Brooklyn’s P.E. is situated sonically somewhere between conventional indie and experimental rock; Xiu Xiu — fronted by the LA-based artist and writer Jamie Stewart — occupies a similar space. P.E.’s new record The Leather Lemon is out tomorrow (via Wharf Cat) and to celebrate, the band’s Jonathan Schenke sat down with Stewart to catch up about it, and much more.
— Annie Fell, Editor-in-chief, Talkhouse Music
Jonathan Schenke: So what have you been up to today?
Jamie Stewart: I woke up, I went for a run, I did my dumbass vocal exercises, I packed some Xiu Xiu record mail orders, and I’m then just doing some vocal takes for the next record. What have you been up to?
Jonathan: Today was like a random odds and ends catch up sort of day, printing instrumentals for one record and making mix revisions on an ambient record, and then trying to do a quick master on a pop song that a friend of mine made.
Jamie: Oh, you mix and master?
Jonathan: I do, I do.
Jamie: Oh wow, those are some big ears. [Laughs.]
Jonathan: You know, I feel like over the years, I’ve just sort of picked up a number of tricks, and I know that I can make something sound good enough to translate in the different formats.
Jamie: That’s cool. I had to come to terms this year that, try as I might for the last 20 years, I’m just never going to be a good mix engineer. I really wish I was. I’m a serviceable, and I think maybe slightly above average, recording engineer. But man, the magical mystery tour of mixing… I just can’t fucking get it. [Laughs.] I’ll give my mixes, like, a B, but very rarely would I give them an A.
Jonathan: That’s pretty good.
Jamie: Yeah, but I mean, merely pretty good! Who wants pretty good? Nobody!
Jonathan: I mean, when you have people around you that are excited to mix it, that could get it an A or an A-plus, why not.
Jamie: Yeah, I certainly have a couple of people that I regularly work with who are infinitely better than me. And it’s also, I always kind of looked at mixing as the last step in the production. I like giving it over to a mix engineer who makes radical choices with stuff — it never bothers me if a mix engineer completely deletes a whole set of instruments because he doesn’t like them. Basically the mix engineers I usually workers are also producers, but who I’m close friends with and I’ve known for a long time, so I have a tremendous amount of confidence in their choices. Whereas I don’t have a tremendous amount of confidence in my own, so it works out. Do you mix your own stuff?
Jonathan: I do. But it’s sort of a similar approach to what you’re talking about. When we’re working on P.E. stuff, there’s always this period where everyone’s throwing ideas around and we’re shaping it into a song, and at some point it’s ready for a mix. We typically write and arrange in Ableton, but I always mix in Pro Tools. I think it just sounds better, I’m more used to it, it’s more flexible. And there’s a nice delineation when it comes time to mix — it’s put out of one program and brought into the other. And so then it’s like I put my mix hat on.
Jamie: Yeah, that’s a good, almost ritualized way of thinking about it.
Jamie: Yeah, I like those kind of things. Basically, I’ll record most things direct, then do all the editing, and then after that, I’ll re-amp everything through amps. That is a similar sort of ritual thing for me — like, OK, the song is done, everything is written, everything is arranged, and now it’s time to get the sounds from 80 percent to 100 percent. And it’s also fun. Really, my favorite part of music is making weird sounds, more than anything else. If I could do just that and only that, I would be ecstatic.
Jonathan: It’s funny you bring that up, because one of the things I wanted to talk to you about was, I remember reading this Tape Op interview that you did—
Jamie: Oh, that would have been a million years ago!
Jonathan: Yeah. You were talking about growing up with Pro Tools in the house.
Jamie: Yeah, my dad worked at Digidesign.
Jonathan: Yeah, right. And to me, it’s so exciting thinking about having that tool at your disposal, that you could just sort of manipulate sounds. I feel like most people our age, if they had something to record, it was like a little cassette deck or four-track. And to actually have a full-on computer interface…
Jamie: I was absurdly fortunate. I was definitely one of the first people I knew that had it. But it’s kind of a funny story. Basically all the stuff I had, [my dad] just stole from work, and he would steal prototypes of things. At one point, the system that I had was starting to act kind of weird — I had had it for several years — and I brought it into a place to get it looked at, and the guys were laughing their asses off. They were like, “How do you have this? Why does this work? There’s two of these on earth! Stupid kid, why do you have this? This shouldn’t work at all!” Like, I had to turn everything on in an incredibly specific order. But we made our first four records on this weirdo Frankenstein… [Laughs.]
Jonathan: That’s what I think is so interesting about that sort of approach. I feel like people that started making music in the early 2000s or later didn’t have tape. They weren’t ever trying to modify their recording process from recording analog into the computer. It was just like, “Well, this is how you record, and I can chop up and arrange and move around and have everything right here.”
Jamie: What did you start on? What was the first format you used?
Jonathan: I learned recording in college. I was at Case Western in Cleveland, and they had Cleveland Institute of Art and Cleveland Institute of Music all on the same campus. So I started recording string ensembles and piano quartets.
Jamie: Wow, that’s great.
Jonathan: To two-track tape.
Jamie: Oh, geez! How nice.
Jonathan: Yeah. I remember rocking the reels to do an edit and trying to read music. I don’t really read music, but sort of to the structure the edits. Once we got on to the computer second semester, it was a two-track, very rudimentary graphic application. But even just that was was mind blowing. This was 2001, 2002. And so it’s been really interesting, having learned that original analog classical ensemble — like, “This is the proper mic technique” — but then sort of stashing that in the bag of tricks and learning all the other stuff as technology became cheaper and more available. It’s like, I’m going to take my voice and chop it up and move that around and make that into an instrument.
Jamie: Oh yeah, right off the bat it was incredibly apparent to me how being able to edit could be used as a creative tool. Just stacking things and using small things, or essentially randomizing sections and throwing them all together. In some ways, I’m incredibly glad that that was the basis for my kind of formative songwriting and arrangement development. But a lot of me wishes that I had had to deal with it in a more kind of classic way. I didn’t really have any fundamentals that weren’t, “You can fuck with everything all the time!” So it was kind of later that I worked a little bit more in fundamentals than as is usually the case. I wish I had started the other way around, but it was still incredibly exciting to right out of the gate get to do some things that just would have been technologically impossible. And it certainly led to my enduring love of making cuckoo sounds.
Jonathan: Totally. And one of the things that, to me, is immediately striking about Xiu Xiu — you’re using those sounds to try and tell a story. It’s like storytelling using sound design. I feel as a producer with P.E., as well as with other clients, [I’m] trying to use the arrangement to really sell the song. Whether it’s a three-minute pop song or an extended jam or a sidelong ambient piece, you’re trying to tell a story. And I feel like there’s something really immediately apparent in a Xiu Xiu song, whether it’s a more hushed thing with these outbursts, or just like a wall of sound from the beginning, you’re really showing the listener the song through the sound.
Jamie: That’s a nice thing to say. Thanks. I think that comes a lot from initially really wanting to make relatively strong songs, but just not having that technical ability to do it, and kind of using sounds as an alternative means to put across the emotionality that I didn’t know how to do with the harmony or something.
What are your influences? Your stuff is really impressively funky — did you grow up listening to funk and soul, or is that something you came to later? My dad is a musician, and he was really particular about what music was allowed on in the house, so that’s kind of what I grew up listening to. It was really cool to hear you guys immediately into that.
Jonathan: My parents listened to classical music pretty much exclusively. One of the few pop things in the house was the Beatles, so that was an early fascination for me. But when I was a teenager and starting to get into modern music, it was like Nine Inch Nails that really spoke to me.
Jamie: Yeah, that was the big one for me when Pretty Hate Machine first came out. It was like, That’s what I was looking for!
Jonathan: Totally. I somehow scored tickets to go see the Downward Spiral tour when I was, like, 13. Like, way too young.
Jamie: [Laughs.] No, that’s exactly the right time to do it!
Jonathan: It was the exact right time, because I was just like [very seriously], This is what I want to be doing. [Laughs.] But it’s funny, with P.E., the group came together very randomly. We had two different bands — myself and my bandmate Bob Jones had a group called Eaters, and the other three, Veronica [Torres] and Johnny Campolo and Ben Jaffe, were all in a group called Pill.
Jamie: Oh, hence the name.
Jonathan: Yeah, exactly. We had a friend ask both bands to to play a record release show, and both of us had somebody out of town. They suggested, “Why don’t y’all just jam?” So we didn’t talk about it, we just showed up with stuff — I brought my MS-20 and a tape echo, and I was running my voice through both. Bob showed up with a sampler and John decided he was going to play bass and Ben showed up with a sax and Veronica was like, “Eh, I’m just going to sing this time.” It just happened. It was all improv.
Jamie: Oh, that’s fantastic. Wow.
Jonathan: And the first record, Person, was an extension of that. Bob and Johnny and I got together at my studio and jammed for a week, and I just hit record once we started hitting an idea. And then the rest of the group would come and add their ideas, and then we’d shape it into a song. And so we started playing with those songs once we were excited about what was happening with P.E., and put out our record, and then COVID hit.
So that was that, and then about a month went by and we were like, “OK, I guess let’s start writing the next one.” But having those Six months’ worth of shows and really responding to each other on stage, I feel like the dance side of that first record really came through. That was definitely an influence for the new record. The first record had no expectations, and then you start flexing certain muscles and you’re like, “Oh, let’s do more of that. Let’s go in that direction.”
Jamie: I didn’t realize your band was that new. You just play so well together, it sounds so incredibly developed. I thought the last thing would have been like your fourth or fifth thing. Well done!
Jonathan: Thank you!
Jamie: I mean, I guess you guys have all played a lot, but your thing sounds very certain, and in a good way.
Jonathan: I appreciate that immensely. I think exactly what you said, though Bob and I had been making music together for over 10 years. And even before we started P.E., I worked with Johnny on a few different projects, like film soundtracks, and both Pill and Eaters had been on bills together. So there was already sort of a common understanding of one another.
What’s interesting about the project is that there’s things that aren’t said. Recording — so much of it is improv, coming up with an idea and hitting record, and then sort of shaping it afterwards, like Can style or like Miles Davis. You get the people in the room because you know they’ll play well together, and then you shape a song out of that. And I think part of that assurance is from just really spending that time playing with one another and listening to one another and responding in real time.
Jamie: That’s great. We haven’t had like a set or, frankly, even a good live line up for, like, 10 years. Angela [Seo], my bandmate, hasn’t been able to really tour much since since, like, 2012 — she has a day job, but her new day job is a lot less demanding, so she can play a lot more now. And then with two other people, it’s the first time in so long that it’s been a good line up. And the key is people fucking listen to each other. It’s like, Oh my god, I missed this so bad, I’m so glad you’re here! It’s such a delight playing with people who are paying attention. It’s absurd how many musicians are such terrible listeners, considering that the whole point of music — I mean, one enjoys music with their ears, and it’s like the least developed sense of probably most musicians somehow.
Jonathan: Right, or the go-to thing of just filling the space.
Jamie: Yeah, nothingness is so good.
Jonathan: There’s a couple songs that we’re playing live now where I literally don’t do anything for the first couple of minutes.
Jamie: That sounds great. I mean, I’m feeling like a total hypocrite because Xiu Xiu songs are always extraordinarily dense. But I certainly do appreciate it when somebody knows not to do something.
Jonathan: [Laughs.] Yeah, exactly. Well, it goes back to listening. But you brought up the band mate thing, and the other thing I really wanted to talk with you about was the collaborative aspect. The way we all came together was so collaborative, and especially as we’re continuing to write — like our new record has a duet with Andrew Savage from Parquet Courts, who’s a friend of ours, and we’ve been working on some stuff with Angus Andrew from Liars. I love it as a producer with other stuff, recognizing how different groups of people respond differently and come up with different ideas and create differently as a result. You mentioned having new band mates and a sort of rotating lineup, but especially with your last record, which was all duets, as a listener and a fan, I loved how it has such a different tone in some ways. It’s more playful as a whole — for y’all, for Xiu Xiu, but I think also for your collaborators. It was cool to see Angus let loose and Liz Harris [Grouper] really sing out and stuff. I’m just curious how much you felt pushed out of your comfort zone by working with people? Oor how much of it was sort of scripted ahead of time, and you were pushing them out of their comfort zone?
Jamie: Oh, I spend so much time working on things alone that any time that I get a chance to work with somebody else, I always say, “Please be yourself.” And then I enjoy tremendously not having to be in charge, essentially. I am pretty fucking tired of my own fucking ideas by the time the song gets to the point where somebody else can play on it. [Laughs.] And I mean, we’ve worked with people outside of the sort of official line up on I think every record. There’s always other people involved. But every time, it’s somebody who is an extraordinarily good musician. And why try to tell an extraordinarily good musician to do what you want them to do instead of have them be themselves? I could just do it myself if I wanted it to sound like my own idea.
For that one in particular, I sent people a guide vocal and lyrics, and said, “Follow this guide vocal or not. Basically, do whatever you want with this.” I kind of alluded to this a little bit in terms of dealing with mix engineers and really enjoying it when they put their own heart into it. The more the more of a person’s inner and true self as in something, the more exciting music generally is.
I mean, I have a lot of very specific ideas about how I feel about music, and I would say I’m probably opinionated to a bitchy degree, but I also am astonishingly excited when somebody adds something good I in a trillion years never would have thought of. That seems to me the whole point of collaborating. How is it with with you guys? Do you all really put your own voice and idea in it, or does one person kind of drive things? Five people in a band is a lot of people, and all people who, because they’ve been in other bands, have really sort of clear musical vision and identity. That’s a lot of people to manage.
Jonathan: It is. [Laughs.] Especially when all five people are in the room, there are times where it’s just like, You know what? I gotta tag out, somebody else sit up here. In general, the music kind of starts with some combination of Bob and Johnny and myself, whether it’s the three of us in a room jamming on something. Or with The Leather Lemon, since we started it in beginning of the pandemic, we were trading files back and forth and having to add stuff. At some point, there is a point where all of us are in the room, and I feel like that’s where they really become P.E. songs. Because Ben, our sax player, may have like an idea, but it’s not for sax.
Jamie: That’s cool that you guys allow for that, I like that a lot.
Jonathan: Oh, for sure. I feel like that’s the beautiful thing about a good collaborator, is when they have an idea that’s not something you would have thought about, and that’s why you want them in the room.
Jamie: Yeah, absolutely. My greatest joy in music is being surprised. Like every other white dork on earth, I got really into URX synthesizers about 10 years ago. [Laughs.] And one of the greatest things about them is just how often what is going to happen is totally out of your hands.
Jonathan: And it’s a good lesson to always record.
Jamie: Oh my god, yes! My very dear friend Lawrence English, who is always ahead of the curve, had URX way, way before anybody else I knew, and the first thing he told me is to record everything, because it very likely won’t be the same tomorrow.
Jonathan: Yeah, totally. As soon as I start hearing something that’s a good idea, you just hit record. Because if you’re like, That’s a good idea, let’s talk about it.
Jamie: Fuck yeah. That’s a tough one for me, because I think I get real excited about stuff — it’s really difficult for me to separate my music brain and my language brain, so I’ll get excited about something musical, and I’m trying to sort of interrupt everything that’s going on to express this idea, which physically I cannot get out of my mouth, and I have completely blown whatever magic the muse granted us for that moment. [Laughs.]
Jonathan: Yeah, it’s funny. Our new single comes out tomorrow, called “Contradiction of Wants” — the original seed of that idea was from our practice space, somebody recorded it on their phone. We were just goofing off, and Johnny was on the drums playing this silly beat. But the groove was so good and Veronica had this line, “contradiction of wants,” that we all loved. And then when COVID hit, I was going through these sort of demos and found that one, and started expanding it into like an actual song.
Jamie: Oh, that’s really cool.
Jonathan: Yeah, we never would have remembered it.
Jamie: When I was a kid and first got more serious about music, I think I asked my dad like, how did someone deal with lyrics? And he said, “Just write everything down, have a thousand notebooks, and then when you’re stuck, refer back to when your mind was was free.” You know, have these notebooks that you just write down every dumb idea that comes to you, and if you don’t know what to do next, refer to these notebooks. Because one out of 50 completely free things that you wrote down is probably going to be the exact right answer.
I didn’t really do it at first, but a lot of lyric writing lately has been kind of similar to going through demo phone recordings, seeing what was actually there, and just kind of referring to stupid shit I wrote when I was stoned. Once in a while, it’s not a joke about cats or about how much I hate my neighbors — there’s actually something sort of OK in there. [Laughs.]
Jonathan: Veronica does the same thing. Whenever she comes to town. She she brings a few notebooks and it’s just ideas or poems or phrases. We’ll be in the studio together working on stuff, and she’ll be back on the couch just flipping through the notebooks. I can always tell when she’s on to something because I just hear the pages rustling
Jamie: [Laughs.] That’s a good sign. That’s sort of like when Keith Richards stands up, they’re ready for the take.
Jonathan: Yep, exactly. It sounds like you’re in the process of a new Xiu Xiu record?
Jamie: Yeah, we’re getting getting towards the end.
Jonathan: When you start it, do you have an idea in mind, or is it just sort of recording a bunch of stuff and seeing what rises to the top?
Jamie: When we first started — I started the band with a fantastic musician named Cory McCulloch, and we literally sat down at a table and wrote down, “OK, we’re going to explore the intersections of these five influences,” and it kind of grew from there. But with writing, it was just like, “OK, what’s going to happen with those five influences?” And probably the first 10 years, it was like that. And then, do you know the record producer John Congleton?
Jonathan: Yeah, yeah, I love his work.
Jamie: Oh yeah, he’s extraordinarily talented and insightful. He and I are buddies, and he was mixing our record for us, and I kind of asked him what to do. And he said, “Oh, do a record that sounds like Suicide.” And it never occurred to me to start out with a parameter — essentially just start with a box and go from there, rather than the other way around.
That was around 2014. Since then, we always will start with some fairly narrow set of guidelines, and then take it from there. I like doing it a lot. I think at first it was good for us to start with relatively free reign within those five influences. But after a while, it started to feel a little bit overwhelming to be completely and totally free, and having something to lean on or something to refer to, for me, has almost become more freeing. And I like a lot of different music, so it’s exciting to me to think about concentrating on just certain aspects of something, or getting to know it a lot better than I had, just from a nerd perspective. So really focusing deeply and intently, or getting really obsessive about four or five things for the two years we work on our record.
What about you guys?
Jonathan: Like I said, the first record, there was no expectation. I was literally just like, “Yo, that show was fun. Y’all should come over to the studio and jam.” And with The Leather Lemon, it was very much trying to build upon what we learned from playing. The advice I always give people when I’m producing a record and they’re in the early stages is: if you’re trying to put 12 songs on a record, write 20 and pick your favorite 15, and then 12 will rise to the surface. But this was the first time I actually took my own advice with one of my bands. [Laughs.] It was always before like, “Alright, we have 10 songs, we have a record.” And this one, we actually wrote more than we could possibly put on one record.
Jamie: So you’re saying the next stuff is a little bit more in a pop vein? That’s a big word. What sort of pop are you guys into?
Jonathan: One of the things that keeps coming up with Veronica in particular is Björk. I love her work too, especially the ‘90s and early aughts stuff where it was very pop, but it was so fucking forward-looking, and sonically pushing boundaries as well.
Jamie: Yeah, those first things were astonishingly new sounding at the time.
Jonathan: And they hold up really well.
Jamie: I’ll have to check them out, because I was a really big fan then, but I haven’t really listened since then. I’m glad they hold up.
Jonathan: I think because it is about the song first. You’re using technology — kind of what we were talking about earlier — to tell the story. It might push things forward, but it’s all in the service of the song.
Jamie: Yeah. I wish it was the other way around — it would be so much easier. [Laughs.] But you know, a lot of times kids will write me and just say, “I can’t write anything! This is so hard!” And it’s like, “Well, don’t be discouraged. Music is really hard.”
Jonathan: Yeah. It should be though, right?
Jamie: Yeah, there’s enough bands already! [Laughs.]
Jonathan: [Laughs.] Yeah, that. But also, I feel like anything that’s worth doing, you’ve gotta feel it.
Jamie: Geez louise, yeah, for sure. I wonder if cave people found music really hard — like just sitting in front of their pile of rocks and sticks, just wondering what to do next. [Laughs.] Their sort of nascent souls totally ripped apart, in the flickering of the cave paintings, like, “How do we grow this? These rock sound so much like our last set of rocks!”
Jonathan: [Laughs.] Somebody comes back from a hunting expedition and they’ve got this whole other type of rock that just blows everybody’s mind.
Jamie: It had to have been like that. Like, why are we like that now? We had to have started this way.
(Photo Credit: left, Vince McClelland; right, Julia Brokaw)