Xiu Xiu frontman Jamie Stewart talks controversies, video games and the dreaded notion of hobbies.
Jamie Stewart is an intimidating man. As the only constant member of Xiu Xiu he’s the person behind numerous confessional self-deprecating records that meld electronic quirks with dark lyricism. On the phone with me he’s quick to the point, shies away from analysis and not up for any chit chat. Returning to Australia on the back of this year’s record, Dear God I Hate Myself, will see Xiu Xiu playing shows for a record that came after an arduously long recording process and almost didn’t happen at all.
“We actually made a record before that one [Dear God] which was so terrible, that we basically erased it and started over, so it took a little longer than usual. It [the first version] was a train wreck.”
Instead, Xiu Xiu released the melancholic yet uplifting electronic oddity of Dear God, most of which was recorded and programmed on a Nintendo DS. Certainly not the regular studio equipment, and unexpected considering the quality of the record, one has to question where the inspiration comes from to utilise a gaming device as a musical instrument.
“There’s a game for it that’s a pretty good sequencer and drum machine, so it’s not like I had any kind of super incredible Nintendo hacking skills or anything. It came mostly just from being utilitarian, obviously it’s really tiny and you can use it on an airplane or when you’re taking a walk, and it actually sounds pretty good, so it mostly came from it being incredibly useful in of itself and I found myself getting a little bit addicted to it and ended up writing on it even when I was at home and had access to all my other stuff.
In some ways it’s really sophisticated and in other ways it’s incredibly limited, a lot of people always say this, but sometimes limitations can force you out of ways that you would normally do things and help you to be creative in different ways so I appreciated that about it.”
Not that Xiu Xiu are known for doing anything normally; having switched lineups multiple times since their inception in 2002, the band currently officially consists of Stewart and multi-instrumentalist Angela Seo. It was one of Seo’s ideas that landed the pair in hot water recently, with the video of the record’s title track, Dear God I Hate Myself, causing controversy and no shortage of outrage. The three minute clip depicts Seo and Stewart side by side against a wall, with Stewart eating as Seo self-induces vomiting. Comments from bloggers, critics and the general internet community have varied from the notion that Stewart and Seo condone self-harm and bulimia to the suggestion that Stewart was forcing Seo’s behaviour in an imperialistically outdated question of racial power. Needless to say, Stewart was less than impressed and his response is sharp and no nonsense.
“We obviously figured some people would be grossed out by it but we didn’t really expect people to make these totally bizarre assertions. Angela actually did the entire video, the whole thing was her idea. She edited and directed it.”
Controversial video depictions aside, Xiu Xiu have been better known for the deeply personal and affecting nature of their music. Stewart bares his soul in songs, often to the point of embarrassment; the title of the latest record alone holds testament to that, as it is neither sarcastic nor ironic in its meaning. Song titles range from Chocolate Makes You Happy to This Too Shall Pass Away (For Freddy), and Stewart has tackled everything from social and cultural issues to US politics in previous albums such as La Foret and Fag Patrol. His lyrics are often nestled in an electronic jungle of noises, blips and beeps, but when heard, they speak to listeners on a profound level. His way with words is undeniable, and asking about his literary aspirations outside of songs provides an interesting response.
“This is sort of ridiculous but I write haikus a lot, I’ve had probably about a hundred of them published, which I guess working on songs a lot where you’re frequently fitting words into a melody which is a rhythm anyway, it has a set number of syllables, working with haikus, which have a set number of syllables also, I think its pretty easy for me to do. Well not easy, but natural I suppose.”
Don’t expect a Stewart compendium of haikus anytime soon though, as he takes it all rather lightly.
“I sort of do them almost as a respite from my quote unquote serious work, ie, Xiu Xiu. People ask me to do them for journals and things like that periodically, and I really enjoy doing them and they’re a lot more for spontaneous enjoyment I suppose, whereas with Xiu Xiu I am attempting to deal with that on a much deeper level. I think if I started getting serious about haikus I wouldn’t enjoy them so much. They’re almost, and this is a terrible, terrible word to use, but a hobby, I guess.”
Though Stewart’s written words, haiku or otherwise, tend to give voice to the darker side of his personality, his music is often, by contrast, overtly ebullient and optimistic. A mere glance at Dear God I Hate Myself proves this very fact, as the climatic This Too Shall Pass Away (For Freddy) sees Stewart calling upon a friend to resist the urge to sink into depression whilst bells chime and Mario Bros style sounds crash and tangle in the background. Stewart claims that his lyrics are ‘never fictitious’ and if not based on his own personal experiences, are taken from the lives of his friends and family. Pointing out the contradictions between his music and lyrical content, one has to wonder whether this is a deliberate move on Stewart’s part.
“Not in any sort of conscious way, I think I shy away from being analytical about how anything turns out and just try to push through it and not fight the direction it seems to be going in. Probably one day when I’m done with the band I might listen to the records and think about why things turned out the way they did. I think you can get into a bit of trouble if you start thinking too hard about why you’re doing something.”