With their ‘Par Avion’ album, Brooklyn duo Xeno & Oaklander have dusted down decades of old kit and delivered a sparkling set of electronic fuelled pop
“My dog’s called Roland,” laughs Liz Wendelbo, trying to make herself heard over the raucous canine welcome that greets our chat about Xeno & Oaklander’s new album, ‘Par Avion’.
If you’re naming your pets after musical kit, the bug has clearly taken hold. Doubly so when, along with her Xeno & Oaklander cohort Sean McBride, they’ve filled a Brooklyn apartment with old analogue machines. Not so much living above the shop, but in it?
“It’s not a situation where you can go, ‘Hey let’s rent a studio to rehearse in’,” she says. “You’ve really got to spend time with them, but they do take over.”
Liz was born in Oslo, brought up in France, and winged her way to New York when living in Amsterdam lost its charms. She met Sean, who hails from the US state of Maryland, at a Williamsburg warehouse party where her minimal electronica DJ set caught his ear. He was already amassing a collection of analogue bits and bobs and the pair swiftly set about putting it to good use. So how much of the apartment do the machines take up?
“There’s just no room,” sighs Liz. “They literally fill the place from floor to ceiling and are spread out all the way to the kitchen. But they’re very pleasurable to be with. The first thing you do when you wake up in the morning is go to the synthesisers.”
But not so pleasurable when they catch fire.
“That was my very first experience,” she says. “It was an old Korg and it must have been filled with dust. It began sounding odd, kind of funky, and then I saw smoke coming out and it started melting. There is a romantic aspect to it all, though. There’s something very elemental about them. They have moods. Sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t. They have lives of their own.”
“Most of these instruments are made of wood or metal and there’s a lot of leather and velvet in the casings.”
There’s the historical aura too, of course. Xeno & Oaklander recently recorded a version of Suicide’s ‘Frankie Teardrop’ with the help of Martin Rev, who helpfully brought round the actual drum machine Suicide used on the 1977 original – a Seeburg Select-A-Rhythm 601B dating from the 1960s.
“It had a history before him,” explains Liz. “He got it from a suburban family. It belonged to their daughter. At that time, a drum machine would come with an organ. They’d be used as an accompaniment in church to make things more interesting when there was just one person playing.”
The new X&O album is their fourth outing following on from 2006’s ‘Vigils’, 2009’s ‘Sentinelle’ and 2011’s ‘Sets And Lights’. While those previous releases sound like they could be straight out of another age, ‘Par Avion’ is a proper 21st century pop record, albeit soaked in early 80s UK electronic music.
“We only have a cassette player in the car, so we listen to a lot of old tapes when we’re driving about,” offers Liz.
Those tapes? New Order, Human League, John Foxx, Depeche Mode, Visage. It’s perhaps little surprise it sounds the way it does, after all they are using the same kit as those pioneers, producing that same warmth, but ‘Par Avion’ is so much more than some retro homage. Sure, you can hear the ghosts in the machines, even Sean’s vocal has something of OMD’s Andy McCluskey about it, but the buffed, sparkling tunery is classy stuff and the addition of Liz’s gentle French tones brings it slap-bang into the here and now. The breakneck, sun-soaked ‘Nuage D’Ivoire’, the grinning, Joy Divisiony ‘Lastly’, the swollen, sweeping rumble of ‘Jasmine Nights’…
“When we started making this album, we said we wanted to push the sounds as far as we could,” says Liz. “We wanted to pick up where this music stopped in the late 80s, when computers started to take over.”
‘Par Avion’ comes in a special edition vinyl version – coloured wax, hand-screened sleeve, rose-scented slip. It just needs a chocolate bar attached to the cover and it would be an assault on all the senses.
“Perfume works pretty much like music,” declares Liz. “They have notes. The top note is what springs out of the bottle, and then you have mid notes, that’s when it gets interesting, when the scent starts developing as you wear it, and then there’s the bass note, the funky, murky stuff at the bottom.”
Which, in short, is ‘Par Avion’ in a record-shaped nutshell.
‘Par Avion’ is out on Ghostly International