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A ballet room isn't exactly the place that you'd expect to host a concert. In fact, nothing about the fundraiser for the Austin Museum of Digital Arts was typical, from the makeshift sound system, to the foldout chairs, to the narrow glass windows revealing a tumultuous sky, grumbling threateningly and perforated by lightning bolts. But, it was somehow an appropriate setting for Xiu Xiu: dark, dramatic, beautiful, and totally unexpected. Lead singer and mastermind Jamie Stewart and multi-instrumentalist Caralee McElroy accepted their uncharacteristic surroundings with a kind of quiet amusement, and went on to play a lush set of songs from across their entire catalogue. I got a chance to sit down with Stewart before the show and discuss everything from upcoming projects to stuffed cats.

Hybrid Magazine: Ah! Here we go. Now, I have to apologize in advance if this interview is somewhat boring and/or tedious, but you asked that the interview be as painful as possible, so I did my best. Boredom's a form of pain, right? [laughs]

Jamie Stewart: [laughs] Sure!

HM: So, first of all, how did you get involved with Austin Museum of Digital Arts. Did they approach you guys or did you approach them?

JS: Let's see, last November we played a particularly unceremonious show at Emo's, which included getting lit cigarettes thrown at my face, so after the show they very kindly approached me and asked if I was interested in playing some place a little less dangerous, so of course I said yes.

HM: Yeah, actually, I was going to talk to you about that. Does that happen a lot, or…

JS: No.

HM: So, basically, Austinites are just assholes.

JS: Uh, no, it's happened a couple of times. Actually, the two times that we've ever been "assaulted" have both been in Texas, so maybe it's just…

HM: Texans.

JS: I don't know. But we've had great shows in Texas, too.

HM: Yeah, I was at that show and I just thought, "Wow. What is it about this music that confronts you in such a way that you feel threatened enough to throw lit cigarettes at somebody?"

JS: Yeah, but it's ok. Even at the time it was so out there that it was kind of funny.

HM: I know! We were all kind of like, "What the fuck just happened?"

JS: Yeah.

HM: Speaking of painful experiences, have you guys completely recovered from the Montana robbery?

JS: Oh, no, that's not up for discussion.

HM: No?

JS: Yeah, that's the only thing that I really don't want to discuss.

HM: That's fine. I understand. So…a lot of music critics, the only negative thing they can think to say about Xiu Xiu is, "Oh, they just wallow in pain." There seems to be this fear of open confrontation or discussion of the most negative aspects of life. What would you say in response to that?

JS: I don't think I have anything to say to that. I mean, it's not our responsibility to do anything other than what we feel is the most true music for us to be doing, and people will either like it or not like it. I'm entirely uninterested in trying to convince somebody that they should like us, you know? [laughs]

HM: Sure.

JS: If that's not where their head is at then there are a billion other bands that they could listen to. If somebody enjoys it and it's something they want to be listening to, then that's why we're doing it. And if they don't, and they think we're lame, then they can go listen to whatever the fuck else.

HM: Along similar lines, a lot of people that I've talked to about Xiu Xiu or have made listen to your music have said, "Is it real? Or is it a joke? Are they serious about this stuff?" because a lot of it is so dark and graphic. And I've even read other interviews with you where you've said the same thing, that people think it's funny, or that you're being insincere. And to me, it makes sense that people react like that because I think the whole purpose of humor is to alleviate pain; so some of the funniest things to us are the subjects that are the most painful. But that doesn't make it any less real or sincere. So…I mean, do you agree with that? Is that part of the goal of your music? Or am I missing the point entirely?

JS: Yeah, absolutely. I think that the only real goal that we have is to just write truthfully about the things that are happening to us-"us" meaning the people in the band and our families and the people who are close to us. I mean exactly what you just said: life is just really terrible sometimes. So terrible that it's kind of hilarious. [laughs] So, yeah, I agree entirely with what you're saying.

HM: Ok. So, go ahead and talk about the songwriting process. How do you go about that? Is it something the whole band does, or do you mainly do all the writing?

JS: It kind of depends on the song…and…well, the band has only been around for about three years, which isn't too long. But the process has varied a lot as the membership has varied a lot in that time. For the last record - I mean, for Fabulous Muscles, the one we have out now - I mostly did it myself, just sitting in front of the computer program that we do recording on. Currently, stuff has been a lot more collaborative. I'll do a small sketch of something and record it into the computer and then ask friends to come over and give their input. And then Cory, our producer, will come over…

HM: McCulloch?

JS: Yeah, Cory McCulloch. He used to play live, but just didn't enjoy it, so he just does studio stuff now. So it's kind of a combination of stuff. Just taking people's immediate impressions and ideas and improvisations based on a really loose song structure, and then, in a very sort of deliberate and pointed way, assembling that stuff on the computer. So it's both extremes of totally improvised and totally constructed. That just sounded insanely dorky! [laughs]

HM: Oh, whatever. Dorky is relative.

JS: Well…

HM: So how did you guys get together? How did Xiu Xiu start?

JS: Well, Cory and I had been in a band together before, and he and I were getting interested in music that the other band members weren't interested in, and they weren't as committed to doing it full time anyway. And our previous band got asked to play this festival, but Cory and I knew that we were going to be breaking up, so we just told the festival that we changed our band name, because we still wanted to play [at the festival], even though it really was a completely different band. So I asked a couple of different people to play-Yvonne Chen being one of them... So, that was really the inception of it.

(A part of his answer, and then my response was rendered completely unintelligible by a loud noise coming from the hall. But here's picking up where the loud noise ended.)

HM: "Support Our Troops": on it, you say, "Why should I care if you get killed?" in reference to the troops. Do you really mean that? Is that a serious statement? Is that your personal stance, even towards people who might be good people, but have been misled into something unhealthy?

JS: See, I don't really…That's obviously a really difficult statement to justify, but obviously within the context of what people have chosen to do with their lives, it's a little bit difficult to think of it in other terms sometimes. Not all the time, but certainly sometimes. I don't think that people who have joined the military have been misled about what their job in the military is. The job of the military, clearly, is to kill people for imperialistic, corporate government. I feel entirely differently about people who were involved in the Vietnam era because there was the draft and people were forced to do it, but now it's totally voluntary, and people are choosing to become assassins and killers for the government. The song is based on an article where a journalist followed a Special Forces troop into Baghdad, and the troop just talked constantly about how much they wanted to kill people, and how they were hired killers, and they were really into it. And they were completely unapologetic about it and not thinking about the political context at all, or about the repercussions of what they were doing, both to themselves and to the families of the people that they were blowing up. Now, one thing that people have brought up to me that I didn't think about at the time that I was writing the song is: what about the people who are living in total destitution and they just don't have any other options? And, that's not something that I had thought about. Sometimes I think that can be a valid case, but on the other hand, how destitute do you have to be to become a murderer? I'm sure that's not people's motivation, but that's what the point of the military is, and the fact that that is a possibility for someone joining the military isn't a mystery. Bearing that in mind, I feel almost entirely unsympathetic for people who are middle class who decide to join the military. If you want to be of service to your country, join AmeriCorps, or something like that. I just cannot abide… It's inexplicable to me that someone would want to do that with their life. So, when I say, "Why should I care if you get killed?" I'm asking that question clearly. I'm not completely dismissing the idea of why somebody should care…

HM: You're asking them to justify themselves?

JS: Or asking somebody who's listening to think about why they should care. I sincerely, sincerely pray every single day that people involved in the war on terrorism don't kill anybody, and don't get killed, and get home safely so that they can move on and do something else with their life. It's not that I want anybody to die. But…it's a difficult, miserable, horrible situation. And question.

HM: Yeah. Sorry. But remember, you asked for pain. [laughs]

JS: Oh, no no no! I didn't mean your question; I meant the general situation, and the question in the song.

HM: Ok, it's time for a lighter subject. I read that…

JS: Man, I talked about that for eight minutes, according to the little timer on this thing.

HM: [laughs] Well, it was a serious question and deserved a serious answer, so I'm glad that you did. So, I was reading that you're really into gamelan and modern classical, and I got really excited because I was introduced to gamelan a few years ago by one of my music teachers and I'm totally into it…

JS: Oh, cool!

HM: And that's what I was immediately reminded of when I first heard Xiu Xiu. So I was wondering how you got into it?

JS: Just kind of by being a dorky teenager. [laughs] I just would buy a bunch of world recordings at record stores and it was just by accident. I was like, "Oh, music from Indonesia! I wonder what that sounds like?" And then it started melting my brain. And then, Cory studied music in school and played in a gamelan troupe for a while. It's not necessarily that we're trying to emulate gamelan. It's just how the arrangements are set up. Just the idea of… the sound of the gongs is really beautiful to us. And then, just how a lot of the music is arranged, in terms of the interlocking melodies, for instance, has been really influential for us.

HM: Well, using percussion as melody…

JS: Right, right. Exactly.

HM: That really struck me when I heard you guys for the first time. I thought, "What does this remind me of?" And I always wondered if gamelan had been an influence, or if it was just a coincidence. So what are some of your favorite modern classical composers? Who do you listen to a lot?

JS: Um…Gorecki, Shostakovich, Henry Cowell…um…I just bought a new record and I feel like jerk because I can't remember the guy's name, but it's really great! I'm really bad at remembering people's names, but those are my huge favorites, and then there's a ton of others that, if I looked at my records, I'd be like, "Oh yeah, oh yeah, oh yeah, I can't believe I forgot their names!" And then other people in the band have their own favorites, but those are mine.

HM: Have you seen a gamelan troupe live?

JS: No, I never have! I'm sure it's mindblowing.

HM: Oh, it is! They have one here at UT and it's amazing: probably 30 people, all in the traditional garb, with all the gongs and other instruments, and everything's just these vibrant colors and sounds. Simply breathtaking.

JS: Oh wow. I bet.

HM: So, how about your instrumentation? When you put together the band, did you have a specific idea of what instruments you wanted to use based on other kinds of music, or was it more experimental, like, "Let's see how this sounds if we play it with this?"

JS: Well, we had a pretty specific idea of what kind of music we wanted to base what we were working on, on. Like, what influences specifically we wanted to have factor into what we were going to do. And that definitely led up to what instruments we were going to use. We've always been pretty particular. It has never been a haphazard process. Some of it, on tour, though, has been what we were physically able to carry around with us. But as far as recording, we'll try a lot of things, but there's definitely a specific set of things that we'll draw on.

HM: Jaap Blonk: I heard you're a fan of his?

JS: Oh yeah!

HM: I'd met you a couple of tours back and I asked you this question already, but… I really am fascinated by a lot of the ways that you use your voice; it's beautiful and musical, but still very unusual… unnatural, even. Very haunting.

JS: Thanks.

HM: I think I actually walked up to you and asked, "How do you get your voice to do that?" It was some really dorky question like that. But I'm fascinated by phonetics, so I'm really drawn to that sort of thing. How much of that is Jamie Stewart being Jamie Stewart, and how much of that is listening to people like Jaap Blonk and thinking, "I want to do that!"

JS: I think it was a combination of both. Hearing him do stuff like that was the first time that I ever thought about the possibility of it, that you could push singing into weirder territory. And thinking about that, I think I just try to have anything come out of my mouth, whatever that may be. So, not exactly like him, but yeah, a combination of those these.

HM: A-ha. You went to Vietnam?

JS: Yes.

HM: What made you want to go there, specifically? What was it that drew you to that particular country?

JS: It's so dumb! [laughs] I saw a movie about it and it looked really beautiful. I wish I had a cooler answer, but that's it.

HM: Is there another country like that right now that you really want to go see? Somewhere you're saving up for? [laughs]

JS: I've been thinking about going to Mongolia, or maybe Brazil. But we'll see. We're pretty busy right now. I'll certainly make a point of it.

HM: Cool. What albums or projects are you working on right now?

JS: Uh…we're working on a new record right now, with a ton of other people, who come in whenever they're available. We're about half done, I guess. Just all kinds of little Xiu Xiu singles and stuff like that. I wish I could say we were working on something else, but nothing exciting like that. Just different Xiu Xiu stuff.

HM: Do you know when the album will be coming out or will it just be done when it's done?

JS: Well, at the moment, anyway, we're planning for September of next year, but it might be earlier than that.

HM: And it'll be on 5RC again?

JS: In the U.S. it'll be on 5RC, yeah. And I think we're doing one 7" for Europe this year, and then there will be a couple of splits that will be available in the next few months or so.

HM: Cool. You had a comic book a couple of tours ago…

JS: Yeah!

HM: You did that with your girlfriend, right?

JS: No, with my cousin.

HM: With your cousin?

JS: Who is Caralee.

HM: Oh, I didn't know that! Now I know. So, was that just for the hell of it, or was it a fundraising thing?

JS: Oh, it was just for fun.

HM: Is it still available?

JS: We only made about fifteen copies. We could make more. It was pretty weird, but we thought it was funny.

HM: I was laughing.

JS: Oh good, I'm glad you thought it was funny.

HM: I think you should sell it on the website.

[laughs]

HM
: So, you work at a preschool?

JS: I used to, for about ten years, but in the last year I've just been playing music.

HM: What was the appeal for you?

JS: Initially it was just that my mom ran a preschool and I didn't know what to do, so she asked me if I wanted to try that, and I ended up loving it. It is really astonishing, getting to be around people that age for years and years and years. I don't think I'll do it again after music. I think I did it for as long as I could do it and still do a decent job at it. But it was astonishingly rewarding.

HM: Yeah, when I learned about that I thought it was very interesting, because… Do you know who Dawn McCarthy is?

JS: No.

HM: She has a project called Faun Fables and she's in Sleepytime Gorilla Museum.

JS: Oh yeah! Yeah.

HM: Yeah. So, you, she, and some other musicians… I mean, her music isn't similar to Xiu Xiu stylistically or philosophically, but emotionally… I don't know, there's just a common thread there about the music being beautiful but also very dark. And I was curious about the connection between people who openly embrace the most horrific emotions and experiences, and who also work with children, who are traditionally thought of as being ultimately innocent and naive…

JS: You know, I've known a lot of people who've played pretty harsh music and have been preschool teachers, and I think it's because people who write dark music, not always, but tend to have a certain amount of empathy for the people they're writing about. And, you know, it's impossible to be a halfway decent preschool teacher if you can't really be empathetic to someone else's position. You know, being five years old sucks most of the time. [laughs] So, I think that's how those things work together. Obviously, not everyone that's in either position works that way, but many do.

HM: That's exactly what I was asking about. I'm glad you understood the question through all that fumbling. [laughs] So talk about the Mines Advisory Group (a group committed to finding and safely removing landmines left over from various wars around the world). I read somewhere that you guys have been doing benefit concerts for them?

JS: We haven't done it for about a year, but we were doing it pretty regularly for a while.

HM: How did you get started with that?

JS: Oh, having gone to Vietnam, and seeing people who were like eight years old - obviously born way after the war - having no legs or arms just from stuff that was left over. I went on a bus ride and saw some bombs on the side of the road, and it wasn't even in the middle of the jungle somewhere. And that's not even the worst it is in the world at all. They're people, you know? Lives and bodies are destroyed just because some people freaked out and got super greedy several years ago, and didn't think about the repercussions of what they were doing for more than five seconds ahead of their disgusting faces. [pauses and sighs] I could keep going like this.

HM: [laughs] Yes, well…the Fabulous Muscles cover: you have a thing for stuffed cats?

JS: Oh! Well! Speaking of preschool stuff, that was actually a big part of my curriculum.

HM: Oh really?

JS: Yeah, that cat is named Dr. Phil, and I would always take him to class. There was like a group time, and Dr. Phil would always lead the story. And there were these two children that were totally obsessed with Dr. Phil. They would play with him for like three hours, in their own little world, which for children that age is…

HM: Amazing.

JS: Totally amazing and totally, totally, totally anomalous for children that age to be so focused on one self-created narrative thread for so long, and it was every day. And one day, just out of curiosity, I didn't bring Dr. Phil, just to see how they would react, and they were like, "Dude, where's Dr. Phil? What? What are you doing?" And it's not that they were lost, they were just pissed. [laughs]

HM: [laughs] "How dare you deprive us?"

JS: Right! I think they could just tell that I was just doing some lame-o experiment, which is all that is was, really.

HM: That's hilarious!

JS: And actually, I'm astonishingly unphotogenic. So, for that record cover we took over 120 pictures and all of them were terrible except for that one, and it was totally meant to be a joke. It was just like, "Where's the kitty?" It was the only one that was even remotely useable. So Dr. Phil saved the day. And actually, this is sort of self-serving, but kinda funny: the baby that's on the cover of A Promise and Dr. Phil are on my dresser, right next to each other.

HM: That's cute!

JS: Yeah, and the baby has his arm around Dr. Phil.

HM: Aw.

JS: [mocking] Aw! Aaaw! So cute!

HM: It's your album cover trophy case.

JS: Yeah. [laughs]

HM: They're like, "Yeah, we were on an album cover! That's more than most of you humans could say, bitches!"

JS: [still laughing] I wonder how they feel about each other. "My record's better than yours." "No, mine's better."

HM: "Well, the critics say…"

JS: [still laughing] "I'm not talking to you anymore."

HM: "No one cares about the stupid critics; it's the fans!" Ok, speaking of fans. These are questions that I gathered from some of your fans. Like I said before the interview, I was scrambling for questions that weren't horribly hagiographic…

JS: What did you just say?

HM: Hagiographic?

JS: Yeah, what does that mean?

HM: Um…well, hagio means holy in Greek, and then graphic is writing, so it's grovelingly worshipful writing.

JS: Oh! Pssh! I wish I hadn't asked. Now I feel ridiculous.

HM: No, no, no. I just wanted to come up with some questions, so I asked some fans what they would ask you, and these are their questions: What do you enjoy doing besides music?

JS: Birdwatching, reading, going to movies, going hiking, family stuff, politics…those are probably the most frequent ones…yeah.

HM: What do you put in your hair? [laughs]

JS: Lately? I've just been biting the bullet and getting really expensive hair stuff. Forever I would just use Vaseline or the cheapest pomade you could possibly buy. But the other day, I bought some stuff that was thirty dollars! I don't know if it looks any different, or what it was called. I maybe tried to convince myself that if I spent a lot of money I'd look good. I don't know.

HM: Ok… [laughs] Do you still have your tonsils?

JS: Yeah. I've never had an operation.

HM: Never?

JS: Never. What operation would you get if you could have one?

HM: If you had your tonsils removed?

JS: No, if you could have any operation, what would it be?

HM: Oh. I guess getting tonsils removed wouldn't be that big of a deal. I don't really
care about getting operations. What about you?

JS: I guess something…maybe something totally exploratory, but it'd have to be totally pointless.

HM: [laughs] Just to see what it looks like in there.

JS: Yeah, maybe they could videotape it, just for proof that all my organs really were where they belonged. But I guess that wouldn't make it pointless, then. I guess that would just be like being assaulted and tortured then…

HM: I'm a linguistics major, and in one of my classes we had to watch an endoscopy, where they stick a fiber optic camera up your nose and down your throat, so you can see your vocal chords.

JS: Wow! That's totally remarkable.

HM: Yeah, it was really interesting to watch the vocal folds as the woman would talk. And then they made her sing, which was even cooler. So that would be a fun thing to do. I don't know if that would count as a surgery, since you're not actually getting cut open, but it does involve a form of anesthesia and the inside of your body. So I guess that could count, right?

JS: That would be pretty good.

HM: Yeah. Anyway, was there a turning point in your life that brought you to creating music, or have you always done it?

JS: I didn't get really serious about it until I was 25. I'd always played in bands and stuff, but I didn't really know how to guiltlessly commit myself to doing it. I actually talked to my therapist about it. Because I was going to school for social work, and it was something that I felt like I should be doing and wanted to be doing, but I was genuinely more interested in playing music. We had a long conversation about, you know, how good could one conceivably be at something as important as social work if you weren't entirely committed to it?

HM: Well, plus, music is a form of therapy.

JS: Yeah, I've definitely gotten a tremendous amount out of it from musicians who were going at it [all the way], so I think by attempting to do the same thing, someone else will get something out of it.

HM: Yeah, I was stuck in a similar situation where I was in school for something else and I really wasn't happy with it, but I was passionately interested in something that I felt was relatively useless. Then my aunt told me that you can't really be any good to the world if you're not passionate about what you're doing, and no matter what you're passionate about, if you're doing it, your work is going to benefit somebody in some way. I thought that was good advice.

JS: Yeah, well put.

HM: Ok, so at the end of every interview, I like to turn the tables and let you be the interviewer. You can ask anybody a question-me, one of your band members, a total stranger. Or, you can wait until after the show and ask one of your fans something. It's completely up to you. Anything you want to ask.

JS: Didn't I ask you what operation you would want to have?

HM: [laughs] Yeah, you did.

JS: Doesn't that count?

HM: I don't think it should count. [laughs] That question was couched in the context of a question that I had already asked you. But you don't have to ask a question if you don't want to, or you can always wait until after the show and ask one of your fans something.

JS: No, I better do it now or I'll be distracted during the show because I'll be thinking about it. [thinks for a second] Ok, what current pop culture figure would you say is a historical anachronism? And for humorous effect, not for altruism.

HM: Ha! Oh my god! Um…having not thought about this at all, we went to Curiosa last weekend…

JS: Oh yeah? How was that? That was kind of an anachronism. [laughs]

HM: That's what I was going to say! [laughs] It was really fun, but we had to promote these bands that…I mean, no, there were some really good bands on the bill, but…

JS: Who was good at that show?

HM: I liked The Cooper Temple Clause and…

JS: Who's that? I've never heard of them.

HM: They're from the UK, and they're about three years old, I think. The singer has this very lusty, caustic voice - it's just great - and they have this wonderful presence. They've got six people on stage, and all this percussion, and synth, and keyboards, and guitars. It's really beautiful and busy and dramatic and… I love it! A lot of people criticize them, but I think they're great.

JS: Cool.

HM: And then there's Mogwai and the Rapture and of course the Cure

JS: I've never seen them live, but I heard they were fantastic.

HM: Yeah, they were fantastic and we got really good seats.

JS: Oh, that's good.

HM: Yeah, the record label was really good to us. But I felt bad because we were promoting bands that, I don't want to name names, but they just seem like cheap rip-offs…

JS: Don't get me started! [laughs]

HM: But, yeah, Robert Smith is kind of an anachronism in himself because he looks almost exactly the same as he did in 1985.

JS: Yeah, that's wild.

HM: But he's awesome. I mean, he's so great. He'll always be cool because he's Robert Smith. He just wins, you know?

JS: Yeah, true enough. Well, he'll always be great because he invented something and he continues to write really good songs.

HM: And that's why we love him.

- Emily Strong

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