Interview with Jamie Stewart
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.
VS: Before recording the new album you had a change of band members. Caralee left and Angela joined the band. How did this change influence the new album?
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.
VS: So would you say your new album is more pop than the ones before?
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.
MA: In the song “Apple for a Brain” you mixed these 8-bit songs with really emotional vocals. There is this tension between digital and analog. Was that on purpose?
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.
MA: Your album is called Dear God, I Hate Myself. Was it intended to bring in religion as well as an opposition to the post-MTV generation that constantly has to represent themselves on Facebook, Myspace, etc.?
JS: Well, I’m totally uninvolved with social networking, if that is what you are referring to.
MA: But you do write a blog?
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.
MA: Are you Catholic?
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.
MA: As well as the question of guilt, which you brought up, I also recognized some sort of sexual tension in the album. Is that a comment on prude America?
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.
VS: Why do you think people are struggling with that? Do you think it’s because it’s not talked about in society?
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.
VS: How about your musical influences? I read your influences were modern classical music and gay disco beats.
JS: Yeah, that’s about right.
VS: Was there any special disco music you were listening to when you were growing up?
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.
MA: Do you think that all the music we listen to today, and house music in particular, came from the gay music scene?
JS: Well, yeah, most electronic music came from that time, or originated in that time.
VS: What about the Riot Grrrl Scene or Queercore? Were you involved with that?
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.
VS: However, you’re signed with Kill Rock Stars, which was a very important label for that movement.
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.
VS: Greg Saunier from Deerhoof brought you to Kill Rock Stars. How did that happen?
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.
VS: Were you influenced by the Bay Area, where all this music was going on? Is it easier to start making music within such an environment?
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.
VS: Somebody asked you in an interview who you would like to play for the most and you answered a caveman.
JS: Yeah, I probably still feel that way.
VS: You said that, because a caveman wouldn’t be part of a scene. So how does a scene influence people?
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.
VS: Can we also talk about Former Ghosts? You are part of that band as well and you released an album and there is a tour coming up in November.
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.
VS: There is also a new album. Are you on that as well?
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.
VS: But you are also singing, so who is singing your parts on the tour?
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…