Brooklyn Based Duo: Xeno & Oaklander
Sean McBride and Liz Wendelbo are Xeno & Oaklander. Xeno & Oaklander are purveyors of a perversly brittle, perversely intense strain of electronic music. Xeno & Oaklander are, in the words of Wendelbo, a group who are “into creating dreamy architectures with our songs – our music is an ethereal journey into somewhat austere scenarios and far away places. Our music is an experience that appeals to all the senses at once. It’s warm and cold at the same time.” Crack got the chance to assess the temperature for ourselves.
Records like 2009’s seminal Sentinelle, 2011’s Sets & Lights and this year’s Par Avion – released on the glorious Ghostly International label – are experiments in austerity. McBride’s stagey intonations weave in and out of iced arpeggios, melting into Wendelbo’s breathier incantations, resulting in albums that are proudly minimal in the truest sense of the word. So minimal, in fact, that the group are often labelled as being proponents of “minimal wave”, a tag that McBride wanted to delve into fully. “The term Minimal Synth was used most often to classify homespun electronic music from circa 1978-1986”, he explains, “the term itself alludes to the fact that the music was made with minimal production values or infrastructure and had a minimal commercial footprint – and of course featured, almost exclusively, the use of synthesizers. As the 2000s marched on, more and more labels began to re-release these “minimal synth” groups from all over the world. One of which was Minimal Wave, started by Veronica Vasicka in 2005. The name of this record label has become part of the music journalism parlance and beyond.
“When people ask me about Minimal Wave, I can’t help but feel an imaginary parallel to a world where the term ‘Jazz’ is replaced with the name ‘Blue Note’.” So can we call Xeno & Oaklander a minimal wave act then? “For me, these appellations are irrelevant and signal that the users of these terms have only arrived recently to this music, or better yet, are hostile to it, and use the name of this record label as a kind of catch-all parodic jibe at the groups they seek to lambast. This term is a kind of lexical exonym.” We’ll take that as a no then.
Xeno & Oaklander’s music basks in the joy of repetition, so it’s no surprise that the pair are passionate about how they make the music they make. Wendelbo notes that McBride is “extremely passionate and knowledgeable about gear, he’s been collecting gear and innovating new synth sounds for over 10 years – all that in the service of music, meaning it’s not about the gear, it’s about making music, pushing boundaries and triggering inspiration.” The man himself asserts that, “At the beginning there was naturally a totalising fascination with these old machines and their respective functionalities. But as time wears on, their novelty wears off. Now, I am only interested in a set of processes and tools that offer the appropriate specifications for me to make music and shape particular sounds. Now I use mostly just two cases full of Eurorack modular – mostly Oscillators, VCAs and ENVs – for our live shows, and in the home studio I incorporate the older equipment. As long as the gear is patchable [modular] and conforms to the 1Volt per Octave standard, I can use it.”
It was pleasing to see that the intensity which pours out of Xeno & Oaklander’s records, that seeps out of the pair during live shows (which Wendelbo describes as carrying a “sense of liberation – when you know as an audience how synth music is made onstage: you can see the process, the sequencing, the shaping of the sound taking place in real time”) comes across in the way the group talk about themselves, their music and the processes that make it. When we tentatively ended the conversation by asking how collaborative the act is, they speak of their unity with an intense sense of pride. “Yes, Xeno & Oaklander is a collaborative act: truly. We have been inseparable since the beginning, and have found that this is the best way for us to make music – together.”
Par Avion is out now via Ghostly International