— Giorgos Xylouris’
“I wasn’t that familiar with Cretan music at all,” said Guy Picciotto (Fugazi, Rites of Spring) of the duo Xylouris White, whose debut album Goats he recorded and engineered in his home studio in Brooklyn. “I was just listening to them play the way I would any band, without having any sort of informed knowledge base about what scales are going on or the origins of the melodies or any of that. I was just experiencing the power of what they were doing in a very unmediated way. I’m really blown away by what their music does.
Xylouris White is a collaboration between Brooklyn-based drummer Jim White (known for his work with Dirty Three, Cat Power and Smog), and Giorgos Xylouris, a renowned laouto player from the Greek island of Crete. Their sound takes established Cretan melodies and rhythms and carries them off through a language of improvisation born from a friendship now in its fourth decade.
Xylouris describes that mix of tradition and his work with White in one word: Pyrrhichios.
“‘Pyrrh’ is a fire,” he explained. “And ‘ichios’ is the sound, and the rhythms, at the same time. Cretans have a particular rhythm we call Pyrrhichios, but Pyrrhichios music is a whole mosaic of dance all around the area of Greece, up to the Black Sea.
Xylouris and White met in 1988, when Xylouris and his father Psarantonis (a living legend of Cretan folk) toured through White’s hometown of Melbourne, Australia. Xylouris also met his future wife (musician Shelagh Hannan) there, and eventually relocated to Melbourne, forming the group Xylouris Ensemble in the early ’90s. Dirty Three came together around the same time, and would often ask Xylouris to sit in with his 8-string long-neck lute, where he’d end up playing “as loud as I ever had played before.” When Dirty Three curated an All Tomorrow’s Parties festival in England in 2007, they invited Psarantonis to play, and Xylouris came with him. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds invited them again in 2009, this time in Australia.
“I went with my father to play All Tomorrow’s Parties in Mount Buller,” Xylouris recalled. “Jim was there with Dirty Three, and my dad and I asked him to play with us. He didn’t know what to answer and he thought he can’t play with us because he doesn’t know the music.”
“I’d been listening to that music a long time, but I’d never thought about playing it,” White said. “And then I saw it in his face. He said, ‘Do you want me to tell my father no?’ And I was like, ‘No, no, no, that’s okay.’ So we had us a little practice in the hotel room. I was playing with my drum sticks on the side of a chair. This is all happening within the space of a few hours. And Psarantonis — he doesn’t speak English and I don’t speak Greek — so Psarantonis is saying something and I asked George, ‘What’s he saying?’ And he said, ‘He’s telling me to shut up. He said you know what you’re doing. Just leave you alone.’”
White made it to Crete for the first time in 2012, and he and Xylouris began developing their style of improvising on Cretan sounds, keeping the original spirit intact. White even learned some of the dances to internalize the rhythms.
Xylouris’s wife Hannan said, “They are both so innovative and open and riveting to watch. Keen on different types of music. They seemed a perfect match.”
Late last year, Xylouris flew to New York so they could work with Picciotto, who set them all up in the same room.
“To be in there and not have headphones on is very intimate sort of playing,” White said. “It’s really nice to play in that way, where you can see each other. Even though a couple of the songs are recordings from Crete, the flavor of the record is definitely from Guy in his studio, and how we played in those days.”
“There were certain tunings George would use which would just bloom in the microphones,” Picciotto said. “The tonal variability of the instrument and the different techniques George would use was mind-blowing. He can play with his fingers and fingernails or with this long thin strip of hard plastic for a pick — something like the plastic binding you might see around a bundle of newspapers. He also had a long eagle’s feather where the shaft is sort of bent back upon itself to make a U, which is also used as a pick. Each has a different sound and added different percussive features to the recordings.”
“He’s very sensitive musically,” Xylouris said of Picciotto, whom he’d first met when they started recording (and whose music he’d never heard). “When we went there at his studio, we played some very soft things, and Guy turned around and looked at me — and I could see tears in his eyes. And I understand more who we are dealing with.”
These sessions differed from the recordings they made in Crete, where it once took them 18 takes to nail down “Chicken Song.” In Brooklyn, the songs evolved as they played.
There was never really the idea of getting a perfect ‘version’ of a tune in the way that most bands think of ‘nailing’ a song in the studio,” Picciotto said. “Instead it was more like each performance had its own thread that Jim and George would identify as they listened to each other playing and that real-time, in-the-moment communication and shaping is what made each take distinct.”
The resulting debut album Goats is a complex, original dialogue between the lute and drums (you don’t hear Xylouris’s beautiful, grainy voice at all until the second to last track, “Fandomas”), and that’s a direct reflection of what the band is like live.
On a recent Thursday night midway through their October residency at Brooklyn’s Union Pool, Xylouris and White were seated at opposite ends of the stage, slightly turned towards one another. They looked like brothers up there, with a silent language of nods between songs that became perfectly audible once they started playing — hair flying, arms swinging around instruments. Picciotto stood at the side of the stage, flanked by longtime collaborator, filmmaker Jem Cohen, who trained a camera on the duo. There was a very special, electric thing in the air.
“Jim and George are so interesting to watch play,” Picciotto said. “Physically-speaking, it’s like a choreography unfolding. Also, the way they communicated endings to these improvised pieces always blew my mind — they would just be staring at each other so hard through the performance, cranking away so hard and suddenly some code was exchanged and they would stick the ending like gymnasts. It was killer.”
“Somehow he gives you more space,” Xylouris said of White. The rhythm he gives has that characteristic. You feel like he opens the doors to escape.”