Fischerspooner's Radical Queer Pop For a Troubled America

Fischerspooner's Radical Queer Pop For a Troubled America

Nine years have passed since we were last nourished by the grimy-shiny electro-pop duo Fischerspooner. One-half of the outfit including instrumentalist Warren Fischer, is the larger-than-life, but extremely personable frontman Casey Spooner. It's easy to imagine nine years as nine lives for most artists. During that time, Spooner was touring, writing, performing, and recording his experiences in and out of love. Normal enough. But a traumatizing and totally abnormal thing happened: despite every shadow of doubt, Trump became president, and suddenly the need for a loud, proud in the streets queer voice became unimpeachable in the resistance against his ongoing anti-everything-progressive domination of America.

SIR, Fischerspooner's first album in the New America, is out now. But Casey Spooner's re-emergence seemed imminent, as the iconic performance artist showed ever more skin and used his public platform to advocate for marginalized communities, much like the legacy of his longtime friend, REM's Michael Stipe, who co-wrote and co-produced the entire record. Spooner started writing the record in 2013, at first focusing on the happily-ever-after queer open-relationship dream life he'd built for himself. But with the changing, challenging times, SIR naturally acquired a more dynamic perspective. The result? It doubles as the duo's most accessible album, while also feeling in large part like a coming-of-age record — an inherently political pop opus celebrating queer sexuality and narratives in the modern tech era, from late-night rendezvous to communication breakdowns.

Jeans: Telfar, Gloves: Lacrasia, Earrings: Stylist's Own

"This record feels like I'm coming out again," Spooner said.

SIR is at some turns psychedelic (the mind-bending harmonies of Spooner and Caroline Polachek, formerly of Chairlift, in "Togetherness," the stuttering, warbled vocal of "I Need Love"), and bittersweetly vulnerable ("Try Again" and "Have Fun Tonight"). But no matter how stylistically and topically diverse SIR is, the album never leaves its righteous (and rightful) home: the dance floor.

In a PAPER exclusive, the two icons Stipe and Spooner chat about everything from their history together and the psychedelic experience of making SIR, to standing up for what's right, maybe getting straight people on board, and Beyoncé's "seal of approval."

On the start of their long, complex, and beautiful relationship:

Casey Spooner: I wanna hear your version of how we met.

Michael Stipe: You sure about that?

Spooner: Yeah, go for it.

Stipe: You were a teenager, 18 years old, I was 10 years older. I was on the dance floor and there you were, in a white, tight shirt, with a bowl-cut haircut. I was just like, "you're mine." As it turns out, you were a great lay. We spent a year together, and after that year, you kinda flew the coop to study art. You became a performance artist pretending to be a robot pop star. Then you moved to New York, took the performance art world by storm, put out your first record as Fischerspooner. I thought you were embarrassed at first by your protozoan beginnings with me, because I was so pop and so not what Fischerspooner was.

Spooner: Really?!

Stipe: No, because you were so cool, and I was so not cool. I was so mainstream [with REM], and you were so on the fringe of what actually was cool.

Spooner: You're crazy. You were cool then, you're still cool now. You've always been cool!

Stipe: I did know how to dress, that's for sure. But anyway, I was the first love of your life back then, I didn't know that at the time. I would've treated you a lot better at the time, had I known then what I know now.

Spooner: Right, exactly. We were a perfect combo.

Stipe: We both learned a lot from each other, I think.

Spooner: I wasn't into REM when I met you. I liked Jesus and the Mary Chain, Sisters of Mercy, kind of dark gothic music, not like, college radio. I hadn't gotten into Cooper Union like I wanted, so I was reluctantly in college in Georgia and working at Outward Bound, where I learned about surviving and camping in the woods. I had this moment where I wasn't sure if I'd ever become an artist, so didn't know if I'd be an earthy crunchy mountain man, or if I was going to be an urbanite. I also wasn't clear on my sexuality then. I thought I was straight because I was in love with a woman. I went to a disco club night hosted by my college, and that's how I met you. I knew you were famous, but not much else. You were stylish, you had incredible hair like a lion's and wearing BMX pants and freaky socks turned inside-out. You started flirting with me and I had no idea what to do with that. My friend noticed you flirting and was like, "I think you like it." And I did like it. I called my girlfriend who I was in love with who I wasn't having sex with. But she encouraged me to explore and have sex with you... Is this too much?

Stipe: I love it. Keep going.

Spooner: We made a date at some point, and he didn't show up for two hours. I called my friend and gave her my dorm keys and figured I would just get a ride home from you. That's how I ended up spending the night.

Stipe: And so on and so forth.

Spooner: I would be so nervous during sex that I would shake and tremble uncontrollably. You were so sweet, generous and a caring and loving lover.

Top: Maryam Nassir Zadeh, Skirt: Everyman, Boots: Syro

On Spooner's winding artistic route toward the success of Fischerspooner:

Spooner: I eventually moved to New York, and I fell into this band after working for an experimental theater company. You should know that this was true before there was Fischerspooner. It was called Sweet Thunder and my bandmates were Kelly Kuvo and [Gavin Rayna Russom of LCD Soundsystem]. It was my first band. I was carrying a guitar and amp, and I was talked into joining, when I didn't feel I was a musician. Warren [Fischer] and I were making a soundtrack for a film project. The soundtrack turned into a song based on this crazy story of a cab driver trying to pick me up. That was a thing in New York back then. They'd go to gay bars and wait outside for kids to leave the club. I'm not sure how it is now... Anyway, it's this sexy cab driver song that we performed as Sweet Thunder at a Starbucks. The final line of the song was, "Do you wanna see it?" — a pick up line he used. I was terrified. I did not want to see it.

Stipe: That's a great line, though: "If you like it you can try, if you don't like it you don't have to try."

Spooner: That's what he said to me! I didn't write it, I lived it. Story of my life.

Suit: Everyman

On reconnecting for the making of SIR:

Stipe: You called me in for advice on one song, and another one was playing when I arrived at the studio. I sat there for 20 minutes and listened.

Spooner: The song playing was originally called "Grindr Blues," and it was renamed to "TopBrazil."

Stipe: That changed a lot. As we speak, this is the anniversary of Keith Haring's death.

Spooner: And RuPaul just posted the "Butterscotch Goddam" video! Thanks, Mama Ru! We're all Georgia queens.

Related | The World According to RuPaul

Stipe: Anyway, there was another song playing, and I thought it really needed some work. It took half an hour to say change this, lose that, that's not your chorus, that is. And you all just kept calling me in. It became evident that the record was radically changing with the advice I was offering. It wasn't going to be cohesive without my involvement. I hadn't worked in music for five years until they involved me. Music consumes my every waking thought, but it's a beautiful curse when it turns out good. They were open to me taking a larger role.

Spooner: I remember it very differently...

Stipe: Keep it short!

Spooner: Oh shit. You left and came back when I was working on "Grindr Blues," and asked if I could handle some advice on that track. You ripped it apart, you threw out things that I loved and the biggest thing was that you really wanted to change my vocal character. You pulled up this vocal clip of Anthony Newley singing "MacArthur Park," and were like, now, sing like that. You made the record a lot more dynamic, brought in more melody, streamlined the writing and the messaging. I come from spoken word and unstructured storytelling, and you helped me create more grounded melodic work. Eventually, Warren and I were noticing how much you were adding to the record and he suggested I ask you to get involved as a producer. You said, "Absolutely not. I don't work in music. I want no credit." Then a few weeks later, you were like, "Alright, I'll be producer, but I want final say on everything." Then you said, "OK, half this record you've written — these songs? No. They are all in the trash."

Stipe: You guys were so energized by that, though.

Spooner: I loved it. I wrote the first song back in January 2013 with [our engineer] Michael Cheever and Thomas Haskett. Michael became the producer in January 2015. We plowed through and wrote more through the year. We finished the record in February 2016 and it sat on the shelf for a year, then Boots [Beyoncé's producer] got involved when Andy LeMaster and I were working on "Have Fun Tonight."

Stipe: It's incredible that you remember all of that.

Spooner: When you came in to help us, I was making new truths. So I always remember things like that.

Dress: Telfar, Boots: Patrick Church

On their favorite songs on SIR and having a psychedelic music-making experience:

Stipe: I love "Butterscotch Goddam" and "I Need Love." What I think we've created is a proper pop album that warrants remixing for the dance floor. I think this album is the raw material for that. I think hearing on the dance floor is where it could come alive.

Spooner: I agree. Those songs come later in the recording process, in New York in the fall of 2015. Our friend brought in weed and we started smoking pot in the studio.

Stipe: Which I haven't smoked since the '70s. I don't smoke weed, but it opened up some trap-doors for more interesting musical pathways.

Spooner: There was a moment at 3 a.m. where I remember you gave me some lyrics, and the whole song to "Butterscotch Goddam" just came spitting out. It was a magical moment of spontaneity.

On how the record got its name:

Stipe: It's actually lifted from the song "Strange Strange" [about a late-night encounter on a subway station in Madrid]. At that point, the cover of the record was a side-shot photograph of an erect male penis. We thought no one had ever done that.

Spooner: We're going to use that cover as a limited edition vinyl. The dick is coming back —but the record was originally named Egos, and we made it in tandem with a style guide and book that sort of functioned as a mood board for us. A designer we were working with took the word "SIR" out of the song "Strange Strange" and made it with this weird German font. The font was dropped over the erect penis and it seemed to really work.

Dress & Choker: Nihl, Boots: Syro

On the timing of an album celebrating gay and queer experiences being released during Trump's America:

Spooner: When I started writing in January 2013, this wasn't a political record; it was a personal record. I was just trying to talk about my experiences, emotionally, which I didn't feel were being reflected because of the way technology and sexuality were colliding. I was very happily in a long-term open relationship at the time, and had a blissfully queer happily-ever-after American Dream. It was not political, but honest about sex, emotion, relationships, and digital culture. The rights and ideas that were assumed before are now being eroded. I'm upset, worried, freaked out and angry over the difficulties of being an American in America right now.

Stipe: When I dropped in on the record, the conversation between you and Warren [who is straight], came up about the importance of pronoun usage in these songs.

Spooner: Warren asked me to make the pronouns and sexuality more general, so the music would be more appealing to a larger audience. I've done that in the past. I want to make something that appeals to all, because I do think everyone can learn from one another's experiences in terms of relationships, pain, and happiness. I didn't want to limit my audience but the more I thought about it — I like working with Warren because he questions me — he made me think about why do I need to change the pronouns. I realized that when you make pronoun usage general in pop music, you never assume that the story is ever about queer people. It's always going to be assumed heterosexual. I realized that I couldn't change from [he/his/they/them] pronouns because that's not the story I'm telling. We're not making a record about assumed heterosexuality; we're making a record about homosexuality. Michael, you have the history of being a political artist. That was something I have been scared of because I didn't feel I had the knowledge or the confidence to be. You really encouraged Warren and me to be more outspoken and vigilant in our emotions and our beliefs. With what's going on right now with Trump in office, I felt like I had to do anything and everything I could to help usher in some kind of a change. My family is always like what the hell is going on, you're like naked all the time, and you're so sexualized, and for me it's about having a great time, but then also about being extreme in the opposite direction of the world. I have to be an antidote to conservative white supremacist neo-Nazi, xenophobic misogyny. I have to attack.

Stipe: I acknowledge that you're a performer, and creating a persona. But it also feels brave and necessary to be aggressively homosexual in 2018. I think within that comes an acknowledgement that needs to be public is that the character or personal Casey is embodying is just one aspect of gay or queer life. He doesn't represent the entire community or becoming a spokesperson. The thing we haven't heard much of is an exploration of a love story coming from this type of voice. And we hope that it's something everyone can relate to — even if the experience is complex and specific, but this album is full of songs about things that happen to most of us.

On the importance of queer art as representation (and having Beyoncé's seal of approval):

Spooner: We were all talking about how this project could immediately be classified as queer art. That's a little concerning considering how straight people never have their work classified as "straight art." There's the double-edged sword where your audience can feel limited by displays of gender and sexual politics, but what I've come to realize is that I take a lot of information, joy and knowledge from the work of straight people. But that said, straight people need to learn from queer people. Just because our experience is different from theirs and I can learn from theirs, why can't they learn from mine? There are many contradictions passing in culture — the outright objection to homoeroticism, while the degradation and objectification of women, straight or not, continues — that I think queer culture will be the antidote to. The sexual and emotional freedoms in queer culture can honestly help straight people become happier. It's not about making art that only helps queer people; it's meant to help straight people too! The way things are going — I honestly think they need a little help! (Laughs) I love straight people. I came from them.

Stipe: I came from them. Me, too. It's a very queer record, yes. It's very futuristic, very 2018, very 2020 if you approach it from an art point of view. It's really pop, really fringe, and really mainstream. It came out of electro-clash, but it's pop, not robotic, and male-on-male.

Spooner: It's all of those things, but let's talk about how Boots has been involved. He's producing for one of the top gay icons in the world [Beyoncé]. To have someone involved heavily in mainstream gay culture participating in this album is also incredible. And he brought in Stuart White, who is an amazing mixer. And the reason Stuart was able to get involved is because Beyoncé was pregnant! Boots was like, keep sending Stuart songs because the minute Beyoncé has those babies, she's gonna be back at work and you'll never see him again. Beyonce, thank you for having two babies, dear. And I can't believe she named one of them Sir, after the record! That was so generous of her.

Stipe: She named her baby Sir? That's a better name than "Butterscotch Goddam."

Spooner: Yeah — you don't wanna have to change that diaper.

Photography: Luke Abby

Styling: Joe Van Overbeek

Groomer: Cari Duprey @theindustrymgmt using Marc Jacobs Beauty

Header: Jacket & Pants: Landeros

Location: Dune Studios