To be honest, I was a little nervous about talking to Jamie Stewart.
It’s not enough to say that I am a long-time fan. Nor is it enough to say that I have looked to Xiu Xiu to justify many of the risky and potentially fatal artistic choices I’ve made in my life. In a world where prepackaged, conformist EDM dominates the mainstream airwaves, the existence and success of Jamie Stewart and his unsettling, confrontational noise pop has been like a lifeline to me and many other struggling artists – a glimmer of hope that pure artistic expression can find a way to be heard and appreciated.
The man himself, should you have the chance to meet him, will imbue you with a different kind of hope, however. A gregarious, thoughtful, and witty conversationalist, Jamie presents the figure of a person who has maintained a clear sense of identity and a keen grasp on reality throughout his journey as a popular artist. I expected to meet a musician embattled, perhaps even bruised by years of pushing against industry scum and garbage culture.
But rest assured, you’ll find no cynicism here. Jamie brushes the bullshit off with an ease and clearheadedness that reveals the secret to his success. On a balmy day in March, the Xiu Xiu van was cruising down a California highway, when I received a phone call from an unknown number.
Hello. This is Jamie from Xiu Xiu.
Oh, hi Jamie! How’s the drive going?
It is long. It has entered into the quasi-hallucinatory stage, but we only have maybe a couple more hours to go. We’re driving from Portland to Los Angeles. It’s, like, six hours or something.
Let’s jump right into it then. How did you get started in music?
It’s kind of a long arc. My dad and my uncle were both musicians – relatively successful ones – so when I was a kid, music was kind of always around and something that was relatively acceptable to pursue. I did not, unlike my uncle or my dad, have any natural talent for it. Although I was interested in it, it was obvious to my parents when I reached the age at which they became successful that I should probably consider alternative trajectories. But I think I am much more driven than talented.
So you think you had a disadvantage?
No, it’s not a disadvantage… well, I guess maybe. I did have to work harder than a lot of friends of mine who were incredibly, incredibly, incredibly good.
But that said, the best musician I know does not consider himself naturally talented either; he just works his ass off. I just feel that with hard work and dedication, one can get oneself to a comfortable space, but that’s it. My dad was relatively supportive in so far as he would periodically give me pieces of music equipment that made it possible for me to go on sonic explorations, and when I was like 15 or something, he bought me a drum machine. I think he, being a record producer, was always trying to figure out what a musician’s strengths could possibly be, and he realized that playing bass and songwriting might not have been mine. But he thought that I could potentially come up with some interesting stuff on the drum machine.
I really felt an affinity for that thing over all the other musical equipment I used. It’s still the thing I enjoy the most: playing the drum machine. But before that, I was in every band I could possibly be in. At one point, I was playing in a Motown cover band, a dub band, and a kind of punk rock band. In one week, I got fired from all three of them for different reasons, and a friend of mine who was producing at the time told me I should quit fucking around and start my own band. I consider Xiu Xiu a band which evolved from a few other experiments. There was one guy who was in the first band, Cory McCullough; he and I started Xiu Xiu together in 2002.
I’ve been a fan of Xiu Xiu for a long time, but I have to say that many folks give me the side eye when they hear me listening to a record like Knife Play. After I posted a Spotify link to “Ian Curtis Wishlist,” people have asked me, “Are you okay?” It seems like people have this impression of Xiu Xiu as being dark or weird or frightening. Do you see Xiu Xiu that way?
People are entitled to their opinions. Like every conceivable experience that a human being could have from every conceivable angle, people interpret the music in a way that makes sense to them. Some people see us that way and some people see us as a kind of regular-ish pop band.
I don’t personally see Xiu Xiu through any lens other than what I am up to in life. Certainly, a lot of the subject matter is on the dark side, and I think that’s probably not completely out of nowhere, but I don’t really care. In terms of the people who interpret my music as weird, I see it as a pleasure that they interpret it at all. I appreciate that people even give it a minute to think about.
Why are people so sensitive to darkness and terror in their music? It seems like they don’t mind it so much in their books or their films, but they always want their music cheery and uptempo. If you can watch a horror film, why not listen to horror pop?
Well, people are… unexplainable! Incoherence essentially defines humanity.
Ostensibly, I love incredibly frightening music, but I can’t stand horror movies. The producer we’ve been working with on the next record, John Congleton, is a gigantic horror fan, and he’s always baffled by the fact that I am interested in making the most horrendous, horrifying, gut wrenching sounds I could possibly make, but I can barely make it through “Rosemary’s Baby”. Delightfully, there’s no explaining humanity.
Speaking of potentially inexplicable things, where does your compulsion to make art come from?
Well, since I was a very young child, I’ve always been drawn to one creative pursuit or another. I couldn’t tell you why. That’s just the way God made me.
I feel extraordinarily fortunate that for the majority of my adulthood, I have been able to make records that get released with some amount of support and that I get to tour all the time. Considering the way my mind seems to be wired, I think it’s at least at this point in my life what I’m supposed to be doing. I’ve been incredibly, incredibly lucky that I’m able to do this, but as to why I couldn’t tell you.
One can think about it and try to analyze it I suppose, but as for me there doesn’t seem to be any point. I think with music it’s about minimizing the amount of thinking that goes on. Focusing on the feeling is time better spent.
What role does queerness play in Xiu Xiu?
I would not say that Xiu Xiu is or is not a queer band. We are a band that deals a lot with our lives and the lives of the people around us, and a lot of those people in and out of the band are queer. The point of the band is to explore existence, and some of that existence has to do with being queer. In a way, that makes it a queer band. But unlike some bands that exist purely on a queer agenda (and good for them), part of what we’re interested in has to do with queerness and part of what we’re interested in does not have to do with queerness.
Would you say that art lends itself toward queer exploration?
Certainly. This is an obvious and dumb thing to say but clearly a lot of people who are queer are in art. For unexplainable reasons and probably quite explainable reasons, none of which I’m certain about… well… I’m sure some shithead right wingers would come up with some Eugenics answer as to why. But I suspect people who are interested in dealing with reality would probably just say that people do what they want to do and that’s great.
The intersection of queerness and the arts can be mutually supportive in a way that makes sense for each other. As to why that is, I don’t know, and I don’t really care. I’m just glad that it’s there. I’m glad that the relationship has been as fruitful as it has for 5000 years of human art.
I’ve often wondered if I became an artist because of my queer tendencies or if art queered me.
I mean, what I’m about to say is fairly obvious and kind of dumb, and it might be wrong, but in order to be involved in any creative pursuits, one has to have an open mind in order to be receptive to stimuli and process it in a particular way that could be meaningful for someone else. In order to be queer now, one has to be open minded because one has to be accepting of one’s fellow humans.
So, maybe that’s why those two things go together. Or maybe there’s some sort of deeper cosmic, cellular reason. Maybe queer people are just fuckin’ cooler! I don’t know, I don’t think it fucking matters. I think what matters is working hard to make something pure and meaningful.
Alright, I’m going to leave you with a softball question here.
My favorite ice cream flavor is…
Ok, sure, what’s your favorite flavor of ice cream?
I am a vegan but my commitment stops when it comes to dessert, which is a little embarrassing to say. All of my friends know this about me, but I’ve never said it on the record.
My favorite ice cream flavor is probably most of them.
You know, it used to be fucking horrendous to be a vegan on tour. It was about halfway through us being a touring band that the internet was everywhere. Before that, you would basically go to Subway all the fucking time and just get a cheese sandwich without cheese. But now you just use your phone and find the Whole Foods nearby; it’s a billion times easier.
I’m always amazed at how my bandmate Leah finds such good vegan food on tour.
Vegans are smart! They know how to do it!
Queer vegans: thoughtful… intelligent… sensitive… caring about others… blah, blah, blah…