When experimental rock band Xiu Xiu released Angel Guts Red Classroom in 2014, Tiny Mix Tapes called it “the most Xiu Xiu idea of all time and, logically, that makes it the most Xiu Xiu album ever released.” Presumably, this means that the album was somehow darker and more twisted than the band’s previous work, which includes songs with titles like “Guantanamo Canto” and “I Luv Abortion.” The sonic palette on Angel Guts Red Classroom was stripped down, throwing Xiu Xiu’s provocative melodrama into extreme relief: analog synth, drum machines, and a real live drum kit only. Frontman Jamie Stewart found it liberating to work under these constraints, and he wanted to carry that through to the album’s successor.
But when it came time to write said follow-up album, things got tricky. After recording around 30 songs that Stewart dismisses as “dumb,” he took a lengthy break from writing. He examined the structures of pop songs from a wide range of artists, and that research informed the songs that made it that made it to the group’s latest, Forget. Stewart worked closely with longtime collaborator Greg Saunier (Deerhoof) to shape the instrumentation and production on Forget, also bringing in two of his personal icons whom he’s newer to working with, performance artist Vaginal Davis and minimalist composer Charlemagne Palestine. The results: an inverted album of sticky pop confections with Xiu Xiu’s characteristic subversive core. We spoke with Stewart about pop machine inspiration, his collaborators, and how he feels when people leave their shows partway through.
What made you decide to make a pop-inspired record?
It was not on purpose. For the record that we had done before this, Angel Guts Red Classroom, it had a very specific template and box that we wanted to fit the sound into—the approach and the instrumentation in particular. I enjoyed working in that way tremendously, just having things be very specific and confined. When we first started, we had a strict but very broad definition of the genres we wanted to draw from, but as far as instrumentation or approach or anything, it was always completely open up to that point.
So for Forget, we wanted to do that as well and probably spent about a year and a half just trying different configurations. None of them were working at all. We probably recorded 30 songs or something like that under very specific parameters or purviews, and all of them were very dumb. And then it got to be a year and a half, and I was like ‘Oh, shit.’ We’ve put out records at a pretty healthy rate and I realized, ‘Oh, we have no material.’ I took a lot of time off, worked on some other projects, did a bunch of shows, just didn’t do any writing for six or eight months, which, for me was really unusual and then realized ‘Oh, fuck, okay, now it’s been two years and there’s nothing.’ I essentially let it be entirely driven by unconsciousness and the muse and let it be whatever it was going to be rather than trying to force it into something that I thought intellectually it was supposed to be but empirically was turning out to be a bad idea. So it turned out as a pop record because we allowed it to turn into that naturally. It was what the Goddess of the Musical Universe decided. There wasn’t any predetermination behind it. It actually came together very quickly after having such long delays. The whole thing was written and recorded in just a few months. Which, considering how long it had taken to get up to that point was great, really.
What makes a record a pop record for you?
Probably just everybody’s standard definition. A lot of it has to do with how the songs are arranged in a relatively craftsperson-like way with choruses and verses and the singing being relatively melodic. Taking the fundamentals of songwriting circa 1950 to the present day insofar as verse/chorus/bridge types of structures. What one does with that structure can be very broad and very creative.
When one lists the canon of pop bands, one generally doesn’t think of Echo and the Bunnymen or Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, but both of those bands–all of those songs are extraordinarily succinct. From an educational standpoint, what I have often done is looked at their songs and analyzed them, written out ‘how many bars did they do this intro? How many bars did they do this verse?’ Just to see how songs that I found very moving were structured. And then you put them alongside of a fucking Tom Petty song or something like that, and it’s structured in almost exactly the same kind of way. Or if you put them alongside whatever current top 40, or if you put them alongside a Roy Orbison song. When I was doing analysis of these songs, I was surprised that these songs I thought would be really radical and experimental were super normal. What made them moving to me was how the sounds were used and what the lyrics were like and what the emotionality of the song was. But the structures were exactly the same.
At what point on your album did you bring in your special guests, Vaginal Davis, Charlemagne Palestine, and Greg Saunier?
It was all at different points and all for different reasons.
When I was very young, I came across this fanzine in LA, now long defunct, called Ben is Dead, which was about the punk rock and post-punk scene in Los Angeles. I read an article about Vaginal Davis, and at the time she was playing in a band called Black Fag. I had never seen anything like that before. The way that she was using ideas of masculinity—but also hyper-femininity and drag and music and politics and sexuality and humor and ideas of art and race all at the same time. As a young person, it completely exploded my mind and my conception of what I thought music or art could be. I tucked it away and used it as a touchstone from then until forever. A couple years after that, she was hosting a show that a band I used to play in a long time ago was playing. She would kind of hassle the people onstage. At the time I think I was looking a little harder for approval through being excessively performative, and we got into it and she ended up putting a drumstick up my butthole onstage.
I read about that! And you said your butthole was dirty.
Yeah, she was making fun of that. I had not showered. I did not know how to keep myself clean on tour. Many, many years later I got asked to talk in a class at NYU by an art professor named Jonathan Berger. And he’s really good friends with Vaginal Davis. They work together all the time. He reintroduced us many years after our previous run-in. A year ago we ended up collaborating on a reworking of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” at NYU. We had been friends, but working closely on something together in a more genuine, deeper, adult way reignited our relationship. While we were working on the opera, I was working on the lyrics for Forget and had written the list poem that she reads at the end. A big part of Vaginal’s role in the opera was doing speaking parts, and she actually has this completely remarkable, sonorous, otherworldly kind of voice, so it’s a natural thing to do.
Charlemagne Palestine—I was producing this very in-her-own-milieu, very very famous pop singer’s record. She wanted to do a record that she thought was more outside or aggressive or dark than the things she had done before, so she was trying to get musicians like that to work on it. I got asked to produce it, but we did not get along at all. It was kind of a failure. Basically, she’s just kind of a talentless asshole, and I’m sure she feels the same way about me. But she had asked me initially in the first couple days before we realized that we did not like each other, she had asked me to get people that I had some connection with to play on her record. She asked me if I could get Charlemagne Palestine to play on it because she knows that I am friends with Michael Gira. Michael Gira put out a record by Charlemagne Palestine. So I of course thought there was no fucking way in the world that I could get this musical genius and hero of mine to play on this total piece of shit record, so I just went ‘Okay, sure, I’ll give it a try’ just to mollify her. Then it occurred to me ‘Oh, wait a minute, I could get him to play [on] a Xiu Xiu record.’ It hadn’t occurred to me until that moment. She did have a very good idea, but I was not going to waste it on her record. Through Michael, I was able to get a hold of him, and he was extraordinarily gracious and very, very sweet.
Greg and I worked on several records before. We get along really well. That much of it, at least for me, is socially rewarding because Greg is extraordinarily funny and extraordinarily smart and incredibly kind and incredibly generous. He’s just a pleasure to be around. I’m a giant fan of his work, so I want to have him do it for those reasons. It’s fruitful because—I’m not saying this to be hyperbolic, and I’m sure a lot of other people would agree with me—but he is, in the most classic definition, a musical genius. And the most focused and hard-working musician I’ve ever been around, ever. I like to consider myself a hard-working musician, but I have a tenth of the drive that he has. He will walk into the room and 14 hours will pass and he’s ready to keep going. And it’s enjoyable and fresh the entire time. He has this incredible power to listen to something and hear it in a way that I would never in a billion years consider but wish that I had. When he had done stuff in the past, and I think this is the fifth record we have worked on, he worked on it towards the end of the record. The songs would be as done as I could get them to be. And he would clean them up and make them much more presentable than they were before. For this one, none of the vocal melodies were written, but most of the music was relatively done. He came in and I think he wrote the vocal melodies for eight of the songs. I put a scratch microphone in front of his face, and he would listen to it and almost instantly hum a vocal melody with no preparation. I think he just tapped into the lava stream of music that runs through him all the time and it came out very spontaneously. After he did that incredibly quickly and incredibly adroitly, he rearranged a number of the songs in a pretty significant way. He contributed more to the writing on this one than he had on the other ones.
I’m not sure how to put this politely, but I’m sure you’ve noticed that a lot of people leave your shows early. Does that upset you?
I do everything I can to not look at the audience. I’m not a particularly social person. I’m very shy and almost any time that I notice anybody there, it completely throws me out of the moment. And then also, I know that that happens and it bums me out. We’re not trying to alienate anybody. At the same time, we’re trying to be ourselves and play versions that, at that moment, are real for us. The point of doing that is never to try to bother people. It’s just trying to be ourselves. Sometimes people are into that and sometimes they’re not. Anytime somebody is just trying to be themselves and it bothers somebody or disappoints somebody, that never feels very good. But at the same time, not that we’re an overly famous band, but we have been around for 15 years. Part of the reason we’ve been around for 15 years is that, albeit for a small number of people, we are trying as hard as we can to be open and to be honest, even if it’s not a particularly popular approach.
—Erin Lyndal Martin