Fischerspooner front man and ubiquitous New York nightlife impresario Casey Spooner candidly discusses sex in the digital age, revealing the travails of dating while also embracing a new identity empowered by youth culture today all doing so while poised to release his next album, created in collaboration with longtime friend and R.E.M. founder, Michael Stipe.
Joseph Akel: Tell me a little bit about the impetus behind releasing this new album. Obviously, you’re no stranger to the world of music, and your output is very well known, but what inspired you in the last handful of years to work on a new album?
Casey Spooner: I guess I started working about three years ago, and honestly, I didn’t think I’d ever make another record because the business is so dead, and it’s difficult to make money, and every single person I know who was in a band is either dead or has disappeared.
I went in to do a test on one song to see how it would go, and we worked for just a week, and it went really well, which pissed me off, and so I was like, “Goddamnit, this is good, and this is fun.” I feel like it sucks when you feel like you’re getting better at something, and the business of it starts to dissipate. So I was like, “OK, let’s make another record, but let’s do it quickly. I don’t want to waste a lot of time. Let’s do it fast, and let’s do it in six months.” Cut to three years later, and it’s finally finished, but when I started the record, I guess I had a very clear thematic direction, and I really wanted to make an album about homosexuality.
Mostly, I wanted to reflect the narratives that I was living. I feel like we’re living through such a crazy time of change with technology and sexuality and the way those two things integrate, and how relationships are shifting—there’s really a kind of sexual, emotional, psychological shift that’s happening in gay culture at large.
At the time, I was in an open relationship—long term. We were together for fourteen years, and we were open for eight of those years, so I had had all of these amazing, different types of relationships. At one point, we had a third boyfriend for six months, and I would have short affairs, or I would have one-night stands or have all these different kinds of very rich emotional experiences that, you know, I felt were never really represented. And so my goal was to share my experience and the emotional spectrum that I was living in. And it was ultimately a kind of optimistic record. And on top of that, I also decided that I needed to change my image.
JA: Yes, there seemed all of a sudden to be this newly confident and erotically charged public persona that you were projecting.
CS: Exactly. I always think about image as an important component for the way I work, and so I knew we couldn’t return to our thesis of extreme fashion merged with art and pop music. I knew there was going to be this aggressive sexual element, so I wanted to start to investigate a more sexualized image. And importantly, it’s not often that in entertainment, you see an older sexualized person. So I was like, “OK, that’s something I can do that not a lot of other people can do.”
For me, it was also about creating something that was timeless, not just sexual. I got really inspired at the Vatican by the Belvedere Torso, and I was, like, “Oh, God, we live in a world of torsos.” And so I was like, “If I’m going to make something about the body, I’m going to go back to the original torso.” There were all these things: seeing the timeless image, seeing the Belvedere Torso, trying to react against pop music becoming so stuck in this art-pop thing, and then, also, expressing a unique and aggressively homosexual image.
JA: In many ways, your look reminds me of Peter Berlin. Indeed, there seems to be an homage in some ways to him, in that Peter obviously had a highly sexualized sensibility about him that was also carefully choreographed and stylized.
CS: Absolutely. I have loved Peter Berlin for ages.
JA: There were a few points you made, and maybe you can touch on this: first, you were talking about how the gay landscape has changed, and I wonder, what has technology done to the erotic in this day and age? In the past, there were ways that we displayed our sexuality and our confidence through style and fashion—a kind of a performativity that had to come about through cruising and flirting, and they all kind of interlocked. Do you feel like that has changed or has been lost?
CS: Oh my God, how do I respond? First of all, sexuality is so closely tied to photography now. It’s like, you’re only going to get as much action depending on how good your pictures are and what your pictures communicate and what the location is and what the expression is. Photography and sexuality have shifted intensely.
I think, also, there’s been a big shift because there’s so many people now taking pictures of themselves naked and having to be on camera in order to have sex that everyone is completely obsessed with working out. Now that’s why we have all these different fitness trends, like SoulCycle and Flywheel and boot camps and CrossFit and juice bars—it’s because everyone is so self-conscious, so aware of their bodies now. So we’re living through this intense fantasy.
I remember when I would have sex with people, I would meet some that I wouldn’t know who was going to do what or what was going to happen or what was in their pants. It’s like, you didn’t know; you just had to go with the vibe.
But there are also very positive aspects to it as well. I’m connecting with people that I would have never connected with who are not part of my scene. They’re not part of my socioeconomic world. They’re not a part of my neighborhood. I’m all of a sudden interacting and having sex with people that I would have never run into. And out of that, developing friendships. And out of that, working with them. I’ve had a lot of social growth out of technology and sex.
The other thing that’s happened is the acceptance of open relationships. I don’t remember ten years ago everyone being in an open relationship. I remember thinking that’s the weirdest thing I could ever imagine, like, “Who would do that?” Now it’s like it’s so commonplace. I think now people are becoming more comfortable with other sorts of ways of interacting sexually and different sorts of sexual contracts.
JA: In terms of your forthcoming album, we mentioned sexuality as an important theme, but what also helped shaped it, both in terms of sound and style?
CS: I think the most important thing is that the record is produced by Michael Stipe. It’s the first thing that he’s done musically since he disbanded R.E.M. Michael is probably the biggest, most important story of the record. I had Michael come in, and he immediately—within an hour—found a way to attack some very difficult music that Warren Fischer, my longtime collaborator, had given me. But then he started sort of giving me notes on several songs and asked if he could give his opinion on a couple of them. I mean, he would really tear these songs apart. At first, I was a little protective, and then I was, like, “Listen, this is, like, a master craftsman. Why wouldn’t you let him do whatever he wants to your work?”
From these sessions, we started to find a new vocal character for me, which he had a very clear vision of, and he pushed me to be more emotive and to be more expressive. He actually had a template. He wanted me to sound like Anthony Newley, who sang the original version of “MacArthur Park.” So he was, like, “This is the voice; this is the style; this is an actor who’s very emotive and very eccentric. He really pushed me to sing in a different way, so the record has a completely different voice. It’s not as plastic; it’s not as perfect; it’s got a lot more character; and at times it feels more Velvet Underground.
And in the midst of working with Michael, my long-term relationship collapsed, and that opened up a whole other chapter to the record. So Michael kind of went through that incredibly emotional time with me, and that really colored the record and made it a more complex album about sex and life and romance and failure and love and loss.
Of course, the other interesting facet is that Michael was my first boyfriend. We met in Athens, Georgia, in 1988 when I was a freshman in college, and so he’s the first man that I ever had sex with. We started working on the record, and we ended up going down to Athens to record a lot of stuff, and we lived in his compound, which is the home. I was, like, all of a sudden, I’m with my oldest friend, who was the first man I had sex with, and I’m living in the house where we had sex together in 1988. So it’s really been this insane, kind of very intense, deep, personal tribute to gay love.
JA: Has the landscape changed for a performer in music who speaks openly about sexuality?
CS: Not really. A lot of the time, it’s like the greatest art is not actually about the person’s sexuality. I am a little concerned I’m ghettoizing myself by saying this is a “gay album,” because I listen to lots of things that heterosexual people make and get a lot of inspiration from, and I don’t think, “Oh my God, I love this new heterosexual album.”
However, that said, I’m probably going to seem too racy because I’m a man doing it as opposed to a woman. There’s a completely different criterion for women than for men. Recently, someone was like, “This may be a little bit difficult because it’s so edgy.” And I was, like, “Edgy? Kim Kardashian is famous because she’s fucked on camera. How is me in a jockstrap more edgy than Rihanna rolling around in rhinestones?”
JA: Is it harder to be a musician today than when you started?
CS: Absolutely. That’s also why you’ve got so many generic women that are at the top of the music business, because they’re going to get a L’Oréal commercial; they’re going to be able to be a product. That’s why Ariana Grande is going to have more success than a man. There’s not the same kind of market for men in all these other advertising and brand opportunities.
Basically, we’re living through a shitty time for music, because I know so many great, amazing, beautiful, talented, complicated, interesting musicians that cannot make a dime, and they cannot release any new music. They cannot get any attention. They cannot get any momentum.
JA: Keeping with that, how has New York changed for you in terms of your experience as an artist and as a gay man? This is a topic I come up continually against with the people I interview, and everybody has a different answer to it. So I’m curious. In your experience, particularly as an artist and as a gay man, how do you experience New York today from the time you were first here in the ’90s?
CS: I think there’s still great work happening and people doing cool stuff, but less and less. There are less venues, less independent theaters, fewer small clubs.
I will always believe in New York City, but it just keeps getting pushed farther and farther out of the city. Everything Bloomberg did we’re kind of living through now, where it’s like this boom in construction and this boom in finance that drives this city more than an underground culture. It’s there, but it’s a little bit harder to find. Also, I’m older, so I’m sure there’s unbelievable stuff happening, and I’m totally missing it because I go to bed. I’m not an authority on what’s cool. I just like to go to work.