Jamie Stewart of Xiu Xiu on Sex as Escape, Being a Jerk, and “Alcohol-fueled Insanity”
Juan Velasquez Talks to the Author of Anything That Moves
Have you ever wondered about the sexual misadventures of touring musicians? You may have imagined glamorous rendezvous in five-star hotels or champagne-drenched bacchanals straight out of The Great Gatsby. The unvarnished truth, as Xiu Xiu singer-songwriter Jamie Stewart writes in their book Anything That Moves, is far less pretty. From failed masturbation contests in crappy motel rooms to bleak sex club encounters, Stewart shields nothing from readers who dare crack open this frank collection of humiliating sex tales.
Followers of the experimental rock band Xiu Xiu have long relished Stewart’s often disturbingly harsh and bracingly personal lyrics so it’s no surprise that the musician’s first book spares no grim detail. Anything That Moves opens with an author’s note: “If we are related, please, for the love of God, do not read this book,” and it’s an apt disclaimer.
Ahead of the book’s release, Stewart spoke with me via Zoom from their Berlin apartment to talk about being a jerk, using sex as an escape, and their days of “alcohol-fueled insanity.” Anything That Moves is published in April 2023 by And Other Stories.
Juan Velasquez: What sparked the idea to write a book?
Jamie Stewart: This editor named Samuel Nicholson, who had been coming to Xiu Xiu show since he was a kid, came to a show and asked me if I ever… and now at this point, he’s a full on grown up and at the time, worked at a major publishing house, and asked me if I ever thought about writing anything.
And I hadn’t really. And I said, “well, I mean you guys don’t want to publish a book of haiku, do you?” And he’s like, “nah.” A few months later I thought, “well, I mean got all these ridiculous stories that I tell when I’m drunk or whatever.” And he said he liked them and he just walked me through continuing to do them. So, I wouldn’t have done it had Sam not suggested it.For a long time, my personal sex life was a fucking disaster. And because of that, it was pretty funny. I was very open to having crazy shit happen.
JV: Anything That Moves was surprisingly funny, though you have a pretty dark sense of humor. Do you think sex is funny?
JS: I was trying to make this book funny. I know that not all of it is funny. A lot of it’s really cringey and some of it is very depressing. For a long time, my personal sex life was a fucking disaster. And because of that, it was pretty funny. I was very open to having crazy shit happen. When anything sort of upsetting, peculiar, or overly intense, or just shocking happens [during sex], laughing is a common response. But generally do I think sex is funny? I mean, I like a good dick joke.
JV: Some parts of the book are pretty salacious, but most of the stories and details are incredibly un-sexy. How do you feel about that?
JS: It’s not a hot book. It is not erotica at all, unless humiliation is hot to you. But not BDSM humiliation, just like “you have been humiliated because you’re a loser” kind of humiliation.
JV: Speaking of humiliation, I love how you talk about your sex club experience. You describe the dissatisfying awkwardness so well. I mean, the guy who you hooked up with ended up crying!
JS: I haven’t been to a ton. I think I’ve maybe gone five times in my whole life. That was the only time anyone cried. But before he cried, it was a little hot. We had a hot make-out, sort of. I haven’t really been to a sex club and been like, “oh, God, fuck, this is amazing,” or felt unbelievably cranked-up.
It’s just been like, “wow, there’s a lot of different types of people fucking all around me. This is fascinating.” I know for some people it’s the greatest thing of all time. And probably if I did it more, my average would increase. It felt like it was more of a sociological experience.
JV: You touch on some of your childhood sexual exploration, which is a topic that can be a bit taboo and uncomfortable to talk about. What was it like for you to mine that part of your life?
JS: I didn’t think it was any more or less difficult than talking about other parts. I don’t really want to go into details but I was overexposed to sex as a child. And I know that that’s a lot of why I had taken things too far for a long time. I didn’t realize [that I] would take conversations or topics or ideas about sex too far until other people, who were my friends and I thought were relatively normal, would just be like, “Oh, that’s too much.”
For better or worse, those things don’t really bother me that much and not because I’m invincible. I think they don’t bother me for pretty unhealthy reasons. At this point, I sort of dealt with them through therapy. I don’t feel injured by them anymore in any kind of conscious way, though I’m sure I probably will be in some way for the rest of my life.
JV: Is the subject matter of this book different from what you would normally write about in your band Xiu Xiu?
JS: As a band, sure, we’ll write about sexual humiliation or something, but we also write about politics. We also write about sociological events or about spiritual experiences or psychedelic experiences or weird dreams and how all of those things intersect, and they may or may not necessarily relate to each other, but in some sort of Herzogian way somehow support each other. But this book is really about one or two things, essentially. And I think it has a point A to point B narrative. It’s not experimental in any way.
JV: The one story that really was not about fun and silly sex is the book’s ending, in which. You write about your father’s death in a beautiful and painful way. It really touches on the absurdity of grief. Is there a reason you wanted to conclude with that?
JS: I think without it, and I do agree with the assessment that it is a pretty fun book, but that some aspects of it are fairly grim. I mean [with] the amount of physical and emotional unhappiness that makes up 90% of it, if there’s not a nod to something grave that was happening concurrently with all of those things, then that happiness becomes frivolous. And although it’s a funny book, I didn’t mean for it to be frivolous in any way. So it was, I think, [about] trying to put some of those feelings into a wider context.
JV: While writing were you feeling nostalgic for certain times?
JS: I tend to not be all that nostalgic. Though there’s one story that’s really about being completely wackadoo on tour. One particular night that got super out of hand. To say I feel nostalgic about it is mixed, but I kind of miss that sort of unbridled, super insane days of alcohol-fueled insanity. I do miss being a little batshit sometimes.I was very surprised that after I had finished writing it I was like , “Oh, shit, all that is out now. It’s no longer part of me.” I mean, not that I’m denying that I’m culpable, when I’m culpable, but I didn’t expect to feel this way.
But I miss the fantasy of what I believe that was, not the reality of it. And I also miss being able to tell crazy stories like this, because that shit doesn’t happen anymore. I don’t have crazy stories anymore. They’re done.
JV: Yeah, there are some really bizarre and extreme sexual things you got into back in the day.
JS: There was a period where I was having an unbelievable amount of sex. I was having just shitty weird, embarrassing, gross sex every night. I miss it for good stories, but I wouldn’t want to do it again. I sincerely doubt that much relentless, weird fucking would’ve happened in a healthy environment. I would fuck anybody. I needed it in an unhealthy way. I wasn’t even that horny. I needed some distraction.
JV: Do you think you were using sex as an escape?
JS: I used sex in a very unhealthy way. I think really the worst thing that happened out of it was that some people got their feelings hurt. I mean, I got abused a little bit in one instance and had some long-lasting physical effects from that. But more or less—and again, though the people depicted in this book may feel differently—I was just mean, dismissive, and unkind.
I didn’t beat anybody up. I didn’t strangle anybody. I didn’t sexually abuse anybody. It was just very jerky shithead behavior. And I genuinely hope that’s how other people see it and are, just like, “Oh, that fucking guy? What a dick.”
JV: What are some of your favorite authors that write about sex? Did they influence you in any way while writing Anything That Moves?
JS: There is this writer, named Boyd McDonald. People would write into him about their gay sex experiences and he would just publish them in a book. It was an era when, if you’re writing about gay sex, something bad had to have happened or it couldn’t get published. But it was just like, “These two guys met in the bathroom at the movies and they fucked, and it was great.” He did several volumes of that stuff.
God, I mean, I hope this doesn’t seem gross, because it’s such a beloved book, but House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros. I mean, just that there was a succession of very personal, very short stories that each one could stand on its own, but they all related to each other. And they have a particular tone. They’re kind of uncomfortable, but very, in some ways, kind of sweet, but also sort of awful. Probably that book more than any other book had an influence on me.
And, completely unrelated, but some of the ways that Cormac McCarthy would put very super insane imagery was influential.
JV: Was it freeing to publish a book of many of your sexual experiences?
JS: It was [freeing] and I did not expect it to be. The stuff that happened in this book are things that have been, I won’t necessarily say weighing on me, but were very present in a lot of my consciousness. And while not all the stuff is super-awful, some of it is super-awful. I think it’s funny because pretty fucking gross humiliating things happen, but I did some terrible and very unkind things.
And I was very surprised that after I had finished writing it I was like , “Oh, shit, all that is out now. It’s no longer part of me.” I mean, not that I’m denying that I’m culpable, when I’m culpable, but I didn’t expect to feel this way. Being relieved wasn’t my motivation for doing it, but it did feel like some of that weight was washed away.
JV: Ultimately, what do you think you’ve learned about yourself in the process of writing Anything That Moves?
JS: I learned that I did not treat people very well for a long time. I think that’s kind of it. It wasn’t particularly revealing. It wasn’t like I forgot these things or I was unaware of my behavior. I think I learned that I want to treat people differently now.
Anything That Moves by Jamie Stewart is available via And Other Stories.