Interviews

The possibilities of varied expression – guitarist and composer Xander Naylor presents ‘Continuum’

On October 23, guitarist and composer Xander Naylor will release his new album, Continuum, via Chant Records.

Featuring the core of his touring band (Elijah Shiffer on alto sax, Nicholas Jozwiak on bass and Raphael Pannier on drums) alongside Alec Spiegelman (baritone sax), Alex Asher (trombone), Angelica Bess (vocals), Cole Kamen-Green (trumpet), and Sarah Pedinotti (vocals), Continuum is meant as a response to “being stuck in a world of magnetism to the screens, and potentially wanting to get out of it but not knowing how.”

Inspired by his own spiritual journey, The New York-based musician, who studied with renowned tabla master Samir Chatterjee, combines the energies of avant jazz, post rock and Indian classical music to study “the connection between art and the scattered existence of contemporary, technology-obsessed society.”

Continuum follows-up on Transmission, wherein the artist had to re-devise his creative process after a mysterious injury left him unable to play guitar for years.

Two weeks ago, I caught up with Xander to talk about his new album, his unique creative challenge, studying with Samir Chatterjee and the role of spirituality in his creative message.

Xander, it’s great to talk to you. How have you been throughout this pandemic?

I think the general experience is like a roller coaster, you know? The first few months were definitely a shock. It was a lot of reading the news. I still have phases where I read the news and overload, and then I can’t read the news anymore. It’s just too morbid.

I’m shifting into trying to be a little bit more productive. The last month, I’ve had more of an opportunity to play some music with people, in real life. I forgot how much music is my medicine.

Tell me a bit about your career leading up to Continuum. You’ve had a bizarre injury that left you unable to play, having to re-learn technique from scratch. How did that reflect in your creative approach for your subsequent albums?

I’ve had a very strange course of events. I had been regularly gigging and teaching music in New York up until the end of 2012. After my dad died, at the end of 2012, I went into a period of depression. I made a lot of unhealthy life choices for a little while, let’s put it like that.

In early 2013, I got sober and realized that I had a whole lot of injuries I hadn’t dealt with. It was very mysterious. It probably stemmed from a car accident I had that messed up my shoulder. Some of it also had to do with guitar practicing that wasn’t very healthy. I got to a point where it hurt to even look at the guitar, because I knew in my mind how much pain I would experience.

I’ve had a long relationship with Samir Chatterjee, who has been a mentor of mine. We worked together to very slowly build up my ability to play guitar again. It was five minutes at a time, then ten minutes at a time of just reducing the stress level and retraining myself to have a new kind of technique that was going to be physically sustainable.

It took me three years to get to a point where my technique was where it had been before and then going to new places. I’ve had a long time to ask myself what I wanted to do with my music and what I wanted it to sound like. Gradually, I had enough ideas built up to start working on Transmission.

I really wanted to start exploring the process in the studio and working with a lot of different musicians. I got into finding ways to mix different instrumentation in.

Writing for string quartet was super exciting. Working with jazz musicians and string players on the same session was a huge learning experience. It involves completely different ways of operating and requires a lot of switching gears really quickly.

At the end of making that record, I knew that I still hadn’t gotten to exactly what I was hearing yet. But I did have to make that record. It wasn’t a loss – I knew it was a step in a certain direction.

When you say you weren’t able to play what you were hearing, was that due to your injury?

I think I was still in the process of getting my technique back in order and lining that up with what I was hearing in my head. I would write things that were what I was hearing, but the playing wasn’t coming out in a way that would line up with the compositions.

So, a little bit of time went by, I was touring, and the guys in my band were encouraging me to make a record that would reflect the music that we were making on tour, which already wasn’t sounding like what we were doing on Transmission. They said, “Let’s go to the studio. Let’s do a version that’s based off of this band.”

On Continuum, the core of the band was made up of the musicians I was touring with for about two years. I went into that with a specific idea of what I was trying to embody in that record —what I wanted the sound to be like, what kind of tensions I wanted there to be between one track and another. I knew that I wanted to have this mixture of flowing melodies and harmonies but then also having these glitched-out editing processes.

I talked to Ian Hersey, who was doing the mixing, and we knew that we wanted to capture the energy of the live band by doing expansive takes and then editing down the improvisations in the way Teo Macero was doing with the Miles Davis stuff from the early seventies; just taking this live stuff and cutting it down to make it closer to pop length.

What I find interesting is that, although you take a lot of inspiration from Indian music, there are no traditional Indian instruments on the record.

A lot of my training with Samir Chatterjee has been centered on the fact that he’s a tabla player and I’m not — I’m a guitar player. Our lessons have been him singing me these ragas and singing me these rhythmic permutations and then I replicate them on guitar. It was about finding ways to get my technique to reflect the things that he’s singing. So the whole thing has been an experimentation process.

After a few years of studying that music, I found that, when I go to write songs, I naturally start implementing those things. It takes a while for it to sink in on a molecular level — hearing a different type of scale rather than what I’m used to in western music.

With “Lunar Acropolis,” for example, I was having a super frustrated day and I said, “You know what? Let me put this aside. Let me spend a little bit of time meditating. The sun’s going down, let me meditate and hopefully, by the time the sun has set, I’ll have some new ideas.”

After I came out of meditation, these melodies started coming into my head. I started writing notes down, then I started recording. Two or three hours later, I realized that I’ve written this entire song within a raga called “Marwa.” I didn’t even realize that. That’s actually a raga for that time of day. It’s specifically meant to be played around dusk. In North Indian classical music they have a specific type of adherence to playing certain ragas at different times of day, to express those periods. So that’s one example of how the music was created.

You’d just returned from a tour of India when the pandemic started. How was the music received there?

It had a wide variety of responses because we’ve played a variety of venues, but it was overwhelmingly positive. Some of the venues we played had audiences that were more engaged with jazz and Hindustani music. I got into some great conversations about that kind of thing. There are not a lot of people doing that even over there, actually.

Interestingly enough, I did the tour with two Indian musicians who are based in Pune. They probably play more American-style music than I do. And I probably play more Indian-style music than they do. (laughs) So it became a really interesting conversation. They’d be dropping names of jazz musicians I hadn’t heard of and I’d be dropping names of Indian musicians they hadn’t heard of. It’s just a journey.

How did you become interested in Indian culture? Was it through music or did you get introduced to the music afterwards?

The music was definitely first. My earliest memories were back in the late ’90s hearing some of this drum and bass stuff from this producer, Talvin Singh, who is British. He was implementing a lot of tabla and other Indian instruments within his electronic productions. I thought, “Wow, that’s a different sound.”

Many years later, when I moved to New York, I was getting interested in a lot of drummers. On the one end of the spectrum was Jim Black, with things falling apart while keeping time and on the other end was Dan Weiss, who was doing all these crazy metric modulations. It could sound like it was falling apart, but you could tell that he knew exactly what was going on. I started realizing that he was studying Indian music and I started getting pointed in that direction.

A week after I moved to New York, I had a roommate who was a guitarist. He looked at me and he said, “Have you heard what these Indian guys are doing with the slide guitar?” I said, “I’ve never heard of Indian slide guitar.” He handed me a record of Debashish Bhattacharya. Samir was playing tabla on it. I was amazed by the completely novel way of playing slide guitar but I was equally, if not more impressed that there were these drums that sounded like they were singing.

I started getting interested in that other kind of expressiveness, not using chords at all but just a different way of even entering the music. Shortly after that was when I started studying with Samir.

How did you start studying with him?

This amazing drummer named Gerry Hemingway was teaching a world music introduction class at the New School when I was studying there. Samir came in to do a masterclass one day. He just spoke about some things that I had read about the night before. I was drawn to him like a magnet.

He immediately started ripping me apart, tearing down all my notions of how much I thought I knew about things. For some reason, I instinctively trusted that he had my best interest in mind, which is something I didn’t always find in the university jazz educational system — that personal connection of really caring about having your student be the best possible version of themselves that they can be, to then go out into the world and create music and share music with other people and uplift people. That was very powerful to me.

Continuum deals with the topic of digitalization and how it affects interpersonal relationships. How did you get interested in that?

It’s a topic that has always been a struggle for me. I’ve always found a connection with spiritual principals and practicing music in a spiritual or meditative way, which a lot of times is by myself with an acoustic instrument or just playing with other acoustic instruments. On the other hand, in order to conduct most of my daily life, I have to log on to a computer. I have to get on Zoom. I have to listen to some kind of CD that skips or a Youtube video that glitches out. Then, in order to do my work of editing music on editing software or editing videos, there are all these processes of fracturing data. That’s just a natural part of life. In order for me to book a tour in India, I have to interrupt my practice time to be messaging with somebody on Instagram at the same time. I started to think, “How can I really inspect this conundrum of balancing these two types of existence?” Because I like being holed up in the woods, chopping wood, keeping a fire going and practicing guitar by myself, but in order to go out and make music with other people, I have to encounter technology.

Is that a frustrating feeling? I feel like there is a discernable feeling of tension or frustration in certain parts of the album.

Yeah, the frustration is definitely there. I felt like there are certain parts of the record that I recorded near the end of the session that, to me, are the ones that sound the most resolved. Like the beginning of “Lunar Acropolis.” The intro to that was one of last things I recorded. To me, it feels like one of the calmest passages in the entire record. But the parts that I had done earlier, yeah, the frustration was there.

I like to set up parameters and then see what happens within these parameters. I like to create restrictions and see what goes on. Because going into something with a completely free, open-ended mindset sometimes translates to random results. Even in the studio, sometimes what we did was use these high powered effects boxes that, in theory, can make amazing sounds. The funny thing is we had seven people in the studio and none of us could actually figure out how to use the boxes. We have some of these takes on the record. One of the tracks on “Riddlin” was just me playing and Nick, the bassist, manipulating the effects on the box. We would finish the whole take and he’d be like, “I have absolutely no idea what I was doing.” (laughs) And the whole take was me reacting to how he was manipulating me throughout the whole thing. So I incorporate different aleatory processes like that.

I specifically wrote “Export for Screens” in response to working with software like Adobe Illustrator, where I would spend two hours on something, trying to export it, and then I would realize I don’t even know what “export for screens” means. I’m trying to export this thing to check it out and re-edit it and I don’t know what the settings are. So, at the middle of that track is this meltdown of trying to do something but the technology got in the way, so I can’t even remember what I was thinking about anymore.

Transmission was available on cassette tape alongside CD and digital format. I haven’t seen much of that lately. Why cassettes?

Cassettes had a brief resurgence among some scenes. especially in New York and the underground scenes in the US. There was a time when people were into that. People would buy cassettes more than CDs for a little while, actually. I didn’t decide to do it this time because it seems to have faded.

So it was a marketing thing rather than a personal preference.

I like the sound of tapes, but I can’t get a tape player to work for more than six months at a time. (laughs)

Why did you decide to release the album on Chant Records?

I’ve had a few different friends who have put out things on their label and generally just the fact that they’re a label that is putting out things that aren’t easily categorized. A lot of labels, they fit into one kind of genre or another. Chant mostly puts out the things that fall between the cracks. It’s super exciting stuff and they seem to put things out based on their excitement about it, which just seemed like good, honest work. For the people like us who operate like that, we almost have kind of a duty to keep that spirit alive.

If you were an audience member going to a gig by Xander Naylor Sound Machine and hearing this music for the first time, what would you think of it?

It’s an interesting question. I’m trying to keep my ego out of it. (laughs)

I would probably hear a combination of joy, ecstasy, tension, dissonance, loud and then chaos-slash-rhythm. I’m trying to be honest. Because a lot of people are like, “That just sounded like chaos.” For every person who feels it was meditative transcendence, there’s another person who’ll be like, “I have no idea what you’re doing. I don’t get it.” (laughs) And that’s fine.

I’ve often found that there seems to be a certain disconnect between musicians and the audience in what is being expressed through the music. Musicians often write thinking about how other musicians would perceive their work. They think in terms of technique and bars and tempo. But most of the audience isn’t made up of musicians, and non-musicians will connect to different things in the music. Often times, a listener will connect to a perceived story, or what I call a “narrative coherence,” that the composer might not even be aware of.

I totally hear where you’re coming from and that has been a huge question on my mind, especially in the last couple of years, because I really came up in an avant-garde improvised music scene in New York City. It was a very fertile scene, where everything was done for the sake of experimentation, for the sake of sound creation. As the years have gone by, I recognized that that’s super honest but most of the people who come to those shows are people with the exact same interest set and it’s usually about ten people. So I do feel like I want to reach out to a wider audience. I’m interested in creating music that’s more universally applicable and creating music that people can relate to and that can open something for them. But I have to then branch out from trying to believe that other people should just accept free improvised music and trust me. No, I have to go and try to meet them half way.

What would you like the listeners to take away from your music?

Hope! Hope for the possibilities of varied expression.

You can listen to “Lunar Acropolis” on Spotify and pre-order your copy of Continuum on Bandcamp.

Photo credit: Michael Kerschner

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