“For me, I always had this thing that the skill of the musician is to keep it like it’s the first time, every time.” Anyone who’s witnessed the drummer’s intensely focused work with Dirty Three or anyone else (Cat Power, PJ Harvey, Seeker Lover Keeper) will know what he’s talking about.
The duo’s eventual decision to name their fourth album The Sisypheans gained momentum when a waitress overheard their conversation one night and mentioned Albert Camus’ essay on the subject. The title was sealed by the curious appearance of a needlepoint rendering of Sisyphus in the studio where they recorded.
All signs, it seemed, pointed to the same idea: all-consuming dedication to one task; a single path of infinite revelation. Down here in the basement, it all feels a little abstract. Upstairs, it will soon find very visceral form in front of a transfixed audience.
”We were playing traditional songs, but when we sat down and start to play, it was like we had our own tradition.”
Xylouris White is a band of simple tools. White plays a fairly perfunctory kit, augmented by various blocks and rattles. Xylouris’ laouto — a Cretan lute — is a round-backed beast with four pairs of booming strings. He began playing it to accompany his father, Cretan lyra legend Psarantonis, when he was 12.
“A late starter,” White jokes.
The pair’s friendship began in the late ’80s when Psarantonis came out to perform for the Greek diaspora in Melbourne. George married Shelagh, a family friend of White’s, and the Xylouris clan began sharing stages with Dirty Three.
As a duo, Xylouris White was born in a studio in Crete in 2013. “We just started playing,” says White. “We were very old friends by this point. We’d been listening to each other’s music for years and [he] kept saying ‘When you gonna come visit?’ So ‘All right, I’ll come visit. Maybe let’s play when I get there?'”
“Jim heard my dad’s records,” Xylouris says, “and my uncles’ [Nikos and Yianni are also renowned musicians from the Cretan village of Anogeia]. So after all that time, he came to Crete and we had already something there.
“That day in the studio, all that [previous] time was there,” he says. “We were playing traditional songs but when we sat down and start to play, it was like we had our own tradition, in a way.”
This unlikely marriage of traditions — the Xylouris dynasty’s radical trail through Cretan folk and Jim White’s Melbourne noise-punk heritage with the likes of Venom P Stinger and The People With Chairs Up Their Noses — helped draw mixed audiences in their early years.
“One of the first things we did was with Swans and there was a lot of crossover between Greeks and Swans fans,” White remembers with a grin. “We couldn’t believe these two worlds had come together, you know?”
“I love to do it,” Xylouris shrugs, “but it’s not a mission.” In practice, any notions of cultural exchange pale in the sheer heat of the duo’s performances. Ultimately, there’s a rock to roll up yonder hill. How it gets there has little to do with who might be watching.
Tonight’s show at the Zebulon builds from taut simmer to ecstatic combustion. Xylouris and White sit at the lip of the stage, passion and concentration entwined in impossibly tight trills of sticks and strings.
Xylouris sings in Greek but the titles — Tree Song, Telephone Song, Black Sea, Wedding Song (“from my village in Crete”) — carry quite enough information. Dogged intention, hard work and maybe something more mystical carry the rest.
In the last stretch, the gig hits a peak that was barely imaginable down in that dog-tired basement a few hours ago. Then the disco lights come up, and we all roll back into the streets to wait for the next high.
“I’ve seen a lot of people try to interpret the Sisyphus story in the context of what a musician does,” White says. “The point is, that’s what everyone does. We’re all pushing the rock.”
The Sisypheans is out now. Xylouris White support Bill Callahan at Hamer Hall, Melbourne, March 4; the State Theatre, Sydney, March 5; and The Tivoli, Brisbane, on March 6. Xylouris White headline at Vanguard, Sydney, on March 7; Freo Social (with Stereolab), Fremantle, on March 10; Four5Nine, Perth, on March 11; The Bridge, Castlemaine, on March14; and Estonian House as part of the Brunswick Music Festival, on March 17.
Michael Dwyer is an arts and music writer