You might think a drum kit and a lute are insufficient tools when it comes to creating completely original, holy-crap-what-is-this music. And in the hands of most humans that would probably be true. But Georgios Xylouris and Jim White are not most humans.
The unlikely duo first connected in Melbourne, Australia in the ’90s, where White had an instrumental rock trio called Dirty Three and Xylouris fronted a group called Xylouris Ensemble that showcased his unique approach to the music of his native Crete — mixing it with Irish folk music, as well as more modern elements — and his chosen instrument, the laouto, a long-necked, eight-stringed lute. In traditional Greek and Cretan music, it’s typically a supporting instrument, used mainly for rhythm and texture — but Xylouris can shred on that thing like a cross between Andrés Segovia and Chris Thile.
Jim White, in some ways, also plays the drums like a lead instrument — or at least explores their melodic and timbral possibilities more thoroughly than most rock drummers. His incredibly expressive playing has backed everyone from Nick Cave to Cat Power to PJ Harvey. But he didn’t begin working with Xylouris until 2014, when the duo released their first album as Xylouris White, Goats — an apt title, because there’s something voracious about the way they explore every little cranny and crevice in the space where their two styles of music overlap. The sound of the laouto keeps them rooted in Greek and Cretan folk music, but from there they go flying off into atmospheric post-rock, Indian ragas, drone, psychedelia, jazz, and the vaguely medieval sounds of neoclassical folk and darkwave. It’s not music that immediately strikes you as “weird” per se, but the longer you listen, the harder it is to describe — which is as good an overarching description as any of the kind of music this blog is dedicated to exploring.
Xylouris White just released their third album, Mother, and I think it’s their best work yet, with more of Xylouris’ powerful vocals and a sort of moody, post-punk, gypsy trance vibe that contains echoes of everything from Ravi Shankar and Gábor Szabó to Dead Can Dance and Robby Krieger’s guitar parts on “The End.” It’s eerie and beautiful and incantatory and doesn’t sound like it could possibly be the work of just two musicians — but after seeing them live this week (they’re playing Zebulon here in L.A. every Monday this month — for free! — and on tour through May), I’m pretty sure that Mother contains very few overdubs. Between White’s graceful yet octopus-like command of his kit and the crazy overtones and drones Xylouris can get from his lute, the two of them can generate quite a racket.
Though they have an undeniably fascinating sound, I honestly didn’t consider adding Xylouris White to the Weird List until I saw this video for “Only Love,” one of the most rockin’ songs on Mother. Between the Primus-like opening riff and the goofy animation (my favorite part: when something like a goat mosh pit breaks out) courtesy of director Lucy Dyson, it’s definitely one of the most eye-catchingly absurd clips I’ve seen in recent memory.
I’ll leave you with Xylouris White’s other recent music video, for the Mother track “Daphne.” This one’s only weird if you think it’s weird for old ladies to dance alone in fields, which you shouldn’t. With any luck, we’ll all be able to bust moves like this well into our twilight years. (Also, those old ladies are Jim White and George Xylouris’ mothers. So show a little goddamned respect.)
Side note: Back in his native Crete, Giorgos Xylouris is folk music royalty. His father is Antonis “Psarantonis” Xylouris, a renowned lyra player (a smaller, three-stringed cousin of the laouto), and his late uncle was Nikos “Psaronikos” Xylouris, a singer and lyra player whose music became a soundtrack and inspiration for the youth protest movement that eventually brought down the military junta that ruled Greece from 1967 to 1974. Giorgos (or George, to his English-speaking pals) is known in Greece as Psarogiorgos. We’re not sure what the “psaro” prefix means but presumably it’s some kind of honorific bestowed upon members of the Xylouris family who have achieved a certain level of awesomeness. (Giorgos’ children, who perform with him in Xylouris Ensemble, don’t appear to have earned it yet. But give them time.)