In Essential Albums our favourite artists dig up five records that they consider “Essential” by any definition. This week, pop agitator Jamie Stewart of Xiu Xiu talks five albums that opened his mind to the possibilities of music and inspired his anomalous sound.
In a June blog post, experimental pop goths Xiu Xiu announced that they'd be morphing into a Cerberus-like creature with three distinct faces. One permutation would play and tour "songs that feature singing" like those from their 2014 release Angel Guts: Red Classroom; another version composes music for dance, opera, and performance art; and a third incarnation would be dedicated to "ultra minimalist death drone."
It's that third Xiu Xiu that turned up at NXNE last month and it's that same Xiu Xiu that's opened for Swans this summer — but, as the post laid plain, that's just one visage of the multi-headed beast. "We have always had little one night stands to exercise our aesthetic sluttiness," the band writes, "but it seems to be turning something more serious and semi regulated, something we feel we have to introduce to mom."
For more than a decade, Jamie Stewart has made vulnerable, occasionally funny, and often terrifying experiments under the Xiu Xiu moniker (sometimes alone, but usually with the help of friends). His has become a distinct voice placed in challenge to the pop paradigm. He balances catchy with disturbing, cooing with bloodcurdling, songcraft with exploration. He's an anomaly to the pop world — it's blackest black sheep — and that's why we were so interested in asking: how exactly do you make a Xiu Xiu?
So Stewart scrolled through his iPod and let us in on five albums that have been dear to his project. It's unsurprising the words "It's unlike anything I've ever heard," the pop agitator's highest praise, root their way to the centre of our conversation.
Nico, The Marble Index (1969)
Jamie Stewart: The first time I heard it was in 2003 on a really, really early Xiu Xiu tour with Devendra Banhart. I had heard the Nico songs that were with The Velvet Underground, but I’d never heard any of her solo records. Devendra played that record for me and Desertshore and I’m not exaggerating when I say this: it completely changed my entire view of what it was possible to do in music. The way that she was able to make something that was so incredibly dire and also, harmonically, quite complicated, but not off-putting was really something that I’d never heard before.
She has a real singular and particular singing voice, but she is in no way technically “a good singer.” Still, she seems completely unafraid of what her limitations were, which is inspiring. I mean, I’m an okay singer, but not technically a good singer, and I had always been a little bit embarrassed by that, where I felt that I’d discounted my singing a lot because of that…I mean, I still discount my singing all the time, but it made me realize that it was possible to just forget that about yourself — the technical ability, it seemed, was irrelevant.
Additionally, there are no other songs like that record in the entire world. No one has made another record like that. It’s profoundly unique and stirring. You can hear two seconds of that record and know exactly what it is; there’s so much character and originality to it. You could never mistake it for anything else, which is an astounding thing to be able to do.
Kraftwerk, Trans Europe Express (1977)
This is mainly for one track. Kraftwerk is one of my favourite bands, but the second song on the record, “Hall of Mirrors,” is one of the most peculiar and jarring pieces of music I think I’ve ever heard. There’s really almost nothing going on in it. It has almost no melody at all. It’s just a repeating bass line the entire time with some weird little sound effects, but somehow in doing almost nothing — the song is eight minutes long — they’re still able to cast this completely inescapable spell.
And though not particularly emotive, it’s incredibly disturbing. It keeps a very even keel, but somehow builds a tremendous amount of tension. It doesn’t hit you over the head with it, it just very, very slowly, but radically ratchets it up the whole time. There’s a lot to learn from having that kind of feel.
Diamanda Galás, Schrei X (1996)
It’s essentially all a cappella freakouts that she’s doing. The version that I have is a studio version and then a live version back-to-back, and they’re equally compelling, but in totally different ways. She’s doing an astoundingly powerful, creepy, and unusual vocal explanation of what horror and discontent can sound like.
Diamanda Galás is an avant-garde singer. She’s been making records for the past 25 years, just someone that I’ve been a big fan of. I love all of her records, but this is definitely my favourite. A friend of mine loaned me a record that she did with the bass player of Led Zeppelin when I was maybe 22 or something and I’ve been following her pretty rabidly ever since. She’s someone who either stabs you in the heart immediately or you’re just relieved when the record is over. It’s without a doubt the most furious music I’ve ever heard.
The Birthday Party, Live 1981-82 (1999)
This is hands down the best live record I’ve ever heard and I think will probably ever hear. I don’t really even understand how they were able to record it — I mean, it’s clearly an insane chaos onstage, but somehow they were able to capture and record it incredibly clearly. A lot of live records from this era or music of this type is completely fuzzed out and you really miss the intensity of the playing, but this one, somehow, some genius engineer made it possible.
And The Birthday Party in that era, they were just one of the most evil and violent bands that ever were. Whenever I’m on a long tour and I’m feeling a little deflated and feel like I need to get my shit together and quit being such a lazy ass on stage, I listen to this record and helps me realize how much further I need to go.
Alvin Lucier, Wind Shadows, performed by The Barton Workshop (2005)
It’s a compilation of his ultra-ultra-ultra-ultra-minimalist music. A lot of the pieces are maybe one or two notes over a long period of time or one note that very gradually changes in pitch.
This is a newer record that’s become pretty important to me. I have got it into my head to write things a lot more simply than I had in the last several years and I came across this record and I’ve realized that now, writing anything with more than one sound and more than one note has begun to sound cluttered. It may have completely destroyed my music career, because everything I want to write is basically no notes, but it feels — pure isn’t the right word — it feels very true to me now for some reason. I’m sure that Xiu Xiu will not become only a minimalist drone band, but that element of music, I think, will continue to factor into what we’ll be doing. I think we’ll just incorporate that mode of writing, but within a song structure.
I’m on tour playing with Swans right now, playing just the drone set. This will probably the only tour I do playing just the drone set, but it’s been extraordinarily educational — learning how to make 30 minutes of almost nothing happening evolve in a way that’s listenable. This is the third tour that I’ve done with Swans. On the other two, I played songs, and on this one, I’m playing something that almost doesn’t qualify as music, and people seem to like this one more. Either the songs I was playing before were terrible or people just really like ultra-minimalist, super loud, high-pitched drone.