The story of Xylouris White lies at the intersection of multiple geographies, histories, and cultures. It’s rooted in one of Greece’s oldest musical traditions and is made up of drummer Jim White, a veteran of the Australian post-punk scene who originally rose to prominence as part of instrumental trio Dirty Three, and Giorgos Xylouris, a virtuosic player of the eight-stringed Lute and member of the island’s most celebrated musical family.
The Xylouris name, in fact, has come to be synonymous with Cretan music. His late uncle Nikos was nicknamed "the Archangel of Crete" for his folk music and poetry that captured the popular mood, and was part of the political movement that overthrew the Greek military dictatorship in 1974. His version of "I mpalanta tou kyr-Mentiou," originally composed by the poet Kostas Varnalis, describes the life of an ordinary worker, where the factory takes its toll, and men are forced off to war to feed their masters. But if you awaken at once, the poet tells the worker, the world will turn upside down.
Xylouris and his family were the subject of the 2015 documentary A Family Affair, which documents his relentless schedule. "I'd like to stop performing for a year and only play at home. But I don't have this luxury," Xylouris tells filmmaker Angeliki Aristomenopoulou." I have to play nonstop to make ends meet." The camera follows Xylouris across continents, from one of Crete's famously gun-laden weddings, to the musician's "second home" (and drummer White's first home) in Melbourne, where his son attended university.
The duo's most recent album, Black Peak, was released over the summer, and between recording and performing, Xylouris shows no signs of slowing down. When the Metro Times caught up with the pair via email, it was on the eve of their return to the United States after an extensive tour of Europe and the West Coast. Xylouris White will appear (with the great guitarist Marisa Anderson opening up) at Third Man Cass Corridor on Sunday, Nov. 27. Note: At times, they replied as one, so we put those responses down as "Xylouris/White."
MT: Where are you currently based?
Giorgos Xylouris: Crete.
Jim White: New York. Right now, Taiwan, where we just played a festival.
MT: How did you first start working together?
Xylouris/White: There's a couple of ways to answer. One way is three and a half years ago, Jim went to Crete and we started Xylouris White. The long answer is 25 years ago we met in Melbourne, listened to each other play in our own situations — Jim kinda punk rock in Melbourne, George Cretan folk music. Dirty Three started, and George would play with Dirty Three then on occasion. Jim listened to Cretan music for the next 20 years and we kept in touch. Dirty Three and Xylouris Ensemble [were] playing shows together. Later on, George, Jim, and Psarantonis — who is George's dad — played together when all were present at the Nick Cave-curated All Tomorrow's Parties festival. And finally, Jim went to Crete.
MT: We're curious about your upcoming concert in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, with Jonathan Richman.
Xylouris/White: Jim is a longtime fan of Jonathan. George [is] a new fan since a month ago when he saw Jonathan Richman and Tommy Larkins play at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in San Francisco when we were playing there too. Jonathan saw Xylouris White play and has invited us to play on the same bill in Portsmouth. We're very excited.
MT: Jim, who are some of the artists you have worked with before meeting George?
White: I come from Melbourne, which has a great music scene. I formed Venom P Stinger, Dirty Three, the Double and Xylouris White along with my bandmates. I've played live and on record with many other people including Smog, Cat Power, and Bonnie Prince Billy. I play drum kit. I spent a lot of time in Detroit and was in Crime and the City Solution featuring Detroitians Matthew Smith and Troy Gregory. Dirty Three played at Zoots in Cass Corridor way back, and I made a record with Andre Williams and Dennis Coffey in Hamtramck.
MT: George, tell us a little bit about your family, and their place in Cretan culture.
Xylouris: Cretan musical culture is big and goes back centuries. The village I grew up [in] is [called] Anogia, a mountain village of musicians and shepherds. It's a rocky place, and people spend a lot of time singing, talking about music, telling stories, making instruments, writing poetry, and dancing. That's life there. My family is a big part of that: My grandpa and his brother were both lyra players, and also my grandpa was singing a lot, and that was a big part of his everyday life. This continued to his kids, which [are] my dad and his brothers Psarandonis, Nikos and Giannis. Two [of them are] lyra players, [one is] a Lute player, and they all sing. My village and my dad and his brothers inspired me a lot growing up, and continue to. My uncle Nikos is an iconic face of what he was doing, singing and playing all around Greece. And these days, because he passed away, many people come to the village to visit the house where he and his family grew up. My dad is a man who broke the rules of tradition. He gave a new way to see things. He broke the rules and yet he is still within, and is the tradition, showing us all ways forward and back. Giannis is a master of the Lute. My brother and my sister are also musicians, and the next generation is coming up. My grandma was also a miraculous dancer.
MT: Do either of you think there has been a resurgence in non-traditional music forms in the West in recent years? If so, why do you think this is?
Xylouris: To play with Jim, it's not only two people from different music backgrounds putting things together, but it's something that goes back over the years since we met. We started listening to each other and I followed Jim along the years, listening to what he was up to in Dirty Three and other things. We'd exchange music now and again, and all this gives me the feeling that playing together now feels natural and it's something built by the years. That's the feeling I have, so in a way it's kind of an old thing and new at the same time, our history.
MT: Jim, how you think the role of experimental music in our culture has changed since working with Dirty Three?
White: I don't think I've ever been doing what is primarily experimental music. I mean, I like to experiment myself — put things in different places and see how it feels and not to necessarily follow the accepted paths of drumming — but that's a personal thing that is part of my way, and has been, and continues to be. In Xylouris White, I'm myself and I'm also trying to touch the feelings and the dance of some of this Cretan music. I listen to the old Cretan masters, talk to George and go to Crete all the time because I love it and that helps with what I'm doing with Xylouris White. Mostly I find ways to be more myself, and at the same time finding things I didn't even know I could do. In that way it refreshes. I guess I'm always trying to get to certain feelings when I play music, and one of the ways to get that feeling is to come at it in a new way to get to that old idea. I see it as a continuation of what I've always done, whether it was loving punk rock and making up the beats and songs in Venom P Stinger that were not done in punk rock, but got to some of the feelings in a fresh way. I don't think anything I'm saying is related to what people call experimental music. What we are doing drives us to what we are looking for.
MT: How have your musical tastes developed or changed as you have grown older?
Xylouris: All these years I'm learning and finding out things, and continuing to do so. And at this stage I'm going back to the beginning as I've always done, finding new things in the old things I've always done. Sisyphus people ask me sometimes, "I want to be a fly on the wall when you are playing at home by yourself playing to see and listen what you man play alone." And I'm telling to them, "What I'm playing, what do you think I'm playing?" I'm playing proto Hanioiti and proto Hanioti and proto Hanioti, the same song that you heard me play tonight about 10 times in a Cretan gig where we play for 10 hours. That's mostly what I'm doing, discovering the same thing over and over, and I love that, and I believe that.
White: The same thing really applies for me in programming myself, and then I like to go into whatever situation and see what happens. Even if it's the same situation.
MT: What was it like touring in Europe, and how you feel about returning to the United States?
Xylouris/White: The United States is turning out to be one of our home bases. It's always great and we probably came at a good time, because we come for good reasons. We like to meet the new places and see the differences, and these places could be very close to each other. Like in Crete, we see differences in the same piece of music that may be only 5 miles away from each other, and it's exciting. We just had some great shows in Europe. Greeks and Germans together in Berlin, and everyone dancing in Brussels, and we went to Ireland for the first time. We had a great time in Newcastle and Birmingham — very local places which welcomed us — and [we] saw the different character of the towns and landscapes.
Xylouris White and Marisa Anderson will perform at Third Man Cass Corridor on Sunday, Nov. 27; Starts at 7:30 p.m.; 441 W. Canfield St., Detroit; thirdmanstore.com; $10.