By Padraig Johnston

Whether defending the slinky vapidity of Vanessa Beecroft, recommending trendy books on truck-stop prostitutes, or sniffing at the term "celebrity," SAIC alumnus Casey Spooner reveals that his art-pop group Fischerspooner has firm foundations in the art world. An interview with Spooner and fellow alumnus Warren Fischer revealed that, though they are headlining such varied music venues as the Venice Biennale and our own Chicago cabaret Metro, they are seriously interested in maintaining their artistic legitimacy. The lazy Southern drawl of Spooner, and the affable tones of Midwestern Fischer, tell the tale of two "annoyingly articulate video students" who went from toiling in the bowels of the Columbus Drive building, "practically crying over Bob Loescher's lectures," to becoming professional performing artists who released #1, Fischerspooner's well-received 2003 album. "This is the most exciting interview I've done. This has been my dream. When am I gonna get the call from the alma mater?" exclaimed Spooner.

He had every right to expect our call on the basis of the CD alone. Whether or not their debut effort feels '80s-derivative to some, #1 is possibly the most surprising pop album I have heard in two years. But you will have to take my opinion with a grain of salt. For the past two years, I have buried my head in the sand, due to the fact that pop music has become so nauseating. With the music industry offering us only the shitty dregs of J. Blow and lame-ass Coldplay, it's been hard times for anyone interested in pop music that is actually fun without being completely vapid. Over an hour in length, #1 is knowing and accessible electronica. Archaic synthesizers give the songs a freshness most electronica albums lack. Listening to it was like stumbling upon a lost release from a band that could have been playing with Human League, or those German pioneers of the synthesizer, Kraftwerk ... or maybe a pet project from the soundtrack writer of the '70s TV show Dr. Who.

Yet unlike the unbearably corny Human League, or the derisively distant Kraftwerk, Fischerspooner does not revel in the alien and robotic aspects of their chosen instruments. Instead, Fischer keeps the sound human and ironic, while grounding it in a slight dance sound. Ultra-produced as it is, the frequently clever lyrics and light melodies invite anybody, boy or girl, to turn off the overhead lights, light up a cigarette, and lip-synch in front of the mirror in eyeliner before heading out for a night of sophisticated urban debauchery. Spooner's lead vocals are located on a pop scale of masculinity somewhere between the teenage moroseness of Depeche Mode and the boyish sensitivity of New Order. Female backup from Lizzy Yoder and Cindy Green (another SAIC alumnus) provide voices that are sexually knowing and sometimes strident.

Spooner and Fischer were transfer students who came to SAIC in the early '90s. Fischer, the son of a low-profile Wisconsin opera singer, came to study sound and enjoyed his experience so much that to this day he "fantasizes about the facilities there." In Beth Berylheimer's video class he met Spooner, who at that time styled himself as a tongue-in-cheek urban "hillbilly." Spooner had been a painting student at the University of Georgia, but at SAIC he began to pursue ideas away from the lonely calling of oils and acrylics. "I always had trouble with subject matter. I painted self-portraits for a long time. That's all I painted, so it sort of makes sense that I still use myself as my subject, or at least manipulated images of myself ... [painting] was also hard for me because it was too solitary. I had a problem with being so isolated." Performance seemed to suit the young Spooner better.

Spooner and Fischer's initial meeting was not an auspicious start. Fischer, in the midst of his self-described "total fuck up period," lost Spooner's only copy of some very personal lyrics. "I literally told him I would never trust him again," Spooner recalls. As more mature adults they reunited in New York. Spooner's experience with performance now complimented the more structured music writer Fischer had become, so their reunion began to produce real results.

Fischerspooner began as a failed project for MTV. Warren Fischer was at the end of a love of indie rock. Though he married a Depeche Mode devotee, he "hated electronica." He insists choosing synthesizers sprang up "not as a comment on technology" but as a way of creating a soundtrack for a show about urban life.

"After working in the avant-garde for so long, I just wanted to do something that would have the closest one-to-one connection with the audience. I wanted to indulge in that really simple viewer-performer relationship," says Spooner, who is responsible for the lyrics and the visual elements of their often lip-synched performances. He feels the group's current mutation formed in 1999. "I think it's closely tied to the turn of the century -- and how everyone was sort of riddled with paranoia. And people think we're trying to do some sort of '80s revival, which frustrates me because I feel like I was really responding to the present -- this urge to sort of dress and be decadent and indulgent. Everyone was riddled with paranoia that the world was gonna end at the stroke of midnight in 1999. Everyone was buying bottles of water and holing up in their apartment, and I was like, 'If I'm gonna go, I'm gonna go indulging in these ... simple pleasures!'"

Fischerspooner has gained attention as much for their simple, pleasure-based performances, as they have for their music. The "concerts" are strange affairs with all the sincerity of yet another art band making an elaborate, boring, money-making joke about pop celebrity. The two men direct the show over the pre-recorded music, sometimes stopping songs midway if the performance lacks something. The three singers vogue around the stage, lip-synching like pop zombies. Meanwhile, their dancers move in formations that could have been choreographed by a high school cheerleader. Spooner stage-dives, and maybe does an obligatory crawl around the stage if he is not busy drinking a beer. The costumes change every 10 minutes and range from frightening pop caricatures of Ben Franklin to almost nothing. Near the end of his performance, Spooner ends up with his Farrah Fawcett hair hanging around his face, wearing a white loincloth. (After one such performance, Spooner's father asked him if he was a prostitute. "I didn't talk to him for a month after that," Spooner says.)

Although rumored to have had a brief fling with Michael Stipe, romantically linked to Australian wŁnder-ass Kylie Minogue in the European press, and swilling French sleeping pills down with champagne on high-priced airlines, Casey Spooner and Warren Fischer are still firmly involved with their work as artists, not pop stars. They did not want to talk about themselves as celebrities. "It's all just a side affect," Casey quips.

While excitedly reminiscing about SAIC, Fischer warns, "Those facilities won't be available when you graduate." They both insist that Chicago, despite its isolation from the mainstream art world, is a great place for a young artist to evolve. "You really want to be in a vacuum anyway when you produce your first stuff," Fischer says. He enjoyed the affordability of the city; the way the comparative cheapness allows artists to produce their work and still live comfortably. Secretly, neither of the two graduated. Fischer says, "I hate to tell you, kids, but the diploma doesn't matter. It's all about working your ass off while you're there."

Photography by Startraks Photo