Where There’s Hope There’s Fire
“Music for people who haven’t given up yet,” promises the official Web site for the Fire Show, the new band led by Seth Cohen and Michael Lenzi. It’s a motto Cohen lives by. In September 1998 he and Lenzi were about to kick off a national tour with their old indie-pop combo, Number One Cup, when Cohen broke the third and fourth vertebrae of his neck in a freak ice hockey accident. “Ninety-something percent of the people that break their necks as high up as I did die,” says Cohen. “And of those who survive, 90 percent end up quadriplegic.” But by January 1999 he had recovered enough to hit the road for a six-week tour. “Touring was kind of the light at the end of the tunnel for me.”
The band had just released its fourth and strongest album, People People Why Are We Fighting? (Flydaddy), and Cohen was pleased with their reception on the road. But as the tour was winding down, guitarist Patrick O’Connell announced that he was leaving to focus on acoustic music, and Lenzi said he wanted to switch from drums to guitar. “[Seth] had this miraculous recovery from breaking his neck, and then we broke up the band,” says Lenzi, laughing. Number One Cup played its final show that February at Lounge Ax.
“We didn’t talk for a while,” Cohen admits. “I was pretty pissed off about the whole thing.” But the lure of playing music with Lenzi proved more powerful than his resentment. “Six months later he called me to see if I wanted to play guitar with him. I didn’t have much hope for it, but there’s something about people who’ve worked together playing music for a long time; you just click.”
Lenzi and Cohen spent the second half of 1999 developing new material and recruiting bassist Brian Lubinsky and drummer Eric Roth. Number One Cup often betrayed a slavish admiration for indie-rock guitar acts like Pavement and Superchunk, but Lenzi’s minimalist approach to the instrument immediately distinguished the new project. “I had an idea of what I wanted to do, and that’s exactly what I’m doing in the group now,” says Lenzi. “It involves doing very little.”
The new band, then called X-Vessel, debuted in early January 2000 at one of the last Lounge Ax shows, and after the show Tim Rutili (Califone, Red Red Meat) invited them to release a CD on his Perishable label. While the basic tracks were recorded quickly with engineer Brian Deck, mixing took several months. Cohen had always been fussy about filling up space, but the new tracks are surprisingly open, with a dublike attention to dynamics. The record retains some of Number One Cup’s geometric guitar interplay, but a broad array of guitar sounds, fractured riffs, note patterns, and washes of noise stab and glide over Roth and Lubinsky’s pounding rhythms. Lenzi provides additional counterpoint by sampling Cohen’s riffs and incidental sounds and disfiguring them with a synthesizer. Lenzi’s whining vocals are definitely an acquired taste, but with its swirling din of guitar, samples, off-kilter string arrangements, prepared piano sounds, and junk electronics, the record is one of the few examples of a rock band dabbling in electronics and making them its own.
Unfortunately, by the time this was all sorted out, Roth had quit to concentrate on numerous other projects, and according to Cohen, Lubinsky left because he was “tired of thinking of himself as an artist.” Lenzi and Cohen (who go by the monikers “M. Resplendent” and “Olias Nil” respectively) renamed the band the Fire Show, and Perishable quietly released the album of the same name in the fall. The old bandmates have played only four shows in Chicago, but now that they’ve recruited Bob Bihlman on drums and John Pyx Klos on bass they hope to become more visible (Klos is absent from the photo accompanying this article). In addition to playing at South by Southwest next month, they’ve booked a slew of gigs in the midwest, including one at the Fireside Bowl on Thursday, March 1, and another at Schubas on March 30.
Number One Cup played for years without winning over the Chicago audience, and neither Lenzi nor Cohen has grander expectations for the Fire Show. “I’m past the point of trying to force-feed anyone,” says Cohen. But he’s not afraid to take a chance–he’s even started playing hockey again.
After expanding their instrumental palette and stylistic reach with each new album, Tortoise have finally distilled their wide-ranging interests into a sharply focused collection. Standards (Thrill Jockey), which arrived in stores this week, is the quintet’s most concise work, balancing their rock foundations with electronics and smatterings of fusion, electro-funk, and imaginary sound tracks. Each of the ten cuts is both richly detailed and carefully layered, yielding something new with each listen, but for the first time since its 1994 debut the band has resisted the temptation to bite off more than it can chew: every sound, gesture, and lick seems absolutely essential.
On Wednesday the great and rarely heard German bassist Torsten Müller will perform at the Empty Bottle in two very different trios. He’ll improvise with cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm and guitarist John Corbett, building on the duets Corbett cut with each of them for his recent album, Twofer (Penumbra); for the other set Muller will be joined by percussionist Michael Zerang and reedist Ken Vandermark.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.