Xiu Xiu: Interview
“If there was something we were interested in doing, we would not hesitate to do it if we thought it would freak people out or annoy people.”
It’s no big secret that Xiu Xiu’s Jamie Stewart is something of an idealized figure in the tiny world of TMT. Few artists appear twice on our list of favorite albums of the decade (Knife Play and Fabulous Muscles). And — to denote our supreme tact and flawless appraisal — for good reason. But if there’s any clear explanation for this webzine’s ongoing love affair with Stewart, it has everything do with just how damned exposed and intimate the music of Xiu Xiu is.
Whether it’s the unrelenting cacophony of emotion on debut Knife Play, the smeared and electro-battered pop of mid-period Fabulous Muscles, or the slightly underrated noise-goth-pop excursions of both The Air Force and Women As Lovers, it’s impossible not to feel that Stewart, like our greatest of artists — the Bowies, the Iggy Pops, the Ian Curtises, etc. — is giving away a piece of himself with every album, a piece he’ll never truly get back in return.
Just try and come up with an album title more candid than Dear God, I Hate Myself. While the music of Xiu Xiu is candid, in conversation, Stewart wasn’t afraid to draw the line when my questions hit a few taboos. Nevertheless, with calm pleasantry, he spoke of keeping traditional music personal, fatherly aesthetic advice, friendly collaborations, childhood phobia, and the unknown pleasures of covering one of the greatest albums of all time.
How are things going today?
I’m good, how are you?
I’m doing great — just sitting in Mill Valley, Calif., at my house, enjoying the weather.
I’m totally jealous. It’s freezing here. […]
Where are you right now?
That’s actually one of the questions I wanted to ask. I know you’ve been part of the Bay Area community for quite a while — being in San Jose, Oakland, etc. — then you moved to North Carolina. What was the reason for the move? What’s been the difference — positive and negative — about it?
Um, I’m keeping the reason to myself a little bit.
But the negatives would be that it completely, totally, thoroughly, in every conceivably plausible way sucks ass. And the positives will be that I will someday be able to move away from here. [Laughs]
Were you able to record the most recent album there, or did you record somewhere else?
I recorded almost all of it here. A little bit in Oakland but almost all of it here.
Because the band has gone through so many different stages and changes over the years — recently, member changes with your cousin Caralee McElroy leaving the band and Angela Seo joining — how has this recent transition been going? As things have fallen into place, has it felt pretty natural?
Oh, yeah. It’s been a piece of cake. Angela’s great. We just finished a UK tour. She played really, really beautifully. She and I are really close friends, so it’s easy hanging out with her and she’s traveled a lot. Touring was not a difficult adjustment for her. So, it’s been really easy and really positive.
That’s great. And you’re still playing with percussionist Ches Smith, is that right?
Yeah, he records. He’s not touring this year, but he’s still involved in the writing and recording.
Cool. How did you initially get involved with him?
His wife is my oldest friend. So, I’ve known him since they started going out — and then, y’know, just because we were in music […] and also because the connection through his wife, we stayed friends. In 2006, he had a band called Congs For Brums that was gonna open for Xiu Xiu on tour and we thought, considering he played on a lot of the records before it […] he would join the band.
You have a video that came out recently — I know you did one after the “Dear God, I Hate Myself” video — but that’s the one that’s gotten a lot of attention for featuring self-induced vomiting. I know a lot of artists believe it’s not their job to worry about how their music or art is going to be received but to simply do the work they feel is best. Would you agree with this philosophy? Did you ever have any second thoughts about the video being too much for people to handle?
Before my dad died — who was involved in music — something that he told me that he regretted not having done when he was in bands was he regretted not taking things too far. So, since the band had started, we have never been particularly concerned about that.
“When I was growing up in Los Angeles, in my neighborhood, there was a serial killer. And, at one point, I’m pretty sure he broke into our backyard.”
I think that shows — in a good way.
It just seemed like good advice from him — to not be afraid of that sort of thing. It’s not the point of the band. But if there was something we were interested in doing, we would not hesitate to do it if we thought it would freak people out or annoy people.
I remember first listening to the title track on the newest record. Initially, I assumed that the “Dear God” part was just an expression like “Oh, god” or “Oh my god” or something like that. But then I read somewhere that the song came from a moment of prayer. At the risk of sounding cliché, do you, at all, consider yourself a spiritual person? If so, what does that word — “spiritual” — mean to you?
Ooh, yeah, I definitely do. It’s something that I’ve always been pretty private about, but I assumed that once this record came out that people might ask about it. And I’m not sure what to say other than, “yeah” […] I don’t know if it makes any difference or makes any sense […] I don’t go into what my particular belief system is, but it’s a big part of my life.
One thing that shows up on the record that’s really nice is the folk traditional cover “Cumberland Gap.” Also, for TMT’s Darfur compilation, we included your version of another traditional, “Farther On” —
Oh yeah, actually, I was big into that stuff at the same time.
Do you feel a certain attraction toward honoring traditional works? Would you ever foresee yourself doing an entire album of traditionals?
I tried, well, let’s see […] I guess the first part of the idea, I absolutely, thoroughly, totally love that music. And both my aforementioned dad and my uncle were part of the first wave of folk revival in the 60s. So, that era of songs — y’know, Civil War-era stuff, the 30s stuff — was sort of their initial inspiration. So, I think just having an interest in that has been semi-genetic.
What was the second part of this question? Oh, would I consider doing a record of this? I thought about it for a long time. I learned a ton of songs and I did a short little tour just playing old timey songs. But, I don’t know, I felt kind of like a poseur doing it.
For those two songs — y’know, the ones that we put out — I had a personal connection to those two songs. But I [clearly] couldn’t find other songs that, aside from just liking them a whole lot, I felt like I [couldn’t] put [them] across with any sort of integrity. […] But that’s a really wonderful era of music.
I know you’ve been longtime friends and a collaborator with drummer Greg Saunier from Deerhoof — having produced several of your records. I understand you guys are going to be doing a Joy Division cover album of Unknown Pleasures —
We’re not doing a record, we’re just doing two shows.
Oh, two shows.
We’re not recording anything.
Still, how did you guys decide on doing that?
Well, there’s a romantic side and an unromantic side to it. The unromantic side to it is that the particular festival — the Donaufestival in Austria — is one that Xiu Xiu has played a couple of times and Deerhoof has played. I’ve gotten to become friends with the promoters. It’s a really, really superbly curated festival. And when we played in 2008, they asked us if in 2010 we would be interested in doing a special performance. Every year they put a little extra of the budget aside for some sort of expanded show outside of a band that’s playing their normal set. And, of course, we were very, very happy to do it. I asked them when they needed to know what our plans were, and they said the beginning of 2009.
So, y’know, I made all these crazy ideas of stuff that I wanted to do, but then I didn’t hear from them at all. I didn’t want to go begging them. And I just [presumed] they forgot or whatever, changed their minds. Y’know, not a big deal, it happens all the time. But then the promoter got back to me relatively recently and asked [me] to do it. And I [tried] to think of something that would be possible to do that would not take a million years, because I didn’t have a million years to work on it at that point. In addition, hopefully, people would find interesting as well.
Unknown Pleasures is obviously one of the most beloved records in the world. But it’s not a technically difficult record to play at all. So, I figured it wouldn’t take a huge amount of [effort] to put that together. And the songs are obviously incredibly solid and fantastic. So, that’s the unromantic side of it. And the romantic side of it is […] it’s one of the most formative and important records to me, I mean, as it is to everybody else. But, additionally, a record that completely changed the game for what art rock could be or what emotional music could be like. So, in that way, it occupies a really big part of my heart.
And, additionally, Deerhoof is another band that, for me, really changed everything. They were the first band I ever heard that, in a rock-type setting, used extreme dissonant harmonies but then also really beautiful melodies on top of them. And that really completely changed my perception of what writing music could be like. So, I guess the idea was to put those two bands together.
“The negatives would be that [North Carolina] completely, totally, thoroughly, in every conceivably plausible way sucks ass. And the positives will be that I will someday be able to move away from here.”
I’d be really excited to hear what that sounds like.
I’m curious about it too. I think I’m really looking forward to it.
Speaking of collaborations, one thing I really enjoyed that you did a while ago was the Creepshow collaboration with Grouper. Did you have any interest in doing something else with Elizabeth Harris in the future?
Yeah, I would totally love to. We talked about it for a second, but it seemed like we both get really busy with stuff. But she’s really great to work with — very, very talented. I like her personally a whole lot.
How did you like Dragging a Dead Deer? That was my favorite record of that year.
Yeah, it’s really superb. The first two songs are really, really, really outstanding.
Definitely, I agree. And you’ve done a lot of stuff with other artists over the years. I understand that the lead singer of Parenthetical Girls, Zac Pennington, has stated that you sort of took him under your wing. Have you ever felt, as an artist, that because you’ve been doing this for a while, you’ve felt a calling to help out and collaborate with other artists?
Well, first off, I don’t feel like I took Zac under my wing at all. He’s pretty fully formed. I mean, we’ve been friends for several years. I don’t think that I’ve ever done anything to help him out actually [Laughs] I mean, I’m a big fan.
I don’t know if they owe me any favors. I don’t think so. As far as collaborations go, they’ve always been with people that I was friends with — people who are already established and doing their own thing, and I figured because that I really loved what they were doing that it would be interesting to work with them. But I certainly wouldn’t be averse to helping anybody out. Anybody that Xiu Xiu has done a collaboration with is certainly not somebody who needed our help.
You’ve done stuff with the photographer David Horvitz. Will you guys be doing more work for the newest tour?
He’s not coming on this tour. So, not for this one.
To get back to the record, on the song “House Sparrow,” there’s a reference to the murderer Richard Chase. Was he an inspiration for the song at all? If not, was the reference an attempt to capture a certain feeling within the song?
The song is — I don’t want to go into all of the details of what the song [is] about because it sort of…
Ruins the song?
…freaks me out to talk about it too much. But, essentially, part of the song is about this sort of obsessive fear that I have of serial killers. When I was growing up in Los Angeles, in my neighborhood, there was a serial killer. And, at one point, I’m pretty sure he broke into our backyard.
And so I had a very close brush with that and I think it was unfortunately occurring at a kind of formative age. So, it kind of hardwired me to [stay] clearly disturbed by them. So, the other half of it, I don’t really want to discuss particularly. But, yeah, I mean it is a specific reference to Richard Chase. It’s not a topical reference to him.
The feeling in the song scares me a little bit — but in a good way.
Amusingly, it ended up being one of the most fun songs to work on! [Laughs] It was completely a total wreck, actually. When Greg Saunier came over and worked on it, it was in a totally different state than it was from how it started. So, it was really enjoyable to witness its transformation, musically.
For the sake of curiosity, any music you’re currently digging right now that you’d recommend checking out?
Do you know that label Sublime Frequencies?
I think I’ve heard about it but never listened to anything on that.
They have this deal where you can basically buy their entire catalog on one DVD of all MP3s. I know they probably have like 50 records or something like that. So, I bought that and have been completely immersed in going through all their [stuff]. It’s all field recordings. It’s really melting my brain as of late.