Name: Jamie Stewart
Current release: OH NO on Polyvinyl Records
Recommendations: Any Santeria Botanica in your neighborhood that can be respectfully and briefly visited as a tourist if it is not your background / Going to a farmer’s market and buying as many versions of the same vegetable or fruit whatever is in season, getting stoned and eating them all. For example, eating 40 varieties of oranges, pomelos, grapefruits and whatever other citrus you can find. That is a truly recommendable art journey!
Visit www.xiuxiu.org to hear music, see photos, watch videos and buy stuff.
When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What is it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
The first band I ever had, as a 13 year old, was called the Lime Green Leisure Suits. We were heavily influenced by Weird Al Yankovic and would, as he does, change the lyrics of hit songs to feeble comedic effect. We wrote mean parody songs about the other kids in our class and then sold these tapes to those same kids. Needless to say we became unpopular very quickly. I did see Weird Al at a county fair in 2003 and he, in a non-ironic way, kicked ass live.
In a radical about face not long after that, a friend who had cooler older brothers and sisters gave me a mix tape of early 4AD bands like Cocteau Twins, Bauhaus, This Mortal Coil, Wolfgang Press etc. and also the Lonely Is an Eyesore comp. My dad was a musician and got me into 60s soul and Prince at that time as well. Also as an aggressive nerd, I was trying everything I could to find any music that was not top 40 and slowly turning the radio dial to see what might be hidden. I came across a public radio show on Sundays on KPFK that only played reggae, dub and ska. Its newness hooked me. That combination of dub, goth, soul and art funk has been a guide for me ever since, and more or less has led me explore to everything else I have come to love.
Although some of what I was listening to was hugely popular, all of those musics seemed to be trying to make something new, to be free and to be true to their own summoned hearts rather than just get over and be “cool.” Who knows what they all really thought but that is how it felt to me as a kid. They all seemed real.
For most artists, originality is first preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice? What is the relationship between copying, learning and your own creativity?
I was never a good enough musician to copy anyone. I wanted to but I couldn’t figure songs out. I had a bass teacher show me how to play Ziggy Stardust but that was as far as it got. In some ways, this lack of technical ability had and has been an annoying hindrance to being able to keep up with other players sometimes but it also leads to having to come up with stop gaps that sometimes sounded interesting and to what I hoped would be different paths of sounds and feelings. I probably copy more people now than when we started. I have played long enough that I have a little more ability as a thief so maybe I am making up for lost time.
What were your main compositional - and production - challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
This is kind of embarrassing but mostly it has been the voice in my head saying that I suck and that what I am trying to make is pointless. It is a loop that goes on most of the day regardless of what I am doing and is a SUPER aggravating symptom of depression and OCD. It is VERY boring and disruptive. I can relegate it to a parallel existence a little better now just through having more experience with it, but holy cats would I love to crawl in my brain and put Gorilla tape over that fucking extra mouth.
What was your first studio like? How and for what reasons has your set-up evolved over the years and what are currently some of the most important pieces of gear for you?
It was the classic Tascam Portastudio! As noted, my dad was a musician and toward the end of his life was working at gear companies so he had access to some cool things. Although he never really showed me how to play anything, periodically there would just be a piece of equipment in my bedroom. If I figured it out it would stay and if I didn’t use it enough, one day, without explanation it would be gone. The Portastudio got a lot of use and stayed. I think he wanted to see if I had the drive of music so he threw me in the pool to sort it out myself. Also, I was not a very good player as a kid and he was a brilliant player so I think he just didn’t want to deal with me hahahahha. He did give me an Alesis HR 16B drum machine too which I still have and still use. It was the first instrument I felt like I got a handle on.
How do you make use of technology? In terms of the feedback mechanism between technology and creativity, what do humans excel at, what do machines excel at?
I have used Pro Tools since the start of Xiu Xiu. I don’t think it sounds as good as tape at all but it does allow for creativity in arranging and manipulating sounds. I especially love being able to pitch shift sounds down. It turns them into something unpredictable and is a huge part of our sound. As a bit of a Luddite I don’t like to use it to “fix” bad playing but that said being able to easily glue together improvisations can lead to surprises as well. If you use it as another instrument instead of a crutch it can be amazing.
Humans excel at art and feeling and emotion. Machines excel at obeying and inspiring their creators !!!!!!!! (I fully expect to end up in Skynet AI jail until I am dead.)
Production tools, from instruments to complex software environments, contribute to the compositional process. How does this manifest itself in your work? Can you describe the co-authorship between yourself and your tools?
I am HUGELY influenced by gear and sounds. More often than not, a song will start as a sound. The song becomes a place for that sound to live and hopefully have meaning in an emotional context. (Yes, I am pretentious and would never deny it.) Before getting into writing songs I was more of an engineer than anything else. Making an unusual sound is my greatest musical joy. If I could do that all day and nothing else I would be incredibly happy. If I am stuck for what to do next, I will start with juxtapositions I hope I haven’t tried before and more often than not, that opens the door. Consequently, my studio is getting more and more and more full of things that go beep in the night.
Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives through, for example, file sharing, jamming or just talking about ideas?
Considering that our newest record is all duets you could say that, at least at the moment, we would not exist without them. Since our first record we have had players who are not full-time band members or are friends or people we admire and in some lucky cases, long-standing musical/art heroes contribute to recordings. It is an approach I expect we will always take. Asking someone who is brilliant to be themselves and do what they do unhindered is always incredibly exciting and freeing. Great musicians generally sound great! Why wouldn’t we want to add their hearts to our little efforts?