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For a leading indie-rock miserablist, Jamie Stewart possesses one of the heartiest, most boisterous laughs you're ever likely to hear. The 33-year-old Xiu Xiu (pronounced shoe-shoe) frontman typically converses quietly, in a polite, thoughtful, self-effacing, and a bit pensive manner, and then when you least expect it his laugh erupts maniacally from his throat and jolts you like a line of raw diesel. Like now, for example, I can hear over the phone, echoing off the walls of Stewart's Oakland, California apartment, in response to what I assumed was a perfectly reasonable question: "If you were a happy person, do you think you would still bother making music?"
"Oh my God, that's too much!" the singer and songwriter exclaims, once his chortling subsides. "Yeah! I would love to write about happy, fun stuff, believe me. I really would. I mean, we write about really depressing stuff. All the time. But what can I say? That's what's going on. That's my reality."
That reality is among the bleakest in all of music. The songs of Xiu Xiu which, in addition to Stewart, includes fellow multi-instrumentalist Caralee McElroy and producer/musician Cory McCulloch are thick, daring, unique sonic fusions of dark, jagged postpunk guitar work, IDM-style electronics, gothic synth-pop, avant-classical peaks and valleys, acoustic whispers, and industrial clamor. But the highlight is Stewart's wholly mesmerizing tenor that alternately shape-shifts from an ashen quiver to a resolute croon before finally settling into an unglued howl that delivers dazzling, intensely personal confessions of pain, revulsion, fear, self-loathing, and fractured hope. As you might have guessed, this isn't exactly the Partridge Family, and family dysfunction, sexual taboos, and disgust with politics and religion are all fair game.
While Stewart's brutally frank approach to songwriting has won him a legion of devoted fans, it's also earned him some detractors. They consider him histrionic, adolescent, and sensationalistic and point to his lyrics and ultradramatic stage presence as proof that his sole intention is to get under people's skin.
"I'm not purposely trying to do that, but yeah, some of the stuff we write about just happens to be provocative," Stewart says. "But the point of all of it is to talk about what's happening, you know, about what's going on in my life and the lives of the people in the band, and what's going on in the world, when the album is being written. So whatever comes out, comes out. I can't begrudge people for thinking we're just out to provoke people, but there's a lot more to it than just that. It's all about absolute honesty."
This gorgeous and grotesque honesty is on full display on the group's latest disc, La Fort. Over the stately, clarinet-propelled melody of "Ale," Stewart intones, "You want to go to bed every second/And wrap your arms around your kitty/She won't cuddle up to your disgusting feet/She's not the only one who won't..../Crazy is the place your gigantic fat body fits."
And then there's "Saturn," perhaps the most unsettling moment of all. Inspired by Francisco Goya's painting Saturn Devouring His Son which depicts a cannibal god feasting on a small, bloody corpse the song sounds like the artwork looks: dark, chilling, nightmarish, with layers of discordant noise and throbbing beats. Oh, and it's about anally raping to death and then eating George W. Bush, a manifestation of Stewart's intense antiwar, anti-right-wing beliefs: "George, when it comes to bedtime/My sweetness will not go to waste/I will shoot this arrow right up your anus and you'll taste what we taste/I will stab it right through the bottom of your mouth/You'll taste what we taste/What you make them taste."
Unfortunately, he adds, performing the song night after night on Xiu Xiu's current tour (which features only Stewart, McElroy, and a plethora of instruments onstage) provides no means of catharsis. "Actually it becomes more depressing each time. I feel really hopeless and powerless singing that song. I don't feel cleansed or relieved or empowered by having sung it. I wish I did, but it just makes me feel like shit every single time that there are actual events going on in the world that made that song have to get written in the first place."
This sense of helplessness is only exacerbated by an intense guilt for sometimes hurting the people closest to him with his lyrics, or for revealing during interviews exactly who and what some of his songs are about. When I spoke to Stewart last year about Xiu Xiu's third album, Fabulous Muscles, he freely explained, for example, that "Nieces Pieces" containing the lyric "I can't wait to tell you your grandpa made your mommy/Play stripper while your uncle watched" was written for his sister's new baby.
This time, when I ask him what's behind "Ale" or "Yellow Raspberry," he chuckles nervously and stammers, "Oh man, it's just really unflattering and depressing...." His voice trails off for a few seconds, and then: "I would just hope they could become personal songs for someone else rather than people knowing what it's specifically about for me. They come from an absolutely honest and real place, and I reveal enough as it is, but I don't want to spell out all the specific events in my own life that caused the songs to be written, you know? I just think that's probably taking it too far. But people can probably figure most of it out on their own."
Yet even as he tries to come to terms with the boundaries between his life and his art, Stewart says he has no intentions of retreating from the band's stated purpose, or pulling any creative punches. In fact, he says, Xiu Xiu is already readying its next album, and the cover art is set to be a particularly terrifying rendition of Jesus with blood pouring from his eyes a painting Stewart saw in Italy recently, and whose use on the cover, he explains, is meant to be a commentary on his disgust with the religious right.
"Oh I'm sure we'll get a ton of shit about it, but what else is new?" Stewart responds. "I'll just have to explain it regularly, but it's worth explaining. Some friends of mine think it's too over-the-top, but to me it seems like, with all the fucked-up stuff that's going on around me, how can I not be over-the-top?"