When Jamie Stewart calls his new record the darkest thing he's ever done, it gets your attention. Bands say stuff like that all the time, usually referring to a slightly different production style, a new instrument they've incorporated, some recently discovered, mind-blowing novel they can't wait to name-drop. They'll say that to describe lyrics written during or recently after some personal tragedy. But what can that possibly mean for the guy whose sweetest ever love ballad contained a fantasy of being ejaculated on, cremated, and stored beneath a juice-head's workout bench? For the guy who's written lyrics about suicide, murder, and sexual humiliation for the past decade, and at least one song about eating George W. Bush? What, exactly, has he been holding back?
Xiu Xiu's latest record, Angel Guts : Red Classroom, is a harrowing account of Stewart's move to a particularly violent L.A. neighborhood, that he named for a likely unspeakable slice of Japanese cult cinema. It works within a limited-by-design set of influences kept to Kraftwerk, Nico, Suicide, and 80s German industrial group Einstürzende Neubauten. Those points of focus still produce the checked boxes of a classic Xiu Xiu album: screams and whispers, fucked-with sounds of unknown origin, an undaunted willingness to hang a song on a phrase like "black dick." But it's a particularly good one, going further than he has to make his brutality kind of pretty, instead of smuggling transgressive material into recognizably melodic synth-pop. It continues a body of work that made filterless queer goth music seem vital, and totally separate from years worth of cycling sonic fads, falling back and catching up again.
We talked to Stewart about the record, its darkness and his, his singular voice, his dismay with the safety of modern indie-rock, and the difficulty of continuing to make difficult art in a marketplace that's rough for even the safe stuff.
The materials that I got with the record, and I don’t know how much you have to do with this at all, they called it the “the darkest version” of Xiu Xiu. Something early like “Suha”, say, already seemed insanely dark to me. I wonder how you make that distinction?
Jamie Stewart: I think it was more of an internal thing. I now feel, and forgive me for saying this, these words coming out of my fucking mouth, but I feel more bleak than I’ve probably ever felt. Musically, obviously, when you listen to it, it’s going to sound different to each person. I think the internal process constructing this record, although oddly more enjoyable than I ever remember working on any record, was certainly in the bleakest space I can ever remember having been in.
In a recent interviews you've said that you weren’t in a mental place to be writing pop music at this point. A song on the record like “Stupid in the Dark”, though, strikes me at least as a version of a pop song. So it’s interesting to me how you conceive of a pop song.
I don’t disagree with that, particularly. “Stupid in the Dark” has a verse and a chorus, and that’s probably the defining thing of a pop song. I think, we weren’t going for hooks in this, certainly not musically, but everything, more or less on the record is a song. I mean there’s a couple of them that are just one note. It may be inescapable for me. It may just be how my brain is formed. It’s certainly infinitely less poppy than previous Xiu Xiu records. You know, I think there’s a lot less of a reliance on melody as a driving part of this record, though. And a lot more of a reliance on emotionality.
* Note: "Stupid in the Dark" video not particularly Safe for Work!
Vocally, whether you are using whispers or shouts in a song, how much of that is a concept you are bringing into it from the start, versus just sort of your feeling in the moment?
It’s a combination of what you just said, the feeling in the moment, and what my technical limitations are. Certain melodies feel more real sung in particular ways, and certain melodies sound better sung in particular timbres. The best case scenario is I don’t think about it at all, and it’s just however it turns out when it’s getting recorded. You know, if I was a fucking genius singer that’s how it could be every time. As frequently as it is that, it’s also as frequently what my voice is able to do, trying to make that limitation get the emotionality of the song across.
Do you feel like you’ve become a better singer over the course of all these records? Or at least do you have a better understanding of how you can do it, or what works?
There’s certain things that I used to be able to do that I can’t do now. And there’s a lot of things I can do now that I did not used to be able to do. I don’t know if I’m better. It’s certainly changed, and I’m glad that it’s changed. It’s interesting to me, just as, you know, I’m older now then when I started, and singing is a reflection of the physical state of your body. As my physicality has changed, the timbre has changed. Hard to say if its better or not. I think I’m less reliant on being bombastic as I was before, although I’m not as good at being bombastic.
In your lyrics, you’ve always been explicit with sex, violence, shocking content. Do you feel like that’s just the way you work, the only way you can work? Or has it ever been a kind of a reaction to a lack of something in the music you come across? Do things seem sort of sadly sanitized to you? Or is it all just entirely personal?
No, I mean, it’s just what I care about. It’s the way God made me.
I don’t disagree with you that a lot of “underground” or “indie rock” is, more than I can ever remember it being, sanitized. You know, trying as hard as it possibly can to be in a Volkswagen commercial, or on Girls, or something like that. That’s incredibly aggravating, as someone who cares about music tremendously, to have things that are new be more boring than things that are older. But maybe it’s just because I’m older?
At the same time that the content seems sanitized, the trappings of goth or industrial, the style points of it, are coming back without any of the danger.
Any time something comes back, it’s coming back without the danger, because it’s coming back. It was dangerous when it was there the first time, because it’s there the first time. With an incredibly rare number of exceptions, any band that is baldly ripping something off...it’s impossible for it to be dangerous. Well, it’s not inherently impossible, it’s unlikely to recapture the spirit that once was.
Well, then, in making a record where you set out to work with a very specific set of influences from the ‘70s and '80s: Suicide, Nico, Kraftwerk, Einstürzende Neubauten. When you yourself are using them for inspiration, how do you renew that stuff?
How do I not just totally contradict myself? Is that what you are saying?
Well, I don’t think there are a lot of bands out there taking those influences as far as you have. But if that’s the way you think about using influences, how do you think about making them work?
I don’t want to sound like a dick, but I don’t think about it. Thinking about it is poison to any music. It probably always has been, it probably always will be. I think being yourself and going for it is what gives something potential to be great. It doesn’t make it great, but at least puts it in the race to possibly be good. Music is not a thinking art, at all. It’s physical and it's emotional. Literature is a thinking art, largely filmmaking has to be, just because its so technical. But because music is almost entirely physical, when you think about it, you take it further away from your body, further away from your heart. At least to me, that almost always weakens it. I mean while doing it, anyway.
I think there is definitely some value in reflecting upon what’s important to you in music, and reflecting on what you want to do before you are doing it. But once you figure those things out, I think you need to jam them deep inside to the lower part of your brain and then go forth.
At this point of existence, over a decade in, is just being in a continued musical entity harder or easier for you now?
For me, it’s way harder than it used to be. Just the logistics of music.
Is that solely people not buying as many records? How touring has changed?
I think it’s just largely has to do with being less popular. (laughs)
Do you not feel like you’ve got a sustaining fan base? I’m sure there are people out there who are extremely devoted to following your records over time.
In that way I feel incredibly fortunate. People who have been interested in the band have been really, really generous with their support. I could never be grateful enough for that.
On the other hand, I can’t imagine that people making experimental, or even challenging music are getting much of anything off of something like Spotify.
No. I looked up the number of plays that we had had over time, it was really...I was pleasantly surprised to see how many there were. The last dividend check I got I think I got like $40 for that or something, you know and we had something like 600,000 plays. So, no.
Not so cool.
But I have a hard time imagining you ever just deciding to stop making records.
Oh, no. If I was going to stop making records when I stopped making money off of records, I would have stopped a long time ago. I can’t do it if I’m not making any money, because there’s just not enough time in the day or enough time in the year to make it possible to get a regularly touring band. It’s not impossible, but it’s incredibly difficult to do, to get a job that will let you be gone for part of the year. For me, it’s definitely not the reason to do it.
This record, specifically, are you happy with it?
I will sound like a complete asshole, but it’s my favorite Xiu Xiu record.