Xylouris White: ”World Music? What is that?”

Consolidating a musical bond decades in the making, Xylouris White brings together two ostensibly disparate, respectively brilliant musical minds. NATHAN ROCHE sat down with George Xylouris and Jim White in Paris ahead of their opening performance on Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s European tour.

Xylouris White is the world-colliding duo of Cretan lute-player George Xylouris and equally respected Australian drummer Jim White. Unless you’re familiar with any of the five albums recorded in ten years by the ARIA-nominated Xylouris Ensemble (led by George), perhaps the prolific Psarantonis (the solo musical project George’s father, see the performance of ‘O Dias’ in the below video) might have been your entry into Xylouris’s musical world, perhaps most notably during ATP’s Australian debut, as curated by The Bad Seeds, taking place at the beginning of 2009. That festival was important in initiating the off-chance collaboration between Psarantonis, George and Jim. A few years later, Xylouris White is the result, their debut album Goats delivered somewhat unexpectedly late last year. The music is at times destructive in force, but then starkly restrained in slow burning ambers of Crete-melody and rhythm. As a complete package it’s welcomingly fresh, highly unique and pushes the possibilities and imagination of drum and lute into new directions. Their current live show, which doesn’t hold back from the forces of nature, is even more explosive than the fiercest moments captured on the record. The unexpected collaborative request from Psarantonis at ATP (one which was apparently non-negotiable) wasn’t the first family induction for White. George and Jim met in the early ’90s when The Dirty Three were performing around the Melbourne pubs, with George joining the band with his lute in the dank, pint-stained carpet rooms on tracks like ‘Indian Love Song’, and even going on to record triple j radio session. Xylouris White’s chemistry is fully formed and devastatingly tight, yet at the same time, naturally chaotic like a free-forming storm somewhere in the Mediterranean Sea. To put it simply, these two virtuosos have come together are at the height of their powers, and this unique collaboration sees them utilising everything they’ve learnt since the impromptu jams in the early ’90s. The elements just seem to be in order and they cast a tracing spell which is rapidly spreading and has seen them already do tours of their own and supporting Swans, Bonnie Prince Billy, endless festival circuits and even a number one album on the US Billboard Charts in the loosely coined ?World Music? category. As I was soon to learn, please don’t use that word when describing Xylouris White.

I saw Xylouris Ensemble play at La Cartonnerie in Reims, a week or two before the interview, to a small but bewildered audience and had my head blown off. After some rehearsals and recordings back on Crete they had returned to play Paris as part of Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s European tour for which they join half. Sitting out the front of the Bataclan Caf? on a spring Paris afternoon, George Xylouris is smoking a cigarette and drinking a coffee. When I arrive, he goes to get Jim for the interview. Ten minutes pass and Jim comes back, without George, and walks around curiously looking, up, down and around like a curious kid on his way to school. He also does this when playing drums as well. Fiddling around, looking behind him, signaling to the soundman, picking up drum sticks, mallets, and brushes lifting them high into the air, and pulling them behind his back. He strikes the cymbals like a fucking samurai – then a right hook of a champion boxer. On stage he stares out into the crowd and squints, smiles and looks the other way before playfully locking eyes with George who often has his closed in a meditative state. There is a misconception that these are scattered actions because as White tells me he has total clarity and knows every beat and movement he performs. I remembered jazz musician Ornette Coleman saying something similar to that in an interview once. Improvisation is a stigma, which has plagued him of his unique style, which is in actual fact incredibly precise and structured. After this brief search for George who is filming some of the GY!BE sound check with his phone, we meet outside. Now side-by-side in the light, both men look disheveled and unwashed with hair spurting out in all directions, they almost look related but the first thing I notice is the different mannerisms between the two, White has this direct way of talking which almost feels like he’s not so much interrogating like a police officer but trying to get to the point as quickly as possible and to filter out any bullshit or hesitation in the questions – short and snappy and distinctly Australian.

?So George, what has the reaction been for bringing traditional Cretan music to contemporary audiences with this new band? I ask.

?Oh, is that what he does, does he?? White says without flinching.

?What I mean is, surely the audiences have been different?

?Different to what??

?To playing on Crete in villages or to different demographics.?

?Are you assuming he just plays in the villages are you??

?No, I know he tours all over the world but…?

?What are you trying to ask exactly??

?Playing with a band like Swans for example, I just want to know if there is a variation of audiences and what the crowd reaction has been compared to that of more world music or folk audiences?

?World Music?? his eyes are seething, ?What is that??

Despite Goats being number one on the World Music charts in the US, Jim refuses to accept the label, probably because to him, it’s just music. The interview is sort of turning into that half-famous (http://www.youtube.com/watch’v=9XKDhnb3z4M) where Henry Rollins is being questioned backstage by a young fan and swiftly destroys him. My loose terminology by using a word like ?traditional? and ?world music? may have been taken the wrong way, or maybe these sorts of questions have become tedious in the past six months and White wants to state that this isn’t a niche or novelty. This is them performing the only way they know how, and this they loosely call ?Goat Music?. It seems odd but strangely perfect. George, who hasn’t said anything so far moves his chair forward and squints one eye like a pirate, ?You see, people they like music, and so they have open-mind,? his accent his thick and delivery slow and considered, ?the venues are slightly different this time yes, and the crowds are half similar and half different. This is new for me, but at the same time still the same.? He then leans back and laughs boisterously and slaps me on my knee before rolling a cigarette. I am reminded of the time I curiously walked into a Greek coffee lounge in Marrickville and was met with similar immediate warmth and random bursts of joyous laughter by the Greeks who kept trying to offer me drinks, food and money. George pays for my beer and says, ?it’s my treat, it’s my treat,? tapping the table and nodding with his eyes closed.

It’s a strange combination of personalities that has formed, as they both seem to be out of time in conversation, but musically it’s a language they both understand and can execute as a singularly direct force in unison.

Jim turns to me. ?Nah, it was a good question,? he grins and looks to a passing car across the street.

“There’s enough passion and pride in what they play and being put next to a Ravi Shankar CD at the ABC Bookshop is like a big slap in the face.

George spent eight years in Melbourne, which has the largest Greek population in the world, outside of Greece. He says that when he arrived in 1988, he rediscovered a new kind of Greek music within the community being played. At the same time, he was introduced into the ruckus scene of varied gritty sounds in Melbourne. ?Playing with Dirty Three those nights, I hadn’t ever turned my lute up that loud before.? In Melbourne, he found lots of opportunity for music to be played in a variety of different ways. He has three children – two in Melbourne and one in New York, and they all play music. He started playing with his father at age seven, and after years of balancing schooling and touring, he left high school to focus completely on music as a full-time profession. Now, living back in Crete (with his Australian wife Shelagh Hannah, also a member of Xylouris Ensemble) he gets inspiration from not just the mountains, landscape and rich musical history, but from the students he teaches. ?I learn something from them you see? Each student has different way of playing, a different style. With music you can learn something new each day,? he laughs loudly again, ?I can even hear their previous teachers in the style of playing, can you believe this??
George says each player and village has its own unique style and method, and suddenly I can understand why Jim White was so pissed off at me. There is no set tradition behind it per se and the instrument is the only constant. Music, to them, shouldn’t be boxed and labelled, its endless and vast relying on primal emotion and instinct rather than a journalistic reference. There’s enough passion and pride in what they play and being put next to a Ravi Shankar CD at the ABC Bookshop is like a big slap in the face.

?Ah, we play for six hours straight in Crete, from midnight onwards,” George says, “The Crete people they find any reason to celebrate, every night you can go to other village to celebrate music and life and we do that through music.”

They are called in for soundcheck, the auditorium is a big theatre with wooden floorboards. White thinks he played here once with Cat Power but he isn’t sure. A shaggy dog belonging to the venue promoter runs about the empty floor space and looks like he could be the official mascot of Xylouris White. Despite Godspeed You! Black Emperor having eight or nine members, the two-piece sound just as loud when they perform. I can see the meters of the PA system flicking into the red as they run through a song. It seems much like the economically sized Dirty Three, this dirty two get as much as possible out of their instruments and the addition of anything else is not only unnecessary, but there’s simply no room.

After the soundcheck we return outside where a crowd is forming and lining up for the sold-out show. Meanwhile George is trying to locate someone to sell their merchandise, ?It was a fucking disaster last night in London? White says, ?full house and we didn’t have anyone to sell the CD or vinyl.?
I noticed at the concert in Reims two weeks before that it was a similar situation. Directly after finishing their set Jim White leaps off the front of the stage and walks directly to stand behind the merchandise table without even putting down his drum sticks. Goats was conceived on Crete, after years of George trying to get White over to visit, but twenty odd years of musical commitments held him back until recently. In Greece they rehearsed and recorded, then it was back to New York (where White currently lives) to record with Guy Picciotto of Fugazi. After writing and conceiving hundreds of songs, both were content with the final product, which apparently could have come out in many different ways.

?It really could have come out as fifty alternate albums to how this one did. There were so many possibilities and material,? White says. The album is predominately instrumental but contains one vocal track on the third last song, ‘Fandomas’.

According to George the next record will contain more, and their current live set has contained up to three songs in which there is singing. There was however a concise decision to hold back with the first record. George says of the songwriting process, ?I record songs on a voice memos, thousands of songs, I have many files too many files with too many ideas. Sometimes when I sleep I’m still writing them, I still play lute when I dream.?

Jim White is something of a songwriting drummer, in the way that when he plays he’s organising a song in itself to stand-alone. With so many changes, rhythms that are hardly repeated it becomes transcendentally lyrical. I ask if playing with some of the generations finest songwriters has helped shape this but before he can answer White turns to George erratically.

?Are we playing at seven-thirty??

?We play at seven-thirty.? He looks up.

I look at my watch, ?You know, it’s seven-twenty.?

They get up from the table and abruptly leave; but Jim quickly turns back, ?Oi do you have our business card??

I say no, and he hands me one from the top pocket of his mostly unbuttoned shirt. There is a black and white image of their two smiling faces, an email, website and Facebook page.

?Let me know if you have anymore questions yeah??

He walks off and plows through the crowd like a steamroller back into the venue.

I sit there for a few moments and think of if there was anything else, but then I decide sometimes its better to just let the music do the talking and let your imagination run wild.


##Goats is out now through Other Music.