A smokin' Fire Show
May 4, 2001
BY JIM DeROGATIS POP MUSIC CRITIC
Over the course of a five-year career, Chicago's Number One Cup earned a strong
reputation in the United States and Europe for its angular guitar rock, and the group
recorded a handful of truly great tunes: "Divebomb," "Ice Melts Around My
Battery," "Malcolm's X-Ray Picnic." But the band could be a bit too
cerebral for its own good, and guitarist and rock critic Seth Cohen always tended to
Number One Cup disbanded after its third and best album, 1998's "People People Why
Are We Fighting?" Eventually, Cohen (a k a Olias Nil) regrouped with former bandmate
Michael Lenzi (M. Resplendent), first as X-Vessel, then as the Fire Show. After releasing
a startlingly powerful self-titled debut for Perishable last fall, the group solidified
its lineup with the addition of drummer Bob Bihlman and bassist Pyx Klos.
Cohen still tends to over-think things. Prior to talking with him and Lenzi, he sent me
an e-mail with "a few notes regarding The Fire Show and the world." Included
among the 11 points on this mini-manifesto were the following:
"1. I dig prog[ressive rock], and Steve Reich is prog. . . .
*"2. I dig punk, and Charles Mingus is punk. . . .
*"3. Punk can be prog (Home, Mission of Burma, Birthday Party). . . .
*"6. Art is an opportunity for two things: A.) A rare moment wherein two
parties come together with the express intent of communicating (artist says I will speak,
audience says I will listen) . . . B.) [A chance] for the artist (and perhaps the
audience--I haven't thought that through) to present an ideal version of his or her self;
we are all susceptible to pressure and prone to misjudgment, but in art we can be whomever
and however we want to be (which, of course, can lead at times to Louis Ferdinand Celine
or John Tesh, but it can also lead to Primo Levi and Led Zeppelin)."
Oh, those wacky art-rockers! The thing is, the Fire Show succeeds where Number One Cup
sometimes failed by keeping the art and the rock in perfect balance. At the South by
Southwest Music Conference in Austin, Texas, in March, I saw the band deliver a set that
ranked among the most gripping I've witnessed in the last five years.
As Bihlman and Klos held down loopy rhythms that were simultaneously fluid and elastic,
mechanical and insistent, Cohen alternated between snaking guitar lines and droning organ
while Lenzi switched between explosive bursts of noise guitar and sampling the other
instruments onstage to feed them back into the mix.
The music was a study in contradictions: structured chaos, infectious noise, primal
high art. By the end of the set, Lenzi had worked himself into a frenzy, hurling himself
over a waist-high rail that ringed the stage and smashing his guitar with wild abandon.
Imagine Iggy Pop crossed with David Byrne. Then imagine something better.
I spoke to the Fire Show's auteurs as they were gearing up for tonight's show at the
Hideout. The band is also preparing to record a new EP, and to perform on the local rock
stage at this summer's Taste of Chicago.
Q. How did Number One Cup morph into the Fire Show?
*Cohen: We were on tour after the last Number One Cup record, and during that
tour, Pat [O'Connell], the old guitar player, decided he wanted to do like acoustic guitar
music, and Michael decided he wanted to get out from behind the drums and play guitar, so
that kind of left us without a band. We went our separate ways for a little while, and
then six months after that, Michael spent a number of hours a day in the basement learning
guitar. He called me up said, "Do you want to get together and play?" To be
honest, I was a little reticent to do that; I wasn't imagining that after six months he
could be much of a guitar player. But we got together and right away we fell into the old
patterns of making music together.
Q. Why did you want to get out from behind the drums?
*Lenzi:The more I played drums, the less I wanted to play drums. There are
aspects of it I really like--I like the physical aspect of it. But I felt like I could
hear melodic things that weren't happening, and I'm not comfortable suggesting melodic
things when I don't know how to execute them. So I was kind of stuck. Plus I was singing a
number of songs in Number One Cup, and the worst place to be singing is from behind the
drum set. I wanted to be out front, and I imagined what music would be like if you were
actually standing up and able to move around.
Q. Did you know you had this over-the-top performance ability?
*Lenzi: Well, from playing drums, yeah. I grew very destructive in Number One
Cup, and that's carried over.
Q. It seems as if you guys have gone backward, from an angular late '70s new
wave sound to 1972 and more experimental music like Can.
*Cohen: I feel like my whole musical progression has been backward. When I was
in college, before I ever even played in a band, I listened to a lot of the independent
pop of the moment. But after a while, pop music starts to be like puzzlemaking: You just
put the pieces in their correct spots, do a little twist here or there to surprise the pop
aficionado, and then you're successful. If you're looking for that kind of music, then
television advertising is where you should look, because that's where the best pop music
is these days. For us as a group, I think we're looking for things that are deeper than
that and a little more elusive. If you're a smart person, it's easy to make clever songs,
but to do something deeper is hard.
*Lenzi: I also feel like my best attempts at music are ones where I'm not trying
to actually write a song or arrange something. It's definitely much more visceral. I find
that when I'm doing that kind of stuff, I actually am free of thinking about music and the
history of music and I'm just making music. Of course, you're influenced always by
what you've heard, even if you don't think of it. But now I feel free of that and I'm not
worrying, "Are people going to think we sound like Wire or Pavement?"
*Cohen:We were guilty of that for quite a while with Number One Cup. I don't
know if I'm the one to make this judgment, but I feel like we're moving on. Like Michael
says, I don't think we're thinking about it anymore or trying to fit into some little
Q. How much of what you're doing is improvised?
*Cohen: That's pretty much how the songs are born, through improvisation. Then
we sit down with tapes and pick out the best parts and try to piece them together into
something. It's the Can methodology, but we're less likely to just turn on the tape
recorder in the studio and let it run. We're coming from pop and backing into this stuff.
If I could sort of craft my ideal band, it would be something like Can with a good
songwriter, or the Birthday Party with Elvis Costello as an adviser.
*Lenzi: I will tell you something I've noticed and that I don't really like in
following my idols: People tend to be in these great bands when they're younger and a
little wilder for whatever reason--whether it's drugs or alcohol or just because they're
in a more open state of mind and new to it. And as they get older, they tend to become
singer-songwriters, that kind of stuff, and that makes me want to puke. I see that
progression and I think, "I don't want to play music like that!" I just wonder
where all those [messed up] feelings and emotions go as people get older. I don't think
people really mature that much.