How Ball Culture Found Its Way Onto Xiu Xiu's Latest Album

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Xiu Xiu
Alex Brown

A conversation with Jamie Stewart, the glamorously unique driving force at the heart of the band Xiu Xiu, can be as bizarre and wide-ranging as his band's music. In my interview with him, Stewart talked about his experiences growing up in L.A. in the 1990s, his fascination with resurgent ball culture and vogue dancing in the gay community, and his favorite spot for overpriced cocktails.

Xiu Xiu released their 10th studio album, Forget, earlier this year and are gearing up to play the Broad Museum’s Summer Happenings event series on Saturday, Aug. 26. My favorite thing about talking to Stewart is that he is completely himself, comfortably honest. You have to be able to go off the beaten path with him, conversationally, as he’s made a living and lifestyle of doing just that with his unapologetically experimental, avant-rock music.

I know you were based in San Jose for some time; when did you arrive back to Los Angeles?
I grew up here and lived in North Carolina and the Bay Area, then moved back here in 2012. I moved away in the early 2000s, so I’m very, very happy to be back.

Has the city changed?
From when I was a kid? Tremendously. I grew up during the civil unrest, pollution was much worse, the gang problems and racial tension was much much worse. Traffic was worse. It’s an infinitely better city than it was back then.

Did you say that traffic was worse?
Yeah, it was actually worse when I was a kid.

You grew up through the Rodney King verdict; do you feel like social and racial connects in L.A. are better in 2017?
As a middle-class honky, I’m saying this from a particular perspective — I think functionally there’s no way I can give an accurate assessment of that. But it seems that the dialogue is more open than it was at the time. At least people are copping to the fact that there are problems in a completely open way, which, when I was a kid, mainstream media was rubbing its eyes saying, “Oh, this is a problem?” But it’s no longer hidden.

So, you’re performing on Aug. 26 at the Broad Museum's Summer Happenings series, and the theme of the one you're performing at is “Oracle.” Are you aware this show is inspired by themes of globalization and surveillance?
I’m considering that theme seems to be entirely about the illegal gathering of information, but no, I was not privy to that information. [Laughs] I was making a joke, but no, I didn’t know that’s what the show was about.

Well, shit, what are we going to talk about now, Jamie? How about you tell me what you plan to do for the show?
Well, we play in a band and we’ll probably play songs from my band.

Are you going to be playing songs from the recent record Forget?
Half the songs will be from the new record and half the songs will be from other albums. We’re playing a few things that we’ve never played before or have not played for several years, maybe some B-sides.

On the first song of Forget, called "The Call," what is that chanting going on? Is it rapping or ranting?
It’s neither ranting nor rapping. In L.A., there's been a resurgence of Banjee Ball and vogue dancing around Los Globos. As we were finishing the record, I was invited to go a Banjee Ball night, and there was a commentator, so it’s called Banjee Ball commentating. It’s a different rhythm and cadence than rap. The person we saw commentating at the ball was Enyce Smith, and he was absolutely incredible. I’ve never seen anyone that witty and powerful, and with so much energy. It was absolutely remarkable. It completely blew our minds and I found his contact info online, and he doesn’t live far away from me, so he came over and I asked him to do his thing for 10 minutes, and it was perfect. Then he split.

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That’s what [Enyce] sounds like in real life on the record. There’s no treatments on the voice or anything.

And you never saw him again?
We’ve talked over email, but no, I haven’t seen him since. I’ve been meaning to go to the ball a couple of times I’ve been so busy. But [Enyce] is truly, truly talented.

Besides the Banjee Balls, what do you like to do in L.A.?
I’m kind of a homebody. I do have a favorite bar, it’s kind of snooty, but I like Varnish ... they have the best cocktails in L.A. I’ll sit and play Gameboy in the corner and drink overpriced drinks.

You’ve been touring relentlessly, so I wonder if you had total time off, with no album to make or shows to play, what would you do?
Some really good friends of mine have a cabin in Norway that’s right next to a polar bear preserve. Next February I’m planning on going there when I have time to go on vacation.

Would you ever consider leaving L.A.?
I’m very close to my family. For that reason I want to stay in L.A., but if they are all immediately abducted by aliens, I’d move. But in the U.S., I can’t imagine living anywhere else.

Xiu Xiu perform Saturday, Aug. 26, at the Broad's Summer Happenings series, with A Place to Bury Strangers, Arshia Haq, Amy Alexander, Keijaun Thomas and many more. Tickets and more info.


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