The Musical World of Xander Harris : A Conversation with Justin Sweatt

By J. Hubner

Photo by Victoria Renard Photography

In just a very short amount of time the music of artist Xander Harris, known to friends, family, and his high school Marching Band instructor as Justin Sweatt, has made a pretty huge impression on me. Starting with his most recent album, 2017s Transmission Dust, then working my way through The New Dark Age Of Love, California Chrome, and Urban Gothic, I was floored by Sweatt’s constant evolution with each record. He runs the stylistic gamut on his four full-lengths; from sleazy giallo to dark techno to ambient to dystopian dark synth. There seems to be a constant push to change up what he’s doing each time out. Rather than sit comfortably on top of a single musical trend, Justin Sweatt takes the music of Xander Harris into new territory each time out.

Like I said, it’s been a fairly short amount of time that I’ve been privy to the musical world of Xander Harris, but I’m happy to have finally stumbled into his records. Whenever I come across an artist that is always moving forward, I want to ask them what pushes them to create like they do. What drives their creative mind? Where do they pull inspiration and influence from? Sometimes these artists are up for some questions and sometimes they’re not. Fortunately for you(and me) Justin Sweatt was happy to talk to me about the musical world of Xander Harris.

J. Hubner: So where did you grow up?

Justin Sweatt: I grew up in Midland, TX.  It’s in the middle of nowhere out in West Texas filled with social conservatives, oil fields, and a totally flat desert environment.

J. Hubner: Was music an important factor in your life growing up in West Texas?

Justin Sweatt: Music was definitely important to me out there because there weren’t that many people I could relate to and it seemed like a doing music was a way out of the area.  Truthfully, I have a love/hate relationship with West Texas but I think it has more to do with my general love/hate relationship with life.

J. Hubner: So music was a constant for you in your formative years?

Justin Sweatt:  I was always interested in music as a child. My childhood friend Joel had a piano and I’d plink around on it.  I had a little record player when I was about 5 I would take everywhere  that my grandmother gifted me when I was little.  She gave me a bunch of 45s but the Beach Boys “Surfing USA” 45 was the one I would listen to constantly.  It began a life long obsession with Brian Wilson, weirdly enough.

J. Hubner: Besides Brian Wilson, was there any other artist that hit you hard when you were growing up?

Justin Sweatt: Like all teenagers during my era the most important band for me was Nirvana.  Cliche but it’s true and Nirvana was the gateway to everything else as far as forming my listening habits.  80s music was a constant as a kid as well, my mom always jammed the Eurythmics, Thompson Twins, and stuff like that.

J. Hubner: Do you remember the first album you ever bought?

Justin Sweatt: First album I ever bought with my own money was a Tears for Fears CD.

J. Hubner: Growing up in West Texas did you often haunt the local video store for classic 70s and 80s American and Italian horror films? 

Justin Sweatt:  I did scavenge VHS stores as a kid for horror stuff but it mostly consisted of Carpenter and Hellraiser, mainstream horror titles.  Most video stores in West Texas didn’t have any of the Italian directors when I was a teenager.  It took me moving to Austin before I was ever able to have an opportunity to watch any of those films.

J. Hubner: So how does cinema play into your work, if at all?

Justin Sweatt: Frankly, film isn’t incredibly influential to my writing process.  Certain soundtracks are in there but I am mostly inspired by works of horror/weird/sci-fi fiction.  Reading has always been more of my thing and more rewarding as far as jump starting the imagination.

J. Hubner: I think there’s a lot to be said about inspiration through the written word. How it works its way into your music I find pretty fascinating. So you’re reading all these books growing up. When does your interest in electronic music come in?

Justin Sweatt: Electronic music was explored in my teen years, especially the Clockwork Orange soundtrack, but it was through discovering industrial music at the record store I worked at that made the biggest impression.  My boss gave me a copy of Chris Carter’s “The Space Between” and I’ve been obsessed with that release ever since.  I own multiple copies of that album.  Skinny Puppy is a huge one, my best friend was always having me check out Front 242 and everything else in the industrial genre from the 80s.  We geeked out on it pretty hard.  She had an Oberheim synth and we played music together so I was really impressed with everything she recommended.

J. Hubner: It’s great having that one friend that puts you onto bands and artists you’d otherwise not know about. I’ve got a old friend that put me onto Skinny Puppy and Ministry in high school, then Boards Of Canada when we were older. Not sure I could ever repay him enough for that.

Justin Sweatt: I’ve never found anything on my own, I’ve always looked at my friends’ collections for finding new music.  Now I just have my friends share their Spotify playlists with me so I can keep up with new releases. There’s a part of me that wishes I could be a tastemaker but it’s just never been my forte.

J. Hubner: So has keyboards always been your instrument of choice?

Justin Sweatt: My primary instrument is drums.  High school life was marching band and then I went to college for sound engineering and music.  My desire was to be the next Steve Albini but that didn’t really work out. My family isn’t well off so I never had the capital or investors to open a studio like I’ve always dreamed of.  The construction of sound and the way records are made has always had an appeal to me.  Recording basics was something I learned with a friend’s four track and then started learning how to play other instruments to learn the way each instrument works in terms of composition and sound.

J. Hubner: A lot of the electronic musicians I’ve talked to came up in the hardcore scene. Were you ever in a punk band? 

Justin Sweatt: I wasn’t a hardcore kid, I wasn’t any kid to be honest.  I played drums in metal, punk, jazz, country, all sorts of different bands.  I’ve never been a one genre kind of guy, I’ve always really liked all music. Hardcore is something I love but I was never tough enough for that scene nor was I into being extreme in my appearance.  At that time I had long hair, a Black Flag T-shirt, and a pair of jeans.  Bands that looked like someone who worked at a janitor’s office were more appealing to me.  Even with goth, I love the look but I’ve never been compelled to wear leather, make up, or be outwardly anything other than a black jeans and a t-shirt guy.  The only thing that hardcore made an impression on me was be cool, be a part of your community, and it made me pretty radical in my politics. The DIY aspect of that community has always appealed to me but the fast and angry thing not so much, even as a teenager.

J. Hubner: What was your musical life like before Xander Harris? What other projects have you been involved in?

Justin Sweatt: Life before Xander Harris was interesting as I mostly just played drums or did noise duo material.  I have played in probably 100 bands but mostly bands that never did anything outside of the area where I was living.  All different styles but nothing really in print anymore.  Band names like Kosmodrome, Scab Sand Witch, We Can Cut You, Dry County, Bella, Skiesfalling, Red Ox, just to name a few.  In Austin I was in a couple of projects before trying to live in Los Angeles last year that have releases coming out.  I played drums and synth in a kraut rock band called Future Museums, which is still going strong.  Neil, who heads up Future Museums, just put out an album on Holodeck Records (Adam from Survive’s label) that I did some production work on.  Holodeck is also releasing a record this year from my friend Nicolas who heads up the project Single Lash.  It’s a goth-y shoegaze-y band that I played bass and synths on the record that’s coming out. I’m quite proud of it and I think Nicolas will be one of those house hold names in no time.  For Xander history, Nicolas painted the cover for California Chrome and he’s one of the most talented people I think I’ve ever worked with.  I miss being in Single Lash but we all have our things we have to do.

J. Hubner: Going thru your discography, from 2011’s ‘Urban Gothic’ to last year’s ‘Termination Dust’, you seem to have evolved your sound with each successive album. You’re not sticking to just a horror/score vibe or straight up 80s dance nostalgia. ‘The New Dark Age Of Love’ sounds completely different from ‘California Chrome’. And ‘Termination Dust’ sounds completely different from ‘California Chrome’. What’s your writing process like?

Justin Sweatt:  I try to go out of my way to make each record completely different.  Honestly, I love Urban Gothic but I doubt I’ll ever make another record like that ever in my career unless I was hired to do a score in the vein.   I don’t really care abut horror scores much these days and it’s not much of an influence anymore.  I feel like it’s better to try and grow your sound and push yourself into new territory.  Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.

J. Hubner: Going into an album, do you have a certain theme or concept you want to stick to?

Justin Sweatt: Every time I write I always have about 5 grandiose ridiculous ideas that only make sense to me.  Much of the music I write is composed in my head when I’m at work.  After my shift I’ll come home, fuss with the notes, the chord changes, the key, and the sound a bit and start tracking but most of it is already stewing in the brain.  My brain is always on, sometimes for the better, sometimes not for the best.  The new album is all internal narrative and it’s the first one not inspired by works of horror fiction or books in general.  In fact, it’ll be the least nostalgic and horror-esque thing I’ve ever done.  I was quite happy with California Chrome and Termination Dust so I’m going more in that vein where I follow more my own internal narrative than anything. Termination Dust is a celebration of the author Laird Barron but it’s also a celebration of philosophy of Thomas Ligotti.

photo by Pagan Gold

J. Hubner: Since you brought it up, let’s talk a bit about your latest album Termination Dust. It’s an amazing piece of work, btw. How did that record come together? 

Justin Sweatt: Thank you. The influences for that one are all over the place.  I had originally pitched “Carrion Gods” and “Jaws of Saturn” to GhostBox in the UK as a 45 but it didn’t happen.  I had put up a couple of songs on Bandcamp during those sessions and made an EP couple with the Carrion and Jaws.  Eventually I was approached by Data Airlines to release it on vinyl if I could record more material to make it a full length.  I did the sessions for the rest of the album in about 3 days, which is pretty quick for me.

J. Hubner: As far as the sound of Termination Dust, it definitely sounds distinctly unique to your other albums. Who or what were some influences on the overall sound of the record?

Justin Sweatt: At the time of Termination Dust I was listening to a lot of Broadcast, BBC workshop material, Roedelius, Advisory Circle, John Bender, simpler electronic releases that were more about heavy emotion and less layering. I’ve always had an affinity for krautrock so there was a lot of that on the phone soundtracking the walk to work during those sessions. I wanted simple and effective but wanted to mix in acoustic instruments more like electric piano and real bass.

J. Hubner: I love the combination of organic and electronic sound. 

Justin Sweatt: The mix of acoustic with electronic is something I’m exploring heavily and in more detail on the next album.  People who are really into Urban Gothic are probably going to dislike the next one. It’s a nod of the hat to a lot of different genres, influences, people, all stirred up in my weird stew.  Nothing on the new album I’m working on would be considered horror though. Perhaps Drive-esque in parts (and only on maybe two tracks) but it’s definitely going in a totally different direction.

photo by Nicolas Nadeau

J. Hubner: You recently moved from Austin to New Orleans. How has the change of scenery been?

Justin Sweatt: The change of scenery has been fantastic, I’ve always liked New Orleans and it definitely feels like home. I’ve wanted to live in New Orleans since I was a kid the city has always held a fascination for me.  My only wish is that Trent Reznor would move back and help start a crazy electronic scene.  Having said that there are some great electronic cats here.  Joey from Pressures, who also runs one of the best record stores in America called disco Obskura, has always been here in New Orleans and incredibly supportive.  My friend Justin Vial, who used to be in Kindest Lines, also does a lot of electronic work here in New Orleans that is stellar.  I recently saw a performance of Andy from Thou and his electronic work is amazing.  A friend got me to come out to that and it was a pleasant surprise.

J. Hubner: Austin seems to have a pretty amazing electronic music scene, with Holodeck Records and Mondo located there as sort of flagship spots for all things synth-related. But sometimes a change of scenery is the best thing for re-starting the creative fires. 

Justin Sweatt: Austin is a great place but it hasn’t felt like home for a while for a myriad of personal reasons.  That’s not a bad thing, sometimes you need to move on in order to jump start the next phase of life and I felt like my time in Austin had come to a close.  I’m grateful for the relationships and experiences I have there, the music community in that city is like nothing else.  Austin’s music community is a true community whereas a lot of places I’ve been to just view you as competition.  That’s the great thing about Austin, and even New Orleans, is that people do give a shit on a human level that is quite rare.  There are still ties, I’m part of a cassette label out of Austin called Somatic headed up by my friends Michael and Lee. I do a lot of mastering for the releases and feebly attempt to get PR for the artists.

J. Hubner: So what do you have coming up next? What does 2018 hold for Xander Harris and Justin Sweatt?

Justin Sweatt: I’m working on a new record but I have no idea when it will come out.  I’m toying with it being a double LP as I have a lot of songs at the moment in various states that I would like to finish all at once and then decide if I’ll split it up or keep them all together.  I don’t know if people’s attention spans are up for it.

J. Hubner: Has New Orleans had an impact on the sound of the next album?

Justin Sweatt: New Orleans has definitely made an impact compositionally, I don’t see how you could avoid it if you walk around and listen.  I’ve always been a big fan of old funk and soul music so I listen to a lot of WWOZ, a local radio station here. Watching the drum lines here is fantastic so the city is definitely having an influence on the new material rhythmically and the drummer in me is squealing with joy.  The bass lines during the old New Orleans soul days are ridiculous so I’ve been thinking of ways of incorporating some of those ideas in terms of bass lines on the synth with a sense of melody into the new material.

Go check out out the work of Xander Harris, aka Justin Sweat, over at his Bandcamp page. And to keep up on all things Xander Harris, give him a follow on Facebook here.

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