Xiu Xiu's Jamie Stewart: "Gnarly and Deep"
The cover of Xiu Xiu's ninth studio album, Always , is a tight closeup of the band's name and the album title tattooed on bare flesh. For 10 years, singer Jamie Stewart's fearlessly brutal lyricism -- about war, sexual trauma, romantic implosion, and self-hatred -- has been at the forefront of a carefully composed charge of latent synth-pop flourishes, industrial noise elements, wildly varied non-rock instrumentation, and feverish drum machines. It's a body of work one might see as intimidating unless one has had the nerve to reap its rewards.
Xiu Xiu will be opening for legendary avant-garde instigators Swans at Crescent Ballroom on Wednesday, September 12. Stewart managed to get the band's visionary singer, Michael Gira, to cover "Under Pressure" by Queen and David Bowie with him on 2008's Women as Lovers, which he said began as a crazy idea pitched to him by a friend on a drunken late-night walk. One of his favorite all-time acts, Swans and Gira's unflinching longevity have inspired Stewart's work, he said.
"It's particularly inspiring that [Swans] are sounding better than ever," Stewart says. "We're entering our 10th year of making music, and I'll think, 'Oh, my God, how can I do this for another 10 years?' and I'll look at Michael and know, 'Oh, that's how you do it.'"
Those repelled by Xiu Xiu's confrontational discography might deride Stewart's past decade of work as shrill, petulant, and hysterical -- all of which is true. But those who take solace in its difficult honesty, who have been soothed by its cathartic clamor, have proved to be in it for the long haul. Stewart has shown that such dedication goes both ways.
Up on the Sun: On Always, you've got songs about war atrocities committed by Americans, songs about the exploitation of Chinese women. Do you write these songs not only to convey your own feelings about these situations but with the larger hope that people's minds will be impacted by it? To evoke some larger change?
Jamie Stewart: I don't realistically think there can be any massive amounts of change. The most realistic hope that I could have is that in some tiny way, it could cause somebody who's already inclined toward empathetic thinking and political action to do something about those situations. I don't harbor any illusions that Xiu Xiu can have any impact on the U.S. military or on global economics, insofar as it's essentially slave labor from China providing us with incredible piles of garbage we don't need. Hopefully, there will be some teenage kid who's maybe wondering whether or not to pursue a business degree or pursue a peace studies degree, and it will lead them to think in a more humane sort of way. That's the largest hope I can have for it.
There's also a hope, in a kind of quasi-spiritual way, of connecting with those people that are in those situations. This sounds ridiculous -- and very hippie -- but maybe somehow through the interconnected-ness of humanity, somewhere in the universe, the people in these situations will know that somebody is thinking about them. Which I realize is preposterous. Who knows what exists and what doesn't.
When you hear a political song by somebody else, what does it do for you?
It keeps the fire lit, I suppose. It reminds me not to be lazy and not to forget about people in those situations. The song "Four Women" by Nina Simone, one of my very favorite political songs, always reminds me to try to keep hearing and to try not to be only enveloped in my own life. To remind me that 85 percent of the people in the world don't live a cushy Western life that I do, and that if there's some small thing I can do about it today, then I should try.
The way you interact with fans goes so much further than most bands. You've got people sending you pictures that you post on your blog, you had a call-in hotline for a while, [artist and photographer] David Horowitz was taking portraits of everyone who attended your solo shows. Were these just fun ideas or was there something larger in mind with that?
I guess a third of it was an attempt at a public art project, a third of it was essentially a curiosity as to what would happen if we did these things. It can be a bit of a wild card, to leave oneself open to this sort of interaction with strangers. In almost every case, it's been very interesting. And then also it's an attempt to say thank you to people who have been interested in the band, not to just ignore than as people but try to involve them in the larger art project that Xiu Xiu is trying to be. Xiu Xiu would not exist at all if people weren't interested in the band. Almost everybody we have toured with has said, and I agree, that the people who come to see Xiu Xiu are incredibly creative, incredibly nice and open with themselves. Why would one not want to participate in an artistic way with people like that?
It sort of feels like allowing people to make a contribution to Xiu Xiu.
It's not really allowing, it's wanting them to and hoping people will.
It seems like you're totally not shy about trying to make that connection. Recently on your blog, you had invited people to send you a list of things that make life worth living. The response was extensive and really powerful. I can't think of any other act that would invite that kind of interaction.
It's kind of embarrassing. It's so typical and boring at this point in the band to say this [laughs], but I had been going through a particularly gnarly and deep couple of months of depression, one that was very unexpected. There are particular aspects of depression that I'm very tired of and used to, but this lasted a long time and felt very different. Day after day, the moment I would wake up, I'd be in a moment of incredible hopelessness and panic. And, I kind of didn't know what to do. I think I posted that incredibly early in the morning, right when I woke up, not really knowing, and this sounds silly but it's true, who else to turn to. I didn't know who else to ask except people that might write in. If I asked my mother about it, she'd say something very encouraging, but it's difficult to be as frank about this kind of thing with somebody that I know personally because I don't want them to panic about it. It's easier to talk about with somebody who, in some ways, I have an incredibly intimate relationship with because my life depends on them existing, even if it's people I don't know. Like I said, these are all people who are incredibly bright and generous.
I was rather stunned by the amount of people who responded. I haven't even been able to post all of the responses. Aside from being embarrassing, it was incredibly touching and encouraging. At the risk of sounding melodramatic, I can't say how much it meant to me that so many people responded and that many people put as much thought into that.
I feel like that street goes both ways with fans. Some people would look at Xiu Xiu -- or even you personally -- as this person that they can place those emotions toward and seek solace with.
I think that's the most wonderful things about music generally. I think even more so than literature or visual art, music is an intellectual experience and a physical experience. It's certainly something I depend on.
I think your lyrics reflect a kind of poetic influence--
That's because I rip stuff off all the time. [Laughs]
What kind of stuff are you ripping off? If there's one thing that drew me in immediately, it's these metaphors and poetics that aren't up their own ass and obfuscating the meaning, but trying to make the song more impactful.
I can't tell you that! I can get sued. Some of them are really blatant. [Laughs] But, yeah, any sort of lyrical flurry is definitely to try to drive the point home and not obscure it. The point is to make the meaning of the song more clear or connect in a different way than if it was spelled out.
But obviously you have no qualms about explicitly stating things in the most straightforward manner possible, at times. When you're writing lyrics, do you initially start out with the most raw declaration the song's thesis and then take it from there?
The mechanics of doing it has really changed in the last couple of years. Currently, I do what many who write songs do and just have a little notebook. Anytime something comes to mind I'll write it down, or if I'm reading I'll make a little note in the margin or underline things to incorporate or push it later in a different context. The goal is to be uninhibited with what could potentially become an idea, and some of those can be very blunt, like a stream of curse words. Others, on the other side of the spectrum, can be excessively literary. When it comes time to write songs, I'll take what has become a pile of notebooks and suss out what still feels like something. 90 percent of that stuff gets thrown away. It just comes from an attempt to not overthink it. When I first starting writing songs, I thought it had to be a formal process and there couldn't be as much messing around and being free with things. I was afraid to throw something away. Now I know that stuff that gets thrown away just wasn't good, or didn't work, or was maybe a momentary emotion that just wouldn't carry enough weight in a song that I'll be singing for ten years.
You've talked before about dance music being so emotionally explicit and how it gets amplified by the context in which it's presented, in clubs and things like that. A friend of mine made a very similar comparison to soul music. Do you have any kind of soul music influence?
[Laughs] That's actually my whole musical upbringing and background. My dad was a record producer and session musician, and when I was a kid, all my friends were listening to hair metal. Because he was a musician, those records were not allowed in the house, but he would buy me Motown and Stax records, which I'm incredibly grateful for. That music was the formative basis of my music listening.
Some of the first bands I was in that played shows were pickup bands. Do you know what a pickup band is?
Is it sort of like a cover band?
It's like a cover band, but there's a dude who runs the band that calls people the day of the gig, or the night before, to get them together. He'll know like 30 people who all know this set of Motown, Stax, and soul covers. In my late teens and early 20s, I played in pickup bands with a lot of older guys. It was really funny because the level of playing in these bands would vary wildly. There would be some nights where there would be some awful drummer who was studying drums at community college and couldn't play at all, and the horn section would all be dudes who played with James Brown. We'd all be playing for like $15 apiece for three hours at some shitty sports bar. It was a good way to pay one's dues as a younger player. Xiu Xiu doesn't really sound like that at all, but the philosophy behind it -- where to play from in one's heart -- was incredibly influential on Xiu Xiu.
All right, I've got two quick ones left. What did you do for your last birthday celebration?
I fucking rehearsed! I didn't do jack shit for my last birthday! I ended up rehearsing with people who I later fired.
What is your ideal preferred sex music?
You know, I cannot listen to music when I'm doing it. [Laughs] To the great relief of anyone who's ever done it with me -- because it's always been without music on -- it's because I'll probably start paying more attention to the music than what's going on. It's like that with everything: I can't deal with music as a background thing.
Xiu Xiu is scheduled to perform Wednesday, September 12, at Crescent Ballroom.
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