Xiu Xiu's Jamie Stewart: "Gnarly and Deep"
The cover of Xiu Xiu's ninth studio album, Always, is a tight closeup of the band's name and the album title tattooed on bare flesh. For 10 years, singer Jamie Stewart's fearlessly brutal lyricism -- about war, sexual trauma, romantic implosion, and self-hatred -- has been at the forefront of a carefully composed charge of latent synth-pop flourishes, industrial noise elements, wildly varied non-rock instrumentation, and feverish drum machines. It's a body of work one might see as intimidating unless one has had the nerve to reap its rewards.
Xiu Xiu will be opening for legendary avant-garde instigators Swans at Crescent Ballroom on Wednesday, September 12. Stewart managed to get the band's visionary singer, Michael Gira, to cover "Under Pressure" by Queen and David Bowie with him on 2008's Women as Lovers, which he said began as a crazy idea pitched to him by a friend on a drunken late-night walk. One of his favorite all-time acts, Swans and Gira's unflinching longevity have inspired Stewart's work, he said.
"It's particularly inspiring that [Swans] are sounding better than ever," Stewart says. "We're entering our 10th year of making music, and I'll think, 'Oh, my God, how can I do this for another 10 years?' and I'll look at Michael and know, 'Oh, that's how you do it.'"
Those repelled by Xiu Xiu's confrontational discography might deride Stewart's past decade of work as shrill, petulant, and hysterical -- all of which is true. But those who take solace in its difficult honesty, who have been soothed by its cathartic clamor, have proved to be in it for the long haul. Stewart has shown that such dedication goes both ways.
Up on the Sun: On Always, you've got songs about war atrocities committed by Americans, songs about the exploitation of Chinese women. Do you write these songs not only to convey your own feelings about these situations but with the larger hope that people's minds will be impacted by it? To evoke some larger change?
Jamie Stewart: I don't realistically think there can be any massive amounts of change. The most realistic hope that I could have is that in some tiny way, it could cause somebody who's already inclined toward empathetic thinking and political action to do something about those situations. I don't harbor any illusions that Xiu Xiu can have any impact on the U.S. military or on global economics, insofar as it's essentially slave labor from China providing us with incredible piles of garbage we don't need. Hopefully, there will be some teenage kid who's maybe wondering whether or not to pursue a business degree or pursue a peace studies degree, and it will lead them to think in a more humane sort of way. That's the largest hope I can have for it.
There's also a hope, in a kind of quasi-spiritual way, of connecting with those people that are in those situations. This sounds ridiculous -- and very hippie -- but maybe somehow through the interconnected-ness of humanity, somewhere in the universe, the people in these situations will know that somebody is thinking about them. Which I realize is preposterous. Who knows what exists and what doesn't.
When you hear a political song by somebody else, what does it do for you?
It keeps the fire lit, I suppose. It reminds me not to be lazy and not to forget about people in those situations. The song "Four Women" by Nina Simone, one of my very favorite political songs, always reminds me to try to keep hearing and to try not to be only enveloped in my own life. To remind me that 85 percent of the people in the world don't live a cushy Western life that I do, and that if there's some small thing I can do about it today, then I should try.
The way you interact with fans goes so much further than most bands. You've got people sending you pictures that you post on your blog, you had a call-in hotline for a while, [artist and photographer] David Horowitz was taking portraits of everyone who attended your solo shows. Were these just fun ideas or was there something larger in mind with that?
I guess a third of it was an attempt at a public art project, a third of it was essentially a curiosity as to what would happen if we did these things. It can be a bit of a wild card, to leave oneself open to this sort of interaction with strangers. In almost every case, it's been very interesting. And then also it's an attempt to say thank you to people who have been interested in the band, not to just ignore than as people but try to involve them in the larger art project that Xiu Xiu is trying to be. Xiu Xiu would not exist at all if people weren't interested in the band. Almost everybody we have toured with has said, and I agree, that the people who come to see Xiu Xiu are incredibly creative, incredibly nice and open with themselves. Why would one not want to participate in an artistic way with people like that?
It sort of feels like allowing people to make a contribution to Xiu Xiu.
It's not really allowing, it's wanting them to and hoping people will.
It seems like you're totally not shy about trying to make that connection. Recently on your blog, you had invited people to send you a list of things that make life worth living. The response was extensive and really powerful. I can't think of any other act that would invite that kind of interaction.
It's kind of embarrassing. It's so typical and boring at this point in the band to say this [laughs], but I had been going through a particularly gnarly and deep couple of months of depression, one that was very unexpected. There are particular aspects of depression that I'm very tired of and used to, but this lasted a long time and felt very different. Day after day, the moment I would wake up, I'd be in a moment of incredible hopelessness and panic. And, I kind of didn't know what to do. I think I posted that incredibly early in the morning, right when I woke up, not really knowing, and this sounds silly but it's true, who else to turn to. I didn't know who else to ask except people that might write in. If I asked my mother about it, she'd say something very encouraging, but it's difficult to be as frank about this kind of thing with somebody that I know personally because I don't want them to panic about it. It's easier to talk about with somebody who, in some ways, I have an incredibly intimate relationship with because my life depends on them existing, even if it's people I don't know. Like I said, these are all people who are incredibly bright and generous.
I was rather stunned by the amount of people who responded. I haven't even been able to post all of the responses. Aside from being embarrassing, it was incredibly touching and encouraging. At the risk of sounding melodramatic, I can't say how much it meant to me that so many people responded and that many people put as much thought into that.