By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
Casey Spooner's pants come off so easily. It's his jacket that's pesky.
Of course, his cadre of dancers and singers, electro auteurs Fischerspooner, love a good miscue. Nothing exposes the artifice of pop quite like a well-placed flub. They revel in being "caught" lip-synching. They stop shows because of a disappointing performance from "the dance department." They have even been known to mess up their mess-ups. Now, though, they are just messing up. FS are onstage for sound check at Last Call With Carson Daly. This is their national TV debut, which aired last Wednesday, the day after their album, #1, was released.
Your eyes may roll at the announcement. From May 15 to 17 of last year, the group played six shows at the Deitch Projects gallery downtown at a reported cost of $300,000, each performance packed with hipsters, celebrities, and drooling journos. Between May and July, predicated on the announced stateside release of the album, CMJURBRemixPulseXlR8rMixerHXComplexNewYorkPost-NewYorkTimesEntertainmentWeeklyWiredStuff-TimeOutAlternativePressNylonJaneNewYorkPaper ran FS features or reviews. Hipsters read. And waited. The release date moved from May 7 to June. Then July. Then August. Then a vague "the end of the year." The album never came. Their label, U.K.-based Ministry of Sound, which paid $2 million to sign them, was rapidly laying off their U.S. employees.
Back on Carson, Spooner can't quite get naked. "Emerge," the catchy electro hit that just won't die, reaches its angry-bagpiper pinnacle and FS member Jeremiah Clancy is supposed to abruptly tear off Spooner's white tux. For the fourth consecutive take, Clancy has ripped away Spooner's trousers, but has left the jacket. "That's OK people," says Spooner, one arm crooked in the air, trapped by the sport coat riding around his neck. His sequined bikini briefs sparkle under the stage lighting, and there are giggles from the assembled stagehands and technicians. "It's all about the fuckup."
Visual artist (and eventual frontman) Casey Spooner met classical musician (and eventual knob twiddler) Warren Fischer at the Art Institute of Chicago. After they moved to New York City and got back in touch, after Spooner asked Fischer to make some music for a spoken-word project, after Fischer went to downtown record shop Other Music and learned about electronic music via IF's "Space Invaders Are Smoking Grass" and DMX Krew's Nu Romantix, after FS staged their debut performance at the Astor Place Starbucks on August 27, 1998, after they added a smoke machine and a fan, backup singers and dancers, pyrotechnics and elaborate costumes (also after Spooner, working as a stylist, finagled 800 bucks from a New Womanbudget to pay for his first human-hair suit), after local DJ and label owner John Selway released the single "Emerge" on his Serotonin label, and after Selway got a copy of FS's self-released full album to DJ Hell, who flipped for the record and released it in Europe on his German Deejay Gigolo label, after FS played three over-the-top nights at the Standard Downtown in Los Angeles (and after Spooner got the word out that he wasn't 39 years old, as he had told Spin), after all of this, in late September, they were about to sign a nice, simple $75,000 contract with Ministry of Sound.
At about this time, FS got a call from promoter Larry Tee, who was organizing the Electroclash festival. "We didn't want to do it," says Fischer. "So we made an absurd offer, including an extremely elaborate tech rider. And he totally delivered."
Meanwhile, in the U.K., Ministry head James Palumbo decided he wanted to expand his business focus. Ministry was a U.K. powerhouse with a successful nightclub, magazine, and DJ compilation series, but Palumbo wanted artists.
Ministry U.K. wasn't yet interested in FS, but their new U.S. satellite office was. Staffed and running by March 2001, the first order of business for joint heads of a&r Andrew Goldstone (laid off in October 2002) and DB (laid off in March 2002) was to sign the group. Then, on October 11, 2001, FS played the Electroclash festival. "All of Ministry U.S. was there," says DB. "And every other record label as well." Three days after the show, Ministry of Sound received a call from Craig Averill, FS's lawyer. Kinetic Records had decided to put in a substantial bid. "That," says Goldstone, "is when it degenerated into a mess of money and gamesmanship and all sorts of other unsavory activities."
FS were in no rush to sign a contract. By mid December, majors including BMG and Atlantic were interested. Ministry U.K., finally committed to signing the band, jumped into action.
Ministry flew Fischer, Spooner, and Averill on the Concorde to the U.K., where they were wined, dined, and wooed. Back in the States, FS signed a $2 million contractMinistry got global rights for two albums and FS got unusual creative control. Ministry would release the album in the U.K. and find distribution partners for other territories. FS retained the right to veto Ministry's as yet unchosen partners. "In hindsight," says Goldstone, "it's a contract that was counterproductive to doing business."
Ministry released the album in the U.K. on April 29, 2002, and geared up for the U.S. release, printing stickers, 100,000 flyers, and mini-posters commemorating the Deitch shows. "It was vital in our minds to have the album's release coincide with the Deitch shows," says Goldstone of the mid-May gigs.
But FS blocked the release of their own album, nixing offers from MCA and Sony to distribute #1 in the U.S. and outside the U.K. Fischer says it was about creative control. "We were very concerned about some promotional campaign going out in Australia that would embarrass us," he says.
Barney Glover, former Ministry U.S. label manager, sees the situation differently. "We underestimated their unwillingness to deal with the real world," he says. "MCA was a committed partner. Sony was a major that was hungry for them. To believe it doesn't matter when you release your recordnow or in 12 monthsit's missing the point."
Talks stalled. Averill mentioned the difficulties to a Capitol rep, who expressed interest. By August 2002, Ministry and FS had licensed the project to Capitol for an undisclosed advancereportedly enough to recoup Ministry's expenses. Ministry U.K. declined comment.
Finally, the music fans of Peoria can trundle to the Wal-Mart or the Big K and buy #1. Capitol is betting on a much larger audience than hipsters and, so far, their bet seems to be paying off. "Emerge," self-released on their four-song CD in September '99, is now climbing the Billboard dance charts, from 31 to 27 to 20 in three weeks. Some top radio stations are playing it even before the label has begun its mainstream push. FS nabbed a Hummer commercial getting heavy airplay, and in case you missed the Dirty Vegas and Telepopmuzik phenomenon, Capitol's electronic acts have done rather well for themselves shilling product.
"We've been catching the same heat from people for two years," says Spooner. "You gotta do it now! Now! You're missing the moment! If we had done that the first time someone had said it, we wouldn't be sitting here and you wouldn't be talking to us."
Back in Carson land, Mr. "I'm a massive tool" introduces the group in his monologue by saying, "I gotta be honest, they're a little out there," and then before they take the stage with "It's Creative. Weird. Interesting. Bizarre. It's European." (The way your parents told you your gay uncle was "European" at cousin Aileen's bat mitzvah.) Then, after the melee that is any FS show, Daly walks onstage. He doesn't rush to embrace Spooner. In fact, he seems to keep his distance. Daly stands amid the clearing smoke of the pyrotechnics and the strewn glitter and shiny streamers, and he sort of shakes his head, a little unsure of what he's just witnessed.
Mainstream America, meet Fischerspooner.