Across thirteen albums and a handful of EPs, Xiu Xiu have remained a prickly, relentless force, inspiring loyalty, love, annoyance, and disgust in equal measure. Some people never get over their music, and some you couldn’t pay to even approach it. On the occasion of the release of their latest album, FORGET, the band’s mainstay Jamie Stewart discusses how he met Vaginal Davis (who performs on its last track), the band’s collaborations with Danh Vō, and the concept behind the record’s title. Polyvinyl will release FORGET on February 24, 2017.
HOW I MET VAGINAL DAVIS is actually a long story and initially a little bit unseemly. When I was very, very, young, I came across a fanzine called Ben Is Dead that was published in Los Angeles and there was an article about a band Vaginal Davis was in called Black Fag, and I had never before seen anything or heard anything that combined feminism with an aggressive punk rock masculinity and queer politics and racial identity all at the same time, and that really blew my mind. That moment really set me on the aesthetic trajectory that informed and guided a lot of the decisions I have made my entire adult life with regard to art and music. Several years later, a band I was in played at this now-defunct club in Los Angeles called Clubsucker where she used to host. She sort of introduced our band and part of her thing at the time was to tease the singer of the band, and it got to the point where she put a drumstick up my ass on the stage, which obviously was memorable. Then, many years after that, I was a guest lecturing at NYU, in Jonathan Berger’s class—he put together the 2015 production of The Magic Flute at the university—and he mentioned he was a close collaborator of Davis and I guess she remembered the drumstick incident as well. Doing the score for The Magic Flute was a huge delight, and that was also around the time when she recorded the poem featured at the end of “Faith, Torn Apart,” the last track on our new record.
The part of Los Angeles that I live in is not very far from a neighborhood where there is a lot of trafficking of underage prostitutes, and there is a notorious website called Backpage that is a facilitator of this. Probably about a year ago I began to explore the site and take screenshots of the young girls who are advertised there—to, in some way, empathize with their situation. I also found somebody on the site you can report things to, so I would do that, but I probably collected two hundred screenshots of these young women and young girls. I went through them one day and wrote one line based on my immediate impression of each of the photographs. They’re mostly just head shots, but these are of people who are obviously very young. They’re wearing clothes, but they’re clearly made up to look sexualized, and some are thirteen years old. What Vaginal Davis reads at the end of that song is made up of the one-line impressions I wrote looking at each of those photos.
Danh Vō had been using some lyrics of a Xiu Xiu song, “Fabulous Muscles,” in some of his pieces long before we had met. But he didn’t ask us first, so then he sheepishly contacted me, asking if we were going to sue him, and of course I said no—I thought it was great and I felt honored that we had been inserted in there. He’s extraordinarily genuine, talented, and generous. He, by his own admission, doesn’t think about music a whole lot, but he can become obsessed by one or two songs, such as Nico’s version of the Doors song “The End” and her singing of the German national anthem. He asked me if I could score the latter for a boys’ choir for the Berlin Biennale in 2014. I was kind of mortified by their performance, but Danh, to his credit, was thrilled because it made people extraordinarily uncomfortable. We also did a residency at the Kitchen in New York called “Metal,” at the end of 2014, and that, to me, could not have gone any better. The people at the Kitchen were unfathomably supportive, considering that we structurally damaged the room we performed in quite a bit, and what we were doing was unbelievably loud and actually kind of dangerous. I couldn’t really ask for more, frankly.
The goal for us in the band at all times is that someone will interpret something we make in a personal way. But at least for me, my entire psychology is fraught with negative obsessiveness. It’s very difficult for me to remove a negative thought from my mind; it will sort of loop around in there—a very boring symptom of depression I think a lot of people deal with. Only recently has it occurred to me that I can put some effort into literally trying to forget something that is plaguing me. It’s almost the opposite tactic that Xiu Xiu usually takes, which is to really spell things out and be extraordinarily clear about specific events that have occurred in the lives of people in the band, or in politics, or the lives of people we care about. We approached this record in a completely nonlinear, nonspecific way. The intent of what each song is supposed to feel like is there on the record, but I couldn’t necessarily describe those feelings—which is different from every other record and song we’ve done before. Part of the reasoning behind that is a psychological necessity. It’s not at all about caring less—it’s about caring in a different way, a way that maybe lets go instead of holding on tightly. Both have their value. The point of the band is to realize that being embarrassed is just the way everyone who has ever been in the band was made to feel, and to not be afraid of that, but to understand that that is what it means to be a person.