Interview: Xiu Xiu

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Jamie Stewart

Jamie Stewart, frontman of experimental group Xiu Xiu, called in to the WRGW studios to talk about the new album “Always” ahead of their North American Tour, which kicks off tonight in Raleigh, N.C. Xiu Xiu plays D.C. tomorrow night, May 2, at the Rock and Roll Hotel with Dirty Beaches and Father Murphy. Doors are at 8, tickets $15.

WRGW: So you’re starting your tour off tonight in Raleigh, and you guys just recently released at midnight your music video for “Honeysuckle.” Do you want to talk about the music video, what you guys were going for with that?

Jamie: Well actually, Angela Seo, who’s in the video, worked on it, and I didn’t. And she happens to be right here. Let me have her answer that question for you.

Angela: Hello?

Hi Angela, we wanted to know a little bit about the music video for “Honeysuckle,” which you star and sing in.

Angela: Sure. Well… Amir Shoucri—who’s a really good friend of ours, and he does videos and cinematography, and he also does Former Ghosts videos—I kind of just pretty much gave him free rein. I was like, I trust you. I like the song, let’s try to come up with a good music video for it. And we kind of started off from just a few different visual images we had, that we thought of when we heard the song and then tried to go from there to make a little more of a narrative out of it, like a more cohesive picture. And I think what we got was just kind of how grotesque and disgusting everything can be, which is a really positive outlook on life… and, yeah, that’s the video pretty much. It’s just about all the little exaggerated grotesqueries in life.

Yeah, it has some great grotesque imagery. I really liked the apple with the blood! That was pretty cool.

So I’ve been a fan of Xiu Xiu for a while, but I guess we should talk about Always because you guys are touring for that album. The first song “Hi,” it seems to me to be a calling out to the Xiu Xiu fanbase a little bit. It’s one of quite a few songs on the album that addresses a “you,” the second person.

Jamie: Well before I say anything, I have to state it with a caveat that this is just my interpretation of it and I certainly don’t mean that this is what that song needs to mean for everybody. But for me it’s essentially about trying to find some kind of community in how insanely rotten life can be. It’s difficult enough to deal with how poundingly tough it can be to just get through the day by yourself, and it’s not particularly socially acceptable to discuss that. So to deal with how hard things are in the first place and then to have to do it in an isolated way sometimes can be insurmountably difficult. So it was some small attempt to—I suppose I said it before—to try to make some sort of community and what is basically almost everybody’s experience almost every single day, but not something that is necessarily discussed with as much openness as it probably needs to be. It was largely inspired by a friend of mine who I know through her coming to Xiu Xiu shows a lot, and her writing to me about a lot of almost unfathomably horrid things she was going through in her family.

And I feel like that’s a quality that people are drawn to with Xiu Xiu because it gets so personal and kind of raw. In the promotional material that came with Always there was the poster of people’s Xiu Xiu scars and tattoos. How do feel about people getting tattoos or pretty much cutting the name of your band into their skin?

Jamie: I suppose a couple of ways. On one hand I feel a little bit terrified we could never really live up to that expectation. And then on the other hand I feel obviously extraordinarily flattered and inspired that somebody would in a very public way, you know, let people know that something that we’ve been working on has meant a lot to them. And then on the other hand, it reminds me that I had really better keep our act together and do the best that we could possibly do because we really owe it to someone who’s gone through the trouble of tattooing the name of our band on their arm. We really, really, really have to be the best band that we can be for them.

Yeah it definitely adds on some pressure. And, so from “Hi” there’s the second person use of “you” in that, but then for instance in another song, “Smear the Queen”, “you” seems to be used differently. I guess, what I mean is pop music in general, a lot of the focus is on the lyrics, so what do you kind of see as the utility or power that you can get into with pop music?

Jamie: Oh, well, an interesting question…

Well I mean you definitely have a lot of pop influences with your music, even if it’s not straight up “pop”, and you do different covers of different pop music. Like there’s the Rhianna cover, and for Record Store Day you put out the Erasure cover.

Jamie: Well, I think… pop music, it very, very rarely looks up to the opportunity it has to touch a broad number of people. You know, I mean “pop” obviously comes from something being “popular” or “populist”, and the arrangement of pop songs is obviously arranged to be as enveloping as possible for the widest number of people. And in that setting, one has the opportunity to touch a broader range of people than you would doing really obscure or experimental music—not that I have any problem with that; it’s most of the music I listen to. But because of how pop is structured—and it’s essentially the point of pop—you can use pop in an incredibly straightforward and unsubtle way. And frequently what people have to say in that setting is, you know, let’s just go party or whatever, or something totally pointless and meaningless. No one needs to be encouraged to do that, essentially. And a lot of the pop songs that we have covered seem to be ones in which people really took the chance to try to say a little bit more in that setting than just, you know let’s get drunk and have a good time.

And specifically on Always—and I’m assuming it was part of the inspiration for the title of the album—what is it about the Erasure song [“Always”] that draws you to it?

Jamie: Well, a couple things. I mean, just in and of itself, as far as the craft of pop song writing goes, it’s completely brilliant, a total genius work of art. But also, my brother when he was going through… Basically, his family was falling apart and he sent me that song while that was going on, which was unusual for him to do because he’s mostly into just incredibly harsh hip-hop, so I was kind of struck by the fact that he found something in that song. And he and I are very, very close, and being his older brother sometimes I feel a little bit protective of him even though he doesn’t need it… And I found myself driving around in the country one day and playing that song over and over again and trying to sing along. And every time that I would try to sing along—I think because I was thinking about my brother so much—I found myself starting to break down and cry while singing it. So it had just taken on an incredibly deep association with him and that time and worrying and caring about my brother.

I guess in Always, the songs go back and forth between songs that are very personal like “Joey’s Song” and “Honeysuckle,” but then there’s others that are about experiences that you guys could never literally have. In “Born to Suffer,” specifically, it’s a song about how heavy the weight of the world coming down on you can be, but then it’s also about Haiti. And like, you guys would never literally have your own “reservoir filling with mold.” 

Jamie: Right.

So do you consistently set out to keep a balance between songs that are personal and songs that are about the suffering of other people?

Jamie: Uh, not really. On previous records they were almost all songs that were autobiographical and personal, and on Always, as you noted, it’s about half and half. I think probably over the arc of all of the Xiu Xiu songs it probably balances out but, you know, we’re always just trying, when we work on a record, to write about what seems to be the most present in our hearts at the time that we’re working on it. It certainly is important to us to write songs that are about, and have an identification with, social politics. It’s as important to us as a band as it is to writing about our families or our own personal lives. But with each record we’re not consciously trying to do six political songs and six personal songs.

Yeah, and then you bring in other people’s stories for your music, specifically on “I Luv Abortion.” I was reading an article about that song that was criticizing it, calling it appropriation, taking an abortion story. How would you respond to people who see you incorporating someone else’s story into your music as appropriation? 

Jamie: Oh, um, sure. I mean, I don’t care [laughs]. I mean it is appropriation. I am writing someone else’s story. It is the story of someone who I am friends with, or I suppose half of the song is about her, what she went through, and about half of the song is my response to the right wing’s aggression, being against abortion rights. In writing a song that’s as bananas as that, I’m trying to be as aggressive at being pro-choice, and then try to pay tribute to a friend of mine who went through that situation—the really almost warm way that she dealt with getting an abortion, which is really remarkable. I mean, we write songs from other people’s perspectives all the time, and you can call it appropriation but that’s sort of a peculiar way of thinking about it. And I suppose it’s more of a tribute, that’s where we’re coming from with it… I had heard about that article, but what was it in?

Hmmm, let me see if I can find it, it was..

Jamie: Oh I don’t really care, it’s fine.

It was some news web magazine website… [Think Progress]

Jamie: To me that seems like kind of an unusual take on it. It seems to be basically removing who the person the song is about from the song. I mean, I’m not going to insert myself into that person’s story. I’m attempting to talk about someone who I care about’s story.

Definitely. So, Xiu Xiu has been around 10 years, so you’ve been making music for a while, and along the way there’s been changes in the lineup. So I guess, kind of to wrap things up, in your words what has been the progression of the sound in Xiu Xiu among these changes?

Jamie: Oh, jeez. You’re really asking the wrong guy, that’s a tough question…

Hah, well I guess like, with “Black Drum Machine” and “Beauty Towne” you turn to themes that you’ve touched on before.

Jamie: Sure.

So, I guess you like continuing themes that you’ve looked at in the past?

Jamie: Yeah, and I guess they’re dealt with in a different way. With “Beauty Towne,” it’s really kind of looking back at the song “Clowne Towne” and looking back at the people that that song was about, thinking about where they are now and how that time could still possibly be affecting them now. And with “Black Drum Machine” and “Black Keyboard” it’s not really looking back. It’s just there are two parts of that story, two people involved in the events those songs describe. One is about one person’s perspective, and one is about the other person’s perspective, dealing with the same events at different times in both of those lives. So one is more of a part two and the other is more of an addendum.

Thanks for talking with us Jamie. Xiu Xiu plays tomorrow in Washington, D.C. at the Rock & Roll Hotel. I believe there are still tickets available, so you should definitely pick one up. Doors are at 8 and Dirty Beaches will be opening…

Jamie: And another incredibly fantastic band Father John Murphy is playing also. They’re too good not to mention

Oh yes!

Jamie: Thanks a lot.

You too, have a good one!


Xiu Xiu Interview:

-Jim Walls

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