The Beatles got their start playing 50s R&B hits. Bob Dylan’s earliest years were spent cycling through traditional folk songs. For Tuscon’s XIXA, the Peruvian style of cumbia known as “chicha” was the catalyst from which their unique sound developed.
Brian Lopez and Gabriel Sullivan had been playing in bands together for half a decade or so, including the most recent incarnation of the great Giant Sand. Through a somewhat chance meeting, Lopez was introduced to a compilation of chicha music. Falling in love with the music, Lopez began sharing the compilation with friends, setting the wheels in motion for XiXIA’s original incarnation, Chicha Dust.
Combining the talents of Lopez and Sullivan, as well as Jason Urman, Efren Cruz Chavez, Winston Watson, and Geoffrey Hidalgo, Chicha Dust’s early days were spent mastering the chicha sound by covering those same Roots of Chicha compilation tracks that initially ignited Lopez’s interest.
Over time and a change in band name to XIXA, they began writing their own songs and infusing other influences. In late 2015, XIXA released their four song EP Shift and Shadow via the same Barbès Records that was responsible for putting out Roots of Chicha. The EP was a stunning opening statement for the band. In their creative combination of smokey vocals, latin rhythms and percussion, soaring psychedelic guitars and that wonderful Farfisa organ, XIXA had quickly developed into uniquely their own.
With the release of their debut album Bloodline in February, XIXA continued their rapid evolution as a band. They had become darker, grittier. From rumbling bass lines to the murder ballad lyrics, the Tuscon sextet had created the most dangerous sounding album capable of igniting a dance party in the southwest. But those chicha grooves are still very much the backbone of the songs, driving the tunes with an infectious spirit.
On Friday September 16th, XIXA comes to Santa Fe to headline the opening night party of this year’s AHA Festival at the Solana Center. You can purchase tickets, and find more information about the event here.
I recently spoke to Brian Lopez and Gabriel Sullivan of XIXA via email in anticipation of their upcoming show in Santa Fe…
The two of your have been playing music together in various projects for years. How did you originally begin playing together?
BL: We both played in the backing band for Marianne Dissard in 2009 – a French chanteuse living in Tucson at the time. Soon after we both played in Sergio Mendoza’s mambo orchestra…and soon after THAT, we both found ourselves in Giant Sand.
From my understanding, when XIXA originally formed as “Chicha Dust”, you guys focused entirely on covers of songs on the incredible Roots of Chicha compilation. How did you first come to love this compilation?
Brian Lopez: I was actually playing a solo show at a club called Barbès in Brooklyn. I covered an old Peruvian folk song called “Ojos Azules” — after the show the bar owner, Olivier, came up to me. Asked if I liked Peruvian music. Said his record label, Barbès Records, had just put out a compilation called Roots of Chicha. He gave me the album, as well as his band, Chicha Libre’s album. I took them back to Tucson, fell head over heels for the music, made copies to all my like-minded music friends. Not too much later, we were covering Los Hijos Del Sol’s “Cariñito” to audiences all throughout Europe. It was infectious. People couldn’t get enough of it. Gabriel and I took notice and decided to start a band dedicated to classic chicha. We did this for about 3 years, breathing in the music as if it were our own. Eventually we’d break off and write our own material —but always influenced by the Roots of Chicha.
At what point did you guys decide that you wanted to write your own songs for the band?
Gabriel Sullivan: This was not really something we decided but more something that manifested. We initially wrote when we had free time at rehearsals or in the studio. It wasn’t until we decided to build our own studio that we started blocking out 3 or 4 days at a time to write and record with a more tenacious attitude. We were free to write and work in a way none of us had done before. No time constraints, no money restraints, just loose and off the cuff ideas.
BL: The objective had always been to eventually write our own material. Even when we first started Chicha Dust, I knew eventually, after studying all this amazing chicha music, we’d be well equipped to craft our own material at some point. Early Beatles did that with 50’s R&B …Bob Dylan went that route early on…many, many artists initially get their start by some form of imitation. The important thing is to eventually come into your own as an artist. And that is where we are at currently with XIXA.
How would you say XIXA has evolved since you moved on to composing original tunes?
GS: I think we’ve certainly come into our own realm. We give many nods to chicha and cumbia, but it is certainly no longer a chicha band. We have incorporated a much more aesthetic and visual element to the band that has bled into the music making the visual and sonic elements almost one in the same.
Certain settings and landscapes tend to inspire their own sonic identities. What would you say defines the sounds of the dry Southwest?
GS: There is clearly a scorched sound in Tucson. I do think XIXA takes from many worlds of sonic palettes, and at times we’ve even made extreme efforts to get away from the “Tucson” sound, but when I listen to Bloodline I can’t help but notice the layer of dirt over it all.
BL: There is a particular beauty that lies exclusively within the Sonoran desert. A Sense of desperation, urgency. The desert seldom gives…but when it does, it’s gorgeous. Like a single flower blooming, post-monsoon, atop an extremely thorny, seemingly unworldly, prickly pear cactus. It’s a juxtaposition. The music somehow echoes whatever sentiment that scene might inspire.
Despite huge cultural and geographic separation, similarities can be found between American desert rock and the Tuareg musicians of Mali. You collaborated Tinariwen’s Sadam Iyad Imarhan on “World Goes Away.” Do you think that your similar sonic palettes helped bridge the language barriers between you all?
GS: Sadam definitely comes from the same cloth as us. The Imarhan guys have such a wild and free spirited approach to music which resonates clearly in us. Having been more or less raised on the road the last few years by the king of all things happenstance and unplanned, Howe Gelb, improvisation and on the spot ideas have become our life blood. Sadam did only three passes of guitar and vocals on “World Goes Away” and each were wildly different…. we knew right away that we were at the beginning of a long relationship with him and Imarhan.
BL: Like Gabriel says, I think the biggest similarities between us and Imarhan are the free-spirited approach and seemingly, at times, lackadaisical attitude. It’s the mentality and attitude that I feel connects us with our Tuereg friends, not necessarily the music. I’m glad our musical collaboration with Sadam can highlight this rather complex socio-musical paradox 🙂
There’s something magical about driving through the open expanse of the southwest. What’s your preferred soundtrack for such journeys?
GS: Imarhan’s self titled record was easily my most played driving music last year…. Lately it’s been Morphine’s album Cure For Pain.
BL: Giant Sand PROvisions
In this part of the country, due to miles of separation, the music scenes tend to be isolated bubbles. One of the major goals of Santa Fe’s AHA Festival is to work towards bridging the divides between our cities. Who are some of Tuscon’s best lesser known acts?
GS: Oh man there are way too many to list… but off the top of my head… Vox Urbana, Billy Sedlmayr, Katterwaul, Crystal Radio, Jess Matsen, Karima Walker, North…..