Washington City Paper's superficially revealing inquiry into the musical mind.
Jaxx is not the usual place to hear cellos and flutes, but those entrancing sounds are exactly what greeted us when we caught XYRA AND VERBORGEN perform one wintry night in Springfield. They call their singular style "Cabaret Rock Nouveau," a fitting description for the dense, unexpected, challenging songs that remain nonetheless toe-tapping when need be. While the band maintains a charmingly retro stance, they also embrace the current technology, being all over the Web. Info and sounds from their CD, Where Glass Birds Fly, may be gleaned here and here.
Swirling musically around the radiant Xyra are Andrew Cann on keys and frets, Fred Lieder on cello, Don Stapelson on sax and flute, Cris Chillura on guitar, Norm Thorne on drums, and Larry Lawrence on bass. (NOTE: Following this Quiz, guitarist Cris left the band, replaced by Eric Ulreich. "We proudly welcome him," says Xyra, "and duly appreciate his creative prowess, solid professionalism, and sound expertise! May former cohort/guitarist, Cris Chillura, find what he seeks. Best to him, in future endeavors.")
The Quiz was conducted while the band packed up their gear; we appreciate their patience. Readers are advised to appreciate the live Xyra experience at Phantasmagoria on March 18.
Rigs & Cigs
What equipment do you use and what's your favorite smoke?
XYRA: I like the smoke generated from Fred's cello when he's really hot. And we use whatever equipment we can afford. In some cases, it's very expensive; in some cases, it's very cheap. Whatever works.
[xyra & verborgen] FRED: I can put anything between my legs and play it.
XYRA: That's the best!
FRED: And as for the smoke—same answer. [Note: We had to ask Fred about his striking "bird of prey" cello, an instrument that looks ready for flight—or war.] Dalton Potter made it, I'd like to give him the credit. He's the owner of Potter's Violins, which used to be Weaver's Violins, in Bethesda. And he's making a hell of a lot more money that I am right now.
DON: I have a Muramatsu flute. And a Couf tenor saxophone, made by Herbert Couf, and a Buffet clarinet. Sorry, no funny answers there. I used to smoke Larks, but I'm quite proud to be a smoker of one of the cigarettes made by the company that decided to rat out all the other cigarette companies.
LARRY: My rig is a Gallien-Kruger amp head, pretty widely used by bass players. The bass I built myself back in '82. I'd been playing for about two years and I put it together as a first shot and it's my money bass. You just buy the parts and put it together.
XYRA: It's fretless.
LARRY: I got turned on to some artists, and I couldn't figure out how they were getting the sound. Then I figured out it was fretless. And I couldn't afford to buy a real brand-name fretless, so building one was cheaper. It worked out well. I got very lucky. But cigs, I don't really smoke cigarettes, per se, but I smoke cloves every now and then. Sampoernas or Jakartas.
CRIS: Smoke? Never put the patch on your stomach. The equipment I use, I don't even know what that is—it's a Fender Ultra Chorus. And a Fender Strat and Rosados nylon [strings].
ANDREW: My position on tobacco products: Don't do it. The equipment that I use is a General Music Pro II keyboard. It's amazing. I didn't realize that an electric piano could sound and feel so much like a piano until I felt this thing.
What kind of drums do you play and what pets do you own?
[xyra & verborgen] NORM: I play Ludwig drums and Latin Percussion items. I am a fish breeder. To get 'em to hold down is the hardest thing. [LAUGHS FROM THE BAND.] What? Is that bad? I have cats. One of each.
ANDREW: We've got a rather sizeable dog and a rambunctious cat. And four birds. Not all in the same room. Two budgies and two lovebirds.
XYRA: I have an alien. And he's my favorite pet. And he's my 'droid. He's also known as Killer. He does great renditions of "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood," and "Help," and the Doors song, "The End." Maybe he'll do them for you now. I have an alien and a very large dog, who thinks he's a very small dog, but he's a bear. I don't have anything really interesting to tell you, except I also like spiders. They're my friends. In my belfry where my computer is—it's an old house and I have a computer in the belfry and lots of spiders and I don't ever kill them. They're my pets.
What's your favorite D.C. hangout and your favorite automobile?
XYRA: I love Bentleys. I would love to have a Bentley. But that's beyond reach, and I also believe it would be the wrong thing to do. I also think an electric car would be apropos, but probably no car would be apropos.
I don't go out. I hang out in my belfry. I like to sit outside when the weather's nice and watch hummingbirds and squirrels and wildlife and things. I don't like clubs. I only play in them because where else are you going to play?
ANDREW: Favorite automobile would be the Jaguar E-type, without a doubt. Favorite hangouts probably would be Phillips, which two minutes away from my office, so it's where I eat at most.
NORM: Oh, gosh. Favorite hangout, I guess it's like this cubbyhole. It's three-by-four. I like to sit in that, in the dark, for hours. And then favorite cars: '74 Ford Econoline van.
FRED: Listen—I'm married, I have two kids. I don't go to bars. So favorite hangout would be vegging out in front of the TV. Favorite car is the mighty Ford Escort wagon, which I drive.
[xyra & verborgen] DON: My favorite car I've ever owned, I had a little Geo convertible, which during the springtime, when it was really nice, was a pleasure to drive.
FRED: That red one?
DON: No, blue.
FRED: That's right. Yeah, I remember. What happened to that?
DON: It's a long story that I would prefer not to go into at the moment.
FRED: That was a cool car. I always meant to ask you what happened to that car.
DON: It still exists. Let's just say I loaned it to an in-law. We're still in discussion about that.
And my favorite bar? When I was in college there was this bar called Captain Tom's Oar House. And I liked that a lot. It was a big joke for a girl to get a job there as a waitress and call home, "Hey, Mom, I got a job at the Oar House."
What's the worst place you've crashed and the worst haircut?
XYRA: My worst haircut was the one I gave myself after about four glasses of wine. I would hold the hair up and feel, and when it feels like it's all even I would cut. Only I think I got a little carried away, so I had to cut it pretty short. And I wound up cutting it and cutting it until people called me a Q-Tip head. This was a long time ago, as you can see my hair is longer now. I don't do that anymore.
And worst place I've crashed? We're not hippies! Probably a relative's house in the suburbs, where they ate really bad food and watched a lot of TV, and I had to be polite and I was extremely uncomfortable. Oh, the Chelsea. I crashed at the Chelsea. That was interesting. I had a friend who had an apartment there. She was there when Nico was there, and Sid Vicious. She used to play poker with Sid Vicious. It was an interesting place to crash. Because there were lots of interesting people. So I wouldn't say it was a bad place. It was an interesting place. She had her own bathroom. Most people had to go down the hall.
[xyra & verborgen] FRED: Back when I was hitchhiking, back in the '70s, I spent a night in a gas station toilet. In a gas station bathroom. Worst haircut, I've got it right now. It's the haircut I've had for 20 years.
DON: Worst place I've crashed was hitchhiking back from Knoxville, Tenn. I had to sleep out in a field next to a highway.
FRED: Well I've done that lots of times. But it was really cold and there was no place and I go in this bathroom, and it was warm, and I fell right asleep.
DON: Worst haircut was one I gave myself. I decided with a pair of mirrors that I could cut my own hair. But I got pretty good at it after a while.
NORM: I was at this party and was walking around with a good beer, and I tripped over something. It was on a hill and I ended up laying with my head down the hill. And I lost the beer and I remember looking up at the stars, and I fell asleep and I woke up with frost on me. With my head down the hill. That was the last time I did that. Life's been good to me.
CRIS: Worst haircut is this one. Worst place I crashed, I guess was an alleyway in Hollywood.
CRIS: It was in my nicest vest, too.
FRED: I crashed in a gutter in an alley in Vermont. I was so drunk, and a cop came by. I had just slugged down this whole jug of wine. And I begged this cop to take me to jail, to let me sleep it off. And he wouldn't do it. He just left me in the gutter. God, the mean bastard.
CRIS: What are cops good for, man?
NORM: My worst haircut, I was clipping my hair with electric clippers and I used the wrong side of the clippers. And I shaved a big spot in the side of my head. And I had to shave my entire head just to balance it out. And the next day I had to go to a wedding like that. So I had a tan face and a big old white bald head.
Worst roommate and best audience?
XYRA: Andrew, what's our worst roommate? We've had many. Jan?
ANDREW: No, not Jan. The one who slammed the shutters down when we were out shoveling snow.
XYRA: Oh, this was a woman who had a diabetic dog and she used to make him sleep in a car because he was incontinent and he was blind and he would walk into walls and poo all over. She made him sleep in an old Volkswagen. She left him outside in all kinds of weather. And she also left her laundry draped over the boxwoods. She'd leave them there for months and they would become mildewed. And she also decided to dig a vegetable garden and barricaded it in with chicken wire and then let it go. Destroyed our entire lawn.
[xyra & verborgen] What else did she do? She used to come up to the door and scream. Blindly.
ANDREW: That was a drawback.
XYRA: That's probably the worst.
DON: They don't have enough Web pages for this long an answer.
XYRA: Pick and choose the moments. I think the best audience would be ourselves, because we are the most honest about ourselves, but we can also be the most critical. I just feel really happy when anyone enjoys us.
ANDREW: Yeah. We played the Velvet Lounge and there was maybe 6 or 10 people there. But they were so enthusiastic.
XYRA: Six or 10 people we didn't know. The rest were our friends.
ANDREW: Anytime you get a group that's into it, it just makes the whole thing worthwhile.
XYRA: Oh, I forgot to mention pets! The big dog and I forgot to mention Toonses the crazy black cat. They love to listen to us. The dog gets right in the middle of us at practice and every time we play he just beams. He smiles and he looks at all of us.
DON: Sophomore year in college, I transferred to St. Mary's and there was this guy, I'm not sure I can remember his real name. His name was like Richard Fallon. This guy was such an asshole, everybody on the floor used to call him Dick Phallus.
FRED: And he didn't know what it meant.
DON: We just didn't get along. And he wanted to hang, that's what really made it bad. Best audience—several years ago, I had the opportunity to open for Dexter Gordon at Fort Dupont Park. And that's an experience I'll never forget. It was this jazz-rock fusion group called Tangent I was with at the time. Even if there hadn't been an audience there, that's an experience I'll never forget. But it was an astounding audience.
FRED: Worst roommate was a group house in Takoma Park, and the guy was a quite disturbed Vietnam vet, who when I signed up for the house seemed like a perfectly normal guy, but was actually right on edge.
Best audience? Norm and I played with a folksinger named Steve Gellman—we've got to get his name in here so Xyra will freak. We played at a place in Rehobeth Beach that the audience was just fantastic. It was Eden's Garden. It was a very nice audience.
DON: Actually, an addendum to mine. I just remembered what they called him was not Dick Phallus, but Prick Phallus.
CRIS: You are the best audience. Worst roommate, I'd have to say Doug, my current roommate. Because he's kicking me out. I was only supposed to move in for two months and I've been there over a year. I'm the unwanted roommate.
NORM: Worst roommate would be Michelle—no names? Oh, sorry, Michelle. You sucked. Best audience would be at the Birchmere. We opened for Richie Havens. A good audience, a lot of people.
[xyra & verborgen] ANDREW: Any audience that gets into us is a good audience. I know when we first played the Courtyard Cafe, we had a good 60-70 people. It was fun.
XYRA: It was 125 people the first time.
What clothes do you like to wear on stage and what do you eat on the road?
XYRA: I have terrible food allergies. So I have to be careful when I eat. I wouldn't be very interesting...
ANDREW: Baked potatoes and olive oil.
XYRA: Baked potatoes and olive oil!
ANDREW: What do we wear? All black, except for [Xyra].
XYRA: The Diva wears demented tartans with slits up the sides. I wear trashy diva gear. Parisian trollop getups.
FRED: We've been instructed, it's all black. But Don and I freelance a lot doing classical music, so you gotta do the tux. Sometimes you wear a suit, sometimes, when I play with folk musicians, I can wear whatever I want to. I can look as cruddy as you do right now and get away with it.
What do I eat on the road? I haven't eaten anything tonight, and I've had two beers. So I'm probably going to stop at the first 7-11 I see and probably go for a beef-and-bean burrito.
DON: It's been a long time since I've been seriously on the road. But when I am on the road, I try to avoid McDonald's and go to the interesting-looking cafes and old diners that are still like in a silver trailer, and stuff like that.
NORM: I wear the same thing every day, pretty much, so it's what I have on. There was a memo that we had to wear black. If you're in a country band, you get the memo for the cowboy hat and a vest. Best meal: No. 9, supersized.
[xyra & verborgen] [muse&blues]
What are your influences and worst equipment experience?
FRED: Influences for me are very diverse. Brahms is probably my favorite symphonic composer. I love Bach. John Coltrane, Eric Dolphy, Pablo Cassals, the Monkees. [LAUGH] Joni Mitchell. And of course Jimi Hendrix I really relate to a lot.
And worst equipment experience—it's actually amazing, when you play rock, the sound you sometimes get on stage is so bad and muddy. Hopefully, out in the audience it sounds good, but sometimes when you're playing on stage you have no clue what's going on. And that's scary. And that happens A LOT. Places too numerous to mention.
DON: I don't think any saxophone player who plays contemporary music and plays it seriously cannot mention John Coltrane as an influence. And Charlie Parker is almost as big an influence for me. There are other people who are much less well known. There's an avant garde flutist, I believe from New York, named Robert Dick, who does stuff with the flute that nobody else does. Frank West, who played tenor sax and one of the first jazz flutists to get recorded, was a very big influence on me. Joe Farrell, who unfortunately died a few years back. I listened to him play with Chick Corea, which I think is what really got me interested in playing jazz, instead of just being a rock saxophone player. I hate putting it that way, but...
As far as worst equipment experience, one time when I was using a gig bag for my tenor sax, I came home one night in the dark and stepped on the saxophone. For some reason, I did not realize that I'd actually damaged it. Grabbed it and went out to a gig. And it was completely unplayable. Could not get anything out of it. It was a rock band gig, and all I had with me was that saxophone and a flute. So I ended up doing my Ian Anderson impression for the rest of the night.
[xyra & verborgen] NORM: I don't have any influences. Oh, actually, the Grateful Dead. I'm a big Dead fan, and bluegrass fan. I'm always having equipment problems. I'm McGyver of the drumset. I can make a bomb out of an orange.
CRIS: Influences have gotta be anybody I've ever heard. I gotta say I haven't really had a good equipment experience. Never been happy.
ANDREW: Most of my influences are guitar, so Hendrix, Richie Blackmore, Jimmy Page, some of the guitar legends. As far as classical influences, Mozart, Beethoven, Rachmaninoff, Chopin.
Equipment, probably had to be the BC Rich guitar that every time you played it it fell out of tune. Especially if you used the Whammy bar, then it was really out of tune.
XYRA: Where do I begin? As far as pop music is concerned, I think Bryan Ferry is a huge influence. You can probably hear it in my vocals, which is strange for a female.
I would like to say that it all began with the Classical music albums my mother set before me at age 2 1/2. (Yes, it was THAT early!) She discovered an album set of music from the masters, and put it and me in front of a small record player on the floor. There I sat—spinning discs for hours. (Perhaps the experience prepared me for DJ life, at WGTB, much later—when DJs still spun vinyl.)
That was not the only music I listened to as a child. There were the operatic classics (of which I was not fond) and the Broadway and London musicals, and torch songs I then adored. Breaking into dramatic or music theater was my earliest goal. Some of these songs began my repertoire, after I shelved piano for straight vocal lessons, at age 6. Needing to create, I kept up my original piano compositions, conjuring verse for song. (Wish I still had the sheet music to those little songs.) The childlike melodies had a medieval style, to which I dreamt of later adding harpsichord, or full orchestra.
Of course, as one reaches 12 or so, pop music can take hold, which it did for me. No longer was it cool to sing standards, so I branched out a bit.
By 14, my mother presented me an electric guitar. Later, tweaked at violin, Kyoto, pennywhistle flute, recorder—and even tried an upright bass. (The bass was too large—and rather awkward, but like holding a cello—the notes penetrate your entire being. I did like that!)
As I began perusing the record store shelves, I was happy to find rock bands incorporating classical or more interesting Old World/European influences. Therein, I seemed to sense my niche. I was pleased to discover Roxy Music's first album, Stranded, and Country Life. Among others were earlier bands like King Crimson, Procol Harum, Steeleye Span, Fairport Convention, and even the Incredible String Band! Passionate favorites have become John Cale's collaborations with Nico. (I also liked a vintage songstress from the 1960s—Dusty Springfield—a surprising genre switch.) A later influence might be Siouxsie Sioux.
Interestingly, my vocals have been compared to Marlene Dietrich, Edith Piaf, Nico, Siouxsie, Annie Lennox, Chrissie Hynde...and even Bryan Ferry!
In the late 1980s, I stopped listening to most contemporary pop music, and ceased any entrancement with MTV about the same time. More recently, I have not watched television since the 1997 Grammy award show. My radio dial is tuned to classical music stations, notably WETA—which is where I get the news, via National Public Radio and Public Radio International. The musicians to which I listen currently vary from Julian Bream and Robin Williamson (formerly of the Incredible String Band), to Donovan, the Beatles (from Rubber Soul onward), Cream, Nico, and early Roxy: nothing new on the block.
What's your favorite tour memory and worst band squabble?
ANDREW: Favorite tour memory would have to be Philadelphia after we played this godawful place and had a flat beer. I woke up the next morning in our room, 22 stories up in the air, and looked out the window at 7 or 8 in the morning at the skyline of Philadelphia. It was just neat to be somewhere else—despite everything that happened the night before.
We've had so many [squabbles].
XYRA: They're not that bad.
ANDREW: The worst band squabble I had, we were playing at the Velvet Lounge and there was no room to set up. And the person we had opening up for us, we couldn't tell whether he was playing or whether he was warming up.
XYRA: He just wouldn't stop.
ANDREW: He wouldn't move.
DON: None comes to mind, except I've been fired several times. Every good musician's been fired. It comes with the territory. But my favorite tour, I was fortunate enough to be on a brief tour with Danny Gatton. Not just Danny Gatton, the entire band was just incredible.
XYRA: He was on MTV with Danny Gatton.
DON: That's right. I teach at St. Mary's College. It doesn't matter what I do, what impressive credentials, tell my students that I've been on MTV—they're immediately impressed. They don't know who Danny Gatton is.
XYRA: But they know MTV. Let's mention the PMC last year. We were supposed to play a relatively large venue last year. They wound up putting us in this tiny coffeehouse that was frequented by a bunch of teenagers.
FRED: But we love 'em.
XYRA: We love 'em, but it was a coffeehouse out of the way. Everybody paid all this money to go play the PMC. It was really great, we thought. It was very disappointing. What would you say the best band squabble was?
FRED: Every time I talk to Xyra over the telephone.
XYRA: Fred has a way of upsetting me. He likes to degrade or demean all of the wonderful illusions I have about myself and the band. He's always telling me, "We're not anywhere. We're not doing anything. Nothing's happening. Why are you so excited about the review in the Washington Post? That's nothing. Everybody gets reviewed in the Washington Post." So of course I get upset. Because I revert back to that song from South Pacific, "Happy Talk." [sings"]
"Happy talky talking happy talk.
Talk about things you like to do.
You got to have a dream.
If you don't have a dream.
How you gonna have a dream come true?"
And he always knocks the wind out of my sails.
What's your transpo and what's the worst place you've ever dropped trou?
FRED: I don't even know what that means.
XYRA: Train station in New York.
FRED: I usually drive by myself to gigs.
XYRA: It's when you have to sit on top of people you like playing with but you don't want to get that familiar with. Especially for long periods of time when maybe there isn't a van and you have to try and put everything in a car, including people.
NORM: I've got the best place. I was in Vermont and we were camping. It was very cold outside, it was a full moon, and the stars were out, and I'm squatting there gritting my teeth—my teeth are going, "r-r-r-r-r-r-r"—and I loved every second of it.
ANDREW: I guess the worst place was when I was hiking. I'd gone three or four miles and all of a sudden I realized I had diarrhea. Two thousand feet above any bathroom. When I realized it was unstoppable, I just charged into the woods and hoped nobody else was around, and let it rip. Fortunately there were soft autumn leaves.
What's the stupidest move your singer ever pulled?
CRIS: I've got one.
XYRA: Me, or somebody else?
CRIS: Somebody else. It was our last gig, playing at Legends out in Fairfax. Used to be Planet Nova. He was in a Jim Morrison phase. So I felt like Robbie Krieger that night. I was just doing these grooves behind him. He'd convinced everybody to pull out their pot at the bar. And to smoke it up. Eventually the cops came and unplugged us. They actually cut the power while we were playing. We got booted. That was the stupidest thing. That was the end of the band. We were over. DON: Can I get by with my answer that hiring me was the stupidest move the singer ever pulled?
FRED: What, you're getting paid?
XYRA: That isn't good.
DON: A little self-deprecating humor there. I'm strong enough to hold up under that.
XYRA [to Chris]: What's the stupidest move I ever made?
CRIS: It was this one, wasn't it? [Cris does wacky gyro move.]
XYRA: I have this really bad habit of [stomping my foot] onstage, especially in big shoes.
FRED: It's a two-step.
XYRA: I've seen myself on video and it really looks bad.
NORM: It takes care of the roaches you're stepping on.
FRED: Norm and I play with a singer who will regularly drop beats in the middle of a song. And we have to cover for him. And actually, Xyra has pretty good rhythm with her shuffling back and forth.
XYRA: Occasionally my butt is off tempo.
FRED: I do like to sit behind Xyra.
XYRA: He watches my butt. And you know why he watches my butt? Whatever we do onstage, I always have my butt in his face.
CRIS: I watch your butt.
XYRA: You watched my butt tonight? It's getting better, isn't it? But there was a time when my rhythm just wasn't there. Because the band was new and we didn't know what I was doing. So I was really off. Chris used to tell me to stop dancing, because he could hear and feel my feet in band practice and it threw everybody off.
FRED: And then there was one time we played at the Courtyard—which is now, God bless its soul, defunct—and we were trying a new song and Xyra was playing, in quotes, rhythm guitar. And we really didn't know the song. And she was [stomps].
XYRA: It was like this yee-haw stomp, and you can see it's not befitting. Nobody knew what to do. And he's watching my foot and he's watching my butt, so those are dumb moves.
Awards . Broadcasts . Reviews
Washington City Paper ~ Cabaret Rock Nouveau