As Victoria Shen walks me through her plans for the night’s performance, testing each piece of audio gear that she’s created on the table in front of her, she says she doesn’t always know where things are going to go.
“I know how I’m going to start, for sure,” says the San Francisco experimental musician, who uses the stage name Evicshen. “Tonight I’m going to start with the amplified music box—play a little bit with the music box, like feedback and reverb—and then go into turntablism stuff. And intersperse it with synths and amplified objects. And I’m almost always gonna end with the whip.”
Then again, she’s not entirely sure if tonight’s audience is going to get the whip.
“There’s often times where I don’t feel like I’ve built up enough attention for the whip,” she explains.
So the audience has to earn the whip?
“Yeah,” she says with a laugh. “Something like that.”
We’re standing on the stage of the Kuumbwa while Shen does her soundcheck. It’s a Friday night, Sept. 16, and Shen is opening for Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s sold-out show. I’m there because I’ve just seen Shen perform the week before at the San Jose club the Ritz, opening for the iconic Bay Area experimental group Negativland. Negativland’s set—a sprawling multimedia performance that started out by exploring whether we’re still playing video games or they’re playing us, and eventually turned that into a question of how the insurrectionists on Jan. 6 were allowing themselves to be played—was brilliant, but having seen them before, I knew that it would be.
What I was unprepared for was Shen’s startling performance, which is what inspired me to reach out to her and see if I could tag along tonight to see what an Evicshen soundcheck could possibly be like.
At the Ritz, Shen started off on the floor in front of the stage, at the audience’s level. The fold-up table that held the boxes and DIY instruments she plays was visually intriguing, especially the way the multi-colored vinyl records on her turntables are lit from underneath. Not only does she create the turntables the records play on, by the way, she makes the records, too, molding together slices of existing records, and then playing them with wired phonographic needles attached to her fingertips. The sound is a wild cacophony as she plays different mashed-up recordings at different speeds.
Then there’s the industrial noise she creates by manipulating various metal pieces that she’s turned into instruments—like a band saw blade, two bass string dangling from a collar with a guitar pickup mounted to it (that she plays with a violin bow) and even a comb that creates very ASMR-like noises when she brushes her hair.
All the while, she maintained an incredible intensity and an aggressive performance style, pushing her table further into the audience as the set progressed. By the time I saw the whip come out at the end of the Ritz set, I leaned over to my friend and whispered, “Did you sign a waiver for something? ’Cause I didn’t sign a waiver.” You could feel the tension in the audience as Shen climbed up on the table and began to spin the whip over her head confidently, finally cracking it a very safe distance above our heads, with the crowd taking a collective cathartic sigh after the amped-up sound thundered through the room.
In person at the sound check, Shen is the furthest thing from her stage persona. She’s friendly and warm, and adept at explaining her complicated electronics to a layperson like me who has no clue how anyone could make things like this. (For her, it all started years ago with an MIT class called “How to Build Anything.” She is living that class name’s best life.)
When I ask her how it feels to crack the whip above the heads of a nervous audience, she smiles. “I do feel very in control. It’s an ‘Ah, I have people’s attention’ type of thing, you know? Like, what’s gonna happen next? It feels very playful, honestly. It feels mischievous, I guess. I don’t ever intend to hurt anyone—but I want people to think that.”
And then she laughs again. Whatever you might call Shen’s music—noise, experimental, avant-garde—the sound itself seems less important, in the live setting at least, than the self-made world of sound she creates, and the performance aesthetic that is pure punk rock.
“I really want the physicality and presence to be at the fore,” she says.
Her brash style has gotten her some unexpected attention this year; in July, Beyoncé’s creative team admitted to the San Francisco Chronicle that they had lifted the idea for the superstar dragging chrome needles across a record, in a video released by British Vogue, from Shen. After Evicshen fans called out the copycat move, Beyoncé’s publicist apologized for not crediting her.
Shen didn’t know anything about the video before it came out, and was actually in Santa Cruz when she first heard about it in July.
“That was a super weird experience,” she tells me at the Kuumbwa soundcheck. At the time, there was a bit of weirdness left hanging about what exactly Beyoncé’s team was going to do next in regards to Shen’s needle-nail designs. By the time I talk to her, though, that has changed.
“They actually just bought a set,” she says. “They were like, ‘Can you overnight this to L.A.?’ So I stayed up ’til 4am Saturday night making a set for Beyoncé.”
A couple of hours later, I watch Shen’s opening set, and the Kuumbwa audience at first seems a lot different than the one at the Ritz (which was admittedly a bit more prepared for Evicshen simply by the fact that they were there to see Negativland). A few people actually walk outside as the first wave of metallic chaos washes over the room.
But by mid-set, the tide has turned. People are standing from their seats and craning their necks to try to see everything Shen is doing as she moves around the stage and into the audience. They cheer when she picks up various new instruments.
In the end, they earn the whip—and love it.
Will the next Santa Cruz audience? We’ll find out when Shen performs an Evicshen set at Indexical on the Tannery campus on Saturday. She’ll be celebrating the opening of her electro-acoustic installation Light Scratches, Deep Cuts, which will run through Feb. 28.
Evicshen performs at 8:30pm on Saturday, Oct. 15 at Indexical, 1050 River St., #119 on the Tannery Arts Center campus. $16 general, $8 members. There will be a Q&A afterward with Victoria Shen. The exhibit Victoria Shen: Light Scratches, Deep Cuts runs through Feb. 28 at Indexical. evicshen.com. indexical.org.