A Knife in the Sun: An Interview with Xiu Xiu

After over a decade of crafting his visceral avant-pop sound, Xiu Xiu shows no signs of slowing down,
Xiu Xiu
Angel Guts: Red Classroom

Xiu Xiu is not a band forced to reckon with apathy very often.

People react to Xiu Xiu. In the 12 years he’s been making music with Xiu Xiu, Jamie Stewart has become one of the most divisive songwriters in the indie world. Xiu Xiu’s records consistently (and rightfully) earn serious critical acclaim and the band has cultivated one of the most devout fanbases around, but plenty of people still roll their eyes at the very first bar of a Xiu Xiu song. Stewart’s voice — endlessly elastic, impossibly emotive — could be the sticking point, or it could be his fearlessness in writing about sex and violence and shame and other swaths of ugliness, or it could be his ruthlessness in warping his sharp melodies with dissonance and noise.

Xiu Xiu makes music at once explicitly confrontational and invitingly intimate. In the end, your reaction to Stewart’s songs says as much about your own boundaries as it does about his success in probing them. Xiu Xiu’s new record, Angel Guts: Red Classroom, may be the most abrasive in the group’s entire catalog — and, in the type of paradoxical pairings Stewart does best, one of the most beautiful.

Stewart, a hard-touring performer who regularly crisscrosses the country and the globe for months at a time, always surprises with his ability to release solid, engaging records every two years or so. With Angel Guts, the process became somewhat more difficult. As Stewart explains, he’ll usually begin writing the next record “from the minute last one is done.” But with the new album, Stewart says he “pretty quickly wrote one record that wasn’t really up to snuff, and it ended up being a sketch or almost like a workbook. I didn’t realize it until I had about three months before I needed to go into the actual studio with a producer, and I realized about 80% of what I had really sucked.” He scrapped that initial record, and started fresh. “I had to really dig in and do it. For a month of that time, I was in Hamburg, Germany, working on the music for a ballet. So, at night I would work on and off on the Xiu Xiu record.”

Producer John Congleton helped even before Stewart got into the studio — he’d given the songwriter what Stewart calls “a palate” of tones and sounds around which to build the album. Congleton, who also worked on the group’s 2012 record, Always, mentioned to Stewart the potential value in stripping his music down to its bare bones.

Always, which Stewart aptly describes as “super-layered and incredibly orchestrated” served as the antithesis, in a way, of what would become Angel Guts, a record written almost entirely on analog synths and drum machines. Stewart wanted, as he puts it, to remain “stuck within a small group of ideas,” rather than create another lush, dense album. And it works: Angel Guts, for all of its brittle clatter and claustrophobic closeness, manages to sound just as expansive as Always, on its own terms.

Congleton’s influence on Angel Guts was essential, as was Stewart’s relocation back to his home state of California. Though Los Angeles and the Valley have long been central in his songwriting — see “I Luv the Valley OH!”, his single best song — Stewart had been living in the South for much of his career. Angel Guts focuses heavily on Stewart’s new neighborhood of Echo Park and his area’s particular blend of poverty, gentrification, grit, and harsh beauty. “Until recently, Los Angeles was a city that everybody in the world and the country hated,” Stewart says, laughing. “So wherever I went, I felt I had to defend the city. And now, everyone in the world is moving here.”

He says he didn’t realize the full extent of how his move had seeped into his music until his family pointed it out to him upon hearing the new record. Stewart elaborates on his slice of Echo Park, saying, “It’s not a good place on the planet of Earth. It’s an unhappy set of blocks. It’s very beautiful in a car crash sort of way. There’s a lot of hurt and a lot of misery in that area.” This history of pain crops up in songs on Angel Guts, like the suicide pact detailed in “New Life Immigration” and the disillusionment of “EL Naco”.

Stewart seems attuned to the neighborhood’s history of trauma and strife, speaking of it in the same warm, articulate, and wary tone that marked our entire conversation. The way he can simultaneously empathize and evoke the small horrors of a place while praising its redemptive aspects highlights his perceptive, honest nature. “The poverty and the filth there and the density … oddly,” he says, “L.A. is so sunny, and the neighborhood is right by this lake. And then a couple of weeks after I moved here, they pulled a dead body from this lake. So, opposites. It’s confusing — bright colors mixed with garbage.”

This contrast, the beautiful with the horrifying, permeates Xiu Xiu’s music. “California and L.A. are particularly like that,” Stewart says. “You know, people come here from all over the world to make their dreams come true. And maybe 1% do. So the city is filled with a tremendous amount of hope, but also a tremendous amount of desperation and disappointment and rejection and bitterness. Plus, the weather’s really nice.” He laughs again, and there’s his talent for injecting levity into all things leaden.

The darkness in Stewart’s music works because of his willingness to cut the seriousness with those bursts of silliness and absurdity. “All stolen from Morrissey,” he says, deadpan, when asked about that technique. “Sometimes stuff is so shitty that it becomes absurd,” he says. “Outside of music, it’s how I deal with extreme emotional difficulties. My mom and I just talked about this last week. When my dad died, we were at the funeral home, and everybody is sitting around trying to plan the mechanics of the funeral, and because I was under a lot of stress, I kept cracking these really lame jokes. I think a sense of humor toward something awful is a reaction to stress.”

He goes on to give another example: “I worked as a preschool teacher for a long time, and I found that when certain children were in a lot of trouble, they started laughing hysterically. It’s all that your body would do.” Some people might hear a song like “Black Dick” and balk at the notion of its author working with children, but speaking with Stewart shows how shortsighted that reaction would be — this is a man with a shockingly candid, acute sense of his own emotional life, and the way Stewart steadfastly refuses to avoid exploring his own fears and trauma has the effect of sending a palpable sense of empathy radiating outward from him. His records are suffused with it, and it came through even in a brief phone conversation. Who better to care for your kids?

About that sense of avoiding the difficult — in the process of deciding on the setlist for Xiu Xiu’s upcoming tour, Stewart went through the process of reorienting himself with his own 12 year catalog of material. Some songs, he says, “feel very far away,” written about “things I can’t relate to at all or things I have no emotional connection to at all anymore.” He won’t play those songs on tour.

On the other hand, “some of them still smart in certain ways … there was one song that came out in 2003 [on the band’s second LP, A Promise] that I never felt like I could sing live, and my feelings about it changed. And for the first time now, because it has been recontextualized, I feel like I could do it now. And it wouldn’t be acting.” In other words, Stewart needs to feel connected to his songs in order to perform them. He apologizes for potentially sounding self-serious or haughty, and explains: “Something being [emotionally] difficult to play has never been a reason for us not to do it. We would never do it if the emotionality of the song is not present or real at that time. It’s not something we could do. It would be harder to do it if the sense of feeling wasn’t there.” He pauses. “I would rather be dead than do that.”

And that willingness to engage with emotional difficulty is, in the end, why he’s into the second decade of his career now. When asked if he feels like a success, he laughs. “I wish I felt successful,” he says. “I spend a tremendous time feeling like a complete idiot and failure. I think it’s not an uncommon experience.” But, he goes on, “I feel incredibly fortunate to be in a position to make the amount of records we’ve made and to tour like we have. Unfortunately, I’m not the character type to be able to hold onto the good parts. I really ought to be, because we’ve had an astounding amount of good luck compared to most bands in the world.” It is luck, sure, but Xiu Xiu’s longevity is also a testament to Stewart’s talent. If Angel Guts is any indication, we’ll be coming out on the other side of the next decade with another ten years’ worth of invaluable music from Stewart and his band.