From DRUM! Magazine’s November 2017 Issue | By Patrick Flanary | Photographs By Debi Del Grande
The members of Spoon were busy making an album from the future when their producer suddenly brought them back to the present. “Grab a piece of percussion that’s speaking to you,” Dave Fridmann told them. They’d finished recording “Pink Up,” a trance-inducing, psych-inspired track from Spoon’s ninth album, Hot Thoughts, but it was missing something.
So the four bandmembers did something other groups might consider radical: they listened to their producer. In a burst of chemistry, Spoon rallied to improve a song — one that demanded all members on percussion. Britt Daniel, the frontman, grabbed shakers; keyboardist Alex Fischel picked up the bongos; bassist Rob Pope banged a tambourine; and drummer Jim Eno played four toms without bottom heads. That moment, inspired by the producer’s own infatuation with the funky percussion of Herbie Hancock’s “Watermelon Man,” was a sudden, on-the-spot creation that gave the Spoon song the rhythmic lift it needed.
“The whole idea for this record sort of started morphing into, ‘What would a record from the future sound like?’” Eno told Drum before a rehearsal for Spoon’s European dates. “We wanted to make it sound progressive and forward-thinking. I feel like that was in the back of our heads as we were working.”
The group storyboarded Hot Thoughts as a film director would, experimenting with and sequencing the songs into a story that sounded like something from another time. Also, as Eno was quick to point out, not a single acoustic guitar is heard on this album.
As a touring drummer, engineer, producer, and studio owner, Eno represents a rare hybrid in the music business. He’s an anchor for a band whose indie aesthetic has seized mainstream popularity without losing face. And he didn’t play drums until his early twenties, not typically an age when many get their start.
“I thought that if I could get involved in jazz, that would help progress my playing. It influenced my style a lot.”
Since Spoon’s early days, around 1998, Eno has operated Public Hi-Fi, an analog-driven studio based in Austin, Texas. There, between tours and records, he holes up to work with bands rarely known by folks who live outside the city limits. Identifying undiscovered musicians and capturing their sound for his label, Public Hi-Fi Records, helps give those unsigned artists another platform. But when Eno is recording with Spoon, he’s recording with Spoon, period. When it’s time to occupy his mind exclusively with the next record, he surrenders that producer hat, careful to keep focus on the task at hand.
“I have a really difficult time engineering and producing when I’m playing drums, because I’m very over-critical of what I’m playing,” Eno admits. Without someone else overseeing production, he says, “it’s really difficult to know how to objectively get and edit the take.”
Objectivity is paramount, and Eno says it allowed him to dig in and explore on songs like “Tear It Down,” which features a fill that starts on beat 1 of the third verse. “I feel like that’s my style, that fill,” he says. “Drumming can sort of be a melodic instrument,” he adds, referencing what he calls “thematic” fills that build on earlier fills in songs. Eno says this style was best demonstrated by The Smiths’ Mike Joyce, U2’s Larry Mullen Jr., and R.E.M.’s Bill Berry.
Eno didn’t take up the drums until college in Houston, and started with big band and combo jazz. “I thought that if I could get involved in jazz, that would help progress my playing. It influenced my style a lot,” he says. “With big band, it’s about driving the band. It was appealing to me because my style is just very simple fills, but trying to be super-steady and being support for the band. I feel like it really influenced my rock playing because I try not to be too flashy on recordings, and do a lot of just playing for the song.”
“He’s just a master at that,” says the Austin-based musician Ben Kweller, who has recorded with Eno. “What I love about Jim is he looks at the song as a whole, and he really has that producer mindset. It’s just about being selfless, and just serving the song.”
That subtle song-serving can be heard on the title track from Hot Thoughts. For the bridge, Eno wanted what he called “a tiny drum sound,” which was achieved by playing on rubber practice pads placed on the heads, then slowing down the tape during recording. Played back at regular speed, the drums sound mechanical — and indeed tiny in tone. “That kind of meticulous brainpower goes toward his music and production and performance,” Fridmann says.
Drumming, engineering, producing, and . . . designing computer chips? Until about a decade ago, that was Eno’s day job, an electrical engineering gig he had while on the road with Spoon. “I always felt like to make my living in the music business, I needed to have a diversity plan,” he said. “If I’m going to quit my job, I’m not going to just be a drummer — what do I do when Britt’s not writing songs?”
That question reflects a point of consideration for drummers looking to diversify their talents to supplement their incomes. The cringe-worthy phrase “revenue stream” becomes easier on the ears when the gigs begin to slow down. For Eno, part of earning another source of cash means generating it when he’s not home, by renting his studio. And for several years, during South By Southwest, he’s even curated playlists for Spotify. After all, Eno’s profession and livelihood depend not only on his life with Spoon, but also on his life without them.
“I like having a lot of different things going on,” Eno says. “Coming off the road and then mixing a record, that’s really fun for me. It pulls my brain in another area.”
His friend Charlie Sexton, the longtime guitarist for Bob Dylan, affectionately calls his buddy’s studio Eno-Land. “I’m really a fan,” said Sexton, who worked with Eno on a session with Blues Traveler. “He’s a hero of mine in a lot of ways, because he does do everything. He really is the full package.”
For all his jobs and passions, Eno admits it’s all worth spreading himself a bit thin. “If I was only doing Spoon,” he said, “it would probably be hard. I love what I’m doing. And I feel like on one level I’m making it work.”
Quick Licks: “First Caress”
Transcription by Andy Ziker
Spoon writes tightly crafted pop songs, and “First Caress” off their new album Hot Thoughts is a perfect example of this. Jim Eno is a master of subtle conventions as he builds the intensity and piques our interest over the eight-bar introduction shown here.
1) Four-on-the-floor bass drum immediately establishes the dance groove.
2) The hi-hat is left out on beat 3 of each measure, while open hi-hats on the & of 4 build forward momentum.
3) The snare drum gradually increases in rhythmic density.
Current Album: Hot Thoughts
Age: “Do I have to?”
Birthplace: Providence, Rhode Island
Influences: Mike Joyce, Larry Mullen Jr., Philly Joe Jones
Drums: C&C Drum Company
Cymbals: Istanbul Agop
Sticks: Vic Firth SD10
Heads: Remo Coated Ambassador