Interview: musician Sxip Shirey on maximalist circus show Limbo
‘I wanted the sexy music to be actually sexy and I wanted the beautiful music to be actually beautiful’
Every circus has a ringmaster, but none is quite like Gene ‘Sxip’ Shirey. He turns up in the Limbo Spiegeltent not in traditional red livery and top hat, but in a white suit bedecked with feathers, like some fallen angel. A fallen angel, that is, with shades, wild frizzy hair and a megaphone.
And unlike a regular ringmaster, he does not say a word. Instead, he sets up an otherworldly harmonica riff, hitting an abrasive rhythm that, as his bandmates join in, forms the missing link between big-top jazz and urban groove.
I decide the best way to describe it is ‘hip-hop oompah’, a phrase I try out on Shirey when we meet after a performance of Limbo on London’s Southbank. He says it’s not a bad approximation, but he prefers his own word.
‘I call it jank,’ says the musical director, who has visited Scotland three times with the Luminescent Orchestrii. ‘I wanted it to be surprising music – stuff you’d never heard before. It’s a real direct melody, it’s a miniature brass band, I’m using harmonicas and pitch-shifters so they sound like these bendable pipe organs mixed with an accordion, sousaphone, hip-hop beats and electronics. It’s inspired by New Orleans, Balkan brass, hip hop and John Cage-like dissonance. So that’s the jank!’
So while the acrobats are standing on each other’s heads, breathing fire, balancing on one arm, bending over backwards and looping over our heads, Shirey and his band are kicking up a ferocious musical storm. There’s even something called a polymba, a home-made instrument consisting of 15 African thumb pianos, all fulfilling Shirey’s aim of creating a better class of circus music: ‘I wanted the sexy music to be actually sexy and, more importantly, I wanted the beautiful music to be actually beautiful.’
Limbo, Edinburgh’s Christmas, 22 Nov–5 Jan 2014.