Being on the fringes is a tightrope act. Even if you find a savvy partner that
loves your work and the marginalized things you love. Even if you found a well
paying job that didn't compromise your discouragement with majority rules, you
still have to find a way to keep an open mind to feel alive.
Michael Lenzi (AKA Resplendent, and formerly of The Fire Show) has spent a good
number of years on the fringes of the music scene and seems to have had it with
the narrow, closed-off and predictable quality of being and playing in
Talking to Lenzi, I got the feeling that he's been trying to focus on something
less elusive than building an audience. So while he may be on an indefinite
hiatus from the music biz, there's still a terrific discography to explore. And
if you know what's good for you, you'll seek it out (here's a good place to
Could you provide our readers with a brief biological sketch of your music and
Well, I'm thirty-eight years old, born and raised in Washington D.C. I was
just really into music and I saw a lot of great of the great, inspiring DC
hardcore bands. After I graduated, I wasn't really on any sort of career path,
so I just moved to Chicago and lived with my girlfriend . . . and wound up going
to University of Chicago for awhile. But I ended up dropping [out] because I
hated graduate school. I went to study American History, and that just didn't
work out. Then I went to become a teacher, working in adult literacy programs,
with severely learning disabled people. I worked in local churches - did lots of
non-profit work, and that pretty much brings you to what I'm up to now.
My first real band here was Number One Cup. I played drums and sang in that
group, and after that came The Fire Show. After The Fire Show came Resplendent,
and now - nothing.
Is teaching how you're making ends meet now?
Yeah, I've been teaching full time.
Right when The Fire Show started I began teaching in the GED Program at Cook
County Jail and I was there for, like, five years. So I taught in the men's
division, and that was my last really long job. I took three months off after
that and now I teach Middle School (sixth, seventh and eighth graders).
Did the teaching and music ever inform each other in interesting ways?
Yeah, sure. I've always been interested
in social justice stuff though I've never really thought about it. Growing up in
DC I've always been immersed in politics. My mom worked for Marion Barry - I
don't know if you remember him.
Yeah, sure (chuckling)
Yeah, he kinda had this real bad fall
from grace. So I grew up around liberal, left-wing politics and through all of
the music stuff I've done, what's been first and foremost in my mind is just how
fucked up this country is. Whether I directly make it into music or not, I don't
know. When you work in a jail, five days a week, eight hours a day, and you work
around those conditions and you see all the crazy bullshit that goes on in
society. It hits critical mass, and it definitely affected me when I was in The
Fire Show. There's a lot of references to it in those songs.
Yeah. I mean, I always assume that
people look at lyric sheets and stuff to dig in to them, but I guess they don't
- and why would they necessarily?
I think a lot of people do. I never have, maybe I did when I was younger, but
now I don't. Anyway, it's interesting that you mention that, because until the
most recent release your lyrics seemed more obscure, what's the word I'm looking
for, abstract I guess.
I dunno, it just seems like on your new album, you're a lot more direct.
It's kind of screwy because in The Fire
Show, my whole goal was (laughing) not to be obscure.
Yeah, I wasn't trying to be obscure.
Whenever I was writing lyrics I was thinking I'm not gonna write some dumbass
straightforward stuff because that's not how I actually think. My thought
processes are all confused. So I was always happy with lyrics referencing things
I was experiencing but not in a way like (dork voice) "This is a narrative about
how my girlfriend was cheating on me." It isn't obscure to me but to someone
else it might come across that way. It just makes me laugh when I think about
it. I'd worry that I was saying too much about myself, then hear people
discussing the lyrics and think, that wasn't what I was trying to say at all. It
just makes me crack up.
I've always liked the cracked way things can come through lyrics indirectly,
because, as you were saying, I think there's too much heart-on-your-sleeve
lyrics out there. So I noticed a shift on Am I Free, wherein you've left
some of the imagery aside and went for a sort of dialogue, it seems.
As part of this shift that's occurred in
my mind where you look back at something and say this was a really historical
time in my life (historical to yourself, not that anybody else cares). About
the time I was working on Am I Free? I was feeling this pressure - I
didn't wanna be saying things I'd already said or try to be obscure just to be
obscure. And try to write clever this, clever that. So all these things are
going through my head, acknowledging this'll be the last Resplendent record I
ever make, or the last record I ever make period. So I wanna get a little
closer to some new way of saying this - not THE NEW WAY, just a different way.
. . . so you may not continue to do music?
Well, when I felt like the pressing need
for me to say stuff was no longer there, I always told myself I wasn't going to
do it just to do it. I just feel strongly about not continuing to do something
if it isn't very very important to me. I got to the point now where I do this
record and I'm like, alright, well, I'm kinda done with it for now. I
said what I wanted to say and, [slight exasperation] I don't know-
So going through the weeks, you just don't feel compelled to record?
Over the course of eight or nine years
I've collected a lot of equipment, this sort of old crap, and had a studio in my
basement. I would be down there recording all the time. I'm not saying it was
good. I wasn't like Robert Pollard, or something, down there writing these
amazing songs. I was really just down there tinkering. It was always on my mind,
at work I'd think, I can't stay late I've gotta go home and work on music.
And now that's no longer the case?
I mean, there are so many people putting
out music now and it's kind of depressing to me. It just kind of overwhelms me.
My overwhelming feeling is: eh, I've got something to say - BIG FUCKING DEAL!
Everyone does, and they're all saying it! From my perspective, it [indie rock]
is -- and this might be a bit of self-loathing -- all a bunch of middle class
white kids doing it . . . there's all kinds of cool things happening and all
kinds of lame things. The sheer number is higher, so there's way more to go
through to get to the good things. I'm sure the ratio of what's worthwhile to
what's not worthwhile is still the same, though. So amidst all this, and lacking
any kind of inspiration myself, I just feel like I'm gonna lay out a little
Well, have you had much success finding a fan base?
No, [laughs] I haven't had much success
at all. I've gotten a couple reviews, and that's about the extent of it.
Nobody telling you your album really moved me, or anything like that?
You know, we could count 'em on hands
between you and I. [Still] they're all valuable people. They're all people
that, when I talk to them, things are understood. To say I gave up music out of
frustration would just be 1/20th of the story. Most people make art - and I
challenge anybody to dispute this - out of a desire for a response. Maybe some
just do it to do it, or as some kind of celebration or whatever, but most people
are looking to get a response. When something you do seems to get less and less
of a response everytime, it factors into your thought process. I think about it
a lot, like, am I doing something wrong? I try to check that feeling
because I'm not doing this to try to appeal to people in an entertainment sense.
I always did it because I wanted to do it. It's selfish. I mean, I wasn't like
Nelly, trying to write hit songs.
I see, I mean, if I were to try to make a record I'd do it sort of out of a
desire to make my ideal recording, but nowadays, as you said, there's so much
stuff to sort though you start to think maybe I can't be original. But,
I'll move on to something else. We might've talked about this a little, I
noticed there's a sort of bitterness, particularly in the song "Destiny
Afterbirth" where you talking about this culture being "bullshit." What's the
Here's my thought when that song was
brewing in my head. And, again, when I write lyrics, it's not cut and dry like,
I'm gonna make this point with this song. It's more like I have five or
six things eating away at me in terms of phrases or words or whatever. And I jam
them together and think, What is going on here? And that song ("Destiny
Afterbirth") was totally about my family. When I'm saying "Mamma did I do okay -
nothing is like you said…" or "this bullshit culture's making me sick" it's like
when you've been in a really bad mood and you have really deep issues with your
family. A lot of fucked up shit happened when I was a kid. My dad died and my
sister ran away (and never came back) when I was twelve. So I have all this
lingering anger and bitterness about my family.
It was all spinning around the thing of when you're a kid and you have all these
ideas that seem to be contrary to your life. They also seem to be bigger than
your life - like this something's gonna happen kind of feeling.
Everything's gotta work itself out. Then when you get older you start
realizing, you know, some shit just isn't gonna work itself out. So when
people go spouting off these grand ideas, like, God's gonna sort everything
out, or everything works out in the end - I start thinking the fuck it
does! Some things just never work out. So all these people saying "where
there's a will…" and creating this fucking fake sunshine just rub me the wrong
way - especially when I'm already in a bad mood. Not to distill the song too
much, but that is kind of what it's about.
That makes sense, it's just that "bullshit" is kind of this unsubtle word for me
and I guess I just don't get all that from it. Was it cathartic release, and
"bullshit" was just the first thing that popped into your head?
When you're making music alone and you
get this charge - like Oh, that is what I mean in this moment, a lot of
times it's usually like "fuck", or "shit" or "bullshit." When it comes down to
it, I guess I'm like that. I'm not preoccupied with bad words. It's like, when I
speak regularly to my friends, I swear quite a bit. You could say that it's
ham-fisted or over-dramatic. Well, yeah! I probably am sometimes. Who isn't?
I guess I'm just sweating the review [Tiny Mix Tapes - Am I Free?/I Am Free]
and trying to figure out if I'm reading into things too much - because it's so
emphatic. You repeat the notion so many time I start to feel sort of attacked
like - wait - my culture's bullshit!? But I really care about this stuff!
I don't know if you were thinking I
meant like, underground music, or-
Yeah, that's what I was thinking.
Oh, no. I'm not talking about that. It's
more just bitterness about things not working out the way I planned.
Like, me failing to control everything. It's a reflection of a lot of
bitterness. But it's not meant to suggest that everything is wrong and I'm
the one that's right. That'd be kind of juvenile. If it comes across that way,
then it does - so in a way, that's a failure on my part. But whatever - in the
moment - that's what I was thinking.
Part of why I opted to do this interview is that I think people are kind of
slight about this kind of stuff. And people kind of pick bands like accessories.
And I started thinking along those lines after your web designer sent me these
angry e-mails about how you're kind of underexposed and that people aren't
talking to you, and I just felt like I wanna talk you so I figured I'd
put my money where my mouth is for once. Because, I don't understand why you
haven't blown up. Because the ever-influential Pitchfork's reviews have been
highly positive from the very beginning.
TMT and Pitchfork are the only one's
who've reviewed anything. The only thing I can think is that it just doesn't
resonate with people. And if that's the case, then that's the case. Thinking
about that kind of thing will just drive me crazy. Some things just aren't right
for the right moment.
Listening to The Fire Show vs. Resplendent, I've been trying to figure
out what exactly Seth Cohen brought to the table. If I had to guess, since, on
the whole, Fire Show tends to rock out a little more than Resplendent, he
brought the rock edge while you brought a the more eclectic sounds.
You're probably right there. But it's
funny, because he was always the one who wanted to do more experimental things.
We did everything together though. We'd just talk and talk and talk and talk.
We'd rehearse a band with the basic songs and then get them on the computer and
try to figure out how they would work. His orientation was, particularly on the
last record (Saint The Fire Show), that he always wanted to do something
different. With the first song ["The Making of Dead Hollow"] I did most of the
lyrics, but he was very influential on how the phrasing went. He arranged
everything, determining when the instruments and the percussion were going to
come in and out. He was probably, all in all, the more experimental one, but he
played guitar. He was pretty rock, you know? But overall it was just more or
less just us sitting around looking to each other and coming up with things in
that way. So nothing was written like hey I've got this guitar song, it's
written in G - none of our stuff was written like that. We were definitely a
So what happened with The Fire Show, in the end?
The Fire Show broke up because Seth
decided he was going to go to graduate school and get a graduate degree. We did
our last tour and two weeks later Seth moved to London with his girlfriend. It
happened very very quickly. That's why The Fire Show ended. It was more of a
dissolution than a break-up.
Since you kept part of your alias from The Fire Show for your next project, I'm
guessing you wanted to keep the spirit alive in some way.
Yeah, I guess. Sort of.
I notice it embraces the same sort of adventurous catch-all rock - would you
consider it rock music?
No, not really. But what else could it
be? Hip-Hop, no. Folk, no.
I guess experimental works best.
But it's kind of cold. There's a sense of experimentation, but it sounded like
you guys were having fun. Whereas something like Joan of Arc feels sterile and
more obscure for obscurity's sake. Particularly on the debut and, my personal
favorite, the Above The Volcano of Flowers EP.
That was a period when The Fire Show was
first narrowed down to Seth and I after the bass player and the drummer quit. We
had some songs left over from the first record that we really liked. So we
worked on those and put them out.
I'm particularly fond of Bed With Police Ambulance Light On Top.
That's funny, because that's more or
less a Resplendent song. That was all me.
I love that tune. I still put it on mixes for people. I like the way you guys
made songs that were atonal and somewhat unlistenable, yet driving and
infectious at the same time. I think you guys work that formula better than
most. So, again, I'm perplexed as to why you guys didn't become more well known.
Who can say. It's weird. For The Fire
Show's last show it was just me and Seth. And we had three looping pedals. I did
all the drum parts and singing and guitar parts and Seth did all the guitar and
bass. We would basically build the songs on stage, altering loops as we went. It
was incredibly taxing. That was really really frustrating. I think most of the
shows we played to, like, two or three people. One person. No people. So, that
was probably the height of my frustration and hand-wringing, like, What the
hell is going on here?! And then it was over.
Did you guys have aggressive promotion?
I don't know. We were on Perishable, the
Califone label, and I don't know what they did. I never really asked them. My
feeling is they didn't do anything. The stuff, as I said, just didn't take. We
really liked them. They're great people. It'd be nice to talk to them some day
and find out what they actually did. They weren't beating the bushes, I'll say
that. I think they were waiting for a response - to see what happened and
nothing happened . . .
Here's a question that I hope won't offend. How important is it for you to sing
your own lyrics? Have you ever considered having someone else sing for you?
Yeah, I guess if I was interested I'd
have tried that. The thing is, I've never considered myself a musician. I didn't
pick up an instrument until I was twenty-four. You know when you're a teenager
and you have sort of an idea of what you are?
I think it becomes a persona, like, I
play guitar or I play drums. Then as they get older and play in bands
it becomes like a realization of a dream. Well I never had that dream when I was
a kid. I would go to punk rock shows and really loved it, but I would never say
to myself seriously: I'm gonna be a musician! Those people and me didn't
seem like the same people. So the idea of me writing lyrics for someone else to
perform kind of makes me laugh . . . I may not've considered myself a musician
as a teenager, but when I decided to learn to play drums that's all I could
focus on. I took the teaching jobs because I needed money, and didn't want to
work for some corporation. I just didn't want to embark on that career building
lifestyle. I've been doing music for eighteen years. Not that I wanted the
identity of a musician. I just wanted to make songs. I released all this stuff
and kept at it for so long, and after awhile it just no longer felt fresh. I
don't want to give it up. There might be something really good out there. But,
you know, the process of finding people to do it with is not some cavalier thing
like I'm just gonna jam with a bunch of dudes. In Chicago it took me a
long time to meet Seth and cultivate the relationship we had to make The Fire
Show. We went through a lot of stuff together, hanging out (touring, playing,
etc.) almost every night of the week. Being honest with myself, I had no energy
to go and seek out this sort of relationship. I think there are a lot of ways
for me to create worthwhile stuff, but one f the ways is you actually happen
upon it and you have a good ear and a good eye. And another way, not exclusive
to the other one, is you put in a lot of work. A lot of work. This
is where the frustration of not being received comes in. Either people will keep
working and fight it, or they'll let it go. I think fighting change is kind of
bullshit. Not so much with something bigger, like political and all that - there
you go back to the word bullshit. But you get what I mean. I don't want to just
ramble on about this.
No that's great. I appreciate you talking about all this.
So what albums, artists or songs have you been listening to these days?
I've always been really into Teenage
Fanclub. So I listen to them all the time. I'm also into this British group
that's no longer together called Swervedriver. I really really love them. I've
also been delving into a lot of stuff like, the first Rod Stewart record. The
one with Maggie May on it. I really like that early Rod Stewart/Faces
stuff a lot. So I've been listening to a ton of that. I listen to Mission of
Burma almost every day. I don't really listen to pretty much anything Pitchfork
writes about [laughter]. It's not out of any reaction, I just kind of fell away
from all that stuff.
Is it an aging thing?
Well, there's just no sort of burning desire to listen to everything new and
buy lots and lots of records and CDs. It was starting to be a thing of
diminishing returns. It started becoming a thing, like how a drug addict that
has to keep buying more and more drugs just to get the same high. And I just
stopped when I realized I wasn't liking any of them. I've also really liked
stuff that's been put out on the Anticon label. Like the Sole record Selling
Live Water. I've always listened to a ton of Neil Young. Particularly the
stuff he released in the seventies. And I'll probably listen to that stuff till
I die. I love that stuff.
[brother begins drumming in the background] Well I guess we can end this now
since I can't hear you anyway. We've only got a floor tom but my brother is
compelled to beat on it. But I think we've got enough here. Thanks for your