XIXA's Chucks Cumbia Covers and Goes All-Original on New Album

XIXA came to exist almost by accident.

The Tucson sextet – formerly known as Chicha Dust – formed and began playing the Peruvian style of psychedelic cumbia as a way to get more gigs without overbooking the solo projects of its two co-founders, Brian Lopez and Gabriel Sullivan. With almost zero self-promotion – no website or Facebook presence at first, and just an eight-song EP recorded live at a warehouse show in 2013 – Chicha Dust found themselves in far more demand than expected.

"Gabe and I had conspired to start a group covering chicha songs, just so we didn’t have to get proper jobs. We could play restaurants and parties and make extra money. It’s such a fun and immediate type of music," Lopez says.

Lopez first discovered chicha music on the Roots of Chicha (named after the fermented corn drink) compilation released in 2007 on New York’s Barbès record label. Excited by the cross-cultural blend of psychedelic rock, cumbia, and Afro-Cuban percussion, Lopez and Sullivan quickly started playing their own versions of songs like "Cariñito," by Los Hijos de Sol.

"It just got bigger faster than we’d anticipated, and it forced us to drop what we were doing at the time with our own solo projects and focus on this while we’re super honed in," Lopez says. "It was totally by accident, but we immersed ourselves and studied the music." 

Having both played as sidemen in Giant Sand, Lopez and Sullivan put their own solo projects on the backburner as Chicha Dust began growing more popular in Tucson and Phoenix, their blend of Latin rhythms and psychedelic guitar rock finding an instant connection with audiences no matter if the lyrics were in Spanish or English.

Along the way, Lopez and Sullivan picked up the bandmates who fill out the XIXA roster: Jason Urman on keyboards, Geoffrey Hidalgo on bass, Efren Cruz Chavez on timbales and percussion, and Winston Watson on drums. Much of the sound of XIXA exists in the band’s contrasts. As lead vocalists, Lopez has drawn comparisons to Jeff Buckley, while Sullivan’s rough voice lands more on the Tom Waits end of the spectrum. Similarly, Cruz came to the band only knowing Latin music, while Watson is a well-known rock drummer, having toured with Alice Cooper and Bob Dylan.

"We came from a rock 'n' roll background, but we were obsessed with this chicha thing," Sullivan says. "It was the perfect time because we were naturally finding in that music where each of our personalities fit in in natural ways." 

Finding more of a unique identity led the band to shed the Chicha Dust name, selecting XIXA for its striking visual geometry, without a particular regard for pronunciation (though they’ve since settled on "seeksa"). The band has dropped the traditional songs they adopted at the start, writing and performing original songs. XIXA’s choice of cover songs has also changed, with a wicked version of the Meat Puppets' "Plateau" on the band’s Shift and Shadow EP released in late 2015.

Fittingly, both Shift and Shadow and XIXA’s full-length debut album, Bloodline, are released in the United States on the same Barbès label that introduced Lopez and Sullivan to chicha music to begin with. (The German label Glitterhouse Records distributes XIXA in Europe.)

"We just knew that we had something unique there, and slowly we started incorporating some of our own songs and the sound took more of a rock 'n' roll approach and separated us from the more authentic cumbia bands around," Lopez says.

Becoming XIXA, a band that springboarded from the chicha inspiration into its own sound, took far more effort than simply being Chicha Dust and playing parties.

"I don’t think we really knew what we were doing or why we were doing it, but from all the buzz we were getting and the shows getting bigger and bigger, we knew we had to get in the studio to record something," Sullivan says.

The band built out a recording studio in their practice space, named Dust & Stone Studio, and got to work, not just on songwriting, but on what the XIXA process and sound would be, and how to make the most out of the band’s distinct elements. 

"We did sessions without a game plan for a while," Sullivan says, "but we realized the best way to work was to just block out three or four days at a time and everyone would take time off. No girlfriend time, no work time, we’d be there all day, as long as we needed. We’d just write. Anybody came in with any idea, we’d work on that and hash it out. We spent eight months working like that. A lot of the songs developed over months and months and changed drastically."

After the February release of Bloodline, XIXA booked its first full tour as a band, jetting off to Europe for 24 shows in April and May, then playing a festival in the Netherlands before returning home for the band’s first Phoenix show as XIXA on July 3. And despite all the genre-bending shifts and the long-simmering gestation for the band, XIXA has found an immediate connection with audiences that’s on par with the first impression the band made as Chicha Dust.

"It feels like the band has been around a long time and it’s matured a lot since we started. The coolest part I’ve been finding out is it’s very easily accessible for almost any audience on first impression," Sullivan says. "That was the beauty of Chicha Dust and that’s rolled into XIXA. It’s very accessible for anybody coming from any age, any nationality."

XIXA is scheduled to perform Sunday, July 3 at Valley Bar. 
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Eric is a freelance writer covering music, travel, science, and food and drink.
Contact: Eric Swedlund