Jamie Stewart sits on a blue velvet couch in his living room. A table of assorted stuffed animals is to his right and a pillow covered with a pattern of naked cowboys in the clouds is to his left. His socks have a cartoon rabbit holding a carrot on them. He sits crossed legged and is very still. It’s a warm sunny day that white curtains try to keep out.
There is a room with a long desk outside of where he sits. It faces an arrangement of plants that spill out of their pots, in all directions, growing and healthily reaching toward the windows and ground and doors and each other. The room beyond this is full of instruments and musical gear. There are synthesizers and keyboards in addition to atypical percussion tools and guitars. A small shelf holds rows of worn effects pedals, some baby pink and others featuring rainbows. One has a sticker of a cat. One is titled “Super Hard On.” One prominently features an upside down pink triangle.
The environment is very fitting for the artist. It’s everyday but extraordinary, whimsical yet worldly: it’s very reflective of a musician and artist who has accomplished so much, in and out of Los Angeles.
Jamie is the founding member of a band called Xiu Xiu, a group that is very difficult to describe and very important within the scope of contemporary music. They are typically billed as “experimental” and have occupied the categories of synth-pop and noise and rock, sliding up and down the punk scale from “art punk” to “post punk”: there is not a clear way to explain how the band sounds. Jamie’s work with—and outside of—Xiu Xiu is visceral. Their albums swell with emotion and teem with drama. The band’s sound and his lyrical ability have the power to make you laugh or cry or want to shut it off—or turn it up. Xiu Xiu demands a response and interaction from its listeners.
He begins to explain his story, one that his music very successfully mirrors. “I was born in Los Angeles but I grew up in The Valley,” Jamie says. “Our most popular song is basically about growing up in The Valley. It’s never left me.” The song in question is 2004’s “I Love The Valley, OH!” from Fabulous Muscles. He has a seriousness to his demeanor but is quick to laugh, bending toward or away from the ridiculousness of the world.
“I was born in the MacArthur Park hospital which is interesting because that’s where I lived before moving where I am now,” he continues. “I lived in The Valley until I was about twenty. It was sort of a tumultuous time in my family history because my parents separated and my father moved to the Bay Area and my mother stayed here. They ended up getting back together a few years later.”
“My dad was in the music as was my uncle. Both of my parents discouraged me from getting into music, my mom especially because she saw firsthand how difficult that world can be. My dad wasn’t around too much growing up but he always made sure there was gear lying around the house. I’d come home from school one day and there’d be a four track on the table along with its manual. He wouldn’t be around to show me how to use it but he left me the means to learn. If I didn’t get into them, they’d be gone two months later, as unceremoniously as they had arrived. He was always paying attention and obviously thought it was something that I should figure out myself.”
Although there was this musical influence and interest, Jamie never thought that it was a possibility: it was something he always did but never the only thing he did. “I just kind of screwed around with music,” he explains. “I was playing in some Bauhaus cover bands and Motown cover bands. I think I thought at the time that I wanted to be a session bass player. I was playing a lot of different styles of music.”
“I wasn’t particularly focused on music because I figured I had to finish school, which was the pressure I was getting at home. I went to school for social work in San Francisco. I was still playing in bands but not very seriously. I started teaching Pre-School after that and a couple years later, in my mid twenties, Xiu Xiu started, which I think was the first thing I really ever became serious about.”
“A college professor of mine told me it was okay to peruse music,” he jokes. “My dad had also given me some encouragement too. He had some serious mental and drug problems but got his act together for a few years and helped get me started. Things we’re very chaotic in my house: it was always very difficult for me to move without some sort of approval from an authority figure.”
“That’s not very rebellious or rock and roll, I know,” he laughs.
“For a couple of years, nothing really happened and then—by luck—a friend was on a decent label that isn’t around anymore called 5 Rue Christine. He gave our first record to the person who ran the label, who ended up liking it. We were on that label for a long time until the guy running it wanted to quit doing independent music and folded his label into another. That first effort was called Knife Play, which came out in 2002. We’ve kept it rolling for the last twelve years in a similar way, insofar as putting out records and touring.”
Jamie has recently found himself back in Los Angeles. As mentioned, he lived in MacArthur Park for a year and relocated to his current neighborhood, Harvard Heights, a few months ago. He enjoys it much more than his previous home in Durham, North Carolina, which he describes as a “super boring town.” (But, he does clarify: “Every time I say something bad about the city, I have to say that my favorite bar of all time and favorite bartender of all time is there: it’s called The Whiskey and the bartender’s name is Jeff. That helped me get through my time there.”)
Being back in the city he was born and raised, he’s finding the city to be completely new and completely different. It’s even seeped into the latest Xiu Xiu release, Angel Guts: Red Classroom. “I didn’t realize it at the time but, on the last record, my bandmate pointed out that every song had to do with the neighborhood we lived in and the precarious living situation there,” he says.
His moving back to Los Angeles may seem obvious but it’s actually quite surprising: it was never really anything he considered. Jamie only moved back because the other options were unappealing. “I’ve played here a bunch of times but that only meant driving to a place and then leaving,” he says. “The only difference with shows here is that people come to them (versus a show in like Des Moines). I thought I could live in San Francisco, Los Angeles, or New York: I’ve lived in San Francisco before and can’t afford New York so it made sense to come back here.”
“I’m really really glad I did,” he adds.
Somehow, he doesn’t feel like he is a part of the city though: he doesn’t see himself as being a part of a greater creative community or climate in Los Angeles. “I don’t know that I contribute to the art or music scene,” he explains. “It’s not because I’m a crazy outlier: I just don’t go out that much.”
He laughs, continuing: “I don’t think we’re popular enough to add to anyone’s impression of the the city. I think the city is really adding to the band insofar as being an incredible inspiration. I had been feeling really uncertain but I’m really energized here. That’s exciting. It’s great to be in a place where there is something to See: there’s a lot to See with a capital S.”
“But, I really don’t know if there is much of a scene here anymore,” he points out. “There is a lot going on and, in the early two thousands, it was a little more centralized with The Smell scene. I don’t think there’s anything comparable now though, which is certainly possible. I may not know about it. I don’t know if anyone fits into the LA music or art scene. As far as I know, there isn’t a centralized place. As far as I know, there is a very vibrant but very disperse energy right now.”
As for Jamie, he’s plans to continue creating and working on various projects, from musical collaboration to auto related art projects. He has a lot planned for this year and beyond. “I’m working on some music for a boys’ choirs for the Berlin Bienniale, which is hilarious to do,” he says. “We have a residency at The Kitchen in New York in the Fall. We’re beginning to think about the music for that which will have three percussionists and three Thai goldsmiths who have these giant hammers and will be pounding gold into sheets. It makes this very distinct and crazy sound. The process creates a very particular and long, three hour, rhythmic (Well, arhythmic.) statement. We’re compositing music to play along with that. I have a seven inch coming out with Marissa Nadler, too. She’s great.”
“I also just got the master back for some minimal, death drone music. I really think I damaged my ears working on it even though I listened to it at really low volumes. I talked to a friend who is an audiologist who said it is possible because listening to very specific frequencies for a long time—even at a low volume—can make your ears go bat shit. There’s been a consistent ringing in my ears for the past few months—but I’ve decided to listen to it and to pretend its a drone piece that is with me all the time. If there is noise, I can’t hear it. But if it’s quiet? I hear it. I pretend that I put a drone record on that will be in my mind for the next fifty years of my life. It better become my favorite record.”
“One of my brothers is an Art professor at UCSD and he and I are ongoing to do a project on looter ate car alarm sounds. Well get a car and basically quote unquote compose car alarms. We’ll see how that turns out. It could be us doing it or twelve different artists doing twelve different cars.
Directly related to Xiu Xiu, quite a few things are happening through the Summer. There’s a lot of exciting projects—and a few things to be nervous about. “We’re doing a European tour now that will go through the beginning of June and will end in Mexico City,” he says. “In a really small, concrete way we’re starting to write songs for a new record, which can be a bit on the discouraging side. I’ve lost that particular song writing spark right now. I’m feeling a bit uncertain about things but my therapist said to give myself a break. I’m trying not to be anxious about feeling like I can’t write songs anymore.”
“And I certainly I hope I’m still in Los Angeles too,” he concludes.