On the Radio in Serbia

An Interview with Xiu Xiu's Jamie Stewart

by Austin L. Ray

The Songwriter Surprises Us By Not Freaking Out the Squares.

Listening to “Clover”, the first track off Xiu Xiu’s recently released fourth album, La Foret, it makes sense why many articles focus solely on the group’s principal songwriter when discussing the band. Jamie Stewart is a dramatic songwriter with definite artistic talent, and a lot of the music he makes comes across in a very personal manner. “Clover” is no exception. Delicate acoustic guitar fights to be heard over the deafening silence, while Stewart emotes in an equally subtle fashion. Setting the mood for the not untypical dramatic flare of La Foret, the song is a beautifully delicate piece. But, as Stewart told PopMatters via e-mail, he’s far from the only one who contributes to Xiu Xiu’s songwriting process.

“Sometimes I will just do everything,” Stewart said. “But lately, it functions in the way that I will start a fragment of a song and everyone will add lots of ideas, usually quickly improvised to hope for some uninhibited playing. It is somewhere between a regular band and a collective in so far as there are a regular group of people who work on things irregularly. Then we will edit what works on the computer. We try to use spontaneous takes and very carefully and pointedly kiss them to death.”

That last description sounds like something you might expect to hear from someone who cites such influences as Joy Division, Bauhaus, Nick Cave, and various other artists that can be classified under the umbrella term “dark”. Stewart and company could easily be added to this category, and much of La Foret only serves to strengthen this case. Case in point—the moment at precisely 1:56 during “Muppet Face”, where inexplicable noise breaks out for about 13 seconds, and then the song resumes normal functioning. But is this type of experimentation purely for the purpose of shock value?

“No, never,” Stewart said. “We are always trying to make the sounds reflect the emotionality of the subject matter. We are never trying to freak out the squares for the sake of doing it.”

As far as Stewart is concerned, you can never push a song too far. In fact, his thinking is the worst thing you can do is “not push it far enough”. From the sound of his band’s back catalogue, this has yet to be a problem. From his distinctive scream to the abrasive electronics that often pepper a Xiu Xiu recording, Stewart rarely lets the proverbial envelope lie without a good shoving.

Xiu Xiu is currently out supporting La Foret on a tour that began on July 17 at the Intonation Festival in Chicago. But don’t think the band has any plans to settle down and relax when the six-week U.S. trek ends.

“We will head home to work on new material for a while,” Stewart said. “Then it’s back to Europe.”

Additionally, Stewart and Co. has some other projects on the horizon, including some collaborative efforts. A 7-inch covers split with Devendra Banhart is in the works for a tentative August release on 5RC. Xiu Xiu will do Banhart’s “Body Breaks” and the freak folk troubadour will present his rendition of the band’s “Support Our Troops Oh! (Black Angels Oh!).”

“In 2003, we did a tour together, both playing solo, and became friends,” Stewart said of the singer-songwriter.

Not content to stop there, the band has at least two more splits on the way, as well as a project that has its roots in Italy. It’s a wonder Stewart has time to keep Xiu Xiu producing at such a prolific rate, considering all the collaborations in store. But as he lists off the things he’s recently done and soon hopes to do, it becomes apparent that this is one musician who works well with a full plate.

“We are also doing splits with Kill Me Tomorrow and Dead Science,” Stewart said. “The Dead Science split features Eugene from Ox Bow on vocals for us, and for them, Shooby Taylor.”

“We also just finished a collaboration record with this band Larsen that was an amazing experience. We recorded in their bleak, concrete studio in Torino for 10 days. We wrote and recorded a song a day and drank a lot of expensive wine.”

Judging from the constant work ethic, it’s no stretch to say that Xiu Xiu is a band that makes music for the sake of making music. In this case, it’s a cliché that rings true. You won’t catch Jamie Stewart or his cohorts on MTV anytime soon. Nor will a Xiu Xiu track likely ever be played on a Clear Channel station. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

“Even if we tried we could not make a commercial sounding record without doing it as a joke, and what a waste of life that would be,” Stewart says. “We are on the radio, but it’s in Serbia.”

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