Two iconic, boundary-pushing Australian musicians — drummer Jim White (Dirty Three, Xylouris White) and guitarist Jeff Lang — sat down together this week for an extended conversation. What follows is a direct transcript, touching on numerous collaborations over Jim’s extensive career to date. White is currently touring Australia and you can find all the relevant dates below.
Jeff: So, interviews, not most musician’s favourite thing to do.
Jim: It can be confusing, because you know, what do they want to know? And what’s that got to do with anything? Why would I know anything more? I’m not saying that I wouldn’t have a different story than the listener.
Jeff: You know your own process though, and I think that’s the thing that’s interesting for people. I try and remember that, even though I think to myself that what I’ve got to say about my process is fucking boring. Like, yeah, to me it’s boring…
Jim: But do you really want to identify your process to yourself? I’m not talking about hiding from other people. I like to hide things from myself. You know, I will keep it unknown as long as I can, even to myself. If you do an interview, you’re demystifying it to yourself. And it’s always kind of disappointing in a way.
Jim: Well, we’ll see.
Jim: Yeah, let’s go. I got that in there, there’s a good title. (Laughter)
Jeff: Yeah, nice poster quote. (Laughter)
Jim: My latest aim is to like, try and give a title. To give a headline.
Jeff: So I’ve been listening to the Sisypheans record (by Xylouris White). Were you recording in a large acoustic space on that record?
Jim: We did that record at Box Hill. We got invited there; they had a new studio there at the time. It wasn’t huge, but it was probably more than we often do.
Jeff: Just from listening to it, it sounded like you were responding to a larger space. Was there any predetermined plan with your approach to this record, or was it just more a matter of going with what seemed to suit?
Jim: There wasn’t really a plan. I’ve got the record here…
Jeff: I loved “Tree Song.”
Jim: “Tree Song” was very melody driven. “Goat Hair Bow”, I love that one.
Jeff: What’s the bowed instrument on “Black Sea”? Almost sounds like cello.
Jim: That’s got lyra on it, the little bowed instrument that George’s dad played. And “Goat Hair Bow”… “Goat Hair Bow” was very abstract. I really love that one. Well, it’s, you know, it’s very pulled apart. In some ways perhaps the other ones maybe had a concept. And this one it’s got some traditional stuff in it. Traditional melodies. There’s this one group of songs in Crete that they’re, you know, they’re… what do you call it where there’s no music?
Jeff: A capella.
Jim: A capella, and, you know, the person sings it. And then everyone in the room sings in unison, repeats it in unison. No harmonies.
Jeff: Like a call and response sort of thing?
Jim: Yeah, but just a repeat. A call-and-repeat. And so with those ones, the only way to learn them rhythmically, the only way to understand those songs is by following the melody. It’s kind of weird for me to talk about it because it’s not my culture. But, you know, as I understand it, it’s stuff you do in the mountains, particularly in this particular area, where you don’t have your instruments with you. And there’s a certain amount of melodies and certain lyrics can go with certain melodies. And there’s many of them and a number have been collected over the years. Anyway, I don’t wanna get too much into them, because I’m gonna say something wrong. So you know, a lot of our stuff is very rhythmical, and then there’s those elements that are driven by the melody.
Jeff: Yes. You’ve got the traditional basis for a lot of material, but what you bring to it takes it somewhere new. I guess I should ask how the duo came about. I have heard George guest with Dirty Three on a (Triple J) Live At The Wireless recording, years ago. I was listening to that at the time, thinking, “That’s a good combination”, playing “Indian Love Song” with the lute in there.
Jim: That’s right, yeah. Yeah, it was great.
Jeff: So I knew of the connection. But the duo: how did that come about?
Jim: It’s really long… it’s not a long story, but it’s over a long period of time. The story starts with George’s wife for many years. There’s pictures of me and her sitting under a tree when we’re three years old, and two years old. And our parents were friends, and apparently we’d go camping together and stuff. Then they went away. They lived in Greece, and they lived in different places. And then they came back and I ran into them in the music world, because and they’re all beautiful singers and musicians. George was out playing as a young adult, playing with his dad. And this family knew about his music. Their band was a family band, The Hannans, and they had another band called Friends And Relations, way back. They did a lot of Irish songs and stuff and they were all in the Xylouris Ensemble. And, basically, she and George fell in love, came to Australia, well, stayed in Australia.
They went back and forwards a lot and they’ve been living in Crete now for many, many years. Decades. Back then George couldn’t speak any English. So they were having a party, and it was like “Jim, come meet Shelagh’s new partner.” And I started to go and see him play, and started to listen to his father. Heard about his father, and his father is an amazing musician. This was long before Dirty Three or anything. Then when Dirty Three started I was like, “Hey”, you know, “check out this guy, he’s a friend and his dad is an amazing musician.” And, you know, they had a big influence on Dirty Three. So it goes round and round.
So then they went back to Crete, and I hadn’t seen him for many years. I actually think the band is a little bit like George’s wife Shelagh’s fantasy; construct in some ways. Of course it’s got to work; we’ve got to want to do it. But I think when we started doing it I could see her satisfaction. It puts George in different contexts, and opens things out. In no way are we a traditional Greek band. We take from that – George is a Cretan musician, I’m a rock and roll musician. It’s both those things, you know.
I’ve said this many times. I’m not a student of other music, or anything, you know? I mean, I listen, and I do what I want, what I like, whatever connects with me. When this idea came up I’m like, okay. Basically I just wanted to go visit them. They’re like, “When are you going visit us? You’re always saying you’re going to come visit.” So I went there and we started playing music. You know, “If we’re going to visit let’s play some music.” And then that’s how it started.
Jeff: Yeah, that makes sense. And that’s the thing I was thinking about when you mentioned not wanting to speak on behalf of their culture; that’s not your role in it anyway, that the idea is, you know, it’s a collaborative thing, where the two worlds meet and bounce off each other.
Jim: Yeah, we’ve just made a new album. It’s got no lyrics; it’s actually got no Cretan themes. It’s still the lute, and it’s still drums. It’s developed, you know, and each time we’ve recorded a huge amount of music. We have hundreds of songs in the vault, you know, in recordings. And when we come to make a new album we have a loose idea of the kind of over-arc. We go in, we work out what we’re doing. And we play, we make up songs and then we take what works and take out what doesn’t, and we shape the album. It’s always with Guy Picciotto from Fugazi. The three of us do it together.
Jeff: So he’s always recording and producing?
Jim: Yes. And even if he’s not there it still comes back and we finish it off with him or, you know, we kind of conceptualise it. I live in New York and he’s my neighbour. He came and saw the band at our very first show in America. Actually, our first show anywhere. It was in New York. And he was my friend and I invited him down. And so it’s quite interesting, you know, the band develops. The first three albums were like a trilogy and then this one was a departure where we’re heading off into this other world. And each time some more songs go back into the pool. And some come back, like “this has got a home here.”
Jeff: So you might have something from a previous recording session, like an off-cut from another album…
Jim: Yeah, then all of a sudden we can go “Remember that one we wanted to use but it didn’t fit in. It can fit in here.” Or “We can do this to it. We can take the idea.” Or we can take the recording and play some more on it. I like doing it; I like the methodology. And it’s a method that has just happened because of how we are. Because when we record, we record a hell of a lot. And we just throw down ideas. And then we work it out.
Jeff: Well that’s good. Because fresh is best, often.
Jim: Fresh is best. Yeah. And you know, the concepts happen when the reality of playing goes hand in hand with the idea. They affect each other. It’s not like you’re trying to force it. If you’re trying to force it, like “this has got to be like this”, it’s not going to be the best thing. The best is when they inform each other.
Jeff: Yes, where you have a loose plan, maybe like you’re aiming the ball in this half of the ground and where exactly it lands doesn’t matter.
Jim: No, in fact, if you try too hard to land it right there… you know, we had this quote on this last album: “It’s what I do that teaches me what I’m looking for.” And we want each album to be different, and natural. We want to make sure each album stands alone, you know what I mean? We’ve done four albums. And you know, I think they all stand up. And the new one is really different.
Jeff: I’ve seen you live a couple of times with George. I saw you at Basement Discs in the city here in Melbourne and I saw you at the show at the Corner in Richmond with Tropical Fuck Storm a few years ago.
Jim: Oh, yeah, yeah. That was fun. Yeah, well, they were both fun.
Jeff: That was a great show at the Corner particularly, just because it was longer so you got to stretch out more.
Jim: Yeah, and it was rough and ready up there at the Corner.
Jeff: It sounded great; whoever was doing front of house really dialled it in.
Jim: Casey Rice was doing sound that night.
Jeff: Right. It was a BIG sound. Has George always use that form of amplification with the lute, using a pickup through a Fender Twin? Or is this something that kind of grew out of playing with you in the duo?
Jim: He has a Fender that he bought, like way, way back, long before I knew him. But mostly when they play in Crete, and if he’s doing a show by himself, he just does it DI’d. But we always have the amp.
Jeff: Again, it gives a bit more of a rock and roll edge to the tonality of his instrument.
Jim: Yes. I like it. I like it when you have the amp and when you have the DI as well. I guess if he had his dream sound it would be his lute with a microphone in front of it. And sometimes we do that if it’s for a quiet show. But more often that’s not practical.
Jeff: There’s something multidimensional about the sound he gets at the gig.
Jeff: You know, certain notes will jump more out of the amp, and certain notes will jump more out of the DI and so it gives it a dimensionality that it mightn’t have otherwise.
Jim: I don’t know what we were doing those nights you saw us. We started off with one amp, between us, and then at one point we started putting another amp in, and that would be my monitor. We’d have the two amps. So we have two choices of sound. Or if one breaks or whatever.
Jeff: It’s a nice thing when playing with drums. I used to do duo gigs with Angus Diggs, a great drummer from Sydney, and I’d bring along an amp for him just with my guitar in it, because if he’d want more guitar or less guitar he could control it.
Jim: I love it. I mean, I never have drums in the monitors in any band. So you have the lute coming through there, or a guitar in another situation, then you have the voice coming out of monitors. And I do that if I’m playing with Ed Kuepper, we’re doing the tour at the moment, and I have two monitors, and we have the amp between us. But I always have the guitar on one side and the voice on the other side. I don’t like to mix them up.
Jeff: Yeah, if I play with drums I’ll have guitar in wedges behind me and voice in front of me.
Jim: Yeah, ’cause a lot of times, they just want to put them together.
Jeff: But really the speaker’s fighting for room that way.
Jim: Exactly, and you never know what kind of kind of monitor you’re getting, or what’s going on. So I just have it separately, and then you know, you can push it with your leg and push it further away or closer, you know, get balance right.
Jeff: And I like when the instruments are all pushing air in one direction. The voice can be separate, but the sound of the kit is moving towards the audience, and the sound the instrument is moving towards the audience too. It knits it together a bit more. If the guitar is coming from the front wedges it always feels a bit disconnected by comparison.
Jim: Yeah, that makes sense. Yeah, that’s correct.
Jeff: What struck me at the shows that I’ve seen with Xylouris White live is, I mean, correct me if I’m wrong, but it feels like your natural bent is an improvisational one and the duo is kind of geared around the idea that improvisation is sort of written into the deal. That you take the raw material of a piece, and it will have certain structural things that will be present. But where it goes is open to it going somewhere different each night?
Jim: Yeah… there’s a lot in that question that’s kind of pretty elusive in a way, because, you know, like, I want to say that’s true, because I think it is true. But a lot of times people might think that the part that’s improvised is the other part, and vice versa, you know what I mean? Just because it sounds like it’s “free” or something, (but) that might be the part that’s really worked out, you know? Not worked out like I could write it down and tell you what’s going on. But you kind of know that this is what’s going to happen and if I can get the gesture right, and it feels right, then I’ll do that. If I have a way of understanding it, it’s probably to do with: what do we all want? We all want to sound fresh, right? We want to just have it feel like it’s new. And any way you can get that, I’ll take, you know? That might mean playing the same, exactly the same thing, but knowing that…
Jeff: You can jag left if you want to. Even if you don’t, you know you can.
Jim: Yeah, exactly and because… you know what it’s like – you play in a different room, the bounce back is different, and this and that. To make it sound right, it just takes a slight adjustment of the tension in your shoulder or something, you know? I mean, make it looser, or bring it up, bring it tighter or whatever. Is that improvisation? Yeah, I don’t know, don’t ask me. It sounds good. Like, the word improvisation sounds good.
Jeff: To some people, that word sounds bad, though. I know some people who are like, “That’s all bullshit, making up stuff. You’re not making up stuff!”
Jim: Well, experimental music, to some people is like, code for just some kinda jam or something. I thought experimental music is like: what if you move the bass drum, you know, a beat later? That’s experimental, if you do it, and then you say “I wonder what it’s gonna sound like” I mean, I think I’m being pedantic and weird because, you know, when I’d do science they’d go: Well, you know, you change this variable, and then you see what happens.
Jeff: Like the butterfly effect of rhythm.
Jim: Let’s experiment. But you know, no one wants to hear that. That’s, you know, anal and pretentious. (Laughter)
Jeff: Again, correct me if I’m wrong, but I would figure that you would take pretty much the same approach to playing drums to the various things you do. Not that you’ll go “I’m just going to play the way I always play with this or that” but in terms of the mental approach of just hearing the piece of music and responding to it, adding add your voice, however you see fit. To me, there wouldn’t be too much difference to how you would approach, say, the album with Marisa Anderson to something that’s more strictly song-based, like playing with Bill Callahan.
Jim: Yeah, I think you’re probably right. I think that’s correct. Though actually the Marisa album, that was truly improvisational, probably the only record that I’ve ever made where we went in there and just made the record. We improvised together and then we found the songs in it. We found the songs, not by playing them again, by just excavating.
Jeff: So a process of editing down from longer pieces?
Jim: Yeah, like we’d play a piece at two in the morning and a piece at two in the afternoon.
We went to Mexico and did it; we went there for a week or something, and we generally tried to do one in the morning and then have lunch, then one in the afternoon. Maybe we did more sometimes; maybe there would be a couple of ideas until we got something working or whatever. And we had the computer running the whole time. And then we found it, you know. And they’re songs. I mean, we can learn those songs and play them again if we want to, or we can try and do the same process again, which is more what we’re interested in doing.
Jeff: At the gig?
Jim: Yeah, but we’ve only done two shows. It’s really our first show coming up now with Rising.
Jeff: On the acoustic tracks on the album is that nylon string acoustic guitar that she plays on those? Sounds like it.
Jim: (pause) It’s definitely acoustic guitar. (Laughter) I think it’s a nylon.
Jeff: It’s a good contrast.
Jim: It’s beautiful.
Jeff: Yeah, I liked it as a contrast with the electric guitar pieces.
Jim: I love those acoustic ones. There’s something about that woodiness with the sound of the drums. I like what happened with that relationship with the acoustic guitar sound in particular.
Jeff: Now, you mentioned to me before that you just have, during the lockdown period, got into recording drums, and actually you said to me that it’s the first time in your life that you’ve paid attention to what microphone was what and where it was pointed.
Jeff: Which was something I was kinda planning on asking about, ironically. Because to me the sound of your kit, tonally, is consistently great on recordings that I’ve heard.
Jim: Thanks. Oh, I’m not saying I didn’t pay attention to the sounds, I just didn’t know how (they got them). So preparing the kit is one thing, tuning it up…
Jeff: That’s a sort of secret of recording engineering is that input equals output, so when you get a great source; if the player makes a good sound, all you can do as an engineer is not fuck it up.
Jim: I’ve watched engineers, what they do, and I have my opinions about, you know, reverb or room sounds, room microphones. And that’s definitely changed over the course of me playing the drums.
Jeff: In what way would you say that’s changed?
Jim: It’s hard to remember exactly what you thought before, but I noticed that I liked a more direct, dry sound more later on.
Jeff: Yeah. Okay, that makes sense. Because I’m thinking of say (Dirty Three’s) Horse Stories – it’s pretty roomy.
Jeff: Sounds great. I mean, I could be wrong, but to me it sounds like whatever room mics were there, they were pushed right up (in the mix).
Jim: Yeah. And I love how that sounds and you know that time I probably didn’t even… I don’t know if I can’t remember what I thought about the room.
Jeff: And your taste can change with that stuff. I mean, if you hear that sound when it’s a new sound to you, you get excited by it.
Jeff: Then down the track you go “I’ve kind of done that.”
Jim: And of course, there’s all this space. In Dirty Three there’s a lot of space. And of course, it’s lovely to hear some reverb on a single hit of the drums and things like that, but sometimes I just sort of felt like the room sometimes felt more fatiguing to me, you know? I’m not sure what that is. I’ve just started to get more interested in this. Holding my hand up for it to be like a direct, dry sound.
Jeff: That starts to sound a little bit more like what it’s like for you, sitting at the kit.
Jim: Yeah. I’ve always liked, if I’m watching a band, throughout my whole life, I would always like to be up close, where you can hear it from the source. Definitely the sound of the drums themselves over the years, I mean, you know, Dirty Three not having the bass guitar really made me develop with what’s going on with the bass drum – no hole in the head, all that kind of stuff. And then that’s my basic starting point and then I adjusted from there.
Jeff: You were over here in Australia when the lockdown happened instead of in New York, and so when lockdown started lifting and things started opening up, all these projects started happening, like playing with Ed Kuepper.
Jim: Playing with Ed happened because of lock down. Ed rang me up and said that he thought about working with me over the years but I was never around. And that’s, you know, for me, that’s amazing, because…
Jeff: You’d be a fan of Jeffrey Wegener’s playing…?
Jim: That’s really… my inspiration and excitement of music is really focused around the Saints first three albums and Laughing Clowns. My biggest inspirations are probably Ed and Jeffrey Wegener, you know, from when I was young, learning. Jeffrey Wegener, so exciting. And Ivor Hay from the Saints had such a beautiful feel. And I’ve been writing the set lists. So there’s a lot of Laughing Clowns songs in there. (Laughter)
Jeff: That’s great. I haven’t got to see you two; I’ve been close to where you guys have played a few times.
Jim: Yeah, we’ve been following each other around the Coast recently.
Jeff: And I’m seeing the posters and going “ohhhh mannnn, that gig would be really great.” I love what Ed does. I saw him as a duo with Jeffrey at the Adelaide Guitar Festival few years ago. What a massive sound.
Jim: Incredible. Incredible musicians. So exciting. I mean, it’s been a real pleasure. It’s been really… I tell you… basically I learned to play drums, like with the sticks on the chair with like, Prehistoric Sounds, the Saints’ third album, and the first album particularly, and then when I was 18 I saw Laughing Clowns play and then I saw every show they ever did after that when I was anywhere near them and yeah, they really kind of excited my imagination.
Jeff: So that’s a nice thing, getting to play all that material with Ed.
Jim: Yeah. And wonderful. And it’s in my body; his playing’s in my body. You know? And that’s how I met Mick Turner from Dirty Three.
Jeff: I love Mick’s playing, such an identifiable style.
Jim: Yeah. So, so beautiful, what he does.
Jeff: Interestingly, Marisa Anderson’s guitar playing did remind me a little bit of Mick’s guitar playing in a way. Not exactly the same, but just elements that reminded me a little of Mick’s playing in her playing.
Jim: She’s a big fan of Mick’s.
Jeff: She has that thing of something that’s seemingly simple and yet has all this mysterious quality to it.
Jim: I think that because she’s coming from the much more traditional American thing, but to me, it sounds totally fresh and beautiful and exciting. And, you know, we have a lot in common, like a love of country music and this and that. But with our mindsets, we’re in a lot of the same places, but I feel like the way we got there was quite different. I find that quite interesting. It’s been really nice. But with Mick and I, the first bands we were playing in together, which was Fungus Brains and People With Chairs Up Their Noses. And the first time I met Mick outside of that was I think when I went around to his house to borrow a Laughing Clowns record to tape it. So Laughing Clowns were a big thing. And then the same thing when, during lockdown, Springtime started as well.
Jeff: Yes, that’s a wild project too. Just to have the sonic elements of yourself and Chris Abrahams, who’s incredible. I’m a big fan of The Necks, and then I’m a big fan of The Drones as well. It’s a quite a meeting.
Jim: Yeah, I mean, obviously the idea is one thing, but it’s actually, I think it’s a really a great band. It’s amazing. It feels really good, feels exciting. And it’s amazing to hear Chris, when like, the space just opens up. I don’t think I’ve ever felt less pressure to play anything, you know what I mean? Because what he’s added just sounds beautiful.
Jeff: The approach that Chris has on piano, he taps into something almost psychological with the way he plays piano. The way he’ll exploit the piano’s low end, or the way he does those amazing clusters of rhythm, and they’re all overlapping, then all of a sudden he’ll hit the mute pedal and those same patterns become all struttery. Somehow for me, he seems to be tapping into the way the mind works.
Jim: That’s great. That’s a great comment.
Jeff: It must be really something to play off. Because the way you play drums, to me, seems to tap into emotion, which is a hard thing to do on a kit. I mean, there’s an emotional quality to the uplifting release of a groove…
Jeff: …but to actually tap into emotional qualities with drums in areas where it’s harder to pin down exactly what the emotion is – that’s interesting to me. Having the two of you guys together bouncing off Gareth’s songs and his intensity…
Jim: Well yeah, and Gareth’s ability to get that melody in, like, anywhere, you know.
Jeff: Yeah. And he’s a very interesting lyricist too.
Jim: Great lyricist. And then with Springtime it’s his uncle’s lyrics as well on some of the songs and you know; his uncle is a great poet. And I think he’d always wanted to do that. He leaned on it a little bit, because we were under a bit of time pressure to come up with an album. And they’re fantastic. And Gareth, I mean, his lyrics are fantastic, but he’s also so musical. It can be like this total chaos going on, and he’ll get that melody in, and nail it every time, straight up.