Jim White dirties up Greek music

The purists were probably sharpening their knives. Here, after all, was Jim White, famed Australian rock drummer, taking the traditional music of Crete back to Greece, and, being one half of just a duo with George Xylouris’s laouto and baritone voice, there was nowhere to hide.

“I was apprehensive,” White concedes of that first time in the homeland of the unlikely duo’s music. “I didn’t know how it was going to go there, but people really embraced it.”

Xylouris res
Jim White and George Xylouris. Photo: Prudence Upton.

Just as the country’s countless diaspora around the globe have done. “We’re pretty hard-pressed to have a show where there are no Greeks in the audience – along with the rock-and-roll people,” says White. “In some cities it’s quite a big presence, and that’s always a great show, because the two audiences sort of feed off each other, and it’s amazing at times when everybody’s dancing.”

The duo’s music mostly consists of the traditional songs of Crete, powerfully sung by Xylouris, and accompanied by his amplified (lute-like) laouto and White’s primal drumming. Best known as one third of Dirty Three, White has played with artists as diverse as Lou Reed, Smog, Neil Young, Nina Nastasia, Marianne Faithful, Mary Margaret O’Hara, Anna & Elizabeth and innovative new acts like More Up a Tree and the Double. A crucial collaborator has been Cat Power. “I ended up playing with her for many years off and on,” he says, “and made a number of records. That was a really interesting time, when she was unknown, and to hear that music coming.”

With Dirty Three (completed by violinist Warren Ellis and guitarist Mick Turner) active only intermittently, Xylouris White has become the latter’s main focus. The pair first met back in the 1980s, and quickly became fans of each other’s work, with Xylouris sometimes sitting in with Dirty Three, and White having Xylouris’s work on high rotation.

“I had this sort of gestation period of Cretan music for 20 years,” he says, “never considering that I would play it. Hopefully some of it got into me.”

It would seem it did, because when they finally began playing together five years ago, White, among the most distinctive drummers alive, found he could add a unique perspective to this ancient music.

“We both want to bring this feeling like it’s new,” he says. “That’s very much I think the theme of Xylouris White: it’s kind of very old and new. I understand that on paper there’s this Cretan guy and this Australian guy, and it sounds like it could be artificial, but it’s not.”

White taught himself to play listening to the likes of the Saints and Aretha Franklin, and part of his distinctiveness is his complete amalgam of energy and nuanced artistry, so traces of the likes of Keith Moon and John Bonham mingle with hints of the legendary jazz drummer Elvin Jones, making him that rock-drumming rarity: a fluid and intuitive improviser. “Since I started playing live when I was 18 or whatever I’ve been asked if I was a jazz drummer,” he says, “and I don’t think I’ve ever played a jazz gig in my life.”

White ended up in New York 20 years ago after Dirty Three sought a wider audience than was afforded by Melbourne pubs. “We kind of goaded ourselves,” he says. “We wanted to go and take that adventure. I lived in London for a little while, then I went to Chicago, and then to New York. I really enjoy my musical life. I’ve just been doing a lot of things that are based in America over the years, and have stayed there.”