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Xiu Xiu’s Jamie Stewart on Art, Top Gun, and Danh Vo

By John Valko

Although they’ve never met, singer-songwriter Jamie Stewart says he feels “very bonded” to the father of artist Danh Vo—so much so that he’s agreed to publicly sing a hit song from the film Top Gun in his honor. In conjunction with the October 24, 2013, opening of the exhibition 9 Artists, Stewart will perform during the dedication of Tombstone for Phùng Vo (2010), a grave marker the artist created for his still-living father. Although it’s part of the Walker collection, it will move from the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden to a cemetery in Copenhagen, the Vo family’s home city since the late 1970s, when the elder Vo passes.

For Stewart, frontman of Los Angeles–based band Xiu Xiu, the performance adds to a lengthy creative résumé. In addition to nine albums with Xiu Xiu—including the acclaimed 2004 release Fabulous Muscles—Stewart has collaborated and performed with bands including Deerhoof, written three books of haiku, and scored a “gothic ballet,” Dark Material, which will be reprised in Vienna in spring. In advance of the dedication ceremony, writer John Valko reached Stewart via e-mail to get his thoughts on art, music, and Berlin’s Top Gun hit, “Take My Breath Away.”

John Valko

What is your role in the dedication of the sculpture Tombstone for Phùng Vo?

Jamie Stewart

For one of his pieces, Danh asked his father, Phùng Vo, to inscribe the lyrics to a particularly pained and sexually explicit Xiu Xiu song (“Fabulous Muscles”) using calligraphy. His father, not speaking English, didn’t know what he was writing. I feel very bonded to him, even though we have not met. My role is to be at the behest of Danh.

Valko

What will your performance at the event consist of?

Stewart

Danh has asked me to sing the song “Take My Breath Away” by Berlin. My understanding is that when he was young, Danh was obsessed with the film Top Gun. That song features heavily in the plot. When the movie was in theaters, there was an increase in military enlistment of 800 percent. It was an incredibly effective commercial for our international killing machine. Considering the origins of Danh’s family, this gives one pause.

Valko

Is this your first foray into conceptual art?

Stewart

The band I play in has been the subject of conceptual art pieces by the artist David Horvitz, but aside from misguided attempts to get kicked out of coffee houses in Los Angeles in the 1990s, this is my first foray into conceptual art on this scale.

Valko

Have you done work for art galleries or museums in the past?

Stewart

I’ve done a few other museum-oriented pieces: a performance piece of exploding gongs for BAM in Berkeley, music for a gothic ballet at Kampnagel in Hamburg, and the odd visual art gallery show here and there.

Valko

What are some of the differences in collaborating with artists as opposed to musicians?

Stewart

In this case, frankly, it’s easier. Danh claims to not know anything about music (although I think he’s being modest) and said to just do whatever feels right. “Just be genuine.” Artists know about art and have definite ideas about what they want, and the same goes for musicians in music. When you work with someone outside of your medium but have faith in their seriousness and attachment to doing their best, it is only a matter of living up to that on your own end.

Valko

What artworks have influenced you?

Stewart

As of late, the earliest Japanese manga (late 1700s to early 1900s), Kara Walker, medieval Russian painting, Monika Grzymala, David Lynch, Denise Schatz, Peter Saville, ’50s to ’70s Minimalism, Mexican religious and votive painting, black paintings of Goya, Maurizio Cattelan, and Danh Vo. That said, on tour I have the chance to go to museums all over the world (har har har), but I’m awful at taking in names. It is a true pleasure just to look and not to think.

Valko

How would you describe Xiu Xiu?

Stewart

Oh, holy cow! You are asking the wrongest person you could ask. I have negative 1,000,000,000 perspective points.

Valko

What does it mean to like Xiu Xiu?

Stewart

That you are wasting your life.

Valko

When Dave Matthews expressed his admiration for your music, was that a good thing? Did Xiu Xiu become more popular afterward?

Stewart

It was flattering that anyone who is that famous would take the time to mention it, but in some ways it’s embarrassing, as his music is really far away from what I am interested in. And at the same time, my friends’ bands were getting mentioned by David Bowie and Thom Yorke… Soooooo, there you go.

Valko

What’s your favorite Xiu Xiu album?

Stewart

Fag Patrol.

Valko

What songs are you most proud of?

Stewart

I have favorites, but I’m worried the other songs will get jealous, so I never say what they are.

Valko

Any regrets?

Stewart

Only related to business. Lots of those, a classic train wreck of if-I-knew-then-what-I-know-now.

Valko

Do you hear or see your influence in the work of others?

Stewart

It would be less than modest to say yes.

Valko

What were you like as a kid?

Stewart

Oh my. Incredibly frightened and incredibly uncertain. I liked Garfield the cat a lot—and gnomes and trolls. My parents had really hard lives and were checked out sometimes. In some ways, this led to long streams of unsupervised creative exploration that was great, and in some ways it led to long streams of unsupervised sadist exploration that was not so great.

Valko

Was music part of your upbringing?

Stewart

My dad was in the music business, so it was around all the time. I fell asleep on recording studio floors all over Los Angeles a lot. But it was not until I was a teenager that I became interested in it, and not until I reached adulthood that I pursued music with any focus or intent. I learned so much from him.

Valko

Have you ever had a “falling out” with music?

Stewart

I have never had a falling out with music as much as I have had fallings out with my confidence to live up to it. Music is inherently good. The music business is far, far away from what music is.

Valko

When did you quit your day job?

Stewart

2004. BAM! Suckers!!!!!

Valko

What’s next for Xiu Xiu?

Stewart

A record of Nina Simone covers called NINA that’s out in December, a new ultra-dark and bleaky evolved-sounding Xiu Xiu record called Angel Guts: Red Classroom, collaborations with noise musician Lawrence English, works at NYU, and touring like a muthafucker.

Valko

And finally, what will your tombstone read?

Stewart

It will say:

BOO!

Jamie Stewart

Photo: Dan Bleckley, courtesy Jamie Stewart

Danh Vo, Tombstone for Phúng Vo (2012), installed in the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden

Photo: Gene Pittman