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Xiu Xiu's Jamie Stewart talks about his 14-year love of birdwatching

Jamie Stewart of the band Xiu Xiu birdwatching at Eaton Canyon Natural Area in Pasadena
Jamie Stewart of the band Xiu Xiu birdwatching at Eaton Canyon Natural Area in Pasadena
Kevin Ferguson/KPCC

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The band Xiu Xiu has combined genres like folk, industrial, noise and new wave into an unusual, critically-acclaimed effect since 2002. Their latest record is called Xiu Xiu Plays the Music of Twin Peaks. The title says it all: the group reinterprets the songs from David Lynch’s revered TV show. Here's a song from the new album:


Jamie Stewart fronts the band. When the Los Angeles native isn’t touring, writing or recording, he gets up before dawn to look at the bird life in L.A. On a recent pre-dawn expedition to Pasadena's Eaton Canyon, Stewart went deep about his history with birdwatching.

How long have you been birdwatching?

I started in 2002. My grandpa was... as a child he took me camping all the time but I think I didn't appreciate it very much. And then, in a familial way, I was going through a particularly rough time. My dad had just killed himself and I was having all kinds of personal problems. And then I found a box of my grandpa's old books and there was a birdwatching guide in there.

I think I was just looking to cling to anything that I didn't have to do with something horrible happening and then found a birdwatching guide from like 1952, which I still use pretty regularly.

I remember really clearly the first bird that ever I used a book and identified. I was driving to my mom's. She lived in Sacramento at the time. And I saw a black bird with red tips on its wings. I had the bird guide in my car and I saw these birds and looked at the bird book. It was like "Oh wait, this is what this is for!"

And it was the lowly but beautiful red-winged blackbird. It's currently my ringtone, also, their call.

What's the appeal to you? I have to assume you were in your twenties when you started, right?

Yeah, early twenties. Part of it was, like I said, at the time that I got into it I really needed something to focus on that was inherently without conflict.

Like as a way to process grief?

I think just as a way to think about anything else other than what's going on in my life. Something that at the time I didn't know anything about, so I could really dive into it and focus on it. I think part of why it worked for me at the time is there's something inherently beautiful about doing it. Part of that inherent beauty is that it's fleeting.

It's completely out of your hands. You could go to a place and — if you're lucky — you'll see something that's really remarkable. You can't make it happen. You're either going to be in the right place at the right time you're not going to be.

L.A. County, pound for pound, has more bird species than any other county in the United States. Do you think that rings true?

Well, I mean, it has forest, and desert, and mountains, and the ocean. The desert is probably my favorite place to go birdwatching. My favorite bird of all time and lives in the desert.

What's that?

The goth-like phainopepla. They look kind of like a cardinal, but a little more angular. And a bright red eye. They're totally black.

This is deep birdwatching nerdism: I took a birdwatching trip to Guyana a couple years ago — unfathomably great. But there's this bird called the potoo, it's like this kind of ground bird that usually nests on the ground. They look like something from a Hieronymus Bosch painting. The potoo has a humongous mouth and very small body, almost no neck at all. Anyway, so we're on this river, and it's in the middle of the night and that the guy goes "oh, there's a potoo." And I went "oh my God! Wow!" And he was just like "shut up!"

But, you know, birds are exciting. 

Among the woodpeckers, towhees and finches at Eaton Canyon, a California Quail was seen roosting on a fence.
Among the woodpeckers, towhees and finches at Eaton Canyon, a California Quail was seen roosting on a fence.
Kevin Ferguson/KPCC

For the latest Xiu Xiu record, you guys recorded the music of Twin Peaks. You were commissioned by a museum to do that, right?

Yeah, the Gallery of Modern Art in Brisbane. They were doing a David Lynch retrospective of his visual arts, his movies, books and records. They asked us if we would play the music of Twin Peaks over a couple nights. Which is a daunting task, because we're humongous fans. And the music is extraordinarily well known but also extraordinarily beautiful.

In the nascent days of Xiu Xiu, [the songs] were incredibly influential, almost philosophically—just how they how they organize the music and what they were bringing together emotionally.

From a music education standpoint it's been extraordinary. I didn't know, although I'd listened to the music ritualistically forever, I didn't know how brilliantly it was arranged.

What's an example of that?

Probably the most famous song from it, "Falling." That is one of the most iconic melody bass lines that there is. I mean, you just sang two notes and everyone immediately knows what that is. That's part of the brilliance. That line is three notes.

It's two chords, too.

Yeah, you listen to them, and you can't believe that the slightest shift in the harmonics has that much emotionality in it. It's essentially the definition of genius in pop music. That something very simple is that evocative and has that much feeling in it but is almost nothing is happening at all.

You know the opening credits of Twin Peaks has a bird, right?

Yeah, what bird is that?

It's a Bewick's wren.

Oh (laughs). I should have known that!

List of birds seen on our trip to Eaton Canyon: