Name: Jamie Stewart
Current release: Jamie Stewart teams up with Lawrence English again for another release of their HEXA project. Entitled Material Interstices, it is available from English's Room40 imprint.
[Read our Lawrence English interview]
If these thoughts by Jamie Stewart piqued your interest, visit the XIU XIU homepage for more information and current updates. You can also read our previous Jamie Stewart of XIU XIU interview, where he expands on a wider range of topics.
Can you talk a bit about your interest in or fascination for sound? What were early experiences which sparked it and what keeps sound interesting for you?
My father and uncle were both successful musicians. So from a very early age the idea of music as something that had the potential for some kind of purpose or promise in life felt natural.
Arriving at that potential never has been easy but the concept was easy to grasp. It's not as if anyone my dad worked with ever "jammed" at the house when I was a kid but I do have clear memories of them listening to the same song or section of a song over and over trying to sort out a mix or figure out some arrangement issue. Listening closely as well seemed like a natural thing to do. My parents bought me a stereo that had a little microphone in it when I was in the third grade and the door was opened.
Listening to non contextual sound is at this point almost more interesting than music to me. I could easily listen to variations in white, purple, blue, red, brown, black noise etc for all night. Those subtle kinds of qualitative / spectral changes for some reason never grow dull. Probably it not having any context prevents its associations from pissing me off, which doesn't take much to do.
Keeping it interesting is a matter of staying on the hunt for something new. It doesn't need to be a band or composer I have never heard (though it can be) but really any new sound. An insect or weird eurorack filter or a helicopter or washing machine. Ye olde ear holes can never be filled if one stays alert.
What's your take on how your upbringing and cultural surrounding have influenced your sonic preferences?
As noted my father was deeply involved in music and therefore any music that was on in the house had to be of the best quality.
In some ways it was intrusive to have had my early record collections "curated" and in some ways it was an incredible blessing. I got to listen to Prince, Otis Redding, Motown, Talking Heads, Bach and the white album while my friends were listening to Ratt. There really is no comparison.
It has probably lead to my being annoyed by 95% of the music I hear. My standards were set almost unrealistically high from the time I was 8 or 9. But it also led to my seeking out reggae, field recordings, classic 80s art goth, chicago blues and free jazz when I was 15.
I was raised by music snobs and I remain one today.
Do you see yourself as part of a tradition or historic lineage when it comes to your way of working with sound?
I see myself as someone who borrows liberally from my honored superiors if that is what you mean.
What types of sound do you personally prefer to work with? Are there sounds you reject – if so, for what reasons?
A friend of mine who is one of the ABSOLUTE best, most innovative guitar players alive told me once he was trying to sound less intense. It made me uncomfortable. It did not diminish my respect for his notable artistry but it did make it clear to me that I always want sounds to be more intense. That doesn't mean loud or distorted necessarily in every case. But certainly a sound that is unapologetic for what it is.
Playing that is "gentle" - like floppy hat, envelope filter soft keyboard major 7ths - FUCKING MAKES ME WANT TO THROW UP. The reason being THAT IT FUCKING SUCKS.
Where do you find the sounds you're working with? How do you collect and organise them?
It is not a conscious process. The hope is to think as little as possible and allow the medulla oblongata and The Muse to guide everything. This usually leads to plugging things into other things that I haven't tried before or rubbing things together that I haven't rubbed before. But again it is more than anything just trying get out of my own way and see where providence / spirit worlds / the void / unprocessed trauma leads.
Usually if a sound is being made it is being made within a composition or song so it is organized by being put into use. But I have been making sample packs monthly as part of a music subscription and someone asked me if I ever used any of those samples which I realized I had not been. So now I occasionally self plunder. But it is more enjoyable just to try and make something new.
Some artists use sounds as a means for emotional self-expression, others take a more conceptual approach or want to present intriguing sound matter. How would you characterise your own goals and motivations in this regard?
For me it is all based in emotion and supporting the point of a piece of music or song. It is a little or a lot pretentious but whatever - I am a little or a lot pretentious. But what the sound feels like gives it meaning for me. I like conceptual listening and compositions as a fan a lot but it is not how my music heart seems to function as far as making sounds or music.
Which tools have been most important and useful for you when it comes to working with and editing sounds?
Other than just through using protools for 25 years and by that attrition having become competent at editing, there is not really any one thing that I lean on particularly.
A large collection of percussion, different microphones, a lot of reamping sounds through various guitar pedals especially death by audio and zvex, a few different decent and particular sounding compressors, eurorack mania, several different filters ... the verbos bark filter as of late has been exciting ... 7 or 8 different spring reverb tanks; this late 70s tapco spring reverb john congleton turned me onto is tough to beat. And probably more than anything else, non time corrected pitch shifting of everything previously mentioned.
[Read our John Congleton interview]
Humans are often characterised as "visual beings". In your opinion, what role does our sense of hearing play in our understanding of the world? How do sounds affect you, compared to other senses like sight or smell?
I mentioned it before but sounds are connected to emotion and meaning for me more than any other senses by a long shot. I work on music all day so it adds up that my connection to hearing is more developed. A deep look at a painting for me might constitute two minutes. But I could easily listen to a 75 minute Eliane Radigue piece.
It is in some fundamental hard wired way the driving sense of my existence. I would of course hate losing my sight. But life would not be worth living if I lost my hearing.
The idea of acoustic ecology has drawn a lot of attention to the question of how much we are affected by the sound surrounding us. What's your take on this and on acoustic ecology as a movement in general?
As I live under an increasingly busy flight path that lead to my developing panic attack inducing misophonia, I think about it all the time.
I am taking some medication which is helping but capitalism's disregard for the basic right of not having one's space constantly pummeled by growth and production is becoming harder and harder to take. I know I am over sensitive to sound for obvious reasons but I wish very very very much noise pollution were taken more seriously. The improvement in humanity's general mental health would be enormous. John Cage was enormously fortunate in being able to listen to what I would consider disruptive noises and add them to his positive listening consciousness.
It is despite my best efforts impossible for me.
[Read our interview with Thomas Bonvalet (l’ocelle mare), who suffers from Hyperacusis, a similar to misophonia, albeit more physical, condition.]
We can listen to a pop song or open our window and simply take in the noises of the environment. Without going into the semantics of 'music vs field recordings', in which way are these experiences different and / or connected, do you feel?
The non connection to social / monetary / consumer / historical value that field recordings have vs pop songs, their lack of connection to anything other than what they are makes listening to them feel incredibly freeing.
From the concept of Nada Brahma to "In the Beginning was the Word", many spiritual traditions have regarded sound as the basis of the world. Regardless of whether you're taking a scientific or spiritual angle, what is your own take on the idea of a harmony of the spheres and sound as the foundational element of existence?
It is not that important to me to really have a clear idea in any regard of what is foundational to existence as a totality. So I am not sure I can even really think about sound in those kinds of absolute, wide reaching terms. But as far as my own existence, little else even approaches the weight and base of sound.
The longer I am alive and the longer I am involved with it the more I am obsessed, moved and driven by it. And more and more grateful for being given the opportunity to participate in it everyday.