"It is a dark world that we have": A Joyful Conversation with Xiu Xiu's Jamie Stewart
Updated: Mar 8, 2022
Xiu Xiu is one of the most fascinating and original acts to emerge in the 21st century. While the band has featured a rotating lineup over the years, its key actors are Jamie Stewart and Angela Seo. Xiu Xiu’s experimental sonics and confessional lyrics have earned a dedicated following. While not for everyone, Xiu Xiu’s frank approach to dark topics can be incredibly healing and cathartic. Tonitruale had the pleasure of catching up with Jamie Stewart on Zoom, where we discussed the band’s history, our dead fathers, and bird watching.
Interview has been edited for length and clarity
LY: So, the 20th anniversary for Knife Play recently came up… what are your feelings surrounding that milestone?
JAIME: I feel very weird about it. I mean part of it is, I guess, proud to not have quit. I feel honored to have been a part of a record that people still listen to. Then, another part of me feels terrifiedー like, this is just what I’m going to do with my fucking life at this point. It’s also just strange having a record that can delineate such a significant and large portion. Like, that’s like 25% of my entire lifespan… Just a reminder of impending death is a little stark.
LY: Great way to start the interview (laughter)
Did you do anything to celebrate the record’s birthday?
JAMIE: I bought myself an expensive book. It’s a photo book from the late seventies about kittens. There’s this era of photography from the early 60s and 80s that I like. The photographer, Masahise Fukase, doesn't usually do cute stuff, he normally does gnarly things… so it was interesting to see his perspective on something different.
LY: What drew you to that visual style?
JAMIE: It’s very direct, but also subtle. The compositions are done clearly with an amount of care, but there’s also a certain kind of spontaneity in them. I mean… you know anytime anyone likes anything, it’s a little difficult to describe why…
There’s just a period in Japan from the early sixties to the late seventies that was a really great era for film and photography. It was just a special time. You know, like how different times and places really resonateー early eighties in the UK and nineties Los Angeles, too.
LY: I’ve always been a bit obsessed with the eighties UK myself, especially post-punk. Actually, I have a Joy Division poster.
JAMIE: I have that same Unknown Pleasures cover art on a t-shirt, but it has cats instead of mountains. So, combining all of my obsessions into a dorky little item.
LY: Back on the topic of Knife Play, can you tell me about the process behind making the album. You’ve mentioned before that part of it was recorded during 9/11?
JAMIE: Actually, we mastered it on 9/11. I remember I took the day off work and had to lie to my job about needing the day off to master this recordー I can’t remember what lie I told them. So, 9/11 happened that morning. There was nobody on the freeway anywhere. In the studio, they had these big, giant TVs and were playing clips of the Twin Towers falling down. The sound engineer was this old gentleman who had actually done a few Beatles records, his name was George Horn. We would periodically go out and look at the TV and look at each other with no idea what to say. My brother lived in New York at the time and I couldn’t get a hold of him. So the whole day I was very worried about how he was and was so shocked by all that had occurred. At the same time, I was focused on getting this record, because we might never get this chance again.
LY: What was the scene like in San Jose at the time of recording Knife Play?
JAMIE: At the time in the Bay Area, it was pretty delineated. San Jose was like the dork city and San Francisco was a lot cooler. There was a pretty vibrant scene in San Francisco, and a lot of bands still playing today came out of that scene. It seems silly to say but, because we were from San Jose, the bands were jerks to usー except for Deerhoof, who we have always been good friends with. It was sort of fun, though, because we couldn’t be a part of the San Francisco scene and we weren’t necessarily pinned down by any styles and were allowed to forge our own sound. Honestly, I don't think anyone who is in Xiu Xiu has ever been genuinely “cool.” So I mean they probably wouldn’t have wanted to deal with us if we were from San Francisco anyways.
But in Bay Area, the scene was, for a lack of a better description, really terrible third wave Ska and proto Nu-metal bands. There were not a lot of good bands. Actually there was one band… Duster. Yeah, Jason Albertini and I used to work in a record store together. He actually played on Knife Play. He’s a wonderful, wonderful guy and a terrific musician.
LY: As a fan of Duster, it’s cool to hear that you two collaborated.
JAMIE: I mean, it was just one song and we never played together after. But he did a great job.
LY: How did you find musicians to play on the record?
JAMIE: I mean, there weren’t a lot of conscious decisions. Like, if there was a particular sound we had in mind that we couldn’t play, we would just ask some friends to play on it. I think because, as I said earlier, there was a little bit more of a scene and everyone knew each other, you could always call someone for help. I’m sure that still exists here in Los Angeles too, though things are more decentralized now.
LY: How has the internet changed the way you’ve interacted with your fan base and made music?
JAMIE: I probably don’t have the best perspective on it. I’m not a particularly social person, and social media isn’t something I really enjoyー though I understand the necessity of it professionally in order for the band to exist. I am deeply, deeply grateful to how sweet people can be online. By some fucking miracle, I’ve been able to make it as a musician for twenty years, the very least I could do is write back and say hello. But, you know, if I could get away with never talking to anybody again on planet Earth for the rest of my life, I’d probably be fine.
I mean, how was it for you? The internet never not existed in your lifetime… Is it something positive in your life?
LY: Well, I wish I could go off the grid, but at the same time I feel very reliant on social media. Like without it, I just feel like I’m missing outー on opportunities, gigs, and connections. Especially now for artists, you need to have good online marketing. I think we’re a lot more technologically dependent now, which I’m not sure how to feel about.
JAMIE: I mean, I guess it’s just the way things are. It’s kind of pointless to think of them as being good or bad. I need to remind myself that because it’s easy to get aggravated by things when really it’s out of my hands.
LY: What are your opinions on modern music?
JAMIE: Uh, I don’t think it’s super interesting right now. It just seems to be that, at least according to my tastes, there’s not a lot of new things that are happening that I’m really moved by.
You know how earlier we were talking about certain places and times where things really come together and something long-lasting and beautiful happens? I have yet to find where that is occurring in contemporary music. It’s probably out there somewhere, though.
What about you? Are you finding any music that’s cool?
LY: There’s a few experimental rock bands I like right nowー like Black Country, New Road and Black Midi. But yeah, I resonate with what you said because I feel like a lot of music nowadays is more about revival.
JAMIE: Yeah, it makes sense why it would be the case. Butー actually. Fuck. I’m not going to go down this road. I don’t want to talk about the internet. But yeah, it does seem like a lot of things are rehashes of the past, more so than I ever remember it. But at some point you run out of things to redo.
LY: I’m wondering where we will go from here. Like is music going to touch our brains next?
JAMIE: Who knows. Now that shoegaze is back, I feel that we’ll have to go somewhere. Cause’ I feel like shoegaze was kind of the last of it’s kind for rock music. It was the end of something. So, something new is going to happen.
LY: When you were younger did you still have that same attachment to music from the past? Like did you always have such an affinity towards the 80s?
JAMIE: I mean, I’m old enough that that was the first music I got into. So, I think oftentimes the first music that you listen to feels like the best forever. I think that it was a period when I really started closely listening to music, so it’s deeply embedded in my heart.
LY: Do you ever listen back to your own music?
JAMIE: Fuck no. Never, never, never.
I mean, I have to because we’re learning a set right now and preparing for shows. But, for some of my songs, it’s been over a decade since I’ve last heard them. So it’s quite tortuous.
LY: Yeah, and your music is vulnerable. It’s kind of like reading your own journal out loud with synths and drums.
JAMIE: (laughter) Yeah, no, it’s not unlike that.
Sometimes I’ll listen to something I made and think ‘Oh my God, this is fucking terrible. Why do people like this?’ On the other hand, I’ll listen to something and go ‘Oh my God, this is so much better than what we’re doing now.’ So I don’t know. It just opens up a spiral of impossible-to-solve self-criticism. And, I mean, there’s nothing I can really do about it. It’s a world where people take in my music in whichever way they want. So I might as well focus on what we’re working on now.
LY: How do you deal with vulnerability? Like, knowing that so much of yourself is out there in the world?
JAMIE: I guess it’s just too late for me to be concerned about. From early on, we were just trying to be ourselves and deal with things in a way that felt real and meaningful.
LY: Do you feel like your approach to making music changed over time?
JAMIE: I’m hesitant to put too much conscious thought into it because I think it would disrupt the possibility of continuing to evolve. Though, I’m sure it definitely has.
For me, thinking too much about music is the enemy of being productive. I don’t think that it’s inherent to music generallyー but, just for me, music is very much an emotional, kind-off lower brain stem pursuit.
LY: When you say “we” are you referring to yourself and Angela?
JAMIE: Yeah. Angela has been in the band for twelve years at this point, so I’m referring to the two of us when I’m talking about Xiu Xiu.
LY: How did you two meet?
JAMIE: Very organically, hanging out in the parking lot of a grocery store.
LY: How does making music together affect your relationship?
JAMIE: Um, it’s interesting. It can be a volatile part of our friendship, but at the same time we are deeply supportive of what the other person wants to do. There is an aspect of vulnerability to it. You know, even if you’re hanging out with the person that you trust most in the world, when you’re opening yourself up that much it can become very tense. So, in some ways, it’s made us incredibly close because we’ve had to deal with each other’s intimacies in such a literal, specific, and codifiedー and eventually public way. Our bond is incredibly tight, but I also think, because of that, we make each other a bit fucking crazy sometimes. The bottom line is that we’re both absolutely there for each other as friends and as colleagues. I mean, we wouldn't have worked together for twelve years if that wasn’t the case. She always pushes me to not be afraid to try new things, and I try to do the same for her. She’s a fantastic, fantastic band member and a friend I feel really fortunate to have in my life and incredibly talented.
LY: I’m sure she’s going to love reading this (laughter)
When you were quarantining together during the pandemic, did that affect the way you made music?
JAMIE: Yes and no. I’ve always had a little home studio so that wasn’t too different. There had always been breaks of touring where I would be home and work on a record for a few months and then go back to touringー but that balance doesn’t really exist anymore. I think those breaks from writing that happened while touring were very important to allow for some subconscious processing to happen. I mean, when you’re on tour you’re still working on music, so your music mind is still happeningー but it’s very different from being in the studio while writing and recording. I think I might’ve figured it out finally, but it was difficult.
LY: You must’ve overcome a lot of personal challenges over the past years, so I’m wondering about those moments where it felt like you just couldn’t create. What kept you going?
JAMIE: For me, if I’m stuck on something I just generally keep working on it until something happens. I’ll work on ten different projects at the same time so, if one of them isn’t happening, then I’ll just work on something else. I find that if I take a break, then it takes me a while after to get back in the swing of things. I just sort of need to be working on things all the time to keep my creative chops going.
During the period from about a year ago where I had difficulty writing, I think the only reason that things reoriented themselves in a way that was productive again was because I just kept at it. I mean, that’s not the case for everyone. A lot of people when they’re stuck have to stop. But, for me, I think it’s just sort of this stubborn obsession
LY: Is making music your “break”?
JAMIE: When things are focused and productive music can become meditative. I mean, you’re in a totally other world. You’re completely focused your physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual self into this singular person. When it’s going well, nothing is as freeing for me.
But when it’s going badly, music can be incredibly frustrating and humiliating and terrible because all that same amount of self is involved.
LY: Did you intend on becoming a musician?
JAMIE: My dad and uncle were both very successful musicians. So music was always around. But they weren’t super encouraging… not for, you know, a bad reason. I mean, when I was a kid, I just wasn’t very good at music. It’s not like I was a super genius and they were stifling my beautiful mastery or whatever. I think they were just indifferent to my attempts to make music.
My dad died around the time that Knife Play came out. I think he knew he was going to die. So he helped me with the album and I think it was then that he realized I was taking music seriously and that he needed to as wellー God, I’m babbling.
But… I think I’d always wanted to be a musician but I didn’t think it was realistic for me, because I’d seen my dad and uncle do it and I didn’t have the same set of skills that they did. I think it was sort of by chance that I ended up as one.
LY: My dad also passed away before I felt like I had really gone anywhere in life, so I understand that complex bundle of emotions.
How do you think he would react to your music now?
JAMIE: I mean, because he was such a talented and successful musician, I have to constantly remove him from the equation or else I have this looming pressure.
I think he would be glad that I had kept it up and that I’ve worked hard. I don’t know if he would necessarily like my music, but he wouldn’t try to change what I was doing. He understood that there were different types of music for different types of people. I can think about him as an individual, but it gets daunting to think about him in a musical context. As with all parents, it’s very complicated.
LY: Did you ever feel a pressure to be someone you’re not?
JAMIE: Um, certainly at first.
He gave me some good advice though. Maybe it wasn’t advice, it was just something he said of his own career. He felt that he hadn’t pushed things as far as he had wanted to, and he felt constrained by what he didー I’m afraid of misquoting him but he said something along those lines. Or he said that he had wished for me to take things too far. I think, in a kind of tacit way, he was encouraging me. I think it helped me to free myself from what was expected from me and to make music that felt true to myself.
How about your own father? You mentioned that your father liked a lot of music you’re interested in. How is it listening to music that you know he was interested in?
LY: I don’t know. It’s very weird. I feel like listening to music that I know he liked, or I know was popular when he was young, is a way of connecting with him. It does give me a sense of comfort to know that we’ve listened to the same music. Kind of like he’s there with me…
Something I’ve always admired about your music is how you’ve never tried to sugarcoat anything bad that’s happened in your life. Kind of like serving the darkness in this world raw…
JAMIE: It is a dark world that we all have (laughter).
I’m basically fucking nuts and I deal with the darkness of the world by putting it into music. Otherwise, I’d just be pounding myself to death with self-destructive behavior. I mean, making music doesn’t make that darkness go away but it can turn that energy into something productive… as opposed to just turning into insanity. I mean, music is just a very functional way to get through life. God made me take things really sensitive and obsessive, but thankfully that can get turned into music. Otherwise I’d probably be dead.
LY: Could you imagine yourself doing anything other than music?
JAMIE: There was a point a few years ago where things were going pretty bad from a practical business perspective and I started thinking ‘Oh fuck, this is it. I can’t do music for a living anymore.’ When I thought about it, it just made my head hurtー kind of like a breakupー because music is just such an inherent part of my existence.
Even if I had to get a regular job, though, I’m sure I’d still be doing music after work, or before work, or on my lunch break, or when I should be working.
LY: Do you have any other creative outlets or hobbies?
JAMIE: Hmm… Birdwatching, reading, collecting photo books. I have a lot of weird collections. I didn’t realize it until Angela pointed out recently that I have 20 collections. So, I guess I collect weird stuff.
I have a gigantic candy collection, postcards, rainbow trolls, books, candles, seashells, antique ceramics, guitar pedals. Also fetish objects, plants, woodblock prints, black t-shirts, oh and probably 500 stuffed animals. I dunno... I made a list of them at one point.
What about bird watching? What draws you to that?
JAMIE: It’s something that’s almost entirely out of your hands, and it’s not really something you can be good at. The bird is going to be there or it won’t. You can get good at being patient, but for the most part I appreciate that it’s out of my control and there’s a possibility of seeing something transformatively beautiful, or just seeing nothing at all. There’s really nothing I can do except just go to a particular place at a particular time of day. A lot of the time it’s worth the risk.
LY: What’s your relationship like with nature?
JAMIE: As time goes by, it’s become more vital and important to my everyday existence.
I had a pretty terrible childhood, especially with my relationship with my parents. But in the last few years, I’ve really worked things out with my mom and now we’re quite close. She lives in the middle of the woods and spends a lot of her time in nature. So nature has been an essential part in us healing together. Our relationship is about being someplace quiet and out in the world.
Nature is also a big part of my friendship with Angela. We live in California, so we’re very fortunate that there’s all types of typographyー not typography. What’s the world for different environments?
LY: Geology? I don’t know either…
JAMIE: Who knows. Anyways, we jokingly refer to each other as nature goths.
LY: I feel that. I love going hiking in Doc Martens.
Anyways, one final question. Tell me about your upcoming music and what else is in store for Xiu Xiu?
JAMIE: We’re finishing up a new thing right now. It’s very peculiar. It’s certainly the weirdest record that we have done, and definitely the most challenging. It’s very dark and abrasive. There’s not really any songs on itー it’s our first time doing an entirely experimental record.
So I guess we’re excited. I mean, we’re not really touring but we’re starting to play a couple shows. I’m figuring out a new lineup and Angela and I both really like the people who we’re playing withー so that’s good.
Otherwise, I have, you know, 20 million other side projects. I wrote a book a little bit ago, which I think is finally getting published at some point next year. Angela is working on some art things. You know, usual chugging along.
Check out Xiu Xiu’s website and Bandcamp