Sxip Shirey, Part 1
October 18, 2001

If Sxip isn't the weirdest musician we've ever heard, he's certainly the most *listenable* of them. It's hard to describe what he does. Sometimes, he'll play two penny whistles through a pitch-shifter, an electronic box with dials that change the sound of any instrument that runs through it. Other times he'll play a flute backward, or move through the room with a megaphone and a harmonica. You can see him a half-dozen times, with smoky audiences turned rapturously attentive at underground party places like Rubulad, Happy Birthday Hideout, or Flux Factory, before seeing him pick up his Takamine guitar, which he plays with astonishing facility. He also sometimes performs on Casio, tampon applicator, bells, and several other gewgaws, like little plastic birds that warble under his breath.

The 34-year-old New Yorker -- who grew up in Ohio and did time in Boston, Denver, and Austin, Texas -- is also a storyteller. He's he's taken three surreal tales and worked them into a nonlinear play titled Blood Is the Only Good Adhesive in Heaven, which opened earlier this year and is back for a three-week run that ends November 3. He calls the piece "my life's work up to this point" because it combines his music, his stories, an improv choir, and the art of his friends.

Nonsense interviewed Sxip Shirey in his tiny West Village basement apartment. This is the first of two sections. It has been edited for length, readability, and to make us both sound smarter than we actually are. Part 2, about Sxip's background, his music, and the importance of performance, will run in Nonsense NYC next week.

Nonsense: Blood Is the Only Good Adhesive in Heaven is such an unusual piece. It's very weird structurally, and I have a really hard time explaining it. I can explain the mechanics of your music by saying, "He plays two harmonicas at the same time through a pitch-shifter." But I try to break down your theater piece and it doesn't help much. How do you go about explaining to strangers? How do you convince someone to come see it?

Sxip: I say, "Come to my piece." I say, "It has to do with the way that the constellations of gum spots on the sidewalks contain the DNA of the person who chewed them." And then I say, "There are mechanical wings. There is an improv choir. It will blow you away. Period."

That's what I've had to learn how to do to deal with everything. From an honest place, you have to explain the mechanics of it, and then say -- like with my music -- "it will blow you away. Period. You won't have heard anything like it." And people believe me. It's hilarious.

N: Where did Blood Is the Only Good Adhesive in Heaven come from?

S: It came from my initial experiences of living in New York and not being able to deal with it. When I'm in a new place I create mythologies about it so that it becomes more fun.

For example, my grandmother was from Albania and she was convinced that there were not as many stars in America. I came to New York and found out that she was right -- I couldn't see any stars. So I imagined that the gum spots on the sidewalks were my constellations. And then I imagined that the DNA in the gum spots still existed, and that there was this amazing history of New York captured in the gum.

N: I had seen you play music about a half-dozen times and then all the sudden you came to me and said that you had this opera, but that it wasn't really an opera. So I found out that in addition to your music, you were a storyteller and a playwright. How does all of this intersect? Go back to when you started writing stories.

S:I was a physics student. When I was a kid I was interested music, I was interested in visual art, and I was interested in writing. So when I stopped being a physics student I still needed to use that part of my brain that assembled things logically, that part of my brain that music doesn't fulfil.

N: But music is very logical ...

S:It's a different part of my brain. I'm using language centers with this. I was into science fiction as a kid. The stories I do now are not science fiction, but what I call science realism. The idea of science realism is that it's essentially magic realism for our culture. And magic realism is writing and storytelling where those elements are not separate.

But our culture is like that too. When you flip on a light switch a light comes on and you just accept that. But if I say, "How does a switch work?" people can't tell you. It's just an accepted thing. So there are these fantastic things happening all around us under the black box of science. We don't really understand the cause-and-effect relationships behind the mechanisms in our society, which I think is fascinating.

So what happened is that when I had tendonitis for two years. And at the end of it I was going to do a little show for my friends in my house. I knew that my tendons weren't good enough to do a full set of music. So what I did was take these stories that I had written and decide that I would tell them. And that changed everything. I learned that when I would tell a story, whoever was in the room would hear it and I would get an immediate reaction. And then I really began to understand the art of oration.

Naturally I learned that if I tell a story and play a piece of music that the story infuses the music with a context and I can do anything -- I could scrape keys on a trash can. If you give anyone enough context, so-called experimental sound suddenly becomes beautiful and meaningful to them. Storytelling is also a new way to introduce new sounds.

N:So you make this thing, and you make art, and you make music as well -- all of it is experimental. And it's very difficult to explain what it is that you're doing, either as a musician or certainly as a theatrical experience. So how do you go about finding your audience?

S:Good fucking question. I am such a word-of-mouth artist.

N:What does that mean?

S:It means that someone told someone else about me. I put a lot of work into this shit and people can tell. And they like it.

I'm going to go back a little bit. Those stories, those mythologies, were tools for me to deal with New York. Something that I always say is that art is a tool for living. What I'm trying to do with all this stuff, with the music, with the theater, is give people a tool, both as individuals and as a community. And so, hopefully when you see my play you'll notice the gum spots, or you'll eat a hot dog and it'll taste a little better or be more exciting. I'm trying to create a situation where people's brains open up and they're a bit more raw, and they're more sensitive.

N:I remember that after your play ran last time I remember we had a discussion about theater as a community experience. And that's not the way that I really consider theater.

S:Really? I wish that [Blood's director] Katie [Pearl] was here because she's really into that. OK. When you're creating music as a punk in a little town you're creating music for your friends, for your community. As an underground musician in Austin, you're creating music for your friends, for those people. When we do theater, when [Sxip's company] Daredevil does theater, you'll notice that the audience can see each other. They're addressed. They're on the stage essentially.

N:Why is it important that theater address a community?

S:I can only answer this on a personal level. It's important to me because I don't want to live in a society where people interact with machines before they talk to me. I want to live in a society where you walk down the street ... In New York, it's hard, there are reasons -- we all live in this tiny little city and we have to block each other out because we go insane. But there has to be a middle ground where we create situations where people feel free to be interactive, to give them permission to be interactive, and talk to each other, and to be playful.

>> Interview, Part 2



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