Stimac Talks to Tom Swirly
About Tom Swirly's Psych-o-delic Circus
Forty years ago, on a sunny day
in long ago a London school, Tom Swirly started
playing music --the recorder, specifically. In high
school, he graduated to the usual reeds. He had
his moments, but admits he “didn't really
sing on those instruments.”
Keeping up his dalliance with
music through high school and university, he studied
math but reveled in writing computer music synthesis
programs in the dawn of digital music (long before
the DX-7). When he came to New York twenty-five
years ago, he wasn't thinking consciously of pursuing
a performing career – as he describes it,
he was “just a mathematics student who'd come
to New York for an adventure.”
His search for adventure has led
him on a string of successful creative ventures.
From becoming the electronic wind instrument player
for the local rock band Verge to performing an avant-garde
version of “The Wizard of Oz” in Tompkins
Square Park, Swirly immersed himself in the New
York music scene. In 2001, he started the open loop
series, extremely long improvised continuous shows
in a tea/bee product/UFO bookshop in the very East
Village, a last outpost of the 50-year old tradition
Bohemian culture in the East Village. And he has
also been thriving in the acting community as well,
tackling Shakespeare and other stage projects.
Lately Swirly is ringmaster of
his own “Psych-o-delic Circus,” and
invites everyone to come out and join in the three-ring
madness. After a successful run at Cave Canem in
the East Village, he’s taking his troupe over
to the Yippie Museum on the Lower East Side. The
all-new, all-singing, all-dancing, all-magic “Tom
Swirly's Psych-o-delic Circus” will offer
private previews starting Saturday, May 23. Visit
for more information and to reserve tickets.
Then an expanded version of the
show will move to the Times Square Arts Center for
a regular run beginning on Thursday, September 18.
Tickets will be available through Ticketmaster for
$20: watch the website for more details.
New York Cool recently had a chance
to speak with the mayhem maestro about his current
production and future ventures.
Stimac: Your show is subtitled “a microRave"
-- what was your inspiration for the show?
I love raves -- the ultra-deep bass touches something
deep inside me and I love to dance in the crowd
-- but going to a rave is a large investment in
time and energy and travel and in these dark days,
even risk of imprisonment or violence from the state.
I'd be happy to have something of that rave energy
without going quite as far, and perhaps have a little
other entertainment while I was there. Thus -- microRave.
Stimac: What’s it like, performing
every week in the East Village in the basement of
an Chinese-themed drag cabaret?
Well, it was a lot of fun, though there were a lot
of hassles, petty thefts, troubles with the sound
The space had been a bathhouse
back in the day and we played on a stage constructed
on top of an old pool -- there was still evidence
of the original aquatic theme hidden if you knew
where to look for them.
Management had an inconsistent
view of the space and the sound and lights were
constantly out of order, and we'd leave them in
a different and we felt better state than when we
came, provoking arguments.
The shows ran on Mondays, so we'd
constantly have trouble booking acts or we'd book
them and they wouldn't show, or once conversely
we overbooked. The seminal beat-boxer Kid Lucky
was a perennial guest, and he never failed to rivet
the audience even if the show had run out of steam
by that point. Sometimes I'd just start loops and
go on playing. I'd make up the names of acts and
scrounge up musicians. One of them, "Drowned
In Drones," has taken on some sort of independent
life and I hope to release a CD of its work.
It eventually ended abruptly when
we showed up and were told we weren't welcome (we
had to sneak in and remove the robo-lighting that
we'd installed in their lighting grid without telling
them...) and had to gather our belonging in the
Elias Stimac: Why
did you choose to move the show uptown to Times
After the downtown gig collapsed, I thought first
of moving it somewhere else and then realized that
for the first time, I was ahead of the game, and
could take a pause and plot. I knew what I wanted
to do, I had a talented and willing cast, and I
had a ton of material to put down "on paper."
I realized that in order to do
the complex show I was imagining I had to expand
the scope of the whole performance. Doing a show
in a bar just wasn't going to hack it, we needed
a real theater space.
We had already done the "Speak
of the Devil" show (a musical history of the
Adversary) in this space at Eight Avenue and 42nd
Street, back when it was the slowly-dying Show World,
reduced to "no live girls" already by
this point, so it has personal historical associations
for us as well and our connection with the almost
venerable composer and producer Steve Zuckerman
naturally lead us back there.
Elias Stimac: What
is it like being a working performer in New York
It's fantastic, I've been at it for two decades
and I never get over it, there are always new musicians
and new ideas and new sounds. Bars close but there
are private parties and weird lofts out in Bushwick
and you could trot your little act out to a hundred
area parties over a year if you were dedicated enough.
Now, if by "working"
you mean "trying to make money," then
it's impossible or extremely difficult, particularly
if you are doing anything at all interesting.
Stimac: Tell us what it is like working and
performing with your castmate
Jeremy X Halpern?
It's unfortunate that I've never found anyone in
my "professional" life as a software engineer
who I could cooperate with as well as I did with
Jeremy (though I had some moments recently with
a long-haired hippie Ozzie engineer at work).
Cooperating with other people
is usually very painful because they only have a
few ideas and they cling on to them like grim death
-- I'll concede anything that people like but then
they can't get past that one idea. Working with
Jeremy is ridiculously easy because he has so many
ideas he isn't hung up on any one and will grab
at any idea of yours at random and integrate it
or chop it up. We've developed our technical chops
together on early MIDI systems and after almost
20 years of working together are still managing
to surprise each other.
Stimac: Talk about some of your special guest
dancers, musicians, and
The guests were the best part, I cannot express
how much of a wish-fulfillment it was to play with
Gibby Haynes, Tristan Perich had a particular memorable
set on that night, a high-energy solo for kit drum
and hand-built electronics. Joshua Fried's Radio
Wonderland's for MIDI shoes, steering wheel and
samples from live radio came back to perform a riveting
set at one of the last shows, but the best part
were the strange drop ins, the most memorable being
the unique Orlando, a strange man who called me
"Sir" at least a dozen times and then
did three songs in a haunting yet silly sort of
mumble/cringe voice with percussive, three-chord
bluesy guitar, climaxing with his "Hotel California"
which to my relief did not appear to contain any
musical or textual material from the tired Eagles
I have to give a lot of the credit
for our success to the cast. The musicians include
the beatboxer Kid Lucky: Dan Jones, a guitarist
with lots of little hand-painted boxes and an electrical
sound, who I used to call "Welsh" on the
program notes; and the Sufic bard Dawoud. And we
would be nothing without the dancers: in random
order, our original core troupe, Faux Maux, Amy
Uzi and Valmonte Sprout, as well as too-many-to-list
dancers in the current troupe (most faithfully Gavin
Alexander and Olga El and now Calamity Mike).
Stimac: What is the most memorable place
you went to perform?
That would have to be the gig on Bondi Radio in
Sydney, Australia, one of the more beautiful places
in the world, broadcast live from the Hotel Bondi
overlooking the magnificent Bondi Beach. It was
an early gig and I wasn't quite up for it but I
had fun jamming, with the DJ, Simon from Crack Radio
(crack means "good" in Australia, cocaine
is non-existent there). It was the night before
I left Australia and got into a lovely mournful
but spiky swirling diminished chord loop with whispering,
all very evocative; I have an Australian citizenship
as well as my other Commonwealth nationalities and
I was very sad to leave.
Stimac: What is up with your band Verge these
We've been having rehearsals for our 20th Anniversary
show and the feeling of playing with musicians I've
been playing with for almost two decades is astonishing
- it's like having a pair of old shoes that will
get up and go places for you. I look in the mirror,
aside from a slight beard I do not appear to have
changed, yet I have all this history under my fingers
and Jeremy's strange songs in their shifting time-signatures
and keys that I haven't played in over a decade
pop forth with only the slightest bidding.
The best part is that the "performance"
stuff that seemed so natural to us at the time now
seems more natural to everyone else so we can do
pretty well much the same thing as always with a
new and hopefully less-close-to-a-count-of-zero
audience. Remember, we started just before the era
of grunge when people stopped even bothering to
dress up before getting on stage. I would say that
for almost half of our performances, the audience
simply didn't have a good idea of what we were doing
Stimac: Do you incorporate your acting and
magic skills into the show?
One of my perennial observations is that magic is
the eccentric uncle in the attic of theatre -- the
fake sincerity of theatre never manages to meet
the sincere and slightly cheesy fakery of conjuring
In the earlier shows, I'd simply
show off tricks I've learned through the fraternity,
with little or no framework, though as part of a
concerted effort to leave the audience in a somewhat
confused state at all times.
It is a golden time for magic
technology right now; I'd say that I've seen three
or four of the most amazing tricks in my life just
in the last year. You don't think of magic as having
technology but it does. Some of it is actual new
technology incorporated into magical effects. But
more of it is older ideas that are refined, clarified,
and combined with new subtle visual and psychological
mechanisms to shape the viewer's experience. I still
haven't mastered all these new ideas and am glad
to have a small set of extremely marvelous things
I can do with little fuss.
Some magicians are theorists (which
actually includes prop builders), others technicians
who actually perform the stuff, and the general
wisdom is that never the twain shall meet but I've
always had a foot in both but only fairly recently
has this borne fruit. My biggest need coming up
is a talented prop and/or costume builder who can
work with me to implement some of this material
- or else, I'll fake it.
The upcoming show is a show indeed
and has a script or at least a bulky and specific
document that functions like a script even though
the actual story might be different each show, characters,
a plot, all sorts of classic twists and triangles
and bicycles and mirrors in the character structure
diagrams. I get to play myself and my tiny evil
nemesis at the same time, it's physically demanding
and I hope disorienting, but my hope is that the
magic, the dance and the acting are well-integrated
as "anomalous effects" inasmuch as there's
no point where we say, "Watch, us clever performers
are going to fool the stupid audience with a trick,"
I always hated that dynamic anyway.
Instead, there is a pervasive
air of unreality about the whole thing, even though
there is a great deal of structure. But I think
that's true of the entire universe. I just want
to push the unreality into people's faces and hope
Elias Stimac: What advice do
you have for other New Yorkers who want to produce
their own shows?
Just do it. Go to the outer boroughs, find a performance
space, start writing, and put a show up, even if
only for yourselves. Practice once a week and put
on shows in your living room or a corner of a bar
if you can't find anything else.
Start with something small you
can achieve, write the shortest clear plan you can.
Good rehearsals mean a good show, if it's a good
show the rehearsals are most of the fun, so have
too many of them, you'll need them and maybe new
stuff will come out of it.
Wind the show up really tight
in the rehearsals, cut out all the extra spaces,
cut to the bone, and then let it relax a little
before you actually do it for the public.
Safety is key! I've been at this
for almost twenty years, these shows aren't dangerous
compared to Siegfried and Roy but we do have little
fire and a lot of electrical things and escapes
and confetti cannons and explosions and sharp props
and darkness and we've never had an injury bar the
most minor scrape.
And even more, have fun.
But do it, do it, do it. Nothing
else will ever make you feel so free!