Stream XAM Duo’s Ambient Jazz Album and Read the Stories Behind Their Songs

October 31, 2016 Free Association

When Hookworms bassist Matthew Benn first started fielding live offers for his solo project XAM, he quickly realized how much he missed performing with other people. “It was all very daunting,” explains Benn. “I found traveling to and playing shows by myself quite a lonely experience after having been in bands for the last 10 years, so I began thinking about collaboration.”

The right opportunity came up soon after that, when Benn’s Hookworms bandmate MJ suggested a session with saxophonist/Deadwall co-founder Christopher Duffin.

“I’d been looking for an outlet for a while to play more saxophone and focus on electronics,” says Duffin. “The first time we ever played together was in Suburban Home Studio, and that totally improvised session makes up about half of the [XAM Duo] record.”

“It felt like we really clicked musically,” adds Benn. “I think it’s amazing that people will be able to hear literally the first time we ever played music together on this album, the first exploratory moments of us tip-toeing round each other and trying to settle on our sound and work each other out. In some ways it might sound like an extension of Hookworms: lots of repetition and easy to zone out to. But in other ways this is my outlet for exploring my love of more self-indulgent, extended electronic music.”

Check out an exclusive listen to XAM Duo’s debut LP below, right alongside a track-by-track commentary that tackles breathing exercises, Alice Coltrane, and Terry Riley. Look out for its official release through Sonic Cathedral this Friday.

“PROEM”
Matthew Benn: This always felt like the natural first track for the record. We nearly ended up just being boring and calling it “Intro,” but Chris suggested “Proem,” which is a cooler way of saying that.

Chris recorded and built up a load of one-note loops on the sax which give it a very grandiose, orchestral feel when they’re combined and layered on top of each other. The way the sax loops are randomly scattered/sequenced reminds me of Terry Riley’s Time Lag Accumulator effect; he’s someone regularly referenced by the two of us when we’re playing together. The synth track underneath is essentially a bunch of modulated drones at different keys, which are stacked on top of each other a bit like chords, in kind of a pseudo-polyphonic way. With real polyphony it’s obviously hard to modulate each note of a big chord differently, so this took four or five oscillators, if I remember correctly.

Christopher Duffin: Yeah, I’m pleased we didn’t end up calling it “Intro,” but it has always felt like one for sure. It’s a great opening statement for the record; not that it’s really far out or anything, but it certainly sets its stall, and chances are if you’re not into this short opener, you’re not going to be into the rest of it. It’s our way of giving you a get out, or it’s a wide open welcoming door. We recorded the saxophone parts without the rest of the track to add to the random nature of the attacks from the horn. The end of the track—the sound of it breaking down—was achieved by close mic-ing up the saxophone and recording the keys and pads closing and clapping, that was then blown out in production. I think it’s a great effect.

“PINE BARRENS”
Matthew: This was the second thing we ever played together. We took a lunch break after recording “The Test Dream” and came back and quickly patched this together and recorded a 25-minute version, which was then edited down to the album length. If I remember correctly, I think I patched this song together without the synth even being turned on while we were eating, so I was doing it by sight rather than sound, using various techniques and patches I sometimes reuse. Given that this was a first-take jam that we just played and didn’t really discuss, I love how naturally the track decays at the end, especially with Chris’ chord changes over the slowing sequence. I think the only overdub was Chris doubling up on those Fender Rhodes chords at the end using a Logan string synthesizer through a Copicat tape echo, which gives it a creepy John Carpenter vibe.

I think this is probably my favorite track on the record, not necessarily because it’s the best, but because it was probably the first moment where I thought, “We’ve naturally got something pretty cool going on together here, without either of us having tried very hard,” and the idea of maybe turning these couple of tracks we’d recorded into a full album seemed like it could be realistic. I think this is the track that is most representative of the whole album, anyway. It’s also the name of my favorite episode of The Sopranos.

Christopher: This track felt very natural from the very beginning. I was sitting eating my lunch when [producer] MJ turned the monitors on so we could hear the patch that Matthew was setting up and it instantly grabbed me; it’s equal parts playful, menacing, and brooding. I heard a melody line right away, so I went in the live room and played around with those ideas on the Moog. The saxophone sound on this track was accidental as I had it set up this way for the first track we played through that day, which turned out to be “The Test Dream,” so it wasn’t the sound I had in mind when I started playing, but ultimately it added an extra layer to the part as I was trying to tame the blown out sound while making sure it sat with Matthew’s patch. The Rhodes chords added the breaking down element Matthew was improvising on and felt very haunted at the time, the Logan String Melody overdub added to that vibe nicely.

“I EXTEND MY ARMS PT. I & II”
Matthew: I think this is the only other track, along with “René,” that has had a live airing. We wrote it in Chris’ practice space for a show at Wharf Chambers in Leeds with Commiserations (RIP), and then played it again supporting our friends Virginia Wing in London at their EP launch the next week. We usually try to play something completely new for every show we have, but sometimes, if we’ve got a couple of shows close together, we just do a different interpretation of the same piece. The second half of this is probably closest thing on the record to the first solo 12″ I did; it has a bit of a Cluster/Harmonia vibe. The first part is meant to be very meditative and peaceful. We’d just been to see The Necks play live on the Leeds Town Hall organ and I think we were partly trying to recreate that experience in a way. The looped saxophone is very “Poppy Nogood And The Phantom Band.”


Christopher Duffin: This was the third live piece we had worked on and it totally clicked from the start. We had been talking a lot about looping and using delay effects in the manor of Terry Riley. We set two effects up, in the best way we could with the gear we have, one for the saxophone and one for the the organ. I love how positive and joyous this tune is and I think the effects and the key—basically playing Dorian modes and major scales on the saxophone and then on the extended improvisation on the organ—add to that greatly. Matthew’s drone at the beginning of this track is very Alice Coltrane and that sets the tone for the first part of the piece, which is very meditative and uplifting, before it modulates into a Harmonia-style driving beat. Even though the second section sounds very structured, that was completely improvised too. I loved playing this piece live on the two occasions we did it; it was those performances that made me totally realize that this thing we were doing was a really powerful live experience.

“ASHTANGA”
Matthew: I recorded the basic tracks for this down in London while helping Virginia Wing work on their new album. We had a bit of downtime and I was enjoying the patch I had going so we hit record. As it wasn’t really Virginia Wing’s vibe they sent the stems over a month or two later and when I listened back I thought it fit in nicely with what me and Chris had been working on, so we did some recording over what we already had and it came out nice. You can’t really hear it on the final track, but me and Sam from VW had been running YouTube clips through the synth for laughs and this particular track has a sample of an old Yogi doing breathing exercises, hence the name “Ashtanga”—a better name than the working title, which was “Yogi Bear”!

Christopher: I was so happy that Virginia Wing didn’t use this track and we were able to expand on it as I instantly fell in love with it. The saxophone has a very lazy detuned vibe to it—very breathy and lazy, dipping in and out of tune. Part of the reason for that was that the track as it stood sat in-between keys, so we looked at moving it around, but we didn’t want to detract from it’s initial vibe. The tape-worn loops on the saxophone drift in and out of consciousness just as you do while performing breathing exercises/meditating (or at least it feels like I do when I do those things). This track just drifts by and doesn’t really bother you too much, but if you want to give it some attention you can totally get lost in it.

XAM Duo album

“THE TEST DREAM”
Matthew: This is literally the first time me and Chris had ever played music together, which I think is a great thing to be able to include on the record. We made the decision that we wouldn’t have any practices at all, and our first time playing together would be recorded. We opted to go out for Indian food instead of having a practice the week before we recorded. So, when the day came, we set up in the live room of Suburban Home Studio and our friend MJ hit record, and this was the first thing that came out. If you listen very carefully near the start you can hear MJ walking around, and us all chatting a bit, as we were only supposed to be warming up and checking levels, but ended up going in deep and not coming out for about half an hour. It’s probably the least focused thing on the album, understandably, but it has a really heavy vibe, which I love. A friend of mine described it as sounding ‘sun-scorched’, which I like. This is what happens when very uncool guys try to do free jazz: some fucking weird, end-of-the-world, dissonant, melting sax drone. It’s also the second Sopranos reference on the album; can you tell I was re-watching the whole series when it was time to name the tracks?

Christopher: You can hear us figuring each other out somewhat; it got pretty heavy and it felt like the two of us resonated with each other pretty quickly. This tune is very intense, but it certainly shows that we were on the same page right from the beginning. The saxophone is running out of a small Princeton amp and I was effecting it with a heavy reverb and tremolo. This seemed to melt into the tone Matthew was producing—it instantly felt like a soundscape/soundtrack. I feel very lucky that our first jam together was captured…. That very rarely happens.

“RENÉ”
Matthew: This is the oldest track on the record; I played versions of this live several times at my first handful of solo shows before meeting Chris. I always thought it seemed like it should be the last song on an album, so when we found that our record was missing that element I suggested we try use it. It’s a fairly ignorant length, but I tried doing several edits and they all seemed to lose the natural flow of the full version, which I guess is one of the only downsides of recording live improvisations; when you hack them up you’re actually hacking up the essence of the performance. I find it’s a good one to fall asleep to, in its own insistent, hypnotic way, which is how I think all last tracks should be. This takes it name from the module that I played the lead synth line with, and isn’t about anything romantic like a beautiful French woman, sorry.

Christopher: I only added some Rhodes chords as this was already a fully formed piece. I’m a big fan of Matthew’s work on his modular—how he’s able to make it sing and dance in the way he does inspires and amazes me. This was the perfect ending track. A nice positive reward for the listener I think.