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An Interview with Xiu Xiu

Jamie Stewart, a square-jawed man with a razor-sharp side-part, has a low voice, a few tattoos, and the airs of someone with a strict hygiene regimen. Stewart is the anchor behind Xiu Xiu, a dark experimental act out of San Jose, whose combination of relentless nihilism and dry humor often splits the critics. Stewart is Xiu Xiu’s only constant player –– the band has added and shed eleven members since forming in 2002 –– and the band’s sound, like its membership, is always changing. Their repertoire ranges from the grim and percussive Angel Guts: Red Classroom, to Plays the Music of Twin Peaks (a bleak but lovingly rendered take on the cult TV show’s soundtrack), to Nina (an out-there tribute album to Nina Simone, that sounds more like an out-of-breath Anohni [à la Hopelessness] than anything from the Simone catalogue) to the upbeat, nearly noise-pop Forget, the band’s tenth release, which came out this past February. I met with Stewart in the front seat of an immaculate white SUV and chatted about band names, the creative process, and stuffed animals.This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: You have said publicly that your band name comes from the young female protagonist of a Chinese film. What’s the story behind how you chose that name?

A: The band name is from a movie directed by Joan Chen called “Xiu Xiu the Sent-down Girl.” It was released in the late ‘90’s. The person that I started Xiu Xiu with –– he and I were housemates at the time –– and we had both seen the movie independently of each other. In the movie, which takes place during the Cultural Revolution in China, the character Xiu Xiu, at every turn, is attempting to improve her life situation. But, everything she tries to do makes things worse. She eventually dies in the end. And Cory McCulloch –– the guy I started the band with –– although circumstantially obviously things were totally different, we were feeling close to the character Xiu Xiu in that everything we were doing to improve our lives was also just leading to things getting worse.

Q: For a band whose style changes so drastically album to album, do you find that with each shift the band makes that the band name moves with it? Have you ever thought about changing your name for different projects or is there a reason you’ve stuck to one?

A: I don’t know, I’ve talked to different publicists we’ve had about the possibility changing the band name, you know, if we do something dramatically different. They said to consider bands that we have admired that have done things dramatically different and they always kept their names. It made sense to me that, if you’re a band for a couple of years, if you’re a music fan as well as a musician, it makes sense that you would explore different avenues. Although there is an impulse to change the name, because it sort of re-sets a newer mind, perhaps, what the possible parameters could be. But, as they noted, when one thinks about one’s predecessors’ maintaining their name and exploring different things, there is a precedent for allowing one to jump off different bridges.

Q: It also might confuse the fans a little.

A: It does not often help [laughs].

Q: I was just reading an interview with Dedekind Cut and he said some fans have been confused by all his names. Because he was “¬ b” [“Not Bannon”] and before that he was Lee Bannon, and then was with Pro Era –– it can be hard for people to track. But it also makes sense, because he, like you, has made massive genre changes.

A: I think in techno and hip-hop there’s a little more precedent for it. But as far as being in a rock band, there isn’t as much. A friend of mine was in this band called Casiotone for the Painfully Alone, and he had, you know, as small but devoted following, and then he changed his name and he’s really struggling with having made that decision.

Q: Wait, what did he change it to?

A: That’s what I mean. You’re one of the fans he lost. He changed it to Advance Base –– it’s a video game reference –– and, I think he’s been regretting it since. I’m not sure why he doesn’t just change it back. I’m sure he has his reasons.

Q: So, you’re the only constant member of Xiu Xiu since 2002. You started playing with Angela Seo in 2009 and Shayna Dunkelman in 2012, and several others along the way. Are there specific elements to your sound that were brought on by various people who have played with you over the years?

A: Oh yeah, absolutely. I mean, everyone who has been involved has, with rare exception, has been a genuinely brilliant and singular player. Each person has added something, I don’t have a graph [laughs], but the reason I have someone playing something is because they have a personality. Because they add something to the music that is them.

Q: So, Forget just came out. And it struck me and I think a lot of the people that I’ve read online, as kind of a shift, certainly from Plays the Music of Twin Peaks, but also from the Xiu Xiu catalogue, in that, it’s almost a noise-pop album. But I’ve read that you don’t necessarily agree with that reading.

A: Well, I think the aspect that I don’t quite agree with is that somebody –– and this seems to happen with every other record that we’ve ever done –– seems to to attach the word “accessible.” This is the most accessible record Xiu Xiu has ever done! I mean it happened in 2004, it happened in 2008, it happened in 2012, and it’s happening again with this record. I think the implication is that I think people perceive Xiu Xiu as being a band that just does completely unlistenable noise music, which I don’t think is the case. But I’m absolutely the person whose opinion matters the least in this.

But, this record is essentially song-based, so I think people are attaching the idea of pop to it. When we were working on it, we weren’t thinking of it as a pop-record. We were thinking of it as a “songs” record, in, I think, the traditional craft of songwriting, not so much the top-forty manner of songwriting. We certainly weren’t trying to make a record that was accessible or that was pop. I think essentially we were trying to not try to do anything. And just allow it to evolve into what it was going to evolve into. In this case, that turned out to be songs.

I think probably the most influential pop element for us was a late-fifties, early sixties producer named Joe Meek, who is sort of a pioneer of incredible, almost over-produced, super lush, melodramatic, excessively romantic kind of proto-rock-n-roll, torch songs. He invented a ton of studio techniques that at the time were completely revolutionary –– you know, like close-miking, echo, excessive compression on sounds. He was one of the first person to really use a studio as an instrument. But he was also a greater, almost over-the-top arranger –– so I think the pop element came from him. I think when people had said that this was a pop record, I thought that they were referring to ideas of current top forty –– if I was ever bristling, it was at that.

Q: As you said, this was a songs record, but I’ve read that you initially tried to make it under very narrow constraints and found that difficult. Can you elaborate on what you initially pictured and explain why that broke down?

The previous record, Angel Guts: Red Classroom, we had a really specific set of rules for, and for that record it was super fruitful. I really liked working at that time within those very, very, narrow constraints. And I thought that, that worked, so we’ll just come up with a narrow set of constraints for a different record, this upcoming record, which ended up being Forget. But we couldn’t really come up with any that we felt good about. We tried a few here and there, and different combinations, but nothing was yielding anything and it went on for a really long time, with nothing happening that sounded good. Off the top of my head I can’t really think up any of the ill-fated combinations.

Q: What does it mean to make rules?

A: Well, with the case of Angel Guts, the rules were that we could only use analog drum machines and analog synthesizers and a minimum amount of percussion and vocals, and those would be the only instruments we could use. We’re basically just going to draw on Kraftwerk, Nico, Suicide, Einstürzende Neubauten. We were trying to push those worlds together, and that’s what we were doing with the album. With Forget, or rather the songs that would not become Forget, we wanted kind of a narrow definition of what it could be. But we weren’t able to come up with a combination that worked. So, we just went the total opposite direction. We said there would be no rules and no thinking. Essentially, we just tried to listen to the goddess of music [laughs] and sing what she said was true.

Q: And is that where the title comes from –– is it obliquely tied into that process?

A: Well, it’s a difficult record to talk about in linear terms, I think because it was not really made in a linear way. So that very well may be the case, but in attempting to have as little intellectuality attached to it, I cannot be totally certain that there is a reference to that process in the title. For me, there is a particular meaning to the title –– like a personal meaning for the title –– but I don’t know if it was necessarily woven into the way that the record was made, but it is certainly possible.

Q: Can you elaborate on that?

A: Oh yeah, with the caveat that this is just my personal meaning. I’m hesitant to insert my own interpretations on it. Because it’s very important to the band –– the whole point of the band essentially is that people have their own interpretations of things. We’re not making this record to impose our ideas on the world. We have our ideas about it. It has a meaning for us. But once we’re done with it, it’s not for us anymore.

But for me, the title is kind of two things. One, in a very uninteresting and personal way, is that I –– this is so boring –– I, like fucking everyone, just have a really difficult time with depression. A big part of how it manifests for me is that I’ll get stuck on negative thoughts. Probably 80% of the time, when I’m conscious, I’m just thinking of one negative thought all of the time. It’s super aggravating. It has occurred to me in the last couple of years that I can take some conscious steps to force myself to think about something else, although it takes a fair amount of will to do it –– and energy. So the idea of “forgetting” as a coping mechanism essentially, part of it is about that.

The other idea is that, in some ways for me, I’ve found forgetting to be something very useful –– but forgetting can also be something incredibly sad and tragic. By definition, it is essentially loss. Sometimes that loss can be very, very freeing. But also by definition, the loss of something you were trying to hold onto –– sombody’s face whom you have loved or some of the people you have seen, some kind of connection that you had with somebody that at one point felt very, very palpable but then dissolves –– obviously, that stuff can be very, very sad. So, I was thinking about forgetting a lot, and the idea of forgetting as something that can be both extraordinarily helpful, and probably the only reason human beings can exist without [laughs] blowing their heads off and things, but at the same time, it’s a double edged sword.

Q: In the opening of Forget, you sample a really fast paced verse from Enyce Smith, the Banjee Ball commentator. When did you first come across Smith's stuff? And how did that collaboration play out?

A: It was just by chance. Angelo Seo and I are really close friends and hang out a lot –– from Xiu XIu, Angela Seo from Xiu Xiu. There’s this legendary club in Los Angeles called Los Globos, and she said this band that she liked was going on. We went out and Enyce Smith was doing the commentary on it. It was mind bogglingly intense –– and creative and interesting and funny and kind of frightening. For hours he was maintaining a level of excitement and intensity that just never let up. I had never seen anybody do something that relentless before, vocally. I left and I was like, “Aw man, you know I’d love to do something like that.” But I thought, “I can’t do anything like that, he has to do it, there’s no possible way that I could do that.” So, I looked online and found his email. I wrote him, and he doesn’t live that far away from me by chance. A couple days afterwards he came over. It took like ten minutes. I just played him a song and he improvised over it. His timing was perfect. I just edited what he did into the song, and then he left. And that was it [laughs]. I was sort of shocked at how quickly it occurred.

Q: Your work typically deals with pretty dark subject matter –– suicide, loneliness, insanity, abortion, rape, war crimes, the gamut –– but there’s always a touch of humor and lightheartedness in there. Like Fabulous Muscles for example, takes up really dark stuff, child abuse and suicide and so on, but on the cover, you’re cuddling a kitten. What role do you see humor or cuteness playing in your music?

A: Internally, it feels very natural. It feels very much, essentially, how what my internal life is. By physiological design and by circumstance and I think just by interest, I’m very much drawn to the dark side of life. But equally I’m super interested, I have a huge stuffed animal collection, I love cats. My baby nephews are my favorites people in the world. So it’s just the way god made me, essentially. I think the idea of –– in no way is Xiu Xiu a joke band, I think joke music is really aggravating and pointless –– but I think that there, I agree with you that there is a certain level of humor in the songs that we try to do. And I think that idea (no surprise here) really comes from Morrissey and The Smiths. Those lyrics are obviously you know, the pinnacle of gloom-pop as it were, but they’re also hilarious. Like within one song you’ll have lyrics about killing yourself and then a little later a lyric where someone has barfed on their sweater or something. Ever since I was a teenager, he’s been one of my favorite singers. So, I think we very pointedly created that approach from him. And then that’s just how I am made.

Q: You have a large stuffed animal collection?

A: Yeah…well I got the idea from the composer Charlemagne Palestine. He has an infinitely larger stuffed animal collection than me. But I read an article about him having one many, many years ago, and I thought –– that’s not a bad idea [laughs].

Q: In a TMT interview, you wrote that Plays the Music of Twin Peaks, which came out last year wasn’t a “re-imagining” of the TV show’s soundtrack so much as a “thank you” to it. Is that different from how you approached Nina?

A: Oh no, I mean Nina was a thank-you also.

Q. Okay, so when you approach music that is made, and iconic –– how do you think about making changes to the thing that the artist did?

A: It’s not really an intellectual process. The way that we have tried to say thank you –– every single song that we’ve covered has tried to say thank-you. We’ve done a lot of cover songs. It’s essentially just trying to play in the way that that artist has informed our playing. Trying to play what we have learned from them, or in the way that we have learned from them. Or, I’m not really sure how else to say it. So just trying to be ourselves, but ourselves is deeply and profoundly shaped by who those other singers or composers or musicians were.

Q: So at the radio station that I was going to take you to [WHRB], to join the punk station you usually ––

A: –– [laughs] kill people?

Q: –– yeah, burn stuff, do some recommended listening, and then you play five songs a week on someone else’s show.

A: Like as a guest?

Q: Yep, and when I was doing that I randomly pulled out A Promise and played Ian Curtis Wishlist. That was the first time I’d ever heard you guys. I recently looked that up, and you said an Ian Curtis Wishlist “is a list of things that you have convinced yourself that you want to have happen, but you know that are never going to happen.” So, I’m wondering if there are some things you have on your Ian Curtis wishlist.

A: [laughs] There is NO way I would ever admit to them in public. Of course I do! But they’re way too mortifying. I think there was probably a period of time where I would have admitted to them in public, but I think I’ve become slightly more private in the past few years. Oh god, I wish the answer was no, but yes, definitely, definitely yes.

Q: And, last question –– what albums have you been listening to lately?

A: My listening habits are kind of limited. I just listen to three or four things a lot, and then kind of move on to the next little batch. I’ve been listening to a lot of –– well they’re actually kind of related, historically. But I’ve been listening to a lot of Haitian vodou drumming and then Yoruba drumming also. Then, on the complete other side of the map, I realized that I hadn’t listened to The Cure in a couple years. So I’ve been reacquainting myself with The Cure, which is kind of all I listened to in high school. I realized I hadn’t listened to The Cure in like five years or something. So: Haiti, Nigeria, and England.