Xylouris White is George Xylouris and Jim White. George, a blood scion of Cretan musical royalty, plays the lute. Jim, as drummer of Venom P Stinger and The Dirty Three, is a scene scion (or perhaps a fiefdom unto himself) of Australian post-punk Avant-post everything else royalty.
Together the two men, soft spoken, wry, and amiably grizzled, make a potent contemporary and ancient folk music; whirling, paradoxically earthy and soaring, wildly rhythmic, with maybe a small dash of Killing Joke at the bottom end.
Xylouris White have a fantastic new album, Black Peaks, that's out now. The album was recorded everywhere (Crete, Queens, Australia, Providence, "we had a spare day in Iceland…") and is produced by Guy Picciotto (Rites of Spring, One Last Wish, Fugazi). Guy wasn't present for every initial recording but they'd send him tracks as they recorded and he'd help sort through them and send feedback. Xylouris says, "So…he's there without him being there." It's not hard (for me anyway) to get a bit moon-eyed at the long arc of history fortuitousness of this collaboration.
Xylouris came to Melbourne in the 80s with his father—the legendary Psarantonis—because it is the city with the third largest Greek population in the world. He stayed on for eight years, started a family, befriended Jim White. Jim was playing in Venom P Stinger and starting The Dirty Three. The Dirty Three had an early interest in Greek music, covering the Yiannis Spanos song "I Remember A Time When You Used To Love Me" on 1996's Horse Stories (Jim recalls, "We covered it and recorded it and it wasn't till we got to Greece that we discovered how famous it was.") and were soon playing shows with Xylouris (as he and his father both played shows with their contemporaries, Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds). The friendship maintained over the course of 25 years, culminating with the formation of the Xylouris White.
White's years bopping around on the left of the dial had led to a friendship with emo's first laureate, Picciotto, and he was called in Xylouris White's first album, Goats. And just look at them all now. One missed call, one bar not entered, one show canceled or alleyway avoided and who knows if these men would have all met. And we'd be living in an Xylouris White-less world, sad, angry, and confused but not sure why.
Both Jim and George were in town recently. White lives in Brooklyn and George joined him so the two could play the excellent Basilica Fest in upstate new music/old heroin hub, Hudson. They were playing a couple dates in NYC and then departing on a three-month tour. They took the time to meet with me at Greek diner, where the staff recognized George and were very, very sweet to us. Much of my recording of the interview is Xylouris and the waitress jovially discussing the finer points of all thing Greek, in Greek. Both Jim and George were delightful interviewees, alternating between earnestness about the elusiveness of a perfect sound and sardonic "what are ya gonna do" about how any of it might be perceived.
Noisey: How do you write the songs initially?
George: In any kind of situation we improvise and ideas come from working on them. Or maybe something comes to mind and you take it home and play it and it develops and then we rehearsal it again. The idea begins in many kinds of situations. The ideas develop…
And what about the lyrics? I'm at a disadvantage not speaking Greek but are the songs written with certain themes in mind or are lyrics added afterwards or what?
George: Many lyrics come from traditional songs. You choose out of hundreds of couplets, 50 syllables. So have to choose out of many new and old lyrics. Many people write poems and lyrics and we choose from all this stuff that we really like and we put music in it. This record, many of the lyrics are poems by (contemporary Crete poet) Mitsos Stavrakakis. Lyrics come from the mind and work differently as you improvise and you put them all together. In rhyming couplets, about something metaphoric, about many things. One couplet can be somebodies and the next by somebody else, and the next an original one, and you build the things you want to say. The same subject or mood. You can change the words in the same song too. The dance, the rhythm, the riff, the circle of the melody is what's important. You build up the same melody and talk the same phrase. Like, it's different if you say "hey zack hey zack" and then "HEY zack HEY ZACK" or "Heyyyyyy Zack!" You say the same phrase and you change it with your feelings.
I know authenticity question can be annoying but I find this shit interesting. Is the average Greek audience receptive to the band?
Jim: Absolutely. Even in NYC, half the audience is Greek and half is…rockers or whatever. People are very receptive.
George: I almost know in Crete who does love it and who doesn't. People love it or people…I'm surprised if they don't like!
I know with Afghan traditional music, there's an influence from the area being a trade crossroads. Is it the same for Cretan music? And how does Xylouris White work within that?
George: Crete is a crossroads from centuries ago. So there's songs influenced by Syria, same melody but different language. We have songs from refugees that came in 1922 from Asia Minor that become part of the Crete tradition. We are influence by Venetians, who have more major chords, mandolins, violins and guitars. Turkish music. Iranian, the Arabs…what I want to say is that we have influences and at the same time the Crete tradition was always open to take those influences and change things. So what we are doing is a new thing, a new breath, but based in this tradition. Jim White's drums are a new thing coming in. It's from Jim White!
Jim, do you then feel like you have a sort of weight of history in how you come up with drum parts?
Jim: Yes and no. George will dance to a piece to see if it works and that's important to me. History? Well…yes and no. I'm just trying to take the feeling from the Cretan music I like. I listened to Cretan music for over twenty years before I tried to play it. So some of that stuff is inside in me. It doesn't feel like a weight. I'm not a musicologist. I'm not interested in trying to do that stuff. But I want the feeling, so the best I can do is to try to invent it for myself. Same as I do for anything I do. I try to make it fresh for myself. But, yeah, I'm aware of what it's about. George knows as much about the history as anyone….
George, do you actually test the songs out with dance?
George: Yeah. Always. It's about movement. MOVEMENT. You play with the movement. It's important and at the same time it makes it easier for you to play it because you feel…it gives you the opportunity and space to express yourself. The influence is dependent on who you are. It doesn't matter where you come from but who you are.
As a listener or performer?
George: Both. If you only play traditional music and you listen to only expecting it to be like that then it goes nowhere. But of you have different thoughts about what music is…it becomes more enjoyable and fun and meaningful. For example the instrument doesn't matter, the drums or the synthesizer, it matters who is playing the instrument.
Jim: I'm trying to find the rhythm that works. I am trying to fulfill myself but… Ever since I've been playing music with George, he's been trying to reach this one rhythm.
Like, an actual elusive specific sound?
George: It's this dance. In West Crete, they play this one rhythm that is very special, the style of the area and every time you try to play that way you discover more and more and more and more and it never stops. Every day you need to take your instrument and try.
Are you ever able to attain this strived for rhythm or is it like a unicorn?
Jim: [pause] You know…sometimes you can hold it for a second. I don't know if that's understandable. But that's just one detail of trying to understand something…how the body moves.
George: Yeah. The dance. When you hear the melody without the dance you hear something else. But when you see the dance you understand.
As the check came, we ended the interview discussing the song that Will Oldham guest sings on, "Erotokritos." The song is from the 14th Century. It's 10,000 couplets. Xylouris White do the first 15. Jim says, "We can make 2,000 more albums with it." The song serves as an introduction to the thousands of couplets that follow. George tells me, as we finish our approximate twelfth cup of coffee, "the song is saying 'Hey guys listen to this! You want to know the meanings of the stars and the earth? Then listen to this!' Then the song ends.'"
Zachary Lipez is a writer based in Brooklyn. Follow him on Twitter.