Jamie Stewart, lead singer and main songwriter of Xiu Xiu, is releasing the band’s tenth “main” album FORGET at the end of February via Polyvinyl. It’s one of their original song-oriented releases, as opposed to the more conceptual works such as their recent Twin Peaks interpretations or collaborative albums. Perversely catchy and decidedly upsetting, FORGET features an unusually wide array of guest contributors — 80s minimalist composer Charlemagne Palestine, LA Banjeeball commentator Enyce Smith, Swans guitarist Kristof Hahn, and punk singer/drag artist Vaginal Davis.
As we spoke on the phone after an embarrassing timezone mix up on my part, Stewart started off by warning me that he’d been in a fight the night before.
I apologize, I got punched in the head last night and I feel a little nauseous, so if for some reason I am just gone for a minute, then I’m rushing to the bathroom to throw up. But otherwise…
What happened? If you don’t mind me asking.
[laughs] You know, somebody named me just doesn’t like to keep his mouth shut about politics.
That’ll bode well for this interview. Or badly, I don’t know, depending. Probably well. Anyway, I’m really sorry that happened to you.
Oh, it’s OK. The other person is way more fucked up.
Good. I’m assuming I’m on your side.
Yes, you are.
[laughs] Well, this first question might be on sort of the same topic. This new album is a pop album, it seems to me. You’ve been moving between the sort of conceptual ones and the pop ones recently, so I want to ask what does it mean to you to make these noise-pop albums specifically in this moment and this climate?
Not that I would argue with you, but I don’t know if we really, at the moment, are thinking about this as a pop record. I think we’re going between thinking of things in terms of being as between conceptual records and song-oriented records. There’s not a tremendous distinction between the idea of pop and the idea of song, but if somebody’s unfamiliar with us, I don’t want to give them the idea that it’s going to sound like a Top 40 pop record. “Pop” is a little bit loaded. There’s been times in the past where we’ve very happily put one foot in the idea of being influenced by Top 40, but any song influences on this record didn’t have anything to do with that, although they have in the past. Currently, I would say that although they are very definitely melodic, verse/chorus kinds of music, they’re influenced by the history of songs and not pop so much.
But, to answer your question, we started working on this before the dire fate of the world was revealed to us by the idiocy of the American populace, so it having anything to do with the current political climate insofar as the rise of white supremacy in the executive office isn’t the case. Is that what you were asking me?
It doesn’t have to be about this current moment of white supremacy, although I think any answer will be inflected with that a little bit. I just want to ask, what is the context you see yourself writing these songs in? For me, they are, in a way, very communal. They bring a community together in some way, which seems something very specific to song traditions.
I think of it differently than most of the records we have worked on, insofar as most of them we went in with a certain amount of conscious focus as to what the record was going to be. With this one, it very much just occurred, without any forethought. With the previous record, Angel Guts: Red Classroom, we had had a very, very definite and narrow vision of what we wanted that record to be about and how it would be made and what it would sound like. I like working under distinct constraints very much, and wanted to try to do that with this current record, but essentially we totally failed at it for almost a year-and-a-half. A long period of time went by with no progress made. And then we started to panic a little and realized that, OK, we have to make a record, even if we can’t decide on what the arbitrary constraints are going to be, so we just had to write and allow the goddess of music to determine what the songs were going to be and not think about a theme or whatever. They just emerged as they were going to emerge. I’m not trying to sound too flighty about this, but I don’t really remember working on them all that much. I think because we were trying to step out of the way, partially functionally, because it seemed to be working and the songs were occurring and they weren’t occurring before. And then that almost became the constraint of the record, essentially to have no constraint, which is not a thing we’d done for quite a long time. So, in coming back to your question, then, if there is any sort of communal basis for this record, it’s done completely out of our hands and in the hands of the muse, essentially. But I suppose that’s her job.
This is obviously an album with a lot of collaborators on it, which is interesting, because it doesn’t feel that way. It feels very cohesive. So I wanted to ask how these folks were brought on. I’m particularly interested in the poem recorded by Vaginal Davis that closes out the album. For me, it’s very interesting the way it reframes the whole album. So, I’m interested in your thought process behind bringing these folks on. Were there any hopes as to what they would add to a given song or the record as a whole?
A lot of people who are essentially heroes of mine are on the record. I really hoped that they would just be themselves. That’s one of the wonderful things about working with people who are extraordinarily experienced and brilliant, is that you don’t really have to have hopes for them or expectations at all. You know that what they will do, even if it’s different than what you would imagine it’s going to be, will be extraordinary. I kind of didn’t tell them to do anything, because one doesn’t need to. [laughs] They got to be who they are and where they are because they’re devoted to what they believe in artistically and what they believe in socially. As far as the process, it was really different with each person.
With Vaginal Davis, it began when I was very, very young, barely a teenager. I was living in Los Angeles where I was born and currently live, and I came across this fanzine called “Band Is Dead,” and there was an article in there about Vaginal Davis’s band Black Fag. I had never seen anything before then that comprised queer politics, queer identity, genderfucking, a feminine display of masculine power, and punk rock all at the same time. She’s doing different things now, but at that time, through my very young-person lens, all of those things were what I needed to know and hear about and I’d never seen before, and suddenly I opened the zine and saw this one photo and read this one very short article and an entire world made sense to me.
So, long story short, we eventually connected, when she put a drum stick up my butt on-stage. After that, I didn’t see her for very many years, and then I was doing a guest lecture at NYU and the professor, who’s a very close friend of hers, said, “Oh, you know my friend Vaginal Davis.” And I said, “Well, I kind of do because she stuck a drum stick in my ass.” And then he reconnected us, and last year, she and I, along with this German artist Sussane Sachsse, did a reworking of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” at NYU together.
At the same time, I’d been collecting images off this webpage called Backpage —
Which was shut down, actually, today.
Oh, really? Interesting.
Like an hour ago.
Well that was probably because it was notorious for trafficking underage sex workers. [Authors note: Children of the Night, a Los Angeles-based anti-trafficking organization, issued a statement against the closure, stating that it was taking away a critical tool for them to reach out to trafficked children, in addition to widespread outcry from sex workers of all stripes who view the closure as a threat to their livelihoods, bodily autonomy, and physical safety.] So, I had been, kind of as a social project, kind of out of curiosity, kind of just empathy, because a lot of this occurs not far from where I live, going through there and collecting photos of young women who were clearly women on the escort pages. And I had maybe 200 screenshots of these children. And then, after reporting it on the site, I would look at all these photos and I would write one line about my first impression of these young women. And that became this very, very long poem. And then while I was in New York working on this opera with Vaginal Davis, I edited it and made it a little more cohesive and asked Ms. Davis, who has this incredibly sonorous, beautiful speaking voice, if she would read the poem. And that makes up the end of that song.
There’s another song on the record called “Petite,” which relates also to sex trafficking and underage women and just ideas of being overwhelmed by the evil of humanity general, so kind of the idea of being overwhelmed by the evil of humanity generally is a running thread through the record. It seemed to make sense to tie the end of the record together with that. Additionally, because it’s the 10th record and 10 is kind of a magic number, and because Vaginal Davis is a large beginning of my artistic and social consciousness, it made sense for her to participate in that.
I do want to add, though, that even though this record is a very upsetting listen even by your standard, I find it almost celebratory in a way. With that poem at the end, there’s a certain sense of pride in her voice, as she lists a series of alternately silly, joyous, and devastating self-descriptions.
They are people, and simply by being alive there’s a certain amount of celebration even in that. Even though at the moment their lives are probably extraordinarily miserable, that doesn’t mean that they always will be and that doesn’t mean that they have no point. As human beings, their lives are real. In horror and in tragedy, if someone persists at all — I mean, waking up every day, is resisting — what else are we to do with it, other than to celebrate it? This courage to continue to live.
Do you feel like that is somewhat for you what this record, or what the process of making it or whatever, do you think that relates to it at all?
In no way would I disagree with that assessment, but I would not have thought of it that way, if only because I’m always a little hesitant to posit an overarching theme to anything. I like that idea very much. Consciously or subconsciously, that’s certainly in there. It’s not the only thing it’s about, but I wouldn’t dispute that theme.
It really is sequenced very classically in a way, the upbeat songs upfront and the long songs at the end. Perhaps that’s part of why it feel so inviting to me — in many ways it feels very familiar and lived in.
A very close friend of mine — who is probably one of a very few friends of mine who actually listens to Xiu Xiu albums — mentioned that he listened to the last songs of all 10 original, regular Xiu Xiu records together, and said that they all seem to function in the exact same way. [laughs] He’s probably right.
[Author’s note: Listen to a playlist of the last songs on the previous nine Xiu Xiu albums here, if you want to share in that experience]
The quote-unquote confrontational or provocative aspects of your lyrics are obviously mentioned a lot, but I’ve always been fascinated by how your vocal style is at once very aggressive and very vulnerable. It’s almost a sort of confrontational vulnerability. How do you decide how to move between a whisper or a breath or a full-throated vocal or a shriek or whatever it is, to get to this place? Is it just instinct, or is there a technique? What does it look like for you when you start to approach the vocal section of these songs?
Interesting question. Technically, I’m not a natural singer at all. I started taking singing lessons maybe a year-and-a-half ago, and I wish that I had started earlier because it makes it physically more tolerable to do. But it does require a tremendous amount of concentration and effort from me to do it, and I’m always extraordinarily nervous before beginning to record the singing. It hasn’t been consistent. It’s been really different at different periods. For the first four records, Cory McCulloch, who was an original Xiu Xiu member, produced all of the vocals, and I think I did almost all of them, with rare exceptions, with him in the room. And he and I had been incredibly close friends for many years. We’d seen each other at both our best and our worst, and because of that, he really pushed me to be as vulnerable as possible, and because I trusted him, it was easy to do. He would know if I was pretending, or if it could go further, and had me do it again. I wanted to go as far as possible, and I wanted it to be as real as it could be, so he was exactly the right person at the time to be doing it. And then for a long list of reasons, we had a bit of a falling out and haven’t worked together.
Between the fifth record up until Angel Guts: Red Classroom, I had done all of them by myself, which was incredibly difficult. Trying to believe what you are doing but having no idea if it seems believable to somebody else, but not having someone there to tell you whether or not it is, is quite challenging. In the past, I could probably get through a song in two or three takes, but if I’m doing it myself, it usually takes between 10 and 20 takes to get it to the right place. It is fraught with doubt and uncertainty all along the way. I’m basically trying to get to the place where it is the most real and it is completely without thinking, the deepest and most subconscious and with the most pathos. For Angel Guts: Red Classroom, I was able to do them in the studio with John Congelton, and he’s somebody I’ve also known for many years and trust implicitly as well, and I was able to do them in three takes again.
But for this last one, I decided to do it by myself in my little home studio again. It was a very, very long, difficult inward journey. Usually I can do one song in a day. It takes all day to do it. And then it requires a fair amount of editing afterward. Obviously, I feel a little tense about this. For me, it is the most important part of the record. It’s the part that puts across whether or not it has the potential to connect with someone. And I think because I attach so much importance to it, I enter into it with the most amount of tension and baggage. And considering the content of most of the songs, it’s usually a deep journey into something I feel fucking terribly about… It is certainly never fun to do.
The songs on the record, I think, speak to that. It’s interesting how the vocals, especially on a song-oriented album like this, are at once subservient to the song form at times and at other times quite aggressively break away. Considering that you do do a lot of vocal editing on these things, how do you decide what comes first? Is it always just prioritizing the most vulnerable or is it sometimes something else?
It’s very difficult to decide. One cannot entirely ignore technical considerations like, “Is this in tune or not?” because from a craft perspective one wants a song to be listenable, but at the same time, one cannot and should not ignore, “Does this feel real?” It felt real at the time but does it feel real now? Similarly to playing, editing can and should be almost a subconscious quasi-meditative process, an intuitive process, as well. When one is playing, the goal is to be as removed from the physical and actual world as possible and just be inside of what’s happening artistically and spiritually and creatively and socially, and editing is not dissimilar from that. It requires the same amount of concentration. When you’re playing, you’re trying to listen to what is happening and respond to it; when you’re editing, you’re making similar kinds of choices, trying to determine whether or not what you are listening to feels like anything, and playing is the same kind of thing. Just because I’ve fucked around with Pro Tools all of my adult life, I can do at least the technical aspect without thinking now. Choosing aspects of a take and playing, it’s almost the exact same part of one’s brain and heart. And equally exhausting.
Why is it so important for you to get here? Why do you want to get to this spot?
Any record that has ever moved me, that’s where that record has come from. It’s in attempt to honor what those records have given to me as a listener and as a fan of music.
Last question, what’s up with the pink-and-blue Arabic calligraphy cover? What’s the thought behind that? It’s pretty loaded.
[laughs] Actually, we were trying to have it not be loaded. Although, boy. [laughs] We didn’t mean for it to be. Shayna [Dunkelman, Xiu Xiu member] and I played a show in Beirut this spring, and we had a wonderful time there. It was, I think, the last time that we played the Angel Guts set before we start playing the new record. So we thought, “Oh, this is the last place we’re going to be playing the last record, why not have there be some connections between beginnings and endings with the Arabic calligraphy?” And also, aesthetically, it’s beautiful. It’s the most beautiful writing in the world. It came out of sentimentality, essentially. We chose pink and blue because one cannot use white on black because of ISIS. From our normal standpoint, white on black would have been the way we would have done it, but obviously you’re not going to reference a death cult. We really just thought the pink and blue looked nice. We were trying to [be] depoliticized. I understand now that it is incredibly politically loaded, but our intent was to have it be something that we thought looked pretty and could be sentimental, and people could deal with it how they’re going to deal with it.
That could be the title of your autobiography.