Xiu Xiu: The Wavelength Interview

Purveyors of: Unrelenting pop from the void.
File next to: Coil, Scott Walker, Jenny Hval, Grouper, Dominick Fernow
Playing: Red Bull Sound Select showcase @ The Garrison, Thursday June 30. RSVP here for $3 entry!

Xiu Xiu have been in the business of deconstructing and transforming pop structures and beyond for over a decade and a half now. No stranger to experimentation, frontman Jamie Stewart has tirelessly been recording and releasing projects seemingly non-stop over the years, whether he’s recording multiple albums at a time, collaborating around the globe, or making techno for your house plants. Wavelength caught up with Jamie Stewart after a particularly large surge of activity — Xiu Xiu just released their haunting homage to Twin Peaks and are already on the brink of wrapping up a new record. After their planned 2014 tour was cancelled at the last minute, including a scheduled Toronto date, Xiu Xiu have valiantly returned.

You’ve had the chance to work with a really diverse range of artists from all sorts of disciplines over the years. What would you say has been the most humbling or unexpected door that touring has opened up for you?

I don’t mean for this to be overly sentimental or clichéd, but honestly the most humbling thing has been having the opportunity to meet people from so many walks of life, from different parts of the world, and in such varying states of disarray or focus. I am not a social person in any way, but while touring one is exposed to humanity in a fairly unguarded, inescapable and open way. As I spend the majority of my time alone, it reminds me that my fellow earthlings are wonderful, intense and endlessly beautiful.

The recently released Twin Peaks material came about as a commission for the David Lynch retrospective at GOMA (Gallery of Modern Art) in Brisbane, Australia. You’ve said in the past that a lot of your covers of existing music are not so much re-imaginings or re-interpretations as they are “thank-you’s” to the original material. How did you go about taking on such a beloved and evocative soundtrack, and what sort of challenges did you face in constructing such an immense “thank-you?”

It was as one would expect incredibly daunting. The music is perfect, and as noted, well-known and rabidly loved. But it is rabidly loved by everyone in the band too, so that helped us overcome our nervousness to a degree.

We sat around a table and had long discussions about which songs we liked the most, which ones we thought we could play, what the instrumentation would be, which elements of the timbres to copy, which to explode, and voted to play them as if they were from the netherworld fuzz pedal of Bob.

Because the sounds of the songs are so evocative, we did take great care in coming to terms with that we could not play them as they were recorded. It is not who we are and it is not what we learned as players from Twin Peaks. We tried to make sounds that were like what Twin Peaks made us, not like what Twin Peaks already was. It seemed more in the spirit of the show to go beyond what has already occurred. It was a more sincere thank-you.

For the same David Lynch retrospective exhibition, you collaborated with kindred spirit Lawrence English (Room40) as HEXA for a beautifully noisy performance in which you explored the physicality of sound and the idea of “the body as the ear.” Could you tell me how that project came about and how you chose to approach some of the ideas behind that performance? Has that project since informed or changed how you consider the physical nature of sound in your work as Xiu Xiu?

Lawrence and I are old friend and have been wanting to do a collaboration for ever. As he lives in Australia and I live in the USA, we are rather far away from each other. This was a chance to do something together that we both felt strongly about. Since then, we have started a band together called HEXA and will be releasing an album this fall. I would not say this project has anything to do with Xiu Xiu. HEXA is its own world (I hope).

There seems to be a lot of crossover with film and your music — you’ve played field recordings alongside 16mm films, named your album Angel Guts: Red Classroom after an obscure Japanese erotic noir movie, and your music videos always have a strong cinematic sensibility to them. Are there any particular films that have had a meaningful impact on you personally that have inspired or affected your artistic output in some way?

Oh that would be a LONG list. A few stand outs are: Cyclo, My Own Private Idaho, Mulholland Drive, The Insect Woman, George Washington, Gate of Flesh, Santa Sangre, Even Dwarves Started Small, Madeinusa and Shoah.

For your music videos, you’ve had quite a diverse range of directors and visual artists take on the music of Xiu Xiu (Diego Barrera [above], David Horvitz), and you’ve personally taken on the director role a few times. How do you choose to work with the visual artists and directors that you do, and how do you approach handing off and balancing creative freedom while being sure the video delivers the intended Xiu Xiu experience (if such a thing exists)?

Unless I am making one myself I never have anything to do with them. Several of the more well known ones are not even official videos. Generally I will ask someone who has done other work that I have liked if they would like to do one, or someone I have never met before will ask to do one, and 99% of the time I say do whatever you want. That usually leads to something much more interesting the dumb ideas of my own that I am so bored of. Also people tend to do crazier things when there is no direction.

It is nice not be in control. Sometime this leads to a bad video but most time this leads to something very surprising.

You’ve mentioned before that bands you’ve toured with have always complimented Xiu Xiu on how focused and emotionally invested the audiences of your shows can be. Do you find that having the feedback of an audience that’s consistently willing to be immersed and challenged has given you and the band a unique space to grow and perhaps give more of yourselves in your performances?

When you are playing and you can feel that what you are trying to do has a resonance in the room and for the people in the room, it becomes effortless. You are not even there anymore. I think this is a common experience for people who play a lot. When the people at the show and the band are connected, it is like a dream that you have very little to do with. The muse is in charge of everyone in the room and it is a privilege be in her hands.

With your 2014 album Angel Guts, you’ve mentioned that a lot of that material came from stripping things down and limiting yourself to using mostly analog equipment, working within your imposed limitations. When starting new material, do you define the limitations from the beginning of a project or do the rules and restrictions come about naturally? How much of the album / writing process is deliberate from the start and how much of it comes from building on slow-burning structures that gradually take shape?

We are finishing a new record this month and I tried very hard to find a box for it to be in, the same way we did with Angel Guts. But I could not think of one. It was unnerving at first as I enjoyed working in a box, but maybe the new box was about trying to find a box, not finding one, but continuing to record? I would not stand on that box to install a lamp, but so far I am happy with the new record (today).

With rare exception, records for us are about an attempt at inertia, open hearts, and trying to think as little as possible. Listen, feel, improvise, then refine. Do that over and over. We try and try to just move forward and allow for accidents, chaos, luck and insanity to determine the result. We do not and cannot always work in a feral state like this for technical reasons, but the most interesting ideas certainly come from it.

Not too long ago, you self-released loads of material from the vaults on Bandcamp and you’ve since been using the platform to put out small-scale / limited cassette tape releases. As a band that started releasing music around the beginning of the millennium, you’ve seen many platforms come and go in a short period of time. What’s your relationship with digital platforms and why do you still choose to put out cassette tapes and other physical relics in an era of instant access?

The Internet is so boring I cannot think of anything I would like to talk about less.

Music is a magnificent part of life and getting to make it is how I persist at all.

One of your most recent tape releases is a “cassette of analog minimal techno to play for your plants.” I’m really curious how this project came to be. Now that a few months have passed since its release, have you gotten any feedback on how the tape has affected the house plants of those who bought the tape?

Sadly, I have not heard from anyone. I wish I did a better job on it. I have never tried to make that kind of music before and I think I learned a lot from having done. I like the book a lot though.

One of my closest friends, Denise Schatz, is an artist and has a publishing company. We have done a few collaborations in the past. We both have a lot of house plants. She recommended we do a book and tape about and for the plants.

Plants make you high, techno is great when you are high. Plants must be bored being stationary most of the time. Techno is also to facilitate movement.

I wanted to touch on some of the pop sensibilities that are core to your work and ask what the notion of pop means to you today. How has your personal definition and understanding of pop expanded or changed for you since you started recording as Xiu Xiu?

I try not to think about how I used to think about things or how I used to do them in comparison with how I do them now. Moving forward is more important to me.

Pop today is, I think, a song with a melody, a beat and a chorus. A song that one can follow but that hopefully can also go somewhere unexpected. It does not really matter though. Trying to be good at music and be honest when you are doing it matters. This is making me sound like a jerk but it is true.

You’ve recorded covers of Queen to Bauhaus to Rihanna. Is there anything at all on the radio at the moment that might one day get the Xiu Xiu treatment?

On classical radio they play Mozart’s Turkish march a lot. We just did a cover of that.

— Interview by Johan Seaton