Features Interviews

Be Forest: An Interview with Xylouris White

George Xylouris and Jim White talk us through the process of their new album, ‘The Forest In Me’.

Formed in 2013, Greek singer/ laouto player George Xylouris and Australian percussionist Jim White’s wonderful coalition as Xylouris White functions in so many different ways. While Xylouris’ native Crete remains a constant thread throughout the Xylouris White patchwork, having crossed paths throughout the creatively fertile metropolis of Melbourne in the ’90s, their musical partnership also evokes the celebration of multiculturalism in Australia.

While Australia’s metropolitan areas have always boasted strong ties with Greek and Middle Eastern communities, there are also pockets of regional Australia where those same links remain strong.

It wasn’t until the collective’s 2019 release, The Sisypheans, and in particular its opening track, Tree Song, when it struck me that listening to a Xylouris White record reminded me of my own childhood in rural New South Wales. Brought up in a large Lebanese family where food, around-the-table chatter and voices rising above one another just to be heard were a constant, while the Greek and Lebanese musical heritages vary in many ways, through the portal of psychedelia, at times there is a beautiful cross pollination which feeds into the other similarities between both cultures: stories, family and community,  combining to drown out all other concerns.

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And while Xylouris White’s music is most certainly a modern day proposition, their songs hold an unbridled capability to spark those nostalgic senses.

Alongside Xylouris and White is Guy Picciotto. Formerly of Rites of Spring and Fugazi, his inclusion into the fold is yet another shining example of White’s endless thirst for collaboration. “He was there since the first show of Xylouris White and [recorded] together shortly after,” says White, who along with Xylouris answered a series of questions via email during their North American tour in the lead-up to their latest offering, The Forest In Me.

Arguably the chief collaborator across the indie music landscape over the last thirty years, the mercurial White has provided militant percussive blasts for the likes of Cat Power and Bill Callahan, to Marisa Anderson and Nina Nastasia. In between these creative dalliances, White is also the driving force behind Australia’s most celebrated trio, Dirty Three, and most recently as a part of Springtime – the excellent three-piece featuring Tropical Fuck Storm’s Gareth Liddiard and The NecksChris Abrahams.

Alongside Xylouris who has released music as the Xylouris Ensemble, the pair’s story (from the outside at least) is one pure mateship. Two friends who started thrashing out ideas and suddenly, nine years down the track, not only is there a unique body of work that shifts with every release – it’s an oeuvre indicative of both artists in their respective endeavours outside of this collaboration. Is their friendship the vital core to the project?

“Yes. And also our whole community of people,” says Xylouris.

White recounts the first time he met Xylouris. “I remember meeting George at a party, put on by Shelagh,” he says. “It was very memorable because George was so friendly without speaking any English (and I didn’t speak any Greek).”

Their alliance has spawned an eclectic mix of Greek-inspired experimentalism that forms into an earthy avant-jazz frenzy, evident from the outset with their 2014 debut, Goats. Two years later, Black Peak followed, combining Xylorious’ melodic laouto playing with White’s distinctive fractured percussion. Mother (2018) aesthetically combines the finest moments of the preceding two records, leading into utterly beautiful The Sisypheans which followed a year later in 2019.

The key aspect that binds together the Xylorouis White experience is localism; something so many modern day bands lack. “I like that and think it’s true with us,” says White.

Xylouris White - The Forest In Me

And it continues on The Forest In Me. Rife with twists and turns that showcase both Xylorouis and White’s unique virtuosity, The Forest In Me is filled with lovely vignettes that sees Xylorouis White opening a door that guides the listener through to a secluded part of the world.

“This record was made in a number of different ways, most of them new to us,” explains White. “Sometimes Guy and I tracked drums and we sent to George, and he sent back and Guy reshaped, and forth and back etc. Sometimes we worked with some movies: at one point we were all in different continents all with recording set ups – new to me – and sent different things around. As we understood the nature of The Forest In Me, we went back to look at some older material and they had a conversation with us and the new material.”

While their debut album was predominately an instrumental affair, The Forest In Me follows a similar path, but only on the surface. This is Xylouris White exploring new corners of their already fascinating sound world. From the plucky opener, Second Sister, and Latin White – seemingly a lost song from Dirty Three’s Toward the Low Sun now with added Xylouris flavour – to the nimble title track and medieval meanderings of the part Lynchian, part psychedelic Red Wine, not only is it Xylouris White’s most diverse release; oddly enough it could also act as a gateway for those unfamiliar with the band.

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“We were in a rush at the beginning – to catch up to ourselves – one album got left behind – we call it Kids now,” says White. “Goats has one song with lyrics which was intentional – leading to album two, Black Peak , and that lead to Mother. That completed what we see as a completed trilogy, and then The Sisypheans shot out sideways from that.”

He continues.

“At some point in the process of making The Forest In Me, we realised that it shouldn’t have vocals nor any overt Greek themes, and that the dynamics should be different. As we make these records, we find what they need and don’t need and what they are like, it’s mixed with intention and their emergent nature. We were saying the other day, that now we are playing the new material live it actually suits how we feel at the moment, maybe another example of music and us leading each other.”

While localism remains a key facets of the Xylouris White experience, landscape also plays an important role, in particular Australia’s vast space and rural terrains.

“Personally I love the feeling of the no end landscape, which Australia is a champion of,” says Xylouris. “The no end, the sky, like Australia, I thought about that in when I was playing, like the ocean and how small I am, the awe. We were also looking at images for some of it, of forest in Siberia and the desert where astronauts were training for space.”

Xylouris White (photo: Anna Faragona)

With all experimental-based artists, I’ve always wondered how much they wrestle with ideas. The volumes in which both Xylouris and White deal in, there must be a constant gold rush of ideas. Once in the creative capsule, are certain aspects of the narrative out of their hands? “We believe that once you start doing stuff, things happen and it leads on and you are in a relationship with that process,” says White.

So too when an album is finished. Having read about artists and their different emotional experiences – from ecstasy to pain and relief to anxiety – it’s interesting to get the band’s take. “Once it’s really finished you give a space to yourself to let the next idea come and have a rest from the previous one and enjoy what you did,” says White.

And White would know. Constantly flitting between projects, during our conversation alongside Liddiard in 2021, White explained that drumming was “trying to get rid of all that shit, trying to get rid of some of your characteristics”.

The Forest In Me sees Xylorious White concocting that chaos with serenity. Feeding into the idea behind the artwork, and tracks like Memories and Souvenirs and Long Doll provide a rustic charm unheard on previous releases. Like tumble weed down a long quiet road, it’s those moments where one takes stock and appreciates the simple things in life. Earlier in the record, the sonic sketches from the aptly titled Seeing the Everyday and Tails of Time extract similar emotions, and in what is Xylorious White’s most far-removed set of recordings so far, it will be intriguing to see where they go to next.

The Forest In Me is out via Drag City. Purchase from Bandcamp.

By Simon Kirk

Product from the happy generation. Proud purple bin owner surviving on music, books and LFC. New book, Welcome To Charmsville, available from all major vendors.

3 replies on “Be Forest: An Interview with Xylouris White”

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