By alexander laurence
Xiu was formed in San Jose by Cory McCullough, Yvonne Chen,
Lauren Andrews, and Jamie Stewart in 2001. They are named
after a Chinese film called Xiu Xiu: The Sent Down Girl.
The band has made appearances on numerous compilations and
shortly after their first album, Knife Play, they
did a collaboration with Deerhoof.
The band has been influenced by a bunch of post punk bands
of the late 1970s and the music of The Cure and Joy Division.
In 2002, the band issued the Chapel of the Chimes
EP. Later, they released, A Promise, which may be
their greatest record yet. They have done numerous tours
throughout America this year and have earned new fans on
every stop. I met Jamie Stewart outside a club in the Lower
A few weeks later I would see him and fellow member Cory
McCullough in Downtown Los Angeles at The Smell.
AL: Do you like a lot of new bands?
Jamie: Just friend's bands. I listen to a lot of music.
I don't go to shows very often. Maybe once in a while I
will go out and see some legend that has changed my life.
I don't go see many bands.
AL: Did you play in other bands?
Jamie: I was doing a lot of weird stuff. I was in a Motown
cover band. I was in a dub band. Then I was in a few experimental
pop bands. When I was younger I got hooked up with a bunch
of people who were super famous during the New Wave era.
So I played with people who were in The Screamers, Devo
and Geza X. That was in the early 1990s in Los Angeles.
AL: When did Xiu Xiu start and who is in the band?
Jamie: For a while it had been a regular lineup. I have
done the past two tours by myself. The group is becoming
a regular lineup again. Carolee McElroy will be touring
the next time. I am not sure if Chas Smith will be playing
on the tour. Cory McCullough has been in the band in the
past. He will be on the records but will not play live.
AL: How many records have you done?
Jamie: There are two albums and two EPs and we have another
full-length record coming out in February 2004.
AL: When did the band begin?
Jamie: In October 2001.
AL: Did you record a lot of songs already?
Jamie: Yeah. I did a bunch of stuff at my house. My Dad
used to work for the company that did Pro Tools. He would
"borrow" stuff from work all the time, and never
bring it back. I acquired stuff really fast. It's pretty
easy to do. I had a version from 1994 and it's very similar.
I had a four track before that. It was a natural progression.
AL: Why did you cover a song by Joy Division?
Jamie: The same reason why they are important to a lot
of people. They are very inspirational musically and esthetically.
They have endured for everyone and they have endured for
me too. That was the first song we covered. We did a song
by Tracy Chapman on the latest record.
AL: Tracy Chapman seems like the polar opposite of Joy
Jamie: Maybe she seems like that now. That song is very
frank and bleak and hopeless. I am amazed that a song that
simple and bleak became a Top 40 hit.
AL: Your vocal style is very emotional and confrontational.
Are you trying to convey something tragic and romantic with
Jamie: All the songs are about very specific personal events
that happened to me or members of my family. There are songs
about really close friends. It has been difficult the past
few years. Some hideous things have happened. It's not really
just a vocal technique. I want those songs to sound like
what those events feel like. Those same emotions are very
present still. I am not far away from those songs.
AL: You don't take any prisoners. You lay yourself out
there and these raw emotions are there, naked.
Jamie: My father was in the music business for a long time.
He had told me that the whole point of playing is being
honest about what you are playing. When I was a kid I read
this book about Charles Mingus. He told all his band members
to play themselves. That makes more sense than anything.
It's better to play yourself than playing to fashion. Trying
to be cool? I don't think that there is any other point
to music than that.
AL: Your songs go from being very loud to being very quiet.
What is going on there?
Jamie: I don't think that was very conscious. I didn't
think it out. It just happened that way.
AL: How do you write songs?
Jamie: It's a pretty grueling process. It's pretty boring.
Nothing gets started until there's an idea what the song
should be about. That happens about the same time the musical
ideas start happening. There is a subconscious pull when
the theme is decided. Other things flow from that. What
the song is about happens first.
AL: You have a lot of bell sounds on the new record.
Jamie: I listen to a lot of Balinese and Japanese and Korean
percussion. Those are very beautiful sounds. I am not trying
to play those kinds of music. The timbre of gongs and bells
are really beautiful. I am not trying to emulate them and
do whinny indie rock world beat. Those sounds are cool.
AL: What is the reaction to the live show?
Jamie: The reaction is strong one-way or the other. People
are usually really into it, but I also get heckled a lot.
It's alright. That is better than people being bored. I
don't expect that Xiu Xiu will become super famous. It seems
to work out for people who like the music and know the records.
But the people who hate it, really seem to hate it. It's
bizarre. They usually yell out some rude words.
AL: Is the new album going to be a departure from the previous
Jamie: Procedurally it is going to be different than before.
Before there was a lot of sitting in front of the computer
and doing a lot of editing. For this next one, hopefully
it will be a lot more live and spontaneous than before.
The record coming out in February has the most electronic
sounds on it. The fourth album, which we just started, will
have more organic sounds on it.
AL: What is the set up like live?
Jamie: For this tour it is just guitar and vocals, or harmonium
and vocals. Next year it will be a band again. We'll have
percussion, bells and gongs, and two harmonium, and maybe
a few synthesizers. My favorite drummer in the world is
Chas Smith. Maybe he will play with us more.
AL: What bands do you like?
Jamie: Devendra Banhart, and Angels of Light. I like Classical
music and dance music. We did a Japanese tour and this band
Fonica was very good.
AL: Do you read a lot?
Jamie: Yeah. I am reading a book about the Iran Contra
hearings right now. I read a Johnny Cash biography. I just
re-read Grapes of Wrath recently as a grown up. I had read
it in high school. It's pretty remarkable. It was weird
holding a work of art in your hands. It costs four dollars
now. I have really been getting into Dennis Cooper lately.
AL: Do you have songs about Serial Killers?
Jamie: I hope so.
AL: Do you have any songs inspired by Dennis Cooper?
Jamie: Yeah. I don't know. My whole sex life is inspired
by Dennis Cooper. I am kidding.
AL: There are a lot of Xiu Xiu songs that have a homoerotic
theme to them.
Jamie: I am bisexual. I am singing as much about boys as
girls. A lot of very negative and weird sexual things have
happened to me as much as with boys as with girls. The whole
point of the band is to write about real life stuff.
AL: Some of your music sounds like film soundtracks.
Jamie: I certainly enjoy that stuff but I am not very educated
about that stuff. I would like to learn more. In a very
unstudied way, I am influenced by film soundtracks. When
I go out, I probably go out and see a film, more than anything
AL: Have you seen The
Jamie: I saw it yesterday. It is definitely the third best
of the three films.
AL: Are you excited about playing in New York City?
Jamie: Yeah. For all the obvious reasons. It's fantastic
and crazy. My brother lives here and I am close to him.
The last few shows here have went well. It's an exciting
and remarkable place to be.