Irene Barber talks XVIII Eyes and “I’ll Keep You”

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Guitar-driven pop is one way to describe I’ll Keep You, the newest album from Seattle’s XVIII Eyes. Not only is it the foursome’s second full-length album to date, but fans got an early preview with the track, “We Only Talk in San Francisco,” a mellow tune that was inspired by some morning beers in the Bay Area. This kind of smart, lyrical storytelling helps the album along with each pensive track – thanks to its quiet melodies and stripped-down guitar riffs and gently paced beats.

Irene Barber’s voice is a stand out, at once a little twangy and whispery, but with a delivery that makes a listener want to lean in closer to discern the secrets she’s sharing. The sonic world in which the band collectively crafts is as inviting as the sentiments themselves, like the title track, “I’ll Keep You.” It’s the kind of material one might hope to achieve with a self-produced project like this. It’s minimal in many ways, but with maximum enjoyment. And, as it turns out, it’s a highly personal project for Barber, who was inspired by a new romance as the out artist was writing many of the songs.

Loving, but far from gushing, this is the kind of album that has a West Coast feeling, but not necessarily a Pacific Northwest sound. It’s softer, guided by a lightness that might be found in the studios of Laurel Canyon rather than Pike Place. The album shines on many tracks like “I See the Light,” which has a harder, more experimental edge reminiscent of old-school Luscious Jackson. “To Be an Animal” also tackles interesting, ultimately introspective feelings about (ironically) human nature and, yep, love.

Barber gets down to business about what drives the album, how the band has evolved over the years and why critics have such a tough time fitting XVIII Eyes into any one category. She also lets us in on a few other secrets–and what Sylvia Plath has to do with the band’s name.

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AfterEllen.com: Critics have had a hard time classifying your music. How would you describe it?

Irene Barber: Motorcycle revs and beach waves have been my playful retort lately. As far as genre and style, I’d go with psychedelic, shoe-gazey pop rock. I feel it is glam at times in spirit and execution, as well.

AE: What’s the advantage of not exactly fitting into a specific musical category?

IB: We got some press once that wondered why more bands haven’t “forged a similar path.” It’s funny, when you are the one producing it, you don’t readily understand what makes it so fringe because it is of you; it’s what you know. Regardless, when people connect with it, they really connect with it, and that is the best feeling. It’s like making a new friend who really gets you.

AE: Any obstacles?

IB: The obstacle is, when you go your own way, it’s not always the most popular from the get-go. However, the artists that I find myself going back and listening to didn’t start off fitting into a neat and tidy category. They made their own.

AE: Why do you think you have such a loyal LGBT following?

IB: We’ve played and have been involved in a number of queer music events. Samantha, Jamie and myself are all openly gay, but I don’t think that is the facet people cling to in our music. We have a very diverse fan base, and we take pride in that. It’s true this band is comprised of lady-lovers, but really, queer, straight, or otherwise, we want you here with us.

AE: With that in mind, what’s the inspiration behind this new album?

IB: For me personally, I fell in love.

AE: That explains much of the lyrical content. How is it different from your last full-length project?

IB: I’ll Keep You is more sunset than full moon, less brooding than Unnovae Nights, more lively.

AE: What’s the story behind the first track that was released, ”We Only Talk in San Francisco?”

IB: This was a song title before it was a song. On our last west coast tour, Samantha and I were talking over morning beers in San Francisco. She brought up the fact that we hadn’t really talk talked in awhile. We all see each other so much for band stuff, it’s special when we have a chance to sit down and go beyond the shop talk. So that kicked it off. The song evolved into more of story about two people who are meeting up in the aftermath of an intimate relationship. Not necessarily romantic, but there is a comfortability there that allows them to confide in one another.

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AE: What kind of role does the Seattle music scene play in the music you’re making?

IB: We are extremely appreciative of the local music scene in Seattle. It’s so varied; you get to feel at home no matter what you’re up to. Our friends are all making or spinning such good music. It’s inspiring—we actually listen to each other’s records up here!

AE: What’s your creative process like—do you all write? Or are certain members responsible for different aspects of the writing, recording, etc.?

IB: The initial writing is an isolated effort. Jamie or I will come in with the conceptual and structural underpinnings for a song. Then the other three of us take the song from there, reinforcing the parts already written and/or writing our own contributions. Andy is a very musical drummer, and often helps shape the songs via the beats alone.

AE: Do you have any live shows planned outside the Pacific Northwest in conjunction with this new album release?

IB: Not yet. We’d love to hit the road this spring though.

AE: The band spends some time on Twitter–tackling stereotypes—like someone assuming you weren’t a guitarist/producer because of “your vag,” as you guys tweeted. Is this something that happens a lot?

IB: This sounds like something that happened to Jamie, our lead tweeter, so I can’t speak to this specific event. I think the struggles that women still face in the music industry are the same struggles we face in society at large. Any kind of rigidity around gender or sexuality is an obstacle, and the rigidity is definitely present in music marketing. The industry has its bucket for what it expects from all-female, or female-fronted bands. It has a bucket for what it expects from queer bands. We don’t meet either of those expectations.

AE: You mentioned that falling in love helped shape this album. What else was on your mind?

IB: This band has had some rough reincarnations, tough breakups, and all around heavy times. It shows in our previous work and that is what is great about our previous work. But this time around we’ve struck a lighter chord, if you will. We’re entering our fifth year as a band. We’re older, hopefully wiser, and ready to have a fucking good time. We are incredibly happy and comfortable with our lineup, and that frees us up to just focus on making good music.

AE: What’s on your playlist these days?

IB: I feel like I’ve only listened to three albums on repeat since summer. My Bloody Valentine’s MBV, Boards of Canada’s Tomorrow’s Harvest and Savages, Silence Yourself. We all did an interview recently where we were asked what each of our favorite songs were. The songs came from Nine Inch Nails, Mahavishnu Orchestra, The Beatles and David Bowie. I imagine all these play some role in our sound.

AE: How did you come up with your band name?

IB: I was reading The Bell Jar at the time we were brainstorming names. There is a line in the book that reads, “eighteen separate eyes.” It is in reference to having nine people scrutinize you, and I thought “eighteen separate eyes” was a very powerful way to convey that feeling. We ended up calling ourselves Eighteen Individual Eyes, but now we have simply cut the name down to XVIII Eyes. Yes, stylized with the Roman numeral.

I’ll Keep You is available now.

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