George Xylouris and Jim White (pictured above) are one of the most exciting musical collaborations right now. Their new album Mother is not for the fragile. The alternative rock and Cretan music meld is blood and bones, earth and sea, literature and poetry, war and love; it is Crete. One needs to understand the Cretans to comprehend the music.
Crete is the birthplace of Zeus. It was where the Nazis launched the first large scale airborne invasion in 1941, only to be met with men, women, and children with guns, knives, pitchforks and hammers killing them as they floated down. It was the first time the Germans had suffered such losses. Love of music, food, and hospitality is well balanced by ferocity for independence and bloody mindedness.
Singer and lute player, Xylouris is one the treasured artists of Crete, the largest of the Greek islands. His collaborator White, now living in New York, is the Australian drummer best known for his work in the seminal Australian band, Dirty Three. Along for the ride is vocalist and guitarist Guy Picciotto, best known for Washington based, indy band of the ’90s, Fugazi.
“Greek Rebetiko, Cretan and rock are different, yet connected; some music forms connections regardless of where they are from.”
“We realised that the music of Nick Cave, Dirty Three, and Fugazi is connected to my music through intensity,” says Xylouris,
Xylouris’ lute on Mother ranges from explosive, almost Hendrix style, to eerie Byzantine Cretan melody. Mother ignites with hazardous lute playing In Medias Res, then moves to surf rock speed in Only Love, the album’s single.
The music burrows deep, moving the listener to other worlds. One minute you’re in a forlorn village on a harsh Cretan mountain, then at war with invaders – there have been many – then you’re dancing in a village panegyri or a sweaty Brunswick pub.
“It’s because of our psychological connections. It is natural, like the Blues have with Greek Rebetiko, Cretan and rock are different yet connected, some music forms connections regardless of where they are from,” he says.
The collaboration with White is emotional. “It’s the intensity from both of us.”
Xylouris’ musical pedigree reaches back generations in Crete. The Xylouris clan hails from Anogeia, a mountain shepherding village not far from the Cave of Zeus. His late uncle, Nikos Xylouris, was a musical force in the resistance to the Greek Military Junta ’67-’74.
At the age of five, Nikos witnessed the burning of his village by German soldiers during the Nazi Occupation. Nikos’ younger brother, Psarantonis, is George’s father and a globally renowned lyra player and singer who was brought to Australia a number of times by Nick Cave.
In Melbourne in the ’90s, strange Greek Australian alternative types were mixing with non-Greek alternative rock types because of Xylouris.
Xylouris lived in Australia throughout the ’90s where he cemented relationships with Jim White, Warren Ellis and Cave.
The “virtuous cycle in Melbourne in the ’90s,” as he calls it began when he gave Warren Elllis a disc, (who then gave it to Nick Cave) says Xylouris by phone from Crete.
…Soon, strange Greek Australian alternative types were mixing with non-Greek alternative rock types because of Xylouris.
“They (Cave, White, Ellis) fell in love with the intensity of Cretan music. and for a period were listening only to Psarantonis, my father, and a range of Cretan music. Nick (Cave) brought out Psarantonis to Australia as well.”
Many Friday nights were spent in Melbourne’s smoke filled bars and pubs in the ’90s downing tsikoudia (τσικουδιά), the dangerous Cretan anis liquor, as the Xylouris Ensemble grinded away. Soon, strange Greek Australian alternative types were mixing with non-Greek alternative rock types because of Xylouris.
“When I was in the Xylouris Ensemble in Melbourne in the ’90s all of them, Jim, Warren and Nick came to see us play”, he says.
Dirty Three invited Xylouris to play as a guest in gigs across the bars and pubs of Melbourne.
The meeting of Xylouris and White was a “natural phenomenon” — they played around at a few places and began to “self-produce stuff”. The music really is from the “same musical neighbourhood,” he says. He then invited White to Crete and in 2012 where he stayed with his family.
“In some ways, I think Jim is Cretan now…” he jokes.
After recording with White in Crete in 2012, Xylouris was invited to the US by the “Cretans of NYC, and Jim was living in Brooklyn, so we continued.”
“Guy (Picciotto) from Fugazi came to see us and he loved it and invited us to work in his recording studio,” says Xylouris who sees no great difference between rock and Cretan folk traditions.
“For years I have played in Glendis in Crete and we play loud and wild. Jim in his rock aesthetic also needs loud and wild for intensity and power, for atmosphere.”
For Xylouris, the music is “natural” and based on a friendship that creates, “new and old, but always authentic music”.
“Living in Melbourne for me was as natural as it was in Crete in Iraklion, where we’d go around pubs, cafes and we’d hear rock, pop, blues. I relived that in Melbourne. One moment I’d be working with the Cretan House or a Greek club then go to the pub and hear Dirty Three or Nick Cave.”
Xylouris says the title Mother refers to the goat. “It is also the milk of the goat which fed Zeus.”
Main photo above by Anna White