Jim Eno: Master Of Restraint

By Dave Constantin Originally Published In DRUM! Magazine's February 2010 Issue

Sometimes all you need is a good gut-punching 2/4 backbeat, the kind that makes you close your eyes and bop your head and hope the groove won’t ever quit because it feels so damn good. You need a drummer who can surgically cleave through huge cushions of empty space, laughing at the surrounding silence other drummers fear for its merciless ability to amplify mistakes, expose weaknesses, cause palms to sweat and sticks to slip and minds to go blank with panic.

You need a drummer like Jim Eno.

Eno is to Spoon what Phil Rudd is to AC/DC – a steady thumping pulse, a minimalist composer crafting simple symphonies of bass, snare, and hats that make any errant hit sound like an obscenity. But unlike Rudd, Eno’s genius has remained stubbornly hidden from mainstream ears. Oh, sure, Spoon’s perfectly crafted pop-rock gems have long been lauded by critics and worshipped by indie die-hards, but still their 15-year, seven-album odyssey remains a mystery to many.

Which is why Eno still hauls his own gear, because he can’t afford a drum tech (though he’s hoping that changes with this album). It’s also why, up until a few years ago, he still held a day job, punching a clock as an electrical engineer for the now-defunct Compaq Computers, maxing out his leave time whenever the band went on tour. So believe him when he preaches about the importance of diversifying your résumé – because Phil Rudd—sized skills don’t always translate into a Phil Rudd—sized paycheck.

“That’s one of the reasons why I learned to be a recording engineer and a producer, was because then if I wasn’t drumming with Spoon I would be doing other musical creative things, working with bands,” Eno says, speaking from his home in Austin, which has its own studio, Public Hi-Fi, where Spoon has recorded every album since 2001’s Girls Can Tell – all except the latest, that is, which was recorded at Rare Book Studios in New York.

Owning his own studio has done more than just leave his options open during Spoon’s slow rise – it’s made him a better drummer too, reinforcing that less-is-more aesthetic that’s become his signature. “For instance, I tend to not use a lot of cymbals, which can be really harsh in the recording,” he says. “There are even some songs on this record that don’t have any cymbals, any crashes. I think that’s cool for two things: the sound – the drums sound bigger when there are no cymbals. But also when you do hit the cymbals, it really matters. It impacts. You pick a few places for a cymbal crash and it really means something.”

But accents come sparingly, with maybe the odd stacked-crash hit flaring up here and there before decaying immediately. Eno’s tendency is to melt into the groove in a way that’s more felt than heard, even more so on this album. A good example is in the infectiously hypnotic “The Mystery Zone,” which hinges on Eno’s unwavering and utterly unobtrusive 2/4. But what sounds like forehead-slapping simplicity is actually one of his proudest moments on the album. Because that lilting swing feel, propelled oddly enough by a rock-solid straight-eighth hi-hat, is the perfect rhythmic illusion. “There’s nothing in the beat technically that I actually swung, but it’s a totally drummer feel thing,” he says. “It makes you want to dance, yet it is so straight. I could never really understand it. It’s hard to put that into words. But it’s just there.”

But by now Eno’s accustomed to pulling rabbits out of his hat, so to speak. Listen closely to the band’s early songs, he says, and you might hear something odd – time signatures that change according to the lyrical whims of singer/guitarist Britt Daniel. “When I first started playing with him, I was just amazed because I would be like, ’Britt, did you know the verse is in 5/4 and then this chorus is in 7/8?’ And he’s like, ’Uh, I don’t know what you’re talking about.’ It’s like he doesn’t really think about where 1 is. He’s writing with his guitar to fit with any vocal melodies he’s thinking about.

“So, what I try to do as a drummer in that case is I try to make it not seem like it’s in an odd time signature, because we’re still a rock band and we’re still writing pop or rock songs. I would rather make people think that it’s in a standard rhythm and not call attention to itself. I think that’s a big roll with a drummer. It’s like, ’Play the song, don’t show off.’”

Better to be reactive, a word he says aptly describes his approach. “I think what ends up happening is it’s pretty obvious with a song that, ’Okay, there’s a snare drum on 2 and 4.’ But when you live with a song and play with it, then that’s when you start to make little changes that actually show your style. When you hear a demo, and you hear even one little guitar rhythm, maybe an accent that’s on an upbeat instead of a downbeat, that can be the basis for an entire beat."

Those vital little tweaks were more apt to show up on this album because they already had a chance to work out most of the songs onstage. “’Written in Reverse’, ’Mystery Zone’, ’Who Makes Your Money’, ’I Saw the Light’, ’Trouble’ – All of these we had been playing live,” Eno says. “We did about a week of shows and ended in New York and then we tracked those songs immediately, which I really love that because a lot of times when we record the Spoon stuff, we’ve never really played it live. So after I tour on the material, it’s like, ’Boy, I wish I could re-record this now.’”

Lot’s of new ground was broken on this album, from tracking almost everything live (they normally record separately) to building off demos and even pulling some sublime moments from previously recorded practice sessions (which is what happened with the rhythm section on “Trouble”).

But Spoon is just as happy experimenting with studio tricks – like two separate drum tracks panned left and right, Fleetwood Mac—style, on “Who Makes Your Money” and “I Saw The Light,” with the kicks in the middle; or a floor tom passed through a vintage H910 Harmonizer to create those swooping pitch-bends on the backbeats in “Is Love Forever.” But in typical Spoon fashion, everything finds an appropriate place in the tidy arrangements, with even the most overt samples never disrupting the flow.

That’s because nothing can defeat those Spartan grooves that form Spoon’s core, strengthened as they are with the power of simplicity. Describing his gift, Eno says simply: “I think I’m good at hearing a song and knowing that less is more and coming up with parts that make the song actually better.”

Spoken like a true Ruddite. Oh, and here’s to finally scoring that drum tech, Jim. Lord knows you’ve earned it.