"What did bands do before cell phones?" asked Seth Cohen, aka Olias Nil, on our third, maybe fourth, attempt to talk about his band the Fire Show. While he was in Denver his cell phone died suddenly, and the next day, while Nil and bandmate Michael Lenzi, aka M. Resplendent, drove through the mountains to Salt Lake City, the signal kept fading in and out so that some of the interview tape sounds like it's underwater. Not exactly "free and clear." It's great that cell phones make it possible to talk to bands while they're on the road, but it would be nice if the signal was stable. Just another case of technology improving things in one way but creating its own set of problems in return.
But in a way it's fitting that actually talking to the Fire Show was something of a challenge, because the Fire Show is all about challenges. Rising from the ashes of mid-1990s Chicago band Number One Cup, the Fire Show strives to push through the muck and sludge of convention and create music that's not formulaic. "I think it's important to have some connection to the past and to understand what made the bands of the past great," said Nil, "but I think it's also important to live in your own artistic moment in the present, and then hopefully to be pushing some things forward, whether it be technologically or aesthetically or whatever."
The Fire Show might begin a song with a catchy guitar or bass and then, just when you think the chorus should come in, all this radio feedback intercepts and the song pivots into electronic noise. Each song explores several different rephrasings. The Fire Show has a very post-punk aesthetic; some say they're kind of an indie-rock Radiohead. They've been likened to Wire, Television and Mission of Burma, bands that Nil says they like.
"There's a lot of sources coming from a lot of other places," says Nil. "We do a Neil Young cover live; we like Neil Young a lot. We're not really dogmatic about it; we don't lay down borders of the things we consider OK to like and the things that somehow wouldn't be 'cool.'"
The Fire Show is very much a concept band, not in the sense that they stick to one concept and everything revolves around that; rather, they conceptualize everything. Their pseudoonyms, for instance: "M. Resplendant" was how Lenzi signed an email to Cohen once, and it stuck, and "Olias Nil" comes from Jon Anderson's 1976 record Olias of Sunhillow, and plays with the idea of a double zero (O and then Nil). Their second release on Chicago' s Perishable Records, Above the Volcano of Flowers, is referred to as "Release 1.5," because, as Nil explained, "We like to think about (albums) as pieces with beginnings, middles and ends. (Above the Volcano of Flowers) didn't come together in the way that we normally put together an album, where we conceive it as a piece. It came together as more of a collection of things old and new, and so we didn't really want to call it an album and have it be given the same weight in terms of our feelings about whether it's a proper expression of the way we put out stuff."
This kind of critical thinking is all over everything the Fire Show does; their website is full of theories about the state of music and mantras for the Fire Show's existence. One page quotes from French Situationist Guy Debord's 1960 work, Critique of Separation , and another quotes from the 1977 Warner Communications annual report, lamenting, "Ah, the innocence of 1977, when a major record label could have an intellect and a soul."
"All along we've tried to make music for the reasons that we originally tried to make music, which is to just try to inspire the same sort of effect and reactions in other people that good music has inspired in us," says Nil. "And we've tried, although it's been hard at times, to avoid the trappings of making decisions on what might sell a record better or what might get a single onto the radio.
"It's just not important to us to be wealthy or famous, it's important for us to try to connect with people and to try and have some sort of impact on individuals through the expression that comes in our music," Nil continues. "So those are all ideas that relate very directly to the Situationist idea of trying to live life for motivations that lie outside the 'spectacle,' as they call it--the commercial, commodity-based society that we live in."
The Fire Show's debut album, The Fire Show, came out in 2000, about a year after the breakup of Nil and Resplendent's previous band Number One Cup. And after Above the Volcano of Flowers came Saint the Fire Show; each album is progressively more distorted and experimental: lots of slow, droning guitars, with found noises interspersed, and halting, desperate vocals. The songs don't usually follow any verse-chorus-verse pattern; they travel and bleed together. In order to create their songs live, Resplendent and Nil use delay pedals to loop rhythms together, playing over the loops on guitars and switching back to the bass and drums to create transitions.
At times, the music is fascinating; at others, it's on the verge of being unlistenable. But the Fire Show feels that's what they need to do in order to resist the commercial, commodity-based society we live in. Art is supposed to be a true expression of the self and act as a mirror to society. Even though it may be true that art is just another commodity, and that you can' t separate artistic creation from economic motivations, it's still important to try and create something unique.
Catch them while you can. The Fire Show members have announced that Saint the Fire Show is their last album and after this tour they're breaking up so that Nil can go to grad school.