Jamie Stewart talks Vaginal Davis, Yoruba drumming, and 15 years of Xiu Xiu.
Why would someone choose to listen to Xiu Xiu?
With its blend of dissonant guitar clashes, raging synth chords, and frontman Jamie Stewart’s morbid imagination, Xiu Xiu is daring in a literal sense: it dares listeners to keep their headphones on and endure—rather than necessarily enjoy—what Xiu Xiu has to offer.
But it’s that challenge—the masochistic exercise of listening to a Xiu Xiu record, paired with moments of undeniable beauty—that makes their music all the more alluring.
As a songwriter, Stewart tends to be drawn to more disturbing subject matter. Over the course of 13 albums, Stewart has sung extensively about incest, suicide, and other nightmares, like the true story of his friend being sexually assaulted by a police officer while in custody.
While previous Xiu Xiu records veered toward the chaotic—a sudden, clattering noise here, a lyric like “cremate me after you cum on my lips” there— the group’s latest release Forget holds together as a catchier affair.
“Wondering” features Stewart’s signature, trembling vocals imploring listeners to “swallow defeat” as a pulsing, club-ready beat chugs toward something of a rarity in Xiu Xiu’s catalog: a bonafide pop chorus.
But groovier tunes don’t necessarily mean Stewart is beginning to lighten up. At its core, Forget is ultimately an exploration of frailty and loneliness, ending on a poem read by the drag artist Vaginal Davis. The poem closes with lines that are peak Stewart: “It doesn’t matter what you think/ Do anything you like/ Because I was born dead/ And I was born to die.”
Over the phone from his home in Los Angeles, Stewart seems reluctant to explore the roots of his fascination with darker topics, less because he’s scared and more because he’s worried it could ruin his creative process.
“A lot of ‘whys’ in music I think fuck music up,” he says.
Xiu Xiu will play Villain in Brooklyn on September 23 with Noveller and Re-TROS.
AdHoc: Where are you calling from and what are your plans for the day?
Jamie Stewart, Xiu Xiu: I’m at my house in Los Angeles, and I’m working on a solo noise record. I’m working on the mixes for that today.
How did your approach when recording Forget differ from your previous records?
It’s probably not particularly noticeable, but internally it was quite different in a couple of ways. Procedurally, for the last couple of records, we had hard-and-fast rules about what we were going to allow as far as instrumentation or as far as references we were riffing off. We tried to do that for Forget, but with a different set of rules. And it did not work. It was about a year-and-a-half with just nothing, and we were kind of panicking. That’s kind of a long time to not have anything turn out.
So, essentially we went the complete other direction: no thinking, no rules, no parameters whatsoever. We’d just close our eyes and jump into the pit of the muse’s embrace. And that came together in about four months, so apparently that’s what needed to happen for this record.
Lyrically, for every other record that I’ve ever done, all of the songs were about a very specific, literal, and linear subject. For this record, for some reason that just did not seem to be coming up. I can’t really tell you why. All of the songs have—at least for me—very specific emotional content. If you mentioned a particular song, I can recall specifically what it feels like, but I don’t think I could necessarily put that into words. So they’re about something literal, but not necessarily verbally narrative like the other ones.
This record was worked on in much more subconsciously or below-the-surface. It’s a stupid way to say it, but [I] was in more of a dream-state than a putting-on-the-hard-hat-in-the-salt-mines state.
A lot of people have described Forget as more of a pop record, but I’ve read that you’re resistant to that classification. Why is that?
It may just be a disparity in the definition of how I think most half-assed music journalists define pop and how I think of pop, or at least [what I was thinking of] when Xiu Xiu pointedly tried to make pop records in the past.
For me, it’s a “songs” kind of record, not really a pop record. I’m just basing that on some of the influences for this record. In the past, records we’d done had influences that were like Top 40, and modern Black R&B songs, through the filter of noise and ’70s British post-punk.
But for this one, I haven’t really been interested in Top 40 for a couple of years—not for any reason other than I’m interested in other music. So we didn’t really draw on any of that at all, which is why I’m resistant to [the label]. Previously, I would have wholeheartedly embraced that definition and it would’ve been accurate, but not in this case.
The record closes with “Faith Torn Apart,” which features a poem read by genderqueer performance artist and writer Vaginal Davis. How did you meet her and how did you get her to work on this record?
It’s kind of a long story, so I’ll try to condense it a little. When I was a very, very young teenager growing up in the suburbs of Los Angeles, I would occasionally borrow my parents’ car and drive into the actual Los Angeles and try to see what else there was to life. I was hanging out at this one cafe called The Onyx, which has been gone for a long time, and I found this zine called Ben Is Dead. In it was an article about Vaginal Davis and her band, Black Fag. Actually, someone must’ve driven me there, because I definitely wasn’t old enough to have driven myself.
There was a photo of her: she was very tall and very muscular, and she was wearing a little mini-skirt and had a long beautiful wig on. She was in front of this glittery curtain playing in a punk rock band. It was basically everything that I was looking for in one interview and image: the cross-section of punk rock and underground music; sexual politics and fluid sexual identity; a certain amount of social empathy, but also chic toughness. It really exploded my suburban, early-teen brain. And I never ever forgot about it, and it’s shaped a lot of my artistic lens up until this day.
We ran into each other a couple times. She put a drumstick up my butt on-stage once when I was in my early twenties. Then we didn’t see each other for many, many years. About a year ago, this curator Jonathan Berger was putting together a reworking of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” with Vaginal Davis and the German actress Susanne Sachsse, and they asked me to do the music for it. So we did that in New York, and we were working really closely for several weeks.
While we were working on that, I was writing lyrics for Forget and I asked her if she would be so kind as to read that poem at the end, which for me is kind of a dream come true.
Many of Xiu Xiu’s songs explore or interpret different societal evils. Why is evil such a fascinating subject for you as a songwriter?
I think it’s a fascinating subject for humanity in general. Almost every television show, almost every movie, the majority of pop music, the majority of classical music, fashion, and art all revolve around opposing evil or embracing evil. At the end of our lives, depending on your spiritual bent or non-bent, it’s eventually about avoiding some sort of supernatural evil or fearfully submitting to the most evil end of all life, which is, of course, death. I don’t think it’s a rare fascination.
I guess I should’ve phrased the question to say, “What specifically about evil fascinates you as a songwriter?”
I’m not trying to dodge this question, but I don’t really want to know why. I know it fascinates me. More and more, it’s becoming what I’m interested in exploring musically in more frank and clear terms, and not necessarily in terms that are sympathetic to the victim. I don’t know why.
A lot of “whys” in music I think fuck music up. Personally, if I think too hard about “whys,” then things may fall apart—or it’s something really fucking horrible and I just don’t want to know what’s wrong with me.
Are you more comfortable in the studio or on stage?
Oh, studio for sure. I feel very fortunate to be able to play as often as we play, but it is an absolute trial for me.
When you first started making music as Xiu Xiu, did you expect for the group to be thriving and making records 15 years later?
Things were so fucked up in my life and Cory’s life—he’s the person who co-founded Xiu Xiu, Cory McCulloch. I don’t think we were thinking about anything. I think we were incredibly surprised and incredibly happy and excited that [now-defunct Olympia, Washington label] 5 Rue Christine was going to put out our first record. And then we just kept our heads down and tried to keep making records, and didn’t really think about what it was going to be or how long we’d be able to do it for.
I’m having a little time of loathing that we’ve been a band for 15 years this year. It really doesn’t feel like that much time has passed, and it doesn’t feel that far away from when we started, which is why I think it’s difficult for me to digest it. I think if it felt like a long time, then I might have more perspective on it. But things haven’t really changed much in terms of procedure, which has been to work as much as possible and play as much as possible.
Other than music, has there been any art or literature that has inspired your creative process recently?
I’ve been listening to a lot of Roy Orbison. Also, Yoruba drumming, which is from Nigeria, and Haitian drumming, which is related for obvious and the worst possible, genocidal reasons.
Oh, you said other than records [laughs].
It’s okay, that’s good to know, too.
I’ve gotten really into botanical sketches from the 1700s to the early 1900s, which is the height of colonialism. White people were going all over the world and making very beautiful, detailed watercolors and pencil drawings of different plants and places they were busy destroying. Fortunately, the result of these drawings are extraordinary, so I’ve been collecting books.
Usually, I’m really obsessed with a particular period of film history, but I’m struggling with that lately. And, as usual, I’m reading a lot. I’m all over the place.
Because I became interested in Yoruba drumming and Haitian drumming, I’ve also been reading a lot of books about history in the New World of people who’ve been enslaved. And like everybody else, I’ve been obsessed with witches lately.
What would you be doing if you weren’t a musician?
I’d probably be a social worker. That’s what I was doing before I started making a living playing. If and when music falls apart, I’ll probably go back into something like that. When I was doing it before, I was really distracted by music. And although I’d be extraordinarily sad to not be able to do music, I’d probably be a lot better at social work now because I wouldn’t be as distracted.