An Interview with Dan Sperry, the Anti-Conjuror

Dan Sperry. Photo by Radiant Inc

Not only is Dan Sperry hilariously self-deprecating, he’s also a fabulous chatterbox, a master of eyeliner and has a wardrobe most Goths would kill for (or kill to stand next to). He’s also a magician. Yep, that’s right. He uses doves, white rabbits and even cuts girls in half…just in a way that won’t bore you to tears. In fact it may make you see magicians in a whole new light (or in Dan’s case, a whole new darkness). Ahead of his string of tour dates with The Illusionists – a bunch of guys that look like a Magic Circle version of The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen – he talks about his love of coffee, secret NYE shows and smuggling stuff through customs.

You’ve recently finished a couple of dates in Germany, how did the fans in Europe treat you?
Yeah I did…it was awesome! I have a really huge fanbase in Europe and they are especially strong in Germany so it was really cool to be able to get back there and squeeze in a few shows among the crazy Halloween season ones I do here in the US every year. It can quickly become very costly for a promoter to bring my show overseas because of all the cargo, so these were sort of a smaller scale show but the fans came and were super supportive nonetheless and I can’t wait to get back there again next year!

Do you have plans to visit other European countries in the future?
I’d love to get back to the UK again and of course Germany, Austria, and the Czech Republic to name a few…I think one of my favorite places to travel to for a gig was Prague, that city is awesome.

I’ve seen your pictures of your doves’ travel case for the plane, is it difficult to transport your magic animals across borders?
Yeah super difficult actually. I basically have like 3 versions of my show that I can offer to promoters depending on their budget and what kind of venue and sponsor is behind the gigs. I’m lucky though to have lots of contacts all over the world for birds so most of the time when I travel abroad I borrow birds for the shows because it is cheaper that way…for example when I was originally going to bring my birds to Germany for a tour last year it would have cost about $3,000 round trip and sadly that just wasn’t in the budget for the promoter. Not to mention the weight of all the equipment and then if there’s any space left over I pack my clothes. I’ve gotten pretty good at learning to wash my clothes in the hotel bathroom and letting them hang dry.

Do any of your magic props cause alarm through customs?
Oh yeah totally. Actually I am surprised if I open a case and I don’t see one of those little notes from TSA in it saying they went through my bags. I have to leave notes and like instructions and stuff taped to the inside of the lid so they know how to put stuff back —not like they actually follow those directions— and other things that explain what they’re holding and why it looks the way it does and that kind of thing. Generally it isn’t actually the things I use such as razor blades, knives, etc that cause the alarm, it is stuff like every day items… On the other hand while they’re distracted with stuff like that I’m also getting a bunch of other stuff I probably shouldn’t tell you about past them and they don’t even realize it haha.  “magic showwwwwwwwwww”

When you start performing in the US later this month your list of dates seems almost endless! How do you keep your routine interesting for yourself night after night?
It’s going to get pretty crazy; I’m really pumped to be a part of this machine that’s bringing The Illusionists to Broadway and then North America from there… So with the excitement from that alone it’s hard not to be energized every night. Realistically though, I think the time is going to fly by; I’ve worked with most of the other guys in the cast before on past tours and we all bring our A game every night so that also helps keep all of us energized and you don’t feel like you’re going in to “work” if you know what I mean.

You’re performing in NY on New Years Eve, do you have any special plans for your evening after your show?
It’s an early show on NYE so I get to start my night having a great time on stage with no doubt a great New York audience as I remember they are! I used to live in NYC for a few years when I had my own off-Broadway show there so I’ll probably go back to some of my old hang-outs and eventually end up at one of my old stomping grounds I used to gig at like every week: The Box night club. It is one of my favorite places in the world to visit and gig at. The performers there are the most imaginative and creative people I’ve seen and I’m fortunate enough to still get to go back when I have free time and work it. You never know I might actually be working a second surprise gig later that night.

Your catchphrase is ‘Magic No Longer Sucks’. What is it about regular magic shows that you don’t like?
Haha well that catchphrase isn’t necessarily representing me speaking for myself but rather me speaking on the behalf of regular people…if that makes sense?  I’m not saying there aren’t magic shows out there I don’t like but I’m also not saying I like every magic show in the world. That whole phrase came about when I was doing a lot of college shows at universities and colleges across the country. I’d come in with my show and the students would comment after about how maybe like the month before there was a different magician there or something and that they thought in comparison my show didn’t suck or they maybe thought other magic shows sucked but didn’t think that way about mine. So it was more like an inside joke turned catchphrase and it really like really pissed off other magicians when I started using it…which to me was all the more reason to keep using it haha. Kind of like a sibling tormenting another sibling.

What specifically do you think it is that draws people to your brand of magic show?
I’m not really sure actually. I think it might be a combination of a lot of things…the visuals….the way it is presented…the music I use… I think there is room for everybody to find an appropriate niche. Just like any other art some people may look at one artist and think that a picture they drew of a red circle inside of a square is brilliant where as others just won’t see it. Or like movies, certain people find films by the Cohen brothers amazing and smart, funny, clever and I know people that just can’t stand Fargo or The Big Lebowski – though I don’t exactly socialize with those kind of people… I mean c’mon it’s the Cohen brothers how could you not like them.

Why is it important to you to include humor in your act, rather than play it as a straight act with a macabre twist?
Well even though this is who I am I still don’t even take myself too seriously. Magic tricks are really, for me at least, all about letting go and just becoming immersed in this like sense of wonder and amazement. However I do use a lot of gore and shock value in what I do which if I just did an entire show straight through just to gross you out and freak you out there would be no “peaks and valleys”. The bits with the humor came about by accident… I usually don’t plan them…but what it does is it helps break that tension, even if it is for just a moment, that will allow the viewer to sort of reset their brain and get ready to absorb more of those freak out moments or shocking moments. If I just beat them over the head too much with straight serious nonsense they’ll become numb to it. Plus I don’t think they could take me too seriously… I’d just come off like a douche.

Considering your image is very alternative (and your referred to as the anti-conjuror) what made you go on a show as mainstream as America’s Got Talent?
A wiser man than me once said: “rather than submit to the mainstream you have to become it, then overcome it.”  You see I knew my marketability was limited and I was quickly exhausting my resources in venues for what I do. I knew if I could make some kind of impact on AGT it would possibly open up my market to a wider demographic, which is exactly what it did. Now parents were ok with buying their kid a Dan Sperry t-shirt or a ticket to one of my shows etc. Before that they would have likely taken one look at the poster and said no way or I just would have still been having my main fanbase being age like 14-27. After the AGT stuff went viral I suddenly found couples in their late 60s coming to my show and here they are rocking out to the music I use in my act like Combichrist haha so it was really cool to see that.

Were you surprised at the reception you received?
Yes, very much so. I was just hoping to get my name out there a little bit better… I had no idea it would blow up as much as it did. I really in a lot of ways didn’t know how to handle it and am always still shocked to run into people that still remember and talk about it.

Why do you like to share certain magic tricks with the public (in instructional videos and magic packs etc)?
There are a lot of bad resources out there for that kind of thing. I don’t offer much, just very simple like even pre-beginner type things that can teach someone very elementary sleight of hand or just a few easy things to carry in their pocket etc. I get emails and Tweets, Facebook messages etc all the time from not just kids like maybe you’d think but from also like full on adults. They more often than not end up saying how they’re super shy or just really uncomfortable in social situations be it at work or school or wherever and maybe admit to having not the best in self-esteem and they just want to know where to learn some cool magic tricks that aren’t something lame with a crayon and a paper towel and piece of masking tape – for example haha. They maybe can’t sing or play an instrument or are good at sports… They’re just looking for maybe one simple thing that they can bring to the table to help them break the ice or give them something to share and talk about… Know what I mean? That’s why I do it. Just something fun and simple and harmless.

Tell me about your coffee! It’s an odd sideline for a magician, what makes yours stand out? Is it fair trade?
Yeah Zombie Java! Well I’ve always been a huge coffee addict and coffee aficionado ever since I was in grade school when I snuck my first sip of coffee. I thought it was magical…just the best thing in the entire world. So about 2 years ago I just decided I wanted to start a side business of having my own coffee brand and I hope to one day open my own coffee shop store for Zombie Java. I came up with the idea and went on my Twitter and just pitched it out to whoever was following me – I think I put something like “thinking of starting my own coffee brand called Zombie Java what do you guys think?” and the response was great! So I went about researching and calling around and asking people I know who are in the food industry etc. I was recommended to a small family business in Brooklyn…this was when I still lived in New York City so I hopped the train and went and met them one morning. It was awesome! Turns out they’re the oldest coffee importer in America. It was a family business and they import the beans directly from like Colombia, Argentina, Brazil, etc. They hand roast them right there and then hand bag them for their customers. We picked out how I wanted my beans roasted, what flavors, etc. Usually they only do this for like big time name coffee companies so they have like a huge minimum order quantity like 25,000 bags a month or something insane like that. But they were awesome enough to hear me out about my plan and vision for Zombie Java and they cut the minimum order way waaaay down for me which they didn’t have to do but since I was just starting out and didn’t have like 500 retail stores nationwide or something like that they were really great about helping me get started. Ever since then it has been growing more and more and I ship the coffee all over the world and do seasonal specialty flavors etc.

Are there any other food or drink that you cannot live without that you’d like to go into making? Can we expect to see Dan Sperry pop tarts or peanut butter any time soon?
Haha you never know but probably not. I don’t have the same passion for other foods as I do for coffee so it will probably just stay with that…for now.