by Verena Spilker
Jamie Stewart has been making music for over 14 years. Eight years ago he started his band Xiu Xiu.
Following the change in line-up, the band has put out an album that is more pop than any of the previous ones, but their sensitivity and haggardness remains the same.
The video for ‘Chocolate Makes You Happy‘ shows Jamie eating chocolate while his new bandmate Angela puts her fingers up her throat to force herself to continuously throw up throughout the video – a striking image of reality which contrasts with the covertness of bulimia, which is usually subjugated to the private sphere. Indeed, one of the defining features of Xiu Xiu’s songs is that they aren’t afraid to touch upon subjects that are taboo in mainstream society such as self-destruction or “abnormal” sexuality. This is what makes them such an important band for me.
But Xiu Xiu is about more than destroying taboos: through their music they manage to convey a certain fragility, intertwined with subtle, self-destructive anger. And although the music is very tense and complex, it’s recorded not with fancy equipment but with bells, guitars, and a Nintendo DS.
This May Xiu Xiu played a couple of shows in Germany. I met with Jamie Stewart before his show in Berlin on May 24th and interviewed him alongside Michael Aniser from De:Bug magazine.
JS: A lot. Angela is a technically excellent player and also an incredibly aggressive player and we were able to do a lot of things on piano especially, that we weren’t able to do before. We also get along, and Caralee and I never got along, so that was a lot easier. Also, Angela is coming from a totally different set of influences than me, which I appreciate. She has a pretty wide knowledge of top 40 and pop music, but she has very high standards for that, which I like, but listen to very casually. If there is a high level of top 40 and pop music, then she is really able to fish it out.
JS: We consciously tried to organize it like a pop record. I really liked how the most recent Morrisey record was set up. On our new album there are almost only fast or midtempo songs and usually most of our albums before were kind of half pop songs and half experimental. This time we actually wanted to experiment with not experimenting as much. Not because of any attempt to have it be more compatible but just because we liked that one Morrissey record and wanted to emulate the feeling that that record gave.
JS: I don’t know if I really had that in mind initially. But I agree with what you are saying, the juxtaposition is very apparent. But I didn’t think of that ahead of time necessarily. I think I ended up using the Nintendo a lot, because you can use it when you are in the car. I was on tour a lot and so I mostly used it because it was convenient, and it also sounds sort of interesting. There wasn’t any aesthetic or cultural inference I was trying to make by using it; I did it because it is a useful musical tool in itself. That song is basically about a Sanrio cartoon character and a cartoon character from South Park, so although I didn’t think of it at that time, it makes sense that there would be a toy making music to describe an obsession with those two cartoon characters.
JS: Well, I’m totally uninvolved with social networking, if that is what you are referring to.
JS: Yeah, but Angela does the Facebook page. I think if she’s ever not in the band, then the Facebook site will go totally fallow. I’m not so into that kind of stuff. But, no, the title doesn’t have anything to do with that. I guess that it’s just a documentation of having actually prayed that at one point. Last year, or the year that we were making this record, was really difficult in terms of dealing with self-hate and self-loathing. I found that to be the dominant struggle over the last year. And I am religious in a kind of private sort of way.
JS: I don’t really know. I mean, I believe in God. Kind of being at my wit’s [end], not knowing how to proceed at all, feeling a bit guilty and weird – I hated myself at that time, feeling that the album’s title was almost going against the spiritual tendencies I had.
But at the same time it wasn’t untrue either. It was a state of mind that I found myself really badly oppressed by. I was trying to ask God for some kind of help with that, but at the same time I felt very guilty that I was asking for help for something that I shouldn’t have been feeling but very definitely was. It was also an attempt to try to find out why one feels guilty about these things. Most people feel that way at some point.
The record title really seemed to piss some people off. People said, “How can you say something like that, you’re not supposed to talk about that stuff!” When I brought this up to people, some of them thought that it was totally ridiculous to feel that way. And for some people it really is ridiculous, but for others it is a really dominant experience. So I guess it was an attempt to comment on those things.
JS: No, not really. I mean some of the overt comments on sexuality are not necessarily comments on the sociology of it, but more about personal experiences with extreme aspects of sexuality. I don’t want to sound grandiose about this at all but by talking about something like that it is in a roundabout way sort of a political comment. Any of the overt references to sexuality are more of a documentation of personal struggles with it or of other people I know who are having struggles with it and less of a social comment.
JS: Sex is so weird and so complicated. There is a certain amount of oppression based around different preferences or different proclivities. Some things that people like and want to do are clearly frowned upon socially. And probably because of the social pressure they feel hideous about who they are and what they want as a person. And you know sometimes I myself do bad things sexually also, or treat people badly, or behave in a way that is totally unhealthy.
JS: Yeah, that’s about right.
JS: Oh, I never really got into that stuff until I was older. I just went to dance clubs and things like that. It wasn’t really anything I would listen to outside of that setting – I wouldn’t listen to it at home. But the dance club “experience” was and continues to be a big influence on Xiu Xiu.
JS: Well, yeah, most electronic music came from that time, or originated in that time.
JS: I didn’t really get into that. I was never really into that style of music so much. I really appreciate the fact that it existed and there is a tremendous amount that it did politically, but I was never really into this minimalist punk rock stuff.
JS: Yeah, I mean, I have a lot of respect for them as people. But signing with them wasn’t an attempt to ally the band with that scene in particular.
JS: The band that I used to be in used to play with Deerhoof and that band ended and Xiu Xiu started. He liked Xiu Xiu and so he helped us get on the label.
JS: When I initially lived there, I lived in a city which was about an hour away from the Bay Area scene, which really only existed in the early 2000s and has been gone for the last five years. We wanted to be a part of that scene, but we lived in the nerdy city, so we were trying to work our way into playing with those bands. But they thought we were dorks, with the exception of Deerhoof actually; they just totally sort of ignored us or gave us a hard time. I think it’s probably for the best – this way we didn’t become totally immersed in that scene, which is now gone. At the time I felt sort of embarrassed about being snubbed by my peers. Now, I’m sort of thankful for this – all those bands are gone, but we are not.
JS: Yeah, I probably still feel that way.
JS: Usually not in a very good way. Well, socially in a good way, because you make friends and have something to do in an environment that is generally embracing. But aesthetically I think scenes are almost always negative, because in order to be a part of a scene, you have to do some things that have already been done, or just do some slight variations of what is already happening, which is more or less impossible not to do, but in a scene it’s really important in order to be aesthetically accepted, to repeat what one person already created, which seems sort of pointless. I mean, unless you are in a scene because you want to hang out, but if you are in a scene making art, then it’s probably a good idea to not be part of it.
JS: I think I’m not going to play on the tour that is coming up in the fall, but Freddy, and Zola Jesus are.
JS: That also comes out in the fall. But we thought it would be a little weird if we toured together.
JS: Because we didn’t want it to look like a Xiu Xiu side project, which it’s not. I mean it’s Freddy’s band. He writes all the songs and I just play on it. We didn’t want it to look like, just because Xiu Xiu has been around longer and is a little bit more well-known, that Former Ghosts is a diminutive version of Xiu Xiu, which it is not. I’m a member of the band, but it’s definitely his band.
JS: Oh, I think we’re just not doing those songs. We did a tour in the US together and we just didn’t do the songs that I sing…