Like most major cities, Tucson, Arizona has a thriving music scene that overflows with bands and performers working in every genre. Two of the most revered bands to come out of Tucson, a place situated in the Sonoran Desert and awash in all kinds of Latin music, are Giant Sand and Calexico, outfits that play music that often reflects Tucson’s most unique of Southwestern settings. Add now to that list Xixa, another band based in the Old Pueblo that is expanding on what is known as the Tucson sound.
It should be no surprise to hear Xixa (pronounced “She-sha”) mentioned in the same breath as Giant Sand and Calexico; not only does the band play music of a similar caliber as those groups, but Xixa core members Gabriel Sullivan and Brian Lopez are also members of Giant Sand and occasional guest players with Calexico. For their debut album Bloodline Xixa has crafted a set of songs influenced by the Latin sounds Sullivan and Lopez heard while growing up in Tucson, the Peruvian cumbia music known as Chicha (also pronounced “She-sha”) that they have come to love, and all with a healthy dose of Sonoran Desert rock, pop and psych blended in.
We spoke with Sullivan and Lopez by email and they gave us some insight into the making of Bloodline and the influence that living in Tucson has on their creativity. Their commentary below is given exclusively to AXS.com.
AXS: Chicha is a sound that originated in Peru some 45-years ago. Did the sound ever get to the States back then? Is there a Chicha-influenced song from that era that the average music fan might know?
Gabriel Sullivan: Now, I am just an ’80s child, but as far as I know there was next to no one listening to Chicha music in the States when it first originated. Today it is not a music that most people know. The closest situation I can think of regarding common folks knowing a Chicha song is when we tried to play "Colegiala" in France. We played the first 30 seconds at sound check a few years back and noticed the entire room pointing and laughing. Turns out that it is the song played behind one of France's most well-known and most laughed-at coffee commercials dating back to the ’70s, if I recall. We have not played that song in France since.
Brian Lopez: Ya, "Colegiala" was the only song that we have ever played that people had known beforehand, and like Gabriel mentioned, it was unfortunately in a long-running coffee commercial in France. It basically turned that cool song into a joke.
AXS: It’s amusingly noted in the Xixa bio that band percussionist Efren Cruz Chavez had not heard of Led Zeppelin, as little as a few years ago. When you found this out did you immediately play him some? Was his reaction anything like yours when you discovered Chicha?
GS: It is true that Efren did not know who Led Zeppelin was. He recognized some of the songs but had no idea it was the monumental rock ‘n’ roll band. The music that gets played in our van is all over the map. Led Zeppelin to Black Sabbath to Of Montreal to Pantera to Bjork to Selso Piña. There is no limit to what kinda music might get introduced. In the way we've shown Efren rock bands, he has introduced us to so much Latin music that has equally floored us.
BL: Now Efren is fully aware of Led Zeppelin. He even said, "That Led Zeppelin guy? Ya, he's pretty cool."
AXS: Among its psych and Latin sounds, the non-Bloodline song “Shift and Shadow” has an extremely catchy pop hook. While creating music that’s memorable is always the idea, do you sort of have to be careful not to temper the more exotic sounds too much?
GS: Well, "Shift and Shadow" is actually only on our EP of the same name. We decided to keep the LP and EP separate entities in terms of track listing, with the exception of "Dead Man" which appears on both releases. As far as balancing the "pop" and "exotic" aspects of our music, it is never something we think about. Nothing in our music has been discussed or plotted. Everything about our band and the music has always been very natural and organic. Nobody writes catchier melodies than Brian, and when you put that over a piece of music that all six members have worked on creating, I think you get a very organic yet pop minded sound. Brian and I have very different pallets when it comes to songwriting, and I think Xixa is the perfect project where we can blend and compliment what it is we each naturally do.
BL: It also helps that we have our own recording studio which Gabriel runs. It helps create an atmosphere of limitless sonic possibilities. Trial and error at a VERY fast pace has become the name of the game for us. We'll try about a million different things before settling. But never have we had a discussion about dumbing down an "exotic" element. The word "exotic" is very relative anyhow.
AXS: How did your collaboration with Tinariwen’s Sadam Iyad Imarhan on “World Goes Away” come about, and was this done in your studio or via internet?
GS: Brian and I actually connected with Sadam through our touring with Giant Sand. We played a couple festivals together with Tinariwen in Europe as well as the U.S. and become very good friends with the band and found out that Sadam was fronting a new project called Imarhan. We stayed in touch with their manager, Marion, and discussed the idea of recording something with Sadam when they came through Phoenix. Brian and I had been talking about trying a more acoustic song for our LP and thought this was the perfect opportunity. We recorded a sketch of the song in our studio with my verses and Brian’s verses and the choruses and sent it to Sadam, leaving him the third verse. Brian, Jason (Urman, keyboard) and myself drove up to Phoenix with our mobile recording setup, found a quiet room and knocked it out in just two takes. With an extreme lack of communication between Sadam (speaking Tamashek and very little French), Marion (speaking French and English), and us (speaking English, very little French, absolutely no Tamashek) it was a very special experience in the sense that it was only the song and the music driving this creativity.
AXS: As native Tucsonans, when did you first realize that there is a very special vibe/mystique to the area? Were you a musician at the time?
GS: Anyone who lives in Tucson for any amount of time realizes that there is something different here. The time moves slower, the rain roars louder, the vegetation stands guard; it's just different. It's always been there, but it feels that only recently am I starting to see the full potential of what's always been. I think there is a sort of movement of music and art in Tucson right now that is exposing the darker, more mystic side of this landscape. Our good friends Daniel Martin Diaz and Amelia Poe have been a huge inspiration in that regard. We knew we wanted no one else to handle our artwork and visuals, and they have perfectly represented this gothic, desert noir that we've found ourselves in. I can't wait to see how much deeper we all dig into this.
BL: The first time I ever realized how unearthly and bizarre Tucson, Arizona was happened to be in 2005. I had been living in Barcelona, Spain for six months as part of a study abroad. My first time living away from home. On the flight back to Tucson, just before you reach the airport, you fly over what seems to be a trillion saguaro cactus. Desert landscape for miles. I had to come back to Tucson to really appreciate it. This push-and-pull still rules my relationship with this town. I need to leave every so often for sanity’s sake, but I love to come back, for sanity’s sake.
AXS: Xixa has a couple of festival dates in Europe on the schedule and a showcase at South by Southwest in Austin is also in the works. Are there plans to bring the live show to the rest of the country as well?
GS: There are certainly plans and desires to play as much of the U.S. as possible this year!
BL: We will do as much as possible domestically. All depends on how much love the U.S. will give us.