As the principal writer, performer and engineer behind the group Xiu Xiu, Jamie Stewart has been responsible for some of the most exciting and unsettling indie music of the last decade, attracting a following that's almost as fanatical in its devotion to the band as Jamie is to his own craft. Xiu Xiu's music deals in improbable contrasts — it's confrontational, but strangely catchy and appealing, frightening, but wry and funny, and resolutely imaginative and human in a way that bucks all trends. This is a man who's toured with a drum machine, a harmonium and a set of tuned gongs. Someone who released his new album, Dear God, I Hate Myself, in a special edition that included a piece of handmade chocolate and a T-shirt with "Xiu Xiu for Life" inked in what I'm pretty sure is his own blood. I've wanted to work with Jamie ever since my band Shearwater toured with him some years ago. Late last year we finally did, recording an album in a week with our friend John Congleton, and my suspicions about Jamie were confirmed. He's as dedicated, open-minded and impish in the studio as you would expect from his singular records.
You quite literally grew up with digital recording.
In the 1990s my dad worked at Digidesign. I think at the time Pro Tools was four channels and Mac-only, so they were developing an eight- channel version for PCs called Session 8. My dad brought home a prototype and said, "Here, learn to use this." This was way before everyone on earth had digital systems in their houses, and I knew so little about recording and music that I didn't realize how rarefied this was. It prompted me to start writing songs, and because I wasn't coming from an analog background I didn't have to unlearn that way of recording. I could rearrange ideas and experiment with sounds piled on each other in colored blocks. I spent a lot of time picking the colors. Before that I played a lot of half-assed slap bass, so the computer saved me from playing in Limbomaniacs cover bands at decayed frat reunions.
Working with you, I was amazed how you could think several moves ahead in the process — how a sound we made by accident in the studio might be brought into a song through minute adjustments in time or pitch. What are your favorite ways of manipulating sounds?
Changing the feel of things by moving them maybe 10 or 30 milliseconds is a wonderful part of digital music. Probably the trick I rely on most is the ancient pitch shift plug-in I have from my 2001-era Pro Tools setup. It doesn't really pitch shift anything so much as mangle it without any sort of predictable rhyme or reason. I love having a melody that seems to be going somewhere, and then one note is a "what-the- fuck?" sound. Then the melody continues, looking over its shoulder and wondering what happened to it. It's also really great for writing a melody with a percussion sound. You figure out the pitch of a gong or whatever, and then you record that melody where you want it in the song on a throwaway sound. Then you record one gong hit and line copies of it up against the attacks of the throwaway sound — because you know the pitch of the gong, you can pitch shift to intervals that follow the melody. It retains the original sound better if you turn off the time correction, but if you want to destroy it, leave it on. This is fun to do even with a sound you could play normally, like a mandolin. It gives it this kind of wrong feeling.
I love that for you, "wrong" usually means "good."
In Xiu Xiu rehearsal parlance, "That sounds too right" means, "Please try something different." When I was about 19 a friend gave me a cassette by Tom Ze ?, where there were buzz saws going along with very beautiful guitars and percussion. At about that same time I saw Einstürzende Neubauten after they were described to me as "these guys who have faces that make you want to punch them, and then they throw a microphone on the ground and smash it with a girder." These [bands] were important for me. I think making wrong sounds is a way to subvert not being able to be as harmonically expressive as I would like to be physically. I can't put across the emotion I want to by fingering a chord because I can't play well enough. But I can try to glue an array of smashy peeps together in a way that creates that feeling.
I've been listening to your new record [Dear God, I Hate Myself], and it's so dense and rich that I can hardly believe you made it at home. What's the usual budget for a Xiu Xiu record?
The usual Xiu Xiu budget is zero dollars. My dad snagged a bunch of weird prototypes from Digidesign, so even though my system is old, at the time it was the top of the line. People laugh at it, but it still works! I buy equipment occasionally — I might as well own it rather than borrow against our royalties to rent it. When you don't begin your record $28,000 in the hole, checks actually arrive...