Fischerspooner’s Million Pound Contract

For more than a decade, Fischerspooner’s Ministry of Sound record deal has been the stuff of legend. Was it a million pounds? We’re still not sure. Either way, Tricia Romano dives deep to see how things got to the point where an English imprint best known for DJ compilations offered a New York art project such an enormous amount of money

It began, almost, as a joke.

Warren Fischer was directing kids’ commercials when he was called to produce a short trailer about cool hunters, featuring his wife, Karen, and Casey Spooner, whom Fischer had met at the Art Institute of Chicago. The video was never used. But Fischer, a trained musician with rock roots and classical chops, wanted to do something with the footage. It was corny, so he decided it should be accompanied by electronic music.

“I had total disdain for electronic music in all its forms up until ’98,” remembers Fischer. But once he started working, Fischer was surprised to find that it was harder (and more enjoyable) to make electronic music than he thought. The video was scrapped, but he and Spooner continued making music together.

Around this time, Spooner had developed an obsession with Bollywood movies, and told Fischer a story about how an Indian cab driver had hit on him one night. They wrote a song – “Indian Cab Driver” – soon after. “It could be perceived as offensive,” explains Spooner, who is from Georgia, in his southern twang. “I sang the song in an Indian accent.”

Their first gig, on August 27, 1998, was, by all accounts, ridiculous. A mutual friend was hosting a performance night at the Starbucks on Astor Place in New York’s East Village, and asked if they wanted to play. Spooner wore wraparound sunglasses, a black t-shirt with the sleeves sliced at the shoulder, and a headset mic, a la Janet Jackson. He sang live over prerecorded music, and fastened blonde wig extensions to the back of his head to make it look like he had a mullet. “It was a riff on Bollywood meets Billy Ray Cyrus,” says Spooner.

They played “Indian Cab Driver” to a crowd of about 40 or 50 – most of them random customers. “You could see people outside on the street looking in with their mouths hanging open,” remembers Fischer.

“Aghast,” adds Spooner.

That night, when I came home, my roommate at that time said, ‘You found it. You found exactly what you’re supposed to be doing.’

Casey Spooner

The first show presented many of the elements Fischerspooner would become known for: Meta commentary on pop culture, Spooner’s playing with identity, Fischer as the Wizard behind the curtain, not seen but heard. “I had played in many bands,” Fischer explains. “I played in orchestras, and it was all about virtuosity, and performance, and expertise. And now here I was playing music that I had composed, but off of a completely burned CD track... So literally there was nothing that I needed to do, other than to press ‘play.’ And that was fun for me, again in a, sort of, devious way. I felt the whole project was devious to me.”

“That night, when I came home, my roommate at that time said, ‘You found it,’” Spooner says. “‘You found exactly what you’re supposed to be doing.’”

Six months after their Astor Place debut, Fischerspooner played a second show at Starbucks, and had begun appearing in galleries. The second Starbucks performance was more elaborate, and included backup singers Lizzy Yoder and Cindy Greene, the “MC” and onstage joker Peanuts (played by Jeremiah Clancy) and featured the debut of the infamous “hair suit,” a terrifying concoction made entirely out of long black human hair.

They brought in a wind machine, lights, and Spooner stripped down to nothing but the hair mask and red vinyl panties. “They created smoke and mirrors,” says Vanessa Walters, who later became their choreographer. “People loved that. The era that we were coming out of was shoegazers, bands that would just get up there and look down and play their instruments and wear a T-shirt and jeans.”

“We would just do anything, where we could, where we got an invitation,” says Spooner – from Jack Tilton’s gallery on Green Street in Soho to the bar at top of the World Trade Center. Their first performance at Gavin Brown’s gallery was in the summer of 1999 inside a reconstruction of artist Rirkrit Tiravanija’s tiny New York tenement apartment.

Jordana Toback connected us to high-quality dancers that were willing to be a part of something weird.

Lizzy Yoder

By then the project also included four dancers, including choreographer Jordana Toback – a modern dancer who had performed with Mark Morris – Vanessa Walters, Arianna Pistilli and Mindi Kessler. The choreography embellished Spooner and Fischer’s send up of pop spectacles. “She had a major impact,” says Yoder of Toback. “[She] connected us to high-quality dancers that were willing to be a part of something weird.”

Eight performers pressed into the faux living quarters at Gavin Brown’s gallery, performing 12 ten-minute sets, back to back, with small audiences squeezed inside to gawk. “It was like a weird performance art marathon,” remembers Yoder. After that performance, the duo signed with Brown, a renegade in the art world, and they began preparing for their first solo gallery exhibition.

Word was spreading, and when they were booked for PS1’s annual summer series, the Warm Up, for which they wrote their biggest hit, “Emerge.” Both low-key – analog techno sounds, vibrating humming synthesizers, Spooner’s poker-faced vocal delivery – and melodramatic, “Emerge” set the bar for artists hoping to fuse pop sensibility with electro. If electroclash – the genre Fischerspooner later came to personify – had a theme song, it was “Emerge.”

In March of 2000, they staged their first solo gallery exhibition in New York for Gavin Brown. It was five nights of six hour-long endurance performances, and featured an elaborate set with platform stages that jutted into the crowd. The shows were rumored to cost anywhere from $10,000 to $100,000 or more a night, bankrolled by sponsors like the Arts Council of New York – but mostly underwritten by Brown himself.

I went there, not really knowing what I was in for, just thinking, ‘Fischerspooner: That’s the worst name ever.’

Larry Tee

In the audience at one of the shows was New York nightlife fixture Larry Tee. “I thought it was going to be a live show,” said Tee. “I went there, not really knowing what I was in for, just thinking, ‘Fischerspooner: That’s the worst name ever.’ So I go and it was these platforms all around this dark room. I thought, ‘I’ll just stay out of the way.’ You couldn’t, because you were in the middle of the show. It was totally mind-blowing. I’m going ‘What the fuck?’ and loved every second of it.”

In 2001, Gavin Brown and Art Production Fund took the show to Los Angeles. The performance was a large site-specific installation that took place in the construction site of what would later become the Downtown Standard Hotel. Wearing costumes designed by Elise Fife and Peter Soronen, they performed three nights to crowds including actress Rose McGowan, rocker Courtney Love, and promoter Bryan Rabin. The audiences alternated between being nonplussed and fascinated. “That was the best crowd for the lamest show I’ve ever seen,” the Los Angeles Times quoted one partygoer.

The irony was that Spooner himself was broke. “I was in a really difficult place,” he remembers. He’d worked in commercial photography as a prop stylist, but as soon as Fischerspooner got on the covers of magazines, “No one would hire me because everyone thought I was famous.” Spooner took a job as a receptionist and subsisted on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. He would walk 45 minutes from the East Village to SoHo, because he couldn’t afford the $2 subway fare. At one point, he and his boyfriend Adam Dugas flew to Boston to live with Dugas’ parents, because Spooner had nowhere else to go.

“I was at the helm of these giant expensive productions but I was absolutely, completely destitute,” he says. “It was a really strange and conflicted experience to be mimicking great power and wealth and to be at my most tenuous of existence.”

I was at the helm of these giant expensive productions but I was absolutely, completely destitute.

Casey Spooner

After the Los Angeles shows, he planned to pack it in. But seeds were being planted in another world. As their cache in the art world rose, the project started gaining attention in the more traditional realm of nightlife. New York DJ John Selway had seen them perform “Emerge” at the Limelight and signed the song to his own label, Serotonin. Munich’s DJ Hell then released Fischerspooner’s debut album, #1, in Europe on his own label International Deejay Gigolo in the summer of 2001.

Realizing that they wouldn’t get press coverage for the record unless they played live, Spooner and Fischer reluctantly resurrected the project and began playing Europe – including parties during Sónar in Barcelona and the Love Parade in Berlin. Their recording career was encouraged by Brown. “Gavin really wanted us to go into the music business,” explains Spooner. “And, we were like, ‘No, we’re making these performances that wouldn’t exist in the music world. We wouldn’t be able to take over and do these site specific constructions, where the performance happens over multiple days.’ We weren’t interested in playing a traditional concert. It was more exciting and interesting to us when we could play with time and space. We were emulating entertainment. It was very expensive to do that.”

That summer in Paris, Spooner ran into art dealer Jeffrey Deitch, who’d seen Spooner on a cover of a magazine and whose interest was piqued. “He basically said, “You’re my kind of artists,’” Spooner remembers. Deitch was looking to remake his gallery with edgy downtown art, and signed Fischerspooner.

Meanwhile, Larry Tee booked the project to headline the first Electroclash Festival in October of 2001. The British press was sniffing around New York, thirsty for new blood to go along with the Strokes, Interpol, and Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Electroclash and Fischerspooner were being hailed as the next big thing. Gavin McInnes – one of the founders of Vice magazine – wrote a review in the British music Bible, NME, that read in part, “It’s a Vegas show with the honesty and unprofessionalism of a punk soundcheck.” He ended his rave: “Finally, something new.”

I told our lawyer, ‘Look, I’m going to go because I want to fly on the Concorde, but I am not, this is not, we’re not making a deal.’

Casey Spooner

Fischerspooner were in a strange position: By this time, the album had been released in several iterations, but it still hadn’t been released by a major label in North America. “We were selling out shows, but they didn’t have music in the stores,” says Spooner. Around this same time, however, Napster was born. “If you look at the boom of Napster and the boom of Fischerspooner, they’re simultaneous. It all happened without the music business, and then the music business followed.”

“The music business” that followed came in the form of DB Burkeman, known professionally as DJ DB, and Andrew Goldstone, who set about bringing Fischerspooner to F-111, their electronic music imprint at Warner Bros. “We heard it and we just fell in love,” says DB. “Basically, it was deep analog techno put into a pop context.”

DB had already been in negotiations with Fischerspooner a year before the Electroclash Festival. At that time, the asking price was $75,000. “It seemed reasonable,” he said. “It was an underground record that had pop potential, [not] the next mega-commercial artist.” By the time of the festival, however, DB had left Warner Bros. and joined Ministry of Sound – and other labels had begun sniffing around as well. DB spotted Steve Lau of Kinetic at the event watching Fischerspooner and thought, “Fuck.”

At the time, Ministry of Sound was a UK label mostly known for DJ compilations. They wanted to expand into artist albums. And America. They thought Fischerspooner was a perfect opportunity to do both. “I didn’t like that label,” says Spooner. “It was just tacky.” When they toured Europe later in 2001, the group was met by Ministry’s slick music-industry types with giant gold watches. To entice them, the label offered to fly the duo on the Concorde from New York to London. “I told our lawyer, ‘Look, I’m going to go because I want to fly on the Concorde, but I am not, this is not, we’re not making a deal,’” remembers Spooner.

[Ministry] just made a ridiculous offer that was just stupid not to take... It wasn’t as much as everyone thinks, honestly.

Casey Spooner

But, says DB, “Nothing like a bidding war to make somebody believe that others believe they’re great. You know, the Next Coming. And people fell for it. They had a really, really smart lawyer who was integral to their plan, and he was able to talk people into upping the money.” Ministry “just made a ridiculous offer that was just stupid not to take,” says Spooner, who wouldn’t divulge the final number. (“It wasn’t as much as everyone thinks, honestly.”) But reports gave figures as high as three million dollars – meaning that, if true, Fischerspooner went from playing Starbucks to millionaires in a few years. “I don’t think it was more than what the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and the Strokes and other people, were getting,” says Spooner. “I think they probably got a lot more, actually.”

The press had a field day. Who would pay that much for a project that seemed, to many, to be an elaborate art prank? The Telegraph noted that hijinks like Spooner’s constant fudging of his age (from 42 to 24 to 28 and back again) weren’t as cute with big money on the line.

“It’s problematic because then it put a sheen of judgment over what we were doing creatively. It gets entangled in these fictitious numbers,” says Spooner. “I liked that it was sort of punk. It was like the Sex Pistols – the Great American Swindle. But it was a pain in the ass. You really felt like people were focused on the wrong thing, and, it changed the perception of what we were doing, which was a very delicate and difficult thing to manage – the strange combination of art and visual art and performance and music and walking this kind of neo-Warholian line between celebrity and fabrication.”

In May, just a few months after the Ministry of Sound signing, the duo created their most ambitious art world installation to date at Deitch. Playing twice a night over three nights in the massive gallery space on Wooster Street, Fischerspooner became the talk of the entire downtown scene. There was a rumored 10,000-person guest list, but only 350 people per show could fit inside the space. The crowds came anyway and spilled into the streets, covering the sidewalk.

They did everything champagne style but they should have been doing iced tea.

Larry Tee

New York luminaries like David Byrne, Lou Reed, Debbie Harry, Jeff Koons, Bianca Jagger, Lene Lovich and Jim Jarmusch were among those in attendance to watch the spectacle. At one of the performances, the show was stopped several times, either for legitimate reasons or for faked ones – it was hard to tell. At one point, Spooner claimed that the cops were there to shut the show down because a fuel leak next door had delayed the show’s start time by an hour, causing the neighbors to complain. He begged the police from the stage: “One hit song, please!”

“Emerge” was started and stopped, three times.

The extravaganza was rumored to have cost $250,000, but Clancy says the number was even higher – “around $450,000.”

“They did everything champagne style but they should have been doing iced tea,” says Tee.

The money wasn’t recouped for Deitch, but Clancy says the “performances put him back on the map.” Deitch paid for “a PR coup. Because he became the ringleader of all cool things in New York.” The record on Ministry, however, didn’t fare so well. The label didn’t know how to handle the release of an artist album, especially not in a country as large as the United States.

In many respects, neither did Fischerspooner. “When we signed with Ministry of Sound we had no kind of infrastructure to deal with the music business,” says Spooner. “We didn’t have a manager and we didn’t have any booking agents.” Spooner coordinated essentially everything – “design needs, any kind of photography, music video, budget, schedules.” And instead of parceling out the funds for the record over a long period of time, Ministry spent the entire marketing budget in three months. “It [was] like an anvil was dropped,” remembers Spooner.

Even as they were appearing on Top of the Pops with Kylie Minogue and preparing a second UK single, the label was folding. “Everyone we worked with left the company and stopped returning our phone calls,” says Spooner. DB and his partner were canned. “Ministry woke up to the fact that it was a much bigger country than England, and it was going to take much more money to do what they needed to do in America, so they started pulling plugs,” explains DB. “Bills weren’t getting paid. People were getting fired left, right, and center.”

Eventually, Capitol Records bought out Fischerspooner’s contract, and #1 was finally released in the States in May 2003. By then, Fischerspooner and the record were old news. “All the tastemakers or people that would write it up were like, ‘We’re not going to review this, it’s done,’” says DB.

In 2005, they released a second record, Odyssey, on Capitol, which featured collaborations with Susan Sontag, David Byrne, Mirwais and Linda Perry. It was a classic rock “album,” and they decided to become a “real band,” touring with live musicians, and dropping Yoder and Greene. Adding musicians, says Yoder, “Just seem kind of anti the whole point... and I started to feel like they were believing in the musicality of it.” Ironically, Odyssey produced the biggest hit for Fischerspooner yet: “Never Win” – a danceable, catchy, rock song. With guitars.

After Odyssey, they started focusing their energies back into the art world, with events at the Bienal de São Paulo; a performance/video installation at BOZAR in Brussels; and a collaboration with the acclaimed Wooster Group on their update of Hamlet. In 2009, they released their third album, Entertainment, that was more in tune with their original vision. (It was no surprise, then, to see them develop a performance – entitled Between Worlds – based around the album that worked in both the Museum of Modern Art and the 100,000-strong Rock al Parque festival in Colombia.) At the moment, Fischer and Spooner are set to release a retrospective photo book, New Truth, this fall, and back in the studio recording new music.

But, the magic of 2000 can never happen again. For DB, though, Fischerspooner’s work will stand the test of time, no matter what the future brings. “I still think #1 is one of the best electronic records of all time. It has this juxtaposition of being super-simple analog techno combined with almost perfect pop. If they look at it like, ‘We did what we wanted to do. We did this amazing art thing and we got paid for it,’” he says, Fischerspooner was a success. “It depends if you consider what they did a failure. In terms of the record business? Yeah, disaster. But from an art point of view? I kind of like it.”

By Tricia Romano on July 29, 2014

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