Why it took nearly a decade for Fischerspooner’s return

By
Photography Hans Neumann

Published October 13, 2017

It is hard to think of an act that has captured the heady, messy, wild feeling of the early-21st-century downtown New York art scene better than Fischerspooner. Its founders, the front-and-center Casey Spooner and the behind-the-scenes Warren Fischer, revolutionized electronic music, amplifying it to arena-blasting levels while also managing to keep it personal, passionate, and dark. To be alive in Manhattan in 2001 was to be constantly finding yourself in a store, in a friend’s bedroom, or at a party listening to Fischerspooner songs such as “Emerge,” “Sweetness,” or their excellent cover of Wire’s “The 15th”—all from their debut album, #1. For those lucky enough to attend a Fischerspooner concert, with its apocalyptic costumes and Broadway-musical-on-mescaline dance routines, there was also an unmistakable sense of camaraderie, artistry, and improvisation. If that sincerity prevented Fischerspooner from going mainstream, it also might be the reason they’ve survived while so many other New York bands have burned up overshooting the sun.

Early next year, Fischerspooner will return—a comeback nearly a decade in the making—with Sir (Ultra), an album so catchy and dance-inducing it takes a second to realize that some of its lyrics tell private stories, that indeed Spooner and Fischer are out to create a new anthem for boys who love boys who love boys. (Among Spooner’s recent art projects is a multimedia installation that includes photographs of friends, acquaintances, and anonymous men, taken in his former apartment.) The reason for the surprisingly refreshing sexual transparency might have something to do with the album’s producer, co-writer, and occasional backup vocalist, R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe, who has known Spooner since 1988, when they were, briefly, lovers in Athens, Georgia. It is hard to think of a musician who captured the heady, messy, wild past half-century of life on Earth better than Michael Stipe. Needless to say, the pairing was fated to result in some extremely potent material. This past August, the two got together to speak about how they met and how it felt to work together so many years after sharing a bed.

 

CASEY SPOONER: God, I can’t remember where we first met. [laughs]

MICHAEL STIPE: We were in Athens. I was your first lover. Do you really want to go there? [both laugh] I was 28. You were 18. We hit it off big time. You had a lot to learn, I had a lot to learn. We had about a year together, and then you went off to Chicago.

SPOONER: Right. We met on the dance floor at the 40 Watt Club. I had a Prince Valiant haircut that I had cut myself in the reflection of a toaster, which is so weird, because now I have basically a refined version of that haircut.

STIPE: I had already had a hit single, although I didn’t really think of myself as a pop star.

SPOONER: R.E.M. had just signed to Warner Bros. and Green [1988] was about to come out. You were rehearsing to go on tour in Atlanta. And I remember you went to New York and shot a video for a track called “Pop Song 89.”

STIPE: Oh yeah, the whole video was topless dancing. It was all about, like, if women’s nipples have to be covered to go on TV, then my nipples should have to be covered to go on TV. It was my big feminist statement. I remember, too, that my hair was so long. It was just starting to thin, and I was thinking I’d have to cut it off. I thought maybe that was my last moment to be a rock star.

SPOONER: You had incredible hair. That was a strange time in my life. I’d wanted to be an artist and I’d applied to Cooper Union, which was the most difficult art school to get into in the country. I figured if I didn’t get in, I would give up and become a graphic designer or an architect or something more practical. And I didn’t get in. I’m such a drama queen; I threw myself across the bed and cried for three days, because that meant I could no longer be an artist. The only school I got into, because I applied really late, and my parents went there, was the University of Georgia. I went to Athens really as a last-ditch effort; it was supposed to be temporary. And that’s why meeting you was really important for me. You showed me that I could be an artist. Thank you for setting me on that trajectory. I never intended to work in music at all. I felt like musicians were so uptight.

STIPE: Was I uptight?

SPOONER: No, you were more sensitive. It was other musicians I knew who were so worried about how they were being judged. Maybe it’s a straight-guy thing? Like a weird macho game of who can out-chord-progression each other. It didn’t feel free to me. It felt like there were limitations on what musicians were willing to do. It’s really weird that I ended up in music at all.

STIPE: In those early days, music for you was more about performance. You created a new category for yourself and, ultimately, for Fischerspooner. Nobody was doing that. You were the first. It was like Lenny Bruce. It was really fucking transgressive. And then here we are—how many years later?—almost 30 years later, working on this record. Who would have thought? You asked me for advice on one song, and I got all control-freaky. I wanted my friend to do well.

SPOONER: When you came in to work on that one song, you were so specific and clear about the things you thought I should do. That part was easy for me because I’ve worked so long in performance that I don’t have issues with someone giving me direction.

STIPE: You’ve worked, for example, with the [New York experimental theater company] Wooster Group for a long time.

SPOONER: Off and on for 12 years. So I love when someone has a perspective and they can tell me what to do. I never take it personally. You and Andy [LeMaster, songwriter-producer and frequent Stipe collaborator] are such incredible singers and songwriters that there were a couple of times—like the high part for the bridge for the song “Have Fun Tonight”—where I just thought, “I can’t do this.”

STIPE: Well, everyone has a different voice. Everyone has a meter thing that is specific to them. Ours are radically different. Like anything, you, Andy, and I had to recognize that we each had something different to offer. We were all working toward a great vocal. What’s a song without a great vocal? It’s flat. No matter what the music is doing, if the vocal is not there, you don’t have much to hang on to. We worked for a while in Athens and we also worked in New York with Warren [Fischer]. It was a great, weird gang, and somehow it all coalesced.

SPOONER: I also think it’s important to say that you, Andy, and I are all queer. We were a queer writing team and able to talk openly about everything—including our experiences. I think that made the whole process easier, at least for me. I’ve had big ideas like that before but didn’t have the same support and didn’t quite feel like I could express them.

STIPE: You felt reticent in the past to push your ideas forward?

SPOONER: Warren is such a formalist that he would almost want the words to disappear, which I understand to a degree. It makes the songs so much cleaner. Warren gets to emotion through geometry. And I was so much more about the performance that I didn’t really have anything to lose with the music. That’s how I was able to just say “fuck it” about everything.

STIPE: The bravado in your approach to live shows is so inspiring. It’s jumping-off-the-cliff fearlessness. And I feel like you’ve grown a great deal as a lyricist in the making of this record. You’ve learned to trust your instincts and not overthink everything. That’s where all of us tend to get lost. We try to imbue things with so much meaning—square peg in round hole. At the age of 57, I’ve realized that nothing should be square peg in round hole. Everything should flow and work naturally.

SPOONER: I agree, but there are moments when you have to refine things, or sculpt them.

STIPE: You have to be a great editor, or have people you really trust. I remember one night I came in with the greatest lyric of all time. I thought it was the most transgressive thing I’d ever written, so radical and calling it like it is. And you and Andy let me riff on it for two hours after dinner. We drank some wine, maybe smoked a little weed, and after two hours we all went, “This is actually not very good.” It was a lyric like, “Hold up your device, take a picture of me,” or something.

SPOONER: Oh, shit. [laughs]

STIPE: It was probably just me working out my Liza Minnelli stuff.

SPOONER: And I’m trying to get away from theater.

STIPE: You’re trying to become Anthony Newley, having discovered him for the first time. We brought in Serge Gainsbourg and Neil Diamond, and pop music that can be profoundly cathartic to a listener. And then you went to Fire Island and discovered that catharsis through Ariana Grande. Like, here’s pop music at its height—here’s Miley Cyrus, Ariana Grande, Sia. We’re doing our own weird version of that, which is perfect in its imperfection. How much do you think about the character you’re playing in your music at this point? Earlier, you’ve created a sort of cartoon version of yourself.

SPOONER: I guess I don’t think about it anymore. It’s a little confusing because I meet people and they still have a certain perception of me, like I’m some crazy party animal, when I really go to bed at midnight and get up early.

STIPE: And scrub the kitchen. [both laugh]

SPOONER: You know how I love to clean. But, yes, it can be isolating to have an alter ego and be seen one way when the reality is another. But isn’t that always true of performers? This is a different moment because I’m projecting a more natural person. In the past, it’s been this very artificial, robotic, heightened kind of image. The more natural image might be equally ridiculous, but this is my real hair color, and there’s no makeup, and I’m wearing jeans and a t-shirt or no clothes at all.

STIPE: Your costume became your body.

SPOONER: That’s the idea.

STIPE: And your body became your costume. You worked hard on that costume. It shows. You’re 38, right?

SPOONER: I’m 27. [laughs] I no longer age.

STIPE: I’m thinking of those Arabian horses our friend Libby Hatmaker has. They’re so muscular and big and beautiful. You’re in that category, too. [Spooner makes stallion noises] Okay, going back to the queer conversation. You’ve said that you think of this record as “aggressively homosexual.” What do you mean?

SPOONER: It goes back to the debate I had with Warren on the very first song we worked on for Sir. He asked me to make the pronouns vaguer so that the music would have a broader appeal or be more universal. It was a revelation to me that, if you make them vague, no one assumes you’re singing about a queer relationship. It’s always perceived as heterosexual. I wanted to make it clear that it was queer.

STIPE: When people listen to “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me?” by Culture Club, they don’t picture Boy George singing to a man; they picture him singing to a girl, even though he’s dressed like a Kabuki doll.

SPOONER: The real challenge to me is to make something so personal that it becomes universal. And I don’t know if you get there by starting out writing in the universal mode. What do you think?

STIPE: For most of my career, I made a conscious choice to write music that was gender neutral, because I wanted everyone—at all parts of the spectrum—to love it. I wanted universal love. From the lesbians to the men who loved men—all the queers. I wanted everybody. I thought the way to do that was to write gender neutral songs, unless it was a story that was very specifically based on a real situation. “7 Chinese Brothers,” “So Fast, So Numb,” and “Supernatural Superserious” are R.E.M. songs for which I intentionally chose a “he” or “she” pronoun because they were based on real stories. But for the rest of them, I just wanted everybody to love me and for everyone to listen and be able to insert themselves into the lyrics. But having worked on this with you, it was fun to write songs that were specifically male on male.

SPOONER: It was the ultimate when you and Andy were writing songs in my voice, like in “Everything Is Just Alright.”

STIPE: That was me interpreting the story you’d told me about being in Patagonia, imagining the perfect lover pulling up on a motorbike and taking you away into the sunset. There’s another song on there, “Try Again,” which might be the saddest song, about the dissolution of a relationship.

SPOONER: I lived through it. And you helped me through it.

STIPE: You were crying when you sang it.

SPOONER: I learned to write music by going in and just riffing on a mic. That’s how Warren and I started writing our first record. I’d go in and riff for days until Warren heard me do something good, and he’d pluck it out. I’ve gotten to a point where I can tell if I’m doing something well, but I still have to get kind of lost on the mic.

STIPE: I don’t know who said it: “Write drunk, edit sober.” How do you know when you’re doing something well?

SPOONER: I can feel it. I was trying to work on this record for a year and a half before you got involved. It was just me in my little studio at the bottom of Crosby Street losing my mind. But good things came out of that. I’m so glad that you got involved.

STIPE: I wasn’t writing for myself so I felt protected in a way.

SPOONER: Because you didn’t have to deal with your legacy or—

STIPE: Or my voice. It’s just in the background of this album.

SPOONER: How do you feel about returning to music?

STIPE: It feels like I’m approaching it from a totally different angle than I’ve ever approached music before. I never wrote or composed music. I wrote and composed vocal parts and rearranged the music to match the vocals. I’m a great arranger. What’s your next step? Will you work on more art shows?

SPOONER: Yes. I feel freer there. It’s super fun to have a pop song, but I see so many other things.

STIPE: The music industry is exhausting. We’re more creators than anything else. We don’t have to be slotted into the categories that have been provided for us. We are able to create our own and do the work that we do within them and hope that everybody else catches up.