Wondering, Maybe: An Interview With Jamie Stewart of Xiu Xiu
"Okay, we'll just go forth and not think about it at all. Hold the hand of the musical universe and see where she takes us."
"The idea of evil manifesting itself in some sort of tangible, specific, physical way weighs on my mind constantly," Xiu Xiu's Jamie Stewart says. In the Trump era, millions of us share Stewart's sentiment more strongly than ever, as the world reels at the willful cruelty of a coterie of rich, soft-bellied, red-faced white men. Of course, much of the world has been reeling at the cruelty of rich white men ever since the "invention" of such men, or at least since the invention of capital and of boats.
Stewart, founder and sole permanent member of Xiu Xiu, has made a career of engaging with evil. In one sense, Xiu Xiu's catalog serves as a catalog of evils, observed and often directly experienced by Stewart before being shaped into music sometimes caustic, sometimes fragile, and always inimitable. "And, evil propels my mind," he says, finishing his sentence. In that statement, he's acknowledging a belief in evil as a spiritual force, which belies his greater struggle with a belief in the non-material.
About his belief in platonic forms of good and evil, he says, "It's obviously fraught with enormous political complexities and horrors, but for whatever reason, despite all rationality, I cannot shake the idea that for me, it is something very real. I don't think there's any one answer. I think religion is something that possibly is true and at the same time possibly isn't. I think that's what's behind my constant exploration."
Stewart is alluding to his work's consistent appraisal -- and interrogation -- of human suffering. It takes an extraordinary strength, as many of us are discovering, to will oneself to focus on cruelty, on pain and suffering, for extended periods of time without looking away. Stewart, always modest and even self-effacing in conversation, would likely never see his music as evidence of that strength, but Xiu Xiu's devout following recognizes it as exactly that.
FORGET, Xiu Xiu's 14th studio album, sees Stewart's gaze as unwavering as ever, with songs suggesting violence, death, struggle -- all cut through with his signature, and often overlooked, deadpan humor. If the album returns to some of Stewart's most reliable interests, FORGET approaches them in a distinct way, especially when compared to Xiu Xiu's most recent record, 2014's Angel Guts: Red Classroom. For one, Stewart's approach to writing lyrics has changed dramatically.
"On every other record," he explains, "each song is about something very specific and pointed, and to some degree narrative, about some real event that has happened, a terrestrial event. This one, although the emotions of all the songs are based in a very definite reality, each of them is much more about some unnameable, unconscious event." Compare a FORGET track like the evocative, imagistic "Petite" to an older Xiu Xiu song like "Suha", with its character-driven sense of drama, and the contrast becomes clear.
Both songs hit hard, as Stewart makes a smooth adjustment to his new creative process. He makes the break sound permanent, speaking about his former tendency to write about concrete events in his songs: "I think my capacity to do that vanished almost immediately after the last record. I'm very interested in exploring what kind of emotional impact these songs can possibly reveal, but in terms of describing specific events, I think that's gone from my consciousness."
Another difference between Angel Guts: Red Classroom and FORGET becomes startlingly clear even in the first few seconds of listening. Stewart has rediscovered the guitar, and FORGET's hook-laden, often lush arrangements stand in stark contrast to its predecessor's purposefully limited palate of brittle analog synths. Angel Guts may be the darkest record in Xiu Xiu's catalog, which is saying something. FORGET may be, in terms of melody and tone, the band's most pop-forward release since 2010's mid-career classic, Dear God, I Hate Myself.
Though the album sounds little like Angel Guts, FORGET owes much its sound to its predecessor. Xiu Xiu wrote Angel Guts under a strict set of guidelines, deliberately restricting the instrumental palate allowed onto the record. "We had done Angel Guts with incredibly specific parameters," Stewart explains, "and everybody really liked working that way, so we wanted to try it again, with different parameters."
This process didn't take. "A lot of time passed -- a year-and-a-half, and we hadn't written any songs that could work. It got to be where we were panicking a little ... so, instead of having parameters, we eventually said, 'Okay, we'll just go forth and not think about it at all. Hold the hand of the musical universe and see where she takes us,'" he laughs. "Things came together very quickly. It might have been because we'd tried so many things that didn't work, that it was clear what we didn't want to do. We felt free enough to proceed. The pump was primed."
Stewart had "gotten tired of guitar around the time of Angel Guts", but a subsequent project sparked his renewed interest. In 2016, Xiu Xiu released Xiu Xiu Plays the Music of Twin Peaks, the band's take on the soundtrack of David Lynch's cult-favorite television show. "When we started doing the Twin Peaks shows, I fell in love with the guitar again, a nerdy, rekindled love affair," Stewart says. "I got a new guitar. I'd been playing the same one for ten years -- a new love interest," he says, laughing. "The Twin Peaks stuff is pretty fun. Playing regular Xiu Xiu shows is not fun at all, because of what the subject matter tends to be. We're fans of Twin Peaks, so we're just entering into this fantasy world that we've been deeply moved by since we were teenagers."
The foray into that fantasy world reinvigorated Stewart, if the Twin Peaks live shows were any measure, performing the album at New York City's venerable arts space The Kitchen, his talents at soloing and riffing were on full display. (When I mention the word shred to describe his axe-mastery at these shows, Stewart breaks into good-hearted laughter. For the record, he's thrilled about the upcoming revival of the TV show, saying he has "every confidence it will be extraordinary" and pointing to David Lynch's continued output of film, photography, and music as evidence of the director's deep reserves of creativity.) He carried that warm energy over to FORGET, and the gorgeous guitar-pop of "Wondering", for instance, reaps the benefits.
Stewart also enlisted an army of collaborators in shaping the album. Enyce Smith, a legend in Los Angeles's Banjee Ball community, opens FORGET with a texture never before heard on a Xiu Xiu album, his staccato vocals coming across almost like rapping. Stewart explains Banjee Ball as "a combo of dance night, a fashion show, performance art, and a pageant at the same time, where people come up with astoundingly creative costumes and perform astoundingly creative dance numbers." Between these performances, Smith offers commentary in "one of the most remarkable, relentless, beautifully aggressive voices I've ever heard."
Drawn to his voice, Stewart cold-called Smith and asked him if he'd be interested in recording together. "He showed up at my house, and he was in and out-the-door in ten minutes," Stewart says, laughing in wonder. "Everything he did as all a first take. A profound, remarkable professional. An incredible voice: it's not rapping, but a lot of the music that goes on in Banjee Ball is in the dancehall/hip-hop crossover space. More like a super-intense chanting, versus rapping. If you're in L.A., don't miss it."
In addition to Deerhoof's Greg Saunier, Swans guitar legend Kristof Hahn, producer John Congleton, and longtime bandmate Angela Seo, FORGET features celebrated minimalist composer Charlemagne Palestine on the carillon. The carillon is enormous instrument comprised of over 20 bells of varying sizes,that Palestine "amazingly, somehow has in his apartment". It also includes a spoken word piece read by one of Stewart's longtime personal heroes, genre-smashing artist Vaginal Davis.
Working with Davis clearly moved him, and Stewart explains her radical influence. "When I was 12 or 13, Vaginal Davis really changed my life, in terms of revealing to me the cross-sections between masculinity and femininity, queer identity and queer politics, punk rock and performance art. She was gracious enough to lend her sonorous speaking voice to read a poem on the last piece, it closes the record. She did a fantastic job." That song, "Faith, Torn Apart", features most of the collaborations listed above, and the song's story embodies Stewart's approach to life, the fearlessness described in the opening moments of this piece.
"In L.A., where I live," he says, "there's a lot of underage prostitution, and there's a website called Backpage that's notorious for assisting in this prostitution of very, very young girls. As part of an art project and part of an attempt to educate myself a bit to be more spiritually empathetic -- certainly in some inconsistent way, but -- I spent time looking at the site, and I'd collect photos and report those of very young girls. Later, I realized I had collected a ton of these photos -- they're not pornographic, just headshots of people between ten-and-17-years old, styled to look older but clearly quite young -- very disturbing. So, I looked at all those photos and wrote a poem. I'd look at a child, write one line, sort of a first impression. Then, I edited that down to something more succinct. Vaginal Davis is reading the poem that came from that exercise."
The poem, which you'll need to listen to on "Faith, Torn Apart" to hear, features a litany of fictional, matter-of-fact statements made in the first-person, spoken in the anonymous voices of the girls in those photographs. They combine to form something deeply discomfiting, extraordinarily humane in its evocation of these young girls' oppression, alternately violent and innocent in its language. It is, to put it another way, a work by Jamie Stewart. Davis's voice lends weight to the piece, one that eventually -- as it should -- accrues enough heft to feel crushing.
But for all the violence, implicit and explicit, of his music, Stewart doesn't set out to cause his listeners emotional distress for its own sake. Xiu Xiu is a political band, yes, but not a band of simple-minded shock artists. When you give Xiu Xiu's music, including FORGET, the level of attention and consideration that Stewart gives to the world around him, you'll come away bruised and winded but better for it. To truly know the world is to suffer alongside it, someone once said, probably.
Stewart, certainly someone with ample experience fighting back against oppressive systems, has some advice for our fraught times. He suggests the "most effective, most combative, and the least sexy way" to combat the forces of bigotry overrunning our current politics is to support organizations like, as he mentions, Planned Parenthood, the ACLU, and Black Lives Matter. He admits to moments of frustration, of anger, of wanting to "take a knife and scratch into the paint" a fairly unprintable message when seeing a truck in a Sedona parking lot with a violent, pro-gun bumper sticker. He didn't do that. Rather, and take this as speculation from a longtime fan, he's likely to keep his eyes open, staring at what we'd prefer not to see. In this world, that's something to be praised, perhaps with its own religious devotion.