Xiu Xiu: A Wonderful Unsolvable Puzzle

Jamie Stewart is not one for self-reflection. When asked about his proudest achievement in almost two decades of being at the helm of the experimental group Xiu Xiu, there was almost a sense of embarrassment in his voice that the best he could muster up was “I am proud we’ve kept things up”. Perhaps it was naïve on my part to think he would want to list all of the crowning glories of his career to date, but over the course of an hour-long chat, I was quick to learn that he is nothing if not modest about his accomplishments.

It is somewhat ironic that on Xiu Xiu’s twelfth studio record, the brand new OH NO, there is a subtle theme of reflection and coming to terms with the past that runs throughout many of the songs. Conceived and recorded as an album of duets, Stewart and bandmate Angela Seo recruited an eclectic cast of collaborators in close friends such as Liars’ Angus Andrew and Grouper’s Liz Harris to create an album that feels so incredibly personal at points. While Xiu Xiu are certainly no strangers to raw and cathartic storytelling, OH NO is a record that puts a stronger focus on personal experience as opposed to recounted tales or imagined stories. Sure, there are still elements of the macabre that have pervaded their previous outings that are present, but there is also a sense that due to the presence of other voices, Stewart is guided through the traumatic episodes he recalls to a place of hope by the helping hands that appear along the way. There is something freeing about the album, which is quite remarkable considering how the band have built their career around being so free in the first place.

While many might feel that the harrowing themes and often discomforting style of the band would suggest a serious personality, but the actuality of the interview proves to me that beneath the grave exterior is a droll sense of humour and an overwhelming sense of gratitude towards the ardent fanbase they have accrued over the years. Completely unflinching when it comes to defying expectations, Xiu Xiu have successfully managed to remain adventurous at every point in their career, whether through the means of paying tribute to Nina Simone in album form or reinterpreting the soundtrack to Twin Peaks.

Speaking to Wax, Jamie Stewart (or ‘uncle easter bunny’ as his screen-name on Zoom would suggest) was willing to dive into the stories behind the new record and touch upon what has made the experience of Xiu Xiu so beloved by him and fans alike.

First things first, let’s talk about OH NO. How do you feel about it now it’s all done and about to be given to the world?

I’m not trying to dodge this question in any way – but I think partially out of being work obsessed, and partially out of a general lifelong sense of personal insecurity, when we’re done with the record, I can’t really deal with it anymore. I have to just start working on the next thing. On the rare occasion I’ve gone back and checked that anything we’ve done after it was finished, it has always made me a little nuts in so far as only focusing on what I fucked up. I know that we did the best job that we could have done at the time, and I’m extraordinarily touched and moved by all of the guest singers and how much heart and effort they put into it. But as far as looking back on how it was, I’m too afraid.

Is it more a sense of relief, that it’s a finished product, and everyone else can enjoy it?

Oh, the entire motivation is to have it be for somebody else to hopefully get something out of. It’s not so much a sense of relief, but certainly a sense of release.

Have you had any early feedback from people?

Despite my best efforts to avoid social media as much as possible, even though it’s just part of being a musician now and you have to participate, people are being extraordinarily nice about it. Although that said, we are incredibly lucky, and the people who seem to be interested in Xiu Xiu are always extraordinarily nice to us. I feel really, really grateful that people are being so generous with it.

From what I’ve seen of the reception of the two singles so far, it’s causing a lot of excitement and I’ve really been enjoying listening to it the past few weeks myself. You started the process of this record back a couple of years ago, right?

Sort of, we had done some sketches for it, but I don’t think anything other than some nascent and loose ideas ended up on it. I think it really began October of 2019, so I guess we worked on a pretty solidly for about a year.

Was the tail end of it affected much by the current situation? It’s a highly collaborative record.

I mean, most records now are unfortunately done over email. It’s just more cost effective and expedient. A few people – Alice Bag and Sharon Van Etten were able to come by my little studio right before the pandemic. With Jonathan Meiburg, I was in Texas doing some rehearsals with him right before he was going to tour as a member of Xiu Xiu, but then the shutdown happened and he did his vocals at his place. Everybody else was over email. I mean, it was affected in that I got to work on it a lot, I wasn’t being affected by having to go on tour.

That’s a bonus, I guess – an odd way of looking at it, but a bonus.

I wish the bonus had occurred some other way. But, you know, I do enjoy playing but I tour because I have to tour, not because I love to tour, but I make records because I love making records.

I’ve heard you say that before, that recording is the most enjoyable part of the process for you.

I still absolutely love playing, but if I could walk next door and play it rather than drive all over the place and play I’d much rather do that. We’re still basically an underground band, so our touring life, while not as hideous as it was when it started still has some granular aspects to it. I played and briefly in Sharon Van Etten’s band and you know, she’s obviously quite successful. I was like, ‘oh, this is why people like touring’. When you’re famous, touring is nice; when you’re not, it’s fucking tough work. (laughs)

It’s interesting to know that most of it was done sort of via email communication, because I did wonder whether that kind of got in the way of the idea behind the project.

To me, it made it more interesting, because I was incredibly surprised by what people were doing. The point of collaborating with someone who is as a singular voice as a musician is that you want to let them be who they are and do their thing. If I’m in the room, there’s more pressure to do what you think the person who’s asked you to do this wants you to do. If you’re by yourself, one can let loose. Every time I got something back, it was very different than I had expected it to be, and I was way happier getting what I got, rather than what I imagined that I would get from it.

I’m curious as to how it turned into this – was the idea behind the record always to be an album of duets or was there a point along the line of you making a record by yourself that you thought a lot of these songs would work with other vocalists as well?

It didn’t start out that way; it’s a little bit of a melodramatic concept. I had several people who I was very close friends with professionally, who, in a very short period of time basically fucked me over quite badly. I don’t handle stress very easily, and I’m kind of a cuckoo-pants – I basically just had a nervous breakdown, because these particular events made me lose my mind. Right after that happened, a lot of people who I didn’t expect to reach out to me got in touch to see if I was okay. For want of a better word, I was really touched by it, and it made me get my act together and got back to normal a lot quicker than I would have been otherwise. It was a good and necessary reminder to me that not all people are total garbage. I don’t really like people that much; my general mode is not wanting to be around anyone, but so many more people were showing me kindness. The songs don’t really reflect it particularly, but the concept of doing duets was a way to try to say thank you to the idea of humanity, and it seemed like a symbol of that appreciation.

I do definitely feel it seems like a conversation is happening on some tracks where you are just opening a dialogue with people close to you. Was that an intentional thing?

Duets by design come across that way, and I’m glad that that comes across. This is sounding very corny, but it’s very much about trying to embrace with another person by doing a song together. Possibly also because of the shutdown and the pandemic, it’s possible that maybe people put a little bit more into it, because really the only way to reach out is by putting more heart into a performance.

Were there ideas for songs that you then thought, ‘okay, I would love to have someone else in particular contribute to this song’, or was it just happy accidents that certain people came along at certain times to work on things?

It was mostly that I would have two or three songs, and I would send them to a particular person who I thought it might fit with. In some cases it might be an unusual choice for this particular person.

With ‘A Bottle of Rum’, which Liz Harris sang on – to my mind that’s a very compact pop song. Essentially, I sent her a couple of other songs that I thought were more in line with most of her work, which to me seems very dreamy and atmospheric, but she said, ‘no, no, I really want to do something with a little bit of boogie in it’. I think she did a superlative job, and I think it’s much more interesting to have her on that than something long with no drums. Interestingly, that song is kind of inspired by another song of hers, although it doesn’t really sound like it, but I was listening to another song of hers, and it led to writing that song. It’s kind of a cosmic consciousness stroke of luck that that’s the one she wanted to be on.

I guess a lot of the people that feature on the record are not just friends in a personal sense, but a professional sense as well, that you’ve worked with before.

Some people I’m close, like socially good friends with, some people are just friends from music, and then some people I had actually never met before and have yet to meet in person. Deb Demure from Drab Majesty I’m a fan of but we haven’t yet met, and George Lewis of Twin Shadow. Everybody else I have either met or am on very cool terms with.

It definitely feels that there’s an understanding between you and the collaborator on most of the songs.

I think that largely has to do with their contributions. I know I kind of touched on it a little before but everybody really went above and beyond what I had expected that they would do. When you do music, you ask people to come together a lot and half the time, it’s great and half the time, it’s politely done as an obligation. But yeah, everybody in this case really threw down and that was incredibly open hearted of them, considering the timing being in the middle of a pandemic. Also everybody who’s done it is a very busy working musician, so to take the time was wonderful.

But also they care dearly about you and your music and are fans in a lot of cases as well, so I guess that it meant a lot to them to be part of it.

Well, if that is the case then I’m dearly moved.

I feel like the record is quite reflective; it looks back on past events in your life, as does a lot of your music, but it also looks back on Xiu Xiu as a whole and how it’s developed over time. How true would you say that because of the nature of that this could only have been made now, rather than any other point in your career?

I don’t disagree with that, but it wasn’t done consciously. I’m not one for nostalgia, certainly not musically, and not in my life generally, but I did notice there were one or two songs that are actually about nostalgia, which I was surprised that that was what was coming out. There are certain approaches or musical devices that are references to things that we had done before. I would never do that consciously, but I would look back and listen to it later and there’ll be certain lines that reference other songs, you know, kind of inside jokes. I do agree with what you’re saying, but if that happened it was the goddess of music who decided that that was going to happen, and it wasn’t an attempt to put a pin on what is turning into a long music career at this point.

It may have been that because again, the idea of doing duets is about some sort of sense of community and there’s an inherent sweetness in the idea of community. There can be a sweetness and also a sadness in nostalgia, but hopefully in this case more of a sweetness. Maybe because those elements were there, although some of the songs are about quite fraught subject matters, it’s the fact that, you’re getting to hold the hand of a friend while making them. Possibly opening the door to less vicious or rabid song approaches.

I wanted to ask about the choice of cover as well – The Cure’s ‘One Hundred Years’. I wondered why specifically that song? On the whole, I feel like all of your choices of covers are very well considered. You don’t necessarily try and reinvent things, but you do everything that you’ve covered a huge justice. What’s your relationship with that particular song and why that one for this album?

Unconsciously referencing nostalgia again, I guess when I was a kid, The Cure were still a very popular band, but it was, you know, a little before Nirvana. They were still sort of an alternative/underground band to a degree. I mean, they were popular, but you know, jocks would not have been listening to The Cure when I was a kid. Now, music is not as much of a social divider as it was at the time. It was probably the first band that I got into at that time that wasn’t on top 40 radio all the time. That sort of led me down the path of getting into more serious, underground or experimental music. As a young person, I listened to Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me every night for a year before going to bed, and I’ve remained a fan of theirs since. But when I was a kid, Pornography was too intense for me; I couldn’t really deal with that record particularly. Yeah, it was, you know, I like to feel like ‘Just Like Heaven’ was my song as a kid. Although I’ve been listening to them since I was a child, that record I have only gotten into maybe the past five or six years, and it’s become my favourite record now I’m interested in much more harsher, more intense music.

Every time we have done a cover, the motivation for doing the cover is to show gratitude to the band. The point of doing a cover is not to insert ourselves into it, but to just say thank you. I realised that it’s the band that I’ve probably listened to most consistently and the longest, and we had not gotten around to saying thank you to them in a public way. I mean, choosing that particular one, it’s because it’s undoubtedly their goth-est song.  Goth music on and off has been a deep part of my life, and probably more so lately than it has been ever, so it was an attempt to try to cover a lot of ground with a band that has covered a lot of ground with me.

Were there any other things that played a big role in the making of this record musically?

Yeah, although I tend to get really stuck on just a couple of records at a time and listen to them repeatedly. For this one, I think I’m a bigger Nick Cave fan than I’ve ever been. I’ve been a fan most of my adult life but I started listening to him again. I think a lot of people who write very ‘craftsperson-like’ songs, not necessarily pop songs, but structured, very thought out and intentional point A to point B type of songwriting.

Then it’s just a lot of classical music on the boring college classical station, like ‘the three Bs’ kind of classical music. I mean, I don’t know what part any of the people that I mentioned actually played into it, but that’s mostly what I was listening to. Angela, my bandmate listens pretty exclusively to kind of 50s through 70s soul and R&B, so that’s awesome.

Was there much input from those you work closely with on the music – was this recorded with Greg Saunier again?

We weren’t able to as much this time, he was able to come by for a couple of days when he was living in Los Angeles which is where I live, but then the shutdown started and he moved to Arizona. It wasn’t as much as usual, but the couple of days that he did work on it were quite crucial. He played on a lot of songs; he’s very, very fast so in those two days, he probably played on six or seven songs and then sang on one.

We did work with quite a bit with Lawrence English on this one, that was all through email as well. I sent him all the songs and he sent back incredibly detailed notes about additions that he thought each of them could use. One of the things I like about working with producers is getting to work with somebody who I trust and respect musically, and have it essentially be out of my hands. I really like doing what I think needs to happen, and then giving it to somebody else. It’s just how it works with Angela, how it’s worked with Greg and how it’s worked with John Congleton. It’s a true joy to take that pressure off of myself, but also take the advice of people who are fucking brilliant. In every case, it made the song better, like night and day better. Lawrence has an extraordinary ear, and it was a lot of things that I wouldn’t have thought to do. His listening tastes are quite broad, so he’s able to reference anything you have heard of and a million things you’d have never heard of.

After nearly 20 years of the project and a lot of albums within that space of time, what is it that has kept things varied for you and kept things exciting and allowed Xiu Xiu to grow over time?

20 years? That makes me wanna barf – I mean I should be proud of it but I think ‘Christ, what the fuck have I done with my life’ (laughs).

I think one thing is positive and one thing is negative. The positive thing is kind of what I said before – I just really, genuinely deeply love music. I mean, I don’t really get a chance to listen to records that often but when I do, it’s pointedly to listen to it. I think because it’s not a casual thing, it’s maintained its magic, which I don’t think is an exaggeration. There’s that, and the fact that I’m afraid that if we stop or take a break, whatever momentum there is, will go away. Being an obsessive person, I generally need to do it to keep the train on the rails, but there’s worse approaches to maintaining one’s sanity. I mean, music is pretty great. It really is. It’s a wonderful puzzle that can never be solved, and getting to be a part of it is an incredible privilege. Obviously – just because it would make my life more relaxed and easier, I wish that we were more successful, but part of being below-medium successful is to keep things going. You can’t really float away for five years and have people still remember who the fuck you are, so in wanting to keep doing it, one has to keep doing it.

Words: Reuben Cross // Photos: Julia Brokaw

‘OH NO’ is released on 26th March via Polyvinyl. Purchase or stream the album in full via Xiu Xiu’s Bandcamp.

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