Jamie Stewart Talks Twin Peaks, Pornhub, and Other ‘Sensitive Topics’
Interview by TJ Kliebhan
Photo by Cara Robbins
Noise-pop act Xiu Xiu has always marched to the beat of its own drum machine. From the intense lyrics to the in-your-face live performances, this band is not afraid to stir things up. During an in-depth interview, founding member Jamie Stewart gets candid with TJ Kliebhan about working on the Twin Peaks reboot soundtrack, premiering his music video on Pornhub, and other ‘sensitive topics’…
How did the tour with Swans go? Are you a fan of the band?
Jamie: It was great. I’ve toured with Swans three times now. I have known Michael (Gira) since 2004 when I did a tour with Devendra Banhart, who was on Young God Records at that time. Even though this is the third time around, it is still quite a thrill for me. I have been a fan of Swans since I was a very young teenager so playing with them is wonderful for me. The whole band is fan of Swans.
Since you’ve been a fan since you were a teenager, how was it meeting Michael Gira? What is your relationship with him like? I hear he can a bit of an intimidating figure.
Jamie: Well, he’s had a very intense life. The person that you see on stage is not that different from the person in real life. I would say he is… just not a casual person. He takes everything very seriously including himself. It’s something I admire in him actually.
You’ve also been doing this re-imagining of the soundtrack to the 90s television show Twin Peaks…
Jamie: Well, I wouldn’t use that word. “Re-Imagining” implies we have something to add to it. This is more like a “Thank You” to it. We’re doing our best because no one can really replicate that. Our motivation is to say “thank you” to that music, not to remake it.
How satisfied are you with how the “Thank You” to Twin Peaks has turned out so far? Has it been going as well as you could have hoped?
Jamie: Well it’s been…(laughs) it’s been interesting. This as a project has been quite intimidating because there is so much expectation. The original soundtrack is well deserving of all the praise it receives. Doing it justice is quite a task. I’m not sure that we’re doing it justice, but we certainly are attempting to. One thing I can tell you for sure is that we, as a band, are all huge fans of this music, and playing it for people has been oddly fun. It has been totally nerve-wracking but super enjoyable.
I’ve read that you’re a guy who takes personal reflection very seriously. This obviously comes out in your incredibly personal music. Is there anything you won’t share with your audience, or do you feel like no aspect of your personal life is off limits?
Jamie: Ooh (pauses). I don’t know. Not yet. I can’t say I haven’t had any reservations so far that I haven’t felt like sharing. I don’t really think about Xiu Xiu’s music in the context of sharing myself. Xiu Xiu has always been connected with my regular life. There isn’t much difference between it. If it is going to come out, it is going to come out. If it feels like it needs to become a song, I’ve realized I’m going to make it a song somehow. Even if it is a shitty experience, it is still my shitty experience.
In a prior article you articulate that Xiu Xiu songs are based around five topics: “family, politics, sex, love and lovelessness, suicide, and how they are connected.” It seems like what links these topics is power and control. Is the power exchanged between people, or even within oneself, a significant idea that exists in your life?
Jamie: I think that is a great observation. What we’re trying to do is strictly be honest. Thinking too much is strictly the enemy of music. For me, I try to make it as little of an intellectual process as possible. Subconsciously though I think you are correct in saying all of those things. The idea of power and control is subconsciously something that probably is very important to me. I think power and control are great and powerful forces in the world, but I wouldn’t put it hand in hand with Xiu Xiu. But it is your job to be analytical about it so for that I like the connection (laughs).
Yeah, I must have music fan syndrome where I have to over-analyze everything. Let’s move to something lighter. You’ve been playing with Angela Seo since 2009 and Shayna Dunkelman since 2012. How have these ladies pushed you creatively or otherwise in ways that the prior members have not?
Jamie: Well it isn’t just the way they push me. It’s not just my band – it’s our band. We push each other in various ways. I think this specific lineup of Xiu Xiu is very supportive of each other’s strengths and weaknesses. Shayna and Angela are extraordinarily creative musically, but genuinely they are my two best friends.
Another one of the aims of your music is this depiction of violence in a very visceral way. This comes out in both the music and the music videos Xiu Xiu does as well. The videos that you direct specifically contain shocking imagery.
Jamie: What I do like about doing our videos this way is that there is no distinct image to Xiu Xiu. People’s perception of what Xiu Xiu is always is changing. I mean, there are some bands that when you hear them or see a video you immediately know what they are about. I don’t think this is a bad thing though. Some of my favorite bands are like this. The second you hear a Joy Division song, you know in ten seconds what they’re about. I love Joy Division. What they did was untouchable, brilliant, and unique. I just didn’t want Xiu Xiu to be that way. Maybe it was foolish not to be that way (laughs). It’s just a little too late to change things and create an aesthetic at this point (laughs).
But you obviously like to surprise viewers with your videos. I mean, surely you have to admit that a video of you and Angela throwing up on each other, or the fact that I have to go to a pornographic website to watch a Xiu Xiu video sometimes is a surprising or shocking experience. I imagine that to someone who is unfamiliar with Xiu Xiu could view it to be a cheap shock value tactic.
Jamie: (Laughs) Of course those are two of the videos I directed too. Like I said, the point is not to be shocking, the point is to illustrate those songs or topics in an honest way. Like in the video for “Dear God I Hate Myself” when Angela is throwing up the whole time, that video is about her issues with body image and hating one’s self because of that. How eating can be such a horrible experience for someone.
The infamous Pornhub “Black Dick” video was all these rapid really low resolution graphic sex images was just…really my life and how I imagine sex to be sometimes. So is something like that shocking for people? I think for the people who it does shock, these are sensitive topics that they don’t like being confronted with. I think there are some who would be equally interested in these topics and discussing them.
Your live show and stage presence is emotional, provocative, heart-wrenching, exhausting. It goes back to the honest of the lyrics I’m sure. Is there an emotional live singer that influenced your stage presence? Or is it all just the Jamie Stewart ego?
Jamie: (laughs) There is nothing from Xiu Xiu or the life of Jamie Stewart that is all Jamie Stewart. Honestly there have been a ton – Otis Redding, Nina Simone, Morrissey, Ian Curtis, Nick Cave, PJ Harvey, a bunch of early ‘50s rock and roll singers, Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters…
2014 saw a lot of Xiu Xiu music and so did 2015. What lies in store for 2016?
Jamie: Our version of the Twin Peaks soundtrack should be arriving sometime in April. Also the reissues of “Knife Play” and “A Promise” through Graveface Records should be arriving sometime next year as well. Honestly though 2016 is going to be a year of hermitage for Xiu Xiu. I’m currently not planning to tour all that much. Maybe a shorter North American Twin Peaks tour is in the works, but that isn’t our music so we don’t want to turn this into a gimmick. We’re mostly planning to start working on the new album and have something ready for 2017.
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