The Darker Impulses of the Universe: A Conversation with Jamie Stewart of Xiu Xiu

by Nick Hanover

Xiu Xiu have been a major force in the more abstract realm of indie rock for close to two decades now, releasing uncompromising albums paradoxically full of both brutal and twee (and occasionally scatological) imagery that matches the violent and sweet music. Their latest is Girl with Basket of Fruit, a particularly explosive work that feels especially fitting for our apocalyptic era. We spoke with Xiu Xiu leader Jamie Stewart about the band’s longevity, its history of mindblowing covers, Stewart’s family musical legacy and much more just before their show tonight at Mohawk.

Nick Hanover for Ovrld: I moved to Austin from the Pacific Northwest, so my introduction to your music was through bands like Parenthetical Girls, the Dead Science and that whole avant noise pop scene…

Jamie Stewart of Xiu Xiu: The early 2000’s, baby! [laughs]

Ovrld: [laughs] It feels like Xiu Xiu is the last remaining band in that scene. Why do you think this project has had such longevity?

JS: Oh, probably a greater sense of worthlessness than those guys. I don’t think I can do anything else.

Ovrld: [laughs] That’s an interesting way to put it. Something else that’s interesting to me about Xiu Xiu and your sound, and I was noticing this while doing research for this interview, is that it feels like the music you were creating back then, with its noisy, violent electronic aggression mixed with surprising melodicism, is something we’re just now catching up to culturally.

In their review of your new album, Pitchfork compared your sound to Death Grips, even though your project has existed far longer. Do you get the sense that culture at large is getting closer to embracing your aesthetic now?

JS: I don’t mean this in a flippant way at all, but I don’t really care. Maybe? Maybe not? [laughs] I think from the beginning, and hopefully in perpetuity, we’ll just keep our head down and keep chugging forward and not be super aware of what’s going on around us [laughs].

I mean, I have been hearing more and more people over the past few years citing Xiu Xiu as an influence and obviously that is extraordinarily gratifying and flattering. But as to whether or not the greater aesthetic zeitgeist is “catching up to what we’re doing,” it doesn’t really matter. People are going to do what they’re going to do and hopefully it’s incredibly good and will mean something to the people who listen to it. That’s really all I care about.

Ovrld: You’ve been working a lot recently with Thor Harris, who is an iconic figure in Austin but is also connected to Swans who feel like one your closest relatives in a musical sense. How did that come together?

JS: We met in 2007, he was playing in the band Shearwater at the time and we did a US tour together and we just hit it off and became friends. I don’t think we ever hung out socially. And then in 2012 through 2014, Xiu Xiu opened for Swans, so we got to tour together again. As is often the case with something like that, we became really close. So he played on a record of ours called Angel Guts: Red Classroom that came out in 2014.

Sort of by attrition and by regular association, we became colleagues and he was gracious enough to join Xiu Xiu. We’re incredibly fortunate to get to play with such an extraordinary artist. Christopher Pravdica, who’s also in Swans, also joined the band and is equally wonderful and creative. For me, as a fan of both of them, I can say it’s a truly superlative line-up due to those guys.

Ovrld: Yeah, Thor is always such an interesting figure, and they both bring so much to the table.

Something I really enjoy about the new album Girl with Basket of Fruit is that it sounds like it brings together a lot of different styles you’ve explored over the years while expanding on that sound. In particular, you integrate Haitian drumming on top of the rhythms you more frequently utilize, and that reminded me of your early experiments with gamelan music, which makes me feel like you write your music in a percussive style. Is that accurate?

JS: I would probably agree with that. I never really thought about it like that before but that definitely makes sense. The first instrument that I became deeply acquainted with was a drum machine. My dad bought me one when I was fifteen.

Rhythmically oriented music, like Motown, was a lot of what I grew up listening to. So anything with a beat– either an abstract one or a metered beat– was a deep part of my musical foundation. Very frequently my songs will start with a drum machine part or some kind of rhythmic part. Particularly on this new record. So yeah, I would agree.

And also, as you mentioned, gamelan music, although incredibly melodic, is largely rhythmically based and played almost entirely on percussion instruments. That has been a huge influence on us. So, short answer, yes [laughs].

Ovrld: I think for new audiences who may not have been aware of your work from the early 2000s the entry point to Xiu Xiu was that amazing ZZ Top cover you did for the AV Club, which you more or less reinvented as a drum focused song instead of a guitar song. I remember friends hitting me up and sending that video to ask if I had heard of you, it was great to see people click with your approach to it.

JS: That’s good to know, it was fun to play it. I had not really been a fan of ZZ Top before that but now I realize their mastery. I had no idea [laughs].

Ovrld: You have a long history with unexpected covers where you remain faithful to the intent while making the song unmistakably yours. The one that comes to mind for me and I think a lot of other fans is of course your cover of Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car.” What draws you to cover certain songs? And how do you strike that balance of remaining faithful while also making it a truly Xiu Xiu work?

JS: Our approach to every cover is for it to be an attempt to say thank you for that song. There are always songs that have meant a lot to us as fans. There has never been anything that we’ve covered where we’ve thought “It will be funny if we do this,” or we could do it better or that it would be cool or prescient or something if we covered it. It’s always an attempt to be gracious to the original song. I think possibly because of that, the original intent of the song and then whatever it is that we do, both of those things support each other. We’re not trying to reinvent the song. Or to reinvent it for its own sake. Any reinvention would come as a nod to what we have learned from it.

Ovrld: I know your dad was a pop producer himself, and had worked on albums like Billy Joel’s The Piano Man. Most listeners would likely describe your band as abrasive or experimental but I’ve always felt like there was significant pop DNA to it. Do you think that comes from your family history?

JS: My dad exposed me to superlative records at a very early age. At a time when most of my friends were listening to kind of shitty ‘80s hair metal, he was giving me Prince records and Marvin Gaye records and Talking Heads records. So I think what I got from him was a broad sense of what really, for lack of a better description, “quality” music is. Not in the sense of being trendy but as an appreciation of what has depth.

He actually really pushed me to go crazy with music. Of the two pieces of musical advice he gave me, one of them was to always take it too far. So any sort of inclination towards “classic” songwriting that Xiu Xiu might have didn’t really come from him as much as I think the crazier things we attempt to do may have come from him. Or at least trying to be unafraid of the crazier things there are to explore in music.

He told me that one of his big regrets in being involved in music was feeling like he had to make things “nice.” He wished that when he was more involved in music he had gone a little further afield.

Ovrld: That’s really interesting. I think for a lot of people, that’s what they gravitate towards in your music, too, that willingness you have to “take it too far,” as your father put it, in regards to everything from the imagery to the performance to the music itself.

One of my favorite quotes about Xiu Xiu comes from Brian Howe at Pitchfork, who said that “a great Xiu Xiu song is like someone hurting himself right in front of you.” That stood out to me because there is this real raw quality to your music and a vulnerability to it. How are you able to do that in a way that still feels honest but doesn’t take too much out of you? How do you keep yourself sane, in other words?

JS: [laughs] I would never say it doesn’t take too much out of me.

Ovrld: [laughs] Fair enough.

JS: But why else do it, in anything, if you’re not going to push yourself as far as you can push yourself? That seems to be the point of existing.

Ovrld: That connects to something I wanted to ask you about critical reception to your music. I’ve noticed that a lot of…

JS: It’s a very mixed critical response [laughs]

Ovrld: Yeah, there’s no real middle ground with your music.

JS: [laughs] Yeah…

Ovrld: But one of the things that stood out to me was that critics who don’t come from a queer background tend to view your performance style as, to use terms I’ve seen regularly, “affected,” or “histrionic,” or “self-indulgent” and “pretentious.” But for people in the queer community it doesn’t seem to come across that way, it feels honest. Do you get the sense that people outside the community just don’t get what you’re doing?

JS: Maybe? I don’t disagree with you at all. I think there are aspects of it that in queer land seem very normal. And there are the prescient and obvious things we are referencing, or gestures and ways of moving, or types of singing or musical and physical juxtapositions. But, and not to be dismissive, I don’t really care [laughs].

I think the only thing I like about getting slightly older is giving less of a fuck about what any critic has to say. And because of that, I think it doesn’t really matter. I hope very much that the people this music is made for get something from it and people who aren’t made for it can listen to whatever the fuck they feel like listening to.

Ovrld: [laughs] That’s a great way of putting it. To change things up a bit, on the new album, not that anyone would ever accuse you of not being confrontational, you seem especially politically confrontational. I’m specifically thinking of your portrayal of the story of Mary Turner on it.

I wanted to talk to you first about how you were drawn to that incident and why you specifically wanted to tell that story on this album.

JS: I don’t have a long personal history with it, on the 100th anniversary of her and her family’s murder, I just happened to read a news story about it. I think like most people, though not all people, I was unaware of the insanity around her murder and the people who murdered her. I can’t really describe how deeply disturbed I was by it.

Basically, she was a very young woman who, after a lynch mob murdered her husband for no reason, confronted the lynch mob and they murdered her and cut out her baby from her body and stomped it to death. There were no repercussions whatsoever for the mob. There are photos of the people standing around smiling. It seemed like something that could happen today. It didn’t seem that far away in history even though it happened a hundred years ago.

The initial incident was obviously extraordinarily disturbing, but that it didn’t seem particularly removed or far away at all made it impossible not to think about it in a deeper way. Or in a longer term way through the creation of that song.

Ovrld: On the subject of imagery and meaning, in the liner notes for the album on Bandcamp, you offer up what seem to be multiple interpretations of what you mean with the title Girl with Basket of Fruit. I don’t know that I’ve seen an artist do that before, preemptively listing off some of the things one might read into the title of a work before they’re even consuming the work. You liken it to Caravaggio, and the strange fruit implications of the Mary Turner murder, and many other disparate things. Were these on your mind while you were creating the album?

JS: Oh, yeah, absolutely. It’s an attempt to notate the origins of the title and what a lot of the songs are. All of those things and others factor into the composition of the lyrics.

Ovrld: The photo in the press materials even includes a whole book shelf of further reading.

JS: [laughs] Yeah, with this album, more so than other things we’ve done, external aesthetic influences were very purposefully and pointedly borrowed from.

Ovrld: You told PopMatters in an interview that with this album you were “trying not to force things in a direction.” Does that mean with prior releases you felt more constrained than you were with this?

JS: Yeah, but purposefully so. The point of doing it was to work with really specific constraints. Musically there were more constraints with this one but lyrically, on every other record, there have been very specific guidelines for what each song should be about. This one was all about letting the subconscious in and letting the dream genie drive it to wherever it was going to go.

Ovrld: What was that experience like in comparison to putting more constraints on yourself before?

JS: In some ways, lyrically, it was the most difficult one to write from an intellectual standpoint, because there wasn’t a familiar path to take. Not to say it was a path that was new to music, that approach has existed forever. But it was new to us.

I found it to be like a circle. In the past, because the songs were always about something specific, and very frequently quoting people, they kind of wrote themselves. It was just a matter of narrating them in a clear way. But because this one was much more about the lower brain stem and the lower depths of hell, there weren’t any guidelines for them other than to just listen to the darker impulses of the universe. That sounds extraordinarily pretentious but that’s just, y’know, who I am [laughs]

Ovrld: [laughs] I think that makes sense though. It definitely feels like it’s not necessarily a depressing album but dark and brutal.

JS: Yeah, I wouldn’t disagree with that. I don’t have any problem with being depressing, either. It’s not as much of sad sack release as I think some others in the past have been. But yeah, to me it does not shy away from brutality.

Ovrld: Are there albums in your catalog where you feel your relationship with the material has drastically changed or maybe even reversed?

JS: Oh yeah, of course. As time passes, I think everybody’s relationship with things change. I can probably be more specific about it with particular songs than entire records, but yeah, absolutely, my relationship with them changes all the time

Ovrld: I feel like your relationship to guitar has changed quite a bit, at least view from the view of a listener. It sounds more rugged, lately, if that makes sense.

JS: I’ve been practicing a lot more [laughs]. That could be it. I mean, I’m still pretty much a hack. But I’m a better hack now than I used to be.

Ovrld: You’ve been touring for a few months now, too, in support of this album, right?

JS: Yeah, we toured in Europe for about six weeks and we start our tour in the US in May.

Ovrld: What is that transition like, going from a European tour to the US? I’ve heard from a lot of touring bands that Europe tends to be more hospitable.

JS: Not necessarily, there’s plusses and minuses to both. And they’re all practical. You can’t really compare one show in the world to anywhere else, there’s just so many variables. It’s more just the practical aspects of it.

In Europe, it is traditional for the promoter to handle your hotel and lodging for you, whereas that doesn’t happen in the United States, usually. The weather tends to be nicer in Europe than it is in the United States. Regionally, the food can be better, but the food can also be worse. The roads are much better in the United States. It’s also easier to find something to eat. Stuff is open all the time here and it’s not in Europe. And like if you need to find a guitar store or just pick up some cough drops, you can do that in five seconds here whereas in Europe you might be shit out of luck.

Basically, different things are easier in different spots. But the shows are always a crapshoot. Audiences are great and audiences are shitty all over the world. You just gotta go for it every night and hope you’re lucky.

Ovrld: Historically, how has Austin been for you?

JS: You know, we haven’t played there since…2012? I think I did a solo show there with Swans. But the whole band hasn’t been there forever. Frankly, I don’t remember [laughs].

Ovrld: [laughs] Well, it couldn’t have been that bad then, right?

JS: Oh, yeah, I’m sure if it was awful I’d remember it [laughs]. No, I’m looking forward to it, I’m looking forward to starting there. Especially since it’s Thor’s home territory.

Ovrld: I figured that would probably give it a little bit of a boost.

JS: I hope so.

Xiu Xiu play Mohawk tonight, May 1st, with Thor & Friends.

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Nick Hanover got his degree from Disneyland, but he’s the last of the secret agents and he’s your man. Which is to say you can find his particular style of espionage here at Ovrld as well as Loser City, where he mostly writes about comics. You can also flip through his archives at  Comics Bulletin, which he is formerly the Co-Managing Editor of, and Spectrum Culture, where he contributed literally hundreds of pieces for a few years. Or if you feel particularly adventurous, you can always witness his odd .gif battles with his friends and enemies on twitter: @Nick_Hanover