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Elias Stimac Talks to Tom Swirly


Getting Psyched 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.

Elias Stimac: Your show is subtitled “a microRave" -- what was your inspiration for the show?

Tom Swirly: 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.

Elias Stimac: What’s it like, performing every week in the East Village in the basement of an Chinese-themed drag cabaret?

Tom Swirly: Well, it was a lot of fun, though there were a lot of hassles, petty thefts, troubles with the sound and lights.

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 very-appropriate drizzle.

Elias Stimac: Why did you choose to move the show uptown to Times Square?

Tom Swirly: 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 City?

Tom Swirly: 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.

Elias Stimac: Tell us what it is like working and performing with your castmate
Jeremy X Halpern?

Tom Swirly: 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.

Elias Stimac: Talk about some of your special guest dancers, musicians, and
performance artists.

Tom Swirly: 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 song.

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).

Elias Stimac: What is the most memorable place you went to perform?

Tom Swirly: 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.

Elias Stimac: What is up with your band Verge these days?

Tom Swirly: 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 or why.

Elias Stimac: Do you incorporate your acting and magic skills into the show?

Tom Swirly: 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 halfway.

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 they laugh.

Elias Stimac: What advice do you have for other New Yorkers who want to produce their own shows?

Tom Swirly: 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!



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