Interview: Xiu Xiu's Jamie Stewart
Mon Apr 5 2010
As we mentioned a while back, Xiu Xiu is coming to Bowery Ballroom this coming Friday (April 9). The ten-year-old outfit's marriage of pop and perverse psychodrama sounds as riveting as ever on its new seventh album, Dear God, I Hate Myself, and we couldn't resist reaching out to bandleader Jamie Stewart for an interview. Click here for the resulting TONY profile—accompanied by a list of five albums that scare Stewart the way that his own band might unsettle another listener—and read on for the full conversation, in which Stewart discusses his troubled childhood, the perils of having obsessive fans, his burgeoning hatred for North Carolina, why he doesn't buy Lady Gaga's anguish and various other offbeat topics.
"My parents tried to do a good job, but they treated me pretty badly when I was growing up. So I think it was just sort of ingrained in me to just assume that I was an asshole and a fuckup."
Where did the album title come from?
It came from just a night of really intense psychological and emotional distress 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. I've always been kind of privately religious, and I was feeling completely lost and sort of ashamed to be bringing something like that to God, I guess—feeling ashamed enough to bring it to someone that I knew personally, like a human, but feeling completely conflicted as to whether or not I could even say that out loud.
Did it come from a specific incident?
It's been an issue that I've been struggling more and more with in the last probably two years. And I guess it's something that probably everyone on earth more or less deals with here and there, but it was becoming more and more acute. Saying that out loud was a specific incident but dealing with the particular emotion that's been going on for a little while, or not emotion, but—I don't know if conclusion is the right word—but thought or feeling or whatever.
It seems like there's a trend in your work of being really hard on yourself, self-examination to an agonizing point? Where does that come from?
I mean, it's gonna sound really pathetic—case in point, I guess—Just my—[Groans] It's so dumb [Laughs hysterically]—There we go. I had a really pretty rough upbringing and my parents tried to do a good job, but they treated me pretty badly when I was growing up. So I think it was just sort of ingrained in me to just assume that I was an asshole and a fuck-up. And additionally, just the modern malaise of dealing with pretty severe depression—that doesn't help. So you know, it's not something that I want to feel, but it's something that I know is hard-wired into me as a person, and I think because I don't want to feel it, attempting to put it in some sort of aesthetic context doesn't really make it go away but gives me someplace to put it other than always directed at myself. Or sometimes by examining it, I can figure out where it's coming from. And again, it doesn't evaporate, but sometimes having some clarity about the specifics of it somehow it makes a little more sense, rather than it being this amorphous, overwhelming negative energy, it's this crystallized negative energy which is sometimes easier to deal with.
Given that the subject matter is so harrowing, do you ever feel like even if you're not in that place personally, that you have to go there to get material for Xiu Xiu?
Well, Xiu Xiu doesn't have to be about stuff that is bad. Xiu Xiu is just supposed to try to be about things that have seemed to have an intense impact on somebody's life. It doesn't have to be about my life—it can be about somebody else's life. And that could be something good as well. Unfortunately I think the last few years have been a phase of really intense negativity. Not every single song is about something horrible, and I mean, I do have a notebook of songwriting ideas, but the purpose of the notebook is not to just write down things that are awful. It's to write down things that I think by writing about them—Something that I think potentially we'll be thinking about ten years from now, or that will seem to have been a touchstone life experience, either positive or negative—or touchstone information. Not everything's experiential.
Given that you said that it's not all bad, there still might be that stereotype that's attached to your work—
Oh, I don't think it's coming from nowhere. Most of [the songs] are. [Laughs] But the point is not to be bad. The point is to talk about what I just said.
Do you ever think that maybe there's an element of black comedy—?
Oh, yeah, totally. I mean, it's not unserious, or it's not like a joke, but I certainly think aspects of it are really funny. Or they're so fucking insanely rotten that they're kind of funny. Or just trying to juxtapose certain words to describe certain horrible events in an attempt to laugh the pain into some other shape. Just like the Baltimore song [by Rod Lee], "Dance the pain away," just sort of use a thesaurus to make the pain go away.
Yeah, as for the title of the album, it's almost like you couldn't get any darker. It's like the endpoint and maybe there's something blackly humorous about that.
I totally agree. And it is about one of the lowest moments of my entire life, but like you said, it's so low that it's sort of hilarious. [Laughs] Yeah, it definitely is an attempt to express both sides of that.
Do you think that there could be such a thing as a Xiu Xiu album that didn't have the despair or anguish in it? Would it still be the same band?
I think if the songs are trying to come from the place that the songs are always trying to come from, it certainly would be. I mean the songs are just trying to be honest depictions of things that have happened in different people's lives. And as long as it was coming from a truthful place and trying to be giving in that way rather than trying to be self-serving in that way—which we're not always successful at—that is the point.
It seems unlike a lot of other artists, you're pretty comfortable with people drawing very direct parallels between what's being sung and your own life. Are you comfortable with people identifying this as a very autobiographical type of project?
Oh, yeah, totally. It is. Pointedly it is. I mean not necessarily always my autobiography. A lot of the songs are about my experience, but a lot of the songs are about people's experiences that I know intimately. But it is, hands down, that sort of band.
Yeah, because it just seems like there are so many artists whose work has that element, but that people are sometimes so reluctant to allow that interpretation.
I think it's musicians who have allowed that interpretation that have been the most important to us, so it's an attempt to emulate people who have meant something to us.
Is there someone in that vein who comes to mind?
Oh, yeah, you know... Three specifically: One, extraordinarily obvious, being our friend [As though in air quotes] the Moz. I heard him in a couple of interviews just as [Xiu Xiu was] getting together, just saying, "If you're not writing about something real, then what's the point?" And I had always, growing up, listened to his records for most of my adult life like every other white person in America, and I suspected, or I hoped, that they were about something real, and when I heard him say they were, they became even more important to me.
And then there's two classical composers. One, the Russian composer Shostakovich. He wrote a piece about 1945 in Russia during World War II. And prior to that, I had listened to classical music in a dilettantish sort of way, and then I realized that even though it wasn't lyrical, within harmony he could write about something real that was happening to him and to his countrymen, and it again made the music much deeper. And the same experience with the Polish composer named Penderecki.
Did you ever have an experience where you were really into an artist who seemed to have a confessional element and then you read in an interview that it wasn't that and it turned you off?
I'm sure I must've. I can't think of anything off the top of my head. And for that reason, there have been a couple of musicians who I thought were approaching things in one way and I loved their music—even though it wasn't necessarily autobiographical. But I just found out too much about them as a person and that kind of wrecked their music. Actually one most recently being Howlin' Wolf. I'd listened to his music and it seemed completely bonkers and totally crazy and super dark, and then I just read his biography and found out that he just did a bunch of incredibly clownish, crowd-pleasing antics onstage all of the time. Like he was always just trying to rev people up. And I mean, even though, at least according to this book, his life was coming from this completely brutalized place and music was the thing that held him together, but I guess the fact that he needed to couch it in antics somehow made it harder to be touched by it. I mean, I don't think there's anything inherently wrong with that; it's just what I personally need from music.
You mentioned Morrissey above as well as several classical composers, and it touches on something I wanted to ask you about, which is that in your work, pop music presses up against avant-garde music in a way that I think is pretty rare. Are there any artists that draw equally upon those two traditions that have influenced you?
Oh, yeah, probably most notably Deerhoof. When I first heard Holdypaws, which was a little after it came out—I think in 1998 or 1999—I had never heard anybody doing exactly that: taking really dissonant harmonics and putting really beautiful pop melodies on top of it. And I don't think that we really sound like them particularly, but that approach immediately struck me as, That is what I want to try to do.
I wanted to ask about the new lineup, since the band is just a duo now—
Well, Ches Smith is still in the band. He's not touring this year, but he's definitely in the band and worked on the last record a lot.
Overall, though, the personnel seems to be such a revolving cast of collaborators. How does that affect the project?
Well, it has a plus side and a negative side. Largely, it's a pain in the ass, because you get to play with somebody for a couple of years and you start to figure each other out and then you start to play really well together and then something, a long list of possibilities happen and then you can't play together anymore. And then you have to find somebody and it takes a long time to get into each other's way of understanding music. So that's a pain in the neck. But the upside is there are frequently so many different brains and hearts attached to it that at least for me, it never gets dull. When you get to know how somebody plays, it can get boring, even though you can find each other's groove or whatever really easily. But you get tired of that person's ideas, and the upside is, it's always somebody coming it a new way, which is cool.
Since you've done solo stuff in the past, why do there need to be other people?
Oh, I think the music is a whole lot better. [Laughs hysterically] Yeah, I have numerous musical weakness, which I need to [Laughs] foist onto other people to take over. And you know, I think for the audience, it's just more enjoyable, or the performance is certainly a lot more intense. And personally I like, as a musician, I like playing with other people.
Also, about the collaboration, if you write a song and it's coming from a particularly difficult incident in your life, do you feel like when someone else is performing with you, that you have to share with them exactly where that song is coming from?
No, no, no. Probably just the opposite, actually. I mean it's really rare that someone will work on something that I'm not friends with. I mean occasionally, but if so, they're just playing like a written part. I mean, I know they're a good player but they're just playing a chart or whatever. No, I mean, I would want them to put their own experience and their own heart into it rather than try to guess what mine might be feeling or had felt. I mean, it's the same thing that I might hope for from someone who might listen to one of the songs: What it means for me is completely unimportant; what it means to them is what matters.
I know you said that a lot of the songs were about things that had happened in other people's lives. So if someone joins the band, do you think of it as them agreeing to be as honest about their own experiences as you've been about yours, agreeing to put themselves on the table in that way?
Yeah. I mean I haven't discussed that with anybody directly, but I think it's certainly implied. There's a level of—I don't know how to say this without sounding incredibly pretentious—But there's a level of emotional playing required to make the music work. That's a really weak way of putting it, but just emotionality within playing that's required to make the music work. And there have been some people in the band a long time ago that played from a more distant place and it really did not work at all. So I mean like I said, no one's been in the band who I didn't know really well personally, or who didn't know me really well personally, or we weren't friends or something like that. So I think it's very clear from the onset what is required to make it work.
Yeah, I think what brought that to mind for me is the song on the new record, "Hyunhye's Theme," that mentions "Seo," which is the last name of your new bandmate [Angela Seo]. And I just thought it was interesting that already that, seemingly, this person's autobiography is coming into the lyrics.
Yeah, she and I are best friends. And I actually wrote that song before I knew she was going to be playing in the band. Yeah, for musical reasons, and because I had played it on the solo tour, we decided not to play ['Hyunhye's Theme'] on this particular tour. But that was a little bit of a struggle for her. But I mean she's very, very willing to put her heart on the line. If there comes a time when we would play it, even though that it would be difficult for her, I know that she would completely put herself into it.
I also had the question of, if you wanted the listener to interpret something for themselves, then why put the actual name of the person in the lyrics?
Well, I think in some cases the actual name is not in there, because it's about something that's totally private. Her song, although it's about something difficult, it's not mortifying. It's just something that's hard. There's been a lot of songs that had people's real names in it, and a lot of songs where the names were changed. But by putting a real name in it, the hope is that it will be that much more clear to somebody that it is about something specific and real that happened, kind of going back to what I was saying before: That sort of thing that other artists have done in the past has been meaningful to me, so I'm trying to emulate that by doing that.
That leads me to something else which is a line on the album that says, "Don't ask me is this song is about you." It kind of made me wonder if the act of putting this stuff out there is somehow having a detrimental effect on your personal life, like if someone finds out you're writing about them and it causes problems.
It has a couple times. And not that we're a super-famous band now, but when we started out, we were an incredibly tiny band, and I figured I could just say anything that you wanted to, 'cause I didn't think anybody would ever hear it. And then as we started in a very small way getting slightly more well known, particularly my family seemed to be really disturbed by it, so that was when I started changing people's names when I felt that it was appropriate.
Yeah, I mean it seems like even as the band has grown in popularity, you haven't shied away from anything. I remember reading the story online about your aunt, some weird interaction at the dinner table. It seemed like something that if it got around to the people involved—
Well, actually everyone involved in that—that whole entire side of my family is completely dead, so... [Laughs]
I wondering about the fans too, since you encourage a lot of personal interaction with them. Based on your lyrics, do people think they can cross some barrier that they shouldn't cross with you personally?
Yeah, it's certainly happened. This year in particular a lot of things happened that were getting to be too much for me, and it made me realize I needed to put a small between how available I was making myself to people in that sort of way. Yeah, this has probably been the first year where it got be, like, Wow, this is not getting anybody anything. Before it was an attempt to just be an open and nice person with someone who was being generous with themselves, but it was turning out bad for people who were talking to me and certainly turning out bad for me, so yeah, I think this year it went a little too far in a couple of cases.
Would you feel comfortable even in a general way describing what happened?
No one with whom anything happened lives in New York, so I don't know that they would ever read this, but I don't want to add any more fuel to these few people's fire, so...
I understand. About the charity stuff you guys are always doing, to me it's an interesting juxtaposition because he outreach stuff is so selfless and the music is so personal and autobiographical and doesn't necessarily address those same topics. Do you agree with that?
Not really. Some of the songs certainly completely are about social politics. There's one song on that record called "Falkland Road" which is about human trafficking of young women and girls from Nepal into India on this specific road in New Delhi called Falkland Road, and we had done fund-raising this year for the organization Free the Slaves. Also, like I said, the songs are all about things that are meaningful to us, and getting to do any sort of fund-raising for any organizations that are making a difference in the world is a way to say thank you for the fact that we get to do exactly what we want to do, which is play music. So they're inherently connected.
Is it true that you moved to North Carolina?
How did that change your perspective or the working method of the band? Because you were living in the Bay Area.
It hasn't changed my perspective so much except that I find I fucking hate North Carolina, which I didn't know before, so that's changed my perspective. Working has been more difficult because in the Bay Area I knew a lot of really great players and if I was feeling a little stunted for some external aesthetic information or inspiration, I could go to any of 9,000 places and see something interesting and hopefully get out of whatever rut I was in. And where I live in North Carolina, there is nothing going on, and I don't know anybody who's any good who plays music, except for Angela.
So she lives there as well?
Yeah, she lives there.
So was it due to her that you moved?
No, it's a boring and private story that I think I'm going to just keep boring and private. So it became much more insular very, very, very quickly. Ches lives in New York, which is about an eight-hour drive away, and he came down twice and worked for a couple of days, and that was totally great, but it used to be that we could work together on a pretty regular basis, and he could call a lot of free-jazz people that he played with a lot to work on things as well, and we could bring a lot of other brains into the mix. So that was a big switch. I mean, it probably hadn't been so insular since the band started. I mean, I don't think the result is good or bad either way, but it's certainly different. It was a big adjustment for me.
Given that you have such a negative opinion of the place, do you think it will be short-lived?
Oh, I'll be there for another couple of years. [Mock-ruefully] But then I'm leaving as soon as I can.
I wanted to ask you about the song "Gray Death." It seems to me that you're getting better at crafting singles, in a way—songs that are really direct and accessible. There's a lot to think about, but the songs are so catchy. They almost work like dance-pop songs. Do you think about things that way, in terms of trying to craft a single or a pop song?
Oh, yeah, yeah, totally. Not for any reason other than that I totally love well-crafted pop songs and find them challenging to write. Probably—I don't know—50 percent of the music I listen to is pop-oriented kinds of music. The attempt is not to make some sort of hit single. I really doubt that will ever be the fate of this band, and that's totally fine with me. The attempt is always write a song that the people in the band find meaningful and that hopefully other people will find meaningful. And because I love pop music, the point is to come from a place that matters to me, and pop matters to me.
Is there pop around right now that is exciting to you?
[Sighs]. Not really. [Laughs] I mean, I listen to Top 40 radio a lot, but mostly from an academic perspective, like how songs that are appealing to millions of people, how they're constructed and the sort of sounds that they use and what the arrangements are, is really fascinating to me, so I'll listen to that to try to get ideas. But I think unfortunately, the sentiment of the songs is so hollow that I'm not really touched by them at all, but I still find the production really fascinating. Lately I've gotten—and this is not current in any way—but I've gotten obsessed with a particular Bill Withers song, and the arrangement is so incredibly simple but also very, very strange but still seems completely pop. That's an example of something pop that's really been melting my brain lately even though it's like 30 years old.
Have you seen that documentary about him that just came out?
No, that's what got me into him. I heard that there was a documentary about him so I started checking him out.
It's really interesting.
Oh, cool. I'll definitely see it.
Yeah, he's kind of a reclusive, eccentric figure.
Oh, wow. I didn't know that at all.
Yeah, apparently he dropped out of music at the height of his fame and just left the whole thing behind and went to raise his family. It's a pretty cool thing if you can get ahold of it. What about Alex Chilton? I read somewhere that you had covered one of his songs.
Yeah, actually, [Laughs] this is a little embarrassing. The version that I had heard was on a This Mortal Coil record, and I didn't know that it was an Alex Chilton song. I mean, This Mortal Coil, they do a lot of covers, but I didn't realize that it was a song that he had written, so I have actually never heard the Alex Chilton version.
So was it a big deal to you that he passed away?
Oh, I mean, this will sound grim, but I'm totally unfamiliar with his music. I know he is important to a lot of people, and he apparently wrote a song that I totally love. [Laughs] So I guess indirectly I'm a huge fan.
What do you make of stuff like Lady Gaga that, at least on the surface, seems to have a dark or confessional element like your music? Do you see any parallel with Xiu Xiu?
I don't know. I mean, while the production on her stuff is interesting, it doesn't come across as real genuine to me. If it was genuine to me, then it probably wouldn't be in cell-phone ads. If she really cared about what she was saying, she'd probably keep it a little closer to her heart. So, you know, while I will consciously or unconsciously probably rip off some of her beats next year, I don't think she's a great artist or anything. I mean, not that one has to be confessional to be a great artist, but I think she's part of that completely bizarre and still-fascinating machine of commercial megapop.
As far as the production, the new album is really well-put-together, but it also seems like you still have a fascination with really primitive sounding stuff, like Game Boy and different stuff. Is it important to keep those sorts of sounds in the mix?
I've never really thought about it like that. They're just sounds that I think are interesting. I mean, we've never really tried to make our records sound lo-fi, in the Sebadoh sort of aesthetic. And I don't think they were trying to either—I think they were trying to make them sound as good as they could. I mean, we've always tried to make them sound as good as we could too; we've just never know what the fuck we were doing. I'm not trying to sound like some self-serving DIY genius. If they sound crappy, it's 'cause we fucked it up. Or not that they sound crappy, but we're not trying to be chintzy or attach ourselves to some thrift-store chic at all. I think the Game Boy sounds are really cool. If it cost $3,000, I probably wouldn't have bought it if it did the same thing, but if it cost $19 and it still sounds totally great...
I guess it just makes me wonder what it would be like if your records really had a live-band sound, as opposed to a home-recorded thing, which I get the sense that it is.
Yeah, it is.
And probably put together piecemeal, I'd imagine.
Yeah, in almost every case. The program I have only has two inputs, so it's got to be done a piece at a time.
Is it ever something that you think about, to do a full-band sound on a recording?
Oh, yeah, totally. But the writing and the recording process happen at the same time, and I could completely change the writing process to experiment with that and see what it would be like. But at the moment it would just be an exercise and just seeing what it would be like. But I don't feel compelled to do it. When the band was a four-piece, we talked about doing it for what would have been this record, but everyone who's involved has sort of faded away, so...
I think I've pretty much gotten through what I wanted to talk about. I just wanted to bring up something else from that list you sent. I was very interested that you mentioned Cecil Taylor because I'm a big fan of his music. Can you tell me more about your interest in him and what you draws you to his work?
One thing may seem a little superficial. The fact that he's openly queer and working in a genre that doesn't seem to have a lot to do with queer politics. Not that he's necessarily political, but just that he's open about it at all within that genre, and just that he's the age that he is. If he was, like, 25, it wouldn't be a big deal, but he's from a generation where that's not something that people lived with openly. Just on a personal basis, the fact that he could be making that kind of music and be open with who he is, is very, very inspiring.
And then, just the same reaction that everybody has to his music: It's so incredibly intense and almost overwhelming. There's something about that which is incredibly appealing to me. I wish I could say more about that. I'm not exactly sure how to put it into words. Just that it is so clear that at every moment that he's playing that he's completely open to himself and his experience and giving that to the listener. It lifts my heart out of whatever rotten place it may have been in before whenever I hear it.
Have you seen him live?
No, I unfortunately never have. I would really love to.
I actually think it's interesting, what you said before about him being openly queer, because I'm not sure that he quite is. I think it's been one of these things that's been assumed or stated by other people, but not verified by him.
Oh, I didn't realize that.
Yeah, I interviewed him a year or two ago, and it was something that I wanted to work in, because if you meet him, it seems to be an important aspect of his personality. But it's also this thing that's not necessarily verified by him.
And here I am feeding into that. [Laughs]
I think at one point there was a jazz writer that mentioned it in a piece and Cecil called him out, saying, "You can't categorize me like that; I'm a human being," or something like that.
That I think is great: that he doesn't want that to be anything other than part of his human-ness. I think that's really beautiful.
Yeah, he definitely doesn't want to slap that tag on himself. Correct me if I'm wrong, but you've been pretty vocal about that kind of thing, right?
Do you feel like that ever becomes baggage?
No. It's not baggage for me personally, so talking about it with other people is not baggage. I mean, if it was something that I felt oppressed by, then it could become a drag, but I fortunately lived in the Bay Area; I lived in California almost my entire life. Until I moved to North Carolina, nobody ever gave me a hard time about it. [Laughs] So it's not like I grew up feeling like it was something that was wrong or whatever.
So if you had to put a label on it, you'd identify as bisexual?
Yeah, or I'd say "queer." But the mechanics of it would be bi, yeah.