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Alive at the Same Time

One Fine Day with Jamie Stewart

After a week of bad news—and it was only Tuesday—I found myself on a beautiful spring day slugging my way through Washington, DC, my spine scoliotic, a migraine aura hovering as I slouched towards my Bethlehem, which today is the premier local venue Black Cat, where Xiu Xiu will perform their 13th studio album Ignore Grief. Xiu Xiu, the Los Angeles dynamic duo of Jamie Stewart and Angela Seo, now a trio with the recent addition of the brilliant drummer David Kendrick—formerly of Devo, Sparta, and Gleaming Spires.

Ignore Grief exemplifies the uncompromising nature of the band’s desire to go to the psychic Marianas Trench and discover what survives in the abyss. It is an album or perhaps an autopsied cadaver of tragedies—each song’s sweet meat examined, an organ repurposed. Relentless, startling, and uncomfortable, the dissonant transmission tries to find the frequency to communicate pain best, and it implodes in the face of the banality of evil. Produced by Angela Seo, Ignore Grief is vocally bisected between Jamie and Angela, with Jamie and David sharing songwriting duties.

A stylistic motif on the album is the teen tragedy song,” a ballad style that often depicts youth’s social and emotional troubles that lead them astray and often to a fatal end. The Shangri-Las’ Leader Of The Pack” is a notable song that seems to document the often complex morbidity and perversities that haunt youth. While the songs are often melodramatic and bright musically, lyrically, it seems to capture the frustrations and hypocrisies of childhood, a concept as new as rock’n’roll at the time—which is protected, from what, and for how long? Only in death can we escape the shackle of societal constructs and expectations but also the grief and confounding overwhelm it brings.

I spent the last two weeks with the album on repeat and shuffle. I began to wonder what we could do with grief. We make space for it—in a typical infographic, we can honor the grief as if it’s a prized kill and use all its parts. Can we ignore suffering? Can we take it for a walk? Can we dissolve it in acid? I talked to my therapist this week about complicated grief, and she says sometimes it sits with you a long time after a great disturbance—when the universe asks you to accept the otherwise insurmountable parts of life that aren’t death. Xiu Xiu takes on the task of telling us harrowing and imaginary stories anchored in truth: a child sold into prostitution, another fatally kidnapped, and an examination of the ruinous cycle of coping and addiction.

All these things considered and more—I got on a train, went to U Street, and sat with Jamie Stewart of Xiu Xiu on a beautiful spring day. Despite delays and conflicts, Jamie parts with Angela and David, who go to grab food. He sits with me on aluminum chairs behind one of the first venues I attended as a teen. He has a calm and pleasant demeanor, an easy smile, and coiffed hair.

I’ve Been Waiting Since We Started

Jamie
How are you?

Kelly
You know! The world’s on fire–

Jamie
Yup!

Kelly
–but it’s a beautiful day out.

Jamie
It’s so nice.

Kelly
How are you? How was logging into the venue? I mean, loading in–

Jamie
It’s kinda like a logging on—I’m online here tonight. It’s been good! Everyone is really kind here.

Kelly
(laughs) So you moved to Berlin? You’re no longer in LA? How’d that happen?

Jamie
It was a couple of things. I grew up in LA and was born there. It weathered the pandemic really badly– when I was growing up there it was rough and depressing and it had been on the mend but the way the pandemic hit the city—it reminded me of being a kid. I liked my house but I didn’t really like my neighborhood.

Kelly
There’s a lyric in a song you have that is like that [Kelly’s referencing a line from Sad Pony Guerilla Girl”]

Jamie
(laughs) Oh, I do—sorta. Angela and I work with an art group in Berlin and things sorta worked out and we ended up in a residency that helped us move and land in Berlin easily.

Kelly
Yeah, I’ve been looking at residencies and some of the ones in Berlin—some of them seem so magical and too good to be true. It seems to take artists seriously there. Some of the offers look like they’re just offering asylum.

Jamie
Absolutely! It kinda feels like that definitely.

Kelly
How long have you been in Berlin?

Jamie
Since October!

Kelly
Wow, that’s so recent. In the timeline of your move—when did the album’s concepts happen? Would you call this a pandemic album or was it something that happened parallel to this time?

Jamie
It had much more to do with specific and negative events that happened to people that were outside of the pandemic. It just so happened to be during the same time and we were working on a record. We wrote about what happened to people we knew and it could’ve happened anytime but it happened while we were working on this record and during this frame of time.

Kelly
Wow, there were so many hard and painful things occurring during that time and the pandemic on top just made it suffocating. I had a car accident during the pandemic and was like wow, worst things can still happen.” It just heightened how hard things could be. Like a part of me got more naive like if everything is supposed to stay home, how come the horrors aren’t at home? How come didn’t the bad shit get the memo to stay at home? Can I be the Karen of suffering and ask to speak to the manager because I don’t like this.

Jamie
Yeah, that’s so funny.

Kelly
I know some of the horrors on this record, some of the lore or rather the true stories—the trafficking and the kidnapping—I know I saw that you and David wrote the lyrics together. How did he come into this?

Jamie
Well, it was interesting. Well the record, as you know, is depressing and there’s this other half of the record that’s totally me and then the teen tragedy side of things which is David. I don’t know that I really even discuss the other side of the lyrics with him. Basically, how we work on the lyrics together is he’ll send me some lyrics and I’ll either add to them or not add to them.

Kelly
It goes back and forth? Organically?

Jamie
Yeah, and if that doesn’t work, I’d write lyrics and then Angela would edit them. But there’s a couple of the teen tragedy songs I think are 90 % his lyrics. I might have just changed one or two words that were just like, but almost more for mechanical reasons, so they’re easy to sing or something.

Kelly
Well, that makes sense to me because there’s times where the songs feel distinctly different and I mean, since his introduction you can sorta feel this harmonizing but different air to the songs that are heavy and kinda standard Xiu Xiu. Like I know there’s times where I’m like Oh, look, they got a third–

Jamie
(laughs) Yes!

Kelly
And it’s this very different boyish and charming energy and it sorta comes into this deeply established relationship and gives this different perspective to the horrors. He’s no stranger to coming into intimate small bands and has been in a fearsome twosome (The Gleaming Spires, Sparta) in his time.

Jamie
That’s very perceptive. It’s amazing, honestly. Having such a strong player come along–David is awesome. It’s a dream.

Kelly : How did he contribute musically?

Jamie
It was mostly a reactive thing. We had recorded a lot of, probably all of the songs at that point, but there wasn’t any live production order. I think just over a couple of days he came over. Angela and I both have a really big production collection. He has a bunch of stuff. We pretty much just played them the songs. I said, do you want whatever feels right to you in this. Then we added a little bit. But the nice thing about having somebody who’s that good is that you don’t want to tell them what to do. You want them to listen to it and be who they are.

Kelly
There’s a natural trust.

Jamie
He’s extremely accomplished. When I was a teenager, I used to play in a band with him and a bunch of other notable new Wave types. I met him and then I didn’t see him for 20 years. Then I ran into him in LA and we became friends again. Then we hung out for a couple of years.

Kelly
Were you waiting for him to ask you to play?

Jamie
I didn’t want to ask him. I didn’t feel worthy to ask him. Then he asked me if I wanted to play and I said, Oh God, of course I do. Yeah, are you kidding? Of course. He played a bunch on Oh No, which is the record before this. Then we asked him if he wanted to join the band and he very graciously said that he did.

(pause)
I think I’ve been waiting for this lineup since we started.

Kelly
That’s 12 years, 13?

Jamie
 20.

Kelly
 20. Gosh, Duh, Knife Play was 20 years old in 2020. Duh. Gosh. Yeah, that’s a long time. This is your 13th studio album, not including all your other side projects. How does this feel?

Jamie
I feel real weird about it. Part of me feels real strange just in that it’s shocking that that much time has passed. And a very quiet part of me feels very slightly proud that we have not thrown in the towels and like, Holy shit, we’re still here. We’re still touring. Doing it. We still got more to do.

Kelly
And you still have fans. Is this lucky number 13?

Jamie
We’re incredibly lucky. And then just to repeat that word again, I just feel incredibly lucky that we’ve been able to do it. I love making records. It’s my favorite thing in the world to do.

Kelly
And honestly outside of the studio albums you have so many!

Jamie
Yeah, we’ve really bypassed the lucky number 13 because it’s not totally clear how you count albums and we have cover records and duets album–

Kelly
Gosh, we can’t get into it but I love the cover records. You picked a tough artist to cover. It’s a huge risk. Sorry, I’m getting so excited and lost in it.

Jamie
I appreciate it. Honestly a lot of people hated that record and I felt so proud of that record. I appreciate you bringing it up.

Kelly
I mean, if anyone wants to fight me, I do, let’s go.

Jamie
I’ll stand behind you. And root for you.

Kelly
Yeah, right. I mean, the kid gloves are off. It’s 2023, babe. I’m not into self care, only self defense. Let’s go.

Jamie
(laughs) Yes! Can I steal that?

Kelly
Yeah, totally. Just be like, Kelly said. She’s tough. Give me some street cred, haha.

Self Care Amid Unspeakable Horror

Kelly
There’s a Werner Herzog quote I wrote down when I was thinking about this album: What would the ocean be without a monster lurking in the dark? It would be like sleep without dreams.” And thinking about what would life be without death, without grief? It’s so exhausting– all the unfathomable things but then you have to keep going. How do we find a balance? I thought about this album because if you… I don’t know, there’s a part between the two where you’re ignoring grief, but then you personify it on the album. Why the title Ignore Grief?

Jamie
You hit the nail on the head with how you… Obviously, it is a disturbingly dire time in the history of the natural planet and the history of humanity. I mean, part of it is just the idea of ignoring grief is almost just how to be functional. And then on the other side of it, it’s almost like a backhanded slap at the concept of ignoring grief. It’s impossible. It’s impossible. So I think it’s just trying to rectify two things that are unrectifiable. And to get through the day, you have to ignore it to a degree. But then it’s so overwhelming, it’s completely impossible to do it. There’s no way to deal with it. I’m not sure how else to put it.

Kelly
How do you and how have you, I guess, fortified yourself against those horrors? Do you have any rituals? What is Jamie’s self care routine? Enough with self-defense, we’re doing our Vogue part of the interview. Can you tell me about your favorite makeup lines? What does your self care regiment look like in 2023 with unspeakable horrors?

Jamie
I desperately pray a lot before I go to sleep every night.

Kelly
I remember reading a long time ago you once said that you were a religious person, and I wonder, would you still say that? Yeah.

Jamie
I don’t have an easy or tranquil relationship with it, but it’s certainly a big part of my life.I can’t say enough about how grateful I am to play music. I would think I would literally lose my mind without it. It’s just how I’ve organized negative emotions for the last 20 years. Walking in nature. Nature’s awesome. I like doing hippie drugs. Then just the same stuff everybody does, books and movies, etc.

Kelly
I feel like a lot of books and art influences in some of your previous albums. Were there any books or specific pieces that you read or you felt like contributed to this album? A little bit less.

Jamie
Definitely, for some records it’s very pointedly, but not so specifically for this record. It was a lot more subconscious. It wasn’t drawing as much from outside things as we generally do. I’m sure that we did but nothing that I can just rattle off right now.

Kelly
Do you think that even the newness of you guys working as a trio on a record was an anchor and muse? Just being obsessed with that. There’s so many things happening in this–it’s a homecoming for you and David, reuniting after twenty years and it’s anniversary for you and Angela after twenty years.

Jamie
Yeah, probably the outside influence was adding another incredibly strong player.

Kelly
It’s so interesting

Kelly
Do you ever try to do anything else or consider not being in a band?

Jamie
Yeah, I considered applying to a job eight years ago and then looked at my CV and was like, This looks ridiculous. No one’s going to hire me. I just have to try and keep playing in band.

Anything That Moves

Anything That Moves (2023) is Jamie’s new novel, available now from And Other Stories.

Kelly
I’m excited to read your book. When I read the back flap I was like is this Korg x Sam Delany cruising collab I’ve been waiting for? Have you read Samuel R. Delany?

Jamie
Oh, I haven’t.

Kelly
He famously wrote a lot of sci-fi but has this seminal queer novel called Times Square Red, Times Square Blue. It’s sci-fi and nonfiction. It’s about peep shows and cruising in Times Square.

Jamie
It’s up my alley.

Kelly
I think you’d love his mind.

How do you feel about your book?

Jamie
I feel really weird about it. Some small, really lame part of me feels like, Oh, I’m so fancy, I wrote a book. I mean, it’s not my ambition to be a writer. I don’t know that I really would ever write another one. I didn’t really feel this way while I was writing it, but it’s essentially all vignettes about sexual experiences. And they’re not all point to point, exactly accurate. Some of the stories are two things merged together. Some timelines are a little fudgy just to make it more readable.

I have done my level best to change and be super identifying characteristics of people. But there’s a couple of people, I think 95 % of the people who are in the book would never read it. But there’s two people who I think might read it. I feel like from my perspective, it was a relatively accurate portrayal, but an incredibly unflattering portrayal, both of me and them. .I do feel weird about the possibility of their feelings being hurt. The point of it wasn’t to do that. I mean, the point of it was just that they just seem like crazy stories. The point is not that it’s my experiences.

Kelly
Their names are changed and they’re protected?

Jamie
Yeah. It’s not like their mom could read it and know.

Rapid Fire

Kelly
You die. If you were reincarnated, what animal are you coming back as?

Jamie
Well, I think I have to give two answers. Part of me would want to be something that has no brain or like a sea slug or something like that just to have the simplest existence possible. But then part of me would be this bird that I like that’s called the lilac-breasted roller that’s mostly in East Africa that’s just… I don’t know. It’s really corny, but they’re just really cool looking.

Kelly
You want to be a cool looking bird?

Jamie
Yeah, I don’t want to be a deep, king white middle aged human again. I’m really fucking tired of that shit. I’m over it. Why not be an extraordinarily beautiful bird that just lives in the small part of the earth, that doesn’t really bother anybody, that all it does is eat seeds and look great.

Kelly
I want to be a great looking bird as an active resistance to my last life.

Jamie
Yeah, they’re really not bothering anything. They’re not causing any problems.

Kelly
The best advice you’ve received?

Jamie
My dad was a very successful musician, but a very troubled individual. He gave me two pieces of advice about music that anytime any person who’s starting out asked me about music, I always give them the same advice he gave me. It’s very corny, but it is incredibly valuable. One was that he asked me, So why do you want to do music? I said, I don’t know. He said, The reason you want to do music is because it is an act of giving. It just reminded me… Early on–he put it into my mind that you’re making music, hopefully, so somebody else will get something out of it. As opposed to trying to be famous or get free guitars or have a bunch of sex or whatever. The point of it is to the degree that it is possible, always try to have it make the world a slightly better place. And you won’t always succeed at that. But coming up from that position. And the other advice was he said a lot of the music that he worked on, although it was very successful, was very, very constant and stayed very inside. He said he always wished that he had gotten more far out with what he had worked on.He said, You need to always take it too far. So between those… those are the two best pieces.

Kelly
I think you’ve listened. I mean, you’ve always taken it too far.

Jamie
That’s right.

Kelly Xio

IG: @ohgeography

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