Exploring the Changing Landscapes With Xisco Rojo

Photo by Barbara Vidal

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Madrid’s Xisco Rojo is one hell of a guitarist, but he’s also so much more than that. As a songwriter, he is always pushing himself and always searching for a new idea or source of inspiration. His craft is constantly evolving, expanding his sonic palette by bringing in new styles and an ever-growing array of instrumentation. Earlier this year these progressions reached their apex with his album, Transfigurations. It’s a deep record full of vivid imagery and evocative playing; one that opens further with repeated explorations and focused listening.

Rojo continues pulling back the veil on Transfigurations, offering insights into its conception and construction. Just today he’s released a short documentary on the making of the album (it’s embedded below). Even with this opus under his belt, he wants more and will never rest as the music must continue flowing.

This interview was conducted in November and December. Xisco Rojo can be reached via his website or his Bandcamp page.

First off, how have you been holding up and making it through these last 18 months?

Well, it’s been a crazy time for everyone, and not only concerning the COVID pandemic… The world seems to be moving at a reckless speed, there is a profound disconnection with anything pre-Internet, and even life on planet Earth itself has become some sort of social abstraction, with all the disastrous consequences for us as a species, ecology, and so on… At the same time, it seems we cannot break loose from history cycles (tyranny-democracy tensions, etc), still occurring in society and politics, refurbished and upgraded by the world of data, social media, etc… So what I’m trying to do is to focus on myself and my surroundings: my family, my friends, my inner garden, and cherish and nurture those areas in order to acquire forms of intimate resistance, spaces for personal growth and comfort, and a life of love, poetry, and bliss, as corny as that may sound.

Let’s go way back to when you were a child… have you had an interest in music and sound since you were young? What were some early memories or experiences with music that really connected with you and made you feel something memorable or unexpected?

Growing up, my father listened to a lot of classical music, and my mother was more a sixties girl: singer-songwriters, Beatles, and that kinda stuff. I have clear memories of me sitting on the living room carpet as a toddler and listening to music together with them and my younger sister. I started learning music from a young age with a very academic and classical approach: music theory and piano lessons. Then, I took up the Spanish guitar as part of that classical training, but it wasn’t until 7th or 8th grade, where I met some people with whom I started exchanging cassettes, that I discovered punk rock, and that energy and esthetics really connected with me regarding the instrument. 

When did you start playing guitar and what inspired you to pick it up?

Like I said before, although I started out on a Spanish nylon string guitar, it was punk rock and loud distorted electric guitars that made me connect with the instrument. Then, I went to high school in southwest Philadelphia, and while living there music started to be a big thing around which most of my activities and energies were organized: I started playing in bands and widening my musical references, which made me feel like music was really the thing I had to pursue for myself. Shortly after that, I started to develop a taste for the acoustic sound of the guitar, and the different degrees of intimacy and depth it allowed for. The discovery of the different possibilities of the instrument was what made the final click in me. 

And when did that interest turn to solo guitar music? Even if I hesitate to use that as a description for what you do, especially with this new album, but let’s get into that in a minute.

My interest in solo guitar music appeared later on; I think it was the connection of the classical music stuff I listened to as a kid, and jazz and the more experimental proposals I was incorporating into my listening habits that coaligned to set me out in the search for those sonorities in a guitar, open tunings, and such diverse paths. Then I dove into the early 2000s Montreal scene (GY!BE, Black Ox Orkestar) and the whole avant-folk, things like Six Organs Of Admittance, Espers, Charalambides, or Jim O’Rourke -who turned me to John Fahey-, and all that opened up the whole solo guitar exploration.

So your new album, Transfigurations, is quite an achievement. It’s such a dense record, with a huge array of instrumentation and the compositions are complex yet engaging, even hypnotizing. What kinds of ideas and intentions did you have in mind when you were writing these pieces? 

Thank you so much for the kind words about the new album! My idea was to make music that contained all the angles of myself and the transforming vital phase I was in: many sides, forms, influences, and spirits had to coexist in it. A statement of all the things that are a part of me, and which I wanted to claim, transform and show to the world (and ultimately, to myself), as some sort of affirmation of who I am and what I was going through. Although this may seem like a totally individualistic approach, the reality is that I was always putting those lines of thought against a universal background, wanting to recreate the part of human existence I contained and was experiencing at the time of the making of the record.

Also, because of a series of convulsions throughout its conception and completion, I felt that the music in it should ultimately bring forth some sort of relief; it should evoke and transmit a time of rest after many a battle, albeit still heeding the war horns in the distance so that the lessons learned aren’t easily and rapidly forgotten. I wanted to make an album that celebrated life in the face of death, but that didn’t look away from the grimmer side of human existence, as a sort of reminder of our condition that also works as a propeller for joy and living life at its maximum degree of expression, full and vibrant in the present moment. In this way, it could be considered a “state of mindfulness”: the music of the alchemic and spiritual nature of life blending into the Unified Field. I wanted to make an album that felt like a relief, a milestone of inner peace and joyous contemplation of our very human essence, in all its angles and nuances, both luminous and somber.

I know you recorded it over the last half of 2020, but were you writing these songs much earlier?

Yes and no… After outlining the initial demos, I began registering the songs in the summer of 2019, shortly after a very intense vital crash had taken place. I had also recently moved in at a new location for my recording studio. My daughter was born that autumn, and Spain entered a 3-month-long hard lockdown. That meant an interruption in the development of the recording sessions and the materialization of the record, so it wasn’t until almost a year after starting scribbling this music, in July 2020, during a short break in the more strict lockdown policies in Spain concerning the COVID pandemic, that I started the real recording process at the studio. I acted as my own sound engineer, and the sessions were flexible but steady, rapidly pinning down songs and ideas. I soon ended up with a lot of recorded material and started to dwell in the arrangement and sound design processes, which inevitably opened new possibilities. Although some of the songs were written/sketched beforehand, it happened that a good part of the material for the record came along once the recording process had already started; compositions that didn’t exist at the time of pressing the REC button but mysteriously knocked on the door and made their way into the flowing lava. In the end, it so happens that those pieces give the mystical context to the record, and pump its primitive pulse.

There are certainly roots to fingerpicking style guitar playing in your work. It really comes out on tracks like “11 Out of 10” or the latter half of “The Nāga & The Dvārapāla,” even if that song feels a lot more inspired by raga or something in that vein. That being said, who are some fingerpickers – past and present – that have inspired you or moved you with their playing?

Lots! I mentioned Ben Chasny (Six Organs Of Admittance), John Fahey, and Jim O’Rourke, who can also be put in that league sometimes… I love the legacy of Davey Graham, Robbie Basho, Bert Jansch, John Renbourn, Max Ochs, Sandy Bull, Jack Rose… and from the present: Daniel Bachman, Sir Richard Bishop, Marisa Anderson, Matthew J. Rolin, Gwenifer Raymond, Nathan Salsburg, James Elkington, C Joynes, Nick Jonah Davis, Mason Lindahl, Toby Hay, Ryley Walker, James Blackshaw, Sebastian Bischoff (Son Of Buzzi), Eli Winter, Josh Kimbrough, Joseph Allred, Tashi Dorji… In Spain, people like Negro, Víctor Herrero, Carnisaur, Borealis, Isasa… Also bands like Pelt, Powers/Rolin Duo, North Americans, Gunn Truscinski… 

A short documentary on the making of Transfigurations and the ideas behind it

Getting beyond that, though, Transfigurations is such a psychedelic album in my mind with the way it takes listeners places. It’s such a journey. How do you approach music, as an artist and as a listener, when it comes to its ability to create new worlds and take you places in your mind? What journey do you hope to take listeners on?

That is exactly the one feature I try to incorporate most in my creative process: the creation of new worlds. I’m not interested at all in recreating past styles and genres, but rather to propose alternatives, opening doors and windows to new creative possibilities and ways of thinking, as a form of personal and political liberation. Also as a listener, it is what I tend to value most in an artist, that there is a new world suggested in their work. I believe that’s what true artists do. And as for the journey for listeners, it is equally open and free; I only present a map, a territory of exploration, and hopefully, listeners feel the urge to wander and discover that space -and the echo of that space in them- as they tread around it.

You play so many instruments on Transfigurations that it’s so impressive. Listening back to your earlier work and how it’s progressed, this feels like a really natural development in your work as you’ve always explored more than just solo guitar music, even if that aspect is at the heart of your compositions. I’m reminded a lot of Pelt, one of the greatest bands of the last 20 years to me when I listen to your work but love how you create this dense bed of sound as just one guy. How do you approach these songs and figure out what various instruments you’re going to use or how certain instruments can better express the feelings and ideas the pieces are about?

That was also a thing when dealing with the making of this record, that I wanted it to sound bigger than just one guy, but there was no one else in the room! It all happened really naturally; I start by laying down the parts I have written on the instrument that gave them birth and then proceed to build on them, like in Maia, or other times it was the other way around: there was a mood I wanted to approach and created a bed of sound for the guitar part to come in afterward (“For You Dwell in the Light”), or that I processed and transformed into something else like it happens on “Íakch’, O Íakche!.” By the way, thank you for the comparison with Pelt, that has really made my day!

To me, Transfigurations is this album about change and rebirth and it’s really accentuated by the beautiful catharsis of “Maia,” which contains a recording of your then-unborn daughter’s heartbeat. When I first heard the album and heard that track, it kind of connected a lot of dots for me and took me back to when the months before my daughter was born and working through all the emotions of becoming a father (I even made a whole album out of those feelings and am kicking myself for not thinking to record the heartbeat! Ha!). So there’s this real emotional undercurrent to Transfigurations to me, to exploring and figuring out our place in this world as the world is changing before us. So how did the experience of becoming a father and going through that impact you and influence you as you were writing this album?

It’s hard to say, being an experience that is so intertwined with the whole process of change you accurately describe… I guess that the biggest impact of knowing I was becoming a father (and eventually becoming one) had to do with a relocation of the self in the scenario of the world, and all the angles of it. That mindflow opens up the door to many revisions and analyses of who you are and who you want to be for your children, and that is directly connected to how you want to lead your life so everything is as harmonious and undistorted as possible. And please, refer me to that album of yours, I’d love to listen to it!

Photo by Barbara Vidal

What was the biggest challenge you dealt with in making Transfigurations?

Basically, arriving at a place where I could feel identification. I wanted to be able to express what I needed to express in the best way possible, and look at it when finished, and feel I was represented in the music it contained. Another challenge was to construct an album that didn’t rely solely on the solo acoustic guitar aesthetics but to create an instrumentally more complex work being just one individual… In that sense, I sometimes approached it as if it was electronic music, with many layers and sound processing, whereas other times I layered basic drone tracks (organ, shruti box, etc) and then allowed me to improvise on a predetermined structure on top of that. Finally, the challenge was to make all those different “styles” fit together and seem unified when listening to the album as a whole.

I also have to ask about the incredible cover art that was done by Mohammad Barrangi. It fits the album’s feeling and aesthetic so well. How do you know Mohammad? Was the artwork created specifically for this album in conjunction with ideas you had about it? I’d love to hear more about the collaborative process for this piece because it really adds to the experience of the record.

I met Mohammad through Instagram, I saw his work and immediately fell in love with it, I knew he had to be the artist giving life to the cover and artwork for this album, so I sent him a message. We connected really fast and he was thrilled to be working on this project, so things flowed really easily from the get go. His generosity and talent are beyond description, he’s such a being of light… He insisted on the idea that he wanted to create a specific artwork for Transfigurations, and not just using some pre-made illustration of his; so I gave him absolute freedom, other than suggesting a couple iconic characters of his work that I wanted there to be (mythological animals, trumpets, etc). The way he works is he creates the illustrations by hand and then transfers them onto a paper he also fabricates himself, so it has this ancient parchment look to it. He was so thorough in the process that he even transferred the album notes & credits on the back cover to the paper, so that they didn’t stand out as some alien design element, but would be integrated into the whole. I have no words to describe how thrilled I am to have his outstanding talent put to the service of my music, my jaw still drops every time I see the album cover.

Unrelated to the album, but I was thrilled by your piece for Cafe OTO’s Takuroku label, Axial Tilt. It’s fantastic. How did that piece come about and how did you end up doing it for Takuroku? 

Actually, that album is somewhat related to Transfigurations, at least formally; during lockdown, I spent some time exploring the vibrations of the strings using an e-bow and a metal slide on a 12-string acoustic guitar, from where I started constructing long droney passages that evolved into stretched out and very slowed tempo compositions based on texturized guitar sounds. In that sense, Axial Tilt and “’Oumuamua,” the last track on Transfigurations, are not-so-distant cousins. About Takuroku, having artistic and personal connections with Cafe OTO’s philosophy, my friend Víctor Herrero told me that he was releasing an album as part of the digital-only label created by them as a means of putting out the experimental music being done during lockdown, and also as a way to raise funds for the venue in such harsh times, and I immediately contacted them and offered them to publish that 30-minute long free improvisation piece that I then called Axial Tilt, and they were happy to publish it, they’re such a generous and open-minded group of people that things flowed really easily.

I also wanted to go way back to 2014 and ask quickly about your release Ruina Montium. It’s quite different from most of your discography, but I find it quite interesting and memorable. What inspired you to do this album of solo electric guitar improvisations and are there any plans to explore this territory again?

I’m so glad you asked about Ruina Montium, to me it’s a cherished album that came along at a very key moment and unlocked many things for me in my search for what I wanted to express musically… Funnily, it happened while I was writing and demoing the songs of You Got To Walk That Lonesome Valley, my next release after that one, and a fully acoustic “primitive guitarist” album. I was traveling in the northwest of Spain and there I visited Las Medulas, an ancient Roman gold mining site. It is an open-air mine that was made by digging tunnels into the ground and then flooding them with vast bodies of water so that the mountain would collapse and the flow of water and sand would be sieved to collect the gold nuggets. It was such an impressive thing that I started to fantasize about how that roar, that crumbling mountain vision could be translated to sound. Back in the studio in Madrid, I sat down for a whole afternoon and recorded myself improvising on the electric guitar with that idea in mind. After some hours, I listened to what had happened in the recording and started to edit the music from the long impro, and I saw there was a coherent piece of music there. I then did some mixing, mastered it, and the album was there in front of me… As I said, it unleashed many processes of affirmation and propelled me into a more confident approach to the music I was trying to create. And sure, I definitely have plans of going back into that territory of gnarly and distorted electric guitar soon.

Speaking of which, what’s next for you?

Apart from playing shows and touring in support of Transfigurations, I have another album ready to be released, made up from the pieces that didn’t make it into it, called мать может я… If Transfigurations is the baby, then мать может я would be the placenta, in an obstetric metaphor. I hope it comes out by the beginning of 2022. Since I can’t sit still for very long, I am also working on new guitar songs for a future album, and experimenting with synths and granular processing for a possible album of non-guitar music. And for a while now I’ve also been covering and adapting traditional folk tunes to a “modern” format and recording them, and that could maybe come out as an EP or album at some point. The curiosity of that is that I’m also singing in those songs, so that’s a novelty to my music production, in a way. Also, I have recently started a side project with a very talented jazz drummer that I’d love to put down to record very soon. And I keep working in my studio (Sauerland Studios & Recording Co.) as a producer and engineer, where I have some very interesting projects happening in the near future.

Aside from music, I have just finished a book of poetry (in Spanish) that will be edited soon, and I’ve started an experimental music radio show for La Casa Encendida, a cultural center in Madrid that articulates many of the avant-garde and underground artistic manifestations of the city.

Other than that, my aim is to enjoy life with my daughter and family and to get ready to escape to a beautiful and quiet mountain valley before civilization collapses.

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