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Cover Feature—Xiu Xiu

Cover Feature—Xiu Xiu

Xiu Xiu makes music that makes people pay attention.

Beginning with 2002’s Knife Play, the band has, as a rule, delved into a new flavor with each subsequent release. Often billed as ‘experimental,’ Xiu Xiu really should rather be called ‘exploratory,’ given the breadth and nature of their influences: noise rock, punk, post-punk—roll the dice and pick a genre; chances are, it’s on an album, and they’ve pushed it to the limit. 

Although the group has taken many forms over the course of its existence, the exception has been Xiu Xiu’s founding member and creative bastion, Jamie Stewart. In 2009, Stewat’s roommate and creative co-conspirator, Angela Seo, joined to form the core duo. Still, one of the hallmarks of Xiu Xiu is collaboration, whether that takes the shape of producing, composing or performing across its robust discography. Some of the best and most memorable moments jump out when a new voice or instrumentalist enters the fray.

In early 2021—after a year of whatever 2020 was—Xiu Xiu released OH NO, a 15 track record featuring collaborators on each song. It could be described as an album of duets, yet somehow, that term carries a bit too much of a classical connotation to really describe what takes place. Unfolding across a true amalgam of sonic landscapes, Stewart is joined by the likes of Sharon Van Etten, longtime production and creative collaborator Greg Saunier (Deerhoof), Owen PallettTwin Shadow, and Liars, to name just a few. 

These “duets” take many forms. Van Etten and Stewart take turns trading lines about a deteriorating relationship over a spare but shimmery backdrop in “Sad Mezcalita” marked by long synth chords and pitched drums. “Saint Dymphna,” featuring Twin Shadows, unfolds as an updated ballad about St. Dymphna, a 15th-century patroness of abuse victims and the mentally ill. It is a touching track—one that is indicative of much of the lyrical content across the album, looking for heroes or begging for accountability from its subjects. A cover of The Cure’s”‘One Hundred Years” brings an industrialized and somehow-edgier tone to a classic track. It emphasizes a pounding beat, driven by aggressive, hammering punctuations. It overwhelms the senses, and the instrumentals pull Stewart and Chelsea Wolfe’s vocals down into a tarry pit of languishing sounds. “Rumpus Room” truly bangs around, taking the bizarre (for Xiu Xiu) designation of a foot-tapper and something you’d put on to get bodies moving. 

OH NO is an exceedingly comprehensive and impeccably produced record. No sonic stone remains unturned, and the guest appearances bring alternating currents of energy and creativity to the tracks. Stewart called the record a “thank you” to those who helped get him through a difficult time, but rather than sounding like a purge, it feels complex, multi-layered, and, ultimately, inviting.

Ahead of Xiu Xiu’s upcoming tour (and feature at Treefort Music Fest), ELEVEN spoke with Stewart over the phone, touching on some of the themes explored on the album, including the challenges and benefits of recording a (mostly) fully remote record, and the pleasant surprises of working with the creative counterparts across OH NO.         

Photo by: Julia Brokaw

ELEVEN: It sounds like you’ve been busy—are you mostly getting ready for the tour?

Jamie Stewart: Yeah, just practicing a lot—trying to do some extra work. I ended up having to do it as a solo thing, so I’m trying to figure out ways to make that be more than just singing and guitar. I’m doing, I think, three songs from OH NO (2021)—I’m playing an opening set, so it’s not a full-length set.

I just have to approach them almost as covers, come up with versions that I can do as a single person. We’ve always done fairly different live versions than recorded versions at shows, sometimes by necessity—like technical necessity—and sometimes it is, indeed, a challenge. Fortunately, it’s a creative challenge and, invariably, I learn something from having done it. It is a lot of work, but it’s always worth it, and I always get something out of having done it.

11: The last year has been wild, but concerts are picking back up. Are you looking forward to getting back out on tour, or are you enjoying the break from being on the road?

JS: So to be honest, I’m looking forward to playing—definitely. I’m not entirely convinced that it’s a good idea to start concerts again. My bandmate [Angela Seo] works in public health; she can’t tour right now, for obvious reasons—she’s incredibly busy. She has just kind of thrown her hands up at the whole situation and basically just said, “If people don’t want to get vaccinated and they get sick, then at this point, the government has done everything it conceivably can to keep people safe. If they don’t want to be safe, then there’s really nothing else we could conceivably do.”

My biggest hesitation was basically participating in something that could be dangerous for the attendees, but once you put it like that, it’s a dark, but probably realistic view of how to deal with it. At one point, life has to go on, I suppose. But I don’t know. I don’t. I am not a hundred percent sold on whether or not this is a good idea.

11: I want to key in a little bit on some of the mental health components that you talked about on OH NO, because it sounded like an album of reckoning. There may be a lot of different threads tugged on, but it sounded like a vehicle for you to work through things. Can you talk about that, especially during a time of a global mental health challenge?

JS: It is, collectively, an extraordinary time in human history for the human mind to maintain itself in any kind of functional way. The record was more a matter of essentially giving meaning to some mental health issues and giving some meaning to depression, and—pardon the overuse of this word: anguish and pain. Giving some place to be other than just stamping on my heart or my head. 

It doesn’t really go away for having actually done it, but it sort of gives its existence kind of a parallel to my actual life. The record itself is not so much about coming to terms with mental health issues, but the concept of doing it as a duet was a way to say, “Thank you” to a number of people who were incredibly thoughtful and incredibly generous when I was going through a difficult time. The record itself is not a way to say thank you, but doing duets was a symbol of my gratitude for them having taken such good care of me when I was in a very negative and dark place.

11: Every single song features a duet with someone different. As you were working, did they meet you in a similar headspace, or were you looking for them to bring their own spin or their own perspective, their own energy, to the project, and then work through the tracks from there?

JS: Oh yeah. In every case, when we’ve collaborated with somebody—which we’ve done quite a bit of—it has always been the hope that they would be themselves with it. I mean, the reason that we would ask someone to be on a record is because they are inherently a fantastic, brilliant creative and genuinely beautiful artist. For us to try and squish what they do into the box of what Xiu Xiu is would be completely disrespectful to their life of work.

It was really the most exciting part, giving some people that I knew really well a specific song because I knew their singing, and we had a personal relationship at some point. There are a few people on the record who I still have never met in person, so I maybe asked them about a couple of things that they might be interested in and they would pick one. It was always an extraordinary surprise to see how people put themselves into it. Being surprised in a creative situation is about the most delightful aspect of being involved in any sort of creative situation at all in the first place.

11: It sounded like there were two or three tracks that you actually got to record in person. Obviously, the remote recording process with multiple people is not ideal, but was there anything surprising about the process that stood out?

JS: Oh yeah. The nice part about recording with somebody is basically just that you get to hang out with someone who you think is cool. The advantages are more of a social thing. People respond differently to recording with a group of people around versus recording remotely and sending things in. Largely, maybe entirely, everybody who did send things in without Angela or I having been there, those were the times where people went the most far out. I think it’s because I wasn’t sitting there looking at them, and there was a sort of subconscious desire—which exists in everybody—to make the person you’re working with happy. As much as one would try to avoid it, I mean, that’s just a part of human nature. Because of that, some people send in like ten tracks of just weird vocal noises—a lot of harmonies, which I didn’t expect.

Twin Shadow added the saxophone, which I didn’t ask for, but it totally made the entire song. Being surprised is the best part of doing something like this. When you’re working with somebody in a room, you are surprised in the exact same moment that they’re working with you. There’s a little bit of anticipation, being surprised when you send something in, wait for a few weeks, and you’ve been wondering about how it’s going to turn out and when you get it back…  I really love recording in person, but I don’t see recording at a distance as necessarily a detriment. This is a different type of process, but it’s generally a different type of result.

Photo by: Julia Brokaw

11: Over the last year—with everyone holed up at home—in some of your relationships with other musicians, or artists, have you found them to be taking the opportunity to be more exploratory, more experimental, or discovering a different relationship with their art? 

JS: I can certainly see how a lot of people would respond to the situation in this way. Most of the people that I’m friends with or that I work with are all fairly experimental or far-reaching and trying to do a lot of different things all the time anyway. I mean, there’s no way that somebody could not react to the situation that we have been in. People I stay close to would tend to go down divergent paths at anytime anyway, so as far as my own personal circle, I’m not sure, but I can’t imagine it didn’t affect a lot of people in the way that one would suppose.

11: Was there anyone that you were hoping to work with on the album but that just didn’t work out because of timing or something else?

JS: Oh yeah, there were as many people who said yes as who said no, or were not able to do it. It’s a tremendous thing to ask for somebody to do. It’s a huge favor. Singing is incredibly personal and can be an exhausting act. I’m extraordinarily grateful to everybody who took the time to do it, and in no way resentful for people who didn’t have the time or weren’t interested. It’s probably the biggest pain in the ass you could request of somebody who you are friends with. 

11: Was it fulfilling for you to make an album featuring so many different artists?

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JS: It was. It was, to me, an emotionally very important and moving record to have gotten to be a part of because so many different people who I have a lot of respect for put a lot of heart into it. 

11: Let’s talk about some of your other creative projects. I know you were working on a film score, and you also put out a three-part audio book last year. Are there any other projects you’re particularly excited about coming up?

JS: The book got picked up by literary agents, so they actually asked me to take the audio book down and I’m finishing rewrites on it now. I think the goal is to turn it into a physical book. I mean, becoming an author is more of an interesting exploration for me than really being my life’s goal. Making records is my life’s goal, but I feel very fortunate to have gotten to explore the processes with legitimate editors, to say the least. 

Angela and I are doing music for an arts collective in Berlin called CHEAP. We’re doing a kind of performance film with them in New York at the beginning of next month—we’ve done a lot of projects with them. I played in another band called HEXA and we just had a record out. Angela is working on a new solo record. And we have the subscription thing going regularly, so keeping that up and just getting ready for this tour. In addition to writing a new record right now, those are the main things. 

11: How has the subscription program played out for you? There have been a lot of singular or unique performance offerings from artists over the last year and half, but I’m curious how Xiu Xiu’s program has gone.

JS: It’s been pretty wonderful, actually. Touring is not going to be the same for us probably for a couple of years. I mean, it’s basically how I’ve made a living for the past 20 years. There’s a tremendous amount of backup—there are a lot of problems, and the amount of shows that are safe to do is obviously quite diminished. It can’t really happen in Europe so much. So, we’re going to keep it up, but not really for financial reasons. I think even if touring becomes regular again, we’re going to keep it up. The people who seem into it seem quite enthusiastic about it. It’s a little bit sentimental, but it’s just more of an opportunity to get to make something and have it go directly to somebody.

The process of—in one month—having to record an experimental piece, do a small solo version and then make 50 samples and record a quality solo record, then make a bunch of postcards as almost a cyclical part of every month has actually really kind of increased my productivity generally with other things. And, you know, I’ve learned a tremendous amount. I was always kind of like a working-class engineer—not great, not bad—but having to record so much, twice as much in a year as I normally would. has really increased my engineering chops quite a bit. It’s also delightful to get to explore other people’s fantastic music in a deep way, but in a quick way, because there’s not a lot of time to do it. 

11: Speaking of covers, I want to ask you about “One Hundred Years” on OH NO. How did you determine the direction that you wanted to go from an instrumental perspective? Did you go in knowing that you were going to put a little bit more of an industrial edge to it, or did that happen organically as you started to work through it?

JS: I don’t know that there’s really any way to make that song be darker. I’m not saying—and this might come off as somewhat self-aggrandizing, but I don’t mean it to be—we don’t really put a lot of conscious thought into any songs that we do. A lot of it is—it’s very corny, but very true—just trying to get out of the way of the goddess of music and see what she wants something to turn into. I know that was the case with that song.

I love that song. I mean, I’ve been a Cure fan since I was like 12. They’ve been one of my favorite bands for almost my entire life. Even though we’ve covered a trillion other post-punk bands, The Cure somehow was one that we hadn’t gotten around to doing. So there was a fair amount of emotional pressure to do it, to really commit to it. It’s certainly more industrial and probably sonically harder than the other one. I think we just tried to approach it from an honorific perspective. 

Anyway, I mean, there’s no way that we could do a better version than the original. We certainly weren’t trying to say to the world, “This is Xiu Xiu’s take on this, one of the pillars of goth music.” It was more about trying to show what we have learned from that song and trying to put across our appreciation for The Cure for having the foresight, ability and generosity to dig into darkness in such a direct way.

11: Do you think that it’s possible right now for artists to make apolitical art right? The reason I ask that is because artists have a more powerful platform than ever before, and many have tried to use that influence to help make substantial social changes. I’m curious what your take is, especially with some of the themes on OH NO.

JS: I mean, there are two songs on it that are baldly about environmentalism, so to me it is not apolitical. I mean, one song is about how much plants hate human beings, and, you know, suicide potentially being a viable solution to problems of environmentalism. It’s a crucial, seminal time in the further existence and democracy and the livability of this planet. Commenting on that, I mean, it is impossible to not have that be present in one’s mind. Music can be about that, but it could also be about the history of shoes in medieval England, you know? Certainly, it’s possible, but it is also obviously understandable and more timely than probably at any other point in human history to be commenting on things like that.