Xiu Xiu has made a 12-year career of menacing moods, centered on singer Jamie Stewart's unflinching and unironic emotion. Think Trent Reznor with maybe eight more razor blades and a driving, warped aural force. In fact, the new Angel Guts: Red Classroom may be Xiu Xiu's darkest record yet — and that's saying something.
But the avant-industrial band's frontman isn't as melancholy as the music suggests. Last fall, Xiu Xiu (pronounced "zhoo zhoo") released Nina, an album of covers that's essentially a love letter to the legendary Nina Simone. And he has a generous laugh, which The Pitch heard in a phone interview ahead of the band's Sunday, March 2, RecordBar show. We called Stewart at his Los Angeles home.
The Pitch: The new record is as dark as advertised, almost dystopian. Do you think most of that had to do with the move to Los Angeles?
Stewart: Certainly the particular neighborhood that I moved to had a lot to do with it. As well, really thinking hard about pending environmental apocalypse certainly had a lot to do with it. And the state of my personal life had a lot to do with it. There was a tremendous amount of anxiety in my life around the time that it was being made.
I can sense that. Are you still living in that neighborhood?
I'm looking forward to not living here. I love Los Angeles, but this particular neighborhood — I just need to make some money and then I can leave. It's a really complicated place. It's the most densely populated part of Los Angeles, and the poverty and the drug use in the surrounding blocks is really intense. And, unusually for Los Angeles, there are a lot of people all out on the street all the time. So that kind of difficulty and struggle misery is more in your face than it is in other parts of the city. Oddly, it's near a big park with a lake in it, which in some ways is incredibly beautiful, but it's filled with people that are almost dead, walking around like zombies all the time.
To what extent are you trying to tell a story with the way you sing, as well as the lyrics?
I don't know if I think about it that way. I do ... try to have the timbre of the vocals reflect the emotionality of the song. It's like choosing a particular synthesizer sound. One sound will feel like something, and one type of vocal sound will feel like another thing.
Is there a song that is particularly difficult for you to sing?
"The Silver Platter" was really difficult to sing. "El Naco," also, which was the last song that we recorded... . This will sound totally absurd, but when I was done, I had to leave the studio, and I found myself weeping uncontrollably between two parked cars. Not because I was so fraught by the song itself, but I was just so worn-out. I think also relieved. I was worried about doing that one, being the last one on the record. This combination of being physically worn-out by it and relieved — I had never experienced that before, just finishing a song and having my body basically collapse.
A lot of the tracks seem to be anchored in a really driving beat, but there are other, more foreign sounds. Something on one song almost sounds like a distorted ambulance siren. Where do those sounds come from?
I spent a lot more time getting sounds on this record than I had on any other record. That's my favorite part of music, just turning knobs and trying to make something that I haven't made before.
This and the Nina Simone record obviously are very different. It's interesting to have them come out relatively close to each other.
Yeah, the processes couldn't have been more different. [Laughs.] On the Nina record, Ches Smith [Xui Xui's drummer] did all of the arrangements, and we rehearsed the band live and recorded everything live. I think we finished it in one day.
Really? One day?
[Laughs.] Good players. And then Angel Guts was done over two years, with a tremendous amount of tinkering, and probably half of the record was thrown away. Very, very fraught, very concentrated. The Nina record was a celebration and a record of appreciation for her. Angel Guts is quite the opposite of appreciation and celebration.