Durham transplant Jamie Stewart released his eighth studio album under the Xiu Xiu name, Dear God, I Hate Myself, Tuesday. The oddly knowledgeable Jonathan Wall caught up with the former Bay Area denizen before the album’s release to talk about his turbulent 2009 with supergroup Former Ghosts, a band shake-up that saw the entry of Duke Law student Angela Seo and his warmer feelings toward his newly adopted home.
So are you a big Durham fan yet? I met you about a year ago and you weren’t such a big Durham fan then.
My uncertainties, shall we say, remain.
I saw your post on the blog about the gay pride parade. That has to be a glimmer.
Yeah, that definitely was.
Have there been any other high points?
I found a bar that I like. I don’t know if that’s a high point or a low point, though.
Which bar is it?
Monday through Wednesday nights after 12:30 a.m., I like Whiskey a lot. It’s within walking distance from my house.
That makes a big difference with bars.
I wish I didn’t need to go there as often as I do. At least I have somewhere to go—I moved to a better part of town, before i was in the woods. It’s not as isolated as I was before.
So how often are you in Durham?
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If I’m not tour, I live here.
Do you come to Duke’s campus much?
Actually, I used to go for walks around the trail of the campus, the one that’s closer to Ninth Street, but the cops told me that I couldn’t come there anymore because I kept yelling obscenities at all the army recruiters on campus. I was actually worried I was going to get arrested; they held me for about 40 minutes. So now I don’t go there at all because I’m not allowed.
Did you work on the album here?
Yeah, I did almost all of it here with Angela [Seo]. Ches [Smith] lives in Brooklyn, and he drove down a couple of times to work on it here. And Greg [Saunier of Deerhoof], who lives in Japan, happened to be in the U.S. at a time when it was going to work, and he flew down from New York to Durham to work on it as well. We pretty much did the whole thing at my house here. There’s a vacant lot on one side, and on the other side there’s a totally decrepit house that no one will ever live in.
It feels to me like the album is really cohesive, more so than other Xiu Xiu albums.
It’s funny you should mention that, because on all the records before, I didn’t really put any thought into what kinds of songs should be on the record. And this year, for the first time, I had the idea of—I guess this would have been inspired by the latest Morrissey record, which was essentially a series of, like, 12 songs, and a record that is about half-an-hour long. You could listen to it once, it goes by really fast—and it’s just beating you the entire time, without letting up it at all, with a backbeat, essentially. And I really really loved that about that Morrissey record. And not that this record sounds anything like that at all, we just tried to pace it similarly to that record. That’s maybe where any sense of cohesion comes from.
With the album, too, there’s the deluxe version—the shirts with “xiu xiu for life” written in band members’ blood. And you’ve been including the small pieces of plant matter with your limited-release series of ambient albums. Does that represent an added importance to physical releases for you?
Essentially, it’s another art project, more than anything else. That’s the main motivation for doing it. And then, also, we’ve been around for eight years or something, and i guess some people have followed the band for a very long time, and I feel very fortunate that they’ve been keeping a close eye on what we’re up to. So in addition to doing another art project, it’s an attempt to make something a little more interesting for people who have followed the band closely. I mean, probably no one would even be aware we were making that kind of stuff unless you knew a lot about the band, so it’s kind of for them.
It seems similar to what your road manager David Horvitz does with his Polaroid projects, with the really one-on-one sort of interactions with individual participants.
Yeah, had we not done a lot of stuff with David, it wouldn’t have even occurred to me to do things like that. He was a really big inspiration in that way.
Along with the ambient discs, a lot of other stuff for you happened in 2009: a few solo tours; Former Ghosts, your new group with Freddy Ruppert; Caralee McElroy leaving Xiu Xiu after five years. Did it seem like a busy year to you?
I did not expect it to be, because Xiu Xiu didn’t tour at all in 2009, and we didn’t have a record out in 2009. So I thought, you know, I’ll do a couple solo tours, I’ll tour with Freddy in Former Ghosts and work on a new record. It’ll be a pretty mellow year. But man, I haven’t worked so hard in my life. I don’t know how this happened, but oh my God, this year has been really intense that way.
Have you done many solo shows? I saw you in Chapel Hill at the Nightlight in December. Was that a one-time thing?
Yeah, that was a one-off thing. Other solo shows I’ve done have been more doing folk versions of Xiu Xiu songs. But that Nightlight show was really fun. I had never done a solely experimental show before. I listen to a lot of music like that, there’s elements of it in certain Xiu Xiu songs.
Speaking of solo shows, can we talk about your eventful night at the Duke Coffeehouse last spring? That was a weird night.
That was the first solo show I had played in about five years. I had no idea what I was doing. A friend of mine invited a bunch of friends of hers who weren’t really music fans—like “bros” from around town, who were nice enough people but they didn’t f—ing have any idea. They didn’t know who Xiu Xiu was or anything. So I played horrible, for one, and then somebody f—ing passed out.
It would have been strange no matter what, but it happened during “Support Our Troops Oh!” and that just made it worse. I think all of us in the audience realized it three or four minutes before you did. Once you finished the song, you looked up, and we were all sort of staring at this girl on the floor.
Yeah, I was like, wow, that must have sucked. People were all otherwise engaged, and then I realized what had happened.
I think the funniest thing about that was that [the Mountain Goats’] John Darnielle was there.
Yeah, that was another thing that made it suck for me—I’m a really big Mountain Goats fan. John and I have since become friends, to hang out socially, but I barely knew him at the time and also was a big fan. So he shows up, and I’m like oh, f—, I’m going to suck tonight. And I know I’m going to suck that night, and I did suck that night, and then somebody f—ing passes out during the show.
I hear you’re working on Blue Water, White Death, your new project with Shearwater’s Jonathan Meiburg?
We did it already, we did it at [the Paper Chase’s] John Congleton’s studio in Dallas. It was cool. I had worked on other people’s records in the capacity of engineer, but in many years had not had the chance to be on the other side of that, to work with a great engineer. And of course John Congleton is a world-class, incredibly talented engineer.
Do you and Jonathan Meiburg share a love of birds? I’ve noticed a lot of bird videos on your blog recently.
Well, he has a master’s degree in ornithology, so I’m a mere hobbyist next to him. I just ask him questions, mostly.
When is that album coming out? We’re not totally sure. It’s getting mastered soon, but we’re not sure when it comes out because both Shearwater and Xiu Xiu have records coming out this week, so we didn’t want to put it out yet.
Do you have any last messages to say to Durham or about Durham?
I’m sorry for all the mean things I said, for talking about it on my blog all the time.
If North Carolina passes gay marriage, do we have your approval forever?
Forever. California hasn’t. So if that happens I’ll reassess everything I’ve ever thought about this place.