Words by Jonathan Stout
XDS (formerly Experimental Dental School) is made up of drummer Shoko Horikawa and guitarist/vocalist Jesse Hall. After Shoko relocated from Japan to Chico, California for school, she responded to a mysterious flier and a pitch to collaborate on making interesting sounds. The “interesting sounds” that resulted combined syncopated drums with vocals (sung through a duct tape-and-PVC-pipe mic), fuzzy melodies from a custom-built Guitar-o-bass, synths/sampler ambiance and other various noise-making devices. Since forming, they’ve played alongside the likes of Deerhoof and more, releasing 11 recordings along the way.
On the new XDS album, Bicycle Ripper (Mt.St.Mtn.) the band’s genre-bending roots are as deep as ever, but the goal now is to be less noisy and more fun. The content of the album creates a sonic collage, assembling psychedelic dance-punk jams, blown-out samples, off-kilter drumming and dub bass lines.
Off Shelf: You’ve created a lot of great, creative sonic textures on this album. I love the different guitar tones in particular. I was wondering if you might be willing to share some of the pedals that you utilized. I love the sound of the fuzz that sounds like it’s breaking up.
Jesse Hall: That fuzz is a cranked 4-track recorder – I’ve used it for years. It started by plugging into a Porta-studio and just maxing out the levels – it sounded like a tiger ripping something apart! We called it the “OverbrO” and I carried that thing with me in the innards of my pedalboard all over the world. Eventually, I stumbled upon a pedal called the “Demotape”, which managed to replicate that sound pretty well.
I spend a stupid amount of time just playing with sounds – swapping speakers, tubes, tweaking pedals, samplers, midi converters etc. and trying different devices on the guitar. There is so much juice you can squeeze out of old weird gear. One device I use is a modified drink stirrer that kind of strums like hurdy gurdy – but also can create electrical interference in the pickups. I’m also a fan of older multi-effects units like Line 6 M9 – it has every effect imaginable, and they all have a charmingly cheesy quality. With the M9 you can do things like combining two ring modulators in different keys to generate odd harmonies when switching chords, or dialing in massive reverbs that essentially act as a blurring tool. It’s all pretty nerdy but I think worth the time spent trying to find new sounds.
OS: I’m also infatuated with your handcrafted instruments that you’ve become known for. Can you tell me a bit about your handcrafted “Guitar-o-bass” and PVC mic?
JH: The “Guitar-o-bass” is just a guitar with an added bass string – with this set up I can play low end and we can travel one person lighter. I added a bass pickup turned sideways to capture just the (flatwound) bass string, and it has its own output jack that connects to a bass amp. It has a kind of short-scale dub sound. I have another pickup that comes from the guts from an old Tiesco guitar and I route that to a 6×6 suitcase speaker with components pulled from a 1940s PA system. The result is a fantastic sort of Tuareg guitar sound with lots of crunchy treble. In all there are 4 pickups to 4 amps. It’s so satisfying to strum a chord and hear all the textures combine. I also have a gated velcro fuzz called “The Flying Tomato,” similar to the fuzz in Os Mutantes’ “Minha Menina.” I’m working on trying to get analog guitar synths going as well. The mic I use is an old modified reel-to-reel mic – housed in PVC piping – that I run through an amplifier. These may sound like gimmicks, but I’ve spent years meticulously selecting each of these tools to achieve the sounds.
OS: You all are playing a couple shows this year – how does it feel playing shows nowadays in comparison to when you started a decade ago? Is it still exciting for you?
JH: It’s become more fun over the years. It’s hard to explain but I am consistently able to enter a subtle trance-like state – where everything just flows and it’s a pretty amazing feeling. It’s like I am there but then I’m not. Large chunks of the show go missing and I’m not sure where my mind goes but it’s a great feeling. I can still see my foot stepping on a pedal, strumming this chord or that, hi-fiving the audience or whatever. Probably a lot of performers can relate – my friend calls it “no-mind.” I think humans crave this – tapping into the mammalian brain – either directly or vicariously watching or a performer. For me it’s like a drug and probably what makes rock and roll so addictive. We have been staying closer to home in recent years – just basically doing shows along the west coast – I do miss touring Europe and Japan, and having adventures. But I also love being home with our kids.
OS: I’m interested in learning what your setup is. Is it always just the two of you or do you ever have musicians help fill things out? Are you able to utilize the samples and tape loops in the live setting?
JH: These days we are trying to downsize a bit so we can tour in a car. Last time we went to Portland we had two kids, a dog, and the backline in a hatchback. But it’s always just the two of us playing. The sparse lineup is kind of essential to maintain both creative limits and also freedom and agility. To fill things out I have pre recorded Casio keyboards, noise and soundscape that I can bring in with a volume pedal. They are “off the grid” and can sound kind of random and chaotic, but it blends well with the music – like if we had a drunk but fun keyboard player. I also do a lot of live looping – but I try to make it as primal as possible – so instead of sounding careful, it sounds like a real bass player digging in.
OS: Do you find that you remain musically creative or do you have to seek out inspiration occasionally? What are some sources of inspiration if so? Any particular influences that informed the making of this album at all?
JH: Our influences span pretty far and wide – it might be difficult to dissect influences. And really my hope is to transcend our influences and make something all our own. People sometimes say “oh you sound like so-and-so,” but it’s always something different and not necessarily something I’d listen to.
Some of my loves are old school Dub, 1950s 12 tone composition, Krautrock, warped and blown out electronic sample weirdness, the Saharan Sahel Sounds bands like Mdou Moctar and Group Doueh, NYC 70’s punk and early 80’s dance-punk – ESG, Liquid Liquid, Suicide. Lots of other random stuff randomly collected over the years. We also have a sweet tooth for 70s pop music like Fleetwood Mac and classic staples like early Black Sabbath or the Stones.
A lot of our approach came about when we lived in the Bay Area – the 2000s Oakland music scene where art rock weirdness was in abundance. One thing I loved about that time is everyone seemed to be doing their own thing. Some bands we loved from that era are Deerhoof, Numbers, Erase Errata, Coachwhips, Oh Sees, and Extra Action Marching Band. Trying to remember – there were so many other greats – all worth giving a listen if they aren’t on your radar.
There’s so much great music available and coming out these days – it’s an amazing time to be a music lover.
OS: How do you think Bicycle Ripper compares to your previous work? There’s a bit of an impression that these songs are a little more approachable to a wider audience, or less noise driven at the very least. Was this a conscious decision or was that just how the songwriting process turned out?
JH: We make music that feels good to us. In that regard I don’t want limits imposed in any direction. Yes, music is about communicating – and it’s great to share with people – but for us it starts by stubbornly asking ourselves what we want to hear come out of the practice space. We are totally different people than we were when we started – it’s like we’ve lived several lives. We found one of our old CDs on a road trip and gave it a listen – there was one song we had no recollection of. It’s like we were listening to it for the first time.
It would be weird if it didn’t change directions a bunch over the years. We started off as a kind of Devo carnival dance punk band! [laughs]
OS: In reference to the title of your single “UFO Let Me Go” I have to ask – what do you think about the recent alien related news? Many either believe that there has been an extraterrestrial presence on our planet for years while others believe that if there was, they surely would’ve taken over our civilization by now. Where do you fall on that spectrum?
JH: I mostly stopped looking at the news during the pandemic and really haven’t been following the story. But It seems like if visitors from another universe arrived here, they would be completely unrecognizable to us. I mean they most likely would not have two eyes like we evolved to have. Perhaps they would not need ships to travel or maybe would not even be visible to us.
OS: What’s your general songwriting process? Does one person typically bring most of the material to the table or is the content usually created together?
JH: Mostly I bring songs to the table and Shoko holds the editing axe to whittle the pool of material down. The smoothest writing comes about spontaneously through free jams or Shoko cooking up a beat as a canvas. Sometimes we play partial songs live to test how they feel and then develop them from there.
OS: Let’s talk about the making of the new album, Bicycle Ripper, a little bit. How long did it take to compose and assemble these songs?
JH: Oh man, it’s a bit embarrassing to think about how long it took to finally get this record out. These songs have survived and have been refined over the course of almost 10 years. It’s for sure one of the longest gestation periods we’ve had – we used to try to finish records in a one year period. But hey a lot has happened over the past 10 years – we had kids, survived a near-death illness, the band broke up and we tried to quit music – but couldn’t do it – we always kept coming back to this need to create. Hoping the next one slides out quickly.
OS: There’s kind of a live, freewheeling feeling to the recordings – did you record live or track by track?
JH: We have to do it live. We want it to sound real and in the moment – like a jazz recording. On top of that, unfortunately, I feel like we can’t do good work in a proper studio – it might just be in my mind – but we don’t want it to sound “posed”. It’s like the difference between a photo that was captured in a wonderful moment versus one where you go into a place with lights and velvet background and say “cheese.” There will be that one take on that one day that you were just having fun and in the moment – and thankfully it gets captured in a recording. I guess it might be subtle to some, but to me it’s important. There were many takes that were rejected – and the ones that survived perhaps were not technically perfect – they just had a certain deep vibe. I do want to try other ways of recording though – building part by part in the studio or whatever.
OS: What does the future of XDS look like? I know you just released this album but are there any plans for 2024?
JH: We have another batch of songs for a new record that we are really excited about – should be able to get that out next year. We will be playing select shows up and down the west coast. We have fun creating and posting video collages – us playing with moving cacophony in the background. It’s great to be able to record a song, make a video and be able to share it the same day.