The Unexpected Lightness of Art Rock's Sad Bastards
It’s freezing cold in Greensboro, NC, yet Xiu Xiu’s frontman, Jamie Stewart, is all smiles when he helps me into the band’s touring van. His cheerful countenance is markedly different than the picture that crowns the band’s latest release, Dear God I Hate Myself.
But there are many things about Stewart that defy what one might expect. Rather than the histrionics of his singing, he speaks in a quiet, polite, and thoughtful tone. And while his stage performance often looks like a reckoning with internal drama, he is eager to connect, though cautious about what he reveals. Perhaps the biggest surprise is the warm laugh that punctuates most of his sentences, which often end in a self-effacing jab.
Dear God, I Hate Myself
(Kill Rock Stars; US: 23 Feb 2010; UK: 15 Feb 2010)
Regarding Dear God, Stewart refers to the album as a collection of songs, but laughs off that it’s “debatable” whether it sounds like an album or not. He does acknowledge that the band was faced with new obstacles and opportunities during its recording: “Well, procedurally we did some things that were different. We had a lot more time to do it than we’ve ever had before. So that enabled us to try and fail a lot more than normal. We recorded as many songs that are not on the record as they’ve since been erased since they totally sucked. And that’s never been done before. Basically every song we do in a year ends up on the record. We did a bunch of real clunkers. I don’t know if it was because I knew we had more time to do it and my filter was not set as high or if it was just a bad section of writing. So picking and choosing from things was definitely new. Angela joined the band, which was new. And we just used some different equipment.”
At the mention of her name, keyboardist Angela Seo perks up her ears from the front seat, smiling broadly as Stewart talks about her: “She made it [the band] a trillion times better. It’s a lot less stressful (“for you, maybe,” Angela adds). We’ve been friends for years. She’s great. She’s hard-working and she plays out of the deepness of her heart and is technically really gifted and has a cool sense of aesthetic and knows how to use insane amounts of distortion and have it sound great.”
“I only use one pedal, and that’s the distortion pedal,” Seo agrees.
For all his candor and humor, Stewart is guarded about the topics he’ll discuss fully. He won’t admit which song from Dear God is his favorite because he doesn’t want “the other songs to feel jealous. I do have a favorite but I’ll never reveal it.” Similarly, Stewart is reluctant to give the full back-story behind most songs: “I always feel a little hesitant to explain what any particular song is about just because they’re not for us. If I say it’s about apples and somebody else thinks it’s about bananas, when they find out it’s about apples, then the banana song that was so banana-ish to them is slightly less banana-like and it’s not the right song for them anymore.”
Stewart admits he does like talking about “The Retaliation of Fabrizio Palumbo” since it’s a song dedicated to a certain special individual. Palumbo, a member of the bands Larsen (with whom Xiu Xiu released an album) and (r), embodies many qualities Stewart admires. “The song is partially about him as a person and partially about an ideal, the way he lives his life that I think is very important to me. The song [is called a retaliation because it is] about, as your life goes on, trying to hold onto a punk rock or art rock or art-based ethic, even when you stop being 18 years old, and sometimes finding that embarrassing and sometimes finding that inspiring and sometimes finding that it really weighs you down because you feel like you’ve done enough and you’re just a loser and you don’t know what else to do with your life, and sometimes finding it exciting that you haven’t given up on something that is very important to you. It’s a retaliation against one’s own insecurity about that but also social pressure to stop being obsessed with art or stop trying to live that art-rock based life. Which is something he has done to a wonderful, wonderful degree,” Stewart says, adding that there is so much pink imagery in the song simply because “Fabrizio loves pink.”
Stewart and Seo also don’t shy away from discussing the controversial title track. “Just in interviews, a lot of people have been asking what the deal with it is. Is it a joke, is it a direct address, is it an exclamation? A few people seem to think that it’s sort of stupid. Not the song but the topic, a few people seem to think is out of bounds,” Stewart says.
“One of the interesting parts is that when you get responses the most vocal responses you get are not the most positive. People speak the loudest when they have something negative to say. The response has been mixed as far as some people saying ‘Why are you saying this, why are you bringing out this very negative part about yourself?’ At the same time a lot of people have been saying that they completely understand, which is really good and positive. What we really wanted to do is have some people out there who got the title and had some kind of relation to it,” Seo says.
Stewart agrees that the song isn’t meant to be a joke but does contain laughable elements. ” The idea is not funny. It’s really miserable but while it’s not a joke, I do not think that it’s without a sense of humor just for being so fucking ridiculous. Just that feeling is so ridiculous that the only thing you can do is laugh at your own internal destruction. It’s not bad; it’s just so insanely awful that it’s kind of funny.”
That kind of humor is not uncommon in Xiu Xiu’s music, which often contains similar, nuanced playfulness. Asked where it comes from, Stewart is quick to take a jab at himself. “I’m sort of a dumbass. It’s probably initially really inspired by the aforementioned and oft-mentioned Morrissey in that a lot of his songs are incredibly depressing but really funny - just the way that he’ll put words together and something incredibly sad, but it will be so pointed that it takes it out of the realm of normal lyricism and therefore becomes amusing. While still being totally serious [it] is still amusing. So I probably when we started, I was at the time, and still am, incredibly influenced by his lyrics. And then, like I said before, I’m just a fucking wiseass. I like cats a lot too, so that’ll bring it out of you,” he adds.
Stewart looks away, distracted for a moment. “That person just crashed into a parked car,” he points out.
“Probably coming to the show. I’ll just wag my finger at them,” Seo says.
An unrelated fire truck happens by. “But, see, the fire department came within one second. That’s incredible. I could just stab myself in the face and not worry about it ‘cause they’ll be here immediately,” Stewart muses.
A few moments later, the guilty driver passes by the van. Seo opens her door. “Hey, I saw you guys hit that parked car,” she says to their immediate denial. “I saw it. I saw you,” she maintains. The driver and his friends suddenly recognize her and ask her if the merch table is set up yet. “Yeah, it is,” Seo says. “Don’t steal anything.” She shuts the door to laughter from the backseat.
The focus quickly switches back to the music. The band attempts to think of artists they respect but could never sound like, citing musicians as diverse as Bach, Deerhoof, and Diamanda Galas in their answer. “I don’t think we sound like the Smiths, which are my favorite band. I am influenced by Morrissey’s singing, but as a band I don’t think we sound anything like them. I don’t know that there’s a lot of bands that we sound like that I’m super into. I’m usually probably just embarrassed by them,” Stewart admits.
What about non-musical artists that influence them? Stewart recalls one of his favorite writers: “I’m sort of actually embarrassed by this because I feel like I went through this phase already. About three years ago, I got obsessed with this Japanese writer Yukio Mishima and just started reading him again with even more crazy fervor. It’s only sort of embarrassing because I’m just a little bit too old to be enchanted by it. If this had been ten years ago, I wouldn’t feel like such a chump, he laughs. Him in particular, his tone is probably a little bit more appropriate for somebody a little younger. His writing is so beautiful, though. I find myself gasping quite frequently because it’s so astonishing.”
Neither of them mention any visual artists, but looking at Xiu Xiu albums proves that the visual element is important to the band. Stewart gives most of the credit for this to his brother: “My brother has designed a bunch of [the albums] so it’s mostly coming from him. There’s certainly a piece that’s meant to relate to the music. He’ll always do something that will be not like anything I ever would have thought of myself but will be spot-on, which is very very exciting to see something that is completely out of the realm of our normal process but seems completely perfect for it. Brothers! Brothers!”
On that note, the topic changes to their tour, which is less than an hour from beginning. Greensboro is their first stop of many, many days on the road. Does the band have any tour rituals? Stewart says they do but are boring and secret. So, he doesn’t require everybody to fellate him before each show? Stewart gets an excited look on his face. “That has actually happened before, one time, in 1999!” he crows. I’m impressed that he remembers the year. “Wouldn’t you? I don’t get a blowjob onstage but once in my life.”
“Maybe we should reinstate blowjobs,” Seo adds.
“Open the door and hassle those guys,” Stewart instructs. “Blowjobs! Blowjobs!”
“I saw you hit that parked car,” Seo reprises.
“I saw you sucking that guy’s dick. In the parked car,” Stewart riffs.
Suddenly, it’s harder than ever to believe that Xiu Xiu is as morose as their music would have you believe.
- Multiple songs MySpace