Eighteen years ago, New York City art-pop duo Fischerspooner — aka classically trained musician Warren Fischer and experimental theater performer Casey Spooner — were at the forefront of the electroclash movement with their massively influential club hit, “Emerge.” But many years before that, in 1988, a young Spooner met his first gay lover, Michael Stipe of R.E.M., and Stipe helped set him on the artistic path that has led to Fischerspooner’s brand-new comeback album, SIR.
In a full-circle moment, personally and professionally, for both Spooner and Stipe, SIR was recorded in the Georgia house where the two men (who have remained friends and collaborators over the years) first consummated their romantic relationship. A boldly political record that fearlessly explores themes of middle-aged gay male sexuality, SIR was executive-produced and co-written by Stipe; incredibly, it’s his first major musical project since R.E.M. disbanded in 2011. It’s also Fischerspooner’s first album since 2009.
Yahoo Entertainment spoke to Spooner about the album’s intensely emotional recording experience, which took place while Stipe was grieving the death of his father and Spooner was recovering from a bad breakup. It’s a fascinating story of love, friendship, redemption, and rebirth. In many ways, both Spooner and Stipe have re-“Emerged.”
Yahoo Entertainment: It’s amazing that this is Michael Stipe’s first album endeavor after R.E.M. I know you two go way back. What is your relationship history, exactly?
Casey Spooner: I met Michael on the dance floor [of the 40 Watt club] in Athens, Ga., in 1988. I was 18, he was 28, and he was my first gay lover. We dated, I would say, for about nine months to a year. It was very tumultuous and dramatic, because he was my first love. He was also right at this crazy pinnacle of his career, where he was releasing Green; he was taking off into superstardom. So, it was a very intense period for both of us — intense for him career-wise, and intense for me as a young gay man falling in love for the first time.
At that time, it was not well-known — to the public, at least — that Michael was queer.
Everyone knew he was gay in the neighborhood. But what I would say is that he was more bisexual; I had to deal with a lot of jealousy, because he would kind of have a girlfriend on the side. So, he was more pansexual. But his deal at the time wasn’t about being out or not being out. It was about privacy in general. And so, I had this crazy privilege at a very young age seeing what real fame was really like, from the inside — and it was really awful. It kind of sent me in the opposite direction, career-wise: I went toward the most obscure, the most difficult, the most unpopular forms of performance art, because fame looked like it was awful. But for Michael, he had no shame about his sexuality; he just wanted to maintain some privacy.
And then, 30 years later, Fischerspooner recorded SIR in the house where you and Michael used to live…
I didn’t officially live there, but I was his hot young trade that lived very close — across the street. But yes, the house where I had sex with a man for the first time is the house where I worked on this record. So to be working on a record about homosexuality, and have it be with the man that I had my first sexual experience with, and working in the same location where all of those feelings began, was totally crazy. But one thing I want to say about my relationship with Michael is that it wasn’t just sexual. When I was 18, I really wanted to be an artist, and I didn’t know quite how to do that — it’s not an easy or clear trade or career path — and I had a lot of insecurity about whether I would be able to be an artist. So not only was it very exciting and sexually liberating to connect with Michael as a lover, but as an artist also. He gave me a lot of confidence to pursue my ambitions.
Did he have that effect on you during the making of SIR?
Yeah, it’s kind of cool, because in a way on this record, there’s a similar thing happening. We’ve reconnected, and he gave me another push. He gave me the confidence to pursue another level of ambition.
So how did he even come to be involved with this album?
I started working on music with Warren in January 2013. … I had written a bunch and edited everything down to about 12 songs. I asked Michael to come in and work on one song, which was supposed to be the last song. We did one session on it, but then he started giving me notes on other songs. Warren was like, “Should we ask him to produce the record?” And Michael was like, “No, no. I don’t work in music. I’m just a friend giving a friend advice. I’m not going to get that involved.” But then he’d redo another song with me. And a couple weeks later, he said, “OK, I’ll consider being producer on the record. But I have final say on everything.” After we agreed to that, Michael threw out half the record.
Yeah. I was like, “Why did I agree to this?” He chucked out half the record! But Michael changed our process and yielded a different sound and different kind of performance. We had never made music together, and I was really blown away by what he was able to do in the first session of this very difficult piece of music. And then, I think it was almost against his better judgment that he kept coming in. He sort of couldn’t help himself. … It was like he was saying he “wasn’t working in music,” and yet he was working in music.
Why do you think he finally changed his mind about getting involved in an official capacity?
He was sort of falling back into music very naturally and in a very low-key way. I think he was enjoying working on music not in R.E.M. He says it was nice for him to not have to deal with his voice. I think he liked writing for someone else; I think he liked writing for me. Also, we’re really close, so we were able to have a lot of connection and intimacy in the writing. It was very natural.
So instead, you were his voice…
Yes. I was willing to take on any sort of vocal challenge Michael gave me. Which was interesting, because he’s such a talented vocalist that there were times where I was like, “I don’t know if I can perform this. I don’t know if I can do this part. I’m not that kind of a singer.” But he was like, “No, you are.” He really pushed me to expand my vocal persona, almost like a director with an actor. It was almost like Michael was playing me, like I was a persona for him to speak through. I became a mask for him, so he didn’t have to deal with his legacy and his identity and his voice. He didn’t have to deal with a lot of his history and those expectations. He was free to be somebody else. It was liberating for him; it was very educating for me. Also, it was a very intense time for both of us emotionally. He was in the thick of the writing and dealing with his father passing, so I think he needed a project and needed to be focused on something. So, he became very focused on this record.
What specifically were you going through emotionally at the time?
I basically had every f***ing possible emotional disaster happen to me, from having a very happy relationship unravel against my will, to losing my pets, to having a giant falling out with my mother, then my building getting sold and getting evicted and being homeless. And then having a rebound relationship that was toxic and exciting and awful, and recovering from that. Michael was a support for me through all these crazy challenges. I was in a lot of pain. There were all these different crazy chapters of me trying to rediscover myself sexually and emotionally and physically. I was clinging to this record, because sometimes it was all I had. Michael really encouraged me, and he taught me how to use my emotions in my work.
Any specific examples?
There were moments when we were recording the song “Try Again” that I was crying. I was just weeping in the booth, trying to work, and I couldn’t because I was crying so much. I would be like, “Michael, what am I doing? Is this getting anywhere?” And he’d be like, “Yes. Keep going.” It was a very intense process, because it wasn’t just “making something” — it was about going into all these feelings and trying to find ways to use that emotion, instead of avoiding it or intellectualizing it.
How else did Michael keep you on track as the album’s producer?
He was a taskmaster in this crazy way. He loved to work really intensely and very strange hours. Mostly we would work from 6 p.m. until 6 a.m. We would have these recording sessions where we would work for two to three weeks, every day. He also put me on a physical regimen, where I would have some kind of bodywork or Pilates, or some kind of physical training, in the afternoons. I didn’t have a driver’s license, I didn’t have a car, so I was at his compound and I couldn’t really leave. It was kind of this celebrity songwriting spa / boot camp / prison. He controlled my schedule. He controlled my diet. He controlled my regimen. Sometimes I felt like I was delirious and losing my mind. And I think sometimes he did that intentionally, because it made me so super-vulnerable and super-emotional.
How are you doing these days, in terms of your emotional state?
I’m doing pretty good, actually! I feel like I lost everything and I had to go down to zero and empty the tank completely. I had to let go of who I thought I was. I had to let go of what I thought my life was going to be — and that wasn’t easy, because I’d loved my life the way it was. But I was forced to change, and I don’t regret it at all now. I feel reborn.
Do you regret that it took so long for a new Fischerspooner album to come out?
No, because I think this record is way more relevant post this a**hole president. If it had come out in the summer of 2016, when it was supposed to, it wouldn’t have meant the same thing as it coming out in 2017 or 2018. When I started writing it in 2013, I was happily in the Obama era, so to me it was not a political statement; it was just sort of an honest storytelling of my life. But in the interim, my life has become politicized.
What do you mean by that?
Well, I think we’re in a crazy, crazy time, where the government is attacking immigrants and people of color and trans people and queer people and women. Basically anyone who’s not a fat old white man is under attack. It’s really important now, more than ever, to have positive images. Yeah, I’ve grown up and survived, but there are kids out there that are very vulnerable. I think it’s an important time to reinforce this queer world, so that people feel safe and feel that they will survive, and that they can be successful, and that they aren’t bad, and that they shouldn’t be punished. And that they do deserve their civil rights.
Do you feel more of a responsibility to your LGBTQ fans now?
My agenda has shifted. Before, I was visually a more moderate person. I didn’t feel that I needed to be political in my work. But my work, all of a sudden, became politicized, because the rest of the world became so conservative, and that pushed me to go the opposite extreme. I feel like I have to be the equal and opposite to this neo-Nazi agenda. Now I have to be the queerest superhero that ever lived. And I love it!
SIR is an overtly, bravely queer record.
Yes, I knew I wanted to make an album about contemporary, queer, narrative sexuality and digital culture, because I was having all these crazy experiences that I didn’t think I had ever really read about, because we’re living through so much change in terms of culture and technology and sexuality. The first song I wrote was called “Messy Mess.” And the first lines were “I’m no good at seduction/I’m too full of emotion/I’m like a messy mess/I’m like a messy mess/I just say what I feel.” And then there’s these other lines that insinuated that it was kind of about me almost stalking someone online. So even from that moment, from the first song on, the agenda was pretty clear.
That song isn’t on SIR, though…
Actually, it was a pretty happy [album] before Michael got involved. Ironically, the minute Michael got involved, it was like my whole world imploded! So Warren always sort of reluctantly says, “The best thing to happen to this record is that your life was a disaster.” I’m like, “You’re welcome?”
How did your personal history with Michael affect the album, in terms of its gay themes?
Well, what’s really important is that Michael and [songwriter/engineer] Andy [LeMaster] and I wrote a lot of the songs together. And we’re all gay. So it was the first time that I felt like I wasn’t having to explain myself to a straight person. We could just identify and relate and share information, and it wouldn’t be like, “What’s a bottom? What’s douching?” — and then dealing with the moralizing of a straight person. We could just freely talk about what was happening in our lives, in terms of sex and drugs and relationships and everything. So there was an ease to the writing, I think, that also allowed a certain kind of honesty. … And Michael was able to break it down and work as kind of a “straight-to-gay translator” for Warren [who is heterosexual], so Warren could understand what was going on.
Lyrically, this is a much more straightforward album, when it comes to gay topics. “TopBrazil” is a good example.
Yes, Warren and I had a lot of discussions about this, because very early on, he wanted me to change the pronouns in the record to be more universal. I have done that in the past. But I thought about it, and it just didn’t feel natural. And then, finally, I came to the realization that when you make the pronouns vague, it doesn’t make it more universal. It just makes it be assumed heterosexuality. So once I realized that vague pronouns do not equal anything other than assumed heterosexuality, I couldn’t change the pronouns [on SIR]. Once I explained that to Warren, he totally got behind that agenda; he understood the political nature of it.
And then the other thing that I kind of want to push back on is, some people are like, “Why as an artist do you want to ghettoize your work?” Which I get. It’s like, “Why do I have to be a gay artist? Why can’t I just be an artist?” You don’t ever hear anyone described like, “Oh, they’re an amazing straight artist.” There’s a lot of debate: Are we making a mistake in limiting our audience and alienating people? But somehow there’s this perception that because something’s queer, someone straight can’t relate to it, which I think is absolutely absurd. I live my life constantly enjoying work made by straight people and learning from straight people’s experiences. So why can’t someone straight learn from a queer experience? When you step outside of heteronormative patterns, there’s a lot of great ways to live. That’s why we can learn from people that we don’t understand. And the point of life is to learn. I think I have a lot to teach straight people.
So, sort of related to that point, do you think SIR will recruit any old-school R.E.M. fans? It’s extremely different from R.E.M.’s work…
Honestly, no, I don’t think so. I think they’re going to scratch their heads. I mean, I’m not opposed to that, but I think it might be just a little too far of a stretch for them.
Read more from Yahoo Entertainment:
- Fischerspooner’s first NYC show in 8 years was an erotic celebration of self-worth
- Fischerspooner’s Casey Spooner shares his “nude philosophy”
- Q&A: Michael Stipe on life after R.E.M. and revisiting ‘Automatic for the People’