Jamie Stewart: The Sent Down Boy
Rob yaks with Jamie Stewart of Xiu Xiu
By Rob Cohen, 8:51AM, Mon. May. 14, 2012
In the decade since Xiu Xiu released their first album Jamie Stewart and co. have churned out a bounty of ridiculous, fractured rock. If the title to their new album, Always, is any indication, fans can look forward to more endearing, harrowing histrionics. In anticipation of their upcoming Austin show, I chatted with Jamie over the phone.
On the morning of April 30, before the passing of Amendment 1 in North Carolina, we spoke of bad tattoos, gross strip clubs, and more.
Austin Chronicle: I recently read your piece in the Huffington Post about bi life in North Carolina. What kind of response have you gotten locally, if any? It's only been about three months, but is it any better?
Jamie Stewart: Oh... um, you know, after I wrote it, I went on tour, and I don't really go out much or look at the Internet that often. I got a few e-mails from people who felt the same way, and the usual people calling me a jerk. My interactions with the town are on the thin side. There might have been some reaction to it but not that I was particularly aware of. I will say that in my particular small town there is relatively big support for repealing an attempt to ban gay marriage in the state (Amendment 1). Around town you see a lot of signs and people wearing buttons. So I will say in that way it seems slightly better. I doubt it's that way around the rest of the state.
AC: Speaking of which, what do you think of this It Gets Better business?
JS: Well, I think conceptually it's fantastic. There is a gigantic difference between high school and being out of it in terms of how people deal with you if you're queer. The way that someone who is 16 may hassle you will almost never happen when you're 25. There may be some random insane person who fucks with you, but there's not going to be an institution of like 50 football players who fuck with you every single day. When you're a younger person, it can be incredibly difficult to understand that because you have not had any experience outside of that, so it's hard to believe.
AC: Was that your high school experience?
JS: Actually, I didn't have that bad a time in high school. A little bit, but people didn't really fuck with me that much. I think I was just such a weirdo that people basically ignored me. But I did see a lot of kids having the shit beat out of them on a regular basis. Fortunately [laughs], from the time I was a little kid to the end of high school, I took martial arts. It never lead me to fight anybody, but I think it did give me a little bit of a crazy eye. Not that it's a solution for everybody. I think it made me look just crazy enough that people left me alone. Basically everybody left me alone. It was a pretty lonely time for me. Being a teenager sucks. It's a terrible, terrible, terrible time to be alive. I'm surprised that anyone survives it.
AC: One of my favorite things about your music is how it's hard to discern how you created it. Can you let us in on your process?
JS: It always depends. Like a lot of songwriters, I have a little notebook, and I just write down a musical phrase that pops in my head and then make a really quick recording so I don't forget it. Then, I usually build on it from there. I've always been pretty obsessed with collecting instruments and effects pedals. I have a gigantic pile of somewhat unusual instruments. Some things are toys, effects pedals from small manufacturers, a gigantic pile of gongs and bells. A lot of the sounds are acoustic sounds, and we'll process them on the computer with Pro Tools. We generally take a lot of time to trying to create sounds we haven't used before. I was an engineer before I got into songwriting, so the actual manufacturing, if you will, of sounds is interesting to me.
AC: Did you have any musical training growing up?
JS: Not really. I took some bass lessons a few times when I was 14. I took one or two classes at community college. My dad was a musician, and my uncle was a musician. They didn't really show me anything but there were always instruments and lots of talk about music around the house. It was in the air when I was growing up.
AC: Where does the album title come from?
JS: It's from my brother. When his family was falling apart, he sent me that Erasure song "Always," which is really far away from his general musical taste, so I was surprised that he liked that song. Even on the Erasure fence, somehow I had never heard this particular song. My brother and I are real close, and I was incredibly worried about him. I found myself driving around in the country one day listening to that song over and over again, trying to sing along. I found myself breaking down crying trying to sing it. The title came from that song, from that moment and concern about my brother. The tattoo on the album cover is actually my brother's tattoo. He got the album title tattooed on his leg. He's a designer, and he did the cover. I thought he did a really great job on it.
AC: Where do you see your band going, and how long do you want to make records?
JS: Oh, I don't have any idea. Hopefully just being able to do what we've been doing: make records and continue to tour. I certainly hope if we start to be terrible, that we quit before we suck. I hope I'm aware of it. If it becomes apparent the music doesn't really have anything, hopefully I'll stop. If it seems like there is still something there, I'll do it for as long as I can.
AC: I've interviewed Greg Saunier of Deerhoof who produced your record. How did you hook up with him?
JS: Xiu Xiu had a show coming up and a friend of mine had given me a cassette of their second record Holdypaws and I had never heard anything like it before. It completely blew my mind and changed the way I thought about what music could be. I asked them to play the show with us, and they very sweetly agreed, even though we hadn't met before and had just become friends. I have tremendous admiration for him as a guy and a musician.
AC: What music are you listening to right now?
JS: Let's see. I got a compilation of vogue-ing music, like from the Seventies to the early-Nineties, a particular kind of club music from that space and that time. I got a record of Scott Walker singing Jacques Brel songs. A lot of Persian classical music; some Morton Feldman. I don't usually listen to a lot of different things, I listen to a small number of things really obsessively. I've been listening to Suicide like crazy lately.
AC: What is your preferred medium for listening to music?
JS: Mostly I buy CD's and listen to them in the car or put them on my iPod. I certainly prefer how vinyl sounds, but because I travel a lot, it's not necessarily super convenient.
AC: Do you enjoy visiting Austin?
JS: You know, aside from playing there a million times, I've never really had a chance to hang out much. Usually we play and then have to leave immediately. Usually I just try to get some sleep. We used to go out a lot more, but I don't drink on tour anymore, so unfortunately, although I think we play a lot better than we used to, touring is a lot less fun. I got a tattoo there a long time ago, so I remember that [laughs].
AC: What was the tattoo of?
JS: It was the name of someone who I was dating, I got it on my wrist but things...
AC: You did not!
JS: I've done it more than once, believe it or not. It ended up not working out, so I had to get it covered up. I just got something on top of it, can't see it anymore but it's there, which is fine. I have another one on my shoulder I had to get a tattoo over.
AC: I'm like the only person in Austin without one.
JS: Avoid it if you can. At this point it's more interesting not to have one.
You know, one night in 2008, we went to one of the skeeziest strip clubs that I've ever seen in my entire life, and the woman there was dancing to Nirvana's "Rape Me," so that was a pretty jarring Austin memory.
Check Xiu Xiu out in Marfa, June 5 and in Austin, June 6 at Mohawk. Here's Xiu Xiu's latest video for their new single "Honeysuckle."