XIU XIU: “Hold your head up through the heated glacial wind”

Woman holding up her hand

a conversation with Jamie Stewart

Jamie Stewart’s new record, “Girl with Basket of Fruit” (Polyvinyl Records, 2019), with his band XIU XIU, is thrilling. It’s also heartbreaking. The perfect soundtrack for this terrible time in America, with evil racists and sociopaths running everything from their private estates and gated country clubs, with insane greed the new American dream. It’s tough for a human with any heart, any conscience, to believe in much other than friends you can actually hug and the fragile networks we cobble together for fleeting warmth and comfort. It sucks to be us, but we’re in it now.

So naturally we turn to anyone who’s saying, out loud, the things we hear in our heads and wish we could say out loud, too (and not be assaulted at the local Shell station). XIU XIU, the band, has been around for 17 years, saying a lot. They make amazing records overflowing with clarity and honesty. XIU XIU is doing exactly what they set out to do. That’s got to be some kind of new miracle, right?

I wanted to talk to Jamie because I secretly hoped he had answers. That by asking him the right questions, some of his courage would be transferred like super powers to me. We laughed a lot. We talked about smoothies and unrealistic political fantasies. Jamie did what he could, but I’m not sure I’m any braver. (Editorial note: Throughout Jamie’s comments about music journalists, we were both laughing the entire time.)

However, I do feel vastly calmer for having had the opportunity to talk to someone, even briefly, as remarkable and productive and driven as Jamie Stewart. We just need to find a way to make him immortal so that we never have to live our lives, through more shit like now, without him. We can do that, right? Something to do with gene splicing? I’m just asking.

Let her be reborn as something unruinable
A meteor, a mushroom, a kakapo
A sparkling out of control

from the song “Amargi ve Moo,” on Girl with Basket of Fruit
Jamie Stewart portrait by Sharon Van Etten
Jamie Stewart (photo credit: Sharon Van Etten, used by permission)

Your records always make me have to stretch. Your music wakes me up. “Girl with Basket of Fruit” feels like the perfect soundtrack for 2019, and a natural successor to “Forget” [Polyvinyl Records, 2017]. On the last few records from XIU XIU, your lyrics are stark. Very dark. I can’t help wondering: How do you keep doing this? Record after record, facing off against such dark subject matter?

Jamie Stewart:
For better or worse, this is the way god made me. And it’s a reflection of my, at times very fortunate, but at times very unfortunate, life experience. I had an incredibly difficult childhood, raised by people who themselves had infinitely more difficult childhoods than I had. My human foundation is, in and of itself, quite dark and quite fraught. And I think because of that a lot of that type of negative energy is just going to be within me eternally. And then I also think because of that, I’m possibly more comfortable than I should be to be considered healthy or well adjusted. I feel I’m navigating that type of palette.

But then you know, on the other hand, I mean I’m an earthling. The history of the world, both ancient and current, is beset with infinitely more dire horrors than I could, or will, ever experience. So my internal life, and then by design, living on planet earth, is a wellspring [laughs] of the color black.

GP:
When I read the lyrics on your new record, I wonder…do you have to live inside that kind of thing to write about that kind of thing?

JS:
Maybe. When I was a kid…my dad and my uncle were both very accomplished and successful musicians. When I was a kid and becoming more serious about music, I can’t remember what question I asked my dad, but he mentioned that you don’t have to destroy yourself in order to write something that’s profound. He said the best musicians he knew were all people who maybe experienced something but knew enough not to keep punishing themselves in order to keep experiencing something negative, in order to put forward something positive. So I don’t think it’s a requirement.

I don’t think it’s a requirement of any artist or any musician to do something to themselves. I think maybe there was a time in my life when I thought that you had to live it in order to put it out. But it’s around us all of the time. It doesn’t necessarily have to be internalized to be real. For me it is, but that’s just the way I am. But I don’t think it had to be that way, as an artistic or musical absolute.

Fuck your guns, Fuck your wars
Fuck your truck, Fuck your flag

from the song “Mary Turner, Mary Turner,” on Girl with Basket of Fruit
Fading rose

The song “Mary Turner, Mary Turner,” on “Girl with Basket of Fruit,” is such a brutal tale, and a real-life tale about mob violence and lynching in Georgia. It’s the song I found myself most drawn into emotionally. It’s a hard, sad song to listen to. Set against a canvas of such unspeakable acts, is violence like global warming — at this point, there’s not much we can do about it?

JS:
Yeah, I think. I mean, I hope not, but probably. When, in human history, have we ever collectively done the right thing? We’re probably eternally fucked, sooner or later. We’re savage beasts. We probably won’t exist long enough to evolve out of collective violence, unfortunately. I absolutely hope I’m wrong, and I live as if I’m wrong. I mean, I’m going to make a fucking smoothie for breakfast [laughs]. So, I assume there will be a tomorrow [laughs] because I’m having a healthy breakfast.

I mean, in some ways, violence obviously defines human history. But then on the other hand, there are more people every day. And more people who are being brutally murdered. So somehow, it’s working for now, in terms of violence. But as you said, when global warming becomes an unsurvivable and more universal rather than a localized issue, it’s obviously going to become more violent. I’ll probably kill myself before it gets there [laughs]. The people who will survive are the worst people there are: right-wing gun nuts and religious lunatics. Those will be the people starting a new civilization. So Part II will be even worse than Part I.

Girl with Basket of Fruit LP cover
Girl with Basket of Fruit

GP:
It’s interesting when artists add elements of violence to their work to help wake us up. What happens when we all stop being shocked?

JS:
Let me answer this in two ways. I don’t ever go about trying to be shocking. The band writes songs about what we write songs about because that’s what’s important to us. The motivation is never to try to inform or to wake somebody up. People will deal with it the way they’ll deal with it. Some people might find it shocking. I mean, for some people, there’s music that’s fifty-million times more quote-unquote shocking than what we’re doing. So that means that’s never a motivation or anything that ever factors into what I’m thinking about.

But collectively, when people stop being shocked by quote-unquote shocking art, I mean, I don’t think that’s really going to happen. The ante seems like it keeps being pushed up. You know, I’m not that worried about it. Maybe it’ll be good. [Laughs] Maybe we’ll stop being titillated by it, and we’ll behave better, I don’t know. Again, we’ll probably be annihilated by our own greed and apathy.

GP:
How do audiences respond when you play songs from “Girl with Basket of Fruit” live?

JS:
People have been really nice about it generally. Every audience is different. The songs that I thought were the most difficult to listen to, just from an aesthetic standpoint, not necessarily from a lyric standpoint, that aren’t pop songs with a regular beat, verse, and a chorus, the response to those has been as good as, or better, than it has been to any of our older quote-unquote classic songs from the first couple of records. People have been very open and supportive. We were pleasantly surprised.

GP:
I was talking to a friend about this record recently, trying to imagine how you would perform some of these songs live.

JS:
It just doesn’t sound exactly like the record, which never bothers me. I appreciate having the opportunity to…it’s just another chance to be creative. Records are one thing. Figuring out a way to do the arrangements, it’s just another puzzle to solve.

Jamie Stewart
JS (photo credit: Polyvinyl Records, used by permission)

So when you perform intense songs like these, night after night, on one of your long tours, which you’re about to begin in September and will run through November, ending in the UK, how do you feel after performing these songs? I would think it would be exhausting.

JS:
Oh, yeah, it is. [Laughs] There’s no way around it. At this point we’ve been a band since 2002. There’s no going back at this point. I’m not going to rein it in because I’m tired. I’ll quit before then.

GP:
A friend has one of your patches, the one with “Fuck your guns, Fuck your wars, Fuck your truck, Fuck your flag” on it. And I thought, “I want the t-shirt.”

JS:
Make one with a Sharpie! We were afraid to make shirts because we thought people might get beat up. The label asked us if we were going to make shirts with that on it. It was actually their idea to make the patch. We thought, I don’t know, the patch you can hide a little. There are plenty of assholes in the world. It’s not going to change anyone’s mind. It’s just more giving people the middle finger. But a t-shirt is harder to cover up in the face of someone who’d be inclined to…I don’t want to get some 16-year-old beat up at gas station by a bunch of fucking right-wing shit-bags. But you’re an adult. So you can handle it. You should make your own shirt!

GP:
Yeah, I can handle it. [Laughs] You know, when I prepare for an interview, I read what’s being written about an artist, about a new record, and I’m astonished about how people write about you and your work. I don’t get it. I don’t understand why some writers have so much trouble with… you. I’m just curious, how do you respond to that? Maybe you don’t even care?

JS:
Unfortunately, I really do care. So, I do everything I can to not read anything. It’s just that the longer I do it, the more deeply I’m affected by it. I was talking to a musician friend of mine about it, and I was like, I’ve been doing this forever, why does this still hurt my feelings and make me feel shitty? And he said, “Well, every year you’re more invested in it than you were before. It’s more a part of you. You’ve been doing it longer; it makes more sense that you’d be more bothered by it.”

And I thought about it, and when we first started, you know…bad reviews are people talking shit, I thought I should read them because I thought I maybe could learn something from these. And then I realized that 99% of music journalists are complete idiots, and I have absolutely nothing to learn from them about music, [laughs] least of all about being a person.

It feels shitty when some garbage bag [publication] with a first-year grad student, who looks up to their parents, decides they can eviscerate me as a person, completely, not knowing me in any way. Or just having to write a totally shitty Pitchfork review and cribbing half of it because they need to make $25, or something like that. Yeah, it sucks. I do absolutely everything I can to read no good reviews, or bad reviews. I’m too sensitive, really. It genuinely hurts my feelings, which is silly, but it’s the case.

GP:
You’ve spent years creating a complex aesthetic. It’s unified. It feels very intentional and strong. And people come along, listen to one record, and try to sum up your entire career based on one entry point.

JS:
Music journalists are, almost without exaggerating, complete idiots who don’t know anything about music. And being a music journalist has really nothing to do with music. It has to do with being in a kind of hideous netherworld, where they’re not physical enough to be jocks, but they’re not creative or smart enough to be artists or science nerds. But they still feel like people should give a fuck about what they say.

It’s got to be really tough being a music journalist because not all of them, but a lot of them…some are really superb, genuinely superb…you’re basically the biggest loser there is. You’re like a loser with a shitty attitude. It really kind of sucks to be you, as a music journalist. I mean, not YOU as a person. To be a music journalist, you want people to care about what you have say or you can’t do anything. I don’t know, it’s got to be a rough life.

XIU XIU (photo credit: Polyvinyl Records, used by permission)

Well, I don’t actually consider myself a music critic. I only write about the artists and records I enjoy and respect. Life’s too short and there’s so much really cool new music.

JS:
No, no, you seem like you care about music! [Laughs] Not because you’re being nice to me, but your questions are very, very thoughtful, like you’ve put some time into it.

GP:
Well, thank you. I’ve always wondered, why write a negative review? In the world we live in now, there’s so much music that’s made, why not skip the records you hate?

JS:
I’ve always kind of wondered that, too! Maybe make some recommendations. We’ve had as many good reviews as bad reviews. It’s not like I’m railing against our entire response or something. We continue to exist. Somebody must think the band’s OK. Yeah, I mean, why not make a recommendation? I’d much rather read about something that is good. There’s no point. So if no one writes about it, that’s biggest bad review of all.

GP:
It’s not like the critic’s job is to try to improve the artist’s aesthetic by criticizing it.

JS:
Like I said, it’s someone who has a giant chip on their shoulder who knows they have no talent railing against their own inadequacy. That’s what it is.

GP:
So I guess the way you manage that is you just tune it out?

JS:
Oh, I don’t tune out. I pointedly evade it. Emotionally, I can’t handle it. So, I can’t do it.

GS:
So now we’re living in this weird world of streaming services and professional playlists, shit like that. How is that impacting you and your work, or is it?

JS:
For professional reasons, I think it’s disrespectful of me to stream music. So, I always buy records. The last couple of tours…I know that people who are just in the beginning of their music-listening lives, it’s the main way people listen to music, not entirely, but largely. I’ve noticed that half the people at shows I’m playing are, you know, between like 16 and 24, which is nice for us to see, considering we’ve been a band for 17 years. Financially, it’s no good for us at all, as far as royalties. But as far as people being able to find out about the band, I mean, I don’t know how else someone who is 16 would find out about us. It’s not like we’re on the radio or something, not that people listen to the radio. You don’t have a lot of exposure, probably, other than with something like that.

So, it’s a mixed thing. I feel incredibly lucky and grateful that people who are just starting out and going to shows are coming to see us. I mean, it obviously sucks as far as royalties.

I had this cool fantasy of imagining a meeting full of Clear Channel media executives sitting around their boardroom discussing your work, trying to figure out where to put you. How do we get this guy on the radio?

JS:
I’m sure it never happens! [Laughs]

GP:
Given the nature of your work, and your lyrics, and I always focus a lot on the lyrics, given you point out things like lynching in songs, and racism, and violence of all kinds, do you consider yourself an activist? I feel I should ask that because it’s like when you read a book or listen to a record that’s shining a light on dark spaces, I tend to think that’s an activist’s mind space? Or is it purely aesthetic?

JS:
Well, I’ve gotten a little bit of shit for what I’ll say about this. Personally, I am involved a small way in some politics, completely outside of my music life. In that small way, I would consider myself an activist. But in no way do I think being a musician, or any musician unless they’re extraordinarily famous, do I think writing any kind of song is a form of activism. No song now — maybe in the 60s and the 70s it could have had some sort of genuine political impact just because the music industry was set up in an entirely different way. There were probably 5% as many bands, and because of that, there were 5% as many records to buy. So, the records that you got were so much more centralized. So, potentially those messages could reach a larger number of people.

It really bothers me that bands think that if they sing a song about something that it will change somebody’s mind. What it can do, if you have some sort of political notion that goes in a particular direction, it’s nice to have that, and valuable to have that supported and affirmed being a group with like-minded people. But no right-wing shit-bag is going to go to a Bikini Kill show and go, “Oh shit, I had it totally wrong! Thanks, guys!” That’s really not how it fucking works.

GP:
Oh man! [Laughs]

JS:
In the same way no Riot Grrrl is going to go to a Screwdriver show and go, “Oh shit, now I totally want to be a Nazi! Thanks, guys! I knew I had it wrong.” That’s not how it works.

So no, I mean, we write about things as a band that are moving to us and that we feel like we can’t not talk about, but we don’t have a plan for what we want people’s response for that to be. If you’re an activist and you’re starting a protest, you want there to be a specific result from that protest. We want people’s response to be whatever their genuine response is going to be. So, no, I don’t think XIU XIU is an activist band. I think XIU XIU talks about the politics that matter to the people in the band.

And on occasion, somewhat regularly, we sell specific records…we have a site called XIUXIU69, it’s just like a list of weirdo ephemera things, and all the money from that, each couple of quarters, we’ll give to a particular political or activist organization that we believe in. But that’s really more people donating to that. We’re not being activists. Other people are being activists and we’re just funneling the money somewhere else.

GP:
I’m at my last question. I think we’re living in a really shitty time. I can’t believe what I read every day in the media.

JS:
[Laughs] I can only laugh! Fuck! Oh my god!

GP:
So I look at your work and I think, “Damn, this guy doesn’t give up.” You’ve got a kind of inner strength that I really admire. What gives you hope?

JS:
I mean, you’re alive! You haven’t blown your brains out, clearly. You haven’t given up either.

GP:
I’ve wanted to. [Laughs]

JS:
Me too! Yet, we persist.

GP:
I think I’m a coward.

JS:
I don’t know, I mean, fuck it. Then they win. You know? Fuck those assholes. Fuck them forever. My greatest, my prayer, I pray every day, for the day that Donald Trump blows his fucking head off while he’s sitting in the Oval Office. Really, god, more than anything, I want him, during a press conference, to put a gun in his mouth and blow his fucking head off. Or for Melania to murder him. It would be so wonderful, for her to put a .22 behind the back of his ear, mob style. So, THEY should kill themselves, not us.

GP:
Well, may it be so.

JS:
[Laughs] May it be so.

I want to pretend, but I cannot pretend
That you don’t want me to speak

from the song “Normal Love,” on Girl with Basket of Fruit
Black and white photo of a vase of dead flowers