XIXA's studio on north Stone Avenue stands in stark contrast to the dirt lots and auto shops that surround it. The walls are lined with beautiful guitars, and every detail, from the paint job to the décor to the burlap sacks hung from the ceiling, suggests a carefully designed space. It is a testament to the tastes of six professional musicians with an eye for incidentals. It's the culmination of years spent playing music and developing an aesthetic. It's also, for those who have spent the last several years backing other bands, a chance to do things on their own terms.
XIXA, a six-piece chicha rock outfit, consists of Brain Lopez and Gabriel Sullivan on guitars and vocals, Jason Urman on keyboard, Geoffrey Hidalgo on bass, Efren Cruz Chavez on timbales and percussion and Winston Watson on drums. They've been playing together for four years, though most of that time they played under the name Chicha Dust.
Chicha Dust got its start in 2011, when Lopez and Sullivan were touring France. Lopez had picked up a chicha compilation at Barbés, a Brooklyn club, on the way abroad and he and Sullivan couldn't stop listening to it. They were hooked.
"When we got back, we knew we didn't want to get jobs and thought that learning to play this kind of music, getting a band together to play parties and restaurants, could be a way to do that," says Sullivan.
They experimented with lineups as a cover band at the very beginning, but once the current lineup was formed, it stuck and the band slowly built up a cache of original songs.
The diverse musical backgrounds of the band have shaped XIXA's sound, and nowhere is that more apparent than the rhythm section. Until a few years ago, Chavez hadn't heard Led Zeppelin. Latin music has always been his passion. Watson, on the other hand, came up as an arena rock musician, most notably for Bob Dylan, Alice Cooper and Warren Zevon. However, both percussionists chose to view this difference as an opportunity, rather than an impediment—using strengths from each genre to craft a distinct sound. Watson's attitude was, "leave yourself open to it, and things will happen," and they did.
For Sullivan, the collaboration between Watson and Chavez is representative of the band as a whole. XIXA's sound—which has clear ties to the psychedelic cumbia style that came from Peru in the late '60s known as chicha—is one that has taken time to develop.
"On tour," Sullivan says, "we're teaching Efren about Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin, and he's teaching us about everything we're doing wrong in Latin rhythms."
"I grew up with Colombian [a specific subgenre of Latin music] that's big in Mexico—and sonidero," Chavez says. "So, it was an easy transition for me when I started listening to these guys play chicha. I was a fan. I loved it."
Chavez remembers seeing Chicha Dust play to small crowds at La Cocina before he joined the band, a perspective that makes their upcoming European tour all the more impressive. Having played in a lot of bands, these guys know when the mix feels right, and this clearly feels right to them.
"You're just sitting there going, 'Wow, this is really powerful,'" says Watson. "And it's evolving. It's alive, and everyone is such a strong character in his or her own right. If you go far enough out on a limb, there's always someone that can catch you. It's never going to be ridiculous. It's always going to be music."
The release of Bloodline marks the end of a two-year recording process. XIXA wasn't quite sure what they were aiming for when they started, but they knew they wanted to do the recording themselves. Chicha Dust had grown from two chicha fan boys into a full collaboration between six musicians with distinct styles, and it needed to hone its sound. Doing this required discipline. Every member committed to three days straight of nothing but band time. There was a dress code, they ate, they drank, they wrote songs and they found their identity.
"It was that weekend when we knew we had something." Hidalgo says. "None of us had ever been able to work this way. No hourly rate [for a recording engineer]. No clock to look at. Nothing to recoup. All of us would just be there working together. It was such a special way to work," Sullivan says.
The basic tracking on the album was recorded live, and though the final recording underwent some pretty heavy production, the raw energy of the original takes is still there.
"Bloodline is something that we basically grew out of the dirt." Watson says, noting that the band cobbled together a recording studio by building out a physical space and using equipment that they already had.
"The results were almost immediate. The finished product is something I'm so proud of because it was grown like flowers from the dirt. Now it's going out to the world."
Olivier Conan, the owner of Barbés and the man responsible for Lopez and Sullivan's initial chicha obsession, signed XIXA to his label hours after hearing rough mixes from the album. He was also the first to suggest that the band change their name from Chicha Dust. For him, it was a matter of practicality. He already had a band on the label called Chicha Libre. For Sullivan and Lopez, it made perfect sense. Their sound and intent had changed, so their name should too.
"We were turning into more of a rock and roll outfit," says Lopez, "and to call yourself 'chicha something or other' would just put you in a corner with bands who were playing more specifically cumbia stuff. As it turns out, when the six of us get together, that's just not really our style."
Lopez and Sullivan decided on XIXA, imagining that it would be pronounced like chicha. They never told anyone how to pronounce it, though, and overtime the consensus became "seek-suh." Because, they thought, the visual impact of the name was so strong, the pronunciation could be a secondary concern.
Timing was also important. They wanted to settle on a name before the release of the full length. Announcing that change was the final step in cementing their new identity as a band. They became, not just a band that sought to make great music, but an artistic entity. That means aesthetic is a crucial part of the overall package for XIXA.
"Almost immediately after the name change, we knew that our ideal guide for imagery was Daniel Martin Diaz," Sullivan says.
Diaz, an accomplished painter, photographer, and videographer, is a musician as well, and his Southwestern gothic style perfectly suits the XIXA sound.
"It was meant to be," Chavez says. "It fit in so perfectly." Diaz and his wife, Paula Valencia, are now considered seventh and eight members of the band.
XIXA's attention to each and every detail—their desire to convey a unified message through sound and visuals—speaks to the their professionalism. As an artistic collective, they have developed a clearly articulated vision, one rooted in a style of music that is totally engaging.
"We've grown something, and it's great to have the birth of it. To see how the world will receive it," Watson says.