Xeno & Oaklander are the Brooklyn-based duo of Sean McBride and Liz Wendelbo. They craft crystalline electronic pop with an arsenal of vintage analog synth gear, evoking both minimal coldwave music and the shimmering timbres of dream pop. Par Avion-- their most recent release, and their first for label Ghostly International-- is a sleek and disarming record which balances the cold grooves of analog with the warm tones of the human voice. Fresh from a U.S. tour, the duo are headed to Europe in October and currently planning their next album. AdHoc sat down with McBride and Wendelbo in their Brooklyn studio to talk gear, perfume, and geometry.
AdHoc: You just got back from a tour. How was it?
Sean McBride: It was wonderful. We drove from San Diego to Seattle in about ten days. I had never been to the Pacific Northwest, so it was eye-opening and all that. The shows were good--the audiences were varied, but they were all exciting.
Liz Wendelbo: We explored an extreme difference in climate. We don't think about that when we go on tour but it's actually quite interesting. We took a lot of pictures during that whole trip. We started in San Diego, which was actually quite foggy, and very cold. We went to [Sacramento] and there was a heat wave. And then we went to San Francisco and it was freezing cold. We went through these extremes, even though it's just one coast. It's like the album, Par Avion--having both climates, very warm and cold at the same time.
AdHoc: I heard that the new album was influenced by synaesthesia. I read you were developing a perfume [during the making of Par Avion].
LW: A nice way of staying inspired and excited about music is to create a source of inspiration that comes from all the senses. Visuals are important for us. I shot some films that we project during our shows, and actually we did that for the first time on our tour. A new series of films, all analog Super 8. Scent is also a wave, triggering creativity or inspiration. The perfume actually is part of the release if you get the special edition vinyl. The insert is perfume.
LW: It has an art print on one side; a collage.
SM: It's all working materials used to frame the visual universe of our project.
LW: That insert is scented with Eau de Xeno.
AdHoc: Is the perfume for sale?
LW: Right now it's not. I'm working with Ghostly on releasing it.
AdHoc: I noticed the art for Par Avion was a little muted compared to your other records. Was that deliberate?
SM: When Liz and I first met, when we first started working on music, we were producing limited-run art multiples. There's this compilation called Music For Ruins, and even in that we were already using very rudimentary grid systems, grid graphics. This record kind of resonates with those early geometric inspirations. But more important than that, it relates heavily to the films Liz has made over the years. She's made a number of films using that grid--an optics calibration grid, for film cameras--and having produced these films that we're also using in a live context now, it's kind of an ode or a reference to the “optics” of the music.
AdHoc: My first impression, when I saw the blue, I thought of a map, or flying over a body of water.
SM: It certainly has coordinate aspects to it. Let me quickly grab the original artwork...
SM: This is from Structures of Warped Surfaces. All pre-digital. It was made in 1959.
AdHoc: Are the films you made for the tour available online?
LW: Some of the early ones are. It's a YouTube channel called “Cold Cinema Xeno.” They're all on there.
AdHoc: Would you say the songs on Par Avion are open to interpretation by the listeners?
SM: Absolutely. There's enough poetic space, there's enough contradiction and agreement and otherness between these side-by-side texts that it can open up any number of interpretations. It can be perceived in any number of ways.
AdHoc: You've said before that your compositional processes are defined by the constraints of the tools you use. Is that something you returned to on Par Avion?
SM: No, that's built into just who we are as people. I'm kind of that way with everything. I would say the constraints are the constraints. These are instruments that have, inside a limit, an infinite or near-borderless array of possibilities. It's been this way for over ten years, doing music in this kind of live way. There's no playback, no overdubs, no digital sequencers or anything like that. It's quite direct.
LW: There is something liberating about not having to make decisions. They kind of get made by themselves. You don't have to make as many editing choices.
SM: Because even within [the live set up], there's so much I can do. There's no shortage of timbres or textures. The only limit is our capacity to write.
AdHoc: When you play live, how much would you say the material you've already recorded strays from the original version?
SM: We do a lot of modifications. The excitement is the playing--the songs as notes on paper are the same.
LW: The songs are the songs and we stick to that when we play live. However, the way that it sounds, that's modified on the fly according to our moods or what Sean is experimenting with.
AdHoc: Does live performance inform how the next album is made?
SM: Absolutely. Between our songs, we play live. We don't stop. There's no clapping in the middle of a set. It's one long 45 minute to 90 minute set, depending on the show. It's one long experience, with breakdowns, with transitions, and it's in those transitions, often live in front of an audience, that new songs or parts of new songs are born.
In the last album Sets & Lights there was a song “Sunday” and a song called “Blue.” In the transition when playing those two live--and we did three European tours with that album--”Sheen” from Par Avion grew out of that. “Par Avion” also grew out of that; I forget precisely how but there are certain voicings, gestural voicings, that informed Par Avion. So when we come together in the studio, it's like playing live. We can recall the transitions, those moments and times, and formalize it.
AdHoc: After touring with that album [Sets & Lights] for so many years, would you say Par Avion is indebted to the sounds of that record?
SM: In part, but not entirely. There are other features that we both wanted to touch on. I'm using this technique called frequency modulation synthesis.
LW: The sounds on Par Avion that are generated by FM synthesis sound like guitars, in a way. Really washed out, wet guitars.
SM: Almost like early Cocteau Twins or, not Loveless, but earlier My Bloody Valentine. Just a kind of wall of noise. I had already been interested in [FM synthesis] for a number of years but on this I really wanted to bring that out, to musicalize it, especially in the context of Xeno & Oaklander.
AdHoc: How did signing to Ghostly happen?
LW: They contacted us about a year ago and we kind of got to know each other a little bit. We used to be on Wierd Records, but [label founder] Peter is an artist, and he needed more time to paint, so he put the record label on the back burner. We were looking for another record label and they came about. They're also local; they're based in Greenpoint, so it kind of made sense to sign with them.
SM: Great folks.
AdHoc: Are you putting out any new solo material soon?
SM: My girlfriend is designing the cover [for the new Martial Canterel record] as we speak. It's going to be on a record label called Dais Records. I'm gonna put out the new record with them. I see the Martial Canterel record as being a more extreme audio experience than the Xeno & Oaklander record.
AdHoc: What other kinds of collaborations have you had with other musicians or artists?
SM: We worked recently with synth-pop grandfather John Foxx. We did a remix of one of his songs and he's remixed one of our songs, and we just remixed another one of his. That was remixing; in terms of actually working with other people musically, we did at the beginning. We worked with another guy called Cheyney Thompson, a painter. In the early days of Xeno & Oaklander the three of us actually played a couple concerts together. We recorded maybe three or four songs together.
LW: There's been some collaborations with the artist Tobias Bernstrup and with Xavier of Automelodi, we've done some things together [as Liz and Laszlo]. We do like collaboration and we are open to remixing other artists and likewise being remixed by other artists. And collaborating on art projects too.