it was sounding right, and I just said, “Let me take another crack at the drums here,” and it was a good thing to do.
MD: When you have electronic parts, do you do the programming?
Jim: A lot of times we will. Britt will feed the drum machine into Pro Tools and then edit the sounds. We have pretty big sample libraries here, so if, say, the kick is good but needs a little more attack, then we just start layering samples and things in Pro Tools. I’ve used Slate Audio plug-ins, and I feel like that’s a good way to take a snare drum and add an electronic element to it.
MD: How does songwriting work between you and Britt? Do you ever write as a duo?
Jim: He does a lot of the programming on a drum machine. Sometimes I hear the demo, sometimes I don’t. He might come over and be like, “Hey, here’s a couple things—let’s play them together,” so then I don’t have any preconceived notion on what the beat should be. At other times the demo is pretty fleshed out. Then there’s times where we’ll just leave the drum machine and I won’t even play on the song, which I’m totally fine with. I feel like records are better when things are varied from song to song, so I don’t have to play an acoustic drumkit on every song. Because what we’re really trying to do here is just make a great record.
Eno’s Live Setup
Drums: C&C African mahogany/poplar/African mahogany shells in white formica finish
A. 5×14 Ludwig Copperphonic snare
B. 8×12 tom
C. 14×16 floor tom
D. 16×22 bass drum
Cymbals: Istanbul Agop
1. 14″ Traditional Medium hi-hats
2. 19″ Traditional Medium crash (two)
Heads: Remo, including Coated Ambassador or Coated Vintage A tom and snare batters and Clear Powerstroke 3 bass drum batter
Sticks: Vic Firth SD10
Hardware: Pearl stands and bass drum pedal
Electronics: Roland SPD-SX and snare trigger, Shure P4M 4-channel mixer used for mixing samples from MainStage in the keyboard player’s laptop, Tama Rhythm Watch RW200, Electro-Voice 635A Omni microphone (set up behind the drums to pick up room and audience sound)
Accessories: JH Audio Roxanne in-ear monitors
“Hot Thoughts” from Hot Thoughts /// “Do You” from They Want My Soul /// “You Got Yr. Cherry Bomb” from Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga /// “The Infinite Pet” from Gimme Fiction
Walker Lukens Tell It to the Judge /// The Relatives The Electric Word /// !!! Thr!!!er /// Hard Proof Public Hi-Fi Sessions 03
Elvis Costello Punch the Clock (Pete Thomas) /// Morrissey Viva Hate (Andrew Paresi) /// PJ Harvey Dry (Rob Ellis) /// Rubén Blades y Son del Solar Antecedente (Bobby Allende, Ralph Irizarry, Marc Quiñones) /// David Bowie Young Americans (Andy Newmark, Dennis Davis) /// Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros The Hellcat Years (Steve Barnard, Luke Bullen, Pablo Cook, Ged Lynch, Scott Shields, Josh Freese) /// The Beatles Abbey Road (Ringo Starr) /// Radiohead In Rainbows (Philip Selway) /// Factory Floor Factory Floor (Gabriel Gurnsey) /// The Flaming Lips The Soft Bulletin (Steven Drozd) /// Herbie Hancock Head Hunters (Harvey Mason, Bill Summers)