December 28, 2010

Skeleton Key Songwriter Erik Sanko Unlocks a Passion for Puppetry

By Lavinia Jones Wright

Skeleton Key Songwriter Erik Sanko

Photo credit: Scott Irvine

With a musical resume that includes working with everyone from John Cale to Yoko Ono as well as a Grammy nomination for the album Fantastic Spikes Through Balloon by his own band, Skeleton Key, Erik Sanko has become one of the New York music scene's favorite sons. But it turns out, Sanko is interested in more than just audible art. This year, his original play, starring a rogue's gallery of creaking marionette puppets, The Fortune Teller experienced a revival. Originally staged in 2006 it was Sanko's first complete puppet play, and it led to more, including Dear Mme., with the Kronos Quartet and his upcoming contributions to Lemony Snicket's The Composer Is Dead. The Fortune Teller is a haunting tale of the seven deadly sins set to an eerie score composed by Sanko with his friend Danny Elfman. Sanko explained to Playback the somewhat secret origins of his interest in puppets, the fun of working with his wife, Jessica Grindstaff, via their production company Phantom Limb and how art might just be coming back into style in New York!

What planted the seed in your mind to create a marionette show?

Growing up in New York City I was lucky enough to go to The Bill Baird Marionette Theater on Barrow Street when I was a little kid. Aside from those amazing shows, I really haven't seen many [puppets].

I started making marionettes in secret at around age 30 for some unknown reason. It scratched an itch that playing music didn't, and I wanted to keep it on the down-low because, among other reasons, it was not very punk rock to tell your friends that you made dolls. At some point my wife, Jessica Grindstaff, was having a gallery show of her music boxes, and she and the gallery owner thought it would be a cool idea to have a married couple show together. I acquiesced, and at the prodding of her and Danny Elfman, I did a short performance. I asked John Cale to record a narration and made a few props and two hundred people showed up! This led me to quote the oft-asked question, "Who knew?" I received a grant from the Jim Henson Foundation, asked Danny to write some music, and Jessie and I began to build The Fortune Teller.

What were the challenges of expressing your idea through (technically) inanimate objects?

They can be remarkably uncooperative. There are a lot of engineering issues that come into play aside from all of the aesthetic considerations. Weight is always a concern and preventing them from doing unwanted things. I guess it's like working with petulant children.

What are the benefits in expression of using puppets instead of actors?

The catering is very cheap. Also, we find that people are willing to invest in marionettes emotionally more than they would in, say for example, an actor whom they knew would go home after the show and have a meal and go about his normal life. There is something about the empty vessel/blank canvas quality of a marionette that invites people to go in very deeply.

Are you a puppeteer yourself?

I am, but I am too busy to perform in any of the shows these days. I miss it but the people we hire are amazing and we know they take good care of our aesthetic.

What do you think the state of puppetry is today? Does it seem to be waning or thriving?

As far as I can tell, it is alive and breathing, though on a respirator, in this country. We are working more in Europe where there is more support and less emphasis on the financial ramifications.

What is it like working with your wife?

It's the best! I am lucky enough to be married to a brilliant artist with an incredible sense of spatial design. It can be tough sometimes, but I couldn't imagine working with anyone else. We have developed a shorthand and obviously share a common vision.

How did the creation of The Fortune Teller compare to the process of staging your other shows also employing puppetry?

Because it was our first play, it employed a very steep learning curve. In general, I have never been willing to compromise my integrity for the sake of attracting a more general audience. If something is problematic and smells suspect, I say forget it. As a result, I have never made a ton of money, but I have a catalog of music under my belt that I am very proud of. This was all part of our philosophy while building The Fortune Teller and with all the friends and colleagues we work with it is the same. We would rather have a nice time and make sure everyone feels recognized and appreciated than focus on deadlines and money. During the building of The Fortune Teller it was a labor of love that was shared by all. Now although the plays are on much larger scales both physically and financially, we maintain the same criteria but we are able to pay better.

What is the difference for you personally in your working style between composing for stage productions and writing rock and pop songs?

The music I write with Skeleton Key is loud, angular and unapologetic, though we have never been afraid to use the words "precious" or "beautiful" when discussing them. Music for stage or film has to support a variety of narratives and be substantial on its own. The music I just finished writing for The Kronos Quartet for our current piece in development has to both provide an environment as well as be the subject of the theatrical event. It has to gracefully vacillate between the background and the foreground.

How do you manage your time? You've had an incredible creative output.

Since I work with my wife our life has become very mobile. When you are with your creative partner all the time, we never have to schedule a Skype call or anything. We can always design on the go, and I can work on music on the laptop (I wrote some of the Kronos music in Antarctica!)

You're a real modern Renaissance man, working with so many different collaborators in so many different mediums, do all of your projects inform each other?

Firstly, thank you very much and to answer your question, yes. We try to conduct ourselves with the same dignity, clarity and integrity across the board. We are great fans of collaborating and I find it very much like playing improvised music in that no matter how skilled one may be in their particular discipline, without the capacity to listen as well as generate conversation, you're only going to get half the picture.

You had a Grammy nomination in 1997 for Fantastic Spikes...what do you think of the modern Grammys? Do they hold any weight anymore? What did the nomination mean to you at the time?

At the time, we didn't take it too seriously because we knew it was more of a popularity contest, and we aren't particularly award-centric, though we were very excited for Stefan Sagmeister, the designer. The night of the awards Danny [Elfman] was also nominated, and he was in town. I knocked on his hotel room door, he opened it extending his hand and said "Congratulations, we both lost, now let's get drunk!"

What changes have you seen in the New York music scene since you've been working in it?

The financial reality of living in New York coupled with the pervasive conservative financial mindset made it pretty threadbare here. Clubs have closed and studios are all but extinct. However, some wonderful stuff has grown out of the ashes, a genuine underground of people eager to be creative despite the potential consequences. Its hip to make art again!

What's on the burner for you musically and theatrically? What are your next projects?

We just opened a play at The Berkeley Repertory Theater that was a collaboration with children's book author Lemony Snicket. We are about to embark on production designing "The Little Matchgirl Passion," the Pulitzer Prize winning choral piece by David Lang for the Santa Fe Opera. In January we are releasing another Skeleton Key CD, which we will support live. We will spend the summer developing our piece "69˚ S." (the Kronos collaboration) in the Netherlands for its U.S premiere at B.A.M. next fall, and after that we will be working on an opera about Nikola Tesla with composer Phil Kline and director Jim Jarmusch for 2013-14. After that we may lapse into a coma or have a baby depending on our condition.