Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.
Goats, Cretan music, and the night of the snails.
Xylouris White is a duo comprised of Giorgos Xylouris on lute and Jim White on drums. Xylouris comes from the village of Anogeia—famous as a fount of traditional music—on the island of Crete, and is part of a long, imposing geneology of Greek folk musicians. His father, Antonis Xylouris (popularly known as Psarantonis) is a giant of Cretan folk music and a master of the Cretan lyra. His uncles are equally renowned, and the whole family, Giorgios and his brother included, have played together in various combinations as the Xylouris Ensemble. Giorgios is well-known in his own right and frequently credited with being one of the first to play the lute as a solo, lead instrument, though he contests his role as an innovator below.
Jim White is best-known in the United States as the drummer in the Australian instrumental trio the Dirty Three, alongside guitarist Mick Turner and violinist Warren Ellis. He has also played on numerous records by artists like Cat Power and Bonnie “Prince“ Billy, and was a member of the seminal Australian punk band Venom P. Stinger.
Filmmaker Jem Cohen has a vast filmography of documentary, fiction, and experimental work. His most recent feature was Museum Hours, which premeired at the Locarno Film Festival in 2012. He has frequently worked with musicians and recently made a short concert film with Xylouris White.
The three sat down recently in Brooklyn, where Cohen and White live within walking distance of one another. They discussed traditional Greek music, how the two met in the early ’90s, and their new record Goats, produced by Guy Picciotto of Fugazi, with whom Cohen worked on the documentary Instrument (2001).
Jem Cohen I’ve been listening to your new record, and I had a strange thought that I’m going to start this out with. I won’t start every question with a long, odd story, but it occurred to me that I read that when Hank Williams was a boy, the first lyrics he ever wrote were: “I had me a goat / She ate tin cans / When the little goats came / They was Ford Sedans.” Giorgos, you know that a Ford Sedan is a car?
Giorgos Xylouris I got it.
JC They’re pretty great lyrics, I think Bob Dylan probably wishes he’d written them. But they also bring me to this whole idea about old things and new things and tradition, and I think that’s a question everybody’s going to be talking about in regards to this record.
To be honest, when I listen to the record, because I have very little knowledge of the traditions of Crete, it’s very hard for me to know how much is influenced here by folk and traditional music. I find it quite puzzling, which I think is a really good thing, and the more I listen to the record the more I don’t think I need to come to it with any musicological awareness of what is strictly traditional and what is being entirely made up and created by you two. I guess one way to ask this is, are you already tired of hearing the question? Does it matter to you? Is it interesting?
GX (laughter) That’s a nice question. I find much I can’t understand with my poor English, but I try to make it richer.
JC Well, if people say to you, Giorgos, you have this new record coming out, are you playing traditional music? How would you answer that?
GX Well, you mentioned country music at the beginning of the question, and that makes me connect to the tradition of the album. I don’t know why, but I remember times in Australia when we were driving, our old 1965 car—same age as me—out to the country, and listening to country music, I don’t know why, but the feelings I had through that music and the view: the trees, the sky, the horizon, the stripe—the straightness—of the Australian land … It’s the opposite of Crete’s landscape, which is rocky mountains and all turns in a car anywhere you go. But somehow I had that feeling—I remember it, the same moving feeling—from my tradition and this different tradition. The same thing was burning inside me. The feeling was very strong, the same as when I listen to Cretan music.
JC Jim, do you have any thoughts on that?
Jim White No, that’s a good answer. (laughter) I’m not from Crete, so I’m doing what I do, what I can do, and gleaning things from going to Crete. I’ve been listening to that music for a long time, and Giorgos tells me stories about it. On the other hand, some of our music is directly based on that tradition, but some isn’t.
JC I know in terms of tradition, the sousta and syrtos, which are parts of the names of songs on the album, are both dances. That suggests to me that there are particular steps and meters that need to be attended to by the musicians because otherwise the dancers would lose their way. Is that correct, Giorgos?
GX Yes, that’s right. But there is also the feeling, and feelings don’t go with rules. Someone who doesn’t know the steps can dance with their feelings.
JC So, that is one indication of certain traditions being present on this record, but that doesn’t mean they’re literally played—you can have a tradition that is not presented in the most traditional way. What does it mean for it to be a sousta or a syrtos in terms of what you’re playing?
GX Sousta is a dance. Sousta means “suspension.” I think sousta means that—we come to cars again. You know, that spiral of metal—the suspension of the car.
GX So because the dance has that special movement, up and down, you have to keep the balance on your feet and your knees.
JW Oh, that’s the suspension.
GX Yeah. That’s what sousta means. With syrtos, you go around and around, holding hands. Syrtos is to move like when you’re pulling something, for example tape. It’s like you saying, “I pull the tape.” I’m pulling, ”syrto,“ holding each other by the hand. I pull you and you pull the next person, around and around. That’s the meaning of the word for that dance.
But this also has to do with that question, “How, from different traditions and different lands, do you still have that strong feeling?” So, I come to sousta, which is a traditional dance, with Jim. He plays drums, which come from a different tradition. He plays an instrument which is not part of the Cretan tradition. Now I will leave it there, and we will come to that point later on, so I’m not talking all the time.
JC I heard you once said that Jim comes from “the punk tradition” in Australia, which I see as a perfectly legitimate tradition. It’s like the tradition that I come from, which is Washington, DC punk rock. Still, it’s very unusual for people to consider that something like punk from a particular region could actually be a kind of folk music, a kind of tradition. Do you think it is, Jim?
JW I come from a strong community of people and music from before punk rock, but certainly Melbourne is a very strong city of music, of playing live music. You can see there are traditions there among Australians. As you talk to people around you, you learn about things that were there before. And different Australian cities have different styles.
But one thing I definitely find really interesting when I’m in Crete, and in talking to Giorgos about it, is listening to one style of song that is from this one specific mountain or this specific village, and it has this one specific dance. It definitely seems more interconnected in Crete, especially being around Giorgos and his family.
JC When I read a little bit about the music of Crete, one of the things I had assumed was that the lyra, which Giorgos’s father is famous for playing, was one of the oldest instruments and therefore the kind of bedrock of traditional music in Crete. But then I read the lyra actually appeared in Crete in the 18th century, which is old by American standards, but not so old in that part of the world, in the Mediterranean. So it seems to me it’s a false impression people have that these musical traditions are unchanging or that they were locked in hundreds and hundreds—if not thousands—of years ago.
That said, there are very strong differences between what they play in one part of Crete and what they play in another part of Crete. Is that right, Giorgos?
GX There are differences, yes.
JC One of the differences you have been involved in kind of pioneering is to play the lute as a solo instrument when normally it’s an accompanying instrument. Is it fair to say it usually takes a bit of a backseat to the lyra?
GX Yes, it is, but you know, when they say I made the lute a solo instrument—that’s a myth.
JC It’s a myth?
GX Yeah. I hear often, and it’s not true, I don’t think, because there are recordings of others doing that, old recordings from maybe the 1920s, as far back as we can go. There are players who play the lute solo and also at the same time accompanied by the lyra or the violin.
GX I can say, like everybody else, you listen and you play, all the time thinking and listening and playing, and after years, you make your style. It depends on the times we pass through, the things we leave behind. Maybe you go through changes all the time, and maybe time makes you change. It’s different. The people you listen to lived in different times, then it moves to your time. Maybe what I did is to play lute, mostly, as my instrument for the night—I mean at concerts. But they’ve always played solo and the melody, you can’t imagine how beautiful it is. All that’s coming from there, from back then. It’s not my discovery. Through that I do other things, my own stuff.
I try to play around Crete, often just the lute and another instrument, maybe percussion or maybe as a solo instrument. But usually, at the gigs all summer outside, we play with the lyra, and the lute is accompanying the lyra or the violin. But at the same time, the lute has different roles, like keeping the rhythm, playing the melody, strumming, and doing the percussion parts. And, as you play through the years, new things come up related to the old things, and all that keeps going forward. And sometimes things mix as they’re coming up.
JC Right. I think readers would probably want to hear how you two first crossed paths, and I guess Jim, a lot of people probably know you primarily from Dirty Three and the work you’ve done with musicians that are more or less in the rock and roll world, whether it’s Cat Power or Smog or Will Oldham or PJ Harvey—I don’t know if rock and roll is exactly the right word. But how did you meet Giorgos and what was your initial shared interest? Did it occur to you the first time you heard him play that you might end up playing with him?
JW Yeah, we met back before Dirty Three. Giorgos came to Australia to play on tour with his father, Psarandonis, but I didn’t know about them so I didn’t see the concert. But then he ended up living in Australia for a few years, and I would go see him play in the Xylouris Ensemble, and also by himself. Dirty Three started around this time, and we invited Giorgos to play with us a number of times, our bands would play together.
JC When you say you invited him to play, do you mean as an opening act, or were you guys playing together?
JW No, to come and to play with us on our songs. Like “Indian Love Song,” “The Greek Song.” Maybe, “Better Go Home.” I can’t remember.
JC And what kinds of venues were these?
JW There was a wine bar and we played in the front on the floor in the front window. And we played every week—it was super fun. Later on we played bigger places where Giorgos played with us, and then even did some recording, right? This was around 1993, I guess. Through that, I started listening to the first Xylouris Ensemble CD, and a lot of his father’s CDs.
JC When did it enter your mind that you might not just be inviting him to sit in with your band, but that you might be sitting in with him on his music?
JW I don’t know. I was going to go to Crete, but it took me a long time to get there.
GX Yeah. I remember Shelagh, my wife, talked about it sometimes, that it would be good to play with Jim. When we finally played together in Australia we didn’t talk much, but every time we played we really loved it. I remember all the parts we played, the rhythm, like a conversation— strumming lute and drums. The connection was very strong and sudden.
JC It just fell into—
GX I don’t know the word exactly, but we looked at each other and started to play something, without any practice.
JC You hit it right off.
JW Yeah. I remember when Giorgos’s father asked me to play with them at this festival, I was very surprised. It wasn’t something I’d been expecting.
JC It was a little daunting.
JW It was daunting. I thought, Well, I’m going to ruin it.
JC But you jumped in.
GX It was just a look at each other: “We’re going to play that piece.” And then improvisation. (laughter) Like we didn’t know what it was before. Right, Jim?
JC Are there ever times when Jim is playing with you in Crete or in Greece when people think this is a very strange kind of drumming? Is it very surprising or unusual to them, what Jim does?
GX Oh, yeah. It’s a lute and a drum, so it’s very unusual and surprising, because people know me through traditional music, Cretan music. They know that sometimes I do unusual things, but to me it’s something I’ve been doing for years. It’s like tradition, the way Jim’s playing, because he’s got tradition. He’s got that music feeling, because he is what he is. He’s got the musical background, he plays all that, and I can connect that with the traditional music and the Cretan tradition.
Cretan music has different themes, soft and strong, and talks about all different things: life, love, death, mountains, allegorically connecting the mountains, and the snake with the two heads—which allegorically means Hell—or the beautiful tree means heaven, or the eagle that has snow on his feathers and can’t fly. I think the sounds Jim makes have that, all of that. He’s strong when he plays, and that’s why. So beautiful and strong at the same time.
JC Can I say something about Jim’s drumming? Jim, hope you can forgive me for this.
JC You know I’ve seen a lot of bands, especially rock and roll and punk bands, and my awareness of Jim was through Dirty Three, and sometimes I’m there to listen, sometimes I’m there to listen and film, because it’s what I do, and drummers are often in the dark. It’s often just the way it works in a rock and roll club, that there’s not enough light on the drummer. Over the years of seeing Dirty Three, it really drove me crazy because I realized that this is a drummer that I really, really want to watch. I had to wonder, what is it that’s different? I mean, I’ve known other great drummers as well, but often a drummer is kind of the anchor of the song, or they’re kind of a measuring tape. They’re keeping the constant pattern the other musicians can sort of work around a little bit more freely. But when I listen to Jim drum, it’s almost like I’m listening to somebody walk around. They walk over here, and they look over here, and they go into this room and then that one. It changes as it goes, and I never could understand how—because I’m not a musician in any way—he could do that without leaving the other musicians behind. Do you know what I mean, Giorgos?
GX Can you say the last bit?
JC Well, because traditionally the drummer is kind of depended on to keep the beat and keep the measure and keep the song together, it often means the drummer has to have a very particular, and sometimes unwavering, rhythm—I don’t know what Jim is doing, really, but somehow he seems to be doing something else.
GX Walk around, you said.
JC Yeah, I mean, that’s what I think of when I hear him sometimes. I feel like I could close my eyes and walk with the drums and it’s like a journey to go on. It’s not a straight line.
GX (laughter) Yeah.
JC Does that make any sense?
GX It’s like his life.
GX You know, you see him walking around, but at same time he could fly 1000 kilometers an hour, at the same time. (laughter) He’s moving, it’s a journey, but it could be at the same pace. It’s like a small village, with fifty million people. (laughter)
JC Speaking of small villages, you come from a village that has, what is it, still less than 3,000 people?
GX Yes, in the summer time. But in the winter time—how do you say somebody’s staying in the same place all the time? Not the visitors …
JC Right, the inhabitants.
GX With visitors, in the summer, yes, there are 3000. But only 1,800 in winter time.
JC And there’s some very heavy history there. I just read that the village was entirely destroyed in World War II as revenge by the Nazis for the kidnapping of the German general, the Nazi commander, Kreipe.
JC Does any of that history still hang in there air there? That’s a big thing, the destruction of an entire village.
GX The whole place has a long history. The village has been burned to the ground three times, years ago. The last time was in ’44, by the Nazis.
JC Right, but it had happened two times before, in much earlier times.
GX Two times before, yeah, by the Ottoman Empire in the 1760s and another time, maybe 100 years later, again, and then by the Nazis in 1944. And it’s a mountain village: freedom, music, dance, and poetry are the life of the people who come from the village.
JC Would you say they could be called necessities?
GX I don’t know the word, I’m sorry.
JC It’s something you have to have to live, like food, or air, or water.
GX Yes. You grow up with that. You grow up and when you’re sitting to have lunch, you hear your father talk about music or poetry, maybe tell stories or jokes. Stories, generally. Everything adds to music and singing and dancing. Music, all the time. When somebody dies, you’re looking to play music to remember him. It’s a life.
JC There’s a very strong pop-music tradition in Greece in recent times, the big European television shows and big hits, things like that. How do they feel about that in your village?
GX There are many people that listen in a different way and they have choices, because the tradition is so strong here, not only in my village but the whole island. It’s a big, huge party, a music festival the whole year, but in summer time, especially July and August, everywhere you go, every night, each village, within five to ten kilometers in distance, music will be on—in the square, for a wedding or for whatever reason. Any reason. The day of the snails, the day of the wine, the day this village has a festival, music night-to-night. Snails night! (laughter) So, you imagine everybody is looking for reasons to play music and dance.
JC Do they slow it down for snails night?
GX But when we say “pop,” I don’t know how to talk about that, because I don’t know what “pop” means. You know, “popular,” or “famous.” Everything comes through the telly, for example. It exists out here, and you can hear a little bad music or bad sounds. At the same time, people are looking to find new ways to make money and to express themselves, so many things happen through traditions. You think you’re going to the snail night or to the goat night to listen to music, Cretan music, and you go there and it’s something else, which is not Cretan music. But that comes through the television.
JC I want to ask a little bit about the recording more specifically. So, two questions: how did you come to these songs? For this record, did you know in advance what they would be? Were any of them improvised? Jim?
JW After a period of playing together in Crete and Australia, we started making recordings. So some of the album was done in Crete, but most of it was done at Guy Picciotto’s house in Brooklyn. We did a couple of days of pieces that were really improvisational and open, and some of the songs come from that. Then along the way I was learning some of the—I didn’t learn the dances, but I learned some of the rhythms, I guess. So one of them is one of those. Some others were combinations of ideas Giorgos had, and ideas I had. The opening song, “Pulling the Bricks,” is the most improvised one. It’s one we’d never played, so what you’re hearing is the first time we actually ever played it. That one didn’t exist until that moment, as far as I understand. Right, Giorgos?
JW We’ve played it only once since then, so we have to work out how it goes now.
JC It’s a pretty interesting opening, I have to say. It’s a bit of shock, it kind of throws down a gauntlet. Was there a lot of discussion about the sequencing?
JW I think we all really loved that one. For the sequencing, the big thing was just narrowing the songs down. We had so many songs that could have been on there. Once we started to narrow the group, the sequencing really knocked into shape. But I’ve never had any second thoughts about that song being first. Right, Giorgos?
JC So what was it like recording with Guy?
GX It was a very special experience with Guy at the studio. He has things to say about every piece, and his opinions and words are very, very interesting. He puts things in such a way, that you suddenly discover more in the piece than before. It opens the fountains from his words. It was so nice to work with Guy, and I can’t wait to see him again and work together and find things together.
JW Yeah, he was really excited about it and has a great ear for it. And we recorded quickly there, a lot of stuff. I don’t think Guy realized this, but we actually played our first show just before in New York. It was our first show anywhere.
JC Yeah, and this is one thing we should clarify because it could be misleading. It was clear from our earlier discussion that you guys go way, way back in terms of Giorgos spending time in Melbourne in the ‘80s and early ‘90s. But the playing together back then, you had him sit in some with your bands, and you sat in with him and his father. But this incarnation of Xylouris White is all new.
Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.