A conversation with Jamie Stewart
Interview by Michael Byrne
We love to make ourselves invisible, and then, in hiding, claim our innocence and claim our strength. When our species turns rotten, we turn and blame ideology, history, power structures: anything above us. In the end, however, it is people hurting people. Xiu Xiu brings us down to those individual cruelties and their individual wounds. They rediscovered a book on humanity–one whose pages the mainstream world has glued together.
This became all the more meaningful upon learning what a amazingly nice guy Xiu Xiu's Jamie Stewart is. In Seattle late last month he took an hour away from desperately needed rest to talk to The Red Alert about their recent collaboration with the Italian experimental rock group Larsen, catastrophes, and the unfortunate state of protest music.
Twenty minutes ago I was trying to explain Xiu Xiu to a German tourist at the hostel I'm staying at. The first way I tried explain Xiu Xiu was by calling it theater, like, the drama in the voice, the music. Then I tried to explain what I meant by theater–exaggerating the real for effect. When you're writing a song, does that come into it? Dramatics?
No, not at all. That's not where it's coming from at all. All of the songs are about things that are going on in my life, or my family's life, or in politics. None of it is exaggerated or theatrical. It's just narratives.
So, these are all coming from personal places. One of my first reactions is frustration. In your songs we hear these abstracts of real stories, but that's all. Is it wrong to want to know these back stories, their wholes?
I can only really relate it to myself as a person. If I've been listening to a song for the like the past ten years and it means something really specific and emotional to me and then I find out it's coming from a totally different place...irrespective of my initial connection to it, it's kind of impossible not to be affected by that, by what the band's initial intent was. I wouldn't want to impose my feelings about a song onto somebody who may be getting something totally different from it. It's not any of my business to say, "You are listening to this wrong." I think it's less important for somebody to know what the song's about for me than for them to just listen to it as music in and of itself.
Yeah, the author's dead and all that. My next question is sort of an obvious Xiu Xiu question: how much of your music is coping?
I'm not totally sure. I certainly feel hyper-compelled to keep writing about difficult things going on with people I know. I don't really feel that it erases the negative feelings or anything like that. It isn't like after a show I feel better or anything. But, it must work like that in some way for me...I've been doing it pretty feverishly for the past four years or something. It's really a push to shrink something down into a three minute song that might have been taking place over the past ten years and eventually culminating in something super cataclysmic or insane.
So, this leads sort of into the next thing I wanted to discuss: the XXL project. There's a lot less lyrics, more instrumentals. Would you say they're less personal? Was it a different writing process?
Yeah. Totally. We got together for ten days: wrote a song, recorded a song a day. The songs that there's singing on are really personal. But Xiu Xiu songs don't get written that way, it's always really slowly over a long long period of time with a lot of editing. We'd shake off having drunk too much wine and show up at the studio that day at two in the afternoon, and then write something for four hours and then spend four hours recording it.
I wanted to ask about that whole ten days thing. The disc just sounds so...tight.
Larsen has a great drummer.
Even so...ten days for this kind of material. Was it just manic?
No. It was really really fun and really relaxed. And we just screwed around a lot. I mean we took it very very seriously, but at no point was it stressful at all. A very funny thing happened... Fabrizio, who's in Larsen obviously, picked us up from the train station and we had kind of talked about what we were going to do over email, but not really any specifics or anything. And Caralee and I were like fuck, we didn't write anything for this at all. And he picks us up and we're like we didn't write anything for this and he's like oh, we didn't either. So, immediately, the guilt was shed. We were all kind of in the same place, wanting (the material) to be unhindered by previous ideas.
And they're nice guys?
They are the sweetest sweetest sweetest tattooed, pierced, gay leather daddies you'll ever meet.
How do you say it? The album title.
The more literal definition is just a made up joke. A combination of the ubiquitous Italian ciao and autistico, which means autistic in Italian. At one point we got totally off the deep end with it, like, making it be this kind of Hegelian world view slash cable channel slash assassination plot slash hyper secret language. It got completely this sort sexual illuminatti sort of vibe. Just really out of control. It was all we talked about for like three days, just expand on the obscene slash absurdist theory of ciautism.
I wanted to touch real quick on one more thing, "Support Our Troops, OH!" Since the war started, I've personally lost any faith in protest music. It seems like it's just been appropriated commercially, almost all of it. "Support Our Troops, OH!" is genuine in a way that none of the others seem to have, for a couple reasons I think. One, because it was shocking. And, following from that, because it wasn't to be sold. That was my impression anyhow. Do you have any thoughts on that: real outrage versus pandering?
Any sort of protest song you would hear on the radio is coming from exactly that place you're talking about. I mean I'm not talking about our song in any way whatsoever. But, as much as I love R.E.M., if R.E.M does a protest song, R.E.M works for Warner Brothers, who is owned by General Electric, who makes bombs and tanks. Warner Brothers is a gigantic corporation whose point is to sell things.
Mick Jagger does a song called "Sweet Neo Con" on the new (Rolling Stones) record, but refuses to say outright that it's probably about George Bush. Probably, the only reason he might say that is it might alienate 35% of their fan base or something like that, which would mean...
I can't imagine what it's got to be like to be a mainstream middle of the road corporate artist, and be genuine...genuinely protesting the thing that supports your existence, and continue to have that existence that you've grown accustomed to, are trapped within, or...like.
Which is a total downside also, because those people could reach the most amount of people.
Is it better that it's out there, whether or not its coming from a corporate source, whether it's Clear Channel or..
Absolutely. Totally. Even if it's not the purest sentiment in the entire world, it's there anyway, which is definitely better than it not being there at all.
Was the song "Support Our Troops, OH" a reaction to something specific?
Yes, it was all taken from–I guess except the things that were obvious commentary–but all the lines were from interview sources.
Who would you say is doing real protest music now?
(very long pause) I don't know.
That pretty much sucks.
Can you think of anybody?
The people that come to mind are the Constellation Records folks.
I was going to say Godspeed, like all those guys.
But, even Godspeed admits that they pretty much sold themselves to the machine. They sold the song "East Hastings" to the movie 28 Days Later.
Did they really?
Yeah, it's like the recurring theme.
It was like my favorite song. I was crushed.
That's a total drag. That surprises the hell out of me.
I like to think that's the reason the band broke up.
I hope it is. That's a pretty fucking good reason to break up.
XXL - Ciautistico!
More by this writer:
Solenoid - Supernature
Four Tet / Jamie Lidell - Live - October 1, 2005
Animal Collective - Feels
Veda - The Weight of an Empty Room