The story of A Promise begins in a gay cruising spot in Hanoi. Jamie Stewart, whose eccentric extremes have propelled Californian experimentalists Xiu Xiu through all manner of indie trends over the past decade, found himself on vacation in Vietnam prior to the recording of the band’s 2003 sophomore album. A chance encounter with a young homeless man would lead to one of the most striking, controversial, and ridiculed album sleeves of the past decade.
Being asked for sex in return for money by the down-and-out young man, Stewart instead invited him to his hotel room. There, Stewart paid him to take his picture, his only attendant being a rubber baby toy which had been carried around with Stewart on his trip. He stripped, posed with the baby, took his money, and left. This absurd conflict between sex and human relationships, along with Stewart’s guilt towards the experience, served as a stimulus for the harrowing emotional palettes of the band’s formidable A Promise, which would launch Xiu Xiu to the height of indie rock infamy.
Cross Sections is a series which dissects cult albums with the help of their creators. Myself and Stewart pulled into a shimmering vegetarian restaurant on Baldwin St, Bristol to discuss A Promise, relationships, self-abuse, and the heartbreaking vow behind the album’s title. Read and listen along below.
“Sad Pony Guerrilla Girl”
Older fans will recognise this as a song from your previous band, Ten In The Swear Jar. Why choose to rework and open the record with it?
I wish I had a decent theoretical reason for picking that song. It was mostly for practical reasons. Ten In The Swear Jar was a band that nobody had heard of. We self-released one CD that was limited to about five-hundred copies and we never toured. It was a song that Cory McCulloch, who started Xiu Xiu with me… yeah, we both liked it and essentially didn’t want that song to go to waste! I also think the Ten In The Swear Jar version didn’t really suit the feel of the song with how it was arranged. More of a rock feel.
So it feels more at home here?
Oh yeah. I think that the Xiu Xiu version, to my ear, says what I think that song is trying to say.
And what is that song trying to say?
Cory and I used to live in this really terrible house. When we first started off the band we were obscenely broke. We lived in this house that was literally falling apart, not really like a punk house, more of a nerd house in the style of a punk house. Attached to the house was an apartment that was right above my bedroom window, and there was this young girl who lived in an apartment next door. She was gay and was dating an older woman from the neighbourhood, and I think the older woman was married to a man. Their relationship was completely secretive, and they’d sit above my window and be a couple. But they didn’t know I was there.
So, kind of a voyeuristic experience?
Yeah. Most of the lines from the song are things they had said to each other, and it’s an observation of their impossible attempt to have a relationship… their difficult existence. At the time it was very specific, but now to me it’s probably just about difficult existence in a more personal or general way, depending on what year it is, what happens to be going on… does that even make any sense?
What are the mentions of the Chinese names in the lyrics here?
“Chen” is Yvonne Chen, who was in Xiu Xiu at the time we were writing it, who co-wrote it. At the time we were real close friends, and “Wei” and “Huai” are her brother and sister.
Is the mention of the names used heighten the personal element of the songs?
I frankly don’t remember because this song in particular is more about suicide. [The names] are more there to illustrate what there is to lose from suicide.
Yeah, there’s definitely a sense of uncertainty in the lyrics in regards to suicide. It’s not very pro-suicide.
It’s more just dealing with it as a way of life. Not promoting it as a way out, but just as a way of just… dealing with it. It is an option, and thankfully it’s not something that is as big of a part of my life as it was then. But it was, at the time, a daily concern. Not so much now, thankfully.
How did you create the grating, mechanical sounds on the record?
Back then I think we only had two synths. Two shitty synths, and not shitty in a good way. We had a Yamaha DX21, which I think Cory was the only person in the entire world who could get some decent sounds out of it, and some other garbage synth that I don’t think anyone feels fondness for even now. Then we just ran them through distortion pedals. I think we had three distortion pedals at the time. This is literally the only shit I care about, just distortion pedals! One was a yellow MXR that I left in a parking lot at an airport, one was a crappy RAT. But the one cool one we had was a really cheap Danelectro called the French Toast. Really cheap, maybe around twenty-five dollars, and it had a horrible octave shift in it that couldn’t follow anything so it was mostly just random. I should get my hands on one of those again. That is a piece of garbage that is a wonderful piece of garbage.
This song has some of the most bizarre, vivid lyrics on the album, like “they have as many eyes as a pineapple”. But it’s juxtaposed with really grounded, direct phrases like “I am the dumbest bitch on the planet”. Did you aim to create this kind of disorienting dynamic when you were writing it, or was it more natural?
Again I’d love to say there was any theoretical basis behind this song. It’s a song about the nursing home my grandmother was dying in called ‘Walnut House’. It was a very surreal place, essentially a warehouse full of people with dementia whose bodies are falling apart. I think, if I remember correctly, a lot of the imagery was cribbed from books I was reading at the time, or things I’d hear people in the nursing home say.
Is that where the “don’t worry Mom” freakout at the end comes from?
Oh, that actually was some small attempt for me to console my Mom while she was watching her own mother die. As well at the time I was getting into some worrisome sexual activity, none of which she was privy to, but I think she was generally worried about the way I was living my life at the time. So it’s a very incongruous combination of literary references, my grandmother dying, and consoling my Mom.
Very similar subject matter to the This Song Is A Mess But So Am I record where all the songs are about his mother dying of cancer.
Oh yeah. Freddie and I are still very close friends.
“20,000 Deaths For Eidelyn Gonzales, 20,000 Deaths For Jamie Peterson”
I guess the obvious question is to ask who Eidelyn Gonzales and Jamie Peterson are.
This song isn’t really about either of those people. A lot of Xiu Xiu titles don’t necessarily refer to the subject matter of the song. Eidelyn Gonzales was someone who I, for lack of a better description, had a fuck-buddy relationship with, who I treated very, very, very badly, and in no uncertain terms took pretty horrible advantage of her, I think for a couple of years. Jamie Peterson was a percussionist I liked a lot but anyone barely knew. She played in a lot of Bay Area bands, lots of experimental stuff but nothing anyone would’ve heard of. But she’s a really good percussionist. Anyway, Eidelyn, I’m sorry I was such a shithead to you.
How much of the record was inspired by true events like that, and how much was more of an idealised fantasy?
So far the only constant about Xiu Xiu is that the songs are always about something true.
How were the less-structured tracks like this composed for the record? This song sounds like someone having a million different mood swings mid-composition.
I was pretty out of my mind at the time so it’s entirely possible that’s what happened! Those were dark days. Very dark days. Yeah, this will just sound melodramatic, but it was without a doubt one of the most difficult and worst times of my life. It was a pretty miserable existence.
You mentioned taking inspiration from literature before. The lyrics here are quite violent and debauched, in the vein of, say, William S. Burroughs or J. G. Ballard.
I’m always really hesitant to be specific about explaining songs because it’s very different to what you’ve described to me, but I don’t want it to be what it’s about to you. Half of that song is about a book about the Balkans War, but the author of the book who was strung-out on heroin at the time of the Balkans War, an American guy. We never play that song live, so it’s kind of removed from my consciousness. We just never got around to it. Again, forgive me for being melodramatic, but [emotions] would never prevent us from playing songs live.
“Sad Redux O-Grapher”
Another old song, right?
We had two different versions of the song. One appeared on a 5 Rue Christine compilation, the label we were on, but I thought we could do a better version of it. But that song is about just liking a boy, and having that boy think you were an idiot. And him not being all that far off base. Again, this was a long time ago, so it’s faded from my memory slightly. There was this boy that I liked, I tried to get him to like me, and he thought I was stupid, and him being right that I was pretty stupid. As one does when they’re in that situation, feeling pretty miserable and hopeless, a fairly typical subject matter for a sad song.
This song fits nicely together with Walnut House. Did you think a lot about the structure of the record before putting it out?
I think that might have just been good luck on our part. We just wrote a bunch of songs, and then once we had ten, we decided we were done. We recorded in the same house as Knife Play, with the same people.
How did the configuration of band members in Xiu Xiu at the time shape the sound of the record?
For the beginning of that record, like I said, Yvonne Chen played on it. Once we started touring, she kind of excused herself since she didn’t want to tour. So it was mostly Lauren Andrews, Cory McCulloch, and myself. Lauren didn’t really write all that much, but she had a really excellent feel. She could play things that were incredible simple, but with a notable brutality and a real sense of space that was superlative. The exact right amount to my ear between notes, and particularly for that record since the songs were so sparse. She really played nicely on that one. The tension and release between playing and not playing. Music nerd things, but she was all quite good at it.
Cory was really instrumental in picking good vocal takes. At the time, the three things he was really fantastic at. One was keyboard parts that were extremely dissonant but also very melodic, and then making really wonderful and really musical feedback, and then serving as producer for the vocals. I don’t think I’ve worked with anyone since who could produce vocals that well. We had been friends for a long time before, I haven’t talked to him in several years, but I really trusted him. It made it a lot easier to… open up and be comfortable. I could essentially say anything with him in the room. He knew me well enough to know if I meant it or if I was faking it, and he’d push me to mean it.
Did you want this record to challenge the listener when you composed it?
It’s never something that we would ever do consciously. With this song, or any song, we try to get something out of the listener, without having any business out of what that something is. Again I don’t want to ruin what a song could mean for somebody else with what it means to me.
Do you have that in mind while writing? What a listener can take away from a song subjectively?
Absolutely. For me it’s always about something very, very specific. But it’s not important that that specificity is passed onto someone else. I hope they can appreciate that it’s about something specific, but as well being something personal for the listener. I don’t know if we succeed at it, but that’s what we’re hoping for. But as far as attempting to be challenging, we just create songs that sound good to us, and whether or not that is challenging isn’t up to us.
What were the outsider influences for this song in particular?
It was about my brother. My whole family at the time lived in the Bay Area, and fortunately my family now is a little more levelled out. In a state of crisis, to say the least, he decided he didn’t want to live there anymore and moved to New York somewhat unexpectedly. It broke my heart a little bit. I mean I don’t blame him! If I had as much guts as he had I’d have gotten out of there also. But he realised that he needed to get on with his life, rather than get mired in the disaster that was our family at the time.
So, the Tracy Chapman cover’s an interesting choice. It expresses lots of the same sentiments as the original songs on the album despite coming from a different era. I remember in our last interview you spoke about having a huge respect for pop musicians.
That song has always amazed me that it actually is a pop song because it’s one of the most depressing songs I’ve ever heard. It’s just a list of bad things that happen, and then it’s over. There is no happy ending to that song, which at the time, and forever more, is what life is!
I do think it’s quite ironic that the song that epitomises the whole record wasn’t even written for it.
Well, it was a humongous influence on us, obviously! When I was a kid, there was an MTV show called 120 Minutes that used to show “alternative” videos, and interestingly, that Tracy Chapman song was shown on it and was considered, at the time, an alternative, underground song. Probably because the subject matter’s so dark. It somehow became a light rock hit two years later with a very long-lasting life. That’s when I initially came across it, when I was really young.
So you have a strong connection to it for hearing it in your youth?
I think when I was younger I was too young to really understand what it was about. Like, there’d be that, and there’d be a PiL video on after that. It wasn’t until I was an adult and I was driving around when I was stunned by how incredibly bleak it is. We didn’t really think that much about it for the record, we just loved the song and wanted to say “thank you” to it.
“Ian Curtis Wishlist”
“When you tell me everything, I will take it too far”?
The specifics of it are that it was me being very foolish and unrealistic! And knowing I was being foolish and unrealistic, but not being able to stop myself from behaving in that way. It sounds very boring, but there was this girl that I liked, and she was just very polite, and was like, “no thank you, you’re… a mess”. I think at the time it was a realisation of what an incredibly fucking loser I was, and an astounding sense of loneliness and stupidity, but being aware that I was being stupid and lonely. Even then it was only very briefly that I had feelings for this person. It was someone who I made out with one time in a basement, and then just got completely, absurdly unrealistic about. It’s probably more just about feeling like an idiot, rather than just being hopelessly in love with someone specific. But it was a period of extraordinary idiocy, and I think I was at my wits end with how little things were working out. I couldn’t really stand myself, and was certainly not making it easier on myself.
The vocals of the song, again, have a sporadic, improvised feel. Some of the lyrics sound like they were ad-libbed.
As little as I remember about this record, I do remember recording for the vocals for this song pretty clearly. I was teaching pre-school at the time, came home from work, got incredibly drunk very quickly. Sat at my desk, which is odd, since one tends to stand when doing vocals. I put the microphone in front of me, I think I had written the words down on paper in front of me. It was a rather spontaneous idea to do it. Recording vocals is usually a trial for me and I have to work up the courage to do it. I just recorded it in two takes, then a couple of days later I went back, listened to it, then edited the two takes together. There were written lyrics, but I think it was because I was because I was so drunk there was a certain looseness to it.
One thing that’s just occurred to me right now is what that must’ve sounded like to my roommates! It was a very crowded house, and I think I just put on my headphones and made whatever grunting sounds made up that take! Normally I would’ve waited, but the people me and Cory lived with were huge assholes. I’m sure they felt I was an asshole also. It was a very hostile environment. Now that I think about it, I don’t think we made any attempt to curb any amount of noise that we were making. We were extraordinarily inconsiderate. But so were they, about other things. It was a lot of gross guys, kind of hopeless nerd guys, but mean hopeless nerd guys. People just did not give each other a break in any way. They probably just thought the worst of me.
Did your experience in Vietnam directly influence any of the songs on the record?
That happened a couple of years before we made that record. Using that photo wasn’t so much a reference specifically to the events of the record, but more of having the feeling of what was happening at the time. There was a very distinct emotional connection, but not any sort of chronological connection. It seemed like he had a lot of cigarette burns on him. Some kind of rotten abuse somewhere down the line.
Did you get any heat from the album sleeve? Did anyone refuse to stock it or put it out?
Initially we had the little orange square. It was a reference to Todd Solondz, a movie director who I like a lot, and was really obsessed with at the time. He did a movie with a sex scene that no one would show, so he put an orange box over it. So that was an homage to him.
To close, why title the album “A Promise”?
…It always depresses me to answer this question. I don’t mind saying it, but it’s really bleak.
My mother made me promise her not to kill myself. I am here today because of it. So, thanks Mom.
A Promise is available to stream and purchase from Kill Rock Stars.
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