Breathing Ghosts and Dancing with the Devil: Sxip Shirey’s Fractured Sonic Fairy Tales
Molly Sheridan: I first saw you perform in a little bar in Athens, Ohio, and you were playing this amazing piece that has been stuck in my ears ever since. You were telling ghost stories and using the flute and your breath to create almost all of the drama. It was completely bizarre, but you had the audience in this small Southeast Ohio town just enraptured. You’ve come a considerable way since then, but before we get into it, how did you get to that point as a musician?
Sxip Shirey: I think I’m an experimental musician who comes from a rural tradition rather than an urban one.
I grew up listening to lots of folk music—the Beatles and stuff like that, but lots of folk music, basically. I’d say the album that really affected my life was the Resurrection of Blind Joe Death by John Fahey. Fahey was a white guitarist who was taking a lot of finger-style blues traditions and then putting a kind of modern dissonance into the sound, but with really direct melodic statements. I think that influenced me tremendously because from the get go, I’m like, oh, folk music and experimental music are the same thing. So that’s where I was coming from.
When I started composing for the modern dance department at the university I was at, I wanted to find some different sounds. This was pre-Internet, so you couldn’t go on websites to find out about cool things—you had Option magazine, and it was so exciting to read it. It would have tape reviews. Roger Miller, who had been in this post-punk band called Mission of Burma, put out an album called Maximum Electric Piano. He had an electric piano, and he was preparing the bottom half and getting this kind of industrial rhythm, looping it, and then playing these beautiful songs and piano passages over it. And in the exact same issue was Diamanda Galás, and that was huge: discovering both those artists really influenced me.
But I’ve been to Romania and played music with gypsies; I’ve been in Appalachia, played music with people in the Piedmont area. I have a saying for myself, which is that all good music or all good art is born out of necessity. The first person who put a butter knife up on a guitar and made a sliding sound—that’s an experimental music moment. That comes out of a tradition where they would put a piece of wire on a barn door and play it with a bolt or something and mimic the human voice. The guy who discovered that people dance most in the funk breaks at parties and got two identical albums and created break beat, essentially—that’s an experimental music moment. So I’m interested in the moment where folk music and experimental music become the same thing. I’m interested in that moment when someone needs to make music and make a sound for a very root reason, for the same reason that most people on the planet need to make music, which isn’t for intellectual reasons: It’s “I need to make a song so I kill a possum, skin its hide, put it around a hoop, and I make my own banjo,” you know. That’s what’s always interested me. But I do live in cities, so of course that informs my music. Often I work with human beat boxers. That’s an urban folk tradition and that’s, for whatever reason, the way I’ve always accessed this stuff.
MS: How does that sense of rural experimentalism separate you from what you’ve experienced of an urban one?
SS: What is experimental music? You know, if I play “Mary Had A Little Lamb” on tuned sides of roast beef, is that experimental music? It’s “Mary Had A Little Lamb.” Maybe that’s not an experimental piece of music, but the process—is it experimental? Let’s say I take some 12-tone music and I play 12-tone music on tuned sides of roast beef. Is that experimental? Well, 12-tone music isn’t new, so all right, no. Alright, so if I got the music of a new music composer, someone who just wrote something—see, this is a problem. At what point does it become new? Is it new because I’m playing “Mary Had A Little Lamb” on sides of roast beef, which is sort of the kind of musician I am? I use very, sometimes very obvious romantic melodies on odd things. Okay, this makes no sense whatsoever…but I’m trying to get at something right here, like what the hell is new music? Like what does that mean?
For me, anyway, you can take something fairly traditional sounding and put it in a new context, played on something you wouldn’t expect to hear, and that opens up my brain and makes it exciting. But I’m also excited to hear the Carpenters. And there isn’t much of a difference for me, seriously, when I listen to the Carpenters or if I hear something newer and odder. There’s kind of an odd equal value in my brain. Like I sit and run stuff through the pitch shifters and tweak tones and then go and play gypsy music with my band, and it’s all kind of in the same realm.
Alright, so that doesn’t answer the question. I think that everyone’s environment affects their music, and I think, without thinking about it, I’m using footprints from my childhood. Like when I picked up pennywhistles, this was a pleasing and an interesting sound to me. This was a sound that I could communicate things with. But what I realized is, it was the crickets and the peeper toads that I heard all through childhood. And somehow that’s in my hands, that’s in my ears, and so that’s what I’m saying from a rural experience. If you grow up in an urban setting with cars and giant boxes that you live in, and walking on concrete and that hum of the city, that’s going to be your sonic footprint. If you grow up in the country with the sounds of birds and the wind and gutting chickens, that’s going to affect your music.
When I was in school, we took a field trip and we went to the city swimming pool. For some reason the pool was closed, so we had a picnic outside the swimming pool at these little picnic benches. And this bum came by. I don’t think any teachers now would let their kids talk to a bum, but she didn’t care. And I remember him saying, “I invented my own musical instrument.” He had taken a piece of fishing line and the cap to an aerosol can and tied it in there; he would hold it in his teeth and the cap was the resonator. And then he played a tune on it. I just remember being fascinated. It’s weird; I can remember exactly what he did—I was pretty young when I saw this, but it made a huge impression. That, to me, that’s how you should make music: You should pick up things and you should experiment with them. My father always mentions that when we would haul wood together, I would always find the pieces of wood that he had cut with a chainsaw and I would line them up like a xylophone and play them as the pony was hauling the cart. I didn’t take piano lessons, but I was like “Wow, if you just play notes at random and this hand at half the speed of this hand, that makes music.” So I think that’s naturally how I make music—I experiment with things and then it pulls at something basic inside me.
MS: So you couldn’t really be the musician you are without the life experiences that you’ve had.
SS: Yeah, I would be a very different musician. I think my choices have always been weird because I compose by picking up things. I’m so slow at learning melodies. I have an embarrassing lack of knowledge of some basic musical things that I’m always discovering for myself and I’m like, oh my goodness. But I’ll just sit there and poke at it until it sounds true, and it’s usually this really narrow moment. Then you push it to this side and you push it to this side, and while it’s true here, here is sounds like cheesy shit. So push, push, push—ah, no, no, no. And so you create a palette of things that work for you.