Photo by Tom Hines
In the back right, Spoon drummer, producer and N.C. State alumnus Jim Eno
Talk about a welcome back: After graduating from N.C. State with an electrical engineering degree in 1990, Spoon drummer Jim Eno hasn't returned to Raleigh since finishing school, at least as best as he can remember. But tomorrow night, Eno's band will headline Hopscotch 2014 with a late-evening set in Raleigh City Plaza.
Eno doesn't just play drums. An accomplished record producer, he's been involved in some of the biggest indie rock records of the last decade, including but certainly not limited to a few by Spoon. I talked with Eno about his time in Raleigh, his education at N.C. State and what it's like to let someone else produce your band's album.
INDY: When were you last back in Raleigh?
: It’s been a while. I’ve been to Chapel Hill and Durham, because of the Merge effect.
And we’ve played the Cat’s Cradle more often than not. If we’ve played Raleigh, that would be it. Otherwise, it would have been ’89 or ’90.
Why did you pick N.C. State?
I wanted to do engineering. I wanted to get away from Rhode Island, which is where I grew up. I wanted a change in a different part of the country. They also had a co-op program, where you would work for a semester and go to school for a semester and alternate. My dad went to Northeastern, and he was in a co-op program. You get to get a lot of work experience before you get out of school. I did that in Manassas, Virginia,
so every other semester I was in Manassas, which is about a five-hour drive.
What do you remember most about Raleigh during the ’80s?
There wasn’t much going on there, and I didn’t have any money, either. There were a couple of bars I’d go to drink and go play pool. There was a really small club on Hillsborough Street that used to have shows, and I saw Modern English there. It was super packed with maybe 150 people, and it was an amazing show.
Was it The Brewery on Hillsborough Street, by chance?
I think it was! Was that a small place? That was it. And around that time period, when I was in Virginia, I saw The Smiths, too, but this was in D.C. at a huge amphitheater on The Queen Is Dead
tour. I was just trying to see some music back then.
You arrived at N.C. State the year after the Wolfpack won the national basketball championship.
Yeah, it was the Jimmy Valvano era.
It was amazing. I used to go to a lot of games.
Did that influence your decision at all?
No, but I had heard about N.C. State through basketball—and the school aspect, too. It was also when N.C. State played in that really small stadium, Reynolds Coliseum, and it was unbelievable to see games there.
How about your education? Your career path has taken a different turn, but did the electrical engineering program suit you?
Like a lot of people going to college, I really didn’t know what I wanted to do when I went to college. What I was going towards
was analog electrical engineering, basically. I wasn’t playing the drums until my junior year in college, but I knew I wanted to do something in music. I figured if I could work with guitar amps and keyboards and things like that, I’d be good. But I didn’t really have a knack for that. So my senior year, I started focusing on digital chip design and microprocessors. That’s where I ended up going for my focus after college. But I feel like the education was great. It gave me a really good background for what I was doing in the real world.
What was the challenge with the analog work?
It’s just not clicking as much as the other stuff. It was very abstract for me, and it wasn’t very much fun, not something I wanted to do. Chip design came easier for me. When you look at chip design, it’s a lot of software and hardware. I liked the balance of both things. You do all you can do in college, and then you interview and get a job. That’s why I ended up in Houston. You end up using very little of what you studied. You’re learning on the job, and the biggest thing is to have experience, because it will point you in the direction to do good at the job. I feel like college is for the basics.
I started playing drums, for instance, when I was going to N.C. State, and I just played in some cover bands. I moved to Houston and played jazz there for a couple of years. And then I moved to Austin, where I met Britt. I never thought I’d give up a regular 9–5 job and a big career to play drums in a band. I’m very lucky to go the opposite way of how most people go.
Why did you pick drums so far along in college?
I knew from a very early age I wanted to play drums. And then, in seventh grade, I found out you could play drums in eighth grade. I played saxophone in seventh grade, and on the first day of eighth grade, I told my music teacher I wanted to play the drums: “Only idiots play the drums. I’m not letting you switch, because you’re a first-chair saxophone player.” So I played saxophone for a couple of more weeks, and then I just quit. I ended up getting a pair of drumsticks and playing along my parents’ furniture all over the place. I never had a drum set, so I did that for a while. I knew a lot about the drums, but I never had a kit until I went to N.C. State.
What kind of stuff did you play at that point, and where?
I met a guy who was a guitar player, and we played a lot together. It was more jamming. When I was playing the drums, I was really into The Smiths, early R.E.M. and early U2. I was really into the Chronic Town
EP by R.E.M., the War
stuff and pretty much anything by The Smiths. We really played a lot of that stuff. Thinking back, I probably didn’t have that many gigs, just a couple of parties. School was pretty intense.
Switching gears, can you tell me about the division of labor and mental space for being a producer for so many bands and then being a drummer and co-producer for your own band? How much does one inform the other?
You may be listening to a song, and you may be like, “I really like this effect on a keyboard.” And you make a note of it as a production trick. But then, in the heat of the moment, you’re just hearing and trying things on the fly. When ideas come about, it’s not like, “I want to hold this for a Spoon record or a !!! record.” It’s about what is going to work for that sound and that song. It’s more freewheeling than dividing up ideas, at least when you’re in a good environment. Things flow easily, and you try anything.
You co-produced the last Spoon album, but for
They Want My Soul, the band worked with Dave Fridmann and Joe Chiccarelli. How was the change?
We normally have a producer. All of our records until Transference
had a producer. We’ve worked with John Croslin on our first couple and Mike McCarthy on most every record after that. We’ve worked with Jon Brion. So Transference
was an outlier in being self-produced by Spoon. It was easy for us to go back. Working with Dave was amazing. A producer that doesn’t hold things dear and doesn’t get his feelings hurt is important, and Dave is totally like that. And he’s full of awesome ideas. He had a large impact on how this record sounds, and I’m still really excited about it. I like to think of the producer as an extra band member, so everyone is bringing up ideas. We’re all trying stuff.