Xiu Xiu on Turning Tragedy Into Song, New Album ‘Ignore Grief’, Neanderthal Music, and More

    American experimental group Xiu Xiu (Jamie Stewart, Angela Seo, and now: David Kendrick) emerged alongside a swarm of new American indie-rock artists in the early 2000s. Yet from their inception, Xiu Xiu hardly assimilated into that wave. Their music was full of dissonance, startlingly upfront songwriting, and abrasive mixes, as if the sounds were unravelling in your ear. Over the years, Xiu Xiu’s music has expanded into countless genres—post-industrial, ambient, noise, jazz, synth punk, avant-folk, etc.—to the point where the “indie-rock” label is beyond reductive. However, Xiu Xiu’s main tenets of emotional honesty and boundary-pushing experimentation remain unchanged. For instance, in the hands of another band, an album like Plays the Music of Twin Peaks (a collection of covers from the titular show’s soundtrack) might be a minor work. Yet Xiu Xiu’s reinterpretations imagine the iconic songs as completely new entities: a testament to the group’s boundless creativity.

    Xiu Xiu’s latest album Ignore Grief cleaves into two distinct halves. One is a feverish death industrial album, oozing with distortion, clanging percussion, and vocal tracks buried beneath the stampede of noise. The other half is an ominous modern classical album reminiscent of both Krzysztof Penderecki and Scott Walker. It’s packed with unnerving arrangements and goosebump-inducing drones, oscillating between open stretches and intense cacophony. These two halves, despite their seemingly conflicting DNA, fuse beautifully into the most viscerally overwhelming Xiu Xiu record to date. Each of the ten tracks relay an inconceivably devastating tragedy: half are fictionalized, half are plucked from the lives of the bands’ acquaintances. It’s an explosive album, built from miseries and an all-too-familiar understanding of the monstrous evils this world can summon.

    We caught up with Xiu Xiu’s founding member Jamie Stewart to discuss writing about tragedy, aesthetic influences, neanderthal music, the failed Xiu Xiu techno album, and more.

    Around the time OH NO came out, you said something about how the record reminded you that the ratio of beautiful to shitty people is 60/40 rather than 1/99, as you used to believe. Listening to this new record, I was wondering where you stand on that ratio today?

    [laughs]. It’s swung back a bit. Not as far as 1-99 but… edging towards the previous assessment. Especially when we were working on this record.

    This album’s inspired by five real-life tragedies that happened to people linked to Xiu Xiu. In the press release, you said you wanted to make an album from these tragedies that does “something, anything, other than grind and brutalize their hearts and memory within these stunningly horrendous experiences.” Real-life traumas are a common backbone of Xiu Xiu’s music. Is the approach you took on this album in representing tragedy unique from prior records?

    A fair question we get asked a lot is: Is that process cathartic? For me, the answer is no. It’s not cathartic insofar as the process of catharsis is cleansing a negative emotion. For me, it’s more about organizing. It’s almost a reconstruction of negative emotions from something self-destructive into something productive. So that aspect was similar [on Ignore Grief]. I don’t deal with stress well… I’m fucking nuts, basically. It’s corny but, to get through the day, music helps me shift negative emotions that prevent me from being a functional human being.

    The other five songs which aren’t about real-life events are additional coping mechanisms for somewhere to put that super-negative, intense energy. Angela and I are both really interested in early American rock’n’roll. There’s a subgenre called teen tragedies—the most famous is ‘Leader of the Pack’ by The Shangri-Las. They’re basically fantasy songs about bad things happening to teenagers. Two teenagers in love, one dies. Two teenagers in love, both die. Two teenagers in love, one gets stabbed at a party. Two teenagers in love, parents say they can’t be together and ship them off to Antarctica. Putting five real-life events into songs was working to a degree, but we still needed to process the feeling more so we thought: What if we make up tragedies in a narrative completely outside reality? Ours don’t follow teen tragedy songs at all (ours are post-industrial songs). But this approach, making up a fantasy, was new for us.

    Ignore Grief is a pretty conceptual record, especially compared to earlier Xiu Xiu albums. It has some clear influences (like teenage tragedy songs), lots of narrative, and, despite how chaotic the songs often are, it has a coherent overarching structure. Is this something you sit down and plan out prior to recording the album? Or do you gradually find your structure through the process?

    We’ve started regularly working with a record producer/mix engineer named John Congleton since Always. For me, that was the end of a particular chapter of records not being “conceptual” or planned ahead of time. The ten songs we’d write during that period: that’s what the record was. When we made Always, John said “why don’t you make a record that sounds like the band Suicide?” We’d never thought about the specific pieces before starting a record. Since then, for each record we’ve at some point had a plan. The first record we tried this with was Angel Guts: Red Classroom. We thought, “OK, we’re going to be influenced by Suicide, Einstürzende Neubauten, and Nico, and we can only use percussion, analog drum machines, and analog synths.”

    It took a while to find the model for Ignore Grief. We recorded like ten other songs that didn’t end up on the record before we figured out the structure. Halfway through the process, Angela mentioned she wanted to sing half the songs (she’d only been on two other songs in the past). At one point we’d thought it’d be a fully modern classical record. At another, we thought it’d be a techno record. But all the stuff we made that sounded like techno just… sounded like techno. It’s a pretty codified form, and we weren’t good enough at it to add anything. Eventually, we thought it should be post-industrial, since our vocabulary there was a little wider. We had ten modern classical songs and picked the ones that worked best. We took all the backbeats from the techno songs, and those became the industrial songs. Because we had those two halves and Angela wanted to sing, we figured it’d be a codified approach: two different approaches, two different signers, two different genres.

    What made Angela want to sing half the songs?

    She’s a mysterious being. We’re best friends, we spend an extraordinary amount of time together, and work together. If I asked her, she’d probably just look off and… [trails off]. She feels like she doesn’t like her voice. She wants to be a singer though, and I think this might be a way to force herself to do something she’s uncomfortable with. That’s a thing I always admire about her; she’s very willing to jump off the deep end. She probably also figured the record had these half-delineations that needed a second voice.

    It’s interesting because her face is so prevalent in the videos but her voice is a rarity in the music.

    Yeah, I really hate being filmed. It makes me physically uncomfortable. The label in recent years asked me to be in the videos because I’m a singer. From a video standpoint, it makes sense. But Angela makes all the videos, and she likes doing them. And she’s really good at it. And I also look really shitty on camera, she looks great.

    How did knowing Angela’s singing half the songs change how you approach songwriting? 

    Her voice, and I mean this in a good way, is very limited and very specific. As is mine. We just figured out ways to do the vocals that would highlight her capabilities rather than make an untenable challenge. Also, David Kendrick, the new drummer, wrote a lot of the lyrics—probably about a third. Most of them ended up being on songs Angela sang. A lot of the time he’d send me a couple verses and I’d combine that with a chorus. His approach to lyrics is based in Victorian poetic structures and film-noir. He has two storage spaces filled with books, and I think one of them is just noir novels. He teaches classes on it.

    Can we expect Angela’s voice on future Xiu Xiu albums?

    It’s up to her. We’re working on a new record right now, and there’s one song she wants to sing. On tour, she’s singing a couple songs; she’s never sung live.

    You’re already working on a new album? 

    I hate to keep talking about the fucking pandemic, but since the pandemic, the time you have to hand in a record before pressing plants can actually press it used to be six months. Now it’s like ten months. We’ve been done with Ignore Grief for a long time. And we weren’t touring, so we had time to work on the next one. All the music’s done, we just have to do a couple more vocals. It’ll be out 2024.

    The Xiu Xiu line-up is always changing. If you could add any dead person to the band who would it be? 

    One would be—and this would be the least workable but also the most interesting,—probably some caveperson or neanderthal. Someone with the earliest conception of what music could be. I did a class on experimental music last year, and was trying to go from the very beginning. The beginning of music was experimental music, because nothing had been tried before. I did a small amount of research on the earliest instruments and it’d be great to rock out with the people who made them—literally rock out with them, because the instruments were made from rocks [caveperson vocalization]. Sorry about that… It would be pretty fascinating. And then, I don’t know, Prince was one of the first people I bought a record by with my own money. So probably a caveperson or Prince.

    Do you find a lot of the influences you had when you began Xiu Xiu remain core influences? 

    The beginning influences are still very important for us, but other things are being added. I’d like to make a goth record. I’d like to make a techno record. I tried to make an early-60s West Coast pop record but it just sounded like not-good iterations of a masterful genre. One of the main influences isn’t genre-specific though. Until a few years ago, we would only write about real things. Then we did a record of Twin Peaks covers. That was the first time we sang things we weren’t related to; it was the first fantasy exploration. Initially, it was difficult for me to wrap my head around how to do it. It took a lot of shows for me to connect to it. We worked on FORGET for almost two years and didn’t come up with anything that really worked. And then, the Goddess of Music said [ghostly voice] try the Twinnnn Peakssss approach. You know, allow for the subconscious, supernatural ideas, dream ideologies, or things that had emotion but we couldn’t explain. So that influence, in addition to still writing about real-life events, is a new influence on us. 

    When you made the Twin Peaks album, did you ever consider including a cover of James Hurley’s ‘Just You?’

    It was on the table. Angela fucking hates that song. In the show, it’s much more cringe-worthy than just hearing the actual song. Because it’s James, he’s sitting there with his leg up, his cool guitar… And they’re like, “James is the greatest! He’s so cute! He’s so dreamy! I could die without him!” And Angela’s like, “This shit is so stupid. You can’t sing this.” I rewatched that episode recently with my niece. Angela and I just happened to be there. Without us saying anything, she looked at us and was like “this is fucking dumb.” So anyway, I like the character of James Hurley a lot. And as a piece of music, I think it’s a cute song. But the context was more than [Angela] could bear. And I don’t think that’s an unfair assessment, frankly.

    When you go about preparing for live shows, do you ever find it’s difficult to recapture some of the sounds you’ve recorded?

    Oh yeah, for sure. But it never bothers me to have the live arrangement be totally different than the recorded arrangement. Sometimes it’s a necessity. And then sometimes it’s an opportunity to be creative in a different way. My dad was a pretty successful musician and when I started out, I would always freak out like, “We can’t record this! There’s no way we could play it live.” He just said, “The record is one thing. Live is another. Make the best record you can, and then make the best live show you can. If they’re different, they’re different.” Which is good advice.

    This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

    Xiu Xiu’s Ignore Grief is out March 3 via Polyvinyl.

    Arts in one place.

    All of our content is free, if you would like to subscribe to our newsletter or even make a small donation, click the button below.

    People are Reading