XINXIN: I KNOW WHAT I WANT
photography by stefano galli
JA: This kind of stuff makes me smile. Around that time, the time of Play, I was really obsessed with an album by a Japanese composer, his name is Yuji Ono. I forgot the name of the album … It’s the one where it’s just an island and blue water. [Lifetides—NM.] It was recorded in the 80s, and it’s really cinematic. The way the whole album sounds. But there are a ton of 80s beats …
SR: A lot of shower beats. Lots of 707 and that type of shit.
JA: Around the time I started writing ‘Play,’ that’s when I first started teaching music full time. I had to learn how to sight read a lot of Disney songs to teach to students. And also just a lot of cinematic music, a lot of Japanese rock music from the 70s and the 80s. That Yuji Ono record was what I was really involved with then. And that’s what happened.
SR: And probably a healthy dose of The Sea and Cake. That stuff is always around a little bit.
Your songs do lend themselves to being cinematic—the music is layered and seems to draw on so many different influences. The stuff that you’re playing, Stephen, is too advanced to just be labeled ‘jazz’ or ‘pop’ or even ‘rock.’ And you and Carlos create this framework for Janize to work in.
JA: I mean … they’re in my band for a reason!
Stephen, you seem like you’re a be-bop drummer who has incorporated all these diffuse influences.
SR: That might be the coolest compliment I’ve ever received. I like that idea a lot, but I don’t ever really consider it. But that really resonates. But I don’t really know. Janize comes up with a riff and she’ll just arrange where she wants to hear the accents and stuff. And I just vibe off of that for a minute. That can go off on a tangent for us. Or sometimes, she has whole songs she’s come up with and I take that formula and feel. I came up listening to Aphex Twin and Jaga Jazzist—I didn’t even appreciate acoustic music of any kind until high school. I always feel weird about that in a way. I try to listen to where the hits are and where the song’s moving and go off of that.
You’ve got a ride cymbal that is out front, as if you’ve been studying Blue Note Records, listening to tons of hard bop and be-bop.
SR: I didn’t know about Blue Note Records until I heard the Madlib Blue Note record. Now I’m trying to delve more into the Blue Note catalog and other forms of music. That soul is there—I don’t need to find it, it’s there. But I’m appreciating these things more now, and I’m happy I can consume these forms of music later in life. But I think my input comes more from motifs I’ve built up over time. Probably a lot of them come from electronic music strangely.
How does sampled music influence a live drummer?
SR: It’s all I knew before I started to really explore music as an artist. It’s all I was into until I was probably seventeen.
JA: But your friend Alex has always had said that, when [Stephen] first started playing the drums, he’d always practice to electronic music. He’ll play and transcribe these electronic beats with live drums.
SR: When I first got my drum set, I was obsessed with Amon Tobin, who does a lot of jazz sample work. His first project—I think it’s called Cujo—is a lot of Brazil drums and vibes. A lot of samba stuff is on there. I took after that. I’d just listen to his tracks over and over again. Just playing along with them. Those are strong roots, Amon Tobin. I don’t really listen to him anymore because it’s too busy. At this point, I’ll take any crazy free jazz over Tobin. But that stuff really informs what we do—it’s more intuitive and built around a lot of muscle memory if anything.
Xinxin is a melting pot—of electronic music, samba, even hip-hop—and this provides the character of your band.
JA: Completely. I mean, just look at us. [Bassist] Carlos [Elias] is Mexican, Stephen is both Black and white. I’m Asian.
SR: Ethnicity can be a marker for a lineage of something. I’m not sure what so much. I mean, my mom listened to the soul and R&B that she did, and that shaped me a bit. Listening to the 90s music that we did.
JA: The Cardigans.
SR: Pavement. Sea and Cake. Yeah, lots of stuff.
JA: The cultural things or the ethnicities come in different ways. I mean, I came from a different country, where I was into different music. It was a different scene. But Carlos grew up in El Monte. And he plays jazz, but that guy is a metal head!
SR: Super heavy metal head.
JA: He writes and produces heavy metal music when he’s not doing this thing with us. We are all over the place. All these different influences and sounds getting into our music.
Where do you guys consider yourselves from? As a band?
SR: If I had to choose, I would just say the Inland Empire. As a home base for us.
JA: I’ve moved so many times, I don’t even consider myself to have a home base. I don’t even see myself as being from anywhere. I guess Southern California.
Can it be said that Xinxin is a uniquely Southern California band?
JA: I’d say so. I’d definitely take that.
SR: It does influence our manner and the way we approach our music. It makes our music pretty distinct.
JA: I’m pretty sure, if I ever went to a high school dance anywhere other than where I’m at now, it’d be a completely different experience. And that alone is something unique in and of itself. I mean, I was listening to this kind of hip-hop, Lil Jon…
SR: Ying Yang Twins.
JA: That’s the roots of our high school time and it still has a place in what I’m doing—or we’re doing.
SR: I remember being there. And being upset at the time. Distinctly hating everybody for liking that stuff, because I was just anti-everything then. But …
JA: I was completely all about it!
SR: But it still influenced us regardless. That’s the era and the time we were around.
JA: We were going for something along the lines of jazz-grunge when we first began.
SR: It comes from a similar attitude. We have this grunge attitude, where it’s very much … it feels overcast.
JA: We definitely don’t have a heavy sound. It’s more lighter, cleaner, wispier.
Sleater-Kinney meets Blue Note.
SR: I’ll take that. I like them. I dug them for a while. A lot of it is just intuitive playing. That’s really what is making it happen. It’s a very reactionary process when we write a song. Nobody’s trying to instruct or direct otherwise.
JA: If you’ve ever seen Teen Titans on Cartoon Network, there is this character Robin, Robin from Batman, and he’s always trying to lead. But everybody is always ‘Shut up Robin. Don’t try and lead us.’ But he still tries. Most of the time when we are creating, I feel like that! Because that adult self comes out and is giving directives: ‘OK, guys, here’s what we gotta do. This is how we gotta play! Blah. Blah. Blah.’ And they are just like, ‘Alright, whatever.’ Ha! In practice mode I get a certain way. I want to give direction and all that. Then we end up jamming anyway and that’s where all the good stuff comes out! As much as I want to put structure on things, most of the time, it’s better if we just trust our guts and go with feel.
What’s the future hold for Xinxin? What are you working on now?
JA: We’re finishing up this record. It’s a six song EP. After that’s done, I’d like to release a music video. I was thinking about doing a tour after that, but instead I’ve been feeling like I want to start writing and work on a full-length. Hide away for a while and spend most of our time doing that. Maybe do a few shows, but really focus on recording. I’d like to play more together and really get into the music more—getting more into the music, instead of the outside parts. I’ve always believed if you have good music then things will just come to you. I mean, obviously, you’ve still got to do the work and put yourself out there. But I really feel … if you make damn good music that feels good to you, then that’s enough.
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