Xiu Xiu Interview: “We Absolutely Have The Best”

Xiu Xiu are among the most original music acts of the 21st century. Led by Jamie Stewart since the beginning, the project has touched upon a variety of genres, ranging from noise pop to experimental rock, redefining the walls of sound in the process. Going strong for 19 years, Xiu Xiu are now back with their 12th studio album OH NO (released March 26th). This album of duets hosts an impressive list of guest musicians, which are, respectively: Sharon Van Etten, Drab Majesty, Haley Fohr, Greg Saunier, Susanne Sachsse, Liars, Angela Seo, Owen Pallett, Chelsea Wolfe, Fabrizio Modenese Palumbo, Shearwater, Twin Shadow, Alice Bag, Liz Harris and Valerie Diaz.

The early singles A Bottle of Rum” and “Rumpus Room” already suggested that we were about to hear a very special project once again. Our expectations did not fail us, and soon after we met up with Jamie Stewart via Zoom, engaging in a sincere conversation. Our interaction proved to be quite joyful: The topics we talked about don’t only include OH NO, but also Werner Herzog, David Lynch, The Cure and the love songs never written. Hope you’ll enjoy reading it.

You can read the interview below, or check out the Turkish version here.

This interview is really special for Kıyı Müzik, because the very first song that went on airplay on our radio back in 2012 was actually “Hi” from your eighth studio album Always. We were wasting our time at that moment and just wanted to say hi, so we chose that. (both laugh)

Jamie Stewart: What an honor! That’s nice to hear. I really appreciate that.

It’s crazy how much all of us have been over since that record. You continued evolving as Xiu Xiu, and the world has also changed a lot. How have you, as a person and as a music project, adapted to the pandemic?

Like everybody, it was playing in a band and being unable to go on tour. Financially, that has not been great, but it has given us a lot more time. We have our own studio, and time not spent on tour is time spent in the studio, so we had a chance to do a tremendous amount of recording in the last year. We worked on our new record which came out on Friday. We finished that last September, and we’ve since been working on a new record. We also started a subscription service on Bandcamp, so that’s new. Aside from not touring, though, things haven’t really been that different. We love making records and I love recording. It’s been a good opportunity to do just that. I mean, every other aspect of life has changed, but considering we’d been touring since we started, it’s the first extended break we’ve ever had. Psychologically, that was probably something necessary. (laughs)

Your previous album Girl With Basket of Fruit had some of your most out-there, crazily chaotic songs, which is a high standard for you. So when you released “A Bottle of Rum”, the lead single from OH NO, I was surprised to hear one of your most radio-friendly tracks. Was that a conscious decision?

It really is a normal song. No, we’ve gone back and forth forever between doing things that are fairly traditional, verse-chorus-bridge type of songwriting and the untraditional ones. I appreciate classically formed songwriting immensely and it is something that we aspire to, but at the same time we’re interested in the insane, intense, noise-industrial-experimental music. I do agree that Girl With Basket of Fruit was the most bonkers record we had done so far. After that, it wasn’t like “Now we have to do super normal songs!” as a response. Probably subconsciously, my mind needed to do something more structured after having done something that was essentially us throwing everything we can think of into a barrel and rolling it down a hill to see what happens. It was not a conscious decision, but I would not be surprised if my subconscious was actually in charge and said “This is what you need to do next. Now go and sing.”

I can imagine someone fully blind to your music listening to “A Bottle of Rum” and thinking well, that’s a sweet poppy tune, and then switching to the rest of your catalogue only to be shocked.

Right. (laughs) That’s fine.

With your wonderful new album OH NO, you have an album full of duets with wonderful artists. In a period of solitude across the globe, such an approach probably feels more meaningful. Do you think this unity encouraged you to create new things in a challenging time?

We had decided to do a record of duets before the pandemic. Having it come out during the pandemic has accidentally given it an additional layer of relevance or meaning. I of course wish the pandemic was not happening, but with a record of duets, it does seem appropriate to have it released now. There were other reasons why we did it. We make records hoping somebody gets something out of them, and that would apply to any record.

How did you organise working with all these people? Surely you worked with some of them from a distance. How did this new medium affect the creative dynamics?

We have done duets in the past, and with every record we tend to collaborate with people, so it wasn’t something completely new for us. Obviously, we collaborated with most people we ever had with this record, but it’s a dynamic we’re familiar with. Anytime we collaborate with somebody, we say “Okay, these are some potential ideas. You can work with these ideas, or you can prefer to be totally yourself.” Having no guidance though is too much to ask from somebody. It was the same with the duets. I sent people the lyrics and a guide melody and said, “If you want to follow this or do something entirely different, either option is totally great. We’re asking you to do it because we admire you, and we love how you approach music. Whatever feels right to you, please do that.” Some people followed the lyrics and the guide melody pretty exactly and did a beautiful, wonderful job. Some people did stuff that was quite different. Twin Shadow added a saxophone, which we didn’t ask for, and it was fantastic. It made the song so much better. If we were more controlling or more specific, he probably wouldn’t have felt free to do something like that.

We were hoping for surprises. We were hoping for people to feel open and free. And I’m not saying this just to be nice, but every single person did a fantastic job. A lot of times when you collaborate with somebody, especially if they’re busy, they give it a shot and they have nine thousand other things to do on their slate and they need to move on to the next thing. But every recording that I got back blew my mind. I feel so honored that people put so much heart into it.

So it’s a work of collective spirit.

I think that’s an accurate way to put it. I feel really lucky to be a part of it.

Your long time bandmate Angelo Seo also has a duet in “Fuzz Gong Fight”. How did that shape up? A Xiu Xiu duet with a Xiu Xiu member that is both Xiu Xiu and beyond Xiu Xiu…

(laughs) Angela has been my best friend for probably 12 years, and she told me a couple of years ago something I didn’t know about her although we know each other really well: That she has a secret desire to be a singer although she’s very ashamed of her voice. We had done one duet together on Always, but she hadn’t sang on anything since then. She also has some talking parts on Girl With Basket of Fruit. Now that I knew her desire, I felt that we absolutely had to set up the situation.

We share a house together and she’s not here right now, so I can speak more freely about it than I could if she was around. But I would love it if she would sing more, I think she has an incredibly pure, fragile and real approach to singing. I know she’s nervous about it, which is understandable. It’s an incredibly vulnerable and intimate thing to do. I’m secretly trying to change roles with her, hopefully she will become the lead singer and I’ll never have to sing again.

You expressed that with “Sad Mezcalita”, you initially tried to write a love song, an experiment which failed. But you always experiment and come forward with fresh concepts. Do you think we’ll ever see a Xiu Xiu album full of love songs with harp and soft guitar melodies, released on 14th of February or something?

That’s a good idea. (laughs) We’re hoping to be a band going on for 50 years, so we have plenty of time. (laughs) I may do it, I like it.

OH NO includes a cover of The Cure’s “One Hundred Years”, and I must say it fits nicely to the Xiu Xiu canon with lyrics like “It doesn’t matter if we all die”. What is your favourite The Cure record, and how influential has their music been to you?

They have been one of my favorite bands since I was a kid. Before Nirvana came out, there was much more of a social delineation between what kind of music you listen to and who you were friends with. Music was much more of a cultural identifier or delineator than it is now. When I was a kid, no jock would listen to The Cure, ever. Or no white kid would listen to hip-hop. Now everybody listens to everything. When I was a kid, The Cure were still popular, but they weren’t on every radio. If they were on MTV, it was only during late night. And it opened a door for me to get further into goth, harsher or experimental music. Any music that wasn’t Top 40. They were probably the most formative band for me. 

For my favorite The Cure record… Oh, geez… Lately my favorite is Pornography, and not just because we’ve covered a song from it. In a different time it could have been Boys Don’t Cry, Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me or Disintegration. It depends. (laughs) Almost all of them have been my favorite The Cure records. 

Pornography, though, is a favorite among many hardcore The Cure fans.

Yeah. When I was younger, it was too intense for me. It’s not like I didn’t like it, I just didn’t understand that kind of music enough. The first one I got into was Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me. “Just Like Heaven” is on that, probably their most famous song. I got into Pornography, gosh, maybe ten years ago. But I had hardly listened to them for decades at that point, I just got my head around it then. What’s your favorite? Do you like The Cure?

Yeah, I love them. I don’t know, mine could also be Pornography, but it changes constantly.

Yeah. Which is a signifier of a great band. They’ve done it right many, many times.

We were hoping for surprises. We were hoping for people to feel open and free. And I’m not saying this just to be nice, but every single person did a fantastic job.

Jamie Stewart

The last track “ANTS” is a simple, short spoken word piece from Valerie Diaz. How do you think it serves the album as a closure?

I… don’t know. The idea to put it on there came from a book of Werner Herzog interviews called Herzog on Herzog. I’m a big fan of his. There, he talks a lot about his creative process and how he’s worked on every single movie that he’s done chronologically until the book is finished. Several times in that book, he says something -which I’m sure that I won’t explain as well as he does- which goes like this: “If some idea comes into your mind while you’re working on something and you feel an attachment to it for some reason, even if it feels totally out of context, then you have to put it into what you’re working on. Even if you don’t exactly understand what it is.” If you look at his films, there’s a lot of fittings that diverge from the context. It seems that they are meaningless, but they are somehow the best part of the movie. They broaden the scope of his movies. 

I’m trying to think of a concise way to put it. The eyes that are on the album cover are from a saloon that is on Florence Avenue. It is the street that I drive through to get to my friend Valerie’s house. Everytime I drive to her I go past that saloon. Valerie and I both smoke a lot of weed, so I was stoned out of my mind and I just said that poem out loud, and for some reason, I remembered it the next day, I don’t know why. It’s a very nonsensical poem. But kind of encouraging in a funny way. Valerie is from Coney Island with a very thick accent, an adorable one. I figured, well, we’ll take the picture of the eyes. We have drugs, friendship… For some reason, sticking that poem to the end was a tribute to Werner Herzog, who is an art saint to me. For a poem with three lines, it has a very long story attached to it. (laughs)

One of my favourite Xiu Xiu records is Plays The Music of Twin Peaks. Do you ever consider making an original soundtrack of your own? Who are your favourite directors you wish you could work with, and why is David Lynch the number one? (both laugh)

I would love to do a soundtrack. I’m a tremendous film fanatic, and we’ve done a little bit of music for movies. It’s always been extremely enjoyable. I’d absolutely love to do more. Clearly, film music is influential on the songs we write. And the next answer is David Lynch, of course. (laughs)

I knew it. (laughs)

I’m a little bit embarrassed to say this, but I don’t know a ton of directors. Werner Herzog, obviously. Lars Von Trier, William Friedkin… Gosh, what was his name? The guy who directed Drive

Nicolas Winding Refn.

Yeah. I’m a little embarrassed that those are all old white guys. All except for one is from Europe. They make extraordinary movies, though. Working with any one of them would honor me. I’d work with anybody who’s good, though.

I sort of have a feeling that David Lynch is a fan of Xiu Xiu, but there’s no way for me to prove it.

I think we’re too influenced by him for him to be a fan of ours. We have stolen so much from him and are so informed by the work he’s done, it doesn’t really make sense that he would be a fan of us. It would just be a copy of something he did 5 years ago. And I’m sure he’d rather do something new.

I would have loved to see you perform at the Roadhouse Bar in the final season of Twin Peaks. Have you seen The Return?

Yeah, three times! 

OH NO, as we spoke, represents a form of community and union. You channel a similiar purpose through Bandcamp with your project XIU MUTHA FUCKIN XIU. For our readers who haven’t heard of this service, can you describe it in your own words and how do you think it is going?

One really nice thing about Bandcamp is that it is extraordinarily flexible, you can put up any recording and there’s no guidelines for what there can be. There we have some audiobooks, further experimental music, even coffee cups. We have this subscription service where once a month we do a cover song, a solo version of an old Xiu Xiu song and samples we’ve made for people to put on their own music. We also make a postcard every month and mail it to people. It’s a way to keep working. Because it is once a month, it has required me to get to be a better recording engineer. We’re working on it all the time in addition to writing songs and other stuff. So it has increased the workload in a very positive way. 

These are times that you need to be creative as a musician who’s banned from their main livelihood which is giving concerts. You are hardly ever short of creative. You have formed this subscription service, you recently produced your own hot sauce… What other plans do you have in store for this isolated world?

I wrote a book, so I’m figuring out how to publish that. It will probably come out this fall. You usually finish a record several months before it’s released, and we finished OH NO last September. Since then we’ve been working on a new record. We’re not on tour, that means more time to do it. Angela, my bandmate, has a solo record coming out on ROOM40 Records. I have another band called HEXA (with Lawrence English), we just finished something and we’re putting that out. Angela and I are also part of an art performance group called CHEAP from Berlin. We’ve been working with them remotely, sending them some music. We’ve got a lot on our plate right now, which I feel really grateful for.

Having such an adventurous history in terms of musical inspiration, what do you think is your proudest achievement so far as a musician?

Oh… It’s probably just not quitting. There’ve been a lot of periods where I was feeling too beat up, or too discouraged to keep doing music. Angela told me to snap out of it and that kept me going. I had a therapist once who told me just to quit talking about I was gonna stop doing music and just keep doing it, and I went “Oh, okay, that’s a good idea.” (laughs) We do okay, but we’re not widely successful. So it can be a struggle sometimes. I am proud that we haven’t given up yet.

And you have a really devoted fanbase.

People are extraordinarily nice to us. Every band we have ever toured with has said that we have the best audiences they have ever played for. We open for some other bands, and while it felt great to cool it for the people we never play for, it made it quite apparent to me how fantastic people who come to Xiu Xiu shows are. We’re quite lucky for what we have. We don’t have the most, but we absolutely have the best.

The final question: If you could have one of your lyrics written on your tombstone, which one would it be?

(laughs) That’s a funny question. I’ve done a lot of interviews, but no one’s ever asked that. That might be my favorite question of all.

You know, there’s a lot of songs where I just make weird noises and go like “JKFGFGDFDFSDS” or something like that. When we have to write lyric sheets, we just use some random letters. So… Probably “JKFGFGDFDFSDS – died in 2021”. Yeah. It would actually be an accurate description of my birth, life and death.

You can visit Xiu Xiu’s official website here and Bandcamp profile here.