photo: Danna Kinsky
Xiu Xiu Interview with Jamie Stewart
By alexander laurence
Xiu Xiu was formed in San Jose by Cory McCullough, Yvonne Chen, Lauren Andrews, and Jamie Stewart in 2001. They are named after a Chinese film called Xiu Xiu: The Sent Down Girl. The band has made appearances on numerous compilations and shortly after their first album, Knife Play, they did a collaboration with Deerhoof.
The band has been influenced by a bunch of post punk bands of the late 1970s and the music of The Cure and Joy Division. In 2002, the band issued the Chapel of the Chimes EP. Later, they released, A Promise, which may be their greatest record yet. They have done numerous tours throughout America this year and have earned new fans on every stop. I met Jamie Stewart outside a club in the Lower East Side.
A few weeks later I would see him and fellow member Cory McCullough in Downtown Los Angeles at The Smell. Since this interview, Xiu Xiu has released Fabulous Muscles. A new album is coming out this summer. Xiu Xiu is playing at the Echo on march 4th, 2005
AL: Do you like a lot of new bands?
Jamie: Just friend's bands. I listen to a lot of music. I don't go to shows very often. Maybe once in a while I will go out and see some legend that has changed my life. I don't go see many bands.
AL: Did you play in other bands?
Jamie: I was doing a lot of weird stuff. I was in a Motown cover band. I was in a dub band. Then I was in a few experimental pop bands. When I was younger I got hooked up with a bunch of people who were super famous during the New Wave era. So I played with people who were in The Screamers, Devo and Geza X. That was in the early 1990s in Los Angeles.
AL: When did Xiu Xiu start and who is in the band?
Jamie: For a while it had been a regular lineup. I have done the past two tours by myself. The group is becoming a regular lineup again. Carolee McElroy will be touring the next time. I am not sure if Chas Smith will be playing on the tour. Cory McCullough has been in the band in the past. He will be on the records but will not play live.
AL: How many records have you done?
Jamie: There are two albums and two EPs and we have another full-length record coming out in February 2004.
AL: When did the band begin?
Jamie: In October 2001.
AL: Did you record a lot of songs already?
Jamie: Yeah. I did a bunch of stuff at my house. My Dad used to work for the company that did Pro Tools. He would "borrow" stuff from work all the time, and never bring it back. I acquired stuff really fast. It's pretty easy to do. I had a version from 1994 and it's very similar. I had a four track before that. It was a natural progression.
AL: Why did you cover a song by Joy Division?
Jamie: The same reason why they are important to a lot of people. They are very inspirational musically and esthetically. They have endured for everyone and they have endured for me too. That was the first song we covered. We did a song by Tracy Chapman on the latest record.
AL: Tracy Chapman seems like the polar opposite of Joy Division.
Jamie: Maybe she seems like that now. That song is very frank and bleak and hopeless. I am amazed that a song that simple and bleak became a Top 40 hit.
AL: Your vocal style is very emotional and confrontational. Are you trying to convey something tragic and romantic with your voice?
Jamie: All the songs are about very specific personal events that happened to me or members of my family. There are songs about really close friends. It has been difficult the past few years. Some hideous things have happened. It's not really just a vocal technique. I want those songs to sound like what those events feel like. Those same emotions are very present still. I am not far away from those songs.
AL: You don't take any prisoners. You lay yourself out there and these raw emotions are there, naked.
Jamie: My father was in the music business for a long time. He had told me that the whole point of playing is being honest about what you are playing. When I was a kid I read this book about Charles Mingus. He told all his band members to play themselves. That makes more sense than anything. It's better to play yourself than playing to fashion. Trying to be cool? I don't think that there is any other point to music than that.
AL: Your songs go from being very loud to being very quiet. What is going on there?
Jamie: I don't think that was very conscious. I didn't think it out. It just happened that way.
AL: How do you write songs?
Jamie: It's a pretty grueling process. It's pretty boring. Nothing gets started until there's an idea what the song should be about. That happens about the same time the musical ideas start happening. There is a subconscious pull when the theme is decided. Other things flow from that. What the song is about happens first.
AL: You have a lot of bell sounds on the new record.
Jamie: I listen to a lot of Balinese and Japanese and Korean percussion. Those are very beautiful sounds. I am not trying to play those kinds of music. The timbre of gongs and bells are really beautiful. I am not trying to emulate them and do whinny indie rock world beat. Those sounds are cool.
AL: What is the reaction to the live show?
Jamie: The reaction is strong one-way or the other. People are usually really into it, but I also get heckled a lot. It's alright. That is better than people being bored. I don't expect that Xiu Xiu will become super famous. It seems to work out for people who like the music and know the records. But the people who hate it, really seem to hate it. It's bizarre. They usually yell out some rude words.
AL: Is the new album going to be a departure from the previous records?
Jamie: Procedurally it is going to be different than before. Before there was a lot of sitting in front of the computer and doing a lot of editing. For this next one, hopefully it will be a lot more live and spontaneous than before. The record coming out in February has the most electronic sounds on it. The fourth album, which we just started, will have more organic sounds on it.
AL: What is the set up like live?
Jamie: For this tour it is just guitar and vocals, or harmonium and vocals. Next year it will be a band again. We'll have percussion, bells and gongs, and two harmonium, and maybe a few synthesizers. My favorite drummer in the world is Chas Smith. Maybe he will play with us more.
AL: What bands do you like?
Jamie: Devendra Banhart, and Angels of Light. I like Classical music and dance music. We did a Japanese tour and this band Fonica was very good.
AL: Do you read a lot?
Jamie: Yeah. I am reading a book about the Iran Contra hearings right now. I read a Johnny Cash biography. I just re-read Grapes of Wrath recently as a grown up. I had read it in high school. It's pretty remarkable. It was weird holding a work of art in your hands. It costs four dollars now. I have really been getting into Dennis Cooper lately.
AL: Do you have songs about Serial Killers?
Jamie: I hope so.
AL: Do you have any songs inspired by Dennis Cooper?
Jamie: Yeah. I don't know. My whole sex life is inspired by Dennis Cooper. I am kidding.
AL: There are a lot of Xiu Xiu songs that have a homoerotic theme to them.
Jamie: I am bisexual. I am singing as much about boys as girls. A lot of very negative and weird sexual things have happened to me as much as with boys as with girls. The whole point of the band is to write about real life stuff.
AL: Some of your music sounds like film soundtracks.
Jamie: I certainly enjoy that stuff but I am not very educated about that stuff. I would like to learn more. In a very unstudied way, I am influenced by film soundtracks. When I go out, I probably go out and see a film, more than anything else.
AL: Have you seen The Matrix yet?
Jamie: I saw it yesterday. It is definitely the third best of the three films.
AL: Are you excited about playing in New York City?
Jamie: Yeah. For all the obvious reasons. It's fantastic and crazy. My brother lives here and I am close to him. The last few shows here have went well. It's an exciting and remarkable place to be.
Other shows in March:
Mar 4th: Xiu Xiu @ The Echo
Mar 5th: The Weirdos @ Troubadour
Mar 7th: Xiu Xiu @ UCLA (free)
Mar 7th: The Lovermakers @ Spaceland
Mar 9th: DMBQ @ Knitting Factory
Mar 9th: Inara George @ Troubadour
Mar 11th: The Futureheads @ Henry Fonda
Mar 12th: The Music/Kasabian @ Henry Fonda
Mar 13th: Ian Brown @ HOB
Mar 14th: Ian Brown @ HOB anaheim
Mar 14th: I Am Kloot @ Spaceland (free)
Mar 15th: I Am Kloot @ Cinespace
Mar 15th: Guitar Wolf @ Knitting Factory
photo: Danna Kinsky