R.E.M.'s Michael Stipe Interviews Fischerspooner's Casey Spooner on New LP 'Sir'

A double-exposure image of Spooner performing on New York’s Fire Island in 2017.
Greg Endries/Contour/Getty Images

A double-exposure image of Spooner performing on New York’s Fire Island in 2017.

Fischerspooner’s fourth album, Sir, breaks new ground for electroclash pioneers Warren Fischer and Casey Spooner. Produced by R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe -- Spooner’s first boyfriend; they dated for a year in 1988 -- the set, a treatise on queer love in the digital age, puts the emphasis on emotional storytelling and reveals the pulsing heart behind frontman Spooner’s robotic persona. His newfound approach to the dark, sexy project has somber roots: It was inspired by the demise of his 14-year relationship, which came undone during the early phase of recording. Stipe “was there for me,” says Spooner. “It wasn't like we were making a record -- he was fucking saving my life.”

Calling in from Paris, where Spooner had just moved on the spur of the moment in December, the two discuss the value of intimacy in life and song.

Stipe: Let’s talk about Sir. Why are vulnerability and intimacy needed right now in American and Western pop culture?

Spooner: That’s something that you really pushed, and I didn't realize was necessary until my life shifted so dramatically while working on this record. I had been hanging out with a lot of younger gay men and there’s a real kind of disconnect between sex and intimacy. To me, what has become important is a conjoining -- no pun intended -- of sexuality and emotionality. I’ve seen it happen a lot with younger gay men where the minute they become friends with someone, they lose sexual desire, which is something I think is indicative of a fear of intimacy.

Stipe: Do you think that’s distinctly 21st Century, or is it generational?

Spooner: I think it’s generational because I’ve always been able to have sex with friends. It’s something that I hear about all of the time, when gay men become really close with someone, they become “sisters.” You’ll meet someone and hit it off and there will be a sexual tension, and then it’s kind of a running joke with friends of mine where if you become too friendly or get too close, you get sistered. And if you get sistered, you can’t get un-sistered and you can’t have sex. “Oh, damn it, I got sistered!”

Stipe: What do you think causes that schism, generationally? My coming of age was in the ’70s, yours was in the ’80s. We’re almost exactly 10 years apart. And although AIDS and the Reagan era and the conservatism of American culture had landed on us by the time you were a teenager. A lot of the people that you were inspired by were older than you, myself included, and you kind of maybe slid under the wire of clampdown on intimacy. Did it push sexuality -- particularly queer or outsider sexuality -- deeper away from the mainstream and that’s what caused the schism in this division between having an emotional relationship with someone and having a sexual relationship?

Spooner: I’m in a totally different place because I was 16 in 1986; I was discovering my sexuality in the height of AIDS paranoia in the media, so my sexuality was really tied to fear. And in a lot of ways I never thought that I could be sexually free unless I was in a monogamous relationship. Only then did I feel like I wasn't terrified that I wasn't going to contract a killing disease. So that really pushed me toward more long-term, committed relationships. As time has passed and technology has shifted, and also as education, HIV/AIDS support and funding increased, a younger generation was raised kind of immune to the fear. And with an influx of pornography, and also adding medical changes like Truvada (pre-exposure prophylaxis, or PrEP, that reduces the risk of HIV transmission), all of a sudden there’s a younger generation that’s way more sexual; they don’t have the same kind of fear that I had. So, in a way, it’s more like the ’70s, pre-AIDS right now, where there’s a lot more recreational sex. It’s very specific to New York, I’m finding after being in Europe, because PrEP is not popular here. It isn't quite as wild as New York City is right now.

Stipe: Here, the subway ads are for PrEP; it’s not just appealing to a queer subculture -- it’s universal. It’s big pharma, they’re pushing a new product. We could debate that, but we don’t need to do that here.

Spooner: I’m just here to deliver the message. I’ve gone into the trenches to see what’s happening, and this is what I’ve discovered, whether it’s right or wrong.

Stipe: Because of that vulnerability you were able to show on Sir, what you end up with is a presentation of yourself and Fischerspooner that’s radically different from what people are used to. That robotic Casey character of Fischerspooner’s past filled a void beautifully and created some really great music and some great moments. On stage, you would take this kind of imperfect vulnerability or humanity and really explore that in the performance between the songs. What I did, if anything, in working on this record with you is to bring that vulnerability forward and into the music and the songwriting, and allow the robot to take a back seat to the human side. Then you had this giant change in your relationship and everything fell apart and you started riffing on that as source material.

Spooner: You came in wanting an emotionality. I had written an entire record as I would have in the past, a more traditional Fischerspooner record, and then we started re-making it with a new agenda. You reconfigured our process and pushed me and set me free in a lot of ways. I write the way I’ve always written, but Warren’s taste and your taste are very different. He tends to gravitate to more abstract and minimal lyrics. He believes in a sort of emotionality through mathematics. And I love that, too -- I love electronic music and I love Warren’s perspective. But you created some boundaries that kept the writing and the performance more raw. So the fact that we didn't do tons of doubling or corrections or post-production -- like on the song “Stranger Strange,” basically the entire spine of that song was a first take -- that’s huge. It’s always been a challenge for me to perform Fischerspooner music live, because it is so stylish. Originally, I didn't fight that. I just embraced lip sync. I felt that was the way most people performed that kind of pop music, so why not acknowledge it and make it a new variation on punk, sort of like digital punk. But now, the record you helped me make is one that is very performable.

I’d never worked with a songwriter who has the history of performance that you have, so you knew how to help me write basically a script and a score that could be done in the studio and on stage. When we would finish songs you would say, ok, now go through and sing through it three times and make sure you can actually sing it. That’s something that no one ever did with me before. For instance, on [Fischerspooner album] Odyssey’s “Never Win,” that second verse is written in such a way that there’s literally nowhere for me to breathe.

Stipe: The really big surprise out of all of this -- for you and for everyone -- is this: you’ve got a voice. You’re actually a great singer. In earlier Fischerspooner performances, you took lip sync and you didn't break the fourth wall -- you blew it up. You exposed the artificiality of performance on a grand scale and pulled back that curtain in a very big way. To then embrace a thing that is as vulnerable as live performance, not just hitting your marks, but actually based on how you’re feeling, how the audience is feeling, the venue, the news of the week, what’s happening culturally around you, your voice, how cold it is, how excited everyone is or not, you’re going to turn into something that is very present and in the moment, and that’s the essence of vulnerability. You’re one of the most unafraid people I’ve ever met, which makes it thrilling for me to be able to work with you.

Spooner: That’s high praise coming from you.

Stipe: Goddamn right it is!

Spooner: Don’t make me cry!

Stipe: Oh, shut up. [Laughs.] I’ve got to jump now, but I’m so happy to hear from you, Casey.

Spooner: Bye, babe!

This article originally appeared in the Jan. 20 issue of Billboard.


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