Curses and Blessings
Kansas City transplants HXXS release their debut LP, ‘Year Of The Witch,’ via Captured Tracks
It was almost 9 p.m. on a frigid early November evening when I met the members of HXXS at miniBar. We sat at a table downstairs after the duo had just schlepped their sprawling collection of cables, pedals and various other equipment upstairs, taking a moment to relax before the show got rolling. They both seemed a bit tired, but it’s understandable; sharklike in the sea of underground music, HXXS never stops moving.
Gavin Neves and Jeannie Colleene both spent childhood years in California — Neves in Santa Cruz and Colleene in Bakersfield — before eventually meeting in Portland, Oregon several years ago. Neves was busking on the street one day, playing a Rolling Stones song as Colleene walked by. The pair, who began dating soon after, both had roots in styles of music more traditional than what they’ve created in HXXS. Neves had spent years playing guitar in rock bands and Colleene had played violin in her high school’s orchestra.
“Before HXXS, I didn’t know anything about using electronic gear, so for me, having that hands-on thing is — it’s a learning process,” Colleene said, describing her ever-shifting live setup and refusal to run a backing track on a laptop. “If it weren’t challenging, I don’t think I’d be learning anything. I always like to change up how things go.”
“When I first started, I hated electronic music and I feel like that’s really silly and uninformed now,” Neves said of his rocker days. “It was all a huge learning curve for me and that’s what made it fun and cathartic and more possible to experiment. Like, ‘I don’t know the rules of any of this, so I guess they don’t apply.’”
This sonic lawlessness has been earning HXXS fans since the band’s inception. Early on, while still based on the West Coast, it caught the ear of Angus Andrew of long-running electro-punk favorites Liars. Andrew would eventually produce much of the band’s glitched-out debut EP “MKDRONE,” released online in September 2017.
The EP’s release came right around the time they decided to relocate to Kansas City. Colleene and Neves had previously met a member of local indie rock group Mild Cats on tour and were invited to stay in his attic.
“We felt welcomed the second we were here,” Colleene said. “We met so many great musicians and played with so many great musicians. It didn’t ever feel like we were stepping on anyone’s turf. We were embraced, like a Midwestern hug,” she laughed. Neves briefly references the territorial nature of the scenes in Portland and other buzzy music biz hotspots.
Though they’ve called Kansas City home for two years now, they’re not here all that often. The duo is on the road playing several dozen tour dates around America each year. While constant touring can prove to be physically and mentally exhausting, HXXS landed its deal with Brooklyn indie label Captured Tracks (home to DIIV, Wild Nothing, and, until recently, Mac DeMarco) after impressing a label rep at a gig.
Writing for the band’s debut LP, “Year Of The Witch,” began at home. They now have an actual bedroom; the attic space they once occupied has been converted into a makeshift studio, portrayed in miniature in the fun and freaky music video for “Last Days Of Magic.” While their material has always skewed a bit towards the occult (the band name is pronounced “hexes” if you didn’t know), the house itself provided some key inspiration on the new album.
Among other spooky occurrences like an organ turning on by itself and shadowy figures in the halls, Neves and Colleene experienced shared dreams of the house catching fire, soundtracked by screaming and chanting (as well as one voice whispering to Neves the words that would become the chorus to “Year Of The Knife.”)
HXXS continued work on the album during their time on tour, stopping wherever they could for additional recording sessions. By the time they got home, the record was nearly finished and ready to turn in. That’s when they encountered one final (and less supernatural) bit of bad luck: the hard drive containing all of their work was stolen from the house.
“Having to send that email [to the label], like, ‘It’s gone,’ was the most terrifying thing,” Colleene said. Lucky enough, the folks at Captured Tracks were sympathetic and noted that Mac DeMarco was put in a similar situation while working on “Salad Days.”
After re-recording and reworking much of the album on a time crunch, “Year Of The Witch” was released last month. Not for the closed-minded or faint of heart, the album is an engaging work, ranging from the visceral and biblical horrors of songs like “Hail Mary” to the strangely danceable and introspective “Hard To Tell.” There are enough irregular textures to make a music nerd flip out and instrumental oddities to evoke endless punishing from overzealous gearheads.
The night of our chat, HXXS took to the bar’s intimate stage a few minutes after midnight. They warned the sound person that there would be some intentional feedback before blasting through a 35-minute set of controlled loop-pedal-and-distorted-guitar chaos, pausing only to dispense playful, sardonic bits of banter for the dozen or so fans that had stuck around. All blessing, no curse; Kansas City has found its favorite musical transplants.
“Year Of The Witch” is available now via Captured Tracks.
—Aaron Rhodes is a music journalist based in Kansas City, Missouri. He is the editor-in-chief of Shuttlecock Music Magazine, content manager at Do816, and a frequent contributor to The Pitch and 90.9 The Bridge.