From the mutant harmonica to the tampon applicator, Sxip Shirey is one of the world's best performers of unusual instruments. He has toured as part of the bizarre circus troupe The Bindlestiff Family Cirkus, and is also a founding member of the gypsy-klezmer-tango-punk band Luminescent Orchestrii ("orchestrii" meaning "small ensemble with orchestral intent.")
The Orchestrii are one of a number of Eastern European/gypsy bands who have been gaining a larger audience in recent years (Gogol Bordello, Balkan Beat Box, Slavic Soul Party, DeVotchKa). "What’s great about that music is, it hasn’t been mined to death," Sxip says. "There’s so much potential there."
With the Orchestrii about to hit the road opening for the Dresden Dolls, Sxip took some time to chat about his peculiar and interesting musical endeavors. Like, how exactly does one play the tampon applicator? "There’s at least five different techniques," he says with a laugh. "You can play it like a trumpet, and there’s other really odd ways you can play it also." Read on for more...
Hi Sxip, thanks for talking with me.
No problem at all, I’m glad to do it.
I’m guessing Sxip is not your given name?
Skip is the nickname that I was called before I was born. I’m a solo artist, and when I lived in Denver they wouldn’t book people unless you were a band. So I put the X in my name so they would think that I was a band.
That was rather devious of you!
Yeah, and then it ended up being a good marketing thing, so I left it.
Your band Luminescent Orchestrii will be opening some shows on the Dresden Dolls’ upcoming tour. You’ve opened for them as a solo artist in the past. What was that experience like?
It was great, fantastic. Their crew is wonderful to work with, and they have really great fans. People who are into the Dresden Dolls aren’t there to be cool. The Dresden Dolls mean something personal to them. I remember one night, I was hosting the show and I said, ‘How many of you are musicians?’ And almost every hand went up. And I said, ‘How many of you play something other than guitar?’ and almost all the hands stayed up. So I’m like, this is a bunch of choir and band geeks, you know? And so, their audience is really cool.
Amanda (Palmer) doesn’t choose the standard thing to open up for the Dresden Dolls. She has butoh dancers, circus artists, burlesque acts, and unusual music, and that’s an amazing thing to do in a time period where touring music acts tend to be pretty dull. It’s all the same thing anymore, so it’s really great that she does that.
You’ve collaborated with Amanda on the Hour of Charm. Can you explain what that is?
I’m a circus, theater, puppetry and film composer - I work in a lot of different situations, as well as being a solo artist. So, I like to put on shows that I want to see. I want to see a puppet show, I want to see men in giant women suits oil wrestling, I want to see a really entertaining, crazy-ass show. So, I guess it was in Boston that she saw me and we started talking afterwards. We found out that we had exceedingly similar taste, and we got really excited about sharing knowledge.
I was doing a show called Sxip’s Hour of Charm and I invited her to perform at one in New York, and it went really well. And then the American Repertory Theatre approached her about doing a cabaret. She was like, ‘I don’t have time, let’s have Sxip do it.’ She was generous enough to send it my way.
I understand the Luminescent Orchestrii was conceived as an all-girls orchestra.
Yeah, I found a 78 which was the Hour Of Charm All-Girl Orchestra, and I was joking with my housemate, Rima Fand, who’s a great violinist and fiddle player, ‘We should start an all-girl orchestra.’ So we tried, but it ended up turning into this other thing. We were interested in gypsy and Balkan music, but we were also interested in rocking out, and we were also interested in harmony, so we put it all together.
I do avant-garde music but I always need to have a band that’s really basic. So this is it, two violins, a stand-up bass and guitar. And what’s exciting about it is, in the ‘60s, all these bands got to explore blues music, and then they transformed it and became The Who, and the Rolling Stones, and Led Zeppelin. We get to do the same thing with gypsy music. We get to steal it and love it and caress it and eat it and regurgitate it out in our own image.
How do your songs typically come together? Is there one primary writer, or is it a collaborative effort?
I tend to write the ones that are immediately fun, the ones with funny lyrics, and Rima writes the ones that are really strange. She’ll bring something strange to the band and we’ll all be like, ‘How do we deliver this?’ (laughs) Everybody in the band brings folk songs and traditional music to the table, Turkish tunes, gypsy tunes, Balkan tunes, Macedonian tunes, and we all arrange it. And then we work on it, and there’s a certain point where we’ve gotten inside it, something special happens to it, and it becomes a Luminescent tune.
Your most recent album came out in 2005. Is there another one in the works?
Yeah, we’re almost done with it. It’s called Neptune’s Daughter. That should be out in February, hopefully.
Do you want to pass along any exclusive info about it? We can start the buzz now!
It has our most recent tunes and our most recent lineup. The beautiful songs on the album are more beautiful than anything we’ve ever recorded, and the dissonant and hard-rocking tunes are more dissonant and hard-rocking than anything we’ve recorded before. So we kind of went in both directions, we got more beautiful and crazier-sounding at the same time.
You also do some solo stuff. How is that different from the band’s music?
I use a lot of objects – marbles and bowls, amplified breath, bamboozlephone, obnoxiophone, industrial flute, mutant harmonica, it’s all this fantastic music being made with small objects. The solo music is about personal energy, about how everyone’s intimate life is epic to them. Your day-to-day life isn’t any small thing to you - it’s a huge thing. And so, that’s what I really try to key into. What I say about my solo music is, I want to pull the ghost from the meat. I want to create this intensity that makes people’s souls slightly move off their bodies.
Luminescent is about social energy. It’s about how amazing it is to be alive, with the immediate people around you, what an incredible thing that is, and how to fucking appreciate that. Because you don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow.
And that’s what I love about Amanda Palmer, is that kind of vitality for living and getting up there and just giving it. And with the Hour of Charm, the people on the stage, they’re not pulling any shit on you. They’re gonna give you all they got. Or else, why do art? Why play music if you’re not gonna do that? Go be an accountant. And that comes from my punk rock beginnings, which is: Do it. Don’t fuck around. That’s why I love Amanda, because she’s so much about that.
How did you get started playing unusual instruments?
I started sticking paper clips in guitar strings, inspired by John Cage, inspired by an album by Roger Miller, who was in Mission of Burma. He put out this album that’s not very well-known called Maximum Electric Piano, where he put bolts in the bottom of his electric piano and then he’d do these industrial rhythms, loop them, and play piano passages on it.
Then I kept pushing it with different instruments. I’m still doing it - I just went to a museum of organettes and hurdy gurdies, and all these hand-cranked instruments from the late 1800s. I’m kind of obsessed with the past and future co-existing at the same time.
I don’t ever make weird sounds for weird sounds’ sake. I do it because when you make a new sound, it can get you someplace. And you’re not stepping in someone else’s footsteps. As good as a guitarist as I am, there’s a history of great guitarists. But there’s not much of a history of people who play the tampon applicator. I play the tampon applicator probably better than anybody alive, and you can’t say that about many things.
And it’s the same thing with Luminescent Orchestrii. I could form a rock band, but there’s already rock bands I love. I love the Pixies, I love Sonic Youth. I don’t need to do that. I’m just interested in doing something that’s different, but still rocking out, so it’s something I get to do with Luminescent Orchestrii.
Good luck with the new album and I’m looking forward to seeing you next week in Philadelphia.
Thanks. We’ll never have played for an audience quite like this before, that’s such a young audience, so I’m psyched about it. Thank you for chatting with me. Take care.
MP3: Luminescent Orchestrii - Warsaw
MP3: Luminescent Orchestrii - Taraf Hijacked
Photo credit (images 1&2): Carl Saytor