Well have I got a treat for you today, kids. (fairly) recently, I was able to nab an interview with founder and main writer of a band L.A. Weekly deemed "Undefinable". Bobby Tamkin of Xu-Xu Fang had a few minutes free from his hectic schedule to grant me a super-cool interview that totally took forever to transcribe. Please enjoy, because it was really annoying having to back up 7 times every 10 seconds.
Behind The Hype-You came out with “Los Angeles in The Winter of ’99” in about ’03-
Xu-Xu Fang- Actually it was 2001. I recorded the album by myself I just had one of those old 8-Track tape machines before I had a computer and I had all these bits of music and I’m really into really old mystery theater, Twilight Zone type of stuff. I did it out of fun, like this total recording nerd project. So six months go by and I’m at a record store, I gave it to everyone in the store and a day later I had people asking if I wanted to do this live, so by the time I actually got it up and rolling as a band, it was a couple of years. It was still Xu-Xu- Fang, but it was a totally different concept.
BTH-So did you start off with a different idea of what you wanted to do, was it a test run? Because your first album sounds completely different from what you’ve come out with since.
XXF- Well, before I did that I was in a band called Hovercraft and we had film playing on a big screen and we would do an experimental/avant-garde, kraut rock thing with no vocals along the vein of early Pink Floyd. We tinkered and played a lot more with melody and song structure. After that I played in The Warlocks which was a lot of fun and a very obvious Rock and Roll thing. After I stopped playing with The Warlocks I thought about doing other kinds of things and I couldn’t find any bands I was interested in and so I knew what I wanted to do had to be musically challenging. I wanted to do something unique unto itself, something that couldn’t be pinned down as anyone’s style which is how I came up with this mystery-science theater type sound. The music itself in the CD isn’t that unique; you have your drums, bass, guitar, keyboards, but no traditional song structure, no vocals no obvious melody. It was meant to be a different way of listening to an album, like a book, a single piece; sit down, put on some headphones take a bong hit and drift off. I was totally about doing something new. After that I became interested in writing an actual song with a vocalist, some melody, lyrics etc. I enjoy trying new things so who knows, maybe after the next Fang album it’ll go back to what the first album was like.
BTH-Even with your more recent work it still is presented as a single piece.
XXF-I wanted to keep that sense of a common thread, that same concept of being taken to another place. I didn’t want to lose that sense of atmosphere, so I was trying to figure out how to create songs and still retain that sense of escapism that an album like that can provide. I enjoy the concept of an entire album as a single piece.
BTH-So how do you feel about the death of the album?
XXF-Well, with the advent of the iPod and iTunes, albums are dying and the idea of albums done as one piece is starting to die off. I was talking to a friend of mine about that and it’s sort of disheartening because I like positioning songs in an order like chapters and it brings you up or down as the mood shifts on the album. I like iTunes and people being able to get music so easily, but it’s a double-edged sword. It’s bad if you’re just writing or recording to create a single, because it becomes a commodity. We just had a single on the show Gossip Girl and afterwards, everybody was buying up the single. But there are also so many more cool sounds and things that accompany the song. But I think it’s something that you just have to expect. If you’re making music that features singles you gotta deal with it, or make something that’s a little more challenging in the hopes of drawing them into the album as a whole.
BTH-Do you think your EP (The Mourning Son) is accessible to most people, something easy to digest and enjoy, or is it something that takes a little time to listen to?
XXF- I’m always shocked when I hear anything we’ve done on the radio. “These Days”, to me, is a pretty adventurous arrangement, and it definitely has its place and moments. Some of the other songs are even more accessible, but I think because I’m relatively new to song writing, I purge everything out and it’s really up to you. “The Mourning Son” is kind of a rock song but it’s on the darker side; mellow singing dark lyrics but it still has some song structure with a chorus a bridge, etc.
BTH-How much time did you spend with the Warlocks because I hear some similarities in that you both implement a lot of texture and layering in your music.
XXF- Well that’s something Bobby (Hecksher) and I had in common. We found we enjoyed the same stuff like Spacemen 3, The Jesus and Mary Chain and stuff like that but I think we both really appreciate the concept of creating a rich song. So that may mean layering tons of guitars and keyboards and percussion but the biggest difference between what we do and what they do is that they like to keep it dirty and we clean it up a little bit. I think we both have the same musical heroes so we both sort of channel that, but in different ways. He’ll keep it a little grungier and dirtier, their song structure is more traditional. Also I don’t think anyone expects a certain sound from us. I wouldn’t hesitate to implement electronic beat-based stuff; they have a clear idea of a specific sound that they want. Bobby knows what he wants and just does it.
BTH-As far as what you’ve done musically do you find you play more what you might want to hear as a music fan, or maybe what’s more enjoyable to play. Is that at all a factor?
XXF- I think about that because I don’t know if I would listen to this music necessarily. Sometimes I like it and other times I think I could do better. Whenever I finish a song I despise it. I think it’s because I spend so much time with it I’m tired of it, I’m over it. I enjoy having a finished product, but I’m always exhausted with it after it’s done. Afterward I think of trying something different-I’m all over the place all of the time.
BTH-Earlier you mentioned that there are certain bands you enjoyed. Would you say these are influences on Xu-Xu Fang specifically?
XXF- Not really. I sort of found out about these bands and found that people that enjoy these bands enjoy us as well and compare us in a sort of backwards way, but my influences are much broader than that. For instance, the TV show The Twilight Zone. The music in that is dark and orchestral and very simple and mood-based. Also Stravinsky, who did The Rite of Spring which was considered murder music back then, and I can see parallels between that and early Metallica because there’s a certain mood they’re trying to convey. Maybe the stuff I’m influence by bands like Pink Floyd were influenced by as well. But as far as influences, I’ve been more influenced by film composers and such. I’m just bored by four guys with guitars, bass and drums singing a pop song. I might tap my foot to it but I don’t really go back to it. One of the most underrated albums in my opinion is Ritual de lo Habitual by Jane’s Addiction. It reminds me of all the pockets in L.A.. They’re still using guitars bass and drums, but it’s so rich and thick and it rocks like a motherfucker. I think there may also be some insecurity about making a guitar riff that anyone can make. Having my own studio, I can just go on and on with overdubbing. For instance, on “These Days”, there are these notes and chords that clash. It’s not even dissonance, it just clashes and it doesn’t sound right but it barely peaks out amongst all of the other instrumentation but it creates a sound I never could have done on my own in the first place and I’m sure early pioneers like Pink Floyd had the same concept.
BTH-So you enjoy a lot of long, sweeping orchestral instrumental rock.
XXF- I love it.
BTH-Xu-Xu Fang reminds me a lot of those bands. Bands like Godspeed You! Black Emperor have these longs sweeping tracks that constitute one album, but you can listen to a single piece on its own as well.
XXF- I think it’s all about taking the listener out of where they are. I think for my perspective, it’s all about trying to combine the Constellation Label bands and pop elements and some abstract dissonant stuff and putting them all together.
BTH-So how important is setting an atmosphere and mood at your shows? Creating atmosphere and mood seem like prevalent themes in what you want to do as far as your albums are concerned.
XXF-Creating a sense of atmosphere and mood is probably 90% of it. The times that I’m unhappy with shows and different projects that we get involved in are when all of a sudden it becomes a format of like, “Ok here’s a rock band.” We’ve done a few video projects where we’re interviewed and we play in the studio. Not into it. We’re up on this stage in this random place with no audience and we have to play these songs and that’s really not my intention. It’s not just about playing these rock songs and it’s sort of why I’m always sort of second-guessing myself because I don’t want them to just be these rock songs. It needs to be mood-based or else it doesn’t work.
BTH-Once again, you guys are really concerned with mood. Does that lent itself to improvisation in your live shows? How much freedom do the other band members have in the writing process?
XXF- Right now I’m writing all of the songs. I write ‘em and them bring it to them. Sometimes I’ll have all the parts written out, sometimes I’ll leave it up to the musicians and ask them ‘what would you do here?’. With the song “Good Times” we do a jam that can go anywhere between Five and 20 minutes depending on how we feel. When we first started playing we only had five songs so we made the endings of every song really long to fill up space so we can do a whole set. Since we’ve added more songs we’ve cut off those endings so that the songs aren’t quite as long, but “Good Times” has a nice long jam where it’s fully open. The “Good Times Jam” as we refer to it as is the opportunity for us to get our ya-ya’s out and do what we want. We practice the song, but once we get to a live setting we know we’re gonna jam and we just go for it and see what comes out. I have a little idea about where I want it to go as far as where I want the song to ebb and flow, but as far as what (the musicians) are playing, they do what they want.
BTH-It sounds like your writing process is really organic, you just let it come, you don’t force it. Is that mainly an explanation for why you haven’t come out with much material in the past few years?
XXF-It’s a combination of that and getting the right band members. When I first put this second version of Xu-Xu Fang together, I wrote, like, six songs and then put people together to help me do it live. Getting back to the orchestral thing, there are a lot of simple parts that make one big greater sound, so there are not any great guitar solos or anything that’s in a traditional rock band format. One guitar player could possibly do two different guitar lines, but there’s something about having two different instruments on their own doing it and it creates these overtones and textures that you wouldn’t get otherwise. So going through different band members has really been the biggest obstacle. Not until eight months ago has the line-up really been solid. That’s mainly due to the fact that the band is solid, they know what to do, their gear works so it’s easy to get the train on the tracks. Part of the reason why things were slow in the beginning was because we’d lose musicians and to find someone new who has all these qualities that we need is not an easy thing to find. I don’t want to have just anybody and I guess I’m particular about gear and ability because it’s a particular sound. Since we’ve been out in the public eye a little more in the past few months, we’ve gotten a lot more offers to do shows and projects and that’s been slowing down the process of writing songs.
BTH-So are there any upcoming plans for a tour, or maybe a Full-length LP?
XXF-(As far as the tour is concerned) not right now, just because we’re still establishing ourselves in L.A. I really interested in producing more music. We’ve got a new E.P out right now (called Seven Days), but hopefully around spring or summer time we can do something. I’d really like to do a tour with A Place to Bury Strangers. As far as a new album, we’ve got this super-producer by the name of Dave Jordan who’s become a fan of the band and wants to produce our full-length, which is pretty amazing. I think we’ve got about three or four more songs to complete, then we’ll be ready to go.
BTH-The vocals (especially) add this haunting quality to the music. There seems to be this introspective morose undercurrent to the music. Would you say your music is “sad” or “depressing” or “brooding”. Do you think these qualities are mutually exclusive to being haunting and atmospheric?
XXF- I like all of that. They all work together. I find that when I write music, it’s usually when I’m in a darker mood. I try to write up-beat lyrics, something happy but I find I always go back to something depressing. When I’m in a great mood what I want to do is be outside hanging out with my friends. But nine times out of ten I’m in that other mood and that’s what gets me in the studio.
BTH-So it’s like an outlet.
XXF- Full on…I’ll wake up on a Saturday morning and I’ll think there are a million things I could be doing. Maybe hangin’ out with girls, or kicking a soccer ball around with my friends. I’ll call ‘em up and no one is picking up the phone and it’s those moments when I think “why isn’t x y or z happening in my life, why isn’t any of this working” when I go and write music. I think that’s why my lyrics take a dark turn because when I’m creative is when I’m feeling the most isolated in life. I think that can happen to everybody, especially in a city like L.A. You think ‘there’s a million things going on right now and I’m not doing any of ‘em’ and so for me to alleviate that, I write music.
BTH-So how important are lyrics to you in the writing process? Do they take prevalence, is it a case-by-case basis. Are lyrics the strong point in certain songs? Listening to you guys, it seems the instrumentation is the vehicle for setting mood and the lyrics wrap around that. Do you see the lyrics as just another “instrument”?
XXF- If I could-well, I suppose I could do this-I’d be happy with the vocalist just sang melody lines with no words. I’d be totally into that too. But when I made a conscious effort to write songs, I didn’t want anyone to have to pull out a dictionary to figure it out-I didn’t want it to be difficult for people to relate to. When it comes to writing lyrics, I think about the lyricists I liked and what they wrote about and I found it wasn’t anything fancy. Like Black Sabbath, when you read those lyrics, it’s really easy to relate to. They make it easy to understand. Without being corny, my approach was something that’s easy to swallow but is also unique. So, I do think lyrics are important, but they don’t drive the song. I think if you heard “These Days” as an instrumental it would still evoke the same emotions because it’s great this hypnotic, minor-chord sound to it, but when you add the vocals it takes it up a level. I think I try to be evocative through the music first and then enhance it with the vocals and lyrics. If we create the mood then I think we’ve served our purpose to some degree.