The 74-person-maximum-capacity sign posted on the wall of Union Square Pool has been violated—probably several times over. The audience, populated in part by some of New York’s less-inhibited indie musicians, forms a spontaneous ring of folk-dancing; onlookers clap, kick up their heels, and partner with people they’ve never met before. Between songs, Sxip Shirey, band leader of the Brooklyn-based Luminescent Orchestrii (or Lumii, for short), takes the mic. “I love musicians who are really good but who aren’t assholes,” he says. “This is a room of people who aren’t assholes.”
Lumii is celebrating the release of their second album, Neptune’s Daughter. The album blends traditional and original Balkan-inspired songs; musical styles include Klezmer, Macedonian, Romanian, Bulgarian—even human beat-boxing. The four-piece string band consists of Shirey on resophonic guitar, Rima Fand and Sarah Alden on violin, and Benjy Fox Rosen on bass. All four members contribute vocals, and Fand and Alden harmonize so seamlessly with each other that it’s difficult to tell one voice from the other. In the studio and in person, Lumii’s music is furiously intense, technically skillful, and nearly impossible not to dance to.
The day after the show, Shirey, who’s one-quarter Albanian and originally from Ohio, is still riding the high of the previous night’s double set. He’s outspoken about his love for Balkan music and about what he perceives to be a major vice of New York City audiences: “puritanism.”
Linda Leseman (Rail): Your first name, Sxip—is that your given name?
Sxip Shirey: My given name is Gene. My mother, when she was pregnant, ate a lot of Skippy peanut butter, and my father, as a joke said, “Let’s call him Skippy.” So that’s how I got that nickname. In Denver I did solo music, but the club owners would only hire bands. So I put the “x” in my name to make it sound more like a band. And it worked really well. Good marketing, that’s what it is.
Rail: How did you become interested in Eastern European music?
Shirey: I was always drawn to it, and it’s great music. Whether it has anything to do with my heritage, I don’t know. But I’m always drawn to the minor-key songs. There’s all sorts of music that I’ve always been attracted to, but then when I heard Balkan music, it just spoke to me really deeply.
Rail: How much adaptation of the traditional songs do you do when you’re arranging them for the Orchestrii?
Shirey: The melody is the same, but the rhythmic structure changes often, and we add harmonies, and we add arrangement to it, and the way that the music is played changes.
I kind of compare it to the way that in the ’60s young musicians would discover blues music and go and rip it off. And in some cases, like the Rolling Stones or Led Zeppelin, they took the blues and did their own thing with it. And so that’s what we’re doing. We’re not playing music the way a gypsy would. It’s always an interesting issue if you’re taking another culture’s music and either claiming it as your own or doing your own thing with it. That’s also the process of culture, you know. Culture is theft.
Rail: How do you learn the different Eastern European languages that are in your song lyrics?
Shirey: Phonetically. We’ve had people come up and correct our pronunciation. Sometimes Romanians come up and say, “Oh that’s perfect!” and we think they’re lying.
Rail: Do you see Balkan music becoming a wider movement in the indie scene?
Shirey: As a movement for music, it’s a little different from indie rock. To play this music, you have to be technically proficient, to some degree. It’s non-ironic, passionate, ferocious music for people who can play.
I don’t think a lot of younger musicians know why they play music. They like it, and they do it, but it could be model airplane building or butterfly collecting. They don’t know why they’re doing it yet. And maybe they don’t need to. And maybe their reasons are, it’s interesting to them intellectually, or whatever, or it works for them emotionally.
Rail: I noticed there’s no percussion in your band, but your style of playing the guitar is very percussive.
Shirey: We don’t play with a drummer, usually. And the fact is, there is percussion because no one’s standing listening to it, everyone’s dancing. So, they are the rhythm. It puts the responsibility of being the rhythmic center and the responsibility of being the social center back on the audience.
I don’t know if you noticed, last night, at the beginning of the set, I told anyone who wants to dance to come up to the front and dance. People in this country need to be given permission to do things that other people do all over the planet —like dancing to music. We live in a Puritan culture, and we’re still Puritan. This whole people-watching-music-with-their-arms-folded, it’s Puritanism, kind of raised to this level of snobbery. Dig a little bit, and you can find audiences who are responding to music on this really visceral, sexy, hot level. And on this crazy intellectual level, the music’s really sophisticated and fantastic.
Linda Leseman is a journalism grad student at NYU. She is glad that she's about to graduate.