KING OF THE LOSERS: An Interview with Jamie Stewart of Xiu Xiu

For WVFI’s fourth annual RadioThon, we interviewed Jamie Stewart, founder of the experimental rock group Xiu Xiu. The band’s latest record, FORGET, was released February 2017.

Adrian Mark Lore
The media has described your latest record, FORGET, as unusually accessible. First of all, do you consider the characterization accurate?

Jamie Stewart
I don’t care. “Accessibility” is a relative term. I think the music media is really lazy and I think one person wrote that, so now everyone is writing that. The question has come up at least twenty times in this interview cycle because that’s how it goes — it just snowballs, and I’d be kind of a prick for getting upset about it. (Laughs.) My answer to that has been — and remains — that accessibility to one person is not the same as it’s gonna be to somebody else. If somebody has grown up just listening to Top 40, then probably it’s not such an accessible record, but if somebody has grown up listening to super-harsh experimental noise music and minimalist classical, then it’ll probably seem extraordinarily accessible. It is a record of “songs.”

AML
Was there anything deliberate the band did to achieve a different sound or mood on this record? That is, did you have any particular goals when you set out to record it?

JS
It was kind of a long arc in getting it going. We initially had the idea — as we did with Angel Guts: Red Classroom, our previous record — of having a really strict set of rules. We liked working that way; it seemed to be fruitful for that record, and we tried to do it again with FORGET, but nothing was happening for a long time. So, we just went in the complete opposite direction, which was to have no rules — it should just occur in the way it was occurring. In that way, we’d essentially eliminated the idea of having a goal. The goal was to make songs, but to allow the songs to occur in whatever way they were going to occur. I suppose, in a roundabout way, that is a goal: having no goal as the goal.

AML
The record seems to have revitalized media interest around the band, perhaps on account of this perceived accessibility. Yet I was frustrated by the lukewarm reviews of certain taste-makers like Pitchfork, in spite of the fact that many other critics wholeheartedly endorsed the record. How do you as an individual respond or react to the media’s treatment of your music, both positive and negative? Especially considering that much of the lyrical content comes from a place of emotional vulnerability.

JS
I do everything I can to avoid any exposure to any reviews whatsoever. The longer that I am involved in playing music, the more I take it personally, and it makes me feel bad. Even if it’s good, I’ll get bent out of shape ‘cause it’s not “good in the right way” or as good as I’d hoped it would be. And if it’s bad… I realize this reaction is completely pointless. But it actually really hurts my feelings. And it seems as if some reviews are designed to try to make the people in the band feel bad. And, really, it’s a completely insipid and pointless response on my part, but I do feel bad. So, because of that, I do everything I can to completely block it out. I mean, it’s not totally possible because I’m an Earthling. But I would never willingly read something.

AML
You’ve pursued many collaborations over the past few years. Is there anyone in particular with whom you’re still hoping to collaborate? Or with whom you regret not being able to collaborate in the past?

JS
I don’t have any regrets around not being able to do things, so far. There hasn’t really been any dream project that seemed as though it was going to occur but then fell apart. Really fortunately, with rare exceptions, it’s worked out with everyone we’ve talked to. Dream collaborations? I think at the moment we’re really focused on doing the next record, so I haven’t been thinking about it so much. Hopefully something will come up again. I mean, there’s always impossible ones, but there’s almost no reason to bring them up. For the moment — boring answer — there’s nothing in the pike.

AML
I mean, a sort of collaboration was going on in the last track of FORGET.

JS
Oh yeah, there was Kristof Hahn, Vaginal Davis, Father Murphy and Charlemagne Palestine — and everyone in Xiu Xiu was on it. That was, I think, the most collaborative single track that we’ve ever done.

AML
I was reading some very early interviews of the band, and I think you mentioned Vaginal.

JS
Yeah, she’s been a hero of mine since I was a teenager.

AML
See, dream collaborations can come true!

JS
Oh, yes — (laughs) — that was dream collaboration that did occur, indeed. As with Charlemagne Palestine and Kristof.

AML
I would say Xiu Xiu occupies a unique sphere within the realm of experimental pop-rock – which seems like an oxymoron, but you’ve proven that it’s possible! Still, the mood of your records reminds me, at times, of bands like Coil and Nine Inch Nails. Have groups like these influenced the Xiu Xiu aesthetic to any degree?

JS
Coil comes up a lot, and for some reason — I don’t really know how — I have not really had a chance to explore them that much, though I keep meaning to. When Nine Inch Nails’ Pretty Hate Machine first came out I listened to it pretty obsessively. And I think that led me to listen to other industrial music, which definitely remains a deep interest and influence.

AML
You may find this surprising, but FORGET also recalls, for me, the more somber tracks on Baths’ 2013 record Obsidian – insofar as you fuse memorable hooks and pleasing harmonies with avant-garde electronics and dark lyrical themes. But both of you have also focused – at different times – on self-loathing and sexuality in your music. As a gay man myself, I find this lyricism to be relevant and powerful. To what extend does your experience influence your creative drives?

JS
It defines the band, essentially. I mean, not just my experience but “experience with a capital E.” My experiences, other band members’ experiences, family members’ experiences, political experiences — that’s the point of the band. And sometimes that experience is linear and sometimes it’s more subconscious and more difficult to describe, but that’s always what it is.

AML
Have you ever thought about how your music helps others to cope?

JS
People who seem to be interested in Xiu Xiu, to their credit, tend to be very open with their hearts and emotionality when they take the time to speak with us, and I’ve always been extraordinarily touched by how generous people have been with their hearts. I think it would be a disservice to anyone who is interested in the band to think about how we could possibly write a song that might somehow come across in a way that would — I’m not sure how to say this — we would never want to enter into something attempting to “give someone advice” or “heal” somebody or something like that. We’re just trying to put things across in an honest way and, hopefully, if somebody is looking for something like that, then it can become a part of their listening habits in a way that is meaningful for them. The point is just to, in turn, be as open as we can and people can interpret that however they want to — or need to.

AML
You’re a busy band, yet you never seem to be out of ideas…

JS
Oh, if it were only true. (Laughs.)

AML
So, what’s next for Xiu Xiu? Do you have any particular short-term or long-term goals for the project?

JS
We started working on the next record, and I think most of the summer will probably be taken up with that. I have an idea as to what the direction will be. I’ve been listening to the initial sketches on this tour a little bit — half of them suck, half of them seem like maybe they could be OK, so we’ll see how it turns out. And then, we’re doing a residency in Berlin with the aforementioned Vaginal Davis, Susanne Sachße, Phil Collins and Jonathan Berger — I’m very excited about that. And I think that’s it, for the near future. The main focus is those two things right now — and a ton of touring this year.

AML
And what’s next for Jamie Stewart? Do you have any plans independent from the band?

JS
Creatively? Or just in my life? (Laughs.) Not really. I think Xiu Xiu is my main thing.

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