The songs of Oakland's claustrophobic pop group Xiu Xiu are, for lack of a better word, confrontational. The groups goth-tinged dance numbers and hauntingly spare laments require the listener's full attention—and it's often the silent spaces or awkward pauses that make the music so endearing. Originally a project consisting of songwriter Jamie Stewart and multi-instrumentalist Caralee McElroy, the band expanded last year to a full on quartet, adding bassist Devin Hoff and drummer Ches Smith to spruce older tracks and songs from their new album Women As Lovers
, released in late January by Kill Rock Stars. I spoke with (ba da bum) Smith via telephone about adding his touch to someone else's songs and weird Japanese toys before the band embarks on a month long tour of the US, beginning tonight at the Someday Lounge.
What is the setlist going to look like on this tour?
I think it's about 60-70% new stuff, then like a song or two from older records. A song or two each.
How long have you been playing with Xiu Xiu?
Well, I started recording with Jamie on the first record I think, but he'd call me up and say “hey do you wanna come play on these tunes” or “do you want to write something.” But I actually joined the band around spring of 2006 and I've done a couple US tours and some European stuff since then.
Have you found it hard to incorporate your style into songs that you weren't involved in creating? Especially because so much of Xiu Xiu's songs revolve around electronic drum programming.
Yeah, definitely, I thought of it as a challenge. I was a little worried about it because I kind of think that the Xiu Xiu sound is synonymous with drum programming and in particular Jamie's drum programming. I was trying to imitate the drum machine—like the stuff he had done—the first time we played live and he let me know that's not really what he wanted. He wanted me to honor some of that stuff but play my own interpretation of it. Even if I heard stuff heavier or louder that was fine with him.
Do you have room to add little bits and pieces to songs or is that something you talk about as a band. Do you have the freedom to improvise?
Actually, back on La Foret
, part of that was recorded in my house, and we keep working collaboratively on that even that at that time I didn't know how to work as well with Jamie as I do now. Then in 2006 we started working on Women As Lovers
[ed: the new record], he definitely invited me to write stuff and I wrote stuff for other instruments and we worked together on drum parts and I though that worked pretty well.
You can tell that the album is more of a full-band effort compared to previous Xiu Xiu records.
That's the reality. Caralee was definitely writing stuff and even Devin was writing stuff. He hadn't even joined yet but you know they live across the hall from each other so he'd come over and play bass and offer feedback at the very least.
What's your kit setup going to look like on this tour? When I saw you in LA last year you had the gong.
It's pretty funny, it's this 32-inch bass drum, his big old thing, it's that and this huge ride cymbal that's like 30 inches. I'm not playing vibes on this tour because Devin is playing with us now and it's kinda opened up Caralee to play more melody stuff, but I am triggering samples with a sample pad and snare and a bunch of gongs too. Jamie and I are both playing a lot of percussion.
Is it harder to fit all the stuff in the van when you've got big pieces like that?
Well we're about to find out! No I think we got it worked out. Everyone's using these amps that are small and are so fucking loud. It's amazing. In a 12-passenger van we can fit everything in pretty easy. I had the same big stuff last tour and it didn't seem to be a problem.
Do you enjoy touring with the band?
Yeah I do. I've toured a lot, I've toured with some other bands also and it can get to be too much. I just think of it as a necessary thing and I always enjoy the shows and I try to bring stuff on the road so I can practice and be productive in that way while I'm sitting in the band. But I definitely like hanging out with Jamie and Caralee and Devin.
What do you guys do for fun on the road?
[To Caralee] What do you think, Caralee? We try to do stuff like go to the beach and bird watching. Oh and binge drinking. That's kinda old but Devin's going to reintroduce it to the band I think.
Is there any songwriting that goes on?
Not so much songwriting, although I do write stuff myself, whether it's for Xiu Xiu or other projects. I bring a little keyboard with me and I can play it with headphones. Jamie actually just gave me a part to write something to so I'm going to work on that for sure. This sounds funny, but I think we're going to get into some improvising during sound check [laughs]. Just because it's something we've talked about and we didn't really get to when we were practicing for the tour because we had so many songs to learn. But I think just getting into an improvising band voice together would be a great thing. Something to fall back on if we need it.
You do solo percussion stuff as well, right? I'm assuming you approach that differently.
I'd say with the solo stuff, part of the reason I did that…I had to finish the whole thing myself. I couldn't rely on anyone else to finish ideas I had. Playing with the band, I think I collaborate really well, I can let go of ideas and have someone else finish it, as opposed to when I'm playing all my own stuff I'm responsible for the whole thing and it's not going to get done if I don't finish it myself.
How did you write the songs for your solo album Congs For Brums?
What I did was, I wanted to basically write for the vibraphone primarily, and I wanted to write for the vibraphone and practice reading what I wrote and performing what I wrote and composing all at the same time. I decided to write stuff on piano and basically give it to myself to perform on vibraphone. I'd write stuff on piano and it wouldn't be immediately playable I'd have to work on it. So it was kinda like etudes in a way. I knew I wanted to play drum set on it also so I borrowed ideas from the vibes pieces and applied those to drums in any way that would make sense and then kinda adjusted the results as it went on to make sure it was compelling to listen to.
Do you have any formal training on the piano or is that something you taught yourself over the years?
Umm, both? You know I've taken lessons but I think I'm a terrible piano player [laughs]. It's just the harmony is all right there so if I do everything in slow motion I can still get an idea of what I'm writing. I have had formal training on mallet instruments like vibraphone and marimba so once I work it up on that I can tell later if it's a good idea. In general when I write, even for Xiu Xiu or other bands, I write stuff on piano I usually have to hear the band play it before I know what's going on because my piano playing is so lousy.
Since you're a drummer I have to ask you this. Who's your favorite drummer of all-time? Or someone who's influenced you the most?
It's changed so much over the years, but…all-time favorite. Man….well definitely Elvin Jones, you know he was a jazz drummer. I don't know if that's the biggest influence but that's the biggest influence that comes to mind right now. They've been countless in all kinds of music.
Do you take a lot from the jazz scene?
Definitely. I've played a lot of jazz and I still do actually. I say Elvin Jones just because I got into him first as far as jazz drummers go but there's been so many others even before him and after him that have been equally influential. There's something about who you get into the earliest that I think has the biggest impact.
Maybe this is more a question for the band, but I was wondering if you could tell me what a PANDAPPLE is? It's something I saw on your website.
Oh, a pandapple? Is that on our blog? Does it say who posted it? Do you remember the context at all?
There's a picture, and something about a Xiu Xiu surprise if a fan brings one to a show.
[Talking to Caralee] Do you know what a pandapple is? The best she can describe it is like a Japanese Hello-Kitty type character that's not Hello-Kitty and there's merchandise for it. It's almost a brand name kind of thing, but we'd love to have one.
Photo by Scott Kinkade