Coming Up For Air

Experimental punk purveyors Xiu Xiu release their eighth album on March 6. Sole constant band member Jamie Stewart opens up about what drives his impressive productivity, why the band is in such fine form and some of the creative partnerships that have fed into it throughout its 10 years.

Hi! How are you doing?
Stressed out! Too much work right now, but it’s all music. One must be careful what they wish for.

You’re on tour soon – how does it feel to be setting out on the road again?
I’m excited about it. Our last tour was with some members who have since gotten the boot and it was the worst tour I have ever been on in my life, so I’m very much looking forward to redeeming the form.

Xiu Xiu is 10 years old this year! Did you ever consider it would last this long?
No, I did not. It has gone by in a flash. It has been a struggle the entire time, which is probably what gave it the energy to dart past my consciousness so quickly.

Do you deliberately set out to make confrontational music or is it just what comes naturally?
We are trying to be confrontational, we are trying to write about what is honest for us. How people perceive that is up to them.

You seem to have acquired a lot of awesome gear over the years. Have you found it hard to utilise it all? Have you taught yourself how to use everything?
I don’t have very many friends, so I fill my loneliness with knobs. It is not hard to utilise what is in the band’s audible stockpile, the hard part is that there are always more things that I want.

“God, I spent so much money
on gear last year it makes me
want to throw up. But when
I do barf, I will be smiling.”

Xiu Xiu has always seemed quite prolific. Do you feel you always need to be creating something in order to be satisfied or happy?
More than anything, to be sane. I have found for better or worse my life revolves around working in music. Organising and clarifying my emotional state depends on it. This sounds ridiculous, but it has become true. And also I love music, so why wouldn’t I want to work on it all the time?

Do you write all of Xiu Xiu’s lyrics or are they sometimes collaborative efforts?
Actually our new record Always is the first one where other people wrote lyrics as well. Individually they were not really collaborations in that people just brought them in and we did not go over them together, but the lyrics as a body of words was a collaboration.

With Dear God, I Hate Myself you’ve said you were documenting sad life. What would you say Always documents?
Abortion, American marines murdering a teenaged boy for sport, divorce, child molestation, Haiti, realising that although time has passed the thought of failing is as strong as it ever was, finding company and maybe beauty in the terror of living.

I read that “a night of extreme psychological distress” inspired the title Dear God, I Hate Myself. Since then your interviews have sounded really positive. Do you think you were in a more positive state when you made Always, and so perhaps the recordings reflect that?
One thing that’s different is that Dear God, I Hate Myself was very much autobiographical, only one and half of the songs on Always are about my life. The rest are about people I care for or politics. Being my harshest critic and not being so present in the topics, perhaps, is what gives it that [positive] feel. A lot of people have made this observation. The difference in the titles probably helps, too.

How did you dream up the tattoo project for Always, and what was the response like? Do you have any Xiu Xiu-related tattoos yourself?
It came together very organically. By coincidence, several people sent me photos of them in a short period of time and I had over the years seen several in person. Bearing in mind the decade-milestone, it felt like a nice way to try and say thank you to people who have been so supportive of us. We got a lot – 27 or so. Not a million, but enough for a poster. I don’t have any Xiu Xiu tattoos, buddy! I have Xiu Xiu on my fucking face!

Xiu Xiu’s music always feels quite isolated. Do you feel you write better alone or in a group?
I love both. Writing is my favorite part of music. Both processes yield very different results but both processes, for me anyway, are challenging and rewarding.

You’ve said in other interviews the band is a lot more collaborative now that Angela Seo is in the band. Do you feel the songs have changed as a result?
Absolutely, yes. Angela wrote all of one song and parts of several others. She brings a great ability to clear away detritus and make clear what a song should be about, musically. I have a horrible habit of piling things on and on and on and she is excellent at looking at a pile and saying, “This piece is the best. The other ones are distracting.” There are new members as well that will be working on the record following Always. I am very interested and excited to start to work with them as well.

How long have you been working with Greg Saunier now? How did you first meet him?
We have been working on Xiu Xiu records together since 2006. He did The Air Force, Women As Lovers, Dear God, I Hate Myself and Always. We have known each other forever. A band I was in before Xiu Xiu played a show with Deerhoof at my behest after I heard their record Holdypaws. A friend gave me a dubbed cassette of it and I have been a life-long fan since. We are actually closer now than we have ever been. He is one of my favorite people in the world. The fact that he is a musical genius and astoundingly generous in his efforts to work on Xiu Xiu records not withstanding, he is a such a gem of life.

Have you ever contributed to a Deerhoof album, or would you like to?
In a tiny, tiny, way on accident some things we recorded for a movie soundtrack I think ended up on their record Reveille. But other than that, no. Of course I would like to do more!

“I have found for better
or worse my life revolves
around working in music.
Organising and clarifying my
emotional state depends on it.”

How did you come to work with John Congleton on Always? He has some impressive credentials!
Our bands had played together a lot and we did a split 7″ of Nick Cave covers and we have been friends for several years. In 2010 he recorded a collab called Gall that Jonathan Meiberg from Shearwater and I did under the name Blue Water, White Death. He and I really clicked in the studio and he offered to mix our next record. Having had such a great time with him before I knew it could turn out wonderfully to work with him. He proved to be insightful and incredibly astute at not only making things sound amazing but making them, to me, feel much better than ever. He is the best.

Is there anyone you have in mind who you’d aspire to work with on future Xiu Xiu albums or in other projects?
Well, I just finished a collaboration with Eugene Robinson of Oxbow and another, our third with Larsen and a split 7″ with Dirty Beaches. So the list of people I would want to work with is getting steadily checked off. But impossible dream people would be Lawrence English, Diamanda Galás, Steve Reich, OMD, Einstürzende Neubauten, a blue whale, a tornado… As I said, impossible dreams.

How did you come to do the split 12″ with Chad VanGaalen? Are you a fan of his?
The label that put it together suggested it. I hadn’t known his work beforehand but now that I do, I’m very glad to have come to know him. Wonderful music!

What inspired the idea for ‘Fortune Teller’?
Idiocy, mainly. Or fear of the future, which is the same thing? Or perhaps not fearing the future is idiocy? It certainly isn’t helpful. Maybe ‘Fortune Teller’ will help?

Do you have any idea what kind of direction Xiu Xiu will go in in the future?
With great horror, no. Most of my life has been incredibly unstable and I would love to know what is going to happen. But, and I think is this case with everyone in a band, I have no idea. We will forever try our best to be as open as we can and to play as hard as we can and see what happens.

Pre-order Always now from Polyvinyl

Visit Xiu Xiu’s website

Posted by Sarah Gooding under U.S.A
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