Blending Cultures through Music | Interview with Xander Naylor

  • Describe your sound in 3 words.

Joy, tension, ecstasy.

  • In your music, you blend many different genres. Can you tell us more about your creative process?

My day-to-day practice is pretty regular, and often feels very slow.  It’s all about keeping the ideas flowing and fingers moving, to be ready when the ideas for songs come to mind.  

I’ve been a student of North Indian classical music for several years now, and much of my practice is spent on those melodic and rhythmic systems.  Practicing Indian ragas, which is very much centered on melody, is quite different from the more jazz-oriented and chord based approach I grew up with, so I spend ample time on keeping those muscles in shape.  I also spend a lot of time developing ways to emulate the voice with my instrument.  

I also do a lot of tinkering in the home studio with sound design and editing, just looking for new ways to layer sound and dream up sonic worlds.  Easily 95 percent of that stuff never gets heard by the public, but its hugely important to me to just keep trying things out and keep recording all the time.  I never know when some of that will come in handy later down the road.  A lot of the production approach to Continuum, which I worked extensively with Ian Hersey on (who engineered and mixed the record) stemmed from my own experiments before we went into the studio with the band.

All of the daily practice work is about moving, moving, moving, but when a new tune comes to mind, I usually drop the practice and leave space for composing.  Ideas hit at odd moments.  “Lunar Acropolis” was like that.  I was writing the record while snowed-in in Vermont, but as a spell of writer’s block hit, I decided to give up for the day and meditate.  I came out of a long sit, and the sun it, and the groove for “Lunar Acropolis” just jumped into my head and I got to writing and recording as fast as possible before it drifted off.  After several hours of work, I listened back and realized I had based the entire composition on a raga called Marwa, which is meant specifically to be played at that time of day.  The slow, osmosis practice must have seeped in that day!  I find it fascinating to work with different musical cultures long enough that they, hopefully, naturally synthesize in the body, then come out as music.

  • Your music has very cool and in many cases unconventional riffs. What is your favorite riff ever written?

“Know Your Enemy” by Rage Against the Machine.  Aside from being a riff-machine genius, Tom Morello’s wide sound palette and extended techniques on guitar were a huge influence before I even knew about the whole avant-garde improv scene where that kind of tool kit was commonplace.

  • Improvisation is also a key element in your music. Is improvisation a talent or a skill?

This is a great question!  I think musicians and scientists all over the world are asking this question.  I personally think there is a little bit of both.  There’s something very beautiful about the improvisations of a six-year-old hammering away at a piano, having never had a single lesson!  I do believe some people are born with the ability to shut down their inhibitions and let creativity flow.  There’s something about turning off the self-consciousness of “Am I doing this right?”  

At the same time, there are different improvisation systems and cultures, and to a certain extent they do need to be learned.  When I began studying Indian music I found this out.  Here in the West we have created certain systems and structures, and in India they’ve created others.  There are definitely overlaps, but to go from one system to another, yeah, I’d say that’s a skill to learn.

  • Who is your favourite Guitarist?

Eddie Van Halen RIP, John Scofield, Marc Ribot, James Blood Ulmer, Lenny Breau, Debashish Bhattacharya, Marc Ducret,  Chris Kyle, Ryan Dugre, Will Graefe, Vinay Kaushal.

  • If you could change anything about the music industry, what would it be?

Find a way for musicians to be valued in American society, and adequately compensated for their work.

  • You have performed all over the world .Can you share something funny that happened during one of your gigs? And what would be your dream performance venue?

Actually what comes to mind happened pretty close to home.  I used to play in a band called The Rex Complex.  Great music, but guaranteed total mayhem once the set started.  Once at a show in Brooklyn the singer, Rex, grabbed me by the foot and flipped me over backwards in the middle of a song.  I probably won’t have that experience again.  Valuable skill to keep playing a song while that’s happening.  The next song Rex wrestled a 300-lb, oil-covered stripper, also while singing.

I love playing intimate shows in basements and living rooms!

  • What is your favorite dish to make or eat?

Anything with turmeric and green chilis.

  • One last thing we should know about you?

I’ve been using my extra free time in coronavirus quarantine to volunteer.  I’ve been offering lessons through Virtual Lessons for Actual Change, started by friends Lake Street Dive. All of the lesson fees are donated to good causes: Equal Justice Initiative, Color of Change, and others.

I’ve also been a helping out with Vermont-based Migrant Justice, Who are raising awareness and improving working conditions for the vital migrant workers who are essentially the unrecognized keystones of agriculture in the Northeastern US.

  • Thank you!

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