Jamie Stewart continues his quest to craft's the world's most harrowing pop music.
Tue Apr 6 2010
My phone conversation with Jamie Stewart is only about a minute old, but the leader of Xiu Xiu is already speaking frankly about an awful experience—the same incident that inspired the beyond-blunt title of his band’s latest album, Dear God, I Hate Myself. “[The title] came from a night of really intense psychological and emotional distress,” he says straightforwardly, “and finding myself literally on my knees praying that exact phrase to God and being completely at my wit’s end about how to proceed as a person.” Faced with such an ordeal, some might seek therapy. But Stewart, 32, did what he always does: He channeled his feelings into his grim yet gorgeous musical project, named after a 1998 Chinese film about a teenage girl who prostitutes herself in the vain hope of reuniting with her long-lost family.
Since 2000, Stewart and a revolving cast of collaborators have used Xiu Xiu (pronounced “shu shu”) to explore the intersection of pop and psychological trauma. One could argue that the most intriguing American songwriters—from Steely Dan all the way back to Robert Johnson—have always been those who were willing to incorporate sordid and depressing elements. But with Xiu Xiu, Stewart has plumbed new depths, as in the unforgettable refrain from 2004’s “Fabulous Muscles”: “Cremate me after you cum on my lips / Honey boy place my ashes in a vase beneath your workout bench.”
Crucially, this stuff isn’t fiction: Xiu Xiu’s songs typically spring from events in the lives of Stewart or someone close to him. Many artists bend over backward to discourage autobiographical interpretations of their work, but not Stewart. “It is, hands down, that kind of band,” he says, when asked if he’s comfortable with listeners assuming that his songs are based in truth. “It’s musicians who have allowed that interpretation that have been the most important to [Xiu Xiu]. I heard Morrissey in a couple of interviews, saying, 'If you’re not writing about something real, then what’s the point?’ And I had listened to him for most of my adult life and suspected—or hoped—that [his songs] were about something real, and when I heard him say they were, they became even more important to me.”
Stewart is quick to cite other pop influences, such as Bill Withers, but he’s clearly just as enamored of the avant-garde. When asked to name five albums that frighten him the way Xiu Xiu might frighten another listener (see below), he reserved particular reverence for the Birthday Party and Diamanda Gals—two artists notorious for their ghoulish extremity.
Early in Xiu Xiu’s career, similarly alarming elements often won out, yielding songs more memorable for their shocking poetry than their musical content. But on Dear God, Stewart and fellow bandmates Angela Seo and Ches Smith achieve an exquisite balance between the harrowing and the hooky. Perfectly wrought lead single “Gray Death,” with its swooning melodies and hard-edged dance-pop pulse, is a track equally fit for a gothy club night or a meditative headphone session.
And Stewart seems more than happy for his work to serve multiple functions—even the ultragrim stuff. Reflecting further on Dear God, he starts to chuckle. “It is about one of the lowest moments of my entire life,” he says. “But it’s so low that it’s sort of hilarious.”
Xiu Xiu plays Bowery Ballroom Fri 9. Download Dear God, I Hate Myself from Kill Rock Stars now.
Click here for our unedited interview with Jamie Stewart.
Five albums that frighten Xiu Xiu’s Jamie Stewart
1. Sounds of North American Frogs (1958)
“This is an album of, as the title suggests, field recordings of frogs, with commentary by herpetologist Charles Bogert. There is one recording entitled 'Scream of the Southern Leopard Frog,’ which is the sound that this frog makes when 'grasped in the human hand or attacked by a snake.’ It is the most unsettling sound I have ever heard. One can imagine this small creature so warped by terror issuing its squeal that it sounds like a bridge between violent death and 'Mommy, Mommy, don’t let it eat me!’ ”
2. The Birthday Party, Hits (1992)
“There is something wonderful about listening to an established and potentially genius artist like Nick Cave at a point in his life when his mind was clearly so unraveled that it is a surprise that he lived long enough to actually become an established artist. All of their music sounds like they are deciding whether they should stab themselves in the face or reach forward in time and stab you in the face through your headphones.”
3. Cecil Taylor, Air Above Mountains (1976)
“The playing on these two long pieces is so intense and so focused that is sounds superhuman. The frightening part is that it occurred. It is live. There is a man who is able to dive into sound and sonic movement so deeply that it seems impossible. If I saw him on the street, I would freeze probably. He seems to be vibrating in a way that has nothing to do with current life forms.”
4. Rhys Chatham, Two Gongs (1971)
“This is an hour-long piece of two very large gongs being struck very quickly and with almost no dynamic or variation. Driving on a dark road in the desert, it will make you want to speed the car into an oncoming army transport. One’s mind needs to move beyond a single atonality after about five minutes or it struggles to stay intact. After an hour, you want to escape so badly that any act other than listening, no matter how horrible, becomes rapidly preferable.”
5. Diamanda Gals, Guilty Guilty Guilty (2008)
“This is a recent live solo recording of hers that I think may be her most inventive of her many incredibly inventive works from within the shadows. She is obviously a physically imposing person, and hearing this record and knowing that it took place in a single moment in front of fellow humans puts you inches from the flames coming out of her hair. Her voice and playing is like the gaze of Medusa, and this record makes you want to turn it off to keep from being forever ruined.”
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