An "endurance test": that's how Jamie Stewart describes the making of Xiu Xiu's latest effort Angel Guts: Red Classroom. Listening to this album is no less of an endurance test, that's for sure. If on the one hand discomfort never ceased to be part of Xiu Xiu's aesthetic, Angel Guts celebrates it in the most unapologetic fashion, recuperating the legacy of the big industrial acts of the late 1970s and 1980s and leaving pop behind completely. When describing the genesis of the album and situating the many changes that made it possible, Jamie (sitting comfortably in his new LA home) sounds particularly chilled and less circumspect than you would imagine. But you can still sense how this record must have been a particularly big beast to tame.
For a band that never gave too much credit to scene and genre boundaries, it doesn't seem particularly surprising that reactions to the album has been so varied. As it comes across quite clearly in our Skype chat, Xiu Xiu have more to do with crossing boundaries than sitting comfortably. That's when talking 'indie' stops making sense, when pop ceases to be stimulating and when, amongst other things, PornHub steps in...
Angel Guts: Red Classroom has been perceived by many as the bleakest album Xiu Xiu ever made. Do you see it that way?
At the time it began I had a feeling that it was going to end up that way, regardless of whether or not I wanted it to. We embraced that rather than resist it.
Did you have specific influences in mind? Xiu Xiu usually tend to draw on influences from all over the place, sometimes almost incompatible ones.
For this one it was almost the opposite of that. We chose to keep the influences very specific and very tight, insofar as just choosing a very short list of bands whose music we would draw from, and using a very, very small number of instruments. This time we tried to keep it very focused.
Why the decision to use analogue synths and analogue drums only?
Part of that came from the interest in keeping the sounds very limited and constraining. There's really only so much that you can do with analogue gear. That's part of the charm, it forces you to push it a little bit further, if you want something that doesn't sound like something you've heard 50 million times before. And part of it was that a couple of the bands whose music we were drawing from were from the late 1970s and part of the 1980s: that's what they would have used, so it was an attempt to put ourselves in their shoes a little bit more than we would have... consciously. They sound totally amazing. I'm stuck there, I can't go back.
So, it's not a case that you went from, say, covering Erasure to giving up on pop completely.
Yeah, it happened really really quickly. A lot of people have disputed me on this, they said that there seems to be still a pop element to this record. If there is, it was despite my best intentions.
Could you talk a little bit about the recording of the album? How was it having Angela Seo back with you and working with John Congleton?
This is a complete contradiction: we were really, genuinely, and I'm sorry if this will sound like a melodramatic exaggeration, in the worst mindset that I've ever been working on a record ever. Very very pinched, very stressed out, very tired and uncomfortable for the duration of making it. That said, my favourite thing to do in music is to just make crazy sounds and, considering that the vast majority of this record consists of almost no harmonic information, but just a lot of crazy sounds, making it, despite the fact that it was under such rotten emotional conditions, it was actually very enjoyable. I would spend every day sitting in front of my little recording console with my small pile of analogue gear, try to wrestle with them, get a sound out of it that I never heard before. That became the songwriting process. So I did that everyday for about eight months. I would work on something for five or six hours, call Angela, she would come over, listen to it and say: “This is is working”, “This is not working”, “Use this”, “Don't use that”. And then we would tape everything together. So we did all this at my little home studio and then we would send stuff to John. For the last week of recording I flew out to Texas to John's fantastic studio Elmood Recording. We did the vocals there, Thor Harris from Swans came and played the drums on some of the songs.
Did you write the lyrics while putting together those “crazy sounds” or subsequently?
Some of them were definitely written with a particular set of sounds in mind. I knew exactly what I wanted 'Stupid in The Dark' to be about so I worked on the lyrics and the music together. I wrote the lyrics for 'Black Dick' two years ago not having any idea where they would have ended. I was very upset and very drunk in this all night dance club in Nuremberg on another tour; I just tried to classically dance the pain away, I was very annoyed at my bandmates. The words just sort of popped into my mind and I just wrote up a note of that. A few months later I was looking through my notebook and I found them, barely remembering having done it. With 'Bitter Melon' it was the opposite, at the time of the recording I knew what I wanted it to be about, so I wrote the lyrics for it and then tried to make music that might suit it. Differently with any other record, when I wrote the lyrics I sent them to John and Angela to go over. Usually I never share the lyrics with anybody, but they were really instrumental in editing them and having them be clearer.
Although you said it was written in a bad state, there must have been some sense of liberation, given that you finally moved from North Carolina back to Los Angeles. I know it's something you wanted to do for some time.
It was a curious situation. Moving back to Los Angeles was and is tremendously liberating. I am very happy to be back. However I moved to a very peculiar and somewhat dangerous neighbourhood [Echo Park], which I did not expect to do. This is exactly the spirit of Los Angeles in its entirety: the weather is beautiful, there are so many interesting things to do, the people are beautiful, the food is totally amazing, but every other neighbourood you go into is populated by people whose lives are almost totally unliveable. It's a curious place, I can't think of any other city that is so rich and gorgeous, unapologetically so.
Has it always been your first choice?
I knew I wanted to go back to Los Angeles. I just didn't mean to move in this particular neighbourhood. I mean, I'm not broke, but I need a place where I can both live and work, so it really limits the number of places I can end up in. I had never heard of this neighbourhood before. When I grew up here I was living in the suburbs, so I didn't know the city particularly well. When economics makes it possible I'll certainly move, but I've learnt a lot.
Going back to the songs on the album, you mentioned 'Black Dick'. When I first heard it I felt there was an uncomfortable mix of irony and vivid criticism of sexual objectification, I did not think it could be perceived as racist. Not everyone thought it this way, apparently. I saw you addressed this on your website.
It hasn't come up that much. I thought it might come up, but I was really hoping that people would not be that stupid. I think the people who brought it up did so just to be reactionary about it. I don't really think that they believe that I am a racist. I think I would not write anything that I thought that anybody with any sense would think was racist. I clearly would not want to disgrace anyone by doing that or upset anyone. By and large I have faith that people are smart enough to figure it out. 97% of people did, [on the website] I made a small point of addressing the other 3% to make sure that it was clear. You'd have to be pretty fucking dumb, or pretty fucking bored to think that the song was racist.
The song has a video now, which is on PornHub. While I was watching it I thought it felt... 'inclusive'. Literally all variants of sex you could think are represented.
[Laughs] It was really just like my head running away with itself. It's just the two things I am completely obsessed with: dirty sex and cats. It was an entirely unintellectual process, but as you noted I did make a point of having it being inclusive in terms of the variety of sex involved. So not entirely unintellectual, but the idea was to have cats and stupid porn off of the internet. I was just being a stupid teenager and not worrying about it.
Did you talk about this to your labels beforehand?
I told them that we were doing some videos that they could work with and then one or two that they clearly could not. I knew that they weren't going to use 'Black Dick' as a single anyway. They looked at the video and said “Oh, yes. We definitely cannot do anything with this”. But luckily both of our labels are populated by people who are not particularly squeamish. They said: “Do whatever you want with it”.
Do you think that to this day Xiu Xiu are associated with the wrong 'scene'? Looking at the sounds, themes and imagery you used throughout your career it could be that Xiu Xiu have more in common with say, industrial music, than indie or alternative music more broadly.
I don't listen to any 'indie' music. I think the reason we're put into that scene to begin with has just to do with the labels we were initially on. I guess I didn't know enough about music at the time to realise that that would make any difference. I was just happy to finally have ourselves on record. I am very proud of having been part of 5RC, that's for sure. Certainly, half of our catalogue is very much pop music or... our squeamish attempts at making pop music; half of it has to do with, as you noted, early 1980s industrial music, noise and things like that. It's not baffling to me that we would be considered part of the indie world, but I certainly don't have my heart in that place in any way and I really don't think I ever did. I think I tried to when it first became popular and accidentally I listened to it, but I realised there was nothing in it for me. Any pop music that we were interested in had to do more with classic pop music, not with indie pop music at all. I think it certainly has not helped our career in anyway that we have neither committed completely to the goth industrial scene nor completely to the indie pop scene. I think neither really wanted to have much to do with us, unfortunately. I think the industrial scene thinks that we are too soft and the indie scene thinks that we are too annoying. It's way too late in the game for me to do anything about it.
The variety of your audiences surely reflects this.
Yes, in the long run I do appreciate this and I feel very fortunate that there is a big variety of people who tend to come to our shows. I'm certain that it keeps us from being, from a business perspective, more popular, because we are not part of something. You know, in a hardcore scene people just go to whatever hardcore show because it's a hardcore show. We're not able to be a part of that, but I feel lucky that happens sometimes.
You opened for Swans on their last tour performing solo, acoustic and debuting completely new material. Can you tell us a little about how that experience went?
I have done two tours with them, one in the US and one in Europe. In the US tour I did Xiu Xiu songs, but in an incredibly stripped down way. For the tour in Europe I played a bunch of American religious songs from the 1850s to the1920s just on guitar. Some of the motivations were very practical: Swans soundchecks are incredibly long, sometimes I wouldn't be able to get a soundcheck and so I was just trying to think of the simplest thing that I could do, that would be close to my heart and that Swans would appreciate. And also, I mean, there is no possible way for anything that I could do to even be remotely as powerful as what Swans are doing. To try to compete with that is absurd, so it only makes sense to do something that goes really radically in the opposite direction, to do something as quiet and as simple as possible to contrast what they were doing.
Those songs will be featured in the upcoming album Unclouded Sky...
...it's not going to be like a 'proper' release, it's a Record Store Day release. Very very limited run. A friend of mine who plays with Ben Frost saw the show we played in London; he works a lot at this very fancy studio in Iceland and he suggested that we flew there to record the songs. I had never been there before, so it seemed a chance to be in a new place and to work with a new producer, which was very enjoyable. It was very simply done.
Your recent tribute to Nina Simone Nina has been a little 'overshadowed' by Angel Guts. How do you think the albums relate to each other?
They were two totally and completely separate processes and had two completely separate motivations. Nina was entirely a tribute record, it was just to say “thank you” to Nina Simone. Other than singing on it I didn't play on it at all. All the people who played on it are among the best people I've ever worked with in my life. Ches Smith did all the arrangements, we did all in one day. They really couldn't have been more different kinds of records. Mostly because of the seven people involved, I really just worked on 1/7 of Nina so I feel more grateful than usual to have had the opportunity to do it. Nina felt very much like an opportunity, whereas Angel Guts felt like... well, an endurance test.
Angel Guts: Red Classroom is out now via Bella Union. Read the DiS review here.