Sitting next to his beloved Mac G3 iBook in the cool confines of his Manhattan apartment, Fischerspooner programmer, tuxedo aficionado and one-time classical violinist Warren Fischer has a theory about why electro has staged such a surprising comeback with an audience once enamored of hot house and techno turbulence. “There is a new element of DIY in the electronic-music world,” he explains. “The development of software synths made it easy to reproduce the sounds of expensive equipment. [Propellerhead] ReBirth physically models Roland 303s, 808s and 909s, making these sounds accessible to anyone, so anybody can make a pop song. You don't have to be Steely Dan to make a decent-sounding record anymore. There is an impulse now to make music that sounds a little raw, and electro happens to have that element. Punk rock developed in a similar way. It is the right time and place for electro.”
The punk comparison is apt, as Fischerspooner are to the new millennium what the Sex Pistols were to the '70s. Embraced by the fickle New York art world, Fischerspooner (named after Fischer and his musical partner Casey Spooner) have gained as much attention for their high-art image as for their low-tech electro music. Ministry of Sound reportedly signed the duo to a $3 million deal, which skeptics are describing as the modern equivalent of the Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle or Sigue Sigue Sputnik.
At a recent show at New York's Deitch Projects (an old loading dock near Chinatown), the eight-piece Fischerspooner troupe, with Fischer manning a mixing console upstairs, performed the clinical and oddly comforting songs of their debut album, #1 (Ministry of Sound, 2002), to immaculate perfection. Lip-synched to a hard drive, the Fischerspooner live show is not about spontaneity, improvisation or demonic dance beats; it is more about performance art, dated dance moves and high kitsch. As vocalist Spooner pranced and preened like Ziggy Stardust through clouds of smoke in sweaty Danksin tights that exposed his fleshy love handles, the accompanying females worked Solid Gold Dancer moves — all ridiculous arm thrusts and deep pelvic dips.
Visually, Fischerspooner produce a dazzling dementia of bad taste and comic misadventure, wearing headdresses that resemble three-foot-tall exploding sheep and cotton-candy extensions that recall the Bride of Frankenstein circa 1955. During the show, the dancers' outfits morph from gaudy 17th-century hoop dresses to green lamé miniskirts, from plastic chain mail to stinky polyester jumpsuits. Are they Renaissance hookers or Arabian knights in drag? As the P.A. system blasts Fischerspooner's stylish electro, Spooner and the ladies jump from platform to platform, never missing a cue or a lip-sync. The funniest bits come between songs, as Spooner and company banter and bitch: “Don't touch the gear. We don't have money for lawsuits.”
Amid this wacky show, what stand out are Fischerspooner's surprisingly good songs, composed by a programmer who once hated pop music, and a grandstanding singer lost in a Hair-meets-Jesus Christ Superstar fixation. Although the show may be the visual equivalent of fast food — quickly forgotten the moment it's consumed — the songs hold one's attention long after the fifth go-round of costume changes and predictions of bloodletting (which never occurs).
Why is the performance lip-synched? And what is the explanation for the outlandish getups? “We feel that electronic music is a studio art form,” says Fischer. “It is embarrassing that so many electronic musicians feign performing live, but they don't do anything more than the occasional filter sweep. We play the music out of a sound system and then deal with the performance: manipulating an audience, developing wardrobe, creating special effects. It is not a new idea. We are just applying it to the alternative electronic-music scene. If you still have issues about virtuosity when the music is not about that, go see Yo-Yo Ma. It is like the jazz model: Everyone wants to imagine that you are going to see a virtuoso performance, and you are really not. Everyone is pretending. But we have other ways to make it exciting.”
Fischer may consider his music DIY, but Fischerspooner's music is more richly textured and detailed than most new electro mainly because Fischer comes from a background in contemporary classical music and the Chicago experimental-music scene. #1 has an instantly recognizable sonic signature — a rich, warm sound that is present, alive, meticulous and anything but minimal. “I approach music from a rock-music point of view,” says Fischer. “I studied modern classical music, but I was also playing in rock bands since I was 16. I played in a lot of orchestras, and I grew up practicing music two hours a day. It takes a lot of discipline and time to make things right. Casey and I both have a love of hard work. And we don't do drugs, so we don't pass out in the studio. It is not about a party.”
Fischer composes and records the instrumental sounds almost entirely on his laptop iBook, taking the tracks into the studio when he's ready to record vocals and work on the mix. “I am really into stereo,” says Fischer. “Every element but the bass drum is stereo. I don't like mono. I like to fill up the stereo picture. In the studio, I work with our good friend Nicholas Farren. We put a knuckle into the specifics of the mix and the signal processing, most of which is done with [Emagic] Logic software, although we use a lot of outboard gear for vocal processing. There may be a little bit of analog creeping in there, but I don't think it makes a substantial impact on the character of the sound. It retains a digital quality.”
Unlike most electro musicians, Fischer prefers the hard digital edge of his software synths to the warmth of classic analog machines such as Moogs and ARPs. “I like the coldness of digital sounds,” he says. “It has a painful edge that makes electro a little brutal. Analog makes things warmer, but digital makes things more realistic. People love the way analog distorts things, but I like how flat digital sounds. I use analog sounds only occasionally. On ‘Emerge,’ I sent a couple of bass parts out through a simple EQ filter sweep and an analog amp just to see what the warmth would do. But that is the only time I did something like that.”
Fischer started composing music on the computer in the mid-'90s. “The first song I ever did with samples was with a program called [BIAS] Deck,” recalls Fischer. “It was such a pain; I made the loops manually. Then my nephew gave me ReBirth, and I eventually graduated to [Steinberg] Cubase and software synths, but the computer kept crashing. Now I use [Propellerhead] Reason, but I've got my eye on Logic. I use all Mac gear; I have a 600MHz G3 iBook. I use only software synths — no analog anything. The silences are absolute zero. I love how vacuum-sealed the sounds are. When you listen on headphones, it is weird. You are not used to silences being so dead. I also like how flexible working on a computer is. You can recall all your patches and automate your setting manipulations. With analog gear, you are always setting a knob, and it never sounds the same.”
WE ARE ALL MADE OF STARBUCKS
Fischer met Spooner at the Art Institute of Chicago in the early '90s. During that time, Fischer was playing violin and working with experimental composer and Stereolab producer Jim O'Rourke. “Jim and I went to school together and were best friends,” Fischer says. “We went record shopping every weekend. We recorded two albums, Tamper and Disengage. I was inspired by the Polish composers Krzysztof Penderecki and Witold Lutoslawski; they both do sort of collage-orchestra music. I liked the idea that they were doing noise music but with orchestras. So I started taking different kinds of violin sounds and doing 8-track layers with an Otari multitrack. I released a cassette called Collision Music — very high-concept but low-budget.”
Fischer and Spooner started collaborating in 1992; eventually, the duo moved to New York, but Fischerspooner didn't officially form until 1998. “When Warren heard I-F's ‘Space Invaders Are Smoking Grass,’ he said, ‘I think this should be our sound,’” says Spooner. Fischerspooner made their live debut later that year at the Astor Place Starbucks in Manhattan's East Village. “It felt great to do a show at Starbucks,” says Spooner. “It totally disturbed an environment that has become such a natural part of our day. It was great to disturb that homogenousness. Imagine it: You come in to grab a coffee, and there's a guy in a monkey suit doing a striptease to electro music, surrounded by backing singers wearing red vinyl panties. In a Star-fucking-bucks.”
“Casey and I started making music; then, I heard artists like The Hacker and Adult,” says Fischer. “We started to write to people like Adult and John Selway for remixes and built a small community via e-mail. Everyone talks about this electro thing stemming from New York, but I think it is more international than that. The Web is such a boring topic nowadays, but it played a part in connecting these people. I think that electro is the first musical movement that doesn't have a home base.”
KEEP ON TWEAKIN'
Working with his G3 iBook, Fischer creates his music painstakingly, often taking days to write a good melody. Fischer and Spooner improvise in the studio until something — a riff, a line or a lyric — grabs their attention. “It is a classic Rodgers and Hart relationship,” Fischer says with a laugh. “I write the music, and he writes the lyrics. Then we collaborate on the melodies. We get on the mic and start to improvise; sometimes, that can go for days. When we wrote the ‘Emerge’ melody, we were totally disenchanted and about to have a nervous breakdown. Casey was screaming the whole time, and one phrase finally popped out, and we grabbed onto that. I sampled a synth from Komputer's Komputer Inside sample CD for the intro, and then it all fell into place.
“But it is often depressing before you break through,” Fischer continues. “I have heard that Felix da Housecat writes a song a day, but that is not my experience whatsoever. We belabor things, not that that makes them better. I am the kind of person who has problems with the released versions — like when Casey's vocal comes in on the second chorus of ‘Emerge,’ it sounds too naked. I would do more vocal processing. Also, the hand-clap reverb could be fuller. We could keep tweaking.”
And tweak they would. Fischer loves to be in the studio finding new sounds and new ways to entertain and amuse himself and his partner. Fortunately, he has an elephant's memory, so it's easy for him to re-create his ideas. “I am total Mr. Magoo in my personal life, but when it comes to the music, I remember exactly what we did. ‘Fucker’ was basically a track that I built entirely in ReBirth and processed in Cubase so that I ended up with a stereo track. Then I went into the studio. I had just bought a Korg Kaoss pad, so we routed the track through the Kaoss pad, manipulated the track with effects for hours and recorded that. We listened to the moments we liked and folded them into the original track. For the part where the song gets supercrunchy like you blew up the stereo, we actually overdrove a stereo preamp. There is a lot of outboard signal processing reintegrated back into the music.”
From their humble Starbucks debut to a $3 million record deal to their own FS Studios label, Fischerspooner are on their way to conquering more than the trendy New York art scene. They are coming for your children; they are coming for you. But, first, they have to top #1. “We're not going to top this one,” jokes Fischer. “I think I can make things better. I never liked pop music, but the dare is that we fell into it. Like anything else, there is a craft involved. I had never made pop music before, and I quickly found out that it is not easy. We are trying to make the music good; bad pop doesn't make it. One of the things I like about electro is how wimpy it is. It is like a new wimpiness is happening in music. Look out Linkin Park — it's over.”