Jamie Stewart of Xiu Xiu on non-Western sounds and his affinity for Suicide (the band)
Jamie Stewart of Xiu Xiu
Xiu Xiu got its start in 2002 when Jamie Stewart and his friend and longtime musical collaborator Cory McCulloch started writing songs in a more experimental vein, making extensive use of non-Western percussion and tones. The group's debut album, 2002's Knife Play, anticipated more widespread use of non-western instruments in underground bands by a few years, and it quickly became a classic record and subsequent tour in the band's history. Since then, Xiu Xiu has set a high bar for challenging itself creatively while still having fun with the music and working with a wide array of its peers in the underground musical world and beyond.
A quick look at Xiu Xiu's extensive discography reveals an impressive list of collaborations and the various sounds and styles it has explored in its ever-evolving musical development. The act's latest album, Always, is more electronic than previous efforts, but it maintains the unique creative vision that characterizes all of Stewart's endeavors. We recently spoke with Stewart about the influence of non-Western music on his own music, his fascination with Suicide, how he got into underground music and his long-running love of haikus.
Westword: When you came to Denver and played the now defunct 15th St. Tavern in 2002, you had a pretty non-traditional percussion set-up. Was that your idea, and how did you get into incorporating that into your music?
Jamie Stewart: If I remember correctly, that was a long time ago. It was half my idea and half Corey [McCulloch's]; he was in the band at the time. We probably took the idea mostly from gamelan music, though the set-up we had had nothing to do with gamelan at all. But just the idea of having metal percussion that made non-Western pitches connected with our interest in gamelan. It was just wind chimes or something.
That's interesting, considering that tour you played with Kill Me Tomorrow, who also have a bit of a grounding in non-Western music.
It's funny you should say that because I talked to Zack Wentz yesterday.
You had a band a long time ago that played at Monkey Mania many years ago called Seven Year Rabbit Cycle?
I wouldn't really say that's my band. I was just in that band, but I didn't write any of the songs or anything.
How did you get involved in that band?
Oh, I'd just been friends with Rob Fisk, who was in that band for a long time, and Ches Smith, who was the drummer in that band and later in Xiu Xiu. His girlfriend Mia, who was in that band, is one of my oldest friends. I just saw them play several times, and thought they were totally amazing. At that time, we all lived in the same part of the Bay Area, and I asked if I could play with them. They looked around and shuffled their feet and said, "Yeah, I guess." Then I played with them a little bit.
The rapper Time from Denver recently sent a track to you?
Oh yeah, that was about a year ago, maybe a little less.
Did he just contact you? How did you get involved with working on that?
Yeah, he just wrote and said he thought it would be cool if we did something together. He sent me some of his music, and I thought it sounded really interesting. I really enjoy collaborating, especially with someone in a particular genre I don't have a lot of familiarity with. I mean I listen Top 40 hip-hop, but I don't really listen to any underground or experimental hip-hop at all. I thought what he did is really cool.
How did you meet and come to work with Liz Harris, who is Grouper?
Not too dissimilarly to how I came to work with Seven Year Rabbit Cycle. At that time in the Bay Area there was a really interesting music scene, and she was friends with Pete Swanson of Yellow Swans, and we toured with them. I just saw Liz play a number of times and thought she was totally fantastic. She lives in the same city, so it made sense to try to do something together. I'm still really good friends with her, too, and she's a wonderful artist.
How did you end up touring with Swans?
It was really fortuitous. I've known Thor Harris from Swans for a long time, and Michael I had met very briefly a long time ago, when I toured with Devendra Banhart. We have a lot of mutual friends, and he sang on a Xiu Xiu record. We kept faintly in touch because of that. Kind of out of nowhere, I wrote to him asking him if he ever needed anybody to play in Swans or Angels of Light to look me up.
His music is some of my favorite music since I was a teenager. I'm consistently really moved by the work he has done. As I expected, he very graciously said, "Oh, we've got it covered, but it was nice of you to ask." Then about a week later he asked if Xiu Xiu wanted to do any shows, and, of course, I jumped at the chance to do it. It's a real, real honor for me to play with them.
On relatively recent tours you've been playing a harmonium. How did you get into learning and playing that instrument?
Playing it. It's just a Western keyboard, so playing it is not any different from playing any other Western keyboard instrument, other than just pumping it with your left hand. But a musician I used to work with a lot named Don Dias, who's a really gifted accordionist, he had one. I actually had to steal it from him, but he made certain to get it back. I became really addicted to it. It's one of my favorite instruments.
It's difficult to play anything that doesn't sound totally beautiful on it. Then my favorite Qawwali singer, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, all the harmonium players in his group are all unbelievable, and I got really interested in his music a long time ago. He's the most obvious person to pull out, but definitely the best example of virtuosic harmonium playing.
You've done music with Carla Bozulich?
Oh, yeah. She's a real big hero of mine. Incredible singer.
Why is she a big hero of yours?
Have you heard her music? [That's a rhetorical question]. She is dead serious all of the time and always coming from the deepest part of who she is when she is singing. When you see or hear her play, there is no denying that it is the Truth with a capital "T." The musical quality, timbre and ferocity of her voice is remarkable.
Did you ever get to see the Geraldine Fibbers way back when?
Yeah, yeah. A few times. They were great. They were wonderful, but I think what she's doing now is the best work that she's ever done.
How did you end up working with her?
Xiu Xiu and Evangelista toured together, and I'd seen her play several times and was really blown away. We have a lot of mutual friends. Ches Smith, who plays in Xiu Xiu, has played on a lot of her records.
You did a covers EP a while ago, and you played "Kangaroo" by Big Star. Why did you want to cover that song in particular?
Oh! To my great embarrassment, I did not even know that it was a Big Star song. I had only heard the This Mortal Coil version of it. I didn't even know it was a Big Star song until I did interviews for the record and people said, "Oh, I didn't know you liked Big Star." And I was like, "I've never even listened to them. What are you talking about?" They said, "'Kangaroo' is a Big Star song." And I thought, "Oh, I'm a dumb shit." So I haven't actually heard the Big Star version of it.
Oh yeah, that probably wasn't fun to have to explain. In general, why did you want to cover that song as done by This Mortal Coil?
I think I'd like to cover all of This Mortal Coil's songs. Gordon Sharp, who sang that, his singing really stabs me in the heart every time I hear it. It's an astoundingly vulnerable and touching performance on that, mostly for the vocal. I can't sing anywhere near as well as he sings but it was an attempt to create some small homage to his beautiful singing.
On the website Clashmusic.com, you talk about your new album track by track and there was a really illuminating quote about the song "Hi." Why do you feel that there is "beauty and company in the realization that life is, for the most part, incredibly difficult"?
I think the majority of human experience is difficult for most humans. But when one thinks of company, one generally just thinks of some sort of celebration or drinking beer and watching the game or whatever. I suppose saying that was some small attempt to not look down upon the fact that life is extraordinarily difficult but not to think it is somehow a lesser experience to focus on something that is negative. Something that is often seen as negative is not inherently negative, if that makes any sense.
Yeah, like how something can be unhappy or unpleasant or painful but isn't, in a larger sense, inherently self-destructive or destructive to others.
I don't think something harmful is necessarily bad or should be avoided. Or it's just normal, I suppose. It's most of life. I'd say happiness is part of life but that sadness is most of life.
The song "I Luv Abortion," and maybe it's not supposed to be like this, but it is reminiscent of Suicide.
Oh yeah, they're one of my favorite, favorite bands of all time.
Yeah, there's a really visceral simplicity to the music, but it is not simplistic. When did you learn about Suicide?
I used to work in a record store, and when that first record was reissued by Mute, a co-worker of mine was really into it. I really loved it at the time and somehow forgot about them for several years. Then we had a tour manager for a while that would, after every single show that we played, played "Frankie Teardrop." It was like a 45 date tour, so I heard "Frankie Teardrop" every day for 45 days in a row. So it melted my brain. We actually covered it on the last U.S. and European tour that we did. Since covering it, I have really re-attached myself to that record. I think probably the next Xiu Xiu record will be really baldly influenced by Suicide.
Always definitely has that kind of vibe but not as downbeat or dark in some ways.
The next one will just sound like a blatant Suicide rip-off probably.
Going back to that Clashmusic interview, why did you want to use the "cheapest brass samples" you could find?
It's really just one of the least pleasing sounds in the entire world. Brass samples always sound like shit. The bad ones are really, really disgusting. We tried to make complex chords out of them. I'm not exactly sure why I thought that was a good idea. I suppose just considering the subject matter. Leave it at the fact that it's the most disgusting sound of the world.
What got you involved in underground music?
I got involved in underground music kind of when Xiu Xiu began. I had played in a lot of bands before that. But they weren't really related to that at all. I played in Motown pick-up bands, and I played in a dub band for a while. I had played in some pop bands, but just didn't really know about underground music, and I didn't know that it was a path that you could take.
The bands that I was in were trying to get major label record deals because that's all that I knew about. Then very briefly that happened and thank god it fell apart just as quickly. It was at that time that I started investigating different types of music and different paths of music. Working in that record store too, where I came across that Suicide record, was really illuminating for me. I listened to a lot of music, obviously, my entire life just like everybody. But I missed out on virtually all of experimental music or any other underground music until about a year before Xiu Xiu began.
What were some of the earliest bands you saw or got to experience?
The first concert I ever went to was actually a really cool bill. It was David Bowie and Siouxsie and the Banshees. That's a pretty good start. [The first totally underground] show that I saw was probably this synth/industrial band called Babyland. Have you heard of them?
Of course. They're not as well known these days as they once were. They had a song on the soundtrack to Gregg Araki's 1995 film The Doom Generation.
They played this warehouse show in Los Angeles, where I was growing up, at this little DIY space. I think some friends just rented a warehouse. I almost got killed at that show. You know, they play big hunks of metal and things like that. One of the pipes they were hitting them with broke in half. It was almost like a movie. [The broken off piece] was moving in slow motion toward my head. I could see it spinning very, very slowly.
Just then, the thought came into my head, "You should duck." And I answered, "Yeah, yeah, I should." And I ducked. It sailed past my ear by one inch. It was very thick and very heavy. If it hadn't killed me, it would have thoroughly fucked me up, probably, for the rest of my life. It was a good introduction to that scene. We played with [Babyland] about five years ago, and they were pretty wonderful.
You wrote a book of haikus. Why a book of haikus instead of another form of poetry?
A number of reasons. Just the completely amorphous connection that anybody feels toward a particular artform. I really, as a reader, have loved them for the past twenty years, probably. From a technical standpoint, writing lyrics is not dissimilar to writing haikus because they're really obviously constrained by a strict meter. Lyrics can be, if they're following a melody exactly. That constraint I'm familiar with. The whole idea of a haiku is to not necessarily to explain something but to attempt to be something. Or the poem is attempting to be an aesthetic experience rather than describe an aesthetic experience, which is something, in terms of lyrics, that's had a lot of influence on me.
Since Xiu Xiu began, I have ripped off a lot of lines here and there from various haikus. Then I just started writing them almost as a distraction. Then here and there, I got asked to contribute them to small magazines or journals. Then I got asked to do a book of them. I have another book of them coming out in December also. The immediacy of them is really appealing to me. I'm very touched by that.
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