Inspired by a relocation from London to Berlin - where he’s been enjoying a more peaceful existence with more room to pursue his creative endeavours - Leeds-born producer Xao created his latest project ‘Eternal Care Unit’.
Challenging himself to create work that was cold, hard and alien, yet still engaging to listeners, he set about to create a very intentional set of 8 new tracks which have been released by forward-thinking label Astral Black.
To celebrate the LP, which is out now and available both digitally and on 12” vinyl with artwork by designer Patrick Savile, we invited Astral Black label boss Jon Phonics to ask a few questions to Xao about the process behind his new body of work…
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Congratulations on the new record sir. Listening to ‘Eternal Care Unit’, whilst the tracks are each so distinctive it feels almost as if listening to a mix in that there’s a consistent mood throughout, was that a conscious decision? Were all the tracks made with the intention of living together as a single project?
All the tracks were made with this release in mind. The mood comes from the approach I adopted for the project - I didn’t want to make anything remotely feel-good or pleasant. The goal was to create music that was kind of gross and uncomfortable, but still drew the listener in. Oddly satisfying maybe? But yeah, cold, hard and alien were touchstones for the project.
What has changed in the time between ‘Alloys’ and ‘Eternal Care Unit’?
I left London for Berlin. Moving abroad was pretty rewarding. I now kind of regret previously spending so much time in one place. I also left full-time employment to go freelance, which left me with much more time to dedicate to creative endeavours. It also afforded my a greater feeling of autonomy in general. Which is sick.
Do you think you have changed at all as a person in that time also? If so, how?
I’ve definitely become less of a hyper-social extrovert type. I feel less of a pressure to stay connected and to keep up. I’ve lost the manic desire to do all the things, all of the time, and I’m getting better at being OK with saying no to stuff. My finger might not always be on the pulse, but I’m certainly more relaxed! I exercise and do chef and all that nice stuff.
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What prompted the move out of London? And why Germany?
I was in London for 10 years. It’s still probably my favourite city in the world, but if you are living a full life there, it can take a lot out of you. I definitely got to a point where I needed to leave, at least for a while. Part of me was apprehensive about moving to Berlin as I was acutely aware of the danger of becoming a walking cliché!
It’s such a predictable and well trodden path for producers- but for good reason. Whilst Berlin can be a full-on, unforgiving onslaught if you choose to experience it that way, it can also be a very peaceful place to exist. People seem to have a lot more time to think and create, most probably because of the lower financial pressures.
Although that is something that is changing… probably in no small part due to the influx of fuckers like me!
In what ways do you think location and environment has effected your sound?
It is well known that Berlin=Techno, and Techno=Berlin. I did have a phase in which I was enamoured with minimal tech, but that was many years ago, and these days I don’t actively seek techno out. But living in Berlin, you certainly cannot avoid it if you plan on ever leaving the house. I think elements techno and industrial have wormed their way into my productions, simply via osmosis.
The relative shortage in clubs of UK sounds and rap out here has probably also had an affect on my output. Their presence as influence is my current stuff is still there, but probably a bit more obscured than previously.
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When I listen to ‘Eternal Care Unit’ I cant begin to figure out how a lot of the tracks were made - is there anything you can tell us about your process to give us some insight? The scream on ‘Corvid Tendencies’ for example - how was this made and what was thought process there?
A lot of tracks start with a sound or preset. And often a project will be full of offcuts of mangled and resampled material from unused tunes. The scream in ‘Corvid Tendencies’ is a sample I made a while back, named Voxel Raptor. I can’t remember exactly how this one was made! But with a lot of the samples and synths on ECU, I tried to imbue them with an animalistic or creature-like quality.
Often this is as simple as changing the pitch contour of a sample to mimic a bird call or primate scream. I also used a fair few genuine animal samples, but processed them to sound digital in origin. I was trying to get to the point where the real yet fucked-up creature samples were indistinguishable from the fake critter noises.
How do you think your education ties into your art?
My background in science probably informed themes and ideas behind behind ECU, most palpably conveyed through Patrick Savile’s artwork. But I’m not sure if neuroscience has, or could, directly inform the sound. I find learning about the mechanisms of perception deeply fascinating, but also slightly unromantic…
Studying sonic arts however, definitely shaped what I create now. Being properly exposed to the 20 th century avant-garde, the birth and the progression of electronic music was huge. Learning how to listen critically was very valuable. I also got time to go in deep studying areas such as spectral processing, granular synthesis and generative music, all of which I pull out in my own productions from time to time.
Why did you choose to work with Patrick Savile and what was that experience like?
I saw Patrick’s design for the Jay Glass Dubs vs Guerilla Toss release on Bokeh Versions and was instantly taken. His work is so consistently strong and he has such a unique visual language. I sent over some references, including Ernst Haeckel’s anatomical drawings of diatoms and jellyfish, Turing patterns, microscopic images of cells and old rave flyers.
The themes we spoke about were geometry in nature, schematic representations and speculative biology. We back-and-forthed for a while, and ended up with something I’m very happy with. A dreamy collaboration for sure!
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Order 'Eternal Care Unit' HERE.
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