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“When you're young, the idea of being an outsider has a certain romance attached to it” : Best Fit meets Xiu Xiu

“When you're young, the idea of being an outsider has a certain romance attached to it” : Best Fit meets Xiu Xiu

09 July 2012, 08:50

Jamie Stewart, aka Xiu Xiu has a new single out on Bad Paintings, containing two remixes of tracks from last year’s characteristically uncompromising Always album. Deerhoof take a shot at ‘I Luv Abortion’ and Kid606 attacks ‘Joey’s Song’, with impressive results

This seems like a decent excuse to take a look at our interview with Jamie, conducted in a Transit van outside Sticky Mike’s Frog Bar in Brighton earlier this year. Strap in for a wide-ranging chat that takes in Morrissey, happiness and outsider status.

Hi Jamie. After eight albums in 10 years, do you feel like the guy who started Xiu Xiu in 2002? Have you progressed?

No! I would not use that word – I wish that I could say “progressed”. I’ve degenerated, that’s probably more accurate. I’ve changed for the worse. I think I’m less confident now than when I started, probably.

Is that because you’ve had some of the fight punched out of you over the years?

Um… I’m not really sure why. I think our trajectory has been consistently hanging on by our fingernails. And I think maybe one hand has slipped or something! I don’t know if we ever had a… just when I think of having the fight punched out of me, it makes me imagine as if I was in the fight in a square way at any point but it’s never really felt that way.

Did you have a grand aim when you started out, of becoming A Star, or making A Point?

One – this is corny but true – just do the best job we could do. The other one was just to not have a day job. In other bands I was in before, I think the goal was to try to become a rock star but then I realised that was a regrettably stupid thing to do: music is too important.

I mean, becoming a rock star’s not inherently stupid, but I think if your only goal for music is to become a rock star… music is an inherently positive thing in the world, and I think to jerk off all over it in that way is… lame, at least.

I was expecting you to be a lot more earnest – you seem serious but quite fun, whereas on record you’re pretty relentlessly down, angry and bitter. Do you find it difficult to “switch on” when you’re onstage?

Well, I’ve never met you before, I don’t want to start screaming! There are nights when it’s there, and there are nights when it’s not. I’ll never give up in the middle of a show and just be like: “Oh my god, tonight, fuck it…”

I apologised to the audience one time, and have regretted it for several years. “I’m sorry we sucked tonight” – what asshole says that? I’d never want to fake it – just keep trying.

Do you talk to the audience, get their feedback?

I usually never do. I say “hello” and “goodnight”, but I think for the kind of stuff we’re doing it’s sort of silly to be glad-handy. I mean, if something comes up… we played in Manchester the other day and a long time ago we recorded this New Order cover [‘Ceremony’, on Xiu Xiu’s debut Chapel of the Chimes EP], and we’re like, “Oh my god, we’re in Manchester, can we play it?” So I very sheepishly asked if it was acceptable to play the song, and fortunately people said it was OK to do.

And did you nail it?

No! I was all wigged out, I was over-thinking it so… we didn’t fuck it up but it was not our best rendition.

There’s definitely a streak of humour in your lyrics. Do you feel obliged to put a bit of lightness in?

Not really. I’d agree there’s some humour but I’d never say there’s a joke in . It’s not in response to the other things are dark, or an attempt to lighten them up. Anything that’s funny is just an attempt to put across a point.

I wondered if you were deliberately trying to wrong-foot people: it crops up musically too, with upbeat songs and downbeat lyrics to go with it – ‘Honeysuckle’, for example.

I’m never trying to be tricky or anything like that. For ‘Honeysuckle’, Angela wrote that song and she is right now going through a period of incredible stress, tension and tremendous self-doubt, which is reflected in the lyrics. But the music she’s interested in and tends to listen to is Top 40, most of the time. She’s just being herself.

I hear you’ve been covering Rihanna’s ‘Only Girl In The World’ recently…

Not live, but on a 7” we did Rihanna. We’ve done a lot of covers, maybe 20, and in every case (with the exception of the Rihanna cover) it was because it was a song we were really moved by, or it was important to use one way or another.

But the Rihanna one… I think the song is fine, as far as massive corporate pop goes, but the cover was more a tribute to this particular moment: I live in a small town in the South, and there’s this one small dyke bar there, so we frequently go dancing there. the dancefloor was pretty empty but that song came on and suddenly all these Southern dykes came onto the dancefloor – and that group of people singing that song really radically changes the context of that song.

It was really beautiful seeing, particularly in the South, this somewhat oppressed and marginalised group just taking over and recontextualising this industrial machine pop song and giving it an actual meaning – turning it, for them at that moment, into a real love song. It was wonderful to see, very touching.

It’s always gratifying to see fans being fans – were or are you an obsessive fan of any particular band, and you’d completely collapse if you ever met them?

Oh god, I’m wearing the shirt right now… Me, like every other white person in the entire world.

Well, maybe not now. He just keeps doing embarrassing things: eulogising about the UK while living in California, calling the Chinese a “subspecies”…

What’s he doing? He’s not really followed in the American press. I don’t really need to hear this – what a weird thing to say. That’s disappointing. I hate it when people who are otherwise cool become … I guess because so many people are insanely fond of him – myself included. Now somewhat less so… Whatever, the records are still great!

Do you still feel like an outsider, and did you ever expect not to be?

Sure, but I think I’ve been alive long enough where it just feels normal at this point. I think when one is younger, the idea of being an outsider, although it can be a little heartbreaking, has a certain romance attached to it. When you’re a bona fide adult, it’s just your lot, you don’t think about it any more. So… yes, and I don’t really think about it any more!

From a lyrical point of view, Always feels like you’ve deliberately picked subject matter that nobody else would dream of putting in a pop song…

The song choices are obviously deliberate but they’re not chosen because no one else is writing about them – and I’m not entirely sure no one else is writing this kind of thing.

Not that many people are writing about Chinese sweatshops, or post-gaybashing bestiality – these are extraordinarily niche…

I guess that’s true! This is the town for that, though, isn’t it?

It’s difficult to describe but it’s a very specific process. Something will strike me and I’ll get this very particular physical sensation that I cannot really describe that essentially, in some endocrinological sort of way, says: “Write about this particular subject.”

Are you trying to chronicle current times?

Yeah. Each record is very deliberately about the time in which it was written about political events of that period, or about personal experience or family experience, or about processing certain emotional events that are pressing at the time.

The person I started the band with , we had played in a lot of groups before. The other ones were just trying anything, not really sure about what we wanted to do but this one, we literally sat down and said, “OK, we need to figure out specifically what we want to do,” and one of the things we said would essentially be the credo of the band would always be to write about real things.

I think when writing in that way seems like it’s not possible to do, then I’ll probably stop doing this. It’s essentially the point of this band.

You make other bands sound like pussies because they’re not even bothering to try…

Well… there’s a lot of different bands… many kinds of trees… many molecules…

When listening to Xiu Xiu… wait, is that how you pronounce it? “Shoo Shoo”…?

That’s how we pronounce it, but we’re white – there’s a million pronunciations. We played in China and people there pronounced it like 10 different ways, so I don’t know.

…it seeps out of every song that you’re being relentlessly honest, almost as if you’re thinking: “Fuck it – I’m never going to be on the radio, I’m just going to write everything…” Do you feel like you’re deliberately turning your back on commercialism?

Not consciously. I guess it’s harking back to what I said before, when you asked me what I wanted to do, was to be the best that we could do… The bar for me, as far as “what is good”, is if it does that. It’s the one approach I can take and feel as if it’s truthful to what I care about.

I certainly wouldn’t complain if we became wildly popular, but I would never change what we are doing in order to do that. I would be very surprised if we were played on daytime radio!

Have you ever written a song that’d be appropriate for that audience?

I don’t know. There’s one song on this record that in different parts of Europe is actually getting some pretty regular radio play… but they don’t all speak English. I never thought it would happen , and it never will, which is fine.

Is there any subject that’s out of bounds in a Xiu Xiu song?

My brother, who I’m very close to, had a son and he specifically asked me not to write about his son. I said I would not. I mean, my brother’s really involved in the records, he does all the design for it – the tattoo on the cover of the new one is on his leg – he’s my only family member who listens to the records and is involved in them, and I think because he’s close to them, he wants to maintain a certain amount of privacy, which I certainly respect.

Do you ever worry that you might become sufficiently content not to have anything to write about any more?

Oh, I would be super-happy if that was the case! If there were not shitty things to write about, then that would be fantastic. if the world was an inherently wonderful place, then what would be the point in trying to wreck that?

Isn’t the point of music to cheer people up when they’re miserable, not to reflect their misery back at them?

It depends on what you’re looking for in music. In certain cases, you’re looking to get drunk and find the dancefloor, and in certain cases as a listener one is looking to relate to something that seems specific to one’s situation, to make you feel slightly less lonely, or a part of something. It depends what one needs at the time – hence, “there are many kinds of band…”

You can dance to most Xiu Xiu songs, as long as you don’t listen too closely to the lyrics, which might make you want to curl up in the corner…

A lot of dancefloor music, house music, freestyle music – and this is a really big inspiration for Xiu Xiu when it started – the lyrics are incredibly direct and incredibly depressing, and almost invariably about some kind of violent heartbreak. They’re saying one thing and they’re saying it very, very, very clearly, many times over and over and over again.

The dance influence comes from when you’re feeling rotten, going dancing is a really wonderful way to turn that negative energy into something else and to put it someplace. When you exercise, you’ll feel better – your chemistry changes. It’s just an excuse to drink and jump around too, and that can certainly change one’s perspective.

Have you ever had the opportunity to watch Xiu Xiu from the audience? Are there any songs you don’t sing, so you could leave the stage and have a look?

Like, to get a really long microphone cable? No, I never have! There’s only been one where another band member sang it but I had to play a really difficult guitar part – I had to concentrate. I’m not a good enough player to walk around…

Are you a performer?

No. I mean, I hope not. “Performing” – that word sounds like “acting”. I don’t know if I’ve ever performed – it sounds terrible… It’s not an insult, but it’s not what I would aspire to do.

You know, Freddie Mercury was an amazing performer, he’s one of my favourite singers of all time, so I don’t think performing is inherently a lame thing to do, but just for this band it would be lame.

Which singers made you want to sing?

Tons. The Moz – I rip him off, along with every other white person. David Bowie, Michael Gira – I’ve not seen the new Swans show but I want to – Prince, Little Richard, PJ Harvey, Diamanda Galas, Nina Simone, Otis Redding, Ian Curtis…

I think we’ve found the level! That’s almost a genre in itself…

Xiu Xiu’s ‘I Luv Abortion’/’Joey’s Song’ is out on 23 July through Bad Paintings.

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