Date: May 10, 2010
Place: Sean Maylone’s place in Shillim-dong, Seoul
Question: Hyunjoon Shin | Photo: Hyunjoon Shin, Sean Maylone
Editing: Hyunjoon Shin | English editing: Pil Ho Kim, Joseph Kim

[weiv]: There are three big questions before going into detail about Xiu Xiu’s music. The first is about politics. After 2008, are you not very unhappy with the new president?
Jamie: I am less unhappy. Obama is a better president, but I frequently say he is still a politician in a major party like any politician in any major party. I’m not terrified with him like I was terrified with Bush. But I am not necessarily impressed particularly. I think he could be doing… sticking to what I believe to be morality more strongly, and spending less time placating the impossible and horrifying Republican Party.

[weiv]: What has changed or not changed since 2008 both personally and politically?.
Jamie: For myself, I feel slightly more relaxed, but you know, not tremendously. And I feel a small glimmer of pride for my fellow countrymen (laughs). Dare I say more fellow Americans who voted for him would vote for the same thing that I’ve been voting for. Politically I don’t know, in some ways the country’s become even more divided, because I think people who are afraid of what Obama could mean for the conservatives have worked even harder to divide things, which is unfortunate. But then on the other side, people who are more liberal, more progressive, and more concerned with what humanity is supposed to, continuing to be healthy and progressive, have a smaller chance of doing things, whereas before I think they had no chance.

[weiv]: You have struggled against “George,” with such songs as “Saturn,” “Guantanamo Canto” and “Support our troops” etc. Is it part of a bigger collective movement against the ex-president?
Jamie: Probably mostly of my individual concern. But my individual concern came from being influenced by the movements. There really wasn’t much of a collective anti-Bush movement. I think, somehow, there was a collective pro-Bush movement. But there wasn’t particularly a collective anti-Bush movement. And I think that’s one of the reasons why Obama is a little bit weak, because the “liberal” side is not particularly liberal, is not unified at all.

[weiv]: Do you think that your struggles, though from individual concerns, were effective for the political change?
Jamie: Probably not very much at all. I don’t really think that a small underground art rock band can really affect a political change in a broad sense. I think the point of doing it was, hopefully in some small way, for the small group of people who listen to it but hadn’t thought about this topic before to think about it.

[weiv]: Personally speaking, your songs were encouraging for the people like me and I deeply appreciate it. Then I would like to move on to the question of your family and the family in American society in general. In some of Xiu Xiu’s songs, I got the impression that American family is collapsing. And Jamie frequently said “it is a real story, not a fictitious one.” But when I visited California (as a tourist), everything looked quiet and calm (laughs). Sometimes I wonder why Americans are feeling insecure about their society.
Angela: I don’t agree with it. It may be due to cultural differences. Though I hate the stereotype of Asian, Asians are not very expressive, keeping something inside. Jamie has a different background and different culture from Asian.

[weiv]: Maybe I put the question in a wrong way, sorry. Let’s move on to the differences of family backgrounds between the two of you.
Angela: We grew up in the same neighborhood in the San Fernando Valley area, which is a really big suburb and has a big Korean population. People who do not want to live in the city move there. My parents were immigrants. I was born in Korea too and moved when I was eight. We were a working class family and my parents really worked hard, having two jobs, three jobs. Of course, they loved books and music. But they had the Korean idea of education and hard-work ethic, struggling…
Jamie: About my father’s side of family, they are very poor from Southern California. My father and his brother were successful rock musicians (Mike Steward was a member of the folk rock group We Five) and found a way out of oppressive poverty through music. My mother is highly educated and wealthy. And they met each other in the summer of love at San Francisco. They are the so-called “hippie parents.” But both of my parents are insane and there were a lot of difficult problems. That might be one of the reasons why Xiu Xiu’s music sounds pretty dark.

[weiv]: OK. I will stop probing into your family life. The last big question is about Asian symbols in Xiu Xiu. First, the name of the band itself sounds Chinese and one of the former members was Yvonne Chen who I guess is a Chinese-American? You also appropriated Gamelan and Koto in your own way in Xiu Xiu’s music. Are there “Asian influences,” if I may, either at the symbolic or the real level?
Jamie: Lot of things are there. The first is growing up in California like Los Angeles and the Bay Area. Asians are everywhere and certainly 30% of the population would be Asians. So it is never unusual for those who grew up in California. The second, my grandfather was a ship captain. He was interested in travel and told me the stories everywhere he traveled.
Angela: “Asian influences,” I don’t think there are a lot. We got a lot of influences from everywhere: soul, gospel, pop and R&B, too. We try to take a lot of things everywhere. Actually the name of the band came from a movie. The name has more to do with the character in the movie, emphasizing her character in the movie. It didn’t need to have much to do with “Asian.”

[weiv]: I forgot to add “compared to other bands” to the last question. Anyway, let’s move to the Gamelan and Koto music. How did you come across this “traditional” music of Asian origin(s).
Jamie: First of all we never attempted to emulate those music(s) at all. That means we don’t want to sound like the music. [What is interesting to us is] the way the gamelan is arranged. There are several interlocking melodies and it is arranged beautifully. It was totally by accident that I came across Gamelan. When I was a teenager, there is a huge American museum called Smithsonian. They had a record label called Folkways. I just picked up some records and started to listen to indigenous music. Mostly the sound of the instruments was interesting. We didn’t try to “play” the music.

[weiv]: To me, pitches in Gamelan are different from Western music. Should I say it as cacophony? Is that the sonic effect you intended from Gamelan?
Jamie: Yes, it is a different scale. Even in the keyboard or synthesizer, there is the ‘gamelan scale.’ It is beautifully out of tune and gives different feelings from the cacophony in the Western avant-garde music.

[weiv]: What about the Japanese novelist Yukio Mishima? He is a controversial figure.
Jamie: Just by another co-incidence. I just came across him by accident again. Then I had a difficult time and obviously the politics were completely, totally crazy. His writing was incredibly beautiful. That might be some of the appeal that I read in it. The person is an insane right-wing nutball. But he is somehow expressing things in some of the most beautiful ways. I am not particularly drawn to him as a person, just to his works.

[weiv]: Now is the time to talk about the new album. How long did it take and when did Angela join?
Jamie: It took a long time to do. About two years. We recorded another record. But it was really terrible and we threw it away. There was something lacking. Angela began playing just this year. But we have been working together for years and she made videos for Women as Lovers. Musical collaboration is for the last two years for this record.

[weiv]: Some music critics say that this record sounds poppier. What came in and out?
Jamie: There is a lot of Angela’s influence. Her knowledge of techno and pop is much broader than mine.
Angela: Jamie wanted to make it a pop album. He was also influenced by Morrissey’s album. It is a short and fun album. I will say it is fun. We tried to produce a concise sound like that record.

[weiv]: “Chocolate Makes You Happy” is not only happy but also danceable. The song reminded me of the early Nine Inch Nails in Pretty Hate Machine.
Jamie: I liked it a lot. But “Chocolate Make You Happy” stole much from Gui Borrato [a Brazilian techno musician] (laughs).

[weiv]: What the hell is that Nintendo DS? Kiddings aside, did you ever play a video game during shows?
Angela: I love playing videogames. One day, I just saw what new games are out now and picked out Nintendo DS. We picked it out Jamie did really cool things on it. One good thing is that it is portable and made easy for everybody. Technically it is synthesizer that is very, very, very simple to play around with. Playing games during playing music? Oh, no! I wouldn’t want to lose my focus.

[weiv]: In contrast, some songs like “Hyunhye’s theme” and “Cumberland Gap” have folkish melodies. Some Koreans even said that the melody in the latter song sounded “oriental” or “Asian.”
Jamie: “Cumberland Gap” is an Appalachian folksong from the era of the Civil War period in the 1860s. Another Korean interviewer also said that it sounded oriental. Is it because of the pentatonic scale?

[weiv]: Perhaps Koreans have the bias that pentatonic melody is “oriental” (laughs). Anyway it seems that your ideas never stop springing out. That’s why one critic said “Every time he’s about to come out with a new album, I think, ‘I must be over this by now.’ I never am” But in one interview, you said that “my idea was exhausted.”
Jamie: Yes, they could be all gone (laughs).
Angela: I hope so (more laughs)

[weiv]: This question might be annoying to Jamie. But why have so many people left the band?
Jamie: There hasn’t been any consistent reason. Everybody has a different reason for that. It is not that every single person hated me (laughs).
Angela: I think eight years for someone to do one thing is a very long time. Jamie is never dictatorial (laughs)

[weiv]: Is it not difficult to play music with only 2 pieces. Angela looked quite busy in the last Saturday’s show.
Jamie: We started using 2 pieces in 2004 and three pieces for 2 years, 4 pieces one year and then back to 2 pieces. It is OK because Angela plays really aggressive.
Angela: I am not busy enough. Sometimes I feel I stand there thinking what I should do. I really like it. I think Jamie is really hard working and it is inspiring.

[weiv]: Once you said that you were more interested in classical and avant-garde music than pop music.
Jamie: My former band mate, Cory McCulloch, he got interested in modern classical music around 2000. But, as I mentioned before, I was totally interested in a broad range of music. When I was a teenager, I was into gamelan and other indigenous music. I was interested in the elements of British postpunk too. I think probably most of the musicians that we’re friends with have broader tastes of music. We don’t necessarily listen to the same stuff. We listen to the music than we think is good, high quality music from any place

[weiv]: But in the 1990s, guitar bands were predominant in the U.S. rock scene.
Jamie: Even in the 1990s, I was never into 1990s bands. The 1990s were pretty bad. When I was a kid, there were hair metal bands. They were really terrible and I shied away from rock music.

[weiv]: I am still curious about what kind of music you were into. In other interview, you recorded some materials and circulated the tapes to your classmates. Which kind of music was in the tapes?
Jamie: Oh, it was very impolite (laughs). When I was in junior high school, twenty kids wrote joke songs to other kids and made fun of them. And I recorded with them. The music was like Weird Al Yankovic (laughs). He was my pre-genital hero. By the way, when I saw him play in 2003, it was actually totally great. His band was really good, although he obviously sings silly songs.

[weiv]: Then, were you more into “British music” than “American” music? It was not difficult to find the influences of David Bowie, Ian Curtis, Robert Smith, etc… You also mentioned Boy George.
Jamie: Yes, they were my favorites. But it is not unusual among American musicians. Joy Division and David Bowie are popular. Boy George is a wonderful and graceful singer and also crazy. Among American bands, I like the Pixies a lot. And Tom Petty, too.

[weiv]: We are used to think that the alternative music in the US is associated with the college scene. Then what about your college background? What about the guys in the bands like Deerhoof, with whom you have collaborated?
Jamie: When I was a student in San Jose, I was working. We are not based on the college scene. There was no scene in San Jose. But in the Bay Area, the noise rock scene started around then. Some of them scorned us but most of them are gone. Deerhoof is the only existing band from the scene and they are always nice to us. We were always friends.

[weiv]: Is the noise rock scene in the Bay Area different from the so-called “postrock”?
Jamie: Noise rock is around 2002~3, postrock is earlier than that, the mid- or late 1990s. They are very different from each other. Postrock is a sort of beautiful sound and noise rock is a very perversely ugly sound. I wanted to be part of the noise rock scene. But Xiu Xiu was never like that. Even though we were trying to be cool, but we were not considered as nerdy kids (laughs).

[weiv]: Has there been any support in promoting Xiu Xiu to the public, for example, any magazine, radio, etc?
Jamie: Not any single thing. We were not a particularly big band and progressed slowly. The United States scene, it is a gigantic country, there wasn’t any single moment. We just toured a lot.

[weiv]: What is going on at the scene in 2010?
Angela: We moved to North Carolina. Angela goes to Duke University for studying law.

[weiv]: Oh, your parents must have been extremely happy when you entered the law school! It fits the “Korean” culture. Then, may I throw some general questions about your identity formation? Are the discourses of “model minority” still strong in the US? Asians are docile, polite, and whatever.
Angela: I think a lot of Koreans were brought up with manners. I remember when I was in elementary school in Korea, we had classes about how we should act to the elders, how we should bow, how we should give up seats, etc. I think certain parts of it are really good, like having respect for your elders. But certain things are very outdated. I think…stereotypes are there because there is a little bit of a reason behind it. The ways that Korean people deal with people, interact with people are different. I don’t think they are wrong. But I think it clashes with the American stereotype.

[weiv]: Is there any change to in the stereotype?
Angela: Definitely there is a change. There are other stereotypes now. There is a Korean-American stereotype: the so-called “AZN” who are “spoiled” second generation kids. The first generation worked very hard, made a lot of money and invested everything for the kids. But the second generation…they are ruder, not polite; they don’t know how to respect anyone, get whatever they want; drink a lot, smoke a lot, and drive fancy cars…

[weiv]: Some of my Korean-American friends said that there emerges a sort of division among the Korean-Americans, especially between the old, settled immigrants and the newcomers.
Angela: I don’t think there is a division per se. Coming from LA is very different because of there is a Korea Town. The way to do things, cultures are very Korean: Korean bars, cafes, coffee shops and all kinds of stuff. All the stereotypes come alive and there are lots of clashes. But outside of that, I think there are a lot more identities forming, but I do think there are still big stereotypes. I think it is a little bit homogeneous, but we are trying to break out of that.

[weiv]: As a musician playing in Xiu Xiu, how do you negotiate the Asian-American identity?
Angela: Jamie is very open and I don’t feel any pressure from band mates to behave in a certain way, to do things in a certain way. Certainly, there is certain stuff I come across. Because I feel I am a Korean American, I have to do things in a certain way. I feel I have to break a certain stereotype. I am conscious of my image as a Korean-American and the stereotype of an Asian girl: docile, quiet and calm… That’s a part of the reason I play aggressively. I know every Korean girl plays piano and keyboard like [very gently]. A part of me wants to break the stereotype. Part of it is just the way I am, and that’s how I like to play. I don’t play this way just because I feel like I have to break a stereotype, but I feel at the same time, it encourages it. I feel confident and at home playing in that way.

[weiv]: I haven’t yet asked about your musical background and taste.
Angela: Classical piano. My parents made me take piano lessons. I played a lot of classical music, but I also learned about other stuff by playing playing church music, where sometimes you have to listen to the ladies singing and follow that and sometimes improvise. It is a kind helped to break out of classical music and go poppier in some ways. I really like pop music and listen to a lot of it. I love Rihanna, Beyonce…American pop, just because it’s so entertaining. On the other hand, I like minimalist techno like Gui Borrato, Extrabelt, Format B.

[weiv]: How do you negotiate your way with your parents?
Angela: My parents don’t know what kind of music Xiu Xiu does, they don’t know what kind of image we have… My mother keeps asking “Bring me your CD, bring me your CD,” and I keep saying “Next time, next time…,” because I know that they are very traditional Koreans. But my mom is very good and she gives me a lot of freedom to whatever I want. She would not be like “Don’t do that,” but she wouldn’t be very happy with it. Why break her heart? There are some things you can keep from your parents and that’s okay (laughs).
Jamie: I don’t show anything to my mom either (laughs)

[weiv]: What was the reception of the Korean audience?
Angela: It was good. We were also playing to a very selective crowd. We are not in the middle of anywhere, our show was for a very specific crowd who want to come to the show want to listen to something different than Korean pop. A lot of Korean people have come up to me and said that was really cool. They liked seeing something that was not very Korean in some ways.

[weiv]: Do you think that the Korean audiences feel more affinity, because you are a Korean-American?
Angela: I don’t know if I can say that. If they feel what I feel than, I am always happy to see Koreans in public. Anytime I see a Korean-American in another band or doing music, even if I don’t like their stuff, I’m always really glad that they’re doing it.

[weiv]: Are Asians becoming more visible in the indie rock scene?
Angela: In America, it is still a very small group of Asian-Americans. They are doing things everywhere, working in small labels, shows and tours. Lots of them are not widely known. There aren’t that many and that’s not enough. I think Asian-American women are even fewer. I want to see more Asian-Americans doing things and become more visible to me. I look out for them, because I want to see them. I also want Asian-Americans to become more visible to the bigger society.

[weiv]: The last and stupidest question. While there is “African-American” popular music in the US, there is nothing like “Asian-American” popular music. Can you give your own comments on this?
Angela: Asian-Americans have not been in the United States long enough. African-Americans have been here since the beginning of jazz, rock’n’roll… They are the American music and white guys were rather late. Another thing is that white people played that music because it was cool. Asian-Americans do no have that cool factor because of the “model minority.” That would be another reason.

[weiv]: OK. Thanks for the long interview. I look forward to your next visit. 20100607