It’s a great musical metaphor: while speaking on the telephone to Xiu Xiu’s brainchild and frontman, Jamie Stewart, shrill noises of metal screech, thrum and wail loudly and in irregular rhythms behind him. What is that sound? I ask.
“Oh, we’re messing up a bunch of gongs right now…” Stewart says in an off-hand way. This casual attitude of deconstruction feels like the perfect way to sum up the band Xiu Xiu. It takes a certain kind of brilliance that goes beyond pushing societal boundaries; a different mind that’s always stretching to literally and symbolically break the seemingly resolute laws of mankind. Not just anyone is called to pull apart ancient, primitive instruments—to fuck with a sound that, over thousands of years of human existence has been as simple, restrained, and, well, as dependable as a large metal disc, its frame, and a mallet. Every so often, Jamie tells me to hold on so that he can give bandmate Caralee McElroy a hand.
Due to play St. Louis’ Lemp Neighborhood Arts Center on Monday, September 25th, we recalled their show their show last July when the lack of A/C in the summer and the sold-out crowd made the heat inside around 110 degrees Fahrenheit. The Xiu Xiu website currently lists the venue as “The Lemp Arts Air Conditioner”.
JS: That’s the hottest show that I can ever remember, that I’ve played in my entire life. I hear they have an air conditioner, which is why we commented on it. It’ll be funny to play there.
Jamie, who says he is listening to everything from liturgical music from Pakistan, to Okinawan folk music, to the Cure’s Head on the Door, to Tom Petty’s greatest hits, gives us a heads-up to check out The Jeff Smith record, Cong for Brums, and the new Carla Bozulich. [We found links to most of these pages in his Top Friends on the Xiu Xiu MySpace site]
NT: What’s your impression of new music right now?
JS: I don’t really have a take on it. I am certainly interested in new music, generally, but I am not thinking of it as ‘now’ versus ‘not now’.
NT: Let’s talk about the new album, Air Force [5rc]. How do you see it as being different from your other releases?
JS: We purposely went about it ahead of time, to make as pop of a record as we are capable of making. Which just led to approaching things in… [he searches for the words] an attempted immediacy? I think, before, it was something that we were consciously thinking about. I don’t know if we had any aesthetic attachment to what that would mean. We just wanted to try to make the songs come across quickly to people. But it seems to weirdly have had the opposite effect. I’ve had a lot of people tell me it’s taken them a long time to get into the record. So, it’s sort of perplexing because it means we have absolutely no idea how to do anything, and at the same time it’s sort of amusing that people are perceiving the opposite of what we intended.
I don’t know. I think if I did know, I wouldn’t care… I don’t know why people have reacted that way. It’s more curious than anything else…
NT: Why are there two videos for the new song, “Hello from Eau Claire”?
JS: I didn’t have anything to do with the two videos. Someone sent me a disposable video camera and then [had me send it back]. I didn’t know he was planning on making it into a music video… I don’t like the tone of the movie camera video at all, but I think the one he did of the young girl dancing at the talent show is pretty funny. It’s interesting, and sort of heart-warming and depressing at the same time.
NT: Will you comment on that creepy image of Jesus used for the artwork of the new album?
JS: We, Caralee and myself, saw that painting at an art exhibit in Torino, Italy, called Imali which means ‘The Evil.’ It was a retrospective of artwork representing evil from pre-Medieval paintings to 2005. It was almost a difficult painting to look at. And for that reason, it was sort of pointing that we had to try and use it in some way. It coincides with the [new CD’s] title—the Air Force, the sort of murderous detachment of people in the Air Force and their participation in the war, and also their co-opting that has really been a part of militarism and corporate-backed murders. [It represents] Incomprehensible and crazy things.
NT: So is this album a statement on the war and your feelings about what’s going on with it?
JS: The songs are not, but the title and the artwork is. We always have something in mind for what particular songs mean to us, but it’s not important to us that they mean the same thing to someone who listens to them.
NT: Is there going to be any noticeable difference in the new production by Greg Saunier (drummer from Deerhoof) from the producing skills of your former producer, Cory McCulloch?
JS: Yeah, I think Cory really set a particular aesthetic and all the things he would and wouldn’t want to do—not good or bad, but very definite. Greg also has a particular aesthetic but it’s probably broader and a little more complicated.
NT: Xiu Xiu has resurrected some of your old songs from other bands (e.g., “Ten In the Swear Jar”, “Indestructible Beat Of Palo Alto”). Are there any others you’re planning to turn into Xiu Xiu songs?
JS: I think we took the probably six remaining good songs that we didn’t do a good job on in the first place. There are no more good ones left. The line is dry. [He laughs]
NT: I wonder if your fans would agree?
NT: Let’s talk about your industrial side project, In the Vein of Wolfsheim, with Freddy Rupert.
JS: It’s in its infancy, but I hope it works out good. We’re just gonna try and record and see how it turns out. Nothing is recorded at this point.
NT: Is this a musical expression that you aren’t able to create with Xiu Xiu?
JS: Yeah, or I wouldn’t really want to. With Xiu Xiu, it’s important to us to try to do something that is, for us, coming from a place that is not overly explored. But I am still really a big, gigantic fan of goth and industrial music. I think doing a straight goth industrial song in Xiu Xiu would not really fit into other lines of interest.
NT: There is talk that you’re working on a screenplay…
JS: That’s totally false. My friend put it on Wikipedia as a joke. He also posted that I am married, which is not true.
NT: Do you miss your old job as a preschool teacher?
JS: I miss the kids a whole lot, but I don’t miss being in charge at all. I think if it was ever a routine, it would be something more attractive. But I don’t miss trying to convince people of something they don’t want to do. People have the things that they want to do. Sometimes it doesn’t necessarily work out for the group. It’s always kind of a struggle in that situation, to kind of rectify an individual’s needs to what the group’s needs are. Sometimes it’s possible, and sometimes… it ends up making a very small person’s life very difficult.
NT: Your lyrics are so brave, daring… and there is a lot of mystery to some of your words. Could you explain inspiration behind songs like “Nieces Pieces” and “Crank Heart”?
JS: Well, ‘Nieces Pieces,’ I probably don’t want to talk about because it’s really bugged my family since I wrote that song. ‘Crank Heart’ was about the parallels between my mom when she was a teenager and my bandmate, Caralee, when we first met. I think it used to [disturb people close to me] more because I wrote with people’s real names, which I don’t do anymore for that very reason.
NT: It was rumored you were gonna cover an Elliott Smith song at one time.
JS: Yeah, ‘Between the Bars.’ But Caralee would be a better one to comment on that…
[Caralee steps away from the gong deconstruction to pick up the phone]
Caralee: Well, basically a really good friend of mine, Chris Garneau, is putting out a record [Music for Tourists] October 13th. When he sent it to me, he had covered that song without me knowing. I kind of didn’t want to take that flame away from him. Plus the version he did is about 80 million thousand times better than the one I would have done. I just thought, ‘this is his song.’ It is a little more personal to him than it is to me, too.
Hopefully, in the future it will happen again, with a different song. I am a huge Elliott Smith fan. He was the big one for me when I was a teenager. The first indie rock artist I ever got into. He was one of my favs…
The screeching noises have stopped. And yet, now the telephone connection begins to break into as many fragments as their gongs. Jamie Stewart bids a crackling ‘ciao’ and assures us, if only by the punches of emotion that still hang in the dead air space after each of Xiu Xiu’s genius tracks, that Air Force will be another important album, and their upcoming show is bound to blow us away.
If you’re in St. Louis, the Xiu Xiu show at the Lemp Neighborhood Arts Center on Monday, September 25th WILL SELL OUT. You can buy tickets in advance for $7 by visiting the Lemp Neighborhood Arts Center website. For a complete tour schedule, visit www.xiuxiu.org.