This article originally appeared in NARC. Magazine
Bathed in beauty but also a harsh punk abrasiveness, the work of Jamie Stewart and his band Xiu Xiu can often be hard to digest but truly rewarding for those who listen. Their last album, Angel Guts: Red Classroom, was named after a Japanese erotic noir film and focused on such topics as radicalised sex, criminality, fear of physical harm and suicide. Sounds a bit like someone else. David Lynch, perhaps? It’s unsurprising that the band have been touring the world performing the music of Lynch’s televisual masterpiece Twin Peaks, as the two share a lot – from sound to themes – in common. Next week the group will be performing at the Sage Gateshead as part of an event that will see the venue transformed into a facsimile of the town, where patrons are encouraged to dress as their favourite characters and the cherry pie will be damn fine.
Ahead of the special event, I talked to Stewart about the influence of Twin Peaks and David Lynch on Xiu Xiu’s work.
How did you originally come to be involved in this project?
It is a bit of an arc. The first time Shayna and I toured together was in the fall of 2012 and we did not know each other very well before we started. It was a risk for both of us but it worked out very well. This current trio is by far the best Xiu Xiu line up. After a show in a small city in Italy we were packing up and she started playing the theme song on vibraphone. I starting freaking out and then she started freaking out as our mutual love for Twin Peaks was revealed. We started talking about playing shows of the music, but as often happens on tours, tangential ideas like this come and go, mostly just being fun to toy with.
Then in 2014 we were playing in Amsterdam and ran into our friend, sound artist Lawrence English, and over lunch he mentioned he was part of the most complete David Lynch retrospective to date. It was to be held at the GOMA museum in Brisbane. Shayna cried out “let us do the music of Twin Peaks!” The logistics began.
Have you put your own spin on the soundtrack or are you attempting to recreate the music as faithfully to the show as possible?
There is no way to copy it. It is too perfect and we are not those kind of players anyway. It would seem very false if we did that. However, as the songs are stunning, we essentially followed the harmonics of the songs as written but then tried to make them sound, through increased intensity and exploded timbre, more like how they influenced us.
We took the songs and as a way to say thank you to them for having touched us inserted a Xiu Xiu sounding “pallette” that we never would have had without having heard those songs in the first place into the original chords and melodies. It felt like a truer homage this way rather than just as a rote play back. We leaned very heavily on trying to make them sound like BOB, the black lodge, inverted dark Laura and the man from another place.
You’re quite known for your vocal style, which has drawn comparisons to everyone from Robert Smith to Annie Lennox – will you be taking on the task of singing Julee Cruise’s parts?
And to my nerve wracking horror Jimmy Scott as well! As they are two of the most characteristic singers of all time, it is incredibly challenging for me as I sound nothing like either of them. But again, rather than hopelessly copy them I tried to kneel down to their influence on me and take it from there. I was not super happy with how I sang them at first, so I took some technical vocal lessons to help sort it out and feel more prepared and in it now.
You’ve previously noted that most of Xiu Xiu’s work focuses on particular themes – family, politics, sex, love, and sometimes death or suicide. These are themes that crossover a lot in the show and David Lynch’s work in general, so were the lyrical themes of Twin Peaks’ music particularly resonant with you?
Oh clearly, yes. The idea behind Xiu Xiu, to have songs pointedly about those subjects but at the same time, not to shy away from oddness or humor, came largely from Twin Peaks. It was, and is, a massive aesthetic and conceptual headquarters for us.
Do you think that, aside from Lynch’s imagery, Angelo Badalamenti’s music for the series is one of the defining factors in giving Twin Peaks that surreal, almost ethereal edge?
It is as important as any of the characters and any of the plot. I can think of no other soundtrack that is at once totally complimentary to what is happening on screen, yet does not condescend the viewer by being overly specific emotionally and then also is as beautiful musically independent of the story. Its styles are seemingly incongruous but work together amazingly well without ever seeming out place. That is such genius. It creates its own world and supports the twin peaks world.
Apart from on films like Eraserhead, where there’s quite an industrial soundtrack, Lynch’s work in general often combines quite “pretty” pop songs or ethereal music with much tougher, grittier situations and the grotesque, and some might say the same could be applied to you and Xiu Xiu in general. Your last record Angel Guts was praised for being beautiful yet very abrasive and I wondered where these kinds of juxtapositions in your music comes from?
As noted, in a significant way from Twin Peaks and also from a bit of luck growing up. My dad was in the music business and early on inserted himself into my listening habits. My friends were all listening to the most uninteresting hair metal which he would not allow in the house, not because it was music but because it was dumb music. As a preteen he got me into Stax and Motown records, Talking Heads, Otis Redding and Prince. This lead to me to, with his encouragement, become interested in field recordings and the early nonesuch explorer series, which somehow got me into goth and industrial music. As a 14 year old, my record collection was all over the place. Through then having worked in a record store, and from founding Xiu Xiu member Cory McCulloch getting me into modern classical and post minimalism, those habits remain. Shayna and Angela have similarly divergent tastes and similarly divergent paths to them.
You’ve said yourself that everyone in the band are deep film buffs, so the obvious question arises: which, in your opinion, is the best Lynch film and why?
Ooooooooh, that is tough one. I love all of them. It is not for me to say best but my favorite (Angela and Shayna I know have different feelings) is probably Mulholland Drive. But, having said that, all the others are tugging at my heart too. Inland Empire and Lost Highway especially but again all of them are masterpieces. Mulholland Drive, to me feels deeply jarring, unusual and memorable. There are so many peculiar characters and almost episodes within it that hold up beautifully with repeated viewings. It is terrifyingly confusing and detailed with such bizarrely particular acting. The plot never panders.
Will you be returning to your experimental punk roots after the tour is over?
I prefer to think of our roots as being experimental death bed tropical conflagration. We are in the emerald mine working on a new Xiu Xiu record right now. I (think/hope) it is going well. We learned a lot from the last record [Angel Guts: Red Classroom], our installation with Danh Vo at the Kitchen in New York and of course from the Twin Peaks music. I feel like such a greedy pig being able to work on both galaxies at once.