Words- Jaime Boddorff

Photo- Collaboration between Jaime Boddorff and Shen Din Shen

 

It’s noon on a Saturday when I arrive to meet Eliza and J.X. of Shen Din Shen at Eliza’s home in Queens, New York. Eliza answers the door wearing a baggy t-shirt that’s cut and tied in the back to fit her waist, black spandex, and messy hair. Inside J.X. is jumping and stretching as we lounge around drinking tea in the first sunlight we’ve seen in awhile. We work out the details of the intricate photo shoot we planned for the day. After an hour of proposing and speculating we set to work on a long, involved process. It takes four hours for the names “Eliza” and “Jack” to simply disintegrate into foreign sounds, and as the two take on more layers of thick, jet-black oil paint on their skin they transform into peculiarly quiet creatures; their movements are as slow and calculated as the moments before a cat pounces on a small rodent. Their eyes widen, their neck muscles tighten, and their heads cock to the side as their vision intently focuses on the object of their curiosity: my camera. For two more hours very little is spoken aside from what’s necessary. That moment of mutual photographer-subject understanding, the moment many photographers strive for when everyone involved becomes equal and reliant on each other, we achieved it and I came to understand Shen Din Shen.

 

First of all, where did the name Shen Din Shen come from and how did you start coming up with the ideas for the band?

 

J.X.: Isshin-Denshin is mutual understanding without words, but the other interpretation of that, of the four characters of Isshin-Denshin, they can be translated to “what the heart and mind think, the heart and mind transmit”. Usually it’s translated either “heart” or “mind”, but the character shen means both, it’s like a unitary concept so the idea of wordless communication about the essential seems really appealing. It also connects with our goal and interest of having an interdisciplinary approach to the work both in performance and the release process and in the video, for example. [We’re] very much intently coming at it from multiple angles.  We’re excited by an approach that’s more integrative: improvisational practices and theatrical practices. That’s a few different points there [laughs]… but that’s the name, Shen Din Shen with some mispronunciation and tailoring of the Japanese concepts Isshin-Denshin: communication without words.

 

Eliza: I was really struck by the meaning of it: what mind and heart think, mind and heart transmit. But especially without words. So much of what we’ve created thus far together, the sounds are often there first both in the instruments and in our voices, but they often come out as these, kind of, wailings before we have words for something. I thought it was appropriate that the definition of this name is “without words”.

 

Can you talk about your time in California? J.X., you were living in California and Eliza you spent some time there, is that when it all started or did you plan beforehand?

 

Eliza: We started to work on Grow in New York, actually. We did a one-day recording of it in our apartment in Lefferts Gardens. That got us really excited in a new way to work with one another and we saw the potential in that. I think the song Grow is what inspired it all, what inspired me to go out to California and then start making together.

 

J.X.: So we released it first. It’s the same live recording we made in a bedroom. It was made at a specific time in our lives and had a raw feeling that felt important to keep, especially in electronic music.

 

The video for Grow is really the only work you’ve released that people have to go off of right now, and there’s a strong dark aesthetic in the visuals and a strong androgynous theme with unclear close-up shots of the body, for example. I actually didn’t even notice there were two girls in the video until I saw there was a credited dancer. Is that something you’re going for intentionally, is it naturally occurring and you don’t think about it, or is it something you recognize and then enhance?

 

J.X.: We were definitely very conscious of emphasizing androgyny in the video. I think because those questions of identity are fundamentally interesting… It’s just interesting to ask questions.

 

Eliza: You so often see the female singer and the video revolving around her, so we wanted to take that away. Making our first work in a way where I’m not the focal point and where you don’t see me singing and you don’t see my face is a good way to start.

 

 

Eliza: To me it’s about breaking free of controls: the controls and circumstances outside of myself and within myself, and the ideas of being controlled by another person. So having three bodies in the film gave us a number of different ways to break free from these different controls.

 

Going back to the dark aesthetic, is that something you’re drawn to or is it tailored to the music you’re making?

 

J.X.: If you were to look at the motion and specific movements in the video, what is that? Is that darkness, exactly, or is it parts of the psyche that aren’t allowed to be present in our everyday lives? If an arm moves in an expressive, intense way and I do that on Spring Street or something, then it’s like “There’s a problem”, but it’s representative of a feeling that everyone has had.

 

Eliza:  It’s back to that point of asking questions. What are these times that I’m just feeling “dark”? Or what is going on in the world around me? I’m asking those questions and understanding myself more, and that comes out in the sounds I choose. And to me it’s an opportunity. Performance is an opportunity to explore ways of being that aren’t acceptable in our everyday life. The things we can and can’t do, how we can and can’t look while walking down the street… and so I want to explore those questions in this container.

Androgyny is also something that seems to be really “in” in the fashion world with models switching roles and transgender models, it’s seen as “edgy”. It’s also just becoming more acceptable in general, what are your thoughts on that and how does it relate to what you’re doing?

 

Eliza: What this was reminding me of in our previous answer is expressing things that maybe everyone feels or doesn’t want to express or is scared of expressing, [and it] connects to this thing between all of us that is “what is the body?”… what does that really say about us as individuals?

 

J.X.: What are people’s perceptions of us?

 

Eliza: Right.

 

J.X.: …based on factors that none of us have control over like birth gender or body type?

 

Eliza: What does that say about who we really are?

 

J.X.: Of course, nothing.

 

Eliza: And so that’s something we’re really interested in exploring and that’s why we had the three bodies and why we were playing with the gender roles there. It’s to erase. And the paint, covering ourselves and covering our faces to erase as much as we can – or not erase but, I guess, develop and maybe… “mystify” our physical appearances.

 

J.X.: It’s like when you see something and you think you know what it is. I think that’s some of the appeal of androgyny. It’s intrinsically appealing when something is different from your preconceived box for it.

 

I remember reading some of Kant’s ideas on beauty and aesthetics, and he had this idea that when your brain has to work harder to figure out what something is, that’s what makes the feeling of “oh that’s interesting so I’m going to think about it more and concentrate on it a little longer”. There’s something that’s a little bit off or that you just can’t quite put your finger on. He was talking about it with regard to art, but it applies to everything.

 

Eliza: Exactly. Why can’t we ask questions for the audience and for ourselves? We’d be giving the audience a gift to require questions, to make them want to dig deeper to figure things out.

 

Do you think there’s anyone who currently does that? Someone who is well known?

 

 

Eliza: David Bowie, obviously; anonymous acts on the Internet…

Jack: Captain & Tennille. They’re really performing gender [laughs]…

 

Are you planning on playing shows, and if so you’re also working with a lot of theatrical elements, how do you foresee shows playing out?

 

 

J.X.: I think specific performances will be tailored to the needs of the particular thing. Between us we have a background in bands, but also theater, site-specific work,  performance art. You’re going to be able to present something different in different venues, different media.

 

Do you look for inspiration? Where does your creative imagery come from?

 

Eliza: Günter Brus, Butoh, Alexander McQueen is someone I’ve been looking at for inspiration for performance, Leigh Bowery; Margaret Atwood; in California we were reading this kind of post-apocalyptic coffee-table book America by Baudrillard…

 

J.X.: Once we had the idea to make this butcher paper list of artists we were inspired by and it got so long and involved, everybody from Caetano Veloso to like Nihill and Baths, Linda Perhacs, Throbbing Gristle, whatever. It was an absurdly long list so we stopped. So, “everything”? Ugh.

 

Eliza: Musically for me it would start with Meredith Monk, Bat For Lashes, PJ Harvey, The Knife, Lauryn Hill, the Cranberries’ first record is really great…yeah.

 

J.X: Weren’t you learning Bone Thugz songs for a while?

 

Eliza: Yeah…

 

J.X.: But like, these questions are funny because hopefully what comes through in a finished artistic product isn’t, like, reducible to a list of influences. But because our culture confuses Artist, Persona, and Work, and even demands that they be externally consistent, you have people who try and pose, being like, “Only Henry Cowell! Fuck the world.” [laughs]

 

When can we expect to see more?

 

J.X.: We’re playing some low-key shows coming up and looking forward to touring in the spring and summer. We’re constantly recording. In California we wrote a large amount of material and so now we’re at a point where we’re deciding what and how to put it into the world in a thoughtful way. It leaves the option to explode a record out to an unwitting world, so to speak, but…there are other models too.

 

Check out the video for Grow

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