Xiu Xiu’s Jamie Stewart Opens Up About Nina Simone, Suicide and "Angel Guts"
Why the prolific singer isn't stopping any time soon
Last year, Xiu Xiu’s Jamie Stewart posted what sounded like a call for help on his website, declaring “i cannot think of a time when i have been so depressed, less hopeful or more anxious” and asking fans to send reasons to keep on living. Yet he’s soldiered on, remaining as prolific as he did at the start of the band’s career. In early December, Xiu Xiu released Nina, played in a free-jazz style with Stewart taking on the songs with a breathy, tight-lipped baritone that sounds guilt-ridden and claustrophobic, even by his gloomy standards standards. Earlier this month, they released Angel Guts: Red Classroom, a dirty thumb in the eye of a record that stands out as the most aggressive thing they’ve ever recorded, even as its analog synths and archaic drum machines prove stickier than the band’s more overt attempts at pop songwriting. When Stewart and I got together, he bought me tamales and explained to why he’d take on such a daunting project as Nina, how he went about making Angel Guts, his best album in years, and why suicide seems less appealing to him these days.
Noisey: So what made you want to do this Nina Simone record?
Jamie Stewart: Well, I was very drunk and feeling incredibly sorry for myself at the time that it crossed my mind to do it. I was on tour with Swans, and I played a show that just sucked. And they played, and they were amazing every single night. Michael Gira and I were talking about how much we both love Nina Simone, and I was sitting backstage and drinking like an idiot and put on my headphones and started listening to Nina Simone records. It is my usual trajectory just to feel bad and just dwell for a long time, but I was listening to Swans sort of bleed into the headphones, playing really, really wonderfully and thinking about the difficulties of their very long and checkered career. They have been at it three times as long as I have and are only getting better, it would be absurd for me to quit. Nina Simone's music is way technically over my ability, but it seemed like something that if, I was gonna force myself not to quit, it had better be with something that was going to be incredibly challenging for me to do.
How did you pick the songs?
I'd never been much of a record collector. I usually listen to a small amount of records really excessively, and I only had three Nina Simone records [laughs]. But they were three records that, without exaggerating, really changed my musical life. I knew them really well and appreciated them tremendously. To be corny, they touched my heart. I think it was smart, if I knew her entire catalog, it would have taken 10,000 years to pick from her repertoire. I had like 25 songs to pick from. I just picked ones that I like and that I felt that, as a middle-class white guy, it would either not be absurd for me to sing or would be so absurd for me to sing that it could possibly get over.
How much of the album was orchestrated versus improvised?
Well, the people who played on it are about the best players that there are. Ches Smith, who did all the arrangements, he has several groups but it's the lineup for his own band [on this record]. We did two real quick rehearsals and then recorded it all in one day. They're just motherfuckers, I think all of them were first or second takes. I think there was maybe like one edit. They're astounding players. It melted my brain, listening back to it. Ches worked on the arrangements for months—a testament to it having worked so well is that he put an incredible amount of time into it. It wouldn't have been so easy if the arrangements weren't so brilliant.
Were you surprised by anything the songs brought out of you when you took on this project and started singing?
There's no way to say this without sounding like a total douche, but there's a tonality in my singing voice that I had not heard before. That had a lot to do with just the range of the songs and the phrasing, it's really different than something I would write myself. And I couldn't do it in my regular singing voice, except for maybe one or two of them. So that was surprising. But there was just a sort of very different sound coming out of my mouth than I had heard before.
I want to talk about the other new album. You previously described it as kind of "a mean, tight hearted, blackness of Neubauten vs Suicide vs Nico." Was that a conscious choice to explore that kind of sound on this album or is that just how it came out?
Yeah, more so than ever was there a real clear idea about what we wanted to try to do before we started doing it. John Congleton is a really excellent producer and engineer who mixed our previous record [Always], and he and I have been friends for a long time. The last record was our sort of last attempt at making a pop record. As soon as he mentioned Suicide, it really immediately felt like the right thing to do, although it took me about a year to write anything that ended up the next record. I wrote a bunch of stuff, but it all was crap. It was really difficult for me to get out of a pop style of writing, which I had been trying to do for the past maybe five years or something. Initially it was only to make it as dark and as simple as possible and to make it be as unredemptive as possible. Internally it's exactly where I'm at more than I have been in a very, very long time.
To me it feels more personal than some of the last couple of albums.
I had not really realized, but a few people have pointed that out to me. I consciously tried to have it be a lot more of an internal record or a lot more of a personal record.
How much of the lyrics are drawn from your life vs. characters? On this record, for instance, I feel like "New Life Immigration" or "Cinthya's Unisex" might be about characters you've created to discuss something.
Interesting you should mention those, both of those are personal [laughs]. We don't really do character songs at all.
It's pretty much always about experiences of people you know or your own?
I wanted to ask about the song "Black Dick." It reminds me of some of the more confrontational songs you've done in the past, like "Support Our Troops" or "I Luv Abortion," although obviously it's more personal. Is a song like that for you a cathartic, confessional thing? Or are you deliberately taking on a taboo subject?
Oh, it's a question that people have asked throughout the life of the band, and it's a very fair question [laughs] Insofar as just doing something taboo for the sake of doing something taboo I'm not saying that the lyrics wouldn't fall under that purview, but it's never been the motivation for doing something. It's certainly not cathartic. It has more to do with my own shame about sex than anything else. It's not so much a confession as maybe an admission to something that I would otherwise never admit to. Things and feelings about my personal sexuality that I know to be true but that are not very cool [laughs]. Not in an anti way, but in an overly lustful way, I think.
Last year you wrote on your website asking fans to give a reason to live. I guess I'm just wondering how you're doing today. Do you feel better today than you did a year ago?
I have debated for a long time if I should have taken that down a long time ago. Some pain-in-the-ass person put it on my Wikipedia entry. The horror of Wikipedia is that you cannot edit your own page. You know, I was having a very bad couple of months. I think I wrote it at 4 o'clock in the morning. I was profoundly touched by how many people responded positively. I thought that nobody would respond or like a couple people would, but like literally hundreds of people, which I was not expecting. [pauses] A friend of mine talked to me about how boring suicide is. It's a relief to have it as an option, but he said, well you know, you could not find out what's going to happen, or you could find out what's going to happen. And I thought OK, well, I might as well find out what's going to happen. So I think about it as a way out less often. It seems dull I suppose [laughs].
That's reassuring! I read the piece you wrote on Huffington Post last year, and one of the things that stuck out to me is was that after saying your father told you that the point of music is to touch people, you said "I fail at this all the time." Why did you think to write that at the time? To me, your music does the exact opposite of that. I feel like that's exactly what it does more than anything. Do you feel that way now?
Thank you. One can only do one's best, and sometimes somebody gets something from it, and sometimes they don't. And it would be absurd to assume that every fucking song was a success insofar as meaning something to somebody. I was just being realistic about sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. Again, it's douchey to say, but it's always worth trying.
Have you always been very open about what's going on in your life?
Just in general? I don't know ... which probably means yeah, if I'm not even sure that I'm doing it or not doing it. It must just be my natural blabbermouth state [laughs].
I interviewed you once for a zine my friends and I made in college. I was closeted at the time, and you were definitely like one of my queer superheroes. Is that something you set out to do from the get-go, to be very forthright about your sexuality in both your music and your interviews?
Well, it really had more to do with the philosophy of the band and always writing about real subjects. It wasn't so much an attempt to be boldly open about being queer as much as it was to just follow the credo of the band and write about what was going on in the lives of the people in my band. And that's one of the things that was going on.
Yeah, you just seemed more vocal or visible than, obviously there are people like Morrissey who still is elusive.
Well, he's from a different generation, too.
How was the album constructed? In the past you've used atypical percussion, let's say, or a Nintendo DS on one album. What did you use on this album?
It's interesting that you touch on the equipment thing—it has almost everything to do with how the album was written. In the past, we would allow ourselves to really use anything that we could get and try to use as many instruments as possible. Before I got into songwriting, I was really into [music] engineering. So making sounds, or unusual sounds, has at times been more interesting to me than the harmony. For this one, we went in exactly the opposite direction. It's only analog drum machines and with the exception of one of them, it only has three sounds. They're non-programmable, late '70s, Japanese analog drum machines with all preset beats. And then just analog synthesizer. There's some pretty regular percussion on the record like drum set, but other than that, just analog synths.
But I'm still incredibly interested in sound, and I'd played around with analog synths a bit, but in having that be the only sounds that are available, it really forced the issue in terms of really exploring and pushing them as far as I could figure out how to do it. We hadn't done it in a while, which was initially, instead of a sort of regular way of writing a song, you know you write the song and come up with the sounds later, in this one we're very much making a particular crazy, weird sound and then figuring out how to fit that into a song or have the song be structured around some sort of evil-sounding synthesizer. I'm a little hesitant to say this, but it was really the most fun I've ever had writing. I mean it's a route that people have taken for the past 50 years, but I'd never really had the chance to dig into analog synthesizers to this degree before. I spent a ton of money and don't regret it at all. I've gone back and used digital or sample-based synthesizers we'd used before for years and they sound like ass. It's really obvious. I don't want to sound like some sort of crazy purist, but they sound like garbage, comparatively.
I always thought it was interesting that even though you're the main guy, the cast around you has changed over the years. You've always seemed to make it a collaborative thing, like it's not just you and supporting players. Do you think that helps the song evolve and keep it interesting?
I mean, I would love to work with the same people a lot, and there have been a lot of people who have been in it very briefly, but the main people—Ches I've worked with since it started, Shayna [Dunkelman] I've worked with since it started, Angela's been on-and-off since 2006, but there have been like 20 other people who've been in and out of it very briefly. It just largely has to do with, for whatever reason, me not being able to keep a band together, I don't know why [laughs]. Some people get fired 'cause they're bad, some people quit 'cause they have other stuff to do or they think I'm a dick. Like you said, one positive thing that comes out of that is, because a lot of different people work on it, there's a lot of different art in it. And even though some people who've worked on it who I thought sucked or were assholes, with very, very rare exception, even if somebody hated me, they still really put themselves into it.
Billy Gil isn't on Twitter, but you can reach him at email@example.com