Gideon Irving: From the living rooms of the world to the Edinburgh Fringe
By Caro Moses | Published on Tuesday 23 August 2016
Gideon Irving can usually be found performing his music in the living rooms of his audience. But occasionally the multi-instrumentalist and raconteur is persuaded into a more conventional performance space, which is good news for us here at the Fringe.
Having performed at last year’s Festival with his friend and occasional collaborator Hubcap, this year he is performing solo show ‘Songs, Space Travel And Everything In-Between’. We caught up with Gideon to find out about the show, his music making, and why the living room makes such a great venue.
CM: Can you tell us a bit about what we can expect from ‘Songs, Space Travel And Everything In-Between?
GI: I’ve actually spent a great amount of energy keeping my audiences in the dark! I have this unusual privilege of playing in homes to audiences that have little to no idea about what will happen. They come expecting some folk fellow to strum some banjo tunes and they get something considerably more… well, involved.
I like that people still come to shows with limited information. I like having a room full of risk takers. This is why I don’t have any bits of any shows I’ve made on YouTube. But I’ll say that the show is eclectic, musical and from my gut. I call my style ‘stove top folk’ and, when pressed further, I describe it as “a bit of this and some of that”. I can appreciate if people find that terribly annoying!
CM: No, we’re fine with that! Though, maybe you could tell us more about all the different instruments you play?
GI: In this show I’ve got my banjo Rosana, my bouzouki, guitar, whirly tube, scacciapensieries, harmonica, mbira, shruti box, bells, chimes, electronics and good ol vocal chords.
The shruti box is a devotional Indian instrument designed to drone and chant with. The whirly tube is a piece of house hardware that sings like an orca. The bouzouki is an eight stringed tear drop that thinks its a mandolin while it pretends to be a lute. And the scacciapensieri is an unnecessarily Italian word for a small mouth twanger that packs a big punch.
I also often travel with a musical saw, harmonium, accordion and ocean harp, but folks will have to see some other show some other time for those treasures.
CM: Despite all the music, the show is listed in the Fringe’s theatre programme. Why did you go that route?
GI: We categorise it that way because it is a piece of theatre rooted in music. I play songs, but I play them theatrically, and there is a continuity to the piece that has an arc and an accumulated meaning by the end. Whenever it feels hard to list a show as simply ‘theatre’ or ‘music’ – or something else entirely, like, say ‘magic popcorn burlesque ballet gameshow’ – I feel like I’ve done my job. A good show to me is something that travels across those lines and has a variety of surprises.
CM: You often play in people’s homes, and I sense that’s the space you like best. How has it been performing in a more conventional venue?
GI: I love the venue, the staff, and my incredible team that have brought me out here and have made the show possible. It’s sincerely been a wonderful time thus far.
Though yes, I’m more comfortable playing in people’s homes. That’s my top love, my primary partner, even though I’m polyamorous when it comes to spaces for shows. I miss getting to hang out with my audiences before the show and well into the night. I miss staying the night at my host’s home and learning about their lives and their crap and their worries and hopes, thus home shows remain my main endeavour. And I reckon they will remain the focus of my performance practice for a long long time.
At the Fringe, it’s wondrous to have help setting up my show in fifteen minutes – in homes it takes two hours! It’s wondrous to be able to rest afterwards and not be on on on all the time. It’s just a different glorious beast. In the fall I’ll be bringing a larger version of this show to a full set we are building in a New York theatre. I’ll be playing in that venue seven times a week, but I’ll also be going home to stay with a different audience member every night. That marriage of the two experiences should be interesting.
While I’m open to new and exciting performance opportunities my hunt is always for connections. I find 90% of my hosts for future tours from my audiences writing down names and contacts of folks they think might enjoy hosting me and my show in their home on maps I provide after my performances.
My hunt, logistically, is always for new hosts in new places. Finding hosts in small rural towns, in countries I’ve never heard of, on boats, finding enough hosts in a particular place to warrant a tour. My hunt creatively is how to make more, different, better, funner shows both by myself and with new collaborators. When I imagine those new shows I see them in the warm glow of a living room somewhere between the casserole and the couch.
CM: How did you start out playing in people’s homes?
GI: I was in a band with two dear friends. We had just finished playing 62 shows in 68 days across 7000 miles of America. We were on the right track, getting better and playing in more prestigious venues – but it was not a thrilling format for me.
I’m an old ancient grandpa of a man in a 30 year old’s body. I don’t like clubs and bands and dancing. I like to have a drink, but in an arm chair preferably watching a five year old discover some new wonder of life in a living room. I like talking to people instead of shouting at them. So when I saw Julian Koster, the saw player of hit 90s band Neutral Milk Hotel, play a show in a living room in Bayside Queens to eighteen rapt audience members I was hooked. Here was this glorious weirdo doing whatever he could imagine in the warmest, most intimate of spaces. That was my kind of club!
I wanted to start singing my songs, find my voice and find my show. Playing in people’s homes seemed a great place to workshop material. My best friend Hubcap recommended I do my first tour in New Zealand. He pointed out that all the traveling acts just pass through the main three cities there. I was interested in staying fairly rural to play small towns. He said they would just be so excited and touched that you made the effort to get to such a small place they should be a receptive audience, even if you are still figuring out what it is you do. He was spot on.
I toured on my bicycle Beowulf with my trailer of instruments, Wiglaf, dragging behind. I peddled over 3000 miles – very slowly with all the baggage – and played in 80 homes. That was the first time I played my songs for people. It was full on. I hit my physical and emotional limit about 30 times in that tour, but I emerged with a voice and a sense of what kind of shows I wanted to make.
Playing in homes is the perfect place to workshop material and to grow a thick skin as a performer. There is no hiding from your audience. You see everyone’s face, there is no spotlight blinding you. You see what works and what fails immediately. You see when people are laughing, when they are crying and when they are sleeping and you know what to hold on to and what to let go of.
I enjoy not knowing what to expect. I don’t know what kind of home it will be and I know very little about the host. I love seeing how people live, perhaps learning how I want to live, what kind of life I want to make by way of exposure to so many others, so many choices and stories. Intimacy is often expedited in this curious way.
After I have given my show and thrown my heart against the wall I’ve only got the night and the next morning with folks, and as a result people often open up to me. I gave my show and many are excited to reciprocate and share their feelings, their treasures, their woe, their advice, their sacred lil something. It often feels like an exchange of big gifts in a short period of intense time.
It also makes me feel special and unique. I’m gonna die really soon and I think feeling special or creating a system of life where I can feel special, or people tell me I’m special, helps me feel a bit further from my inevitable reality. Perhaps being from America, a culture which allegedly celebrates individuality at every turn, and from a family that pounded in to my brain, for better and for worse, that I was special, has something to do with my drive towards stepping outside the format.
CM: You mentioned Hubcap. You were here last year performing with him and got rave reviews. Are the two of you likely to return to the Fringe together any time soon?
GI: Hubcap is my boy, my spirit brother, my platonic husband in song and play. We had a ball at the Fringe last year and would love to return at some point. Alas he is a professor, a podcaster, a jazzman and a real husband, so I only get him a few weeks a year. We are currently in development with a kids home show that we would like to bring to small theatres as well. I take him when I can get him and we have a painful amount of fun.
CM: What do you like about Edinburgh, and what made you want to come back?
GI: The money! The big sweaty stacks of money that I roll around in every night. Just kidding. I think about five people actually make money at Edinburgh and I haven’t met any of them yet.
It’s fun! And I learn a great deal. The shows I love teach me about what I want to make. The shows I don’t dig teach me about what I want to avoid. I love a show that I hate. I think it’s beautiful and astounding how much effort we can put into something as artists and still have it not work. I see shows I don’t connect to all the time and I’m like “wow! there was so much work that went into that thing that did not connect to me!” I appreciate it. I appreciate this ridiculous ludicrous effort to make a thing and connect.
When I love a show it’s magic. I’m thrilled to be a person! I didn’t really go to college. School was always a miserable and painful experience for me. My education has been people, places and shows. Last year at the Fringe I saw 60 shows! I loved 30 of em and ten blew my mind! What a place to be! I’d say I wanted to come back for 50% fun, 50% education, and 112% gorsintivistoropple.
CM: Going back the the very beginning, did you always want to be a musician? And did you begin with more conventional instruments?
GI: I did not. I wanted to be a spaceman who ate televisions until I understood the nature of space travel and the nature of televisions much better. I came to the music game late late late.
In fact, I didn’t start playing anything until I was 20 and I carry around some rich awful sadness with me about that. I tooled around with a ukulele for a bit, but then everyone in the universe started playing the uke so I bought a banjo. The banjo was the first instrument I really dove into. I started calling myself a banjo player the day before I bought the banjo, because why not? I’m a big fan of fake-it-till-you-make-it, or maybe fake-it-and-keep-on-faking-it.
Immediately after buying a banjo I moved in with Akira Satake, a legend of a banjo player and a potter in Swannanoa, North Carolina. I had met him four years earlier while working my way across the country as a seventeen year old and he’d given me 20 CDs that I listened to excessively. I lived in his basement and worked as his assistant in pottery for a year and a half. In exchange he played music with me after dinner each night.
I went down there with the intention of becoming some impressive technician on the banjo. I wanted to play bluegrass and I wanted to play it fast and hard. Looking back, I’m not sure why. I thought I loved it. I wanted to love something and that seemed like a good choice. Somewhere in that attempt I started writing more songs and fiddling with more instruments. In the end I was drawn towards playing more instruments in simpler ways to make different songs.
I don’t need to know what I’m doing, I probably should, but I don’t need to. I just need to love new sounds and have a great deal of patience to sit on the couch, fiddle around with something and know that if I stay put I can squeeze a song out.
I’m a guy who makes music now, but I still don’t consider myself a musician. To me a musician is someone who can pick up a thing and jam. I don’t jam and I have no idea what a diminished D7 chord looks like, I just lock myself inside with a bunch of sound makers and bang my head against the wall till something is there.
CM: What or who influences you?
GI: Pranks. Nothing makes me happier than hearing about or creating a friendly prank. Which is to say, I like surprise. Seeing, hearing, doing, being a part of a good surprise has been a big influence.
Shows that unfold and bring me to places I completely did not expect. Sounds I did not expect. Anything I don’t expect feels influential. Life is a series of patterns and habits and comforts and then whamo-whopadooey, something different happens. I like that. I wanna make those and I like when they are made for me.
Music wise I love You Won’t, Sondheim, Julia Read, Raky Sastri, Dave Harrington, Hubcap… At the Fringe I’ve felt moved and super influenced by ‘Randy Writes A Novel’, The Gandini Jugglers, Desiree Burch, ‘Only Bones’ and Nina Conti.
CM: Do you have any unfulfilled ambitions?
GI: The big unfulfilled ambition that’s on the docket is The Horse Tour. I am currently planning to tour a new show through people’s homes on horseback across at least 8000 miles of America in 2019. I’ll be traveling with three horses: one to ride, one to pack and one to rest. All three will rotate regularly and I’ll be playing in a different home once or twice a week for eighteen months.
I’ve already been working on it for a year and I’ve given myself to September 2019 to depart because it’s a really complicated thing to plan! You’ve gotta find the hosts and the homes, places to stay in between, farriers for every six to eight weeks, support volunteers every 200-300 miles who are willing to pick up a horse if it needs medical attention while I carry on with the other two, routes and alternate routes and contingency backup alternate routes, campsites, horse motels – yeah that’s a real thing! – feed and water, and and and I gotta get horses and learn how to ride the damn things!
It’s a lot, but I’m doing it. Could be a bad idea, but I reckon it’s a great bad idea. I’m really taking the time to do it right and be safe for myself and my travel companions. I’ve been enjoying reading everything horse lately.
After The Horse Tour I’d like to travel by foot, by boat and by fixed wing aircraft. I’d also like to make a show to be performed to just one person at a time and do a tour that focuses on hermit hosts. And there’s the kids show with Hubcap. Plus I’d like to do a show that is not language dependent, to be toured in non-English speaking countries and communities. And then there’s things like “operation turtle soar”, but that one is currently private!
CM: I hear you’re a big fan of sandwiches. What’s your favourite kind?
GI: I like bresaola, prosciutto san danielle, sun dried tomato, basil, fresh mozzarella, red onion, avocado and red leaf lettuce on artisanal toasted seven grain sourdough with a dash of oil and vinegar.
CM: And finally, other than the show, and the sandwiches, what else have you been doing while you’ve been in Edinburgh?
GI: Seeing shows, eating chips, working on my upcoming show for New York, and enjoying the perpetual chaos and energy of the Festival. Oh, and I had a day off and went to a loch! I made pasta with the loch water which was peaty and delicious.
‘My Name Is Gideon: Songs, Space Travel And Everything In-Between’ was performed at Pleasance Courtyard at Edinburgh Festival 2016.
Photo by Kat Gollock