Xylouris White’s Sisyphean Take on Punk

According to George Xylouris’s stories of Anogeia, the small mountain village in Crete where he was raised and still lives is so saturated with music that even the newspaper arrives as a kind of song. It isn’t some ballad delivered by a wizened town crier, as I imagined when he first told me this, but a literal newspaper–written by a local journalist who gives all of his reports in the customary meters and rhyme schemes of Cretan folk music. “Every week, sometimes every two days, he photocopies them, prints them,” Xylouris said, as he nursed a beer in the dim front room of a bar in Brooklyn, New York. “He just gives them away. That’s the way he lives. [He writes] about politics, United States politics, the world situation compared to Greece politics, who died, who said what, the village news–in lyrics, though.”

“Does he sing them, too?” Jim White, Xylouris’s partner in the lute-and-drums duo Xylouris White, asked.

“No, he doesn’t sing. He only writes,” Xylouris answered. “Writes, and listens to music. Can be there 10 hours, and listens. Doesn’t move.”

With their matching bushels of charcoal hair, warm and weathered comportments, and the extrasensory way they seem to communicate, Xylouris and White could easily strike you as brothers, or cousins. They made an odd and charming pair, hunkered down in a booth seat with rumpled unconcern for the waifish patrons getting drunk around them. Xylouris White was about to perform in the bar’s tiny but packed performance space ahead of the release of Black Peak, the duo’s second album of experimental takes on Cretan folk. Like the work of Anogeia’s most poetic reporter, Black Peak is a record informed by its creators’ idiosyncrasies as well as their heritage, building ecstatically outward from a foundation of traditional Greek music.

There is a sense you sometimes get, talking to musicians who have spent their entire lives plying at their instruments: that any conversation might suddenly reveal itself as a conversation about music, and that a conversation about music has implications reaching far beyond its nominal subject matter. “’Improvisation’ is a funny word,” said White at one point, replying to a straightforward question about his drumming style. “What if you improvised the same thing twice in a row–would it still be improvisation? What if you played the same exact thing every night, but you didn’t have to? Would it be improvisation then?”

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Xylouris and White have been friends and occasional collaborators for more than two decades, even though their individual discographies don’t reveal it. Xylouris, the singer and lutist, cut his teeth accompanying his father Psarandonis, a renowned player of the Cretan bowed string instrument known as the lyra. Xylouris’s uncle, the late singer and composer Nikos Xylouris, was known throughout Greece as the “archangel of Crete” for his repertoire of beloved songs. White, on the other hand, is a journeyman of the Australian and American rock underground. When he isn’t drumming full-time in Xylouris White or his post-rock group Dirty Three, he is lending his liquid sense of rhythm and percussion to a who’s who of inventive singer-songwriters including PJ Harvey, Will Oldham, and Bill Callahan. The band’s moniker offers the most straightforward interpretation of their music: it puts these two musicians with disparate backgrounds in a room together, bringing White’s punkish impulses to bear on Xylouris’s folk tunes. 

The two first began playing together in the early 1990s, when Xylouris moved temporarily to White’s hometown of Melbourne. Along with his father, Xylouris performed regularly to the city’s large Greek diaspora, and after meeting White, he occasionally sat in on sets with Dirty Three. But the duo’s first recorded collaboration didn’t come until 2014, with the release of Goats, Xylouris White’s mostly instrumental debut album. Neither the Cretan lute nor the rock drum kit is a traditionally leading instrument, and part of the album’s power came from the sense that these two former sidemen were on equal footing and free to extend their tendrils infinitely, unencumbered by a star player. The album’s name came from the band’s fixation with goats, by the way: they initially wanted to name themselves after the horned mountain explorers, but there were already multiple bands called Goats, White told the New Yorker in 2014. Xylouris White’s genre is “goatish,” he added.

The band has a fixation with goats: they initially wanted to name themselves after the horned mountain explorers, but there were already multiple bands called Goats.

Like Goats, Black Peak was produced by Guy Picciotto of Fugazi and Rites of Spring. Unlike the debut, it features guest appearances from Xylouris’s father and White’s old collaborator Oldham, and foregrounds Xylouris’s gravelly and resonant baritone on nearly every song. He is more than up to the task, and his voice gives standouts like “Forging” and the title track a stomping immediacy–and a potential appeal to rock-oriented fans–that was absent from their previous work. It also gives Xylouris White a leader for the first time. In the rare moments when Black Peak falters, it is because the lead vocals steer the songs down definable paths where they otherwise might have veered wildly. “We kind of made a choice to play instrumentally on the first album, but George is a great singer,” White said. They made that choice on Goats based on musical factors, he added, but also because they worried that singing in anything other than English might alienate an international audience.

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I comprehended little of what Xylouris said from the stage later that night, but language hardly presents an obstacle toward understanding the music itself. In concert, Xylouris White make their recorded material feel restrained by comparison, using each song as a springboard for extended instrumental reveries. (When an attendee behind me shouted “Play Grateful Dead!”, it didn’t seem totally unthinkable that they’d launch into a spirited “China – Rider” in response.) Xylouris sometimes seemed to strain physically against his instrument, extracting percussive clacks from the lute and strumming it furiously, while White maintained an almost beatific calm, windmilling his arm into a big snare hit or showering the entire kit with light drops from his mallets. Xylouris sang entirely in Greek, as he does on Black Peak, and when he addressed the crowd, a contingent of fans happily yelled back in his native tongue. Perhaps they were down from Astoria, Queens, one of the world’s great Hellenic enclaves outside of Greece itself.

Xylouris White are attuned to the expressive qualities of sound itself–they’re interested in “the tick, the tock, the boom boom…all of that, whatever,” Xylouris told me–and their songs sometimes evoke real-world referents. Take Black Peak‘s “Forging,” for example: with its serrated rock drums cutting across modal melodies, the song’s movement is intended to emulate the sound of actual forging, according to the band. Its Greek lyrics are about “the wrath of disappointment” you feel when something you believe strongly turns out not to be true.

On other compositions, like “The Feast,” the performers break the music into its component parts, scattering them across the air like abstract expressionist painters, or hopeful farmers tossing seeds. “The Feast” opens with a lute figure that almost precisely echoes the main theme of “Lieber Honig,” the otherworldly elegy that closes Neu!’s landmark debut album from 1972. That band’s search for transcendence via a thrusting, endless repetition can also be heard in Xylouris White’s music, and they’ve performed alongside other groups that approach rock music with a similar abandon, like Godspeed! You Black Emperor and the bombastic current incarnation of Michael Gira’s Swans.

At one point during the Brooklyn set, while White waited on a beer, Xylouris began playing a dance on the lute to himself. White joined in a minute or so later, beer secured. Instead of moving on with the show, the two probed at the jaunty melody, testing where it might take them. Xylouris gradually increased the intensity of his playing, while White’s drums alternated between powering the tune onward and hovering like vapor at its edges. Eventually, a riff the band seemed to have begun simply to pass the time evolved into one of the night’s several volcanic climaxes. By the end of the night, a woman was dancing onstage, singing and shouting along, and another fan had grabbed two handfuls of cocktail napkins from the bar and showered the crowd with them like confetti.

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Xylouris and White like to think of the songs they’ve composed together as maps, rather than fixed sets of directions: They’ll give you a sense of where you are and where you’re going, but not specific instructions about whether to take a left or right at every turn. In conversation, they are not so different. Xylouris is wide-eyed and discursive, a little spacey, fond of elaborate anecdotes and metaphors. White speaks in bursts of staccato. He’s no slouch conversationalist, but he’s quick to direct questions to his partner, and to gently nudge Xylouris back to the map if a story starts to wander.

During every performance of a given song, “we discover other trees, other views, along the way,” Xylouris told me, describing their musical approach. “Like Sisyphus. You know Sisyphus?” 

I know Sisyphus, I told him. The tale of a man who’s cursed to roll a boulder up a hill and watch it roll back down on him, every day for the rest of eternity, is one piece of Greek folk tradition that is relatively well understood in the States.

From there, we started to wander. Xylouris went on to tell me that one day, after a concert in Crete, a fan approached him to talk. This fan had enjoyed the show so much, he said, that he wanted to be like a fly on the wall in Xylouris’s house, so he could hear what the musician’s playing sounded like when he was alone, without an audience to make him self-conscious. “And I thought for a second, and I told him, ‘Man, what I’m playing there is proto hanioti!'” Xylouris said, letting off a thick peal of laughter.

“Every day, he takes the stone a different way. A little bit different. He follows the flowers.”

My face must have revealed that I missed the joke, because he quickly explained: “Proto hanioti is like ‘Smoke on the Water‘ in Crete.” The master musician, home alone, was playing the same elemental tune over and over and over again.

“And I play that for about 40 years now,” Xylouris continued. “The first thing I start playing on the lute and I put it in my lap and tune up. I start playing that, and concentrate on where I left it the time before, and I still discover things.” Late at night before the sun comes up, after playing a wedding or some other celebration, Xylouris likes to pour himself a drink and play proto hanioti before he goes to bed, even if he’s already played it 10 times at the gig he’s just left. White jokingly questioned whether his partner was really hearing some new inflection every time, and Xylouris responded with some goofy onomatopoeia, the lingua franca of excitable musicians everywhere:

“The first time, it goes: baka taka BOOka taka taka booka BOOka taka! And the next time, it goes: baKA taka taka baKA taka taka. And the next time, it goes: BA ka ta ka BA ka ta ka. You know?”

This guy after the concert in Crete, “You told him, ‘I feel like Sisyphus,’ right?” White offered, bringing us back. Xylouris said that he feels like Sisyphus because he takes a more optimistic view of the myth than most people: “Every day, he takes the stone a different way. A little bit different. He follows the flowers.”

“The seasons change,” White said.

“He sees the nest of the birds. The ants, where are the ants this time? Now it’s raining, let’s go this way to see what the ants do. He develops the same thing, he gives meaning to what he’s doing” Xylouris finished.

With that happier definition in mind, the story of Cretan music itself might also be thought of as Sisyphean. “Change and innovation are built into the history of the music,” White said. Cretan musicians “don’t leave the building and go do something different” when they tire of the music they’re playing, Xylouris added. “They simply extend the walls of the building they’re already in.”

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