Sxip Shirey, Part 2
October 25, 2001

Last week, we printed the first part of an interview with Sxip Shirey, a weird musician who often performs at even weirder parties all over New York. Since then, we've apologized to Sxip for a few typos and maybe one or two minor errors. We've also learned that he changed his name to "Sxip" when he was living in Denver in order to fool booking agents into thinking that he was a band, not a solo performer. (Soloists have a hard time getting shows.)

If you're just now joining us, last week's interview focused on Sxip's current play Blood Is the Only Good Adhesive in Heaven. This second and final part of the interview narrows in on Sxip's chthonian music. This interview was conducted in Sxip's tiny West Village basement apartment. The complete transcript runs approximately 10,000 words, but it has been edited here for length, readability, and to make us both sound smarter than we actually are. We'll be happy to send you the whole damn thing if you want. In the unexpurgated text you'll read of Sxip's collaborations with drummer Dreiky Caprice, the Performance Art Church in Austin, Texas, and finding a home at Rubulad in New York. It's good stuff, for sure, but we think the following 1,500-word edit gets to the core of our conversation.

NONSENSE: You say that you play folk music, but that has two meanings for you. Can you explain?

SXIP: I started out as a folk musician. I grew up in Appalachia listening to Appalachian folk music and '60s-generation folk music. And then I listened to a lot of Beatles. It sort of has informed my music in the fact that even though my music has complexities to it, and definitely chordal complexities to it, it kind of follows these simple A-B-A-B-bridge structures, like folk music and pop music does.

Folk music is weird, though. What exactly is it? To me, one definition is that it's music that evolves out of a physical, corporeal reality of the location that it is created.

N: What do you mean?

S: If you're in Appalachia and you need to make music, you kill a possum, skin it, remove the fur, stretch the hide, and you make a banjo. When you're in the inner city you can't get possums, but you can get turntables. And the first DJs that learned to mix between the breaks in the dance tune and create a break beat -- that was a folk music moment. I always say that good art is borne out of necessity, or that the art that I appreciate is borne out of necessity. Both in the case of the guy making the banjo, or this guy with the turntables, they've created a whole new necessity.

N: Then how is your music folk in the sense that it fulfils a necessity?

S: I am always trying to come up with the moment of necessity on stage. When I perform I'm trying to pull from my gut, I'm trying to pull from my intellect, I'm trying to pull from a spiritual place, and also I'm trying to pull from the space between me and the audience to create this moment where something has to happen. So I'm kind of opening myself up and asking things to come in so that there's so much kinetic potential for something to happen that it will happen. Is that too obtuse?

N: Sort of. I understand that there's something that has to happen, but what is that something? Is it dancing? Is it listening ...

S: No. When I perform, I'm trying to move energy through my body, to the audience, and back to me. I'm trying to move energy from the Earth into my body, from the ghosts in the room into my body, in to the audience, and back to me. It's so strange, because I don't want to sound like a New Ager in any way. At the same time, I'm in this really strange and concrete and earthy way, I'm calling the spirits to move through the room.

N: What's the concrete part of that?

S: I guess it's that I don't feel like it's an esoteric, fluttery, woo-woo kind of thing. I grew up in the country. I grew things. I killed stuff. I buried things. My sense of spirituality comes from this super visceral space, and I don't really detach it from my everyday existence. When I get on stage, I'm trying to create a very honest moment, a moment that's bigger than myself. And a situation where the audience is part of that music and they're feeding into that moment, and when we're all part of creating this thing that is bigger than ourselves. My goal -- and I don't say that I reach it at all -- is to create a musical structure where I empty out and become a vessel for things to move through me.

N: You play all of these unusual instruments and you play them in this unusual way. You play double-harmonica, backward flute, double whistle -- in what way does that fit into what you're trying to do?

S: If you include in the definition of folk music the physical aspect of creating an instrument, when I come up with a new, good combination of things -- when I stack these three harmonicas together -- there is that moment of invention where anything is possible. When I play guitar, there are million other guitarists -- and I'm a pretty damn good guitarist -- and I'm stepping in their shoes. But when I play two harmonicas at the same time, I don't know anybody else who is doing that. I have this whole field of sound to explore.

I think the natural question becomes, "Why is it important to create new sounds?" Or, "Why is it important to me?" There's lots of experimental music that I find absolutely boring. But I find that when you create a new sound, something that's interesting to listen to, it opens people's minds up. They get into that child state: "Wow, what the hell was that!" And when they get in that child's state, they're ironic selves, their cynical selves, and all that other stuff drops and you can have a communication with them.

N: I think that it's a good time to ask you in what way your folk music is appropriate for New York and in what way does it come from New York?

S: I don't know if I would call what I do folk music. It is influenced by those things. Again, we would have to get into this big discussion of what folk music is. A good argument to make is that punk was folk music. Really, though, folk music comes from people making music for their immediate community.

But so much of what I do is not created here. And it kind of makes me different. As a quote-unquote experimental musician I'm not coming from an urban place. I'm not thinking about urban things. I'm thinking about roots and trees and rot. In my view of nature, when I go back out to my folks' house, it's intense as hell because everything is consuming everything else. I don't go into nature thinking it's a beautiful, peaceful place. I love it, and it's beautiful, but there's also this realization of how violent it is.

N: But that's what happens in city as well -- a city is a working organism that is constantly recycling itself.

S: The difference in a city is that everything is iconic. When I first moved here I felt like I had walked into a book where everything was literature. Because everything was a symbol, an icon, and nothing that you would look deeply into -- except for people. And that is the nature of a city to me.

N: You started to say that so much of your music wasn't composed here. Where was it composed?

S: It's so weird. The seeds of it were born in Athens, Ohio, which is a small Appalachian college town.

N: Is that where you went to school?

S: It's where I grew up and went to school. But then, I lived in Boston and I learned how to be a guitarist there, playing the subways.

N: When was that?

S: I'm 34 now, and I was 20 then. And then, when I went back home I started composing music for the school of modern dance. And that's when I took my guitar and started sticking paper clips in the strings. That blew everything open for me. I started to play all kinds of sounds. And that big changing moment was in Denver, Colorado.

I ended up moving to Denver because a friend was there. And I'd been playing a sort of punk flamenco guitar. The bands I had always had this big, powerful, crazy-ass sound and I was thinking that I would like to do that solo. I had devised this piece for flute where I tapped the keys and breathed through it. It was very quiet, soft little piece, and a modern dancer danced to it and it was acoustic. I got a little Radio Shack lapel mike to stick into the end of the flute and I recorded it in kind of a quiet, acoustic way. I thought, "I'll play this at Cricket on the Hill tonight."

Cricket on the Hill was this place where junkies and punkers and queens and cokeheads would all go and they had an open stage run by a guy named Bags. I thought, "I'll play this, and it will be mellow." But I had never played the flute stuff through a PA before. So when I made a Chhh! sound into the mike it was huge. It was like getting on a tricycle, and knowing how to steer and everything, but suddenly it goes 60 miles an hour. So I did the piece. And when it was done there was a moment of silence and the place lost it. And I lost it. I remember that I looked up and thanked whatever it was for making such nice music because it didn't feel like it was me.

And that was it. That was my template -- that moment. I said, "Oh my god. With really simple equipment I can really access some sounds and some exciting new things and I'm creating the kind of music that I need."



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