Meeting the Shadow: An Interview with Xero God
Hip-hop/electronic duo Xero God just released their first self-titled album on Circuitree Records, and if you haven’t already heard the buzz, it’s time to check in. The LP is, without a doubt, a game-changer. Combining the resonant vocals of Musashi Xero (Tyler Jackson) with the electrifying beats of Panther God (Paul Gaeta), it’s a creative tour de force. It’s also a deeply personal project for both artists, who together created the narrative of antihero Xero God, a wanderer, visionary, and poet who faces inner and outer demons on his path.
A project like this, packed as it is with creativity and originality, invites listening on all levels. At the top level, the aesthetic experience of the sound itself is on point, as beats ground you while vocals and other effects move you to transcendence. A closer listen reveals the intricacies of the sound. It’s like opening successively smaller puzzle boxes and finding something rare and strange in each. Lyrically, there’s also a narrative that pulls you into the world of Xero God. There is so much going on here, but it’s all perfectly balanced, ensuring that this will be an album you listen to again and again. For me, it’s the perfect type of creative expression: I’m already completely enthralled on the first listen, but each new session with it is a slightly different experience as details I was previously unaware of emerge. That’s one of the many reasons why I was so excited to interview Xero God. I talked with the guys about how they first started making music together, the process of recording the album, and the story of Xero God himself.
Ali: Tell me about how Xero God came about. Why did you want to work together?
Panther God [PG]: I had wrapped up 3 different Panther God releases in 2014, including my first full length LP [Golden Changes]. Those were the result of about 4 years worth of hard work, spent developing my chops as a producer and musician. I was working on a follow-up record after that and some collabos but I figured it’d be another 4 years before I’d finish another full length album. At this point, Tyler entered my life.
I first heard of Tyler through a mutual friend, Mike Folk, who goes by Aligning Minds (he’s one half of the group). I had asked Mike to do a remix for the Golden Changes remix album. When I got the remix back I was surprised to hear that Mike had added a vocalist. The vocals had a unique character to them but were heavily processed, so I still didn’t know what he really was about, but was intrigued. I went to a show he was performing at, and I thought, “Hey, this guy is onto something, he’s got a unique voice and perspective.” So I hit him up on Facebook, sent him a beat, and within a week or so, we had recorded the first track on the album, “GNRS.” It was a quick and fluid process, so we just kept going.
I’d always wanted to make rap albums from day one, and working with Tyler gave me a chance to get back to my original intention with music: to make rap beats. It just took awhile to manifest.
Musashi Xero [MX]: Paul hit me up to work on a song together and it just went from there. I think the first time I met him was at the Moog Store [in downtown Asheville]. The first song we wrote was “Gold Nose Ring Shit” (“GNRS”) and I was all in by the time I finished my part. The vibe was crazy. I had seen his name around and knew of his work with the Asheville Beat Tape Collective, so when he reached out I was excited. I had been on the lookout for local producers to collaborate with and things fell into place with ease.
Ali: What roles did you each take on the project? What did you each bring to the table? How did the composition process work?
PG: In a nutshell, I handle the production duties and Tyler handles the vocals. He also gives me ideas for where interludes could happen, some samples get sent my way for a transition, that kind of thing. There’s also a guitarist and engineer who laid down guitar on three tracks, and did some additional mixing with me on the album. His name is Kevin Carballo, really talented guy. DJ Kutzu added some cuts on 3 or 4 tracks as well. He’s a local legend ’round these parts.
MX: Ya, definitely a big shout out to Kevin and Sarah Carballo! Kutzu too, that’s our homie. As far as the writing goes I always create in the moment, I don’t often idle once I’m on so When I hit my vibe I like to run with it and not stop till I’m exhausted. Panther God would send over new tracks and I’d knock’m out, hit him up the next day with the song completed, and we’d move onto the next one. We had a running joke about how things happened “super naturally.” Just how things played out was very smooth, we had never worked together before and I was impressed with how quickly he could turn around and send me a new track. The writing process took a month and a half to two months. Painless.
Ali: How did the collaboration process unfold over the course of the album’s conception to final touches? Any particular challenges, moments of synchronicity, unexpected discoveries?
PG: Almost all the original drafts for the beats for Xero God were made within one or two sessions over a period of two months or less. This is gonna sound very hippy dippy, but I felt like I had a lot of help writing the music from the universe, or God, if you will. Nothing had ever flowed so effortlessly. All of a sudden I found a clear purpose for my productions, which really invigorated me. Having said that, mixing the vocals and adding the finishing touches was an insane amount of work. It’s hard for the average person to really appreciate how much time and effort goes into finishing a record. I was working on it up until the day it was handed off to the mastering engineer. There were even a few changes to the mixes after I heard the masters.
MX: For real, PG put in some serious man hours making this record sound so good! It shows. The collab process was pretty straightforward this time around but we haven’t even begun to tap into our potential as a duo. This is just the beginning.
Ali: Tell me about the character of Xero God. What’s his story, if you envision him as a character (which I think you’ve said you do in the past)? Is this a concept album about him and his journey? Is there any sort of narrative or arc? If so, was this clear from the beginning or did it unfold as you worked on it? (And even if not, how did your vision for the album evolve)?
PG: I’ll let Tyler answer this more. But what I will say is that it was a lot of fun trying to keep things very thematic. Each song is like a microcosm of the whole, and all the interludes and vocal samples are tied right into this theme.
MX: This project lyrically is very narrow in its scope in that it’s focused so intensely inward. I wrote the majority of this album in the fall of 2014 when my headspace was completely fucked. Just twisted up and unhealthy. Really dark, totally dope. This album is an expression of where I was at during that time. I always write from my own perspective, about myself. Xero God is a total antihero story. He’s a bit of a drug user, bit of a womanizer, prone to isolating himself and wanting to lash out at others. But he’s honest, he’s aware. He’s indulging in his dark side and owning it. Exploring it. I’ve always found comfort in that.
To sum up the overall lyrical theme I’ll quote something I wrote for my part of the ‘Thank You” section on the album: “The tenacity of malevolence and the persistence of a benevolent nature.” I really fell in love with that thought; puts a bow on it all.
As far as the story goes the simplest way to put it is Handshake-Murder-Prison-Release-Death-Resurrection. But really it’s not even about all that. I just want people to hear me out, hear us out.
Ali: What is your favorite song on the record and why?
MX: The title track “Xero God.” It’s the introduction to who Xero God is, the handshake. It describes who we’re talking about and what the listener is in for. Sets the mood and shows everyone what he is about. Plus that shit bumps in my Nissan.
PG: That’s like choosing your favorite child. Not a fair question. But, if I really had to choose, it’d be the single, “Kill Pack.” This track had over 50 layers to it and at one point I was sure it would never get finished. When we decided it was going to be the single, I had my doubts because that song is the first thing the world will hear from the album and from XERO GOD, and I knew it was going to be a herculean task to finish. I used a lot of digital synths on that song which made it a nightmare to mix. Honestly though, I find it hard to take any one song out of the context of the full album because to me, we created a little mini opera here.
Ali: Any particular influences on the project/your contributions to the project? Other music? Art? Film? Literature?
MX: Anime has always been an influence for me. You’ll hear references throughout the album to Yu Yu Hakusho, Kill la Kill, Tokyo Ghoul among others. It’s something that began for me in childhood and never let go. I also drew a lot of parallels to a Christlike figure throughout the writing. I came to think of Xero God as an Antichrist but not so much in a demonic way. Just kind of an asshole misguided Jesus type. Careless, selfish and arrogant. There are several references to that on the album. I had a lot of fun playin’ around with that line.
PG: I’m a big fan of instrumental hip-hop in general. I also love jazz and heady electronica (Warp/Ninja Tune type of stuff) and I think you can hear those influences on the album. This is kinda my jazz album in terms of production, chord progression, harmony, etc. I could reference a bunch of musicians I’m into but I think it’s all pretty obvious. I’m also really fanatical about Kung Fu, and I feel like the work I do as a martial artist has a direct, if difficult to pinpoint, impact on my productions.
Ali: How and why did you decide to end “Kill Pack” — and the album — with acoustic guitar?
PG: It’s actually an electric guitar but definitely very organic sounding. When I was tracking guitar on the song with Kevin, he was noodling around with the melody and I said, “that’s how we should end the song”…almost like a reprise or something you’d hear at the end of a Gospel track or a Classical piece. It’s a summation of the main theme. Tyler had the idea to fade out the vocals with the beat right before the guitar came in. All in all that song represents easily over 100-150 hours of labor! Hopefully people like it.
Ali: How can people get the album?
MX: Through blood sacrifice.
Ali: What’s next? Any upcoming shows? New music in the works?
PG: We’re basically working on a whole bunch of new stuff, just experimenting with our sound a for the follow up releases. We don’t want to repeat ourselves, but there’s still a lot to explore in the sonic world we’ve created. There’ll be more diversity, with some club friendly tracks and also some where Tyler is singing.
MX: Just don’t miss our shows, Xeroooo!