ARTS

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June 8, 2004

Ivan takes a suprisingly bright walk on the dark side with Jamie Stewart

A couple of months ago, I conducted an interview with a singer and songwriter of the band Xiu Xiu before they played at the Fireside. I was very much expecting Jamie Stewart to be one of the most disturbing people I've ever met, considering the subject matter in his songs: Incest, violence, self-hatred, terminal disease, etc.—all delivered in the tone of someone suffering a nervous breakdown. On the contrary, Jamie turned out to be really nice and very easy to converse with.

Ivan: I'd like to start out by saying that you guys are basically the first rock band I've given a shit about in a while.

[Laughter]

I was thinking about why that might be, and I guess that first of all, it's that you make such poppy music in a very experimental context. That, and it's pretty awesome that you can make a line like "cremate me after you come on my lips" sound so catchy.

[More laughter]

So I was just wondering whether that was a concern for you: Making music that was so disturbing actually accessible.

Jamie: Well, I'm definitely a real huge fan of Top 40 and pop records, so I don't know if there was ever really a conscious plan to make things necessarily accessible. I guess just kind of by the dearth of having been so interested and influenced by pop music, it just crept its way in there. And then a lot of the stuff we listen to is also disturbing and largely experimental.

Ivan: Along with that, I noticed in another interview you did that you really liked the Angels of Light. What do you think of the Swans?

Jamie: I'm a huge, huge Swans fan. I bought one of their tapes on accident as a kid. I just thought the cover looked sorta cool.

Ivan: Which one was it?

Jamie: It was Filth—the one with the teeth. And I felt like it wasn't cool for me to listen to it, like I had unearthed something that was not proper for a young mind. I sorta listened to it for a couple of minutes here and there, and it felt like looking at a nudie magazine or something.

Ivan: That's cool, because I think that what you and Swans are doing is very alike in some ways. Maybe even more so with Angels of Light. Like you are placing things a lot of people would find disturbing in a very intimate context.

Jamie: That's an interesting way to put that, yeah. His [Swans' front man Michael Gira's] stuff has definitely influenced the way I've gone about stuff like that—subject matter and saying things in a kind of frank and dark way sometimes.

Ivan: Another thing I've noticed is you talk about 20th century classical music a lot, especially with "Support Our Troops OH! [Black Angels]" on the new album. I'm assuming you mean George Crumb's piece "Black Angels," which was about the Vietnam War. How would you say that relates to what you were saying in "Support Our Troops"?

Jamie: "Support Our Troops" is about the paradox with the mind set of being against the current war on terrorism—but supporting the troops at the same time. I had read this article about a journalist that went with a bunch of troops into Iraq when they were first invading it, and the article consisted mostly of just quotes from the things that the dudes were saying, and it was really disturbing and shocking how completely uninterested they were in the political situation, and how incredibly interested they were in getting to kill people. They talked about that really frankly. And just the idea of supporting somebody who, in a very individualistic way, is responsible for carrying out corporate-sponsored murders and—and having sympathy for someone who volunteers for an organization whose job it is to do that—is really disgusting and disturbing to me.

Ivan: So talking about the new album, in all the interviews I've read with you before, it seemed like you were really concerned with conveying this tone of despair.

Jamie: I don't know if I was specifically interested in conveying despair or just interested in documenting the things that were going on in my life. That's really the point of that band—just being open and truthful about what's happening around us. The time that we were making the last few records, stuff was kinda fucked, so that's what they've been about. But it's never singularly about what's bad, but just about what's happening with us.

Ivan: Well, maybe despair is the wrong word, but I've read that even the band name was influenced by the film [Xiu Xiu: The Sent-Down Girl]. And just the way that things are fucked and just keep on being fucked

Jamie: Yeah. I think the fact that things don't resolve most of the time is where the idea of naming it after that movie came from.

Ivan: Listening to the new album—as compared to Knife Play and even A Promise—it seemed like there was maybe more of a hopeful tone this time around.

Jamie: Some good stuff happened, and some stuff that I had been worrying about happening already happened, and—like I already said—the point was to document what is going on. Some of the stuff has gotten better.

Ivan: In particular, the songs "Little Panda McElroy" and "Clowne Towne" seem a lot more positive.

Jamie: "Clowne Towne" is a pop song, but it's more about friendships falling apart and betrayal and things like that. I mean, the music is definitely more poppy, but the sentiment of the song is about a lot of relationships in a short period of time that got way too intermeshed and ended up as a complete disaster and mess.

Ivan: Another thing I've been wondering about was what you did before you started doing music. What were you into?

Jamie: Oh, I've been playing in a band since I guess I was 14, so that's kinda what I've been wanting to do forever until I got old enough to it. I don't know, I guess bird watching?

[Laughter]

I went to art school for a while. Those two things are, I guess, classically attached.

Ivan: So, what's next on the agenda?

Jamie: Touring a lot. Working on the next album.

Ivan: A book?

Jamie: Yeah, I'd definitely be interested in doing some more writing. This one [book] that I had worked on is more just like funny stories. It's not like a fine piece of literature or anything. I just felt that I had to get most obvious ideas out of my head. I don't think it's a great piece of art, but I guess they [the stories] would be enjoyable to read.

Ivan: All right. Well, cool. Thanks a lot.

Jamie: Thank you.