Queerness and Creativity: A Conversation With Casey Spooner About Fischerspooner’s ‘Sir’

Widely recognized as vanguards of electroclash, the shape-shifting performance art collective that is Fischerspooner stormed the scene at the turn of the century and catapulted to indie pop stardom. After nearly a decade’s absence, the band has returned with a raw and racy record, “Sir,” that is unprecedentedly personal and unabashedly queer.

Casey Spooner spoke with Entertainment Voice about his experience working with Michael Stipe, shedding light upon the agenda behind the new record, the concerns that motivated recording decisions, and the revelations that came along the way.

It’s been nine years since Fischerspooner has released an album. How does making music in 2018 feel different, if at all, and how has your approach to recording an album changed as a result?

I think it seems like a long time for everyone else, but I’ve been busy and been creative the whole time. I started working on the record in January 2013, so it wasn’t really that many years. We released in 2009. I released a solo record in 2010. I really only took a year or two off from music. More than anything, it’s been a long process getting the record out. Most of the record was finished in 2016, so it’s been about two years getting the record out, but the delays have been, I think, ultimately good for the record because it’s a very gay record, and to have it come out post-Trump, I think, is important. Also, when we were delayed a year, we ended up making an extra song, so we ended up working with BOOTS, who got involved, and he did some extra production, and then Stuart White ended up mixing all the singles. So the delays were frustrating, but ultimately the two-year delay ended up being important, and, I think, ultimately better for the record.

Your sound has clearly progressed a lot. Are there any major new musical influences that have particularly shaped the sound of “Sir?”  If so, what are they?

I think the biggest thing was Michael Stipe getting involved as a producer. He really had a big influence. In a lot of ways, one of the most important things he did is he made Warren and I work less. He kind of forced us to pull back and to not overproduce. He would use more raw vocal performances for me, so really, Michael had a lot to do with changing our approach. He didn’t let Warren fiddle with the music too much, and he really didn’t let me do too much vocal production.

That was going to be my next question.  How did working with Michael Stipe influence the sound and the lyrical content of the album?

Sonic-wise, he really pulled us back and just let us go crazy production-wise.  And, you know, the big deal for me was that I was writing a record about queerness, and it was nice working with him and Andy LeMaster on the songwriting, so we had a queer writing team, and that’s the first time I had that kind of support and relationship, which was really nice, just because I didn’t have to do a lot of explaining. They understood what was happening, and what I was talking about, what I was going through.  

That’s what I was going to ask next.  The new album really celebrates LGBTQ culture, much more explicitly than your previous releases. What led you to go in this direction?

I’m not exactly sure. I started with a really specific agenda right from the start of the record. I don’t know exactly why. A lot of times when I start an artistic project, for me, a lot of times being creative is about exploring and not knowing exactly what I’m going to do and what I’m going to say, but for some reason, when I started this record, from the very first song, I had a clear agenda as to what I wanted to say, and I really wanted to make a record that was focused on queer narratives and about exploring love and romance and sexuality in a way that wasn’t heteronormative. That was a very clear kind of agenda from the get go.  

Warren and I had a discussion after even just the first song, and he asked if I could change the pronouns, and in the past I would have because… you know… he was concerned about limiting our audience, and about trying to make things more universal. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that if I changed the pronouns to make them more vague, you wouldn’t actually assume it to be queer. You would always assume it to be heteroseuxual. So.. kind of… when I came to that understanding with Warren, I said “Actually, I can’t change the pronouns, because if I do, you lose the story, and you lose the point. And once I explained that to him, he was like, “Wow, you’re right.  We totally shouldn’t change any of the pronouns.”

So then we got on board with that, and then there was a lot of concern about calling it a queer record because there was this fear that again we were going to be limiting our audience. You know, people don’t qualify straight people’s work as straight. If they’re an artist, they’re just an artist, they’re not a straight artist. Or if they’re a musician and they’re straight, you don’t say, like, “oh this amazing straight musician.”  So you get nervous when you start kind of being defined and having your audience limited, but the thing that I’ve come to understand is that defining it as queer shouldn’t be negative. It should actually be a positive, because I learn a lot from straight people, you know… I watch a lot of straight films. I listen to a lot of straight music. I know a lot of straight people. I came from straight people! So, you know, why can’t straight people learn from queer people? I don’t diminish what straight people do because they’re straight, so why do straight people diminish what queer people do because they’re queer? They can learn lots from queer people. And straight people might actually be happier people if they could learn some of the lessons that we’ve had to kind of learn out here, outside of society. And I think there’s a big misconception also. A lot of people, you know, say, “We need to practice tolerance, we need to practice tolerance,” but I think that’s the wrong word. I don’t want to be tolerated. I think that queer people need to loved, they need to be respected, they need to be celebrated, they need to be worshiped. They don’t need to be tolerated. Tolerating someone sounds diminishing. So that’s kind of the agenda with this record: to help straight people and queer people.

You’ve mentioned before that you write certain songs to be lip-synced. Why is this and what determines whether a song you write will be sung or lip-synced?

Well, that was the first record. It wasn’t that the record was meant to be lip synced. It was that when we were writing the very first record in 1998, ‘99, 2000, we adopted a very plastic and synthetic style, so when it came time to perform the songs live, it didn’t make sense to sing the songs live because stylistically it didn’t sound the same. A lot of electronic music is built in the studio and has a very specific sonic perspective, so in order to kind of retain that… And the other thing is that a lot of of pop musicians…you know… it’s very common for people to lip sync, so I just felt that instead of hiding it and instead of being dishonest, I would just use it as an opportunity to explore other devices.

Also, I come from experimental theater, so my approach was more from performance art and experimental theater. Music originally, for me, was a liaison for image and performance ideas. I wasn’t out to kind of prove anything as a musician. I recorded the music, I wrote the music, I built it, so why couldn’t I just lip sync and use it as an opportunity to build something that was more theatrical? But I mean… that was where we started eighteen, twenty years ago, so twenty years later I have a different relationship, and now also on this record. I think the music started sort of outside the image, the performance, the staging, the concept, and then I’ve worked my way more and more into the music, sort of from artifice towards… I would say… the heart. And now this record is way more into the emotional component, which is a big thing that Michael brought to the record, because Michael is such an emotive performer and an emotive singer. So he was the one who really brought that component. So now I’m working more with the heart, with both the inside and the outside combined, so there is this presentational quality, there is the performance, there is the theatricality, but now it’s really combined with an emotionality, and that has everything to do with Michael.   

The final track of “Sir,” “Oh Rio” seems exceptionally dark and personal for Fischerspooner. Will you share the story behind the song?

Yeah, it’s a very clear narrative. It was a song that I wrote talking about, sort of, the genesis of my sexuality, and one of the things that was important was this book that Bruce Weber made in the ‘80s, called “Oh Rio de Janeiro” Growing up in the south, I didn’t have access to homoerotic material, so I didn’t really have access to gay pornography, I didn’t have access to anything homoerotic except for this one book that was at the mall. So the first verse really talks about me going to the mall and discovering this book, and how this book triggers feelings and excites me and confuses me. And no one ever bought the book, so I would always put it back on the shelf and leave it, and I always could go back and visit it and check in. So that book sort of solidified Rio de Janeiro as this sort of sexual fantasy land for me, and that my queerness somehow existed in this far away place.

So I would have these dreams of going to Rio and having these wild, amazing sexual experiences, and I never could get there. I went to Brazil several times, I performed in Sao Paolo several times, I was in South America several times, but somehow I could never get to Rio. And so, a couple years ago, I called and I struggled, and budgets and schedules and all kinds of difficulty. I got myself to Rio, and when I got there, I fell ill. And so I finally made it to my sexy dream land, and I was 44, not 14, and I was coming from New York City in March, so it was deep at the end of a New York winter, and I arrive in Brazil, and it’s at the end of summer, so everyone there is tan and fit and gorgeous, and I’m fat and pasty and sick and old. And I really had this kind of existential crisis on the beach, so I was like, “Oh my god… you know… what have I done?” And then, of course, there are like these beautiful Brazilian men that are like flirting with me, and… you know… I can’t respond to them, I can’t interact with them, I can’t return their advances because my self esteem is so diminished. So at this moment, I was like, “Wow, you know, sometimes dreams die.”

But I just went back to Rio, and I shot a music video, and I was about to say, “Sometimes dreams come back to life.”   

Which track on the album is your favorite at the moment and what does it mean to you?

God, it’s hard to say. I made this record twice, really. I started in 2013, and I worked for about a year and a half, and then Michael got involved in the spring of 2014. So I worked for a year and a half, and wrote a complete record of twelve songs, and then Michael got involved. He chopped the record in half, threw out half the songs, and then we wrote another batch of songs. So for me, there’s been a huge amount of work and a huge amount of editing. There’s not one song that I don’t love. I think the one that’s probably the most heartbreaking is the song, “Try Again” because I had a really beautiful relationship that lasted for fourteen years in, while I was working on this record, and that song really documents the end of a really important relationship. And when I was recording that song, I was crying. I was crying so much on the microphone, I didn’t even know if we were going to get a song because I was literally weeping just endlessly.

You’re known to have some pretty legendary live performances. What can fans expect to experience at your upcoming concerts?

Well, we just did a big show in New York at Brooklyn Steel in October, and it went great. I was nervous because I was trying to figure out how to hang on to the emotional quality but also still embrace our love of performance and theatricality. So we achieved it, and it’s a great combination of dance and costumes and beautiful lighting and a great set list that gives you songs from every record that we’ve done, and it’s a super fun show that’s super sexy and super gay aggressively homosexual. The other thing that’s cool about making something that’s homoerotic, that’s taken me by surprise, is the material appeals to women, and so, in a creative way, making something that is homoerotic is appealing to a female audience in a way that I had never anticipated. Because show business and entertainment have been dominated by straight white men, it’s very common for lesbianism to be a motif or a theme in advertising and entertainment, and very accepted. I didn’t really realize that the same applies to straight women, and that straight women love homoerotic material, and so now, there’s a large female audience that’s connecting with the material, that I hadn’t anticipated.

Sir” is available Feb. 16 on Apple Music.