Interview: Xao

Xao is often seen as a stand out character akin to his music, once described as a “yellow puffer amongst the heaving dance-floor otherwise dressed in black”. Recently, Astral Black presented his debut release with them: Alloys – five tracks showing the artist’s interest in different sounds, which is clearly noticeable when he presents the label’s Radar Radio show. Having moved from South London to Berlin not long ago, this body of work is a result of Xao’s work over the past couple of years, drawing on his musical influences in this period. Despite moving through tempos and genres in Alloys, touching on footwork, trap and grime, Xao ensures each track on the final product still manages to compliment one another. With that, we thought it would be fitting to catch up with the producer to discuss the EP, his work in relation to his non-music background and his future plans.

Why are you called Xao? “You know what, the word literally popped into my head one day. I’d been trying to come up with an alias for a while, but everything I was coming up with I instantly hated. I like the way it looks and sounds. It’s short. It doesn’t really have any connotations or meaning associated with it, at least not purposefully. I’ve since found out that it means fry in Vietnamese (I think).”

Talk me through your musical journey – where and how did it begin? “I guess the very beginning of it all was becoming obsessed with the clapped-out 19th century piano we had rotting in our house, [when I was] aged four or something. So I started with lessons and got cosy with classical piano, later switching to jazz. My dad’s car had a huge influence on me in my later childhood – Gregorian chant, yacht rock, jazz and folk… [I] got exposed to a fair range of stuff. Teenage years were defined by an obsession with blues guitar, then Soulquarian-type hip hop and nu soul, then breakcore and IDM, then minimal techno etc. etc. Garage, dubstep, funky, grime – these had all passed me by. I was fortunate to get to know some heads when I moved to London. So being exposed to that heritage all at once was overwhelming, and has certainly shaped the way I now make music.”

I first came across your music in your mix for RWD two years ago. What have you been up to since then (musically and in general)? “Musically, the main thing was working on the body of tracks that became the EP. Whittling them down and actually finishing them. Mixing the EP took a fair bit of time too. I have also started to play out more often. And not just in clubs – the Canvas shows I have been playing have all been super interesting, especially the last one, which was an ambient affair in a beautiful old courtroom in South East London. Other than that, a career in commercial sound design has been keeping me very busy, whilst also helping my technical chops.”

Let’s discuss how you linked up with the Astral Black team and why was it important for you to have this release there. “I got to know Jon Phonics just before he started Astral Black. So I was following it from the start, meeting the artists, going to the shows etc. I ended up sending Jon some tunes and eventually we decided we’d do an EP. It’s really nice to release on a label that I’ve seen grow from its inception into such a healthy specimen. Astral is a home for both club-based music and more ‘headphone music’ (hate that phrase but you know what I mean) and I think my stuff fits in the catalogue nicely. A lot of the styles I reference on the EP are at the heart of the label.”

Why do you feel like now was the right time in your career for your debut release with Astral Black? “I guess the simple answer is that’s when we decided the EP was ready. There was a fair bit of refining of certain tunes and re-jiggling of the tracklist. There were enough tunes for an EP at an earlier date, but waiting it out a bit was definitely worth it. Good things come to those who wait etc. Things like hosting the Radar Radio show and playing out more frequently definitely had an influence on the final product.”

Alloys displays a variety of sounds – was it vital for you to show your listeners the different production styles you like to explore? “There’s been a fair bit of comment on the stylistic range on the EP. There was never the intention to show off a range of BPMs or whatever. It’s more that what I’m listening to and consequently end up making is constantly shifting. To be quite honest, I see the tunes as all quite similar musically. They’re just at different tempos with different drum patterns!”

You included a Bollywood sample in the EP too, are you into Indian films? “Well – I cannot say I know anything at all about Indian cinema. Aside from Bollywood, I love Indian classical music and would love to learn more about it one day. But with that sample, and some others on the album, it’s literally a homegrown YouTube clip of some girl recording her fave songs in her bedroom. It had like less than 100 views I think. Like a lot of people these days, I’m a big fan of sampling YouTube and other misc lo-fi internet sources. There’s a lot rawness and character in clips like this. And I like the digital artefacts associated with lossy compression etc. But sometimes samples like this just sound dead. And then it’s fun to just mangle them loads until they sound rich and shiny.”

With your academic background in neuroscience, have you ever considered the relationship it has with music in relation to your work as an artist? “Well, I am fascinated with the wild processes by which the brain transcodes and decodes sound. It was an incredible experience getting to study these mechanisms, a privilege really. But to me, science and music are two wholly different realms. I have to say I have never knowingly been informed by my scientific studies when making music. Obviously, there are overlaps and some people do great work, creatively and scientifically, in bridging the gap and exploring the areas in between. But I like to think that music, and art in general, is a phenomenon that we are nowhere near to really understanding (in terms of cognitive/neural processes). And I like it that way – otherwise where’s the romance?!”

How do you find new music? “Trawling the internet, getting lost down rabbit holes. And stealing from friends who are more on it than I am when it comes to finding spicy new shit. To me the holy grail is the stuff that properly bangs a club nasty but is also super-interesting structurally and sonically. That stuff is few and far between, and is tough to come across.”

I hear you have more shows planned for the rest of the year, does this include live shows or just DJ sets? “Predominantly DJ sets, but I hope to play a live show before the year is up. It would probably be a bit less beat-based than the EP though…”

Alloys is out now on Astral Black, available to purchase via Bleep.

Michelle Ulor