Interview: Xiu Xiu

Jamie Stewart formed the experimental rock outfit Xiu Xiu in the early 2000s. As the group’s only consistent member, Jamie has continuously utilized his project to perform, record, and release challenging music that, when combined with his distinctly emotive singing style and oftentimes polarizing lyrics, has garnered the band critical praise and a passionate following.

Xiu Xiu’s latest album, FORGET, was released last month by Polyvinyl Records. Jamie graciously took a moment to answer some questions for Surviving the Golden Age regarding Xiu Xiu’s new record, their recent collaborations and projects, as well as what fans should expect from the band’s upcoming tour.

The music for your 2014 record, Angel Guts: Red Classroom, sounds at times as if it was influenced by the proto-punk duo Suicide. Who/What were the bands and/or albums that inspired the songs on FORGET?

For Angel Guts we were as noted deeply going down the Suicide path, as well as Neubauten and Kraftwerk. For FORGET, the records and bands that we were using as a beacon in the night were equally important but their influence was less direct. They were more philosophical or emotional influences rather than people whose work we were essentially quoting. I.e., we had influences, but you might not hear them as clearly. Those being most prominent: Joe Meek, Prince, Nick Cave, Éliane Radigue, PJ Harvey, Schoenberg and Roy Orbison.

The word “accessible” has come up frequently in print reviews for FORGET. Do you feel like this is your most accessible work? Was it your intention to make a more mainstream-friendly record this time around?

That word seems to come for every other record we do. Accessibility is relative. What is easy for some people is impossible to get into for others.
We just tried to listen to the music universe and see where we were lead. In a million years we would not and could not ever try to get over. Sometimes our hearts go in a melodic and song based direction, and sometimes they lead to the sound of a bus accident.

In the past you’ve performed in front of audiences unfamiliar with your work who may not have immediately grasped what you were trying to do musically or perhaps reacted unfavorably to what they were being exposed to. How do you overcome unexpected, oppositional scenarios in a live setting? Is there a particularly memorable incident that you can share?

I just close my eyes and play the best I can. If people are not into it there is nothing more that one can do. We have been a band for a bit. At this point most people coming to see us are familiar with what we are trying to do. In the early days we did get things thrown at us or heckled a lot, and the response then was to yell back or try and say the most revolting thing back I could think of. “I know you jack off thinking about your baby cousin etc.” usually shuts people up.

But experience has shown that ignoring it works the best and is the least disruptive. Usually people in the audience will shush whoever is being an ass. Myself included.

The vocals on Xiu Xiu songs are often peppered with words or phrases that tend to jump out over repeated listens. For example, on “Get Up” the word saxophone is somewhat exaggerated phonetically. Are moments like these intentional? When recording your vocals are you more likely to use a take that includes an unintentional standout moment?

Funny you caught that. It was a private joke to myself from a Simpsons episode where Homer says “saxomaphone” regarding Lisa’s instrument.

When recording and editing vocals, the point is to pick takes or moments that put across the feeling of the song. Sometimes those are weirdly emphasized, like your example, sometimes they are the most plain, most direct. The feeling is what would drive any choice.

Which celebrity were you most surprised to find out was a Xiu Xiu fan?

I found out that the president of the NRA is a fan. But only a fan of cutting his own throat with our records.

How much involvement/input do you currently have regarding Xiu Xiu’s music videos?

Little to none. I have made 3 or 4, but we have maybe 10,000,000,000,000,000 videos or more. it is interesting to see what people will do without much or any direction from the band. 9 times out of 10 we are super happy with what people do. There are clunkers here and there, but usually people who are good make good work!

At one point in Martyn Marquez’ music video for the song “Get Up”, the woman featured smashes a Molotov cocktail directly in front of herself. This looked dangerous. Were you on set for the shoot? Were there multiple takes required for that particular scene?

I was not there. Marty is someone I trust to know what he is doing.

Some of the lyrics on earlier Xiu Xiu records are obvious references to specific things happening globally at the time they were recorded. The lyrics on your more recent releases, however, are not as blatant. Has there been a conscious effort on your part to steer away from lyrics that may anchor your work to a certain period? Do you feel like your lyrics have become more cryptic and/or poetic over time?

I know what you mean, but it has been more of an unconscious evolution. I try basically to not try and just to let them go where they are going to go. As long as there is a feeling there, even if it is not easy to define, then it is worth pursuing. That literal, linear narrative and supernatural exploration are two routes to the same place is something that has become more clear over time.

Is FORGET an acronym? If so, what is it an acronym for?

No it is not.
F is for Frig
O is for Over the panties
R is for rogering
G is for goo
E is for every imaginable depth
T is secret T

How did you discover Banjee Balls and Enyce Chanel?

There is a famous dance club near me called Los Globos, and I check out what is going on there frequently. It was just chance that I went on that night, though, and a world opened up. I saw Enyce that night [and] was amazed at his focus and voice. I got a hold of him a couple days later, and he was generous enough to add his talent to the record.

Both FORGET and the Accordion Solo! anthology for your former band, Ten in the Swear Jar, open with emcees. Have you ever emceed an event yourself? Is this something you’d have an interest in doing at some point? What is your fascination with emcees?

Ha, I forgot about that. I think it is just a coincidence, but perceptive on your part.

Xiu Xiu’s performances in 2015 of the music of Twin Peaks, which culminated in the recording and releasing of the 2016 album Xiu Xiu Plays the Music of Twin Peaks, was well received by fans and critics alike. What other show and/or film soundtracks would you consider covering?

We already covered the best one there ever was! Where does one go from Twin Peaks? Only down.

How did your collaboration with Mitski come about?

I had written a couple of songs for an upcoming John Cameron Mitchell movie, and he then asked me to write the song or the closing credits. He wanted a woman to sing it and recommended her. We never met in person as I was on tour while they were recording it, but I wrote it with her in mind and am very, very happy with how she sang it and what she added to it.

What was it like to work with Merzbow?

Easy and explosive. He is amazing at what he does.

You’ve been busier than usual as of late with various soundtracks and projects. Most recently you composed music for a collaboration with Vaginal Davis and Susanne Sachsse of a reinterpretation of Mozart’s The Magic Flute. Do you like being busy creatively? Are you worried your creativity could be stretched too thinly when you have so much going on at one time? Are you ever concerned about repeating yourself?

Always concerned about repeating oneself and at times it happens of course.

Working on music is the great joy and drive in my life. I have no idea what else I would do if not that.

In addition to the songs from FORGET will you be performing material from any of your recent projects on upcoming tour dates? Will you be performing songs from past Xiu Xiu releases? How far back in your catalog can fans expect you to go?

Our first record, Knife Play, was just reissued on vinyl, so a few from that record. We usually play older and newer songs. Sometimes “middle” period songs get over looked. I suppose those will be older too soon and will make it back onto the set list.

What other collaborations do you have coming down the pipe?

The same people who we worked on The Magic Flute, Vaginal Davis, Susanne Sachsse and Jonathan Berger along with artist Phil Collins are doing a concert/installation in Berlin this fall.

In Morrissey’s Autobiography, he talked about wanting The Smiths to be the biggest band in the world. Looking back, it’s hard to imagine lyrics and music that emanated from a place of such thoughtful, emotional sensitivity and sadness being ubiquitously embraced culturally. Do you now or have you ever had similar aspirations for what Xiu Xiu can achieve in terms of global success and/or notoriety?

My goals were and remain to make the best records we can make at the time, play the best we can on that day and not to have a day job.

Xiu Xiu’s latest album, FORGET, was released via Polyvinyl Records on February 24, 2017. You can catch the band on tour this spring.

Mar. 16th – Los Angeles, CA – Union
Mar. 17th – Escondido, CA – A Ship in The Woods
Mar. 19th – San Francisco, CA – The Chapel
Mar. 21st – Seattle, WA – Kremwork
Mar. 22nd – Portland, OR – Holocene
Mar 23rd – 26th – Knoxville, TN – Big Ears Festival
Mar. 30th – Detroit, MI – El Club
Mar. 31st – Chicago, IL – The Empty Bottle
Apr. 1st – Jacksonville, FL – The Sleeping Giant Film Festival
Apr. 6th – Brooklyn, NY – Villain
Apr. 7th – Philadelphia, PA – Boot & Saddle
Apr. 8th – Harrisburg, PA – Cathedral Room at Der Maennerchor
Apr. 9th – Baltimore, MD – The Wind-Up Space
Apr. 11th – Jersey City, NJ – Monty Hall
Apr.12th – New Haven, CT – Bar
Apr. 13th – Providence, RI – Colombus Theatre
Apr. 14th – Portsmouth, NH – 3SArtspace
Apr. 15th – Boston, MA – The Hardcore Stadium (Cambridge Elks Lodge)

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