Like all the best bands, guitar-slinging six-piece XIXA, from Tucson, Arizona, look like a gang. In some of their press photos, they’re all wearing black and posing against a mountain range, looking like they’ve just drifted out of the badlands and are intent on razing your little town to the ground.
It’s an image that suits their sound perfectly – XIXA cite some of their influences as ‘70s Spaghetti Westerns, Gothic horror / Edgar Allan Poe, ’80s horror films, Narco cumbia – cumbia is a type of Colombian dance music, like salsa – and Peruvian chicha group Los Shapis.
Formed in the deep American Southwest, the band also has Latin roots, which can be heard amidst the dark and cinematic, brooding, desert-rock sound of their latest album, Genesis – one of Say It With Garage Flowers’ favourite records of the year so far.
“We live and breathe this landscape, so with these songs we let loose and went as far into that world as we could,” says XIXA’s Gabriel Sullivan, who shares lead vocals and lead guitar with fellow outlaw, Brian Lopez. Both of them are / were also members of Howe Gelb’s alt-country rockers, Giant Sand. XIXA’s line-up is completed by bandmates Jason Urman (keys), Winston Watson (drums, percussion), Efrén Cruz Chávez (timbales, percussion), and Hikit Corbel (bass).
Genesis is XIXA’s second album. Produced by Lopez and Sullivan and recorded in Tucson at the band’s Dust & Stone studio, it follows their debut Bloodline and 2019 EP The Code. It’s an extraordinary, exotic and often intense listen – an intoxicating mix of Ennio Morricone Spaghetti Western-style soundtracks, psych, rock, Latin influences, ’80s glossy pop and electronica.
‘We live and breathe this landscape, so with these songs we let loose and went as far into that world as we could’
Guests on the record include the Uummannaq Children’s Choir from Greenland, Latin singer and guitarist Sergio Mendoza from “indie mambo” act Orkesta Mendoza, and Algerian Tuareg desert-rock quintet Imarhan.
Say It With Garage Flowers took a trip into XIXA’s dark, desert-rock world and spoke to Lopez and Sullivan about the genesis of, er, Genesis.
“We have spent years tweaking the recognisability of our sound. And Genesis is the best representation to date,” they tell us.
Hi. Thanks for doing this. How’s it going? Where are you at the moment? In Tucson? What’s it like? Describe your surroundings and current mood.
Gabriel Sullivan: Thanks for having us. I am indeed in Tucson, in my Barrio Viejo home, looking out my window at my neighbour, Howe Gelb, unloading a Lowrey organ from his truck – it was from an outdoor gig we did in Tubac last weekend. That was quite a feeling – to play music for folks again!
Brian Lopez: I’m doing well, thanks. I just went for a hike with my mom at Sabino Canyon. T-shirt and shorts in February – I can’t complain.
How are you both coping with Covid and how has it affected you?
GS: Obviously Covid shoved us into very unfamiliar territory. This is the longest I’ve not toured in 15 years and I’m really starting to feel the bizarre effects of missing that routine. We’ve certainly tried to stay productive in our Dust & Stone studio and have created some great recordings with XIXA and other projects.
BL: For the first six to eight months, I was feeling great. I think my body and mind needed to recuperate from all the years of touring. I’ve remained super-productive and have had no problem staying busy – mostly with music-related stuff, which is great. I’ve been recording, writing, collaborating with others and getting more efficient with relaying musical ideas online. All the things I hadn’t had time to do efficiently before.
That said, I also miss German winters now…I miss catering and cramped green rooms with my band. I’m ready for the reboot to be over. I wanna get back out on the road.
We’re here to talk about your brilliant new album, Genesis, which is one of my favourite albums of the year so far. It’s a great-sounding record: exotic, cinematic, psychedelic, dark and menacing at times. What was the starting point for it? Did you go in with a definite approach as to how you wanted it to sound and feel? It’s an epic album.
GS: I feel like Genesis evolved and came to fruition in a very organic way. We didn’t go into the sessions with a definitive approach or sound, but we did go into this record with a few years of touring. Our sonic identity was further realised after that much time on the road together.
We wrote and recorded around 25 songs in the Genesis sessions, with many different styles and vibes from song to song. The 10 that made the record were the songs that best complemented each other for a 40-minute LP.
BL: This is definitely not an overnight “we got lucky how it turned out” kinda story. It’s a culmination of a lot of hard work, discipline, restraint…and maybe a .0003% of luck. By this point in our careers we’ve each carved out a space within this band’s organism. Everyone has an important place and job within it…otherwise this organism takes an unrecognisable shape. We need it to be recognisable. We have spent years tweaking the recognisability of our sound. And Genesis is the best representation to date.
How do you write and create the songs? What are your songwriting, demoing, arranging and recording processes?
GS: Genesis, like all of our recordings, was recorded in our Dust & Stone studio and was produced by Brian and myself. We’re big advocates of writing and recording all in the same session. We generally crank out one song per day. Some are more fleshed-out and realised than others, but at the very least we end up with solid sketches.
From there it’s Brian and I spending countless hours in the studio composing lyrics, chopping and editing arrangements, reworking songs and generally just further crafting the sonic landscapes that you hear on the record.
BL: The band will block out writing days, and whoever is available comes in and works. From there we really try to keep it moving. We’ve really become efficient at catching the initial flicker of an idea, and recording it well enough, so that when Gabe and I circle back to it, months later, that magic from the initial session is still there.
You cite your influences as including Edgar Allan Poe, Gothic horror, Ennio Morricone, Spaghetti Western soundtracks, ’80s horror films, ’80s pop and Latin sounds – Narco Cumbia and chica. It’s certainly an exotic and eclectic mix of sounds and styles…
GS: The inspirations that go into XIXA are always evolving. We started as a covers band playing Peruvian chicha and that was definitely the foundation for the band. From there each members’ personal influences and identities began to seep into the music. We’re always looking for new things to influence our music, from literature, mysticism, rhythms, guitar tones… We have no boundaries as to what can guide our music.
What were some of your main lyrical influences for this album? I sense that you take a lot of inspiration from the Arizona landscape: the desert, coyotes, wolves, etc. Is that the case? A lot of the lyrics are dark. There’s a nocturnal, shadowy and otherworldly feel to many of the songs…
GS: I see the lyrics on Genesis as Brian and I painting landscapes for the listener to wander through. There are big broad concepts pulling from religion, spirituality, mythology, mysticism…
‘We’re always looking for new things to influence our music, from literature, mysticism, rhythms, guitar tones… We have no boundaries as to what can guide our music’
Would you like to write film soundtracks? If so, what kind of movies would you like to score?
BL: I think we’ve already written the soundtracks – now we just need to find the films to accompany them. Anyone out there interested?
Can you recommend any cool films – new and old – that I should watch? Seen anything good recently?
BL: The best new movie I have seen is Mank, which is about the screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz and his development of the screenplay for Citizen Kane. It’s amazing. I’d recommend watching it with subtitles though, as the audio is true to 1930s film, in that it is terrible.
The best old movie I have seen recently is Boogie Nights. I mean, that movie ages impressively. It’s maybe better now than it was when it came out. The cast is out of this world and the performances are stellar. It’s Paul Thomas Anderson’s best work, in my opinion.
Let’s talk about some of the songs on the new album. Genesis of Gaea has a definite Spaghetti Western / psychedelic feel…
BL: We wanted to find a darker sort of mood for Spaghetti Western. Something that had the same DNA as a melodic/playful Ennio Morricone, but a darker, more psych feel. This is what we landed on. Lyrically we kind of get this “danger lies ahead” vibe to accompany the melodic passages. I was re-learning how to play this song recently, and I gotta say, musically-speaking, it is rather complex. More than you’d think from just hearing it.
I think Land Where We Lie sounds like Kate Bush’s Running Up That Hill dragged through the Arizona outback. It has an ’80s pop feel, but it mutates into something much darker and also nods to Cry Little Sister from The Lost Boys soundtrack…
GS: I wrote this song the morning before we recorded it – it originally had a very finger picky, southwest songwriter kind of feel. When we got to the studio we started falling into this sort of Rock The Casbah vibe and just kept pushing it further into that. We were all big into ‘80s New and Dark Wave when we were doing the initial tracking and I think it comes across huge in this song. We pulled from an obvious reference here – Cry Little Sister from The Lost Boys soundtrack. The outro is sung by the Uummannaq Children’s Choir, who happened to be visiting Tucson while we were finishing overdubs. They definitely add the final haunting touch to this tune.
‘We wanted to find a darker sort of mood for Spaghetti Western. Something that had the same DNA as a melodic/playful Ennio Morricone, but a darker, more psych feel’
BL: The choir is actually a group of orphans from Uummannaq, Greenland that travel around the world and give performances. They were in Tucson, because our friend, Nive Nielsen, was in town from Greenland, and was sort of organising that portion of their trip. We had already thought to do a Lost Boys homage at the end of the song and had reached out to the local Tucson Boys Chorus to see if they were interested. And literally that same day we ran into Nive, who told us about the orphan choir. She said, “you should just have them do it. They love to sing.” So we did exactly that. And we loved it so much we put them on a couple of other tracks while we had them in our studio.
The Uummannaq Children’s Choir also appear on Feast of Ascension. What can you tell me about that song? I think it starts off sounding like Mark Lanegan doing Dark Side of the Moon-era Pink Floyd…
BL:The original idea was a demo recorded by our French bass player, Hikit Corbel. He has tons of ideas that he composes at home. Perhaps he was listening to some Dark Side… when he composed this particular one.
Anyhow, we took this particular demo, which I believe was just the intro riff on loop, and totally fleshed it out together, live, in the studio, and tracked the arrangement that you hear now.
There are a lot of lyrical references rooted in religion on this album and I thought a song based around the Feast of Ascension might find a good home on a XIXA album. So we wrote lyrics around that theme. We had the Uummannaq Children’s Choir add the final touch, singing the choruses with us: “We sit at the table, with all we have loved. We sit at the table with all that we have feared and lost.” Hearing their voices sing this passage gives me chills every time.
Eclipse, May They Call Us Home and Eve of Agnes are the most Latin-sounding tracks on the album. Are they influenced by cumbia and chichi? They’re very exotic…
BL: Eclipse is more in the vein of Mexican cumbia. May They Call Us Home is one part Spaghetti Western, one part Peruvian chichi, and Eve of Agnes is “a Turkish street market,” as one of the members of Imarhan described it to us, as we were tracking it. Now, the first two cumbias make sense, given our sonic track record, but I can’t explain the Turkish street market part, but I like it.
Soma has some great, pulsing synths on it. It could be the soundtrack to a sci-fi cowboy film…
BL: It’s a song idea I’ve had in the back of my head for a while. Jason’s synths definitely take it to a new place, along with Hikit’s soulful bassline.
GS: The intro is one of my favourite moments of the record. We had the song nearly mixed but didn’t think the intro was quite there. We ended up bouncing the intro down to a 1/4″ tape machine at the lowest speed and played it back into Pro Tools while I held the reels to get that wobbling and crunching effect. Incorporating programmed drums on the outro was a first on a XIXA record. There’s a lot of fun studio trickery in this tune.
BL: The icing on the cake, for me, is again having the Uummannaq Children’s Choir take the outro of the song. The music fades and these beautiful resilient voices remain, walking the listener to the end of side A of the vinyl.
‘That’s so funny you mention Duran Duran – honestly I was hardcore going for Bananarama’s Cruel Summer when we were getting into the production’
Velveteen shares its name with a song and album by ’80s trash-pop band Transvision Vamp. I think it sounds like Duran Duran-meets-Morricone-meets psych-rock. There’s an ’80s pop thing going on, but with some great psychedelic guitar and a Spaghetti Western feel…
BL: That’s so funny you mention Duran Duran – honestly I was hardcore going for Bananarama’s Cruel Summer when we were getting into the production on this particular one. And I remember being disappointed afterwards because I thought we fell a bit short of the mark. Now, with plenty of time between listening, I absolutely love where the song ended up. It’s definitely one of my personal favorites on the album.
Lyrically, the song’s inception came about when I was reading Richard Price’s book Lush Life. He used the word ‘velveteen’ to describe the curtains inside a dilapidated building in New York City. I just remember thinking about the strong aesthetic grip the word ‘velveteen’ has. So I wrote all the lyrics around that one word.
Are you pleased with the album?
BL: I’m definitely pleased with it. On a personal level, I feel the album’s stock will only rise when we are able to play these songs live in front of crowds, and begin making sense of it all. We haven’t even made it to that part yet. Which is both frustrating and exciting.
Was it made pre-pandemic? The record’s dark soundtrack feel suits the global mood, doesn’t it?
BL: It was conceived pre-pandemic, yes. But it certainly takes on more cultural relevance and significance in a Covid world. I’m glad we pushed the release back.
What are your plans for the rest of 2021? You’re obviously hoping to play this record live at some stage, aren’t you?
BL: I have no idea what to expect. Of course we’d love to go out and tour but that just isn’t on the cards, is it? Not any time soon at least. So we’ll just start writing new music and control what we can.
GS: We’ve played a couple of tunes from the record for some live streams and they were a blast to arrange for the stage. I can’t wait to see how songs like Soma, with its thick layers of production, translate to a live setting.
‘The album was conceived pre-pandemic, but it certainly takes on more cultural relevance and significance in a Covid world’
What’s been your lockdown soundtrack? What music – new and old – have you been enjoying?
BL: My favourite new album is Mexican Institute of Sound’s Distrito Federal. I’ve also been listening to Lowrider Oldies via a vinyl compilation called East Side Stories. I believe there are 12 volumes.
GS: I’ve been in a deep heavy music vibe lately. I’m loving the new EP from our Arizona brethren Gatecreeper and I’ve also been revisiting my all-time favourite band Pantera.
Finally, do you like the band Genesis?
BL: I prefer Peter Gabriel’s solo career. Sledgehammer was the shit. Also, the music video for Genesis’ Land of Confusion seriously freaked me out as a child. That video is fucked up.
Genesis by XIXA is out now on Jullian Records/The Orchard.