Thursday, January 17, 2008

Interview: Xiu Xiu

This feature appears in this week's Wireless Bollinger.

The 1998 film, Xiu Xiu: The Sent Down Girl, details the gloomy story of its title character, a fifteen year old girl who struggles in the wake of the Chinese Cultural Revolution.

The film’s intense plot is a fitting match for its nominal successor Xiu Xiu, a band that’s endured its share of difficulties since its inception in 2000. On January 29th, Xiu Xiu releases its sixth studio album, Women as Lovers, the latest stop in a decade long journey for frontman and founding member Jamie Stewart.

On the latest album Stewart is joined by cousin Caralee McElroy, who has been in the band since 2004, and drummer Ches Smith, who toured with the group in support of their last full length, The Air Force. Although Stewart described the recording process as “pretty similar to what we’ve always done,” again set in his home studio, it has been the addition of Smith that has bolstered and diversified the project. While Stewart remains the primary source of lyrics, his bandmates have a greater input and as a result Xiu Xiu resembles more of a traditional band rather than just Stewart’s project.

Growing up in Los Angeles, Stewart’s childhood had a strong impact on his eventual career. His father, Mike Stewart, was involved in music business, as was his uncle. “I think initially it was a family thing,” says Stewart, but like most teenagers the appeal set in: “I was too freaked out to do drugs.” He credits his dad for improving his perception of music, allowing him to distinguish between good and poor quality. This trait would prove especially useful for Stewart who found himself caught in the epicenter of a regrettable musical genre in the 1980s.

“The worst hair metal was the most popular, but I never got interested in it,” says Stewart, who describes his tastes as “Muddy Waters and David Byrne instead of Poison and Def Leopard.” Stewart also cites Otis Redding, Prince and Duran Duran as influences, his current tastes being equally eclectic, ranging from free jazz to techno. Bauhaus was also influential, although Stewart admits, “They really freaked me out, but set me on the path into art-rock.”

However, the impact wasn’t immediate, as Stewart became a preschool teacher after his 19th birthday, later working as a social worker and eventually finding a place at a record store. After Stewart collaborated with Cory McCullock in previous bands, the two would form Xiu Xiu, later adding Lauren Andrews and Yvonne Chen to the tour lineup. Meanwhile, Stewart remained in his day job, taking breaks to tour when needed.

“I’d tell huge lies to my bosses why I needed a month off,” says Stewart.

In 2002, Xiu Xiu began touring continuously, albeit no longer with Chen and McCullock – however the latter would assume production duties for subsequent albums. Despite the losses, Stewart realized that he was financially able to rely on touring, finally becoming a musician full time. And while fatigue from the tour grind was unavoidable, he continues to make the most of it.

“I actually really like touring in the United States, the scenery gets to be a drag, but the place is set up for traveling,” says Stewart. The longevity of Xiu Xiu has also allowed the band to tour throughout the world, and while not all countries have miles of asphalt efficiency, Stewart says, “The good food in Italy is always worth the perilous drive.” While he admits that he still prefers recording at home, it’s clear that touring is an essential part of the project.

The constant traveling also brought about a unique artistic opportunity. Tour manager David Horvitz, an accomplished photographer, documented the journey with film that fans submitted in self-addressed envelopes, which were later returned. Stewart describes the experiment as something that grew exponentially, from 30 to 60 to 400 hundred applicants, and the band released a book commemorating the Polaroid Project in November 2007.

Although Xiu Xiu’s fanbase is clearly dedicated, the thorny issue of illegal filesharing is something the band has to endure. “I feel really mixed about it. Downloading something for free is stealing from a store or a merch table. It’s inherently disrespectful,” says Stewart. On the other hand, the accessibility of the internet has created fans of Xiu Xiu in areas of the world where albums wouldn’t necessarily be available in physical form. “We played at Guadalajara and Serbia, which wouldn’t have happened unless someone had ripped us off,” says Stewart.

A more benign type of sharing occurred on the extended play Tu Mi Piaci (Italian for “I like you”), which included Xiu Xiu covers of the aforementioned Bauhaus, as well everyone from This Mortal Coil to the Pussycat Dolls. The record Remixes & Covered returned the favor by compiling tracks of other artists interpreting Xiu Xiu songs.

With so much going on, it’s understandable that Stewart is reluctant to attempt to categorize Xiu Xiu’s music. “I think it is a bad idea to be analytical,” he says, preferring to wait until the band goes on a “five year hiatus” to be retrospective. With the new album about to be released and a spring tour planned shortly thereafter, such a break seems unlikely. And with such a diverse batch of musical styles and subject matter, such an effort would probably be inconclusive at best.


MP3: Xiu Xiu - I Do What I Want, When I Want
MySpace: Xiu Xiu
Official Site: Xiu Xiu

1 comment:

pr said...

You can get the book at the publisher's website:

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