Transporting the senses with exotic scents in the studio, channelling synaesthesia, and visualising electricity are all part and parcel of the new Xeno & Oaklander album ‘Vi/deo’

Sean McBride – one half of Xeno & Oaklander with Liz Wendelbo – is a restless, unsettled interviewee. Throughout our conversation he careers around his New York apartment, stopping briefly in one room to answer a question before swiftly moving on to another spot for the next. It creates the impression of each response being its own discrete, unique performance. It’s no coincidence either that this is how McBride views the making of each of Xeno & Oaklander’s albums – including ‘Vi/deo’, released last month on Dais.

“Once the ideas are conceived and arranged, and the sounds are created, that recording is the recording,” he says. “It’s not as if we’ll spend weeks and weeks of painful overdubbing. It’s just, ‘Boom!’ – done. It’s a registration of a specific time and a specific musical performance. To me, it’s like shooting a film. There are those filmmakers who want to use CGI afterwards, but then there are those who want to maintain a kind of realism. That’s how I see the way we record together.”

As a video artist, Wendelbo is used to thinking visually. Her lyrics, crisscrossing between French and English, are loaded with evocative imagery. ‘Vi/deo’, which takes its name from the Latin verb videre (to see), is principally concerned with forms of synaesthesia, a neurological phenomenon where stimulation of one sense evokes a response from another, blending them together – one of the most common types is associating a sound with a specific colour. 

“Synaesthesia is really about sensation, which is related to feeling,” offers Wendelbo from a hotel lobby in Seoul, where her husband Egan Frantz – who mixed ‘Vi/deo’ – is exhibiting some of his visual art. “For example, it could be about the feelings music produces that are beyond just hearing.”

So while the output might have been a music album, the creation of ‘Vi/deo’ involved much more than the auditory senses of its two creators. It’s a powerful trip through the mind’s ability to synthesise emotional responses from vastly different inputs.

At the rear of the house in south Connecticut where Xeno & Oaklander recorded ‘Vi/deo’ is a drainpipe running from the roof down to the ground – a fairly typical sight. But what might be ordinary or mundane to you or me was a major source of inspiration for them.

“That part of the yard, where the water hits the ground, is composed entirely of pebbles,” recalls McBride. “For me, this became a sort of tiny universe at macro scale. Each time it rained, there were always different little features. You can get lost in these imaginative, imaginary, infinitesimal worlds that exist even in the smallest little space.”

The vivid, visceral portrait McBride describes of the quotidian guttering system would go on to yield the closing track, ‘Raingarden’. The album was recorded during a time when conventional travel was impossible. For Wendelbo and McBride, the inspirational spurs that travel would ordinarily supply were replaced instead by excursions into imagination, recollections and memory, into television, into cinema. The biggest contribution to the songs came from tapping into various forms of synaesthesia. Scent became a major influence, with Wendelbo arranging vials and bottles of different perfumes around the studio space.

“When you’re about to record an album, you want to set the mood and trigger memories,” she explains. “It just excites the imagination. We had pipettes of rare oud essence mixed up with patch cables, old cameras and video editing consoles. Setting up perfumes around the studio became like some sort of a set that enabled us to create this record.”

Oud is a coveted scent derived from agarwood, produced when a particular mould attacks the aquilaria tree. It’s used extensively in incense and perfume manufacture, with Wendelbo describing its aroma variously as being “putrid”, “like wood”, “like leather” or “like tobacco”. Placing it in the studio added an exotic quality to the recording process, giving the normally stark Xeno & Oaklander sound a more luxuriant timbre. Oud also contributed to the theme of the senses transporting us to different places.

“Certain smells make you travel out of the space that you’re in,” says Wendelbo. “Different countries, back into the past, forward to the future.”

“Oftentimes a perfume from the past, from an old lover or from my parents, will produce a melodic or a harmonic register or memory for me,” adds McBride. “When I smell them, I’m transported into past experiences, narratives, stories or relationships. Music can produce a memory of a smell, but a scent can also produce the memory of music.”

Colours feature heavily in Wendelbo’s lyrics for the album, and most prominently on ‘Technicolor’, where the names of different hues create an intense, kaleidoscopic panorama while also nodding to her interest in developments in cinematography. 

“I’m more olfactory than optical because I’m colour-blind and not that particularly visual as a person,” admits McBride. “I think it’s more a kind of anomic aphasia, where I name colours wrong. I’m unable to put the right word to the hue.”

photo: Philippe Levy

With McBride more focused on the symbiosis of scent and synthesisers, the critical visual impetuses for ‘Vi/deo’ came from Wendelbo, who was already a photographer and filmmaker when she met McBride in 2003. Her focus was, and still is, on pre-digital photographic tools, even though these were rapidly becoming obsolete in the face of technological advances in the early 2000s. It was through her work with old cameras that another type of synaesthesia – touch – crept into the album.

“Analogue equipment just feels good in your hand,” she enthuses. “An old synthesiser or an old camera has the same thing about it. It smells great, too – like leather and metal and old plastic.”

Her evocative depiction reminds me of the excitement I’d experienced earlier in the week when I took delivery of a second-hand VHS cassette. Grimed with dust, its transparent plastic outer sleeve mostly missing and bearing the traces of its previous owner’s fingerprints, I felt it had a story to tell even before I’d inserted it into the player. It’s a perception you simply don’t get from watching a video on YouTube or receiving a digital file in a link.

“I think it’s because things have specific vibrations,” explains Wendelbo. “Molecules vibrate. ‘Are you going to vibe with that object?’ is something we’d say today. Physical objects definitely do resonate, which is why they generate these feelings in us.”

McBride nods in agreement, while pointing over his shoulder to a mirror behind him in the room.

“Did you know glass is a frozen liquid?” he asks. “Its frequency is such that it appears stable, but it’s actually melting, just at glacial speed. Plastics and metals are all like that to some extent. There’s a way to narrate this, and I think it’s true with everything – synthesisers, cameras, videotapes, old air conditioners or whatever.”

But how do you go about turning all these different types of synaesthesia into an album? According to McBride, once Wendelbo had laid a table in the studio with fragrances, chemicals, vetivers and other perfume components, everything came together relatively easily.

“I put together my array of synthesisers around those scents and just assembled the objects I typically use. Composing the stuff with Liz being there, and having the room filled with oud and other smells, wasn’t exactly effortless, but it did just seem to flow.

“I’d sit down at either a piano or a polyphonic string synthesiser and find I could easily arrange harmonies and melodies. I was deeply inspired by Ravel and Debussy – I’m drawn to many strange chromatic harmonies prevalent in France around 1900 – so I was trying to find a way to bring them into electronic music. I wanted to make something more like dance music with a kind of motion to it.

“I was trying to figure out a way to break out of those hackneyed old chord progressions and find new comfort in augmented chords and things that aren’t really used much in popular electronic music. Also, with Liz being French and having the perfumes everywhere… I think all of these things went together in a really magical way. I can’t precisely pin down one moment when we knew we’d arrived or anything. It just felt cohesive and poetic – like it made complete sense – right through the whole process.”

It was possible to gain an insight into the Xeno & Oaklander studio set-up through the live streams they posted last year. You also got to see how integral Wendelbo’s video discipline was to the creative process that produced ‘Vi/deo’. Patch cables from McBride’s synthesisers would be tangled up in S-video wires, while Wendelbo appeared to be using Eurorack modules to control the visuals.

“It’s video synthesis,” explains McBride. “With analogue synthesisers, you produce a frequency in a specific shape, and that’s the pitched tone you hear. You can manipulate the pitch from very low to very high and it’s all continuous – not stepped as it would be if it was digital. It has a sort of flow – similar to a water spigot, where you can get low or high pressure. 

“Video synthesis is the same thing, but with lightness and darkness and the spectrum of colours. Liz has machines – they’re almost like analogue synthesisers, but for video – that produce those arrays and scales of colour, light and shifting patterns. It’s basically like taking audio and thinking about it optically.”

“You can also split the video signal into red, green and blue,” adds Wendelbo. “You can separate those three signals and create different moods, hues, and patterns. You can create shifts and jittery movements. To me, it’s like a visualisation of electricity. It’s very hyper. There was a lot of experimentation going on as we wrote the album. It’s fun.”

The Eurorack format allows Wendelbo to create a perfect symbiosis with McBride’s music. 

“It can all be clocked and manipulated by the same controls I use for sound,” he says. “It means there really is a dialogue between them. I guess it’s a form of synaesthesia through technology that crosses the senses via patch cables.”

‘Vi/deo’ is a rare example of deeply conceptual thinking disguised as slick and emotive electronic pop. Its songs soar effortlessly upward, in part thanks to the influences of French classical music on Sean McBride’s compositions and also because of the vocal style consciously adopted by Liz Wendelbo.

“On our previous album, my style was more staccato,” she elaborates. “On this one, I wanted to hold the notes more, pretty much as a choirboy would do, to achieve a sort of angelic voice.”

This is a record that can genuinely take you places, one that transcends hearing alone. That feeling of motion McBride was keen to develop runs deeply through every track, threading its way among evocations of time, place and memory and creating new, unexpected patterns.

“We wanted the music to conjure up all the senses, so everything is engaged when you listen to it,” concludes McBride. “It’s something that happens with poetry, where a single word or a phrase will evoke a visual, a feeling, a sound or a taste. That’s what we tried to do with ‘Vi/deo’.”

‘Vi/deo’ is out now on Dais

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