This Article originally appeared in The Herald Newspaper (Scotland) on November 25, 2014.
There is a rumour that drummer Jim White has been attending Greek dance lessons. “I read that too, but it’s not true – I haven’t been learning any dances,” says the wild-haired, preternatural sticksman who has played with PJ Harvey, Cat Power and Bonnie Prince Billy, and who co-helms instrumental rock diviners the Dirty Three.
The Australian percussionist’s latest endeavour sees White join forces with Cretan lute visionary George Xylouris for a visceral, boundary-trashing trip that transcends language, place and time. They call themselves Xylouris White, and they variously summon free-jazz, avant-rock and ages-old Greek folk traditions, as evinced on their excellent debut, Goats, which topped the Billboard World Albums chart last month.
White’s immersion in Greek folk dancing, according to said erroneous rumour, was a bid to physically internalise the rhythms of traditional Cretan music. But he didn’t need to dance for that. His intuitive, thrilling alliance with the wayfaring lute virtuoso sees both men inhabit and enliven each other’s musical realms, visions and idioms – Xylouris’ virtuosic grasp of ancient Greek culture; White’s dexterous, esoteric take on improvisation and avant-folk – and they map out something uniquely expressive, rugged and beautiful along the way.
That said, it’s slightly disappointing that we won’t witness the swaggering White cut some archaic Greek dance shapes when they play in Glasgow this week. “Oh, we can say it anyway if you like,” White suggests with a laugh. “Say I wanted to learn the dances. Say I’m trying.”
The duo’s alliance was bolstered by hardcore-punk icon Guy Picciotto, who produced their album. What impact did the Fugazi livewire have on their Xylouris White collaboration? “I think he focused us,” says White. “And he was always just really supportive of it. He was there when we played our first show in America. It was funny because I don’t think he realised it was our first show. I kind of forgot it was too, actually.” Picciotto has since said one track on the album, Psarandonis Syrto – inspired by an old melody from Xylouris’ father – is one of the most beautiful songs he’s ever been involved with.
And what of the record’s titular Goats? Are they mythological, literal, or other? “George thinks the title’s symbolic,” says White. “I think it’s literal. But George – you think it’s an analogy, don’t you?”
The equally unruly-maned Xylouris dances into view on our Skype conversation. “Yes, I compare Goats to our past, our lives. We are here and there, in the world, jumping around, like goats,” he muses. “And you could say our music’s got that goat-ish rhythm – music which is made roughly, like it’s on the rocks. Rocky. And at the same time, the sound of the lute, and the drumming, that makes me think of goats. I can hear and see the goats. Or something like that,” he says with a laugh. White laughs along.
Their easy camaraderie is evident on camera, as they clamber in and out of view all over the Skype screen, like a smiling, shock-haired kaleidoscope. They share sentences, jokes and half-philosophies, and occasionally translate for each other. It’s testament to a friendship and creative relationship that spans decades.
“We met many years ago in Melbourne,” White recalls. “Twenty-five years ago maybe. George came to Australia on tour with his father [Greek music legend Antonis “Psarantonis” Xylouris] and he ended up staying in Melbourne. This was a few years before the Dirty Three started, and I’d go and see George play, and see [his group], Xylouris Ensemble play, and he’d come and see my old band, Venom P Stinger,” he says.
“We eventually started hanging out,” White continues. Soon thereafter, he formed the Dirty Three with Warren Ellis (Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds) and Venom P Stinger’s Mick Turner. “When the Dirty Three started, we were playing in small bars around Melbourne, and we invited George to come and play with us. I think that was his first experience playing with a rock band, or doing a louder thing, is that right George?”
Xylouris nods. “I had lots of experience of playing, because in Crete we play outdoors, at big fiestas, in villages, all summer long, almost all night long,” he says. “But it was a new thing for me to play with a band like the Dirty Three because, you know, they were – unique. They’re very, very free and comfortable to play with. I thought that every time I played with them.”
Given their history, would it be fair to say that both men had an impact on each other’s work before their current Xylouris White union; that in some ways, Xylouris influenced the Dirty Three, and vice versa? “I do think so, maybe not in a direct way, but it must have done,” says White. “As soon as we started playing together, even back then, it always felt natural, to me. It still does.”
“Yes,” agrees Xylouris. “Somehow we made our sound together, at the same time, because Jim was listening to Cretan music, Xylouris Ensemble, my father’s music – and I was listening to Jim’s bands, going to where he was playing. Our music has become all of that. It pulls many things together,” he offers. “I have lots of connections with Jim, it’s almost like we are from the same village. That’s how I feel about it. That’s how I connect with him musically.”