Interview by Parisa Eshrati
As opposed to their more internally-driven records, Xiu Xiu's latest release, Girl with Basket of Fruit, was formed through reactions and explorations of other people's texts and imagery. We spoke with frontman Jamie Stewart on the stimuli that influenced the ritualistic soundscapes and lyricism of the record, the use of supernatural elements to provoke inspiration, and how he pushed his own boundaries to delve deep into the dark realms of spirituality.
Let’s start off talking about the role of magic and the supernatural that went into making the new album, Girl with Basket of Fruit. I read that a lot of decisions for the album was based on things like coin flipping, but aside from that how did you allow that uncontrollable element take place in creating the new record? And how did opening up to this process imbed itself in the culty/ritualistic sound of the album?
An excellent question, and I wish that I had a more magical answer for you. That sort of supernatural element was absolutely integral to the album and I appreciate you picking up on that, but really it was a lot of techniques that artists have used for recordings throughout time.
I did this practice of looking through a book and seeing an inspiring image or line, then writing down an impression of my thoughts without thinking about the original artifact in any way. There was like 700 pages of that type of chance writing, then I’d go back and edit it all afterwards. In addition to the coin flipping, we also collectively focused on numbers during the recording process. When you do digital recording, there’s a time clock on the top of the screen that shows where you are in the song down to the microsecond. Some editing decisions were based upon whether or not a lucky or unlucky number would show up on that timeclock.
In a way that's a little more difficult to describe, I just spent more time concentrating on aspects of darker spirituality and their parallels with aesthetics. Traditionally, dark spirituality has to do with ideas about magic. Being immersed in that space mentally was absolutely part of it. I wish there were more potions or bat wings involved.
So no crystal grids I take it?
[laughs] No, just some super lame ass attempts to follow numerological suggestions from the universe in addition to the things that I had said. I did put up some green light bulbs up at my studio! That kind of helped.
Ah, well green definitely helps set a witchy atmosphere!
Oddly, it sort of did. It put me in a different headspace. It all sounds very cliché and stupid now, but as you perceived it was a very deep part of making decisions when we were working on the album.
Speaking of working with darker spirituality, I want to bring up how the album works with themes of exorcism. You sourced a lot of inspiration from very Devilish artwork as seen in your TalkHouse article. It’s interesting because often time possession occurs when people actively open themselves up to these images and this part of the universe. Where do you hold the line, if at all, in your own songwriting process to stay guarded from the darker repercussions of working in this realm?
That totally makes sense. The goal of any songwriting and recording process for me personally is to never be guarded. I mean, there's an amount to which it's impossible not to be because as a human you have an instinctive reflex to hold something back or not go down a particular path. There's a kind of innate animalistic sense of self-preservation. But the attempt would be to fight against that and see where things will go because of it. Again, it's impossible not to hold a line somewhere just so I can be a somewhat sane person.
Going on with your aforementioned visual inspirations, there are lots of contrasts from very extreme and brutal imagery to very delicate things, i.e. a book of suicide notes to drawings of healing plants. I’m curious what this contrast might reveal about your takeaway from absorbing all this content. The record seems to have an overall message of disgust, anger, and resentment, but allowing for moments for calm and contemplative healing (like in the track “The Wrong Thing”).
I think it's almost everyone's human experience to go from these two ends. Since Zorastrianism we've had the idea of the duality between good and evil which permeates almost all of human consciousness. You know, I don't see a tremendous amount of separation between something like suicide notes and then botanical sketchbooks. It's all just part of being an earthling. They don't have to be against each other, and I think they aren't necessarily are at odds with one another. They all just are.
You’ve mentioned how the name of the album is a play on Caravaggio’s Boy with a Basket of Fruit, and the stark differences between how men and women martyrs are portrayed in Western art (i.e. women are depicted decrepitly, men are surrounded by loved ones). I’d like to bring up Hildegard, who I know you had been reading, because I think she’s a unique exception to this theory. She turned moments of immolation and possession into visions and divine truths, as even seen in her portraits. How do you feel, if at all, you channeled this Hildegardian way of turning what could be perverse ideas to something empowering throughout this album?
Oh, that's a superb question. I don't know that I really have it in me to channel that in any way. I think I have emulated her example. She's one of my all-time spiritual, artistic and scientific heroes. It wasn't really a matter of channeling what she did in that regard as it was to just be a disciple of hers, in some fairly significant aesthetic way. I’m continually so in awe of her writing, her music, her perception of the power of plants, and her understanding of the power of trance. It was a truly remarkable ability to have been an incredible rebel in the faith of the Catholic church and be a woman and still survive. It was a remarkable feat of hers and I still don't know how she managed to do it. She tweaked many who were locked in sure faith and somehow turned out okay.
Absolutely. The video for “Pumpkin Attack on Mommy and Daddy” reminded me of that type of empowerment. You have images of someone being tied up and smothered in all this crazy stuff, but it comes off more powerful than depraved.
Absolutely. That was all Angela [Seo]. She did all the music videos, but she's equally as interested in Hildegard so there definitely might have been that element there. But yeah, everything good that came from those videos are all from Angela's amazing efforts. I’m super impressed with all her work.
Not a music-related question, but if you were a WWE wrestler what would be your conceptual get up be? And who would win in a match, you or Daniel Bryan?
Oh, I think I would try to be super geometric, like have no curved surfaces at all. I don't know how I could physically do that. It may require much more concentration on magic [laughs]. Maybe I'd have like a dodecahedron hat or something and just roll around in it. Bearing that in mind, I would probably be pretty uncomfortable so I would definitely win against Daniel Bryan. I would just crush him. Not necessarily because I'd have good technique but in a literal way like I'd just roll over him [laughs]. Also, I would be too heavy because I would be made of cement.
Damn, that's a really good technique actually. I’m surprised no one has thought of that before.
Yeah. I think I'd be unstoppable. I'd probably destroy the ring but it would be my first and last bow and it would be really dramatic [laughs]. It'd be great.
I know one of your favorite things to do is figuring out how to make a song work in a live context. Not that I want you to give away all your secrets, but what’s the process been like so far for taking this album on tour? I imagine a song like “Scisssssssors” must take some special ingenuity to make it work live.
Well, largely it's been up to the current lineup, which consists of Thor Harris (Swans, Devendra Banhardt) and Christopher Pravdica (Swans, Yeah Yeah Yeahs). Both of them are fantastic on-the-fly improvisers. I really thought that “Scisssssssors” would be almost completely impossible to sort out live, and then in about two minutes they managed to turn it into this gut-wrenching, relentlessly churning live track. I think it works because they're both so incredibly good.
It's happened with all of the songs, actually. Normally it's an incredible flog and takes days and days of detailed work and me having to be much more bossy than I ever want to be. But both Thor and Christopher are endless, beautiful fountains of ideas. It's been extraordinarily easy to take songs from the new record and turn them into something that works as a three piece. But that's all for their credit.
Finally, you’re on a desert island and you can only take three synths and one delicious snack with you. What’re you bringing?
[laughs] Well, this would have to take place in mid-July, so my single snack would be a perfectly in season watermelon. And three synths? Hmm. This is presuming there is any sort of electricity on the island, right? Or should I pick three synths that I’d want to just stand and look at while I starve to death?
Yeah, let’s say there’s a strong electric current on this island.
I guess if I had a lot of time on my hands, I'd probably want the full Buchla system, the full Moog modular system and a full surge modular system. I mean, if I got that much time on my hands I'd want to go big. And I'd probably start going crazy, so I'm going to want modular stuff that my brain could melt to. The trippier sounds are going to be appealing to me.
Good call. Anything else you’d like to mention from you or the band?
We all have a lot of projects coming up. Thor’s other band, Thor & Friends, has a 6 record release on its way. Christopher is working on a movie soundtrack. Angela is doing a solo record. I just finished a novel that will be out next year and Xiu Xiu is writing songs for the next record.
All interviews posted before October 2015 were originally recorded for KAMP Student Radio.