No Holds Barred: An Interview with Xiu Xiu
The latest album from Xiu Xiu is the band’s most unnerving to date. Andrew Darley talks to frontman Jamie Stewart about his relationship to music, being a queer artist and how he sees the future of the band.
(Click images to enlarge)
It’s an alluring prospect to hear that a band’s newest record is being pegged as the “death” of said band. Xiu Xiu are no strangers to pushing both their own and musical boundaries. On their new album, Angel Guts: Red Classroom, the band have made their most unnerving, haunting and distorted music to date. It marks a startling departure from their previous work. The album was initiated by frontman Jamie Stewart’s relocation from North Carolina to, unbeknownst to him, one of the most dangerous and felonious neighbourhoods in Los Angeles. He found himself living among gangs, public violence and murder. It’s this presence that creates and seeps into the character of their record as he deals with the world and people around him, as well as his own humanity. The music itself is not easily swallowed and captures the terror, aggression and fear of the singer’s new surroundings. Fronting the band for over ten years, Jamie has made an album that is arguably both Xiu Xiu’s bleakest and most vital. We talked about where he is in his life right now, his relationship to music, being a queer artist and how he sees the future of the band as well as his own.
In the press release for Angel Guts: Red Classroom, the album is described as “the death of Xiu Xiu”. Is this the end of the band?
It’s still a little unclear for me. I didn’t write that but I think the person who did meant that it was a departure from things that we had done before, really setting aside approaches we had for the last four or five years. So it’s certainly a death of a particular era of Xiu Xiu. I have coincidentally being debating with myself if this is the last record we’ll put out. I won’t quit doing music, but potentially quit doing this project. But we’ll see. It’s a lot for me because it’s been the centre of my life for the last twelve years so it’s a lot to debate.
Was there a specific texture or feeling you wanted to this album to have to make that departure?
Terror, I suppose.
That’s a lovely feeling to capture.
I accidentally moved into a really dangerous neighbourhood in Los Angeles and I’ve never really dealt with day-to-day concern for my physical well being, but I realise it’s something three-quarters of the planet has to contend with all the time. I’ve lived in not-great neighbourhoods for most of my life but never one in which the majority of the occupants are in a very public way dealing with their obvious misery. A lot of the record is about the people of neighbourhood, personally coming to terms of what it means to be in a place like this – alongside, concurrently, attempting to coming to terms with there being an environmental apocalypse for the next fifty years. So it’s really cheery! This record is a Santa Clause place.
The album’s title is a reference to the erotic Japanese noir film, of the same name. What drew you towards the film as the arc of the album? Did it emerge over time or did you have that intention?
It happened pretty immediately and pretty spontaneously. I think we had the name of the record before the majority of it was done. I grew up in Los Angeles but have lived in different places in between. But within two days of moving where I am now, I saw that that this movie was playing in a totally normal movie theatre. Even though it’s nearly seventy years old, it’s still extraordinarily transgressive and debauched. It felt like a homecoming. Just total anti-moral garbage playing in a totally casual way. I felt myself again. I had a feeling that the whole record would be about Los Angeles so it has attachment to that. And also the succession of those words can be open to a number of interpretations. Take from it what you will.
The next question I have is about your lyrics, not necessarily just with this record. As they are very personal, have you ever had a feeling or topic where you felt you couldn’t write about it?
This is very teenager-sounding but the point of the band is to have no holds barred. There are certainly songs that we’ve done that I by no means enjoy singing about or look forward to playing live. But the bands and the composers that have meant the most to me have been people who have taken it too far. My father was a musician and the advice that he gave me wasn’t so much advice but an observation of his own career; he regretted not taking things further in his music. With this band, I feel there should be no perimeters as to what the songs can be about; in so far whether it’s uncomfortable or potentially inappropriate.
Following on from the certain uncomfortableness in your music, there seems to be a dichotomy in the perception of your music. Some say that it’s avant-garde noisy and others say that it’s pop. Do you think listeners limit their own experience by wanting to label everything?
I don’t think that’s an unreasonable way to approach music. It’s extraordinarily broad minded and fantastic if someone can go into a record store and cover their eyes and ears and pick up a record on its own potential merit. But it’s a little overwhelming to deal with music as its own single thing. To lesser degree, it’s like categorizing the types of people you wouldn’t want to hang out with. It’s impossible not to narrow things down. People can see it whatever way they want. I mean there is certainly both pop and noise elements to what we do.
Does contemporary music excite you?
It’s a curious time. I’m always hesitant to rail against the internet because it’s impossible. I think the current the innovation in the last five or six years of newer music has to do with people getting to music through the internet, where everything that happened before is just there for you. It’s the most gigantic library there ever was. With no effort, being given the entire history of music and then being asked to come up with something different from of all of that. There’s so much to take in, that the only way to digest it is by emulating it. I’m hoping that the next generation of kids starting bands will figure out how to use the internet for more than just a regurgitation device. And saying that makes me feel like an old asshole. But I have a strong feeling my 11 year old niece will do great things in music.
You’re touring the record as well. Are you looking forward to it?
I still like playing very much but I loathe touring, which is impossible to get around. Unless you take up a residency at The Holiday Inn, which might actually be enjoyable. I just have to grit my teeth and realize that it’s something I have to do. There was a point in my life where I felt that it was something that I got to do. I would much rather stay at home and work in my little studio. I mean, I still totally love music but being gone has lost its allure.
Is it the inconsistency of life whilst on tour that do not enjoy?
Touring is incredibly boring. One hour of the day on tour has meaning, but the other twenty-three is just sitting in a car. Lots of waiting. Scraping the grime off your shoes that looked great a week ago.
We’re running this interview as a part of our LGBT History Month which has the theme of music this year. You’ve openly talked about your bisexuality. Was music something you turned to in coming to terms or figuring out your own identity?
It was pretty sorted out by the time this band began. But it’s certainly something within which I wanted to have engagement with both gender identification and sexual orientation. I always felt pretty unwaveringly and confidently bisexual. Fortunately I grew up in a big city so there wasn’t a cultural bias towards me, to a degree. It wasn’t like I grew up in a small town in the South and everywhere around me with people who wanted to kill me. It was relatively accepted. It wasn’t that bad for me. My father was in the music business and my parents had a number of queer friends who were always in the house when I was growing up. Unbeknownst to everybody but me, my Granddad was queer also. He made it clear to me, I think because he could see it in me. When I finally did come out, to my complete surprise, my mother flipped out. Fortunately I had established for myself that it was fine to be that way. My parents had essentially done it themselves in teaching me it was okay. I knew when that happened it wasn’t me being the way I was, it was more to do with her own mind. But that was many years ago and everything is fine now. There was never really an internal struggle about it so I feel pretty lucky in that regard.
Growing up, were there any queer artists or albums that spoke to you?
I was and have been a lifelong Smiths fan so it’s debatable whether or not he knew it or was admitting it at the time. When I was coming out there was a lot of ratty queer punk bands that I thought were cool for being out but musically wasn’t that into them. Politically, I thought they were great. I think socially I nodded to them but I’d not be listening to many queer bands. Oh wait! Erasure. I loved them and I’m still in love with them.
Being a musician for as long as you have with Xiu Xiu and other side projects, has your relationship to music changed over the years?
I was just talking to a friend the other day about this. I’m really, really reticent to say this in public but I think it’s sort of funny even though it’s incredibly depressing. When I first turned to music I did it to catalogue the problems I was having internally in life. And now I’ve come to realise that music is causing a lot of the problems that I have in life. Mostly just music business, not music as an ephemeral thing. I love it as much as I ever did but the place I’m at in my emotional life is shifting to a degree. Like what I said with Xiu Xiu, it’s in a state of flux for me. I’m curious as to how it will turn out. It literally makes my heart physically hurt when I think of not doing it anymore, so I must be very much in love with it if that’s the case. It’s a difficult time for any very small cult band to continue make a living today and maintain some amount of dignity. As I said, I’m still very much in love with music, so I may very well forego my own emotional well-being for it.
There’s one question I have, and feel free not to answer it. What I’ve admired about you is your openness about your long-time depression. Have you reached a point of clarity in life or found things that give you comfort in times of chaos?
As of late, I find it incredibly disruptive and annoying more than anything else. I think when it first really came on I didn’t really understand what was happening to me and felt I was going crazy and would act out in destructive ways, which is a pretty normal response that people have. Then I began to understand what was going on, in that it was a clinical misfiring and I wasn’t doing anything wrong. The emotional sway isn’t any less fervent but I think I’ve got two parallel narratives in my mind. I can tell myself, even though I was feeling these feelings, physically and emotionally, that they are not based on any sort of reality. Then the other side is trying to muddle through and get through the day. It’s just aggravating; this extra, totally stupid narrative that I have to get through.
Photograph © Matt Peck
Out of all the Xiu Xiu records and collaborations you’ve worked on, is there one that you feel particularly attached to or proud of?
This may sound corny but probably this latest one. If it is to be the last one, we did what I think I always wanted to do, in terms of it being focused and what it sounds like. Lyrical directness. All of them I feel we did our absolute best that we could have at the time. As records go, some of them turned out better than others. We put the most that we could into it and the results varied. I feel good about this one.
When you listen back to your earlier albums, do you hear a younger self?
Well it’s interesting that you should say that because I’m learning some old songs for tour right now, one of which I’ve never performed and I haven’t listened to in more than ten years. In a practical way, it’s interesting to hear how your voice changes to a point you almost don’t recognize the tone and how I could have ever sounded so reedy. In some ways it’s disorienting, after all that time, I don’t feel a whole lot different now than I did ten years ago. I listened to it and heard that me then is still as aggravated as the way I am now, which is funny but a little sad too.
My final question is something you’ve probably answered along the way but with the breadth of music you’ve created so far, do you feel there is a lot more you want to explore?
That’s the wonderful thing about music; it’s completely impossible to finish it. I have frequently considered it as an impossible and captivating puzzle in which there are an infinite number of combinations and an infinite number of emotional colours that you can put together and explore or learn more about. Luckily I feel there’s a lot more to figure out, either as a musician or as a music fan. It will never exhaust itself.
Angel Guts: Red Classroom is out now on Bella Union. Click here to see our feature of Jamie Stewart’s world photography.