Revisit Fischerspooner’s Sweat-Drenched Downtown Glory Days

Photo: Damiani Fischerspooner

How telling is it that the essays in the newly released book on Fischerspooner — the musical duo who helped to launch the electroclash phenomenon and became an emblem of late-’90s, downtown New York — are all written by leading art-world figures? Very. Not only were founding members Warren Fischer and Casey Spooner art-school graduates, but the band played at some of the hippest galleries in town, and their audience was just as likely to be composed of fashion hounds as it was of hard-nosed artists.

With outlandish costumes (often featuring face and body paint, crazy wigs, and avant-garde getups), extravagant performances, and cheeky music, Fischerspooner embodied a rah-rah spirit that permeated the fashion, clubbing, and art worlds at the time. The two knew how to put on a good show. While Warren — a classically trained musician who claims he hated electronic music before he started the band — worked behind the scenes, Spooner, the front man and lead singer, strutted and gyrated onstage, singing his self-deprecating lyrics and talking directly to the audience, taunting them as he went. The result was not only high-swinging, wink-wink entertainment but also a sense of intimacy between performer and audience that none of the other electroclash bands were able to achieve.

Fischerspooner was New York through and through. Though they met at the Art Institute of Chicago, where Spooner was studying painting before switching to his more innate calling (performance art), the two musicians joined forces in the city and their concept was entirely homegrown. Their first performance was at, of all places, the Starbucks on Astor Place (as he notes in the conversation with his bandmate that runs throughout the book, Warren had deemed the choice of venue “subversive”; Spooner, meanwhile, did not find it “devious” at all). Right away, they captured the attention of the downtown New York scene, and very soon after, that of art-world bigwigs such as Gavin Brown, Jeffrey Deitch, and Klaus Biesenbach, who recognized the band’s impact on the contemporary scene and invited them to perform at their venues (they all reflect on the band’s importance in the new book). In one memorable show at Gavin Brown’s Enterprise, Spooner and his dancers — the band’s members continued to swell through the years, reaching about 80 at one point — held an uninterrupted four-hour performance in the dead heat of the gallery. The stifling sweat-fest rivaled the most ambitious performance art.

From the beginning, the duo devised their project as something short term. And, in a sense, it didn’t last very long — not because they ran out of ideas but rather because they became victims of their own success. As they grew in fame, playing internationally and drawing 6,000 people at one performance (in a reflection of their wide appeal, in 2001, Levi’s released a limited-edition pair of jeans named after them), they were pulled and stretched beyond their locality and beyond what they were originally about. Once they lost their connection to local places like Starbucks, the pair seemed to have lost their dynamism. Being an international glam band, after all, wasn’t something they set out to achieve. And the music they made their name on was over very quickly. Even though they had foreseen that electroclash had a sell-by date and were smart enough to try something different by the second album, 2005’s Odyssey (their two other full-length albums are 2001’s #1, and 2009’s Entertainment) — it was difficult to reinvent themselves in a way that came close to the original incarnation. Fischerspooner may yet have a comeback, but one thing’s for sure: They are emblematic of a carefree, artifice-embracing era in New York soon swept away by unimaginable tragedy that changed the city irrevocably.

Revisit Fischerspooner’s Sweaty Glory Days