Born in Leeds and hailing from South London, Xao first made noise in 2017 with a five-track EP on Astral Black. Nodding towards the worlds of jungle, trap, grime and footwork in hauntingly futuristic fashion, the producer showed an uncanny ability to drift between tempos, instrumentation and genre.
His latest project and debut album, Eternal Care Unit, translates as medical slang for a morgue and is intended as a soundtrack to “the transcendental shift from the physical to the spiritual realm”.
Created after a move to Germany, the record sees Xao continue to explore the ghostly electronics displayed on his debut EP, but with a new confidence and voice that visualises his world more convincingly than ever before. Catching up with him, we discuss the meanings, creative processes, obstacles and surprised he faced along the way.
You created the album after relocating to Germany from the UK. many of the scenes you’ve been connected with in the past have a club focus, the album though delves far into its own world and imagination. Were there any particular records or artists with a similar journey that you looked to for inspiration?
In terms of artists who have trodden the path from club tracks to more exploratory stuff or vice versa, there are so many. Some that straddle those worlds and produce material of equally high calibre on either side of the ‘divide’ for me include, Rabit, Lee Gamble and M.E.S.H. But I try not to use any sort of direct reference or inspiration when going through periods of writing and recording. If anything, I listen to less electronic music around these times. I was actually listening to a fuck-tonne of shoegaze and Bach during the period Eternal Care Unit was written.
Across 30 minutes the record drifts between ethereal soundscapes and sonic anarchy, was the balance always a conscious idea when making the album? Is there a lane you prefer to get lost down?
When writing, my natural inclination tends toward the manic and maximalist side of things. Which actually annoys me – I have to spend a lot of time thinning tracks out. I do sometimes manage to calm down and write more sparse or ambient material. I wanted moments of space on the release, to punctuate the main course of frenzy.
The instrumentation and textures across the record stretch far and wide, with found sounds and eastern style palettes often colliding. Where are you sourcing your sounds from, and do you have a background in playing instruments? I ask as moments like ‘This Film Does Not Exist’ almost hint to classical styles.
A lot of the sounds are heavily processed samples, including a lot of animal sounds. I use a few field recordings here and there. If I’m watching a Youtube video and hear a weird laugh or strange glitch, I’ll rip it and keep it. I amass interesting sounds on a hard drive. I also spend a lot of time designing synth presets and effects chains.
I have played the piano since I was a kid, and have flirted with other instruments a little. I listen to a lot of classical music and around the time ‘This Film Does Not Exist’ was made I was bumping a lot of renaissance and baroque music, particularly William Byrd. So I guess a little bit of that world made its way in there. I’d like to maybe experiment with that direction more, going full hog with heavy polyphony and elaborate harmonic devices. But it could well end up being fully shite – so many pitfalls… we’ll see.
Eternal Care Unit marks your first full length, how did the idea for the record come around? Was it a recording period where you created a lot of music in quick succession, or did you know what you wanted to set out to do before you begun?
The record was made over a period of about 9 months after moving to Berlin. The bulk of it was made in the winter months. I was working towards a cohesive body of tracks and had a manifesto of sorts. I wanted to stay clear of party music, bangers or head-nodders, but I didn’t want to go full sound design-y off-grid abstraction either. I wanted to flirt with harsher abrasive sounds and create visceral, alien worlds. Themes of biology, emergence and death loosely informed the work. All of the tracks were made with a cold and almost pessimistic mind-set that hopefully lends the record some cohesion.
On that note, what can you do on an album that you can’t on an EP, were there any surprise moments during the creative process?
I guess there’s greater scope for a variety of styles and moods. The opener, ‘Embryno’, is loosely structured into three sections. On an EP I think I would have chosen one section to develop into a less proggy, more straight ahead track. And the last track, ‘This Film Does Not Exist’ – that was probably the only track that wasn’t originally intentionally made for this release. But when we were compiling the tracklist, we found it actually worked pretty well as a closer. That track was about trying to capture the phenomenon that starts after the credits in the cinema, or the curtain call in the theatre, where the mood of the piece lingers with you long after you leave. And about the appealing illusion of an afterlife. So I think it fits as a closer.
Parts of the record are pretty manic! It’s hard to picture you sat still at the computer whilst making a track like ‘Cyan Shackled’, I imagine a Giant Swan kind of vibe where you’re hammering machines and letting everything out. What’s your studio set up and creative process like? Is it a place of meditation, or not?
Haha, well sorry to disappoint but it generally just is me sat still at the computer. I say still, there’s definitely been moments when people have walked in the studio and I’ve been bopping and writhing without realising it. Quite embarrassing. But yeah, it’s very rare that I use any outboard equipment. I learnt everything in-the-box and I work so much faster that way. I love the sound of certain pedals and synths etc, and the way they disrupt or modify the work flow. But I find the lack of speed and fine control frustrating. I would like to try restricting myself to hardware at some point, but that would definitely be for a different project. I couldn’t really describe the studio as a place of meditation though- my mind is usually racing when I leave. If I’m working into the night, it usually takes me a long while after packing up before I can wind down and fall asleep.
The record also marks a return to Astral Black. What’s your relationship with the label like and was there much input from them during recording?
My big homie Jon Phonics at Astral doesn’t really get involved during the recording stage, giving total freedom to direction and style. The way I like it. Involvement comes during track selection, editing and mixing. He lent a hand on a couple of the mixes when he was out in Berlin, and also passed on to me his invaluable mixing metaphor which involves a Big Mac. Sacred secrets. I was also afforded freedom when it came to choosing my preferred designer for the artwork, huge shouts to Patrick Savile. Astral also hooked me up with Alex Gordon at Abbey Road Studios, who did an amazing job on the masters.
With a length of 30 minutes, this could be considered quite short for an LP. How do you know when it feels complete?
I wasn’t really setting out to make a full length, but when we were looking at the tracks we figured there would be enough for an 8-tracker. I guess you would call it a mini-LP. I don’t think the EP/LP distinction is all that useful. I like the idea of super cohesive and singular EPs- likewise sprawling and expansive albums. But I also think it’s fine to make stuff that falls in between those two extremes.
Now Eternal Care Unit is out of your hands, what’s your mindset coming off the record. Do you take a creative break, or look for a new inspiration or in a new direction?
When all the tracks on a project are mixed and finished and the release is pending, I find it hard to create. I’m not sure why, but it probably has something to do with wanting to gauge the reaction to the material with a view to informing the next direction. But now that the release is out there in the wild, I will probably go into a flurry of making loads of new stuff and seeing if I can settle on a new direction or concept. There are also bits and bobs of offcuts floating around from the past few years that I might try and collate and find some sort of home for.
Eternal Care Unit is out now on Astral Black.
Buy it here.