Photo: Krys Fox

This Is How You Break Into My House to Find Me: An Interview with Sxip Shirey

Sxip Shirey found recent success with "Woman of Constant Sorrow", and now discusses robotic bells, the pleasure of composing for circuses, and his new album A Bottle of Whiskey and a Handful of Bees.
Sxip Shirey
A Bottle of Whiskey and a Handful of Bees

A Drifter Comes to Party

“A lot of my work confuses what’s sound design and what’s music.”

A Bottle of Whiskey and a Handful of Bees is the ultimate sensual party album, not one made by a flashy producer wearing diamonds and dark shades, but by the sketchy looking drifter in a dirty suit who just rolled into town and hangs out with the carnies out at the fairgrounds. Producer, musician and sound designer Sxip Shirey is the ash-colored-curly-haired drifter guiding you through the 17 tracks which were recorded over a five-year period with various collaborators and co-producer Don Godwin.

“He helped me really get the sound sounding beautiful and clear,” notes Shirey. “He’s a great sound engineer. And a great musician, too. He played electric bass on a, lot of the album and he went through the whole process of the album with me. Like I’d be on circus tour and I’d have two weeks off and I’d spend one week in New York working on the album. Then one week seeing my parents. Then fly back to Australia.”

The boozy bouncy feel of songs such as “Cinnamon Stick” and “Just Drive By, Firefly” have a marching carnival feel to them, which makes sense since Shirey wrote and produced the album, on breaks from touring with circuses, including Limbo, the cabaret circus Shirey wrote music for. Limbo is an artistic burlesque-style circus featuring acrobatics, dance and side show stunts that begins with the conceit that the audience is dead and the Head Angel/Master of Ceremonies, performed by Shirey, will guide the audience through the sights and sounds of the oblivion.

“I was on the road for two years with Limbo,” Shirey tells us. “It was 425 shows in two years. And it was intense, it was seven shows a week. But it was so great, people loved the music. Here [in the U.S.] circus is still kind of an abstracted art form, but it’s part of life in other places. It’s very populist. I would come out of the tent on South Bank Center and it would be bankers and hairdressers.

“That’s what’s interesting to me. I don’t necessarily want to play music for my peers. Circus is great because no matter what you compose, if there is someone hanging on the ceiling with a rope, if they fall, they die. That becomes the story. It gives you this beautiful kind of leeway, where any kind of music you create is accessible suddenly.”

During this period, Shirey would use his down time to collaborate with other artists, creating sonic sketches, then developing them in person with the musicians and at a distance, communicating electronically while traveling. The most international of the songs on his album is “Woman of Constant Sorrow” which features his good friend Rhiannon Giddens of the Carolina Chocolate Drops. She has appeared on his other albums, and they have toured Scotland and Wales together. Shirey met Giddens when his band Luminescent Orchestrii played the same festivals as the Carolina Chocolate Drops in the American South.

“I was working on a documentary, and I came up with this bass riff that was Ethiopiques-inspired,” continues Shirey. “Like hip-hop drum loop and clapping. And I just thought it was cool. So sometimes when I’m composing for other things, I’ll put a few in my back pocket, I’ll think this should be developed further. The piece was called ‘Drop the Mic’ earlier on. I was in London working on it. There was this African coffee house that I really loved going to. There were these Japanese girls, they look over at me, to them I’m some old crazy-haired guy and I’m going [in a sinister voice] ‘Drop the mic,’ trying to get a really good hip hop sound.

I was developing it in London, I spent nights in Bogota working on it. And at some point, I realized that you could sing “Man of Constant Sorrow” over it. Now it’s interesting. So, I was back in London, Nonesuch [Records] was having a 40th or 50th anniversary … and Rhiannon Giddens is in town. She’s in London, I’m in London, we’re hanging out and then I play her the backing track and I’m singing her ‘Woman of Constant Sorrow’, a rough of it before I really worked out the lyrics. And she says: ‘Who is this for?’ And I said, ‘It’s for you.'”

Shirey plays and composes for both traditional instruments such as guitar and clarinet and for samplers, found objects and programmed automata. “Woman of Constant Sorrow” begins with the programmed samples and Giddens’ voice and by the end of the first verse the processed accordion and clapping hands are joined by a cacophony of melodious bells.

“The bells you first hear in it … Sarah Angliss, she’s a robotic instrument builder in London, I don’t know how we met, but we really hit it off,” notes Shirey. “We got together and recorded some of these bells. It’s a midi bell tree that runs off Max MSP, we did some abstract stuff and I said, ‘Why don’t you play something on this?’ Then I created this thing that’s called the blister accordion which is this accordion sample machine going through these different filters.

Then we started developing the piece and Rhiannon went to Blue Bird studios in Nashville and recorded her vocals. And I was in Australia recording the Puddles version of

Palms, I had just met Puddles, and they had a nice old Rhodes piano, and I said, ‘I think this needs Rhodes,’ so we recorded the Rhodes piano there. In Brooklyn, we brought in the bass, a musician named Ruben Radigan played the bass.”

Shirey’s talent as performer and artistic collaborator likely lend themselves to his activity of teaching composition and performance, and his pedagogy and his musical presentation have informed each other. He met the future producer of one of his shows in one of his classes, and her husband captured the video for “Penny Red (Internationale)” while travelling in Albania, Macedonia and the Czech Republic.

“I teach workshops in this avant garde theater school in Norway… (they don’t like that term, but I still like that term) it’s post-dramatic theater. So, when you get onstage you’re not doing method acting, you’re being yourself. That’s the starting point. I teach a workshop called ‘Object Oriented Composition Text’. I get the students to make beautiful and compelling pieces of sound art, using marbles rolling in bowls or anything they find, like typewriters, and the idea is that anyone can compose. Anyone who can tell a story can compose a sound.”

“One of the students Nella Hustak … became the producer of this big performance that I did there, where I had megaphone singers sing over a river,” beams Shirey. “Her husband Jan, is a filmmaker and he said, ‘Sxip, I’ll make you a video for your new album.’ He said, ‘Give me 500 bucks so I can drive around Eastern Europe.’ I had no idea what I was getting. He’s from Prague. He ordered a witch’s wig, to get something that looked like my hair. He had to go an hour and a half outside the city to this desolate warehouse to pick up this witch’s wig. The woman in the beginning of the video is Nella, and it’s her grandmother, that feeds the chickens and waves away the camera at the end. They just found people and put the glasses and the witch’s wig on them.”

Shirey said that a good description of playing music that matches his own experiences is Geoff Dyer’s book on jazz But, Beautiful, which he says achieves the elusive goal of expressing the feeling of music in words. When he goes to composition gigs, he will often take the books The Red Tree and The Arrival by Shaun Tan for inspiration, using the artist’s surreal paintings as starting points to explore sound. Like his choice of instruments, his compositions range from more conventionally understood song structures to sound art creations. Recently he has been facilitating a sound installation series called The Gauntlet, which was inspired by the desire for a composition that would not change if the listener was still, and required the listener to move through it if they were to hear the complete piece.

“I’ve done two in New York including on the Highline, I did one in Norway in the city of Fredrikstad, for their 450th anniversary and I might be about to do one in New York for Make Music, which might happen in multiple cities,” Shirey notes. “The Gauntlet is a choir you walk through. It is a choir facing a choir. So, you are walking through pairs of people standing on stools. From six to 20 pairs or more. There’s a couple things happening. I’ll take a short melodic line with text. One of the lines for New York was, ‘Slowly walk me home, I’m a bit baby deer in these pink shoes.’ It’s sung with a melody, but each syllable — you as the singer only sing one syllable. The pair sings the syllable at the same time, and that’s called hocketing. It was a Medieval strategy and Meredith Monk really brought it into the modern age. I have a whole aisle that you walk through while people are singing melody.”

Songs like “The Land Whale Choir Sinks the Albert Hall” are just as much indebted to sound art as they are to popular song structure. Slower, more stripped down songs like “Awake” or “So Stay” have a rhythm and voluptuousness that make them fit well as sound tracks to modern or postmodern dance pieces. These songs are also moments to catch your breath from dancing to the livelier tracks on the album, a moment for the drifter to collect himself and wind the party back up with the more boisterous songs that close A Bottle of Whiskey and a Handful of Bees.

“Ultimately, I want my music to be generous,” says Shirey. “I want to create generous music because that’s what we need at this point in history. That’s interesting. You know magic realism? In magic realism, something magical happens, but it is such a normal part of life, no one notices. In our culture [U.S.] we have the same thing but it’s science realism. If I go up to a light switch and turn on the light switch, the light comes on, no one freaks out. But they also don’t know how a switch works.

“They can’t tell you and they don’t have an excuse. They don’t go, ‘The switch kicks the ass of the little demon who builds a fire up there.’ It’s the black box of science. So, when I perform, I show people how it works. This is the electronics, this is the pitch-shifter, this is what it does. This is a marble, rolling in a bowl, going through a pitch shifter and I’m doing a rhythm on this newspaper I found today. I’ll explain what I’m doing. Things are more magic if people can see it. That’s the generosity that I’m talking about.”

And with that the drifter packs up his harmonicas, bowls, accordions and megaphone and sets out again, aiming for the next town, the next city, the next dusty tent, with more music on the horizon. Leaving us tired, sweaty and a little bit forlorn, he promises he won’t take so long with the next couple of albums. He’ll be back to party soon.