There are some artists whose style is predictable and comfortable enough that you can predict what they're going to do next. Jamie Stewart isn't one of those artists.
The creative force behind Xiu Xiu, Stewart has been confounding and exceeding audiences' expectations since dropping Knife Play in 2002. He's one of modern music's most distinctive vocalists, switching effortlessly from tremulous croons to blood-chilling shrieks. His voice is both a sob and an open wound; few singers can sound as vulnerable and threatening as Stewart can.
The music he makes reflects those Jekyll-and-Hyde vocals. Xiu Xiu albums can be hauntingly beautiful or eardrum-puncturing. And sometimes they're both at the same time. A decoder ring to understanding Xiu Xiu's sound can be found in the band's 2016 cover album of Twin Peaks songs. No band is better suited to reinterpreting Angelo Badalamenti's compositions, because like Twin Peaks creator David Lynch, Xiu Xiu understand how to create transcendent work by mixing beauty and horror.
After releasing their 10th studio album, FORGET, in 2017, Xiu Xiu are hitting the road. Stewart will be playing a solo set at AJJ's Desert Trash show on Saturday, February 3. Phoenix New Times talked with the artist about Twin Peaks, his unorthodox live shows, and what it's like to make music with his heroes.
New Times: I’m really curious to hear what you thought of the new season of Twin Peaks.
Jamie Stewart: I love it! I think it’s my favorite season. I thoroughly appreciate that David Lynch, instead of trying to make something that happened 25 years ago — though he does make some nods to the original two seasons — began the piece with where he was at this present moment in his artistic journey rather than pretending to be someone he was 25 years ago. I mean, no one is who they were 25 years ago.
It has very much more of a David Lynch movie feeling than having the same tone as the original series. But I loved how challenging and peculiar it was. I loved how he basically just said to things like durations, “Fuck it, I’m not going to do anything you’d normally see on a television show.” I was profoundly and deeply inspired by it. I made myself a promise to wait one year before I watch it again, but I’m kinda biting my nails waiting for that year to be up.
One of the aspects that I really dug about the new Twin Peaks was how anti-nostalgic it was. And that’s something I’ve admired about your live performances, with how you usually focus on new material. And when you do reach back to play older songs, it’s from stuff that’s way back in your catalog and not just the songs people know from your recent work. Is it hard to emotionally get back into the frame of mind needed to play those older songs?
It really depends on the song. There are certain songs that still feel like they have some resonance in the present, or because time has passed, the feelings about that song have changed but it still feels very real. And there are some songs that are only about the moment they were written in and it would feel false to play those again. That changes, too. There’s some songs that I felt 10 years ago I’d never play again, but over time, after reflecting on them and circumstances changing, they could be expressed in a genuine way.
The point is to only play things that feel like there’s some real emotional devotion and truth put into doing them. There are some songs — there’s no way of saying this without sounding like some kind of douchebag — that are somewhat popular that we can’t play because … I mean, it would be a disservice to anyone coming to the show to hear that old song because the heart that song would require couldn’t be put into it in any honest way.
Another component of your live shows that I find fascinating is how often they can be radically different than what you do on record. Both times I’ve seen you play in Phoenix, you’ve done shows that sounded like nothing like you were doing on record at the time, like on the Fabulous Muscles tour, where you played Modified with just a pair of these towering Jules Verne-looking instruments. Is playing with people’s expectations with what they expect you to do live something that you strive to do when you plan your live shows?
I agree with you that that does happen, but it’s not as if we’re saying "the record’s done, now we must completely deconstruct it and disregard it." It really just has to do with the circumstances at the time. Largely, it’s an issue of practicality: Who’s available to play on tour? It’s two entirely different experiences. When you’re playing live, it’s 50 minutes of your life, while making a record can take two years. And also, from a creative standpoint, it’s just satisfying to work on new arrangements. But there’s no rules behind it. It’s just based on practicality and if there’s any part of the muse telling us to blow this up.
Touching back on that show at Modified: I have to ask because it’s been bothering me for years. What were those things you were playing? They were tall and wooden and ornate and you were pumping them ...
Those were harmoniums. They’re post-colonial Indian instruments. They’re actually pretty simple. They’re based on a similar principle to the accordion, but instead of squeezing it you pump it and play it flat. But they’re all kind of handmade and tend not to be super-precisely made, so if you play two of them together they can be slightly out of tune and create super-intense crazy modulations. They’re sort of a pain in the ass to tour with, so we don’t do it so much anymore ... They were unbelievably difficult to get on and off a plane.
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In other interviews you did about the making of FORGET, you talked about how you brought in collaborators like Charlemagne Palestine and Vaginal Davis, who were artistic heroes of yours. What was that like? Was it strange working that intimately with people whose work you held in such regard — being the ringleader of your own circus and having to tell them what to do?
When you work with people who are fantastic musicians, you don’t have to be the ringleader. You just say “please do what you do,” and because they’re geniuses, what they do is amazing. The point of having someone who’s a brilliant legend to play on your record is not to tell them what to do; the point is to have them be who they are.
Are you working on any new material right now, or you just focusing on touring FORGET?
I’m actually at this very moment sitting in front of Pro Tools. We’re maybe halfway done with the new thing right now.
Will you be playing any of the new songs on this tour?
I think I’m going to try one new song, but it’s not particularly indicative of the new album. The new record is pretty noisy and intense and amelodic. But one or two songs on the record are sweet little brokenhearted ballads. If I’m feeling brave enough, I might try one of those new ones.
Xiu Xiu is playing on Saturday, February 3, as part of AJJ Presents Desert Trash at The Van Buren in downtown Phoenix. Tickets are $20 via The Van Buren's website.