Describing the sound of the strange, often discordant, and yet regularly beautiful moments strung throughout Xiu Xiu's discography to the uninitiated is no easy task. Imagine the musical equivalent of a birthday cake, a haunted house, a kitten, and the worst year of your life run together through a wood chipper, and you'd kinda be on the right track.
The San Francisco Bay Area band, whose name (pronounced "shoo shoo") derives from the film Xiu Xiu: The Sent-Down Girl, early on earned a reputation for fearlessly charting the simultaneous despair and wonder of everyday life with a mishmash of acoustic instruments, electronic beats, and a wild, shivery honesty absent from the lyrics of most of their musical peers. With Women As Lovers (now out on Kill Rock Stars), the band, which also includes Caralee McElroy, Ches Smith, and Devin Hoff, serves up classic Xiu Xiu fare with the unexpected added bonus of -- believe it or not -- a healthy dash of hope.
Jamie Stewart, the band's notoriously outspoken front man, chatted with Out to discuss the new album, Russian prison tattoos, backyard wrestling, and the possibility of RuPaul for President.
Out: If you were locked inside a refrigerator and you only had one breath of air left, how would you describe Women As Lovers?
Jamie Stewart: [Laughs] If I could only say one thing I'd probably just want to tell my niece that I loved her. I don't know that I'd waste my time describing it...
No, no. You already got that out of the way...
Oh, I've said goodbye to all my loved ones?
Exactly. Now you're just promoting the new album.
Attempting to cement my legacy in my death throes? [Laughs] I don't know -- I think band members are the last people on Earth who should try to describe their records. Two things happen: One, they're not far enough away from it to have a clear picture of it. Or they just say self-serving patsy crap to try to make someone like their record, which I think is also a terrible idea.
The press release reads "No other Xiu Xiu album has ever been more approachable or communicative on a basic human level." Did you write the album specifically with that in mind?
I think there's some sort of glimmer of hope on this one, on a couple of the songs. One or two songs I'd go so far as to say are sweet, which I've never used to describe any Xiu Xiu songs before. I think because it's not so violently off-putting for the entire record that it's a little bit more approachable. It's not as entirely dark -- although there are certainly some tremendously dark elements to it. But it doesn't make up the entire record, where in previous records I think it has.
The first single, "I Do What I Want When I Want," is practically a full-fledged ditty.
[Laughs] I couldn't disagree with that.
Is it a tongue-in-cheek response to the people who say that your music is too difficult, or too demanding, or too obtuse?
Well, there are two free-jazz solos in it! But no, I don't give a fuck what people say or what people think. We never approach anything in response to what somebody else has said -- not in any sort of heroic way, but I don't see any sort of constructive point to it. I think you dig yourself into a pretty deep hole if you're trying to make people who don't like you like you. It just turned out to be a sort of sweet -- and I don't mean this in a bad way -- a cute song. For me it's basically about not punking out. I had an opportunity to get into a relationship, and I fought it for two years with this particular person and then realized quite literally at a train station in Italy, when we almost accidentally crossed paths again, that I'd better not blow it. I was about to completely probably ruin the one chance I had at actually feeling good with another person.
The video is like Glamor Shots minus the glamor meets Jackass, with some fruit and a vacuum cleaner thrown in for good measure. What exactly is going on there?
The backyard wrestling footage comes from a close friend of mine named Freddy Rupert. He and some of his friends were some of the first people to do it and film it and post it on the Internet. At one point he had the most famous backyard wrestling website. It was a bunch of suburban kids who were emulating WWF-style wresting, but they didn't really know how to do the moves, and because they were kids they'd do stuff way over the top. I think a couple of kids got killed doing it -- they'd jump off their roofs and break their necks and shit like that. It's only really peculiar if you know him, because he's one of the sweetest, brightest people you'd ever meet, but he's also really interested in kind of an insane physicality. The other stuff is just an attempt to juxtapose our discomfort with beauty in ourselves. We all tried to look as cute as possible, but we feel really stupid doing it.
One of my friends was very taken by the Clark Kent-esque glasses you're sporting in the video.
Somebody described those to me as my lesbian cat glasses. But yeah, being uncomfortable with aspects of glamor and prettiness and then juxtaposing that with Freddy, who is naturally glamorous and pretty just walking down the street along with his natural inclinations to just be a fucking nutball.
Speaking of being uncomfortable, or maybe not, how do you feel about your status as a gay sex object?
Oh! I was kind of unaware of it.
Well, it's nice. I feel silly about it. I'm bi -- I'm not gay -- and I think that tweaks some gay people. That aspect is a little complicated for me, I guess.
It's not so bad now, but when I was growing up and coming into being bi -- the queer community now is a little cooler about it -- the "straight gay people" were pretty shitty to bi and trans people, which were kind of the people I was running around with. It's not really that way now, but there are still some lingering complications from that. Actually answering your question, it's flattering, but I just feel silly about it.
What is it about Xiu Xiu that's earned the band such a dedicated queer following? Your unashamed visibility? The content?
I can only speculate, but I would hope that it's because we're really open about what you just said. I don't even really consider Xiu Xiu a queer band. I consider Xiu Xiu a band that tries to talk about things -- real things -- that happen in an unashamed way, even if shame is part of it. If one is a person, then one's sexuality and one's sex life and one's gender dysphoria -- if that's what's going on with them and is part of one's life -- is what gets discussed. Even with a lot of "queer bands," it's just that they are queer, but they're not necessarily talking about life -- the life of a person of whom being queer is a part. We're not necessarily trying to expound on the queer aspects of our lives, we're just trying to talk about lives in which there are aspects of being queer.
I noticed your tattoos in the video. What are they of?
I have one on my chest that is sort of the most goth tattoo of all time. It's the number 13 inside a heart done by a gang member in my neighborhood.
Like with a Bic pen?
Almost. He had a tattoo gun, but it was kind of half-homemade. I think it was just about trying to embrace bad things as much as good things.
How old were you when you got it?
Not that long ago! I don't have any good excuse for any bad tattoos. One I got when I was 20, and it's probably the least dumb one I have.
How many do you have total?
Not a ton. Actually, I've gotten a couple people's names tattooed on me that I've gotten other tattoos over. I didn't really regret it at the time. It's super-romantic. I do have one Russian prison gang tattoo. I got really involved in the prisoners' literature project, which sends books to prisoners in the U.S., and through that I've become really interested in the plight of the incarcerated and the worldwide lack of interest in rehabilitating people, and at the same time some people have done some really bad shit. That tattoo is an attempt to remind myself that the U.S. has the most incarcerated people in the entire world, and to give those people an extra prayer every day.
With the election coming up, do you want to go on record and give your endorsement to anybody?
If I could fucking endorse somebody, I would!
So, that's a "no"?
No! It's not that I don't want to give my endorsement, it's just that there's no one to give it to. I mean, I am ecstatic that Bush and Cheney only have one more year, and I'm just praying to God that they don't use this last year to set off a nuclear bomb and say that Iran did it and start martial law all over the planet, which they certainly have time to do. The Republicans -- none of them seem like insane war mongers. But on the other side, the Democrats -- no one is being ultra anti-war, no one is being particularly pro-peace, and no one is really talking hard about the environment at all. It's somewhat early in the process, but my faith in electoral politics is really wearing thin, which scares the hell out of me. Who are you guys endorsing?
Oh, we're all fun and games and RuPaul over here at Out.
[Laughs] I guess if the political scene is totally fucked and boring, then we should be into RuPaul as much as anyone.