Images of Xiu Xiu courtesy of the band and their photographers.

The sky is almost magically clear
Fear and darkness?
It doesn't make sense

– “Maybae Baeby”

Lilly Sayenga
︎︎︎Editorial Director

01 May 2023
I am learning how to use Google Meet again ten minutes before an interview with Angela (Hyunhye) Seo, one half (or third, depending on the lineup) of experimental band Xiu Xiu and one whole of an icon. I am squealing at my roommate and she is attempting to interpret.

Ten minutes later I am in the call, and I ask myself how I got here. But I also can’t think straight, for before me on this Google Meet is ANGELA SEO, of EXPERIMENTAL BAND XIU XIU.

Xiu Xiu currently consists of Jamie Stewart, Angela Seo, and special guest star David Kendrick. They have just released their latest album, Ignore Grief, and are touring soon, and you bet I have tickets. It is described on their website as follows: “Half of the songs are experimental industrial. Half of the songs are experimental modern classical.” It is also, like Hyunhye, wholly iconic.

After an embarrassingly bubbly greeting, I begin my interrogations.

What’s your favorite track off of the new album?

“If I had to pick something I consistently like, it’s ‘Esquerita, Little Richard.’”

Nice! Where did you find the footage for the lyric video?

“I think I kind of just came across it scrolling through one of those movie sites. I forget if it’s like [Tubi] or Kanopy or one of those. And then it just happened to be around the same time that I was working on… a lot of the music videos… and I was like, shit, let’s just use this… it really required pretty minimal editing… [but] I recorded the screen with my phone, so I had to edit a little bit to get rid of some [glare.] But yeah… it was a nice surprise to see that all match up.”

There seems to be a strong cinematic influence in Xiu Xiu’s visual output, from the way your lyric videos jump cut to what look like techno-ified silent film dialogue stills to the high drama of your cinematography. So I was wondering, what kinds of movies do you draw inspiration from?

“It’s really pretty wide ranging… I remember when I first met Jamie and we became friends when I was actually [a student at] Berkeley. We would go to the DVD store that was off of Shattuck, and one of the things that we loved doing is [that] we’d work on some stuff for a while or [we’d] go in and browse… and just come across things. So I think a lot of our friendship started with watching these random movies together. And over the years we’ve really gone through a huge range of it, including old fifties and sixties Japanese films. I really got into eighties horror for a while, and then some modern horror too. And a lot of weird B movies too! I [also] love nineties Taiwanese movies – Wong Kar-Wai was a big inspiration for a while, just like aesthetically… but I think sixties Japanese films have been [the biggest] influence not only on our videos, but also on the music. And obviously David Lynch! And just kind of whatever we come across.”

Your artist bio for the tour says “What none of this record does and despite the oft repeated assertion, what Xiu Xiu has never done, is attempt to superficially shock the listener. Instead, Xiu Xiu has spent twenty years grappling with how to process, to be empathetic towards, to disobey and to reorganize horror; there is no other word for it other than horror.” I get a strong sense of misanthropy on past records, especially “Girl With Basket of Fruit.” But “Ignore Grief” seems less preoccupied with past Xiu Xiu subjects– self-hatred, hatred of others, to explore a new territory of sympathy to those who experience the horrors of humanity. At the same time, this is one of your grittiest, most difficult releases yet sonically. How did this new direction affect the way you shaped the record’s sound?

“Sometimes it’s hard to parse out exactly what came first, [but] I think from the beginning we understood that the record was going to be, even by Xiu Xiu standards, really more free in a lot of ways. Like, it’s not three-minute tight little songs, [and] the lyrics were going to be pretty different. I think one of the biggest changes is that we cut down on a lot of lyrics as well. And that was a conscious choice to not have it be a song really, but the vocals being something that’s a little bit more instrumental[ish] even. [When writing the lyrics], some came before [the instrumental], there’s some that could change in the middle, [and] some came after that really followed that sound a lot.

And as far as the horror part of it, I think we all went through a lot of shit over the last few years. Not just us, but I think globally, and we are still going through a lot of that. And, as cliche as it sounds, [we] kept coming up with this idea of grief– not just individual, but collective grief. And I’m a little shocked that we really haven’t dealt with it, and [as a society] we’ve just decided to move on like we didn’t lose hundreds of thousands of people. And [generally] not just in terms of death, but the disruption, the years that have been lost. We’ve really failed to address it all on the collective level, [like] I don’t think we’ve even fully grasped the impact that’s going to have in the years to come. It may not be specifically related per se to the pandemic, but I think that feeling is there in a lot of the songs regardless of the topic.”

At the same time, I do get a sense of levity in Xiu Xiu. You have some terrifying records, but there’s also something silly (and iconic) about dancing around in a cheerleading uniform and eating Cheetos in a music video for a very unsettling song (“Rumpus Room”). Same for the balance of imagery in “Esquerita, Little Richard.” Where do you think levity comes into the Xiu Xiu project?

“I think that’s just another part of who we are. As much as we do get into some of that serious dark stuff, we’re also a bit goofy, just kind of nerds, I don’t know. And even with “Rumpus Room,”... I wanted it to be a little bit more of a fun music video. So I got the cheerleader outfit online and I got my friend to go in there and dance around too. I think it was really meant to be the whole rumpus room idea of like ‘Whatever the fuck happens,’ right? But I think that kind of sense of being a little bit goofy [is because] you can’t take it all [so] seriously. I mean, I wish I was cool enough to be totally serious and pull it off, but that’s just not me. [Jamie and I] can both be very serious, and then we can both be kind of silly around each other too. I think that’s probably because we’re friends who’ve worked together for so long.”

What’s the process behind your music videos?

“Well, actually Jamie fucking hates being on camera. Really. Like they do not like getting their photo taken at all.  So, you know, we made music videos for a while where we're not in it, or [Jamie wasn't] in it and [our publicists] were like, no, you have to put them in it because people like to see them. So I force them obviously to be in the videos and they know they have to be, but every time we do it, they’re such an ass. And they know it too, but [they’ll] just make a face, just be totally grumpy and all. [So] over the years [I’ve learned to] set everything up, the lighting and everything in the last half minute. All I need [Jamie] to do is come in there, like do what I asked them to do for a little bit and then just leave and do something else. And I set up the next thing and everything. Even then, it's like pulling teeth to do like, two takes…So I end up taking some of the roles that are a little bit more engaged…Almost all the videos, actually, are really just done with me and maybe a couple other friends. The last few sets were just really just me with the camera and like some basic light kit I borrowed from somebody. So it does mean that a lot of times… [it’s] kind of done in pieces or I start rolling and then just see what happens.

We used to have just random people make videos for us, [and] we were lucky enough to have a lot of different fans just offer to make them for us. Some I like more than others and you know, you just kind of can't ask for much when people are doing it for you for free, right? [But] some of them are amazing videos that I still love to this day. And the other thing is I just got used to doing it a lot. I mean, I really had no idea how to make videos before I started doing all the Xiu Xiu music video stuff. And I learned how to use different cameras. I learned how to edit because before… I was hiring an editor to do it, and then at some point I got impatient with that and then learned how to edit myself.

But the other thing is we just don't have that much money… there's not a lot of people who would do all that work for basically nothing. [But] practical reasons aside, making music videos is a big part of the Xiu Xiu aesthetic. It's really fun to be able to take the music that we first make and then create a visual world out of it.”

Tell me the story behind the Devils cheerleading fit in the “Rumpus Room” music video.

“I don’t know, sometimes [I] just kind of feel like I wanna spend 30 bucks on an outfit, that's all I can do. I think I went to some thrift stores or something and then I was just browsing online and I saw it [and was like] ‘Oh yeah, I want that.’ That was it.”

Amazing. Would you say you have an onstage style? I’ve noticed that you seem to mostly wear dresses/more feminine clothes onstage, is this your ‘normal’ style or do you have a sort of ‘look’ for the band specifically?

“I think generally onstage, I tend to be a little bit more straight-faced. I'm not super emotive, [so] I seem a little bit more serious… because I'm a bit shy, I kind of retreat [in]to myself. [But] Jamie's a singer and they’re… a very big player and very emotive, [so] I want to give them space to do that. But I do think that for [my] solo stuff… because the music is… more different, there is definitely a little bit of a different personality that comes out there as well.

As far as… the clothing goes, [it’s] driven by a lot of practicality. This has actually been on my mind because I'm going back on tour and it's like two to three months, [so] I'm trying to think of what is kind of cute, but not too dressed up, but not too casual. I [also] hate being onstage and [having] people [assume] that I'm [a] staff member [because I’m wearing] a black t-shirt or something! But [the clothes] also [have] to travel, can’t wrinkle, [and I need to] be able to throw [them] on and off.

And…a terrible part about aging [is] you just can't wear [all of the] cheap, shitty stuff that you used to when you were young and just get away with it because you're young and cute, you know? So now I'm just like, ‘Okay, here I am about to go on a three month tour and I have to not look like a total bum.’ [So] what do I wear? I haven't totally figured it out yet, but I would say that's a lot of the processing that goes into [it]...

As much as I would like to be, I don't think I'm super fashion-inclined or stylish. A lot of it [is] really like the cheerleading outfit. I'm like, ‘I have a hundred bucks to spend on this. What can I find?’ It doesn't always turn out. Half the time I look at photos of myself [from our] shows, [and] I'm like, ‘God, what am I even doing?’”

I know some people don't like being asked about their tattoos, but yours are so cool, I thought I’d ask: do you feel like they add a certain element to your look? Or do you forget that they’re there, or what’s the story, I guess? I also noticed that you and Jamie have matching devil cat tattoos, and was wondering about the symbolism behind that.

“Yeah. I remember when I first got my first, second, and maybe even up to like fourth tattoo, I thought way too hard about it. As you should because it's on your body forever! [But] at some point I was like, ‘Well that’s cool. Let's get that.’ I’ve eased up a little bit. I mean, I ordered a bunch of tattoo needles during COVID. [And I was] sticking and poking myself and anyone who let me do it for a while, [so there wasn't] always a story [behind them.] I think at some point you just get it because why not? …I think a few [have] certain meanings or [they go] back to my heritage or where I come from, things like that.

Like this one [a skull with script ‘DEATH SHALL TRIUMPH’], there's no meaning. I worked with a friend at some Hollywood person’s party... It was [their] 60th birthday, [so] they had booths where they were doing screen printing and their tattoo artist was there giving away free tattoos. And I was working on the screen printing booth next to him, so I obviously [was] chatting him up. So he was [tatting his] flash throughout the night. But then I saw this one…[and] I was like, gimme that one!

…As far as the matching one [with Jamie], kind of similar. I think we both wanted a cute little devil or something. And we’ve been friends for so long now and were like, ‘Oh, let's get matching tattoos.’

My mom and dad still give me so much shit [my tattoos, though.] I actually try to cover up still when I go over, which is really hard considering they live in LA [and it’s hot]... And when I can't bear it, I'll still wear short sleeves, and they'll just look at it and [say] ‘You should get them removed.’ If I can't find a job because of my tattoos at this point, then I'm never going to find a job, it's fine.”

I read that you're a deputy for public health in LA. Is that still the case? How is/was that? Did it overlap with you being in the band, and how did that go for you?

“So actually for most of my adulthood I had a job. I met Jamie when I was in Berkeley and have kind of been on the periphery of the project in different ways. But when I first joined the band, I was actually in law school. I took a year off to go on tour, [then] went back to law school. I became an attorney. I practiced law for a while and then I went into public interest, local government because I realized being a lawyer was kind of terrible, even though I did like civil rights litigation at some point. [But really] litigation as a whole is terrible…[but] I think I was pretty booksmart and was pretty good at policies and doing analysis, strategic planning, all of that. So I spent a lot of time in local government working on that stuff. And during COVID I actually was doing a lot of COVID work and public health work, like testing, vaccination sites, all that kind of stuff. And then late last year, due to various reasons, I quit my job. It's the first time in my adult life that I haven't had a regular straight job, [and] I'm just doing music now.”

Wow. And how's that been?

“In some ways it's kind of amazing, right? I mean, as much as I loved my job and the career I had built and had, I felt incredibly fortunate to be able to do that and then still be able to be part of a band and work on art stuff at nights and weekends and holidays and all that. But that does get tiring… because you basically have two full-time jobs. Now there's a lot more time to wake up and work on some stuff that you've been wanting to do without having to go to your job and then switch back to working on music. I thought I needed a little bit more space for various reasons. So I'm really happy to have that.

It can be daunting too, [though]. I think there's no security in a field like this, [but] Jamie has been doing this full-time for decades. But [they] work nonstop, like even when I had two jobs, I didn't work as hard as [they did]. They’re constantly producing, mixing, remixing…You kind of realize that it's not [often feasible] to really make it by just doing music. Maybe some people get super lucky and fortunate and can get by with working all the time, but in a lot of ways you really are working on something else nonstop, which is both a gift and whatever else…But all of that being said, for now, I'm really happy to be here. I'm grateful that I [can] just quit [my] job and move to a different country and just do what [I] want to be doing right now.”

So you’re a Berkeley alum! What was your experience like? Did you know you wanted to work in music at the time, and how do you feel about it looking back?

“I was an English major [and] I did a minor in German. I actually worked in a magazine [too] when I was at Berkeley. Not a college magazine, I don't think [it] exists anymore, but [it was] some small magazine based out of San Francisco. That was a great experience for me.

I came from San Fernando Valley, which is close to LA but in the end it's kind of a suburb. And it was a really good experience for me to go away to college, meet a lot of different people and kind of be open to that. I don't think it was so much the academic as much as the social and cultural exposure. I think back then, if you were like, ‘What are you gonna do with your life?’, I don't think I would've ever imagined myself to be a musician…Granted, things are changing a little bit, but it's a lot of privilege to be able to say that you are an artist or a musician or something like that…It's not just class, but race and [things] like your immigration status, your family status, a lot of that is really involved in you being creative for yourself and to feel like you can make a living doing that.

Frankly speaking, not a lot of people have that safety net and that privilege. But that's not to say that just because you haven't been able to consider yourself as one of those people that you can't pursue this, right? But I think…the way that you get there is not this idealized, ‘I've always wanted to do this and I just pursued it and did my best and now I'm here’ [type of thing].”

Absolutely. I’m in an experimental industrial band myself, and I was wondering how you interpret Xiu Xiu’s success in an industry that’s generally pretty hostile towards the type of music you create?

“Well, sometimes if you are trying to do something that's ‘experimental’ or something, it's extra hard because a lot of the… big money is tied into  selling your music. And when it's impossible to sell anything through your music, you're in a tougher place. I think the only reason we stuck around for this long is because we kept making the music that we wanted to make and not stuff that we thought could be put into a commercial or something.”

Do you feel like your experience in the industrial scene is influenced by your gender?

“Yeah, totally. I still remember…showing up to a show’s soundcheck…and the sound guy [asked] a merch person about my setup! Or [men assume] I'm a groupie, especially because I play the keyboard… like [it’s this] girly thing or something. So really [they just don’t treat] me like they treat [my] other [bandmates]. It’s true [that] when you go to a lot of noise or experimental shows, it's a very male-dominated space. Fortunately, I’ve been noticing a lot of women enter and that's awesome. Keep going, bring all your girls into it!

And also, I think [there’s] still a lot of work to be done, but the whole concept of ‘gender,’ ‘female,’ ‘male’ is shifting a lot too. [It’s] really strongly happening in [the] experimental [scene] too, because [we’re] a bunch of weirdos, right? We are the first to be like, ‘Yeah, that's awesome. Of course this makes sense!’ But [that] being said, [misogyny] still exists out there and it still sucks. But I think what's been the most helpful for me is as long as…I'm safe and [there’s] not something aggressive [or] urgent happening, [I] like just holding my own, and having that internal sense of like, ‘This is my shit. Hi. I'm here.’”


A scalping knife is just a dull knife
How will I have worn my hair in this exceptional moment?
In this fanciful summer

– “Brothel Creeper”

After some extraneous babbling on my end following the revelation that “goo buckets” exist (and are put to use in the “Maybae Baeby” music video), I thank Angela for her time and leave the call.

But something is still pestering me, nagging me.

It’s something I can’t ignore–

Baby's breath

Baby mouth

– “Dracula Parrot, Moon Moth”

Is it–
It is–

The fear and darkness.The absurd genius of the kitty plushie on Xiu Xiu’s merch website.
Its little bib and sad eyes.
The horrid sensation of hearing the sound of my own voice on a recording. Just to make sure that this whole conversation did happen.
It did.
It doesn’t make sense.
Is it supposed to?
It is

Listen to Xiu Xiu’s new album, “Ignore Grief,” NOW.

Thank you, Angela, for taking a chance on a silly college student who thinks you’re really cool.

This is now: The end.