The Brooklyn electronic-pop duo share their fourth album, Par Avion, and explain how they're inspired by synaesthesia and Rimbaud
Named after Oaklander’s mid-1980s essay on Xeno’s pre-Socratic paradoxes, Xeno & Oaklander craft chilly, catchy synthpop soundscapes characterised by oppositions and parallels. On Par Avion, they seek to capture a moment in time, both literally (each track was recorded in a single take) and figuratively, as a momento from the past. As we stream the album, Sean McBride and Liz Wendelbo from the duo spoke to Dazed about philosophy, synaesthesia, and Adorno’s ‘regression of listening’.
Why did you get involved in music? Was there a particular moment, teacher or gig that inspired you?
Liz Wendelbo: Listening to Radio-Activity on vinyl at age nine gave me the desire to ditch Mozart for Kraftwerk. My love for synthesisers was born.
Sean McBride: As a child I played French horn and trumpet, but it wasn't until went to university that I discovered analogue synthesisers. Not just any old synths but legendary titans – the ARP 2600 and the Serge Modular. It was through spending days on end in the university electronic music lab that I learned how to manipulate sound and control signal flow. Electric Storm by White Noise, Metamatic by John Foxx and Travelogue by The Human League were all early inspirations, sources of a mysterious curiosity as to how to make songs with all of this amorphous voltage.
What is it about your style of music that you find appealing?
Liz Wendelbo: Minimal electronics is a term retrospectively ascribed to artists and groups that use or used a small and particular assortment of electronic instruments and whose commercial footprint is limited, minimal. The production was very often confined to the garage or the home studio, and there was a material correspondence between what was used in the studio and what was used in a performance. It started in the 70s with bands such as John Foxx, Suicide, Human League or more obscure bands like Die Form, Kas Product, Sylvia, Opera Multi Steel - and has come back today, with our contemporaries Further Reductions, Void Vision, Soft Metals, Essaie pas, SURVIVE, Nao Katafuchi, Automelodi.
Sean McBride: There has been a reawakening of this music and technology in part because it was the first and last organic electronic form of music – the groundwork for so much that has come from it – hip hop, electro, techno, soundtracks et al. And with it one is able to partly eschew the sample, the playback aspect, the curatorial dimension that so much music these days is plagued with.
What kind of music did you grow up with?
Liz Wendelbo: Baroque chamber music.
Sean McBride: Tyrolean zither music, 60s folk and psychedelic, classical music, gothic and industrial.
The name of the album, Par Avion, refers to postcards and air mail, were there any locations that inspired you in particular?
Liz Wendelbo: The lyrics for the songs were inspired by places all over the world, some of them, like Russia, were quite severe, some were more exotic like the Bahamas or the south of France. We wanted the album to convey a sensation of jumping from one extreme to another, be that an arid landscape or a cold, frozen locale.
Sean McBride: It captures our experience touring to a large degree, we’d be in Moscow one day, then Italy the next. The difference between the two was like night and day. It gives a poeticised expression of occupying two places at the same time.
Was it a struggle to try and capture such a breadth of experience in one album?
Liz Wendelbo: No, actually, I think it came quite naturally. It all just forms part of the movement of our daily lives. We move around a lot.
Sean McBride: Yeah, the album is a part of us in some ways, an extension almost.
Do you consciously focus on changing location, or does the album also touch on changing political landscapes?
Liz Wendelbo: We try to steer away from political messages and contemporary issues as we want to create longevity with our songs – something that’s a bit more timeless. We want our music to appeal more to aesthetics or philosophy rather than specific cultural moments.
Sean McBride: Thinking specifically about the time we spent in Russia, the administrative constraints you’re faced with as a visitor, you just don’t experience the various phobias that are being exaggerated and campaigned against whilst you’re there. You don’t come into contact with that kind of politics. We have a few songs that touch on those sorts of themes indirectly, but there’s no specific reference to the local or international political situation.
”The record should fulfil both meanings of the word, it’s an album yes, but it’s also a moment of memory, one that helps you recall and recreate stories” – Liz Wendelbo
Is there an overarching philosophy or narrative that runs through the album or is it more abstract than that? A general exploration of ideas?
Sean McBride: I’d say there’s definitely a core principle but we don’t want our language to be exclusive. We want people to bring their own experience to Par Avion. There are certainly underlying themes of effort, loss, desert, secret chambers, but the way I feel about it is only one understanding of our contemporary situation. There’s a logic that runs through the album but it’s not the philosophy of stuffy academics, we want our ethics to be viewed through the lens of personal experience.
Liz Wendelbo: It’s not just ideas that we want to engage with. Synaesthesia is a big part of this album, it’s about feeling and perceiving from many different perspectives – snapshots from a trip, the scent of a flower, the sound of the sea – all of these elements are brought together in one album.
Are there any books, paintings or movies that you feel give an insight into the album?
Sean McBride: China Miéville – The City and the City, Roberto Harari – How James Joyce Made His Name: a Reading of the Final Lacan, Gyula Krúdy – Szindbád, PBS – Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (TV 1979).
If synaesthesia is an important theme throughout Par Avion, have you ever considered experimenting with other mediums to provoke different sensual responses?
Liz Wendelbo: Sure, the limited-edition nude-coloured vinyl comes with an insert that smells of rose, powder and incense. We wanted to create more of an immersive experience when you open it. The live shows also feature shorts which I shot on old Super 8 film.
Do you tend to create everything at once, or does the music inspire everything else?
Sean McBride: It works both ways really. We’ve shot films and set music to them afterwards, but sometimes a certain track suggests a scent so we go and create it.
Liz Wendelbo: We think of the studio kind of like our lab – it’s a place where experiments happen, where we try to push beyond the obvious. It makes the process of writing so much more enjoyable.
Should we be thinking about music as multi-sensory?
Sean McBride: I think if we could start just thinking more about music altogether that would be a start. I don’t mean to sound condescending, I just worry that we’re experiencing Adorno’s ‘regression of listening’ and that it’s completely changing the way we engage with music. We’ve tried to think about making our music the same way you would make a scent or film. We’re just working with different materials.
Liz Wendelbo: We want to make music more inspiring, something that triggers different sensations. The record should fulfil both meanings of the word, it’s an album yes, but it’s also a moment of memory, one that helps you recall and recreate stories.
Do you think your music lends itself to introspection?
Sean McBride: On a personal level I certainly think so. All the music we make in the studio is done in one take so I can get quite technical, self-conscious even, about listening to the decisions I made when producing a certain piece of music. You always think about what you could have done differently.
Liz Wendelbo: I think it’s perhaps more performative than introspective. We do it in one take so the ‘live’ performance almost brings us out of ourselves more.
What are your passions aside from making music?
Liz Wendelbo: Fragrances – I love to make perfumes, and to collect perfumes too. I have my own brand called Eau de Xeno. I have made three fragrances so far. The third one, Eau de Xeno III, a dark rose, comes out soon after our album.
Sean McBride: The Hungarian language and historical linguistics.
Par Avion is out on Ghostly on June 24