XVOTO: extraordinary experimentalism galaxies away from reality

Each week in First On, we introduce a shit-hot artist you’d have no doubt seen opening the bill for your favourite act. This week,XVOTO talk about divine inspiration, their manga fixation and "the year of the piñata"

“Music’s a lot about patience,” Saigon Fury offers from his Peckham studio. Better known as the guitarist and producer of punk pariahs HMLTD, Fury (AKA Duc Peterman) sounds galvanised talking about his new project XVOTO for the first time. “Doing music in general tests a lot of your patience and your ability to wait for stuff to happen. Jazz [Alonso] and I are used to it by now – we don’t really think about it.”

Alonso nods across Zoom, sipping water from a large wine glass – it’s the early afternoon, but only the best will do. “I didn’t really know what I wanted,” she says about the origins of XVOTO. “I knew that I needed to do something artistic, but my plan was to go to Tokyo, sit in cafés, learn Japanese and see where life would take me. Making music with Saigon offered me another path.”

From the first time they met (in a branch of McDonald’s before one of Fury’s gigs) the duo sensed a kindred creative spirit, despite Alonso’s own background not being in music. What that would morph into only became clear when they were travelling around Malta together some years later, stumbling upon an old chapel decorated with an ex-voto – an artistic offering given to the church by a worshipper following a close escape from death.

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“They can be made of anything,” says Fury. “My favourite ones are casts that people did of their own limbs. Like, if you broke your leg and had a miraculous recovery you’d make a cast of your leg and hang it up in the church, with the idea that you’re offering your own physical self to God.”

It’s a metaphor that the duo felt suited the wider context of making music, signalling a gratitude for life and all of its idiosyncrasies. “There are these other ex-votos specific to Mexico,” Alonso says, “where there’s a description of what happened underneath the drawing, including the Saint that they prayed to, or a painting of a demon. These were mostly done by rural people and it’d be common that they’d have spelling mistakes. Now these spelling mistakes are made on purpose, as part of the aesthetic.”

Alonso talks a bit about a shrine she’s set up in her own room, decorated with glue gun spirals to inspire a future collaboration with the Japanese manga artist Junji Ito. “It’s more of a plea,” she laughs.

“I don’t really relate to God in that way,” says Fury. “Him and I don’t talk very much. I’m half-Vietnamese and have a shrine with all my ancestors. I do an offering every year to make sure they have what they need in the other life, and they give me support when I need it.”

The two tracks released under the XVOTO name so far are galaxies away from the revered HMLTD sound, swapping punk riffs and darkly comic hooks for trap beats and boundary-pushing R&B – but it’s all just currency exchange in the duo’s maximalist economy. The ethos is unchanged and the results are extraordinary.

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“Music is just music, you know?” says Fury. “People think about genres and style way too much. I feel sad for musicians who are satisfied with doing the same thing their entire life. I really enjoy that feeling of dabbling into a genre you don’t fully understand and trying to work out what it is that makes that space so special. It’s like learning music all over again. If you’re doing something that you know all the tricks to, you can’t challenge anything.”

It speaks volumes that XVOTO’s hyper-produced sound is built from such organic elements. The outro to ‘Brainfreeze’ corkscrews with a heavenly euphoria thanks to a divine vocal from Remi Martin, a soul singer introduced to the band by black midi’s Seth Evans, which sits somewhere between the devotional gospel of Pastor T.L. Barrett and Charlie Wilson’s melancholy on Kanye West’s ‘Bound 2’. “It sounded like the most beautiful, breathtaking thing I’ve ever heard,” says Alonso. “He was down on his knees at times, singing at the top of his lungs.”

Elsewhere, layers of analogue synths and guitars build around machine-manipulated noise, trap beats and computer music, all colliding with an uncanny tangibility. Beyond the hyper-real, insatiable cosmos we’re shown at XVOTO’s hands, everything orbits the songs.

XVOTO
XVOTO (Picture: Press)

The accompanying video for ‘Brainfreeze’ is strangely beautiful: part-Manga, part-RPG, it recalls the psychedelic and hyperactive Adult Swim animations that seek to overwhelm. In the video for their October debut single ‘Mommy Can’t Sleep’, a miniature Jazz and Saigon fight off a fantastical enemy force. “It’s this weird thing,” says Fury, recalling his avatar, “where something looks too similar but also not similar enough.”

“I can’t look at my one,” laughs Alonso. “I have these screengrabs of us with like, half of our hair. It looked like we’d just been through this nuclear war. I drew all of the tattoos on my avatar’s body and when it was sent, it looked like something out of Silence of the Lambs – literally just the skin of the avatar hung up like a Hide.

“We only agreed to do it like this because we wanted to make a video game,” she continues, conscious not to be grouped alongside other artists who use animation. “Saigon and I spent months coming up with ideas for this whole universe. We were designing the architecture of every part of the city, the characters and how the songs would play out. The mission is just to understand the EP better, with dialogue that evokes the same strong emotions represented in the EP.”

Emotion is experiential, though; for all the world’s empathy, no two people feel the same thing. But across XVOTO’s upcoming self-titled EP, they manage to make the process of feeling a concrete activity. Whether it’s addressing addiction and forgiveness or sex and spirituality, XVOTO’s music is a prodigious invitation to feel everything at once.

“This year is going to be the year of the piñata,” Alonso concludes, palpably excited. “I feel so good about it. I saw it so clearly on New Year’s Eve. This year is a big piñata and when it explodes there’ll be pink and glitter and candy everywhere. It’s going to be a glossy year.”

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