Named after Oaklander’s mid-1980s essay on Xeno’s pre-Socratic paradoxes, Xeno & Oaklander craft chilly, catchy electronica using a raft of 70s and 80s synths. On Topiary, their latest album, the duo mimic organic sounds, welcoming you into a self made world where art and nature intertwine. With an exclusive stream of “Palms”, we spoke to Liz Wendelbo to find out more about garden mazes, an abandoned laboratory and FM synthesis.
What is it about topiary that you find so appealing? Why did you decide to name the album after it?
Topiary is man made sculpted gardens, you have the typical, spheres, triangles, cubes, lots of unnatural shapes. Being minimal electronic artists, we’ve been interested in the idea of forming and shaping electricity for some time. Our synthesisers imitate natural sounds, we’ve always liked the idea of our music being an imitation of nature, a way of forming shapes. Topiaries were appealing in that sense. Imagine walking through a winding garden maze, those are man made shapes in nature.
If topiary is a way of forcing nature to imitate art, how does your album explore that theme?
There is a symbiosis of both. Nature imitating art and art imitating nature, it goes both ways. The album isn’t a contradiction or an opposition, it’s not a clash, of those two forces, it’s something much more organic.
We touched on electricity briefly, the artwork is an X-ray of protein molecules, shot through an electron microscope. How did you find that image?
I came across these negatives by chance, I found them in an abandoned laboratory in New York. The whole floor was empty and I had access to it. It’s a secret so I can’t say where it is! While recording Par Avion we shot the video for Sheen there. I was fascinated with them when I saw them. They reminded me of the sky at night, a thunderstorm, which takes us back to what the music is all about. The materials we use to create art and fantasy, our synthesisers, channel electricity, they’re rooted in nature.
The entire album, its composition, arrangement, recording and mixing, you did everything in one month. Did you find that kind of pressure exhausting or encouraging?
That’s right! We transported ourselves out of Brooklyn, out of the industrial zone where we live and work – a place we’ve been working since 2004 – and moved into the Clubhouse studio in Connecticut. It’s in the woods, somewhere very isolated, which allowed us to really focus on the music. That’s all we did, day and night. We had no songs written before we went there, we wrote all the material there and then.
You’ve talked about wanting to start from “Year Zero” with this record. How did you start things from scratch again?
It’s good to break habits to avoid repetition. We wanted to get back to the beginning as that’s where the romance of the music is. Technically we’ve evolved quite a lot since then, Sean has become more and more curious about FM synthesis, but we wanted to capture that sentiment.
What is FM synthesis?
It’s an unusual approach to music, it’s taken a lot of time for Sean to research it and learn it. It lets us mimic the sounds of an entire orchestra.
I understand that transparency is important in your music, but some of the themes you touch on are quite abstract. Do you think that obscures the meaning of your songs?
I guess there’s something dreamy to the project. There are a lot of dream references, there’s a desire to be transported out of the ordinary, out of the structures you see at hand. In order for magic to happen in music, there needs to be an added element which comes from the vocals and the lyrics, that’s where the obscurity comes in.
What can you tell us about “Palms” specifically?
It’s kind of a dancey track, probably the danciest on the album. I see it as an inverted tropical song, it’s a mysterious island at night, it’s moonlit and you’re surrounded by silhouettes of ships. It’s an amalgamation of different places, a figment of my imagination.