On paper, Jamie Stewart is a little intimidating. He writes brooding, intelligent lyrics for a band that I hold in high regard: Xiu Xiu. He is opinionated, but he has the wit to back his opinions whether on politics, social issues, the economy etc. Faced by the prospect of interviewing him, I was slightly trembling. What if I couldn’t reach his standards and came off as some dumb rando?
We found a “quiet” place for the interview just a block away from the interview: Pita Pita. I sat across from Jamie and he politely mumbled an apology for eating during the interview. Then, he began to stab his cup of fruit with a straw. A small smile crept up as I watched him use the straw. There was something so grounded in his behavior. My fear melted away and we began to discuss his band, his writing process, politics and a possible collaboration with bees…
Bethany Smith, PopWreckoning: Let’s start with your songwriting process. Especially with your last album, Dear God I Hate Myself, you have a lot of dark subject material/heavier subjects, but then you have some lighthearted things. How do you balance the dark and the light and where do you get the inspiration for what goes on to a record like that?
Jamie Stewart, Xiu Xiu: There is not really any attempt to balance it at all. It’s always an attempt to talk about the things that are happening in the lives of the people that are close to me and in my life and sometimes in politics. Sometimes those things are a little bit lighter and sometimes those things are incredibly morose and heavy. So, if it is a year that is entirely filled with hilarious things, then it will just be hilarious. I hope the next record will be hilarious, but if it is a year that’s entirely filled with doom, then it will be doom-filled. I guess that answers the second part of the question, too.
BS: With the politics angle, it seemed like while Bush was in office there were more political records and you had songs about that, but with Obama, there’s been a change in the volume of political angles. What’s changed with you with Obama in office and the change of politics and the changes with stuff like health care?
JS: I don’t the President is a maniacal idiot anymore, but he’s a politician still. I mean, I like him, twenty percent more than I liked Bush. He doesn’t terrify me, but the war is still in full swing, just not being escalated. I appreciate that he’s not giving up on health care, although the health care bill is…in theory, I’m glad it exists, but it doesn’t seem like it is going to help people particularly. He’s kind of exactly the way I expected him to be and its exactly the way I expected things would get in politics. I expected things would get a tiny, tiny bit better and slightly less terrifying, which they have. I didn’t expect the worst, but I didn’t expect anything wonderful to happen.
BS: Moving on from the lyrical aspect, how do you come up with some of the musical aspects like using a Nintendo DS for a song like “Dear God”? How do you think this would be a cool instrument to use?
JS: It’s kind of just that. Before I got into song writing, I was mostly interested in engineering and spent a lot of time initially just working on sounds before I really started trying to become interested in narrative songwriting. I have a lot more experience with that than actual writing. And probably trying to make sounds as important emotionally as harmony and lyrics, a lot of times, those begin with a sound and we try to work that into a song or build up a song around it.
Joshua Hammond, PopWreckoning: Based off what she said there with the sound, you seem to be the only consistent member of the band from beginning to end, how does that affect how your sound shifts from album to album: Seven people or primarily you?
JS: Depends on the song. Like the last song on the record, “Impossible Feeling,” Ches Smith played on it and Angela [Seo] played on it, then I played on it. And a cellist, our friend, played on it, and it does have a particular sound, but then on a song like “Dear God I Hate Myself,” I played everything. And that was a different type of sound. This is an obvious answer, but different people put their own hearts and own ideas and own interests in there. I don’t feel territorial at all ,but Ches lives in New York and Angela lives elsewhere, so there are days when I get to work with them and days when I don’t want to not work, so I keep going.
BS: There’s been a lot of controversy over your music video for “Dear God, I Hate Myself.” did you expect such extreme reactions?
JS: No. We were really surprised. We were particularly surprised that a lot of the criticism had a racist orientation to it. A lot of them seemed to stem from this belief that Angela, because she’s an Asian woman, is this terribly helpless person who couldn’t decide to do something totally gross of her own accord. The whole video was totally her idea, but there was all this speculation that I coerced this poor little Asian girl into doing something like that. If it had been some other chick, no one would have said anything like that. We were really, really surprised. It wasn’t overt racism, but it was racism by proxy of making stupid, ignorant comments and people accusing me of drugging her and insane things like that. We weren’t expecting it at all. We expected some people to like it and some to say it was stupid. There is a point to it, but as with everything, we figured some would get the point and others wouldn’t get the point. The other stuff we were really surprised by.
BS: I know when I watched it, it was hard to watch it because..
JS: It’s gross. It’s totally gross.
BS: It is gross, but it does make a lot of sense with the song and it is an important thing to get out there on a subject that a lot of videos wouldn’t even mess with in a two minute sphere; it’s something usually saved for a two hour drama trying to get an Oscar nomination.
JH: In some ways do you find the controversy has helped a little bit for people who might normally pay attention to you?
JS: Oh, I think if I looked on the internet, I’d have an answer for that, but I get way too freaked out and try to stay as far away from it as possible.
JH: Yeah, I never thought of that until right now.
JS: I’m sure there are, but it hasn’t changed our career.
BS: I think with that video, a lot of what helped me understand you weren’t doing anything malicious and just trying to get an issue across is that you’re involved with charities. Like on this tour you’re working with At the Crossroads. Would you mind telling our readers what At the Crossroads means and how you got involved?
JS: How we got involved, Brenda, who is a friend of Angela’s, does it and she came on this tour with us so it makes sense we’d do some work for it anyways and what it is is a referral and counseling service for homeless youth in San Francisco.
BS: How did you come up with the idea to take images and photos with fans to give to people for it?
JS: Yeah, each sort of level of donation, somebody can get something back for it. I wish that Angela and Brenda were actually here because while I’m involved, they’re doing most of it. If you donate at all, you get a poster; if you donate five bucks you get a little device from a truck stop and we’ll mail it to you.
BS: Have you already done some of these purchase?
BS: What are some of the devices you got people?
JS: Actually, they did those. The one thing I did, there’s a set of unrealesed Xiu Xiu songs and if we raise a certain amount of money then we’ll release those for free download. Even if we don’t make the money I think we’ll still do it because the goal is pretty high, but still. If you donate 50 then this photographer shooting us will help make a special photo book for that person out of his photos. It’s pretty cool. It’s going pretty well actually. People can do it on our website at xiuxiu.org or at shows directly.
JH: You guys, throughout your career, have done a number of pretty amazing covers. I’m a huge fan of the “Under Pressure” one.
JH: When you pick a song to cover, how do you choose that process? Is it just songs that you guys personally love?
JS: Yeah. that’s the only criteria. That it, within one way or another, meant something to us. It’s always an attempt to say thank you to that song and those artists. The motivation is never to remake a song or be better than that artist. It is an attempt to be gracious to artists that are really important to us.
BS: Yet you guys covered the Pussycat Dolls?
JS: Yeah. Haha.
BS: How’d that get in there?
JS: It’s a really filthy song. I loved how dirty it was. I spent a lot of time on the dance floor enjoying myself to that song.
BS: Haha. Yeah, I was just like on Youtube watching your covers and being like, ok Queen, Shangri-la and Pussycat Dolls… In addition to a lot of covers, you do a lot of collaborations. Do you have any upcoming collaborations? And following that, are there dream collaborations you’d like to do someday?
JS: I just finished doing one with Jonathan Mieburg from Shearwater and with John Congleton from Paper Chase producing it. That was in February. That’s not really a Xiu Xiu thing, that’s just Jonathan and myself. And at the end of April, Xiu Xiu and Deerhoof are playing all of Unknown Pleasures at a festival and then again in New York. I think that’s all that is coming up. As for dream ones, i don’t have any dreams ones. Usually anyone I want to collaborate with, I’m friends with and it isn’t unfeasible to ask friends to do it. It’s more fun to work with people whom you are pals with and know really well. It’d have to be something really insane then..like 50 million bees or something like that or with a volcano or something completely impossible.
JH: Which makes no sense at all, but when I was thinking who I’d like to hypothetically see you work with, I was thinking I’d like to take this band and Imogen Heap together because she does interesting things like using the poles of her staircase and stuff to record. Musically, it doesn’t remotely sound the same, but creatively, I’d like to see what would happen together. I wouldn’t mind seeing something something with The Books, too, because they have an album where they just walk around and record sounds.
JS: Yeah. I like that approach to things.
BS: Yeah, that stuff is becoming more popular. Like we played a piece called “Rollercoaster” and took a chainsaw to a ladder to be the coaster going up the ramp. I’d like to hear this bee collab…For a final question, there have been talks of a DVD. Is there anything more to that?
JS: Yeah. It came out with the last record.
JH: First thousand copies.
JS: It ended up being the first 2000. It was like a video collection.
BS: I thought I saw something about a DVD history story.
JS: Oh, we were going to do that at one point, but it ended up not happening, so we did this video approach instead.
At this point we got sidetracked by Jamie’s tattoo on his left arm. A combination of a deer with a human face, but arrows sticking out of its side. Slightly unjarring, but beautiful. Jamie said it was too personal to elaborate on, so after some more small talk we moved on back to the venue to see the band perform.