It's been only a few short years since Xiu Xiu first hit our shores in 2006 to play a sparsely attended but lively show in Auckland. But a whole lot has happened since then - added to the three albums and countless other releases, tireless live touring and rampant collaboration with artists like Grouper, Larsen and Shearwater, line up changes including the departure of Caralee McElroy and the recruiting of latest member Angela Seo have meant the band has constantly and continually evolved. The one constant throughout has been the central figure of Jamie Stewart, who was kind enough to talk with Undertheradar's Paul Gallagher from his home in the United States in the rush of preparations before departing for a hectic 3-month long touring schedule that - starting with Australia and New Zealand - will see Xiu Xiu travelling extensively to most corners of the the globe.
Jamie, thanks for taking some time out of your tour preparations. Obviously, you’ve been to New Zealand before – what do you remember of your reception here the last time around?
Oh well it was kind of a long time ago, we were unfortunately only there for like probably only 24-hours or something like that but I seem to remember having a really good time. We played a really small show, but the people there were super nice and Matt Crawley - the person who organized the show - made a point of making sure we were really comfortable and had a good time. I'm really looking forward to coming back.
How is it that Xiu Xiu has changed since you’ve last been to New Zealand – obviously the change of line up with Caralee departing for Cold Cave and Angela coming in, has that made any major impact to the way the band operates?
Oh, well I mean there's a lot less fighting *laughs*. Just so you know, Caralee's also quit Cold Cave as well so I think she quit music altogether. Well yeah Angela's a lot more involved in the day to day things than Caralee ever was which is a great help and a lot more involved in the running of the band. Caralee was a really great person to tour with but didn't really participate in the records and didn't really participate in business all that much, and Angela's pretty deeply involved in that. It's really much more of a collaborative band than it was before.
And Angela's adjusted well to touring and live shows?
Yeah, she took it up really easily. She's traveled a lot so the sort of discomforts of touring, although slightly more than just traveling, she wasn't unfamiliar with it.
Dear God I Hate Myself, there’s obviously some pretty heavy or melodramatic content in there – was there ever really any attempt to balance it with a lighter side?
Not really, I mean the record is a reflection of sad life so it's not really something that exists outside of life. I think it's an attempt to document it.
With the title – Dear God I Hate Myself – is that an admission that you believe in God, do you have faith in something ‘else’, something religious?
Yeah, it's something that I'm generally pretty private about having. I've said in a couple of past interviews that that was, you know, more of a declaration to god and not an exclamation or something that then becomes less private. Um, yes, yes I do - but it's not really something I wish to proselytize about or something like that.
There has definitely been some mixed reaction to the latest videos, particularly around the images of self-induced vomiting in the video for the title track. Were you and Angela surprised by that? (Click HERE to watch the video)
We expected that people would react I think insofar as people would that it's disgusting, and it is. But we were incredibly surprised by how people talked about or accused me of coercing Angela to do it or drugging her or something completely preposterous like that. Angela, it was all her idea and she essentially - as much as one could say that video was directed - directed it. It was essentially about her experience, so I mean besides from appearing in it I didn't really have anything to do with it at all. It's sort of thinly veiled racism on people's part assuming that if it is an Asian person or an Asian woman especially doing something that seems uncomfortable that someone must be forcing her to do it. That she otherwise is not living the cute ideal of Asian-ness so therefore someone must be making her do something awful, that she's not strong enough to decide to do something awful herself. We were really, really surprised at that. It made Angela absolutely fucking crazy that people seemed so distressed especially that she was doing it. I mean, if it was some sort of coked-out white hipster chick that was doing it no one would have said anything.
How do you tend to set about writing music? Do songs appear with spontaneity, or is there a more prolonged construction to them?
It really depends on the song. Some things are just fortunately all there all at once, and then some things take an incredibly long time to piece together and go back to and let gestate for awhile, and you know have a tremendous amount of editing to them. There really isn't any set way to do it. We tend to work on a lot of songs at once, rather than just doing one and completing it and moving onto something else. In some ways that can be really productive, I mean, you're being really productive by getting a lot done at once. But in some ways I think it can prolong a process which sometimes is helped by being done quickly and being done spontaneously, but you know some of our ideas would just be impossible to do quickly. They require a certain amount of I guess, technology for want of a better word, to complete.
How does the mechanics of Xiu Xiu work? Do people like Angela, and Caralee before her, have an active imput to the songwriting process?
Yeah, for sure.
Your infinity with bands like Joy Division and Bauhaus is pretty well-documented, to what extent did / does their music influence your own?
Oh, tremendously. I'm not really sure what else to say other than "a lot" *laughs*. I mean if I'm stuck for feeling in order to be inspired, I may listen to bands that are like them or those bands specifically to sort of be reminded of what music can feel like when it's being done really well like those records were. I've certainly never made anything that's even remotely as good as those records, and I guess it just gives one something to aspire to.
The show earlier this year to cover Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures (1979) alongside Deerhoof – how did that come about, and what did that mean for you as both an artist and a fan?
We did two shows, one in Vienna and one in New York. The one in Vienna came about via this particular festival promoter over there that I've gotten to become friends with, who asked us to a quote unquote special show something outside of just playing our regular set. I was trying to think of something that would be technically possible to do and that I would also find some kind of meaning in. Deerhoof is one of my favourite current living bands, and Joy Division is one of my current favourite non-living bands. So I guess it was an attempt to say thank you to Joy Division for being so inspiring albeit from the past and thank you to Deerhoof for being so inspiring albeit from the present to do something together with that.
With guest appearances on your records – such as Michael Gira (Swans, Angels of Light) on Woman as Lovers – was that orchestrated or controlled entirely by you, or was his input more collaborative and organic?
That one specifically was just my idea. I just sent him an email. We have some mutual friends and I know him a little bit, and I asked him if he'd be interested in doing it and he was most gracious enough to say yes and did a really great job on it.
You do seem to have an ingrained tendency to cover other people’s music – from the Tu Mi Piaci EP to Under Pressure on Woman as Lovers. What drives you to take on their music – is it homage, or the challenge to recreate tracks? What’s the criteria?
It's more of, uh, similarly with the Joy Division show just a way to say thank you to those songs and to those artists. We never really cover anything just for fun or, you know, just because it would be amusing to us to cover that particular song. It's always a song that just really meant something to us. It's never an attempt to put our stamp on it but an attempt to show that we had appreciated what that's meant to us.
Does that apply to the Pussycat Dolls’ ‘Don’t Cha’? What happened with that track? (Click HERE to listen to this track)
Yeah, it's just a totally filthy song *laughs*. Um, I was just really blown away that something so incredibly dirty that was a top ten song *laughs*. I mean I guess I found some meaning in something being so raunchy being so acceptable, you know, in a wide reaching way.
Xiu Xiu obviously doesn’t rest with just covering other people’s music, there’s also collaboration – with the likes of Grouper and Larsen – what is it that drives the move towards working with artists like Liz Harris?
Well we were friends before she started Grouper and I really love the records that she did. We don't anymore, but we used to just live down the street from each other so just out of admiration I was curious as to what we could come up with together. It was really, really enjoyable to work with her - she was super creative and really, really driven to do a good job on it. The same thing with Larsen. We recently did a collaboration record with Jonathan Meiburg from Shearwater and we're doing one now with Eugene Robinson from Oxbow now for pretty much the same reason, just bands that we admire that we think would be exciting to do something with.
A lot of your music has targeted the actions former President Bush while he was in office. Do politics and what you see around you continue to drive or add to the music you create to the same extent?
Oh yeah. Of course, absolutely. I mean the world is probably more sort of bizarrely political now than it probably ever has been, I mean even to a certain extent even more so than during the Bush era. In the Bush era it was, at least in the United States, it was fairly cut and dry as to what was good and what was evil, and now it's a lot more confusing almost. In some ways more interesting and a lot of ways more disturbing too. Yeah, I'm as interested and driven by politics than ever.
Is your music an attempt at catharsis simply for yourself, or are there messages you want to get across to the listener?
Oh, probably neither. I don't really find it particularly cathartic. I mean, I don't really feel better after having done it at all. The personal issues become sort of clarified and I can put that negative energy into something that is not inherently self destructive which is probably what I'd do with those experiences if I didn't have the opportunity to put them into music. That sounds totally heavy and melodramatic but unfortunately it's probably also totally true. But the point of doing them is, as a lot of other bands have done for me and for other people involved in Xiu Xiu, is to try and make music that somebody can get something out of for having listened to it. I'm not saying that it's a totally selfless project because I find it, as I said, it's self-sustaining in terms of my sort of obnoxiously irritating emotional state. But we're not writing the songs just to be self satisfied, I mean the point of writing the songs and the point of trying to do something for this long is to hopefully make something that somebody could attach themselves to and get something from.
There are some pretty evocative themes around sexuality throughout Xiu Xiu’s back catalog; some people who have suffered experiences – around homophobia, or sexual abuse for instance – have been drawn to your albums because they strike a chord. Do you like it – or is it gratifying - that your music has an impact like that?
Oh, I would just hope that anyone could find anything in them at all. I mean, it's not really up to me to determinate what somebody might get out of something that we're working on. And uh, if anyone finds anything in them I find it gratifying.
Technology has afforded musicians whole new horizons in recent years – such as your use of the Nintendo DS for sounds on Dear God I Hate Myself – but also with things like Garageband and the explosion of the internet. Where do you think music as heading technologically in the next couple of years?
Oh, I don't really know if I care *laughs*. I mean I'm not trying to be a dick, but I don't know if I think about it at all. With the Nintendo DS, there really wasn't any idea behind it. It wasn't really implying anything by having used it. We used it because it sounded cool, or we thought it sounded cool. And it was easy to use and super convenient and not something we'd done before so it forces one to write in a different way if you use something that you know you're not familiar with. And it's super convenient too, I mean it's really tiny and you can use it on an aeroplane or on the bus or whatever so it was a way to fill time that otherwise one couldn't really use creatively. It wasn't really like we were using it symbolically or trying to attach ourselves to video game aesthetic. Although we're super interested in video games, it had a lot more to do with that they did a really, really great job on the particular program that we used and it was super, super useful.
Is there a place in the glossy industry magazines like Rolling Stone for a band like Xiu Xiu? I refer to your attempt along with Fucked Up to sue the publication and Camel for using your names in their advertising spreads without asking.
Probably since we tried to sue them, then no there isn't *laughs*!
Do you still feel unfairly or selfishly used by them?
Yeah, absolutely! The whole thing was fucking ridiculous, and I can't believe we lost that case! I mean Rolling Stone and the biggest cigarette maker in the entire world used a bunch of band names to sell cigarettes to people without asking to use their names. It seems so incredibly cut and dry to me what bullshit that is, that I'm floored that we lost that case. However, in some ways politically it makes sense that we lost that case. We basically lost the case under the grounds of free speech, that it was the right of Philip Morris and Rolling Stone to use our band names to sell cigarettes because of free speech. And also, at about the same time the United States Supreme Court declared that corporations could fund political campaigns under the right of free speech. If that goes through - it's being appealed right now - but if that goes through then politics in the United States will be completely destroyed and democracy basically will end in the United States.
What do you think of the raft of newer bands in the States, people in the seemingly resurgent lo-fi or so-called ‘chillwave’ scene that have figured out tape manipulations in their bedrooms and release a bunch of music on blogs online but hardly ever playing shows? Would you say that playing live is an integral part of Xiu Xiu?
Yeah, absolutely. I'm not really sure what to say other than yes, yes it is. It's not really surprising though. In a way it's kind of always been that way. There were tonnes of bands that put out records and never toured, and putting something on a blog is essentially the same as just putting out a record. I don't think it's particularly surprising. It tends to not last if a band does that, I've noticed. I mean, I can't think of a lot of bands that had a tonne of internet hype that didn't go on tour say last year that you really think about right now.
Here in New Zealand every year we have this national music month where usually the same more mainstream bands are paraded in a commercially-driven way as being overseas success stories or industry achievers. Are you a fan of any particular New Zealand music at all?
*Laughs* Yeah, I like the Clean a whole lot but unfortunately other than them I'm not really super familiar with bands from New Zealand. I would certainly like to be but that's probably the one band that I've gotten attached to. What are some other good New Zealand bands that I should know about?
Well there's plenty that you've probably heard about, like the Dead C, the Chills, Chris Knox... Do you know of Pumice, who's also done some stuff with Grouper and is signed to Soft Abuse over there?
Oh yeah! Yeah, that's good music. I didn't know that they're from New Zealand.
What do you think about the idea of a New Zealand music month anyway? It's a bit of an identity crisis, obviously something that you wouldn't have to worry too much about in the United States. But is it something that you'd regard as being a bit pastiche or overcompensation?
Oh no, because it's probably just that New Zealand's a relatively small community of people. And now I live in a small town which is a relatively small community and people basically celebrate the same four or five bands that live in this town. I don't know how it is for you there. I don't really find it abhorrent, I mean I find it a bit dull unfortunately but I think it makes sense. In a geographically small place there's not as much room for expansion or growth. I could certainly understand why you would find it abhorrent because its happening on a national level but yeah I could see why that would be annoying *laughs*.
It's almost the obligatory question, but what are you listening to at the moment that’s getting you excited as a music lover?
Do you know that label Sublime Frequencies? They have this amazing deal where you can basically buy their entire catalog for one low price. So I just bought their entire catalog and I've been listening to that like crazy. Just like recordings from the radio from Algeria or Syria or from Thailand or Burma. Literally recordings off of the radio, or 1970s pop songs from Singapore and field recordings of bugs and things like that all mixed together on the same records and edited in a really very thoughtful and interesting way. I think there's probably like fifty or sixty records, they're kind of put together in similar ways but based on different time periods and different geographies. A lot of this stuff is unlike anything I've ever heard before and it's consistently melting my brain.
You’re going to be seeing a lot of the globe over the next 3-months – are you looking forward to that sort of touring, or does it take its toll?
Yeah, both *laughs*. I certainly completely love playing but touring is pretty exhausting and if it's not going well it can be totally demoralizing. But hopefully it will go well. Unfortunately it's not really like travelling at all. You don't really get to see much. But in many ways if you have one hour to do some touristy sorts of things in New Zealand, somehow because that one hour is so precious we can put a lot more focus and energy into really getting something out of that one hour than one would if you had two weeks to leisurely explore New Zealand. There's pluses and minuses to it.
Alright, I'll let you get back to packing and preparing. Thank you so much for your time, I'm really looking forward to seeing you play.
Thank you for your time too - I really appreciate it. Take care.
Xiu Xiu play two shows this week, with tickets still available:
Strange News and Undertheradar Present….
Xiu Xiu with support from James Duncan and Wilberforces (new addition)
Friday 10th Sept
Whammy Bar, St Kevins Arcade, Krd
$30 / R18 / 9pm
VBC and Undertheradar Present…
Xiu Xiu with support from Siamese (Grayson Gilmour) and Glass Vaults
Saturday 11th Sept
SFBH, Cuba St
$26 / R18/ 9pm