28 Feb 2017

Black Peak by Xylouris White

From The Sampler, 7:30 pm on 28 February 2017
Xylouris White

Xylouris White Photo: Supplied

On the eve of their first New Zealand performance, Nick Bollinger tunes in to the Cretan folk and Melbourne rock fusion of Xylouris White, and talks to the duo’s drummer Jim White.

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Ever since the 60s, rock music has been borrowing from the folk traditions of Europe and the East. But the influence runs both ways. And this recent album is a case in point.

Is it an indie-drone band or an unusually animated folk music? Well, actually it’s both. Xylouris White is a duo: George Xylouris and Jim White. Xylouris comes from Crete, sings and plays a number of instruments, by primarily the laouto, a long-necked fretted instrument of the lute family. Jim White is a drummer from Melbourne, who has played with everyone from Nick Cave to Cat Power, and has had a long and notable history with the trio Dirty Three.

Xylouris’s riffs reach back into the history of Cretan folk song while White’s rhythms can recall the fractured excitement of Captain Beefheart or the impressionistic rumblings of the Velvet Underground.

Xylouris White released their first album in 2014. Titled Goats, it was primarily an instrumental set that jumped nimbly between traditional themes and impressionistic improvisations. But Black Peak introduces another element: singing. Improvisation still seems to drive the playing, but the pieces shape and take form around George Xylouris’s impassioned vocals.

Black Peak doesn’t simply add modern beats to an ethnic tradition, as much world music tends to do, usually with horribly bland results. There’s a genuine conversation going on, back and forth, across oceans and centuries - and yet the result is something that lives very much in the present.

Nick Bollinger talks to Jim White.

Coming from such different musical backgrounds, how do you and George approach making music together?

We have different strands going through our music. We have music based on traditional Cretan music, which is very open as well, and we also generate stuff. Just improvising. Some of the traditional stuff is dances. It’s got to fit that dance. Even though we’ve done our own kind of thing based on that dance, George will test it. We’ll play together, then he’ll get up and dance to check that it’s right.

When Goats came out I thought maybe this was a one-off. Did you or George always have a long-term plan for Xylouris White or were you just seeing where it went?

I noticed people were saying it was like a project or something, or maybe assumed it was a one-off.  But as soon as we began playing, over the first few months, it became quickly apparent that we had so many ideas and it was so enjoyable that there were like five albums we could make straight away. So no, it wasn’t a one off. We could always figured there were so many ways it could go.

The first thing we did was I got to Crete for the first time and we went to the studio and see what would happen, then George came to New York where I live and wee did the same thing there. And then we did it a show and it was so natural that it seems really weird but I forgot it was the first show.

When did you and George first meet and how did the musical partnership take shape?

We met somewhere way back in the late ‘80s or early ‘90s in Melbourne. George had been to Melbourne accompanying his father, who if you’ve never heard him, he’s one of the greats. I can’t say how much I love his music. Melbourne has a huge Greek population, the biggest Greek population outside of Greece. George basically liked Australia and at some point ended up living out there for a few years and I met him. At that point George couldn’t speak English, which he speaks very well now, and my Greek hasn’t improved much. But through that he started playing around Melbourne. I was playing in a band called Venom P. Stinger with Nick Turner, basically a punk rock band, and we went on to form Dirty Three later on and George would come and see us and sit in with us. It always was a good connection when we played. George and his family moved back to Crete and they were always [saying] ‘come and visit’, and eventually I did.

George obviously comes from a tradition but what tradition do you see yourself in? Are you learning George’s tradition or bringing another tradition of your own to George’s music?

I’m bringing my traditions. I guess I’m coming from Melbourne, you know. I haven’t lived in Melbourne for a long time but in myself I feel very much like a musician from Melbourne and of course it’s not known as a traditional music but it does have a tradition that’s strong, as you learn about past things. I’m no scholar of folk traditions or musicologist or anything like that. I feel it’s been an incredible privilege to go to Crete and hear that music and see how things work in a different place, a place where perhaps everything’s more integrated in the world, and maybe its how music came originally. But I bring my thing. I bring what I bring.

Black Peak is available on Bella Union.

Xylouris White play at Auckland’s Tuning Fork on 8th March.