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Since releasing their debut, Knife Play in 2002, the members of Xiu Xiu have made a career of pushing music’s limits. Through a screeching and clamoring no-holds-barred approach to songwriting, Jamie Stewart, Xiu Xiu’s head figure, has managed to catapult his anguished experiences into indie rock’s center ring, creating as many devoted fans as harsh naysayers.
Prefix’s Kevin Dolak spoke with Stewart on the eve of his first tour of Eastern Europe to discuss the band’s evolution from Ten in the Swear Jar (whose songs were recently put out on a compilation titled Accordion Solo!), about Xiu Xiu’s devoted followers and malicious critics, and about the band’s harrowing fourth album, La Foret.
Prefix Magazine: Tell us a about the formation of Xiu Xiu and how it evolved from Ten in the Swear Jar, which you were in with Cory McCulloch.
Xiu Xiu: It unfortunately isn’t that interesting of a story. Everybody who was in Ten in the Swear Jar previously had been in another band as well, so we worked for four or five years together. People’s lives were just going in different directions, and we were going in different directions musically. There wasn’t any massive throwing of vodka bottles or anything.
PM: When was Ten in the Swear Jar around?
Xiu Xiu: The middle of 1999 to the middle of 2000. Cory and I started Xiu Xiu a few months after that, around the end of 2000.
PM: And the EPs you recorded as Ten in the Swear Jar are going on a new record?
Xiu Xiu: Right. All three EPs [came] out in July [on Accordion Solo].
PM: Is it primarily the stuff from My Very Private Map?
Xiu Xiu: No, there’s a song from that, and then there’s another EP called Eat, Death, Orphans. It’s from that.
PM: You’ve reworked some of the songs from that Ten in the Swear Jar album as Xiu Xiu, like “Sad Girl” and “Helsabot,” which was on Fag Patrol.
Xiu Xiu: We also did “I Love the Valley,” which was initially on Inside the Computer but ended up on Fabulous Muscles. Actually, the Ten version of that song sucked so bad that we thought about not putting it on the new Ten album, but we thought people might be interested in how that song came about.
PM: How did it sound originally?
Xiu Xiu: Oh, it’s just really weenie. The playing is sad, and the singing is sad.
PM: Do you have that scream on the original?
Xiu Xiu: It’s like [really faint] … . That recorded version of it is bad. And there was one other song, called “King Earth,” that we did re-did.
PM: Are you done reworking those songs in terms of Xiu Xiu at this point?
Xiu Xiu: The only reason we re-did them in the first place was that we weren’t entirely happy with the recording of the early versions. And the relevance of the songs took on different meanings for us, so we thought they’d be interesting to re-explore. None of the other songs — we’d like to do a better job on some of them, but they are very much of that time, and they don’t really feel like anything anymore. So, yeah, we’re completely done with re-exploring those.
PM: How does the songwriting and recording process take place for Xiu Xiu?
Xiu Xiu: It really depends on the song. I guess about half of them I’ll do entirely myself on the computer. Sometimes it can be really complex — I’ve actually collaborated with eight or nine people. On our new record, we did a lot of improvising with a lot of different friends and arranging all the different improvisations into songs. It’s kind of half and half between a total, single-minded, megalomaniacal computer-fest on my end and [being] obsessively collaborative.
PM: Did La Foret involve more people than Fabulous Muscles?
Xiu Xiu: I think eight or nine on the new one. Fabulous Muscles — that many people played on it, but not that many really collaborated on it. That record, more than any other record, was one that I really worked on myself. Other people played on it. For the upcoming record, it was more of a collaboration of people actually writing together.
PM: Can you tell me about sound on La Foret? There seems to be more percussion this time.
Xiu Xiu: Half of it is way more acoustic and orchestral than stuff that we’ve previously done, and half of it is electronic. There’s definitely more percussion on it than [on our previous work]. In some cases there’s a lot more of a mixture of electronic sounds and acoustic sounds, rather than solidly electronic or solidly acoustic.
PM: What led you to go in that direction? Was it a reaction to what you had already done?
Xiu Xiu: I don’t know if it was that conscious. I know we were trying to not repeat what we were doing, but we didn’t sit down and go, “On this track we have a kind of electronic sound, so we don’t want to do that.” It was kind of a self-conscious interest in not repeating what we had done. But much more of a conscious effort to make sounds that fit with the emotionality of the songs.
PM: How have you shifted in terms of subject matter?
Xiu Xiu: There are a lot more political songs on this record. Some are very real and very personal songs … but there are more overtly political songs from our perspective than there’s been in the past.
PM: Tell me about how and when you started playing. I understand your dad was a producer?
Xiu Xiu: I started playing when I was fourteen, but I didn’t really get serious about playing until I was about twenty-five or twenty-six. I kind of always jerked around, but it wasn’t until my twenties that I started to focus on it seriously.
PM: About when you finished school?
Xiu Xiu: Yeah! [laughs] I had to see my therapist about it. I felt really guilty about it. I studied social work in college, and I was a social worker for about a year after I graduated.
PM: Was there something that turned you off about social work?
Xiu Xiu: It wasn’t that, really. I’m sure that when I’m done with music I’ll re-pursue human services, but I think I was, at the time, more interested in music. At the time it was a sixty-forty split, and it’s kind of impossible. Either of those worlds needs one hundred percent commitment, and I was leaning more toward music. I was working hard as a social worker, but I was very distracted by wanting to be a musician.