Jamie Stewart Xiu Xiu frontman talks debut solo album, “experimental” music, and coming out to his parents

Jamie Stewart is no stranger to change or new and uncomfortable surroundings. Having been involved in music since the mid-90s, he has become somewhat of a cult figure, attracting the same kind of unrelenting fandom that boy bands do — except on a comparatively miniscule scale. He has played in a multitude of styles, from conventional song lead projects to more abstract ones, best known of course through his Xiu Xiu project. However, his debut solo album An Aggressive, Chain Smoking Alcoholic sees Stewart putting his most concerted effort into producing an abstract album, or as he dubs it “experimental” [physically quote marking it]. It lands at an interesting time in his life; having been active for 21 years, a solo album seems almost peculiarly late.

I sat down with Stewart to chat about An Aggressive, Chain Smoking Alcoholic — out tomorrow, April 21, on pinyon — and the processes surrounding its creation.

So, listening to An Aggressive, Chain Smoking Alcoholic , there is a quite obvious shift from the work under Xiu Xiu versus the work under Jamie Stewart. There is a shift to working entirely with modular synthesis. How did that come about? Did it just feel more natural?

I think a lot of people, in the last five years or so, who more or less concentrate on songs as part of their “main thing,” I have too found that I have gotten into synthesizers almost as a vacation from that. They can be extraordinarily satisfying to work on, but utilize an entirely different part of your brain and organize something that’s narrative, or semi-narrative or semi-linear. Writing songs on the guitar gives you a fair amount of control, because things fit together. Using modular synths, the best results tend to be when you just do something, walk away and come back and go, “Oh, that sounds idiotic, let’s keep that” [laughs]. I was just using them recreationally. And, of course, occasionally in Xiu Xiu stuff, we use a lot of layered beeping boxes. I would work on regular Xiu Xiu stuff all day, and then for fun afterwards, I would plug a bunch of synths in and play around. And just through attrition, figure them out a little better. I ended up realizing that I wanted to do something more developed with it. I’ve done a bunch of “experimental” things before but tended to bang them out really quickly as a kind of learning exercise, and I was curious as to what it would be like to do an “experimental” record, but put as much time into it as a Xiu Xiu record — doing a lot of editing and a lot of thought into it… or a lot of “not-thought” into it. Essentially, give it as much time as I would as any other Xiu Xiu record and just see what happened.

That is one of the problems with “experimental” music; not in your case, but it can encourage an almost laziness.

I don’t know whether I would say laziness, but I think it allows for spontaneity. Sometimes spontaneity yields results that have a lot of depth and sometimes spontaneity sounds like… [laughs]. Sometimes you are there, and sometimes you’re not.

Like you said, you have been really influenced by Pharmakon, Nurse With Wound, early Swans etc., and Xiu Xiu have played with noise in the past. Did you set out to make a “noise” record — whether you would call it that or not?

I wouldn’t shy away from that. Although, noise has a pretty wide definition, I think it could fit into that. I don’t think it sounds particularly like Pharmakon, although I think she is fantastic. I don’t think it sounds like Swans or Nurse With Wound either, although since I was a teenager I have been fond of a lot of pummeling music like them. I think I thought of it more like… This is going to sound unfathomably pretentious but there is no way around it, and I apologize ahead of time. Forever, like everyone else on fucking earth, I have been listening to Penderecki, for 20 years or so; I was trying to do something that had that very dense, dark, incredibly dissonant feeling — but just using non-harmonic, atonal, arrhythmic sounds. I think it was as much informed by mid-century Eastern European classical as it was by New York in the 70s.

Thinking about those bands like Nurse With Wound, and even Coil — a lot of their music was up for interpretation, and they welcomed people to have their own take on the music. Do you feel the same way?

I’m hoping that people will interpret it in their own way, unlike Xiu Xiu, which is always very specific. What I wanted to with this was avoid the path that Xiu Xiu always seems to go down — which is to be about a very specific topic or feeling. I tried to not think about what An Aggressive, Chain Smoking Alcoholic would be, but just let it become whatever; for example, if that was the name of a Xiu Xiu album, it would be about a person. Whereas, this could be about your father, or someone you have had to deal with on the bus, or even yourself. It references somebody horrifying that we are all familiar with — either having to evade or have them slap us around — literally or figuratively.

So did the move away from a Xiu Xiu style of writing encourage you to use your own name, as opposed to having it attached to Xiu Xiu?

Yeah. I mean, Xiu Xiu will continue, we have a new record out next year, etc. — I knew I wanted to do something different, and it didn’t fit into what makes sense to do as Xiu Xiu. And with Xiu Xiu, I work with a ton of other people — so I wanted to do something largely on my own. But on this record, Angela Seo recorded some musique concrete stuff for it, and Lawrence English mixed the whole thing and advised me on it. Xiu Xiu works as a band, but I wanted to do something where I didn’t have to think in those terms.

I know you and Lawrence English have been friends for a long time, so I imagine the collaboration came naturally.

Oh yeah. We have another band together called HEXA. We have a thing coming out later this year with Merzbow. Lawrence’s life in music is doing experimental instrumental music, and this is the first time I have put a deeply concerted effort in to doing it. I like him personally and he has experiences I don’t have — there have been a number of records that he has done, which have set me on the path to wanting to explore this style deeply. And of course because he is fantastic at mixing [laughs]. It made perfect sense to do it with him. I have just started working on a follow-up record, and I’m sure that if he would endure it, I’d ask him to do it again.

So are you seeing this project as something that will continue for the foreseeable future?

If I can dupe someone into putting it out [laughs].

I wanted to ask about the track “Scout Schultz.” As far as I am aware, Scout Schultz was a prominent LGBT student who was shot dead by the Georgia county police. I feel as if on this album however, the track titles and their accompanying them are less about the event and more about capturing its essence.

That’s a good way to put it. The tracks on the album aren’t specific — they are almost separate statements that may or may not have anything to do with the songs.

I know with your last record as Xiu Xiu, FORGET, you wanted to stray away from something innately political when it came to the album cover — but it accidentally took on a very political meaning.

I think this was much less thought out [laughs]. With that Xiu Xiu record, we were trying to de-politicize that Arabic calligraphy, whereas the names of the tracks on An Aggressive, Chain Smoking Alcoholic I was plain trying to attach random names to these tracks. Two of them are literally named after girl-scout cookies. That came about because my friend and I went on an incredibly deep and bizarre exploratory delve into the history of girl-scout cookies [laughs]. It’s a small love letter to them really.

You are in a quite interesting position then. As solo ventures go, this is quite late on to do one. I wanted to ask about your early experiences with music. I know you were in a band called IBOPA. I understand you played with your father in the band and as far as I’m aware, when you came out to your parents, they weren’t immediately accepting of it. What was that like?

He was cooler about it than my mother. It wasn’t that hard for me, it was just bad. My dad was an incredibly successful musician, and my mom was a hippie in San Francisco in the 1960s — so there was a ton of artist friends and a bunch of queer friends round the house when I was growing up. I grew up in Los Angeles — it was an incredibly progressive city so I didn’t really have an understanding that it could be “unacceptable.” It was never presented to me that way. I’m bi, not gay, so the time I was coming out, I didn’t really have a term for it. Things have really progressed now. Much later, when I was 18, I first heard the term “bi-sexual.” Anyway, I was sitting with my parents at dinner and I really casually said it like, “Oh yeah, I think I’m bi,” and my mum completely flipped out — for years. For me, it was more like an inconvenient hassle. It hurt my feelings, but it wasn’t the struggle that a lot of people go through where they question their whole validity. It just made me question the validity of my then-relationship with my mom. It was more like, “What is your fucking problem?” rather than, “What is my fucking problem?” So it was hard, but hard in a different way to what a lot of people experience.

My dad was interesting about it. He essentially said, “I’m from a different time, this is weird for me. But I know there is nothing wrong with you — I need to develop my social consciousness.” I think he suspected that I was queer when I was younger, because there was this really good session keyboard player called Paul Delph. When I was first getting into music, he took me to Paul’s house — they were working on some keyboard stuff and as soon as we left, he said in this very adorably clunky way, “OK, well, you think Paul’s cool right?” and I said yeah, then he said “Well, Paul’s gay. So you can be cool and gay.” I was just a bit confused really [laughs]. I didn’t realize he was trying to have a moment with me.

So, by the time IBOPA started, I was a little older and he had completely gotten over it — it was never an issue in that group. Even though all the music that he worked on was all major label, mainstream music, he always told me when I was young was that he always felt he didn’t push things far enough. The two pieces of music advice he ever gave me were: “Always take it too far” and that. When IBOPA started, I think it was good for him, because it gave him a chance to push things further than he ever did when he was at the height of his career. Don’t get me wrong, the music he worked on was great; I just think he wanted it to be more bananas. What was weird is that, as everyone does, I was trying to impress and imitate my dad, so the things I was originally trying to do was a little squarer than what felt natural to me. He ended up really pushing me to make music that wasn’t for him essentially — whether consciously or unconsciously. It was a funny time — when I was a kid, he was a drug addict and had a lot of psychological problems. He was physically there, but was gone. There were a couple of years where he cleaned up and we played together and he really set me on my way. But then he unfortunately slipped back into the way he used to be. I’m glad we had those couple of years together, otherwise I would have no positive memories of him.

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