Potted Rubber Trees
A Correspondence with Jamie Stewart
written by claire donato
lead photograph by julia brokaw
The night before I interview Xiu Xiu’s Jamie Stewart, I encounter a stranger with a Xiu Xiu tattoo on the sidewalk in front of the brick Federal Townhouse I’m tending for the month in Hudson, New York. “Is that a Xiu Xiu tattoo?” I ask, not requiring an answer.
The letter X has haunted me for years. In 2017, I woke up with a number of scratch marks covering my heart and the mysterious character ⨂ etched into my right oblique. This real-life occurrence mirrored a fictional circumstance I had recently written about in a still-unfinished novel. You must have scratched yourself in your sleep, my friends insisted. But I had not.
Though I scratched myself as a child, a young adult, a not-so-young adult and also an adult, the scratch marks that mysteriously appeared on my flesh were not self-inflicted. They felt divine. Months after this mystical experience, I tattooed ⨂ on my left wrist as a form of integration.
After meeting the tattooed stranger, I once again begin to notice Xs all around me— only this time around, the Xs appeared in multiples of two: chalked on the sidewalk in front of a Catholic church where Jesus hangs upon a cross accented by wooden borders—X X / X X; framing a railroad crossing: ⨂⨂; at the top of a book’s page: xx ❦ Introduction; punctuating text messages from friends: xx.
The more closely I look, the letter X reveals itself as two bones intersecting. These two bones are an obliteration with a still point at their center. They are also a promise: cross my heart and hope not to die. “My mother made me promise her not to kill myself,” Stewart says about the title of Xiu Xiu’s 2003 record, A Promise. “I am here today because of it.”
Xiu Xiu’s songs, my encounter with X’s in space, and the band’s symbol tattooed on so many fans’ flesh prompts me to reflect on non-suicidal self-injury (NSSI). As Terry Williams writes in Teenage Suicide Notes: An Ethnography of Self-Harm, suicide and parasuicide represent “the ongoing expression of the conflict between the self and an exterior imposition; more specifically, it is what the self does not want to submit to or to be.” NSSI is not a cry for attention. It is a call for attachment. It is also a means of emotional regulation. If Xiu Xiu’s music is an exteriorization of shared suffering which is, as Buddhists among others have thought, a key ingredient of love, the band’s music thereby serves as a form of communion and union: attachment between strangers. Via the sense of oneness, the calming of our vulnerabilities affirmed, the music heals.
I meet Xiu Xiu’s music while thinking about parasuicidality; writing my embodiment; and passing through sound and language to release pain. Unlike my radio station-volunteering undergraduate peer group, I was never a die-hard Xiu Xiu fan. I listened to a handful of songs, and they touched me. But I never dove deeply. Dear God, I Hate Myself came out during a difficult period of my life, and I remember listening to it on an elliptical trainer at the gym. Fabulous Muscles has always satisfied my convoluted Oedipal Complex. I listened to Forget a lot in a car that was once part of my life, and attended a concert in Philadelphia that I remember being excellent. At that concert, I procured and lost a sticker that said “Trump Rapes Children.” Then I heard OH NO, Xiu Xiu’s new album of duets, and was so moved by Stewart’s duet with Owen Pallett, “I Dream of Someone Else Entirely,” that I proposed an interview.
Never having completed a serious Xiu Xiu spelunk, I spent the summer deep in the band’s discography, as well as Stewart’s own solo synthesizer music. I became a researcher, listening in subway cars and parking lots; while driving in torrential rain around upstate New York and crying in the aforementioned brick Federal Townhouse’s living room; while riding a train en route to a doomed romantic getaway in Baltimore; while running on treadmills and staring at my reflection in a mirror; while doing yoga; while making matcha; while reading about Xiu Xiu on various Reddit channels. Do all bands have Reddit channels? The music was a peculiarly comforting summer companion. It made me feel less alone.
Formed in 2002 in San Jose, California, the core of Xiu Xiu is a duet. Stewart has also released a solo record of mostly modular synth music, An Aggressive Chain Smoking Alcoholic, and Angela Seo, whom Stewart describes in an interview at Yuck as a “very good best friend,” recently released a solo ambient record, Strands. The two share a house in Los Angeles, CA and sing together on OH NO.
Xiu Xiu’s music is a Hall of Minerals and also feels connected to the miracle of stained glass, which appears dark from the outside, but when you enter the cathedral, is animated by light. Or, to quote Zen Master Ummon: “We all have a light inside, but trying to look at it makes it turn black.” The idea also crosses my mind—X—that Xiu Xiu’s most recent LP, Duets, is a project (whether consciously or unconsciously) of self-love. A phrase so hackneyed I can’t help but scoff when typing it. Yet, what is self-love but a relationship with other sentient beings? “The relationship we have with ourselves and with others are co-occurring interconnected experiences that shape one another, and cannot be separated. It’s not one and then the other. It’s both,” writes psychotherapist Todd Baratz. “There is no self without the other; there is no me without you.”
A duet is relational: alchemy. Tupac’s hologram with Snoop Dogg at Coachella, The Yes Men, Carrie Brownstein and Fred Armisen in Portlandia. “When a duet works,” my friend and collaborator Yashua Klos once said, “we often don’t know why it works. But it works.”
A few days before I leave Hudson, I once again encounter the stranger, Nico, who is no longer a stranger. I asked them to tell me about their Xiu Xiu tattoo. “My best friend and I got it together,” they said. “Hers is inked in; she’s braver than I am.”
This interview with Jamie Stewart was conducted via email in August 2021. Stewart’s answers to my email appeared in my inbox in the sans serif font Helvetica, size 12, adorned by emoticons and exclamation points. We also did a phone interview that, in coming weeks, will be included in a companion essay that I am writing for Fence.
There exists two of everything.
— Claire Donato, Hudson, NY & Brooklyn, NY
August 1 – September 1, 2021
- What is a question about your music no one has asked you yet that you want to be asked? Why do you want to be asked this question? If those two questions don’t bring you toward an answer to the question you want to be asked, feel free to answer it (though actually wanting to answer the question might feel different from wanting to be asked the question, or explaining why you want the question to be asked).
would you rather be a rubber tree in a pot inside of a home with filtered natural light or would you rather be a rubber tree in a jungle in Ecuador with unfiltered natural light?
i want to be asked this because its time to decide if i want to be trapped but safe or free but likely to be murdered by human indifference and greed.
- With what artwork—music but also across mediums and media—do you see Xiu Xiu’s music in conversation with these days, and why?
it has not been a time of much input lately, mostly output. this is not healthy and i am looking forward to being on a tour that i otherwise don’t want to go on just for the chance to listen to records while driving, read and watch movies. i will be able to answer this in October.
- Can you talk a bit about what brought you to make OH NO? Specifically, I’m struck by how the record performs entanglements and interconnectivity in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Was a sense of oneness in the face of global fissure on your mind as you were making it? Do you remember the moment you decided to make the record, or was the decision to make it comprised of a series of smaller moments?
the idea to make a record of duets came in response to having been treated quite badly by a number of people i thought were friends over a short period of time, losing my mind and then being talked back to earth by several people i hadn’t expected to hear from. the duets conceptually attempt to serve as a symbol of gratitude for their kindness.
- Can you speak a bit about the process of making the songs on OH NO? I read in The Wire that a few songs were made in person, but others were made via virtual exchange due to lockdown. What was the process of virtual collaboration like? I’m wondering if there was more textual exchange around the making process, or if you find yourself having phone calls with your collaborators, and if anything about the virtual collaboration process felt particularly generative or frustrating for you.
the exchange came in the form of sending music, a sketch melody and lyrics and saying do whatever you want with these, follow them or dont follow them and then seeing what the result was. essentially giving people pieces and seeing how they arranged them. there really was no discussion with anyone. everyone who sang on it is a remarkable artist so why try to box them in with my lame ideas? music is generally better served with as little talking as possible.
- How did OH NO get its title?
look out the window.
- How have you felt about the reception of OH NO thus far?
i am WAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAY too thin skinned to read reviews EVER! although i will contradict this answer in an answer further down the page.
- In interviews, you frequently invoke maintaining a daily routine, which makes me think of life in monasteries, wherein work and life practice are one and the same. Can you describe your daily routine in some detail? Do you feel like this routine establishes perimeters between how you “practice your life” and “practice your art,” so to speak, or does it make these distinctions more blurry? How has maintaining a routine helped you?
it is not about establishing a perimeter, it is, for me, the opposite. having art and life be the same. corny but fuck it, why else live?
the routine is also to manage boring ol’ depression. having a schedule keeps my stars aligned and the creeps a little more at bay in addition to being enveloping.
the DORK GRAPH
1) wake up
2) eat breakfast and watch a movie
3) do vocal exercises while watching same movie and working on postcards for xiu muths fuckin xiu subscription
4) do email
(THIS NEXT PART VARIES DEPENDING ON WHAT WORK IS AT HAND BUT LATELY IT’S—)
5) work on novel rewrites
6) work on class notes for experimental music course
7) practice songs for tour
8) work on music for xmfx subscription
9) record music for next xiu xiu record
10) go to the gym
11) watch movie while doing vocal exercises
12) go to bed
eat lunch at 3:00 and dinner at 7:30
- How has the pandemic affected your life and art practices?
i havnt played a show in almost 2 years.
i think it has made writing harder as there have been no breaks. there has been a lot of new music recorded but it is not very good and will never see the light of day.
having some time out of the studio and on tour allows ones brain to make private unsought after connections.
- If anyone could cover a Xiu Xiu song, who would that musician be, and what song would they cover?
Nick Cave covering “ANTS” from OH NO
- Listening to your interviews, I’ve been struck by the sense of humor and grace you exhibit in relation to painful memories and aesthetic content. What has helped—or helps—you find that humor and grace? What’s been challenging?
that is a generous way to put it. thank you.
there is nothing really that helps bring it about, if it is indeed there, they are there i think almost as sentient beings in and of themselves. when needed humor drops by and keeps grace from being pompous and grace flutters by to keep humor from being callous. i have little to do with it and just try and keep up with them.
- Are there any ways you feel Xiu Xiu is misunderstood or mischaracterized by the media? If so, what are those ways?
generally ! hahahhaaa
better, well written outlets take 5 seconds to think and then are usually, from my perspective, accurate even when we are being panned.
larger, corporate outlets tend to just cut and paste from each other’s quip-oriented “writing” and hang onto one or two lines of lyrics out of context without mentioning the following lines which comment on the one before.
it is the usual story with anything. people who care do a good job and people selling ad space and trying to keep their tyrannical boss who they secretly want to be fucked by happy don’t
- Do you ever feel artistically stuck, and what advice would you give to artists in a similar spot?
daily. this advice does not work for everyone but i find that if i keep on pushing that the dam will eventually break. if i lay on my back and get mired in worry that it will never come back and then all i am doing is lying on my back. even if the pushing pushing pushing music is shit it is at least practice or sowing for the next thing that feels right.
- You’ll be teaching a class on experimental music beginning in August for Atlas Obscura. What does experimentation mean to you as an artist? Do you ever feel like the label “experimental” is something maligned or misunderstood as a designation? How is Xiu Xiu experimental? Do any other parts of your life feel like an experiment, and how?
in the basic to try something you havnt done before and if possible you dont know of anyone else having tried before either. it can very simple juxtapositions of sounds, means of “collecting” lyrics, plugging beeping boxes into other boxes you havnt tried etc. the point being to keep the tools sharp by avoiding ruts. for me sounds lead to compositional ideas which give the sounds meaning within a musical context.
for me it is pushing and challenging and disrupting the paths you tumble down and then putting emotion into the results.
experimental can be maligned in a comic way if you think about it as a genre but if you think about it as a procedure, it is harder to malign baking, or walking or reading. it is a verb and not an adjective.
it’s not really for me to define how xiu xiu is experimental. a potential listener can choose to define it however makes sense to them. as a member of xiu xiu it is for me to try to make and something and hope it falls into the right hands.
truthfully i dont think about my life that often. there is so much garbage colliding and rotting in my mind that reflection leads to collapse. i do try reflect on my personal conduct and work on being less of a jerk but considering the structure or point of the rest of my life sounds like it will open a terrifying door which i have found keeping closed preferable and functional.
i.e., if i can just keep working until i die then i dont have to feel as shitty as i have for most of my life. no thought just chugging ahead.
- Have you taught before? Is there anything in particular you’re looking forward to about the course?
i taught preschool for a long time before somehow making a living as a musician.
i miss being with nascent humans. seeing a crowd of 50 people who are 3 feet tall running around and finding out what there is to find out is hilarious and dear.
i am looking forward to seeing what i can learn from compiling the notes for the class. i never went to school for music or music history and while i know a bit from experience and other investigations i have never had to organize it. i hope it comes across in a way that the attendees get something from.
- What are you working on now?
see schedule above 🙂
also my bandmate angela and i are going to new york shortly to work on a film with an art group from Berlin called CHEAP at Participant Gallery that we do the music for. they are art heros of mine and it is an honor to be able to work with them.
- What are you listening to right now?
my listening habits are usually meager but focused. i dont listen to a lot but really dig in when i do.
usually the same record several times over the course of a couple weeks.
currently a revisitation of your friend and mine mr. penderecki. he came up in the course mentioned above and i hadn’t listened to him closely in years. not surprisingly it holds up hahahaa.
also getting into Coil and… geez that is it lately.
- What is presently nourishing your inner world (or “growth,” if I may)?
feline graduates into and then out of my humble abode destined to rule the galaxy include: Bobby, Homer, Louise, Butters, Johnny, Wanda, Roy aaaaaaaaaaand
the triangularly faced Carl!
- With what have you found intimacy in the world this summer that’s delighted or surprised you?
it has been small things. spiders (my yard is infested with them), cactus flowers (my yard is infested with them), and collecting dulled and over used surgical scalpels (my yard is infested with them)
Oh and also on the small side, the minimalist poems that the very author of this interview has been nice enough to share with me! THANK YOU!
OH NO is out now