This short film, a première, by the director Jem Cohen ('Museum Hours'), shows a live performance of the song 'Psarandonis Syrto,' by the band Xylouris White. The duo is a collaboration between the Cretan lutenist George Xylouris and the post-punk Australian drummer Jim White, of Dirty Three. Their début album, 'Goats,' produced by Guy Picciotto of Fugazi, comes out in October, on the Other Music label. Cohen, White, and Picciotto, longtime friends and collaborators, live in Brooklyn, and on Tuesday evening we met there, in the back garden of a restaurant in Prospect Heights, to talk about the project. We sat under a tree with fiddle-shaped leaves and drank sparkling water. White wore a rumpled white shirt; his curly hair has an everywhere quality. Picciotto, who is thoughtful and focussed, with gray hair and glasses, wore a polo shirt and pants in similar muted shades of greenish. Cohen wore a fisherman's cap, as he often does, and he played with a short string of beads that he held in one hand.
Xylouris, who lives in a mountain village, Anogeia, about an hour outside of Heraklion, Crete, is from a famous musical family. His uncle, Nikos Xylouris, was a renowned composer and lyra player, as is his father, Antonis Xylouris, known as Psarandonis. 'The lyra, which is bowed, is a lead instrument,' White said. The lute is not. 'George has been playing with his father since he was a kid, and in that band he's the rhythm,' he went on. In his own projects, Xylouris makes the lute a lead instrument-a trait he has in common with White, whose drumming often takes a collaborative, participatory role in his work with other musicians.
Xylouris lived in Australia for several years-'Melbourne is the third-biggest Greek city in the world,' White said-and is married to an Australian, White's friend Shelagh Hannan. 'Her parents are good friends with my parents,' he said. 'Her family is Irish musicians. They play Celtic music.' White had long been a fan of Antonis Xylouris's records 'I Reckon' and 'My Thoughts Are Like Old Wine.' 'Dirty Three would listen to them a lot as we were travelling around,' he said.
Picciotto said, 'When George was young, he said, his dad wouldn't let him ever break out of the rhythm, ever. And I was like, 'Well, what age were you when he started to let you explore?' And he said, 'It hasn't happened yet.' ' He laughed. 'This guy's a virtuoso, but in that paradigm that his dad set, he can't deviate from it.'
White played with the Xylourises in 2009, at the All Tomorrow's Parties festival in Mount Buller, Australia. 'When they asked me to play with them at Mount Buller, I was like, 'No! I don't want to ruin it,' ' White said. 'It's some of my favorite music-I really love it. And George's face-' White made a wide-eyed expression. 'He said, 'You want me to say no to my father?' ' White laughed. 'And I said 'No, no, no, it's O.K.!' ' They played together, and it was a great success.
Picciotto said, 'The shows can last from ten till dawn. Even when he did the session at my house, we recorded in the morning, ten till six, and they went to a Greek restaurant in Queens, and played deep into the night, three-thirty or four in the morning. He's taken the lute, those rhythms and those ideas, and pushed it into totally new terrain.'
'He's playing melodies that normally the lyra would play, with the bow, and he's doing it while keeping the rhythm going as well,' White said.
'I have a small studio in the basement of my house,' Picciotto said. 'This is the first record I made there. The song that's in the video, 'Psarandonis Syrto,' was one of the most beautiful things I've ever recorded or been involved in. That was in the first session. It's an older melody, from his father. It's just exquisite.'
White said, 'A syrto is a particular kind of tune and dance. It's very popular in Crete.'
Cohen said, of the film, 'This piece is really simple. When Guy and I were working on 'Instrument,' the movie about Fugazi, we were all talking about whether we should watch other music documentaries or not, and we decided not to. However, the truth is, we would often gather at Ian's place and watch Queen at Live Aid or something. What struck me, in particular, was Otis Redding. Somebody had a black-and-white VHS tape of Otis Redding on television. We all watched it, and it was a big moment for me. It was one of the concrete determinations that helped guide that project-that sometimes you just watch the music get made, and you don't need to bring a bunch of interference or concept or a large apparatus to bear.'
For the 'Psarandonis Syrto,' footage, the venue, Union Pool, was very dark, and the only lens that would accommodate it was a fixed lens. 'I stood in one place, so it's just, We're going to watch him, and now we're going to watch him. Once or twice I swung over to the audience, but mostly it's an insistence that that's all you really need to do. I'm not a musician, so to really get to watch it-How is it being made?-is very extraordinary to me. And there's one other element, which is the beads.' There are some shots of hands playing with beads, filmed at Jimmy's Corner, the midtown boxing bar. He held up the short string of beads he'd been playing with, called begleri. 'This is from Crete.'
'Everyone plays with them in Greek cafés,' White said.
'I think it's a Mediterranean thing, though, because my grandfather played with them,' Picciotto said. 'He had them his whole life.'
'In the film, you can see the heavier ones. This is kind of the sports model,' White said.
'They're like secular rosary beads,' Cohen said.
White said, 'This is our merch.' He added, 'We wanted to call the band Goats, but there are some bands called Goats,' White said. 'The genre is goatish,' he said.
Picciotto said, 'Coming out of punk rock, virtuosity is neither here nor there, as far as I'm concerned. It was always about, Do you have something to say, are you presenting something new, is it pushing the conversation forward, is it breaking the genre? What's it doing? To have all of those elements in play, with the addition of virtuosity, is interesting for me. He's living the music to a much higher-you know, I'm a dilettante on guitar. But George plays all day, all night. He plays in his sleep. He fingers in his sleep.'
Just as Xylouris and White are open to new ideas, Picciotto said, punk fans are, too. 'I think there's a misconception that people who were into Fugazi were little thrashers who had no other interests,' he said. 'Even when I was sixteen and listening to hardcore, I was listening to a lot of different things. I think punk rockers are the least closed-minded people out there. Those people are in the room because they're open-minded and they're curious about what that would be.'