A mix of noise damaged art-core, glitchy, drum machine laden, Goth dancefloor bangers, ear-piercing squelch and ear straining whispered vocals, suicide, sex, politics, humor and horror, Xiu Xiu is a strange beast. Jamie Stewart, the prolific main songwriter, singer and sole consistent member of the band, has been churning out excruciatingly frank music under the Xiu Xiu moniker since 2000. With more than 10 albums, a bushel full of singles, a smattering of EPs, cover songs on tribute comps, a video art website, a book of Polaroids featuring the band as models, and a tour almost every year, to call them busy would be an understatement. The latest album, Women as Lovers, shows the band in further evolution, this time almost stepping back from their previous beyond-weird song structures into a realm of big-beat pop music. This is not to say the weirdness has disappeared—in fact it’s even more fully actualized than before. Stewart’s earnestness will continue to polarize fans and critics; the former only want to get deeper into his mind, and the latter are only embarrassed by his penchant for expression of unabashed personal truth. The Agit Reader spoke with the eminently approachable Stewart before Saturday’s show at the new Milo Art performance space in Columbus.
What was your initial vision for Xiu Xiu?
Jamie Stewart: Astoundingly, it was pretty clear, which is completely different than how I’ve approached every other aspect of my life. I had played in a bunch of other bands—just like every other Earthling—and the person I played with in the most of these bands and I were getting really tired of how most of the other people we played with seemed to be approaching things, i.e. a sort of casual response to music. So we actually sat down and said, “Okay, we want to do a band that incorporates these particular elements,” broke up our other band and then started Xiu Xiu. Initially it was very specifically to try to do music that was about, like, gay dance music, early ‘80s/late ‘70s British Goth pop like the Cure and Joy Division, 20th century mono-classical music, different Asian percussion musics, and noise and experimental music. Then to try to put all this together and then to always have all the songs be about something that’s an actual real event, not just made-up songs or theory or something. Other things have sort of added themselves to it, but I think that those ideas, particularly the idea of writing about something real, have continued. I’m sure that the idea of always writing about something real will persevere for the life of the band. I think when I don’t feel like doing that anymore or feel like I can’t anymore it’ll be time to start another band.
You pictured having a full band?
JS: Oh, it started out as a full band; it was a four-piece initially. That line-up lasted about a year, then we started touring. The one person didn’t want to tour so she quit. Another person went to school, and Cory [McCulloch] realized that he couldn’t stand touring, so he quit. I did it as a solo thing for about a year, then Caralee [McElroy] joined and she was in it for about two years. Then Ches [Smith] joined about two years ago. We had another person named Devin Hoff in it for about six months, but are now back to Caralee, Ches and myself. But it’s been a band, with the exception of the one year I did solo stuff, since the inception.
It wasn’t just you screaming in a four-track?
JS: No, not to start.
Everybody needs to do that, at least once. How were the first few shows received?
JS: Terrible, we were horrible. We were really shitty. Where we used to live in this weird city in the Bay Area, Cory and I had been in this other band that nowhere else except in this small area were we a teeny bit popular. People seemed to be a bit tweaked that we had transformed into this other thing, that not only was really different, but also completely horrible. We just didn’t know what we were doing. Two of the people in the band couldn’t really play, and we were trying to do something to use their sort of instinctual type of playing. And Cory and I aren’t really good, but we could play a little. It just didn’t work. If anyone didn’t like it, it was entirely their right not to. I don’t feel like we were pissed upon, we just sucked.
So, you recorded everything first?
JS: Yeah, the record was done and we just started playing around on the songs.
It obviously didn’t translate well.
JS: It eventually did. It took a long time to figure out how to do it. It’s a bit of work. We have to practice for a long time to sort it out.
It seems that like such intensely personal sounding music would be difficult to perform aloud to crowds of strangers. A good portion of the songs are really quiet, though dynamic, so it’s not like you can hide behind power chords. Is it hard exposing those emotions night after night?
JS: Yeah, but why play if not to do something that could potentially have some meaning behind it?
You don’t feel like you have to ingratiate yourself to the audience?
JS: No, I tried to do that in the past with other bands, and it took me a while to realize that that just completely goes against the point of playing music. I would never want to see someone who was trying to make me like them—ever. I would want to see someone who was trying to be open with what they were doing or trying to take some sort of risk. I don’t want to be entertained, and I don’t think that trying to entertain people is anything but completely self-serving bullshit. The point of doing it is that somebody else hopefully is able to relate to it and get something out of it. I mean, the point is not to feel satisfied; the point is to hopefully be giving for having done it. I don’t feel better or something like that after a show.
Over the course of the line-up changes, how has the songwriting process evolved?
JS: It’s been really interesting. Fundamentally, it’s remained sort of the same in so far as I’ll usually get started with some sort of small idea and do as much with it as I possibly can then ask other people to finish it up. I have a small studio and I just don’t have a whole lot else to do and also enjoy doing it. On the last record, for the first time since the very beginning of the band, we actually got together in a room and started from scratch on a couple of things, which I hadn’t done since maybe 2001. The thing we’re working on now, just because we all live in different cities, it’s kind of reverted back to getting together for a week at a time, generally not finishing anything but just kind of getting some sketches or ideas down. Then we’ll get together and hopefully turn it into a real song.
You prefer to record at home then?
JS: It’s just sort of a time thing. I work really, really slow, and I could never afford it otherwise. I’m just used to it, too. I’ve had four-tracks since I was 15 and have always been screwing around with them. I really enjoy that process a lot.
The new album is much more collaborative, and a couple of the songs sound more accessible, almost radio-friendly. Was that a conscious effort?
JS: Oh no. I like pop a lot. I mean, a whole lot. Any song we’ve ever done is just an attempt to try to do a song that we think, to us, sounds like a good song and hopefully something someone will get something from. We’re not trying to do anything other than try to do something good, though I don’t know if it is any good. It could be a completely atonal experimental piece, but we’re hoping it’s a good atonal experimental piece, and if it’s a pop song, we’re hoping it’s a good pop song.
You do a ton of cover songs?
JS: Yeah, we’ve done a bunch. The impetus for doing any of them is just that we really love the song. Although I later found out after Ches played on “Under Pressure” [on Women As Lovers] that he doesn’t even like that song, which I didn’t even know. It’s really funny because he played great on it. So I guess the impetus is that I like the song. More to just show some sort of appreciation of the song. I think we’ve done maybe 15 covers or something, but it’s just to say “thanks” to the song.
How did “Under Pressure” come about?
JS: When I was first thinking of starting Xiu Xiu, a friend said he had seen this Freddie Mercury documentary and he talked about how people gave him such a hard time for being such a weirdo. But he could only be himself, that’s what he [Freddie Mercury] said. I thought it was really touching that somebody who was such a massive icon could say something so human, that anybody could relate to. It got me really interested in him. I had always sort of tangentially thought that Queen was really cool and bought Queen’s Greatest Hits as an eight-year-old, but I had never been interested in rock particularly. The more I learned about him, the more sort of a fantastic person he seemed like—and fantastical as well—and he became really interesting to me. That song in particular is an inescapably beautiful and wonderful pop song, and the legend is that he wrote it in a day in the studio and David Bowie just happened to stop by and they just threw it together. I don’t know if that’s true.
I had thought about asking Michael Gira to do it for a couple of years. We’re about one degree separated through friends, but I was never really brave enough to ask him. Then I just thought, “Well fuck it, I’ll just ask him,” and he said something along the lines of “Sure, why not?” So we got the music together and the people who played on it did a really spectacular job and I just mailed it to him. He sent the vocals back and they were incredibly beautiful; he did a totally wonderful job. It was all very distantly done, but just a surrealistic experience for me to put the CDR into my computer and hear his voice come out next to mine. The Swans are an incredibly big influence for me, and I know that David Bowie is as big for him as Freddie Mercury is for me. Then he [Gira] is really huge for me, so it’s like this triumvirate of idols.
So you name your tour vehicles. Have you named this one?
JS: This one is “Satin Beatdown.” The last one was called “Laser Bitch” and the one before was “Crazy Witch,” and we were trying to come up with some variation of that. The woman who rented it to us was named Satin. It was at the end of a long set of rehearsals in a city none of us live in, so we were all totally crazily exhausted and making a ton of Nü Metal jokes. It made a lot of sense at the time and now it sounds dumb. But “Laser Bitch” and “Crazy Witch” are equally dumb, so is “Morpheus” and “Chatty Cathy,” the previous prototypes.
How is the Pandapples collection going?
JS: Fuck, I’ll show you. The best ever, these kids made me a Pandapple hat, which is exactly Pandapple’s hat. I mean, Pandapple has an apple for a brain.
Any good tour stories?
JS: (Laughing) David just showed me a close-up picture of his cock. David, who is our tour manager, has been increasingly getting into nakedness. That’s been pretty wonderful! We poured a bunch of Froot Loops in the bath while he was just in there naked. He’s gotten to the point where he’ll just stand over people naked when they’re trying to sleep for 15 minutes.
Caralee McElroy: Not sexual at all.
JS: No. He jerked off into a water bottle and just left it around. He’s been pretty out, which is nice. It’s interesting to us because it seems completely normal. He was walking up to friends of ours who were on tour and he just said something incredibly crass—like more crass than “Can I grab your vagina?” or something like that—which for us is part of everyday stupid conversation because we’re losing our minds, and she lost it. And we were just like, “Oh right, normal life!” But the wonderful part is that he’s incredibly poingnant right now, and probably genuinely moved that there’s bats flying around. [It was dusk and hundreds of bats had appeared in the sky above the Milo building from inside the old chimneys]. It’s a delicate balance between trying to cause as much trouble as possible and then attempt to try to appreciate some sort of natural wonder. I think that may sum up our touring experience.