Slice of life

Cheese on Bread is funny
(but Cheese on Bread is not a joke).

By MJ Fine
Photos by JJ Tiziou

Their songs have titles like "I Like Cheese" and "How Long Have You Been Haitian?" Their subjects include penguins' mating habits and the Atkins diet. The anti-folk crowd loves them, and they've got one killer dance dis in "(You're Just a) Gucci Model." On paper, it's easy for Cheese on Bread to be mistaken for a novelty act. But they've got so much more heart than that.

"Every Cheese on Bread song is kinda sorta about this feeling of distance from reality," says Dan Fishback. "In nearly every song, the characters almost understand something, but they never quite get there. That experience is so profoundly goofy."

The relationship between profundity and goofiness is the meat of Cheese on Bread, whose long-delayed debut, Maybe Maybe Maybe Baby (Luv-a-lot), finally hits the shelves this week. But the relationship between Fishback and Sara FitzSimmons, both 22, is what holds it together. In books and on screen, deep friendships between straight women and gay men get plenty of play. In popular music, not so much. Cheese on Bread do it right.

Consider "Where the Fuck Are They?," the album's characteristically catchy first track. He goes: "I don't know why you can't find Mr. Right." Then she goes: "It's 'cause you find something wrong with every boy that I like." And so it goes, with Fishback dismissing each of FitzSimmons' prospects: "Muhammed is artistic/ But he is rather narcissistic Jared is so hot/ But he likes misogynistic hip-hop." Their bickering is dead-on, complete with the trump card that has put countless girls' gripefests back into play: "The great boys are all gay/ But where the fuck are they?"

It's a bitch session, to be sure, but it never gets too bitchy. Fishback just sounds too nice, and FitzSimmons' wavering lilt recalls early Liz Phair.

Theirs was a match made in college. He grew up in the D.C. suburbs; she's lived in Washington state, Wisconsin and Harrisburg. Both took piano lessons (FitzSimmons also studied viola and clarinet) and were drawn to Tori Amos, the Magnetic Fields and the Moldy Peaches.

As Penn students, they bonded over their guitar skills - or lack thereof - and made their public debut two years ago at an open-mic night. Political but not strident, the duo started entertaining their activist circle. "We were sorta the resident band of Penn for Peace," Fishback says. With war weighing heavily on their minds, they wrote deceptively lighthearted tunes to make their friends relax. "We're like the Marilyn Monroe pinup in the bag of a weary WWII soldier."

Along the way, they drafted four friends - collectively known as Side of Fries - to supplement their sound. "We are a real band now, with drums, and bass and toys and guitars and pear shakers and pitch pipes and keyboards and mandolin," FitzSimmons says. Maybe Maybe Maybe Baby benefits from the help, but it's clearly a song cycle built for two.

FitzSimmons says arranging with the band in mind makes for poppier songs. "It's definitely more rock 'n' roll," Fishback adds. "The lyrics are a little weirder. I'm very conscious of us being perceived as a novelty band, and I'm sorta writing against that."

Never the most prolific collaborators - "We're slackers," Fishback says - Cheese on Bread suffered a setback last year, when Fishback took "Where the Fuck Are They?" to heart and moved to New York, where he ghostwrites memoirs. He's also working on performance art and a solo album.

"When I moved there, I didn't expect to actually find what I was looking for," he says. "Namely, a really organized musical community filled with kind, talented people. But that's what I found! The boyfriend thing - that's way harder."

FitzSimmons says she'll stay here for the time being. "We don't get a whole lot of [work] done, that's for sure," she says. But living in different cities gives them a variety of options.

"Philly is the most relaxing place to rehearse. And as soon as we get back to NYC, there's so much stuff going on," Fishback says.

Meanwhile, FitzSimmons, a genetic researcher at Thomas Jefferson, is putting her training to good use. "I plan on incorporating more biological phenomena into Cheese on Bread writing," she says.

How goofy is that?

- THE CITY PAPER, 7/8/04