By STEVE DOLLAR
Most musicians cherish the classic tools of their trade: Rockers may fawn over a 1950s Gibson Les Paul guitar, violinists over a Stradivarius.
Sxip Shirey delights in other treasures. "I go into yuppie toy stores," he said, describing the sort of place where he finds unlikely objects and transforms them into unique instruments. The multifaceted New York-based musician is renowned for his kaleidoscopic array of gewgaws and gadgets repurposed for performances by a one-man gonzo orchestra (with occasional guests and audience participation). On one such excursion to a shop in Grand Central Station, Mr. Shirey came across a batch of canister music boxes, each tuned slightly differently. He bought 35. "You never know when they're not going to make them anymore," he said, noting that the store subsequently went out of business. He has composed several songs with the music boxes grouped in chord progression clusters. "But I have to record before they break, and I might not make it."
Such are the creative issues that inspire Mr. Shirey, who will celebrate his 44th birthday onstage Saturday at Joe's Pub, demonstrating the inherent lyrical allure of such items as the "industrial flute," the enigmatic "Sxipenspiel," a stack of "mutant harmonicas" fed into a pitch-shifting device that makes a "fat, greasy, lumbering pipe-organ sound," a guitar doctored with paper clips and a microphone, and a set of desktop handbells.
"I mute the bells, and you get this thing that sounds like giant crickets singing in a giant cricket chorus," said Mr. Shirey, whose first name is pronounced "Skip." "I compose with bells a lot. Bells and breath. Both things you react to without thinking about it. Bells traditionally give us orders: come to the desk, the truck is backing up, the ice cream is here, it's time to go to church. They're sounds our brains are already associated with."
Should one be inclined to trivialize what Mr. Shirey does as a kind of neo-Vaudevillian shtick, his résumé doubles as a passport of imposing sophistication and variety. He has accompanied clowns and acrobats at the Sydney Opera House and on Broadway, toured as a member of the gypsy-punk string quartet Luminescent Orchestrii, and composed for the Boston Pops as well as the screenwriter and novelist Neil Gaiman, who enlisted Mr. Shirey to write the soundtrack for his 2009 short film, "Statuesque."
At one time, Mr. Shirey, a native of Athens, Ohio, who first came to New York in the late-1980s, was a folk-steeped guitarist with a background in physics. A bout with tendonitis sent him on a detour into puppetry and performance art. Then an eight-year adventure performing in Times Square, and on the road, with the punk-inspired Bindlestiff Family Cirkus pushed him further into uncharted territory. "I was composing for fire-eaters and giant blue bunnies."
The singer-songwriter Amanda Palmer, a fan of Mr. Shirey who sometimes enlists him for her tours, introduced Mr. Gaiman, her husband, to his music when the couple was still dating. "Sxip fascinates me. His music sounds like stories," Mr. Gaiman said via e-mail, "because he works in the places where noise becomes music and does things that make you realize there are no boundaries between noise and music—or not like you imagine."
Last year, for Mr. Shirey's birthday, Mr. Gaiman and Ms. Palmer bought some bicycle bells at a Berlin flea market, attached them to a copper pipe, and christened the result the "Sxipenspiel." When last they met, Mr. Shirey demonstrated his mastery of the instrument with "amazing, glorious, magical bell-music," Mr. Gaiman said. "He nearly got us thrown out of a restaurant, because once he started playing it, he wanted to make music/noise with it some more."
Mr. Shirey, who demonstrates many of his contraptions on his YouTube channel, calls what he does "overly serious novelty music." Chatting over a drink at a Union Square brew pub recently, his conversation tumbled at a brisk clip as he explained the ideas behind it. "I'm the anti indie-rocker," he said. "My stuff isn't ironic." His method of amplifying small acoustic instruments to create gigantic bursts of sound isn't only a neat trick, it's philosophical. "Everyone's intimate experience is epic to them."
The performer's unusually expansive range has won a fan in Bill Bragin, director of Lincoln Center's public programming, who often has taken Mr. Shirey's advice when seeking new acts to book. "He's able to traverse so many of these different scenes," said Mr. Bragin, who hired the musician as part of the opening act for Laurie Anderson's Aug. 10 concert at Lincoln Center Out of Doors. "Even with the sense of experimentation that's part of his music, he's got a really sweet heart."
He's also informed by an impish sense of humor. Mr. Shirey's parents, for instance, did not name him Sxip. One year when he was living in Denver, Mr. Shirey discovered that clubs wouldn't book him unless he was in a band. "So I put the 'x' in the name and dropped my last name so I wouldn't sound like a solo act," he said. "Someone said to me, 'You can't do that. I just had a five-minute discussion on how to pronounce your name!' I immediately thought, you spent five minutes discussing my name? Good marketing!"