Jamie Stewart of Xiu Xiu
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Xiu Xiu’s latest album is called Dear God, I Hate Myself, which so neatly encompasses the band’s ethos that it could serve as a title for a greatest-hits collection. For almost a decade now, Jamie Stewart and a rotating cast of musicians have released some of the least comforting music around, stocked with personal trauma and sexual crises, heavy on anguish and light on restraint. Although Stewart’s songs are rock songs, basically, they’re deconstructed and fragmented beyond recognition. Electronic hiss, cheap keyboards, a beautiful, vulnerable voice: Imagine throwing pop songs out of a fifth-floor window and watching them shatter. Xiu Xiu songs are what you’d sweep off the sidewalk afterward.
For Dear God, I Hate Myself, Stewart bid farewell to longtime contributor Caralee McElroy and welcomed new member Angela Seo, a keyboardist and multi-instrumentalist who seems to have nudged Stewart’s songs to bigger and bolder places. Dear God includes plenty of the fractured experimentation that’s marked every Xiu Xiu album so far, but some of these songs, like the Morrissey-hued opener “Gray Death,” have an orchestral majesty that cuts through the despair. The A.V. Club recently talked to Jamie Stewart about examining the past, singing about sadness, Xiu Xiu ringtones, and why he won’t ever play some of his songs again.
The A.V. Club: You shook up the Xiu Xiu lineup before recording Dear God, I Hate Myself. What was the impetus for that, and what’s changed?
Jamie Stewart: Angela Seo joined the band as a full member. She had been tangentially involved for a couple of years, and she made a couple videos for us. She is technically a really brilliant keyboardist and pianist, so we were able to do things with that instrument we weren’t able to do before. She had a different background, really different choice of music than I do, which is good. I am tired of my own brain and very, very tired of my own ideas.
AVC: Do you mean you’re tired of them in a vacuum, or that you need to hear what other people have to bring to the table?
JS: I need to hear what other people bring.
AVC: What were your ideas lacking?
JS: [Laughs.] I don’t know if they were necessarily lacking. One’s mind is a finite instrument. Although I wish I were, I am not a genius. It certainly never hurts to bring in somebody extraordinarily creative and driven to be creative.
AVC: Would it be fair to say that Xiu Xiu is a confessional project?
JS: Oh, absolutely.
AVC: How did you come up with Dear God, I Hate Myself as a title?
JS: It came from one night of extreme psychological distress, of literally being down on my knees praying to God and feeling that way. Not really knowing how to get on with my life, and feeling extraordinarily confused and stupid about who I am as a person. So it’s a direct address rather than an exclamation.
AVC: What’s it like to bring an experience like that to your band?
JS: I never discuss it with them. [Laughs.] Everybody I’ve played with, I’ve been friends with for a long time. It’s not like I’m going to bring in some random side person. We’re good enough friends where it doesn’t really require an explanation. I know that they’re all serious musicians and are serious enough about their own creative pursuits that me sort of foisting my issues upon them—they don’t need that. They are dealing with their own personal issues and attempting to put forth their own creative ideas. They are generous enough to play in Xiu Xiu and be members of Xiu Xiu. The reason they work in the band is because they have their own thing. And like I was trying to say before, that is because we are friends. It’s the kind of thing I can just bring up with them in the context of being friends.
AVC: Do you see your songs and albums more as therapy or documentation?
JS: Probably more as documentation. I don’t really feel better after having worked on a song that may be really brutal in subject matter. But if I didn’t do it, I’m quite sure I’d lose my fucking mind. I’ve been in the extraordinarily fortunate position to continue to work on music for most of my adult life. I’ve gotten more and more dependent upon it as a place to put my emotions and experiences, for a lack of a better description.
AVC: What specifically are you trying to document?
JS: The songs are all attempts at documenting life—the lives of people I’m close to, or my life, or things that are happening in politics. For some people, sex and sexuality are really intense driving forces, or really intense aspects of personal torture, or a really deep part of personal identity and personal politics and social politics. I think because the band is all about those things, it’s not as if we’re a band that’s just about dirty, weird, fucked-up sex. Dirty, weird, fucked-up sex and sexual politics are part of life.
AVC: Are you listening to any music now that excites you?
JS: Let’s see… there’s a classical composer from the ’50s and ’60s named [Krzysztof] Penderecki that I’ve gotten really into lately. I don’t know how to pronounce his name. It’s almost unbearably intense.
AVC: People say that about your music.
JS: I’m a huge Penderecki copycat. [Laughs.] It’s so apparent that he has no intention whatsoever of letting up on the listener. His music seems incredibly plain, but you’ll hear a piece about the bombing of Hiroshima, say, and the fact that he writes about an unfathomably horrible event without being plaintive about it is really appealing to me. I don’t think he’s trying to get someone to reflect on the past, I think he’s trying to get them—and obviously this is impossible—to experience that overwhelming and incredibly confusing terror that must have been happening at the time.
AVC: How do you think your own music approaches trauma?
JS: We are certainly not always successful at it, but the attempt is to be as explicit about it as possible without seeming self-aggrandizing—although certainly that always does occur. I think that is probably the point of the band. I don’t think that is the point of, you know, music in general. And occasionally we’ll work on some music and it’s not the point of that music. But it is definitely the point of Xiu Xiu.
AVC: Do you ever go back and listen to your old records with a critical ear, or wonder what you were thinking when you wrote a particular song?
JS: For me, and probably for any band, it is not a good idea to examine your past too closely, because that time is done. Hopefully you did your absolute best at that time, and if you didn’t, then you had no business putting out that record. So no, I guess. When we have to learn a song for a tour, I am generally relieved to find that it’s not a stupid song. I know there are some songs from before that don’t have any relevance to what we’re doing now, or there is no emotional relevance to it at all—it’s about subject matter that has been resolved, more or less.
AVC: Could you give an example of one of those?
JS: There’s a song on A Promise called “Ian Curtis Wishlist” about a very particular, very humiliating kind of heartbreak. I can barely even remember this person now. We tried to play the song one time, and it was well past the time I was feeling that way. We played it twice live, and it just seemed really lame and really phony. We learned our lesson with it. The song in and of itself… I don’t think that song is irrelevant or a stupid song by any means. But if we were to play it live now, there is no way I could convincingly sing it, because that subject matter doesn’t mean anything to me in my current state. I know at the time when I recorded it, I meant what I was singing, and I think it still could be meaningful if someone came across it.
AVC: What keeps a song fresh for you?
JS: It stays fresh because the subject matter is still relevant. There is stuff that happens to everybody 10 years ago that you still think about because it still means something to you.
AVC: Can you discern any sort of grand narrative throughout your albums?
JS: There might be, but I don’t want to know what it is.
AVC: Why is that?
JS: I just think you’re going to get into trouble if you start thinking about what your trajectory is, rather than just dealing with what is important to you at this moment. If I ever stop doing Xiu Xiu and don’t have anything to do one night, maybe I’ll examine each record with a lead pencil and protractor. Each record is trying to be about now. To go back and figure it out is not about now, it’s about a little while ago.
AVC: One thing that’s changed from record to record has been the music industry, and the way music is distributed. There are Xiu Xiu ringtones floating around now. What do you make of the industry?
JS: Luckily, we’re on a pretty punk-rock label, so there are a lot of aspects of the music industry that if I don’t feel like dealing with them, I don’t have to. [The label] would like us to do stuff, but they certainly don’t make us do anything stupid like be in a commercial or some shit. As for extraneous shit like ringtones—this kid wrote me and asked me to send him part of a song he wanted to turn into a telephone ringtone, and it just seemed like a dopey, fun thing to do. There’s no way that the bell sound from “Ten-Thousand-Times-A-Minute” is somehow going to make us huge fucking rock stars. These are just sort of tangential art projects. If three people download that, I’ll think it’d be fascinating and hilarious more than anything else.
AVC: What separates a ringtone from, say, using a song on a commercial?
JS: That would be the opposite of being subversive. If there were a song about some grisly subject matter and we put it in a commercial, its not like we’d be tricking somebody. We would have completely diluted the meaning of that song, and it would be pointless. Totally, totally pointless.
AVC: Do you intend for to Xiu Xiu stand in opposition to a consumer culture?
JS: I would want it to. But the fact that we sell records at a record store means we’re already sort of not-that.
AVC: Well, now it seems like not many people buy their records at a record store.
JS: I mean, we attempt to sell our records, with decreasing amounts of success. [Laughs.]